The light rain and the leaden skies on the day of the unveiling were so befitting of the sentiments that occupied my being that day.
Three of my grandparents had pre-deceased my date of birth, and as a pre-school child, I simply idolised that one surviving grandparent – my mother’s father; Jack O’Connell. Forty eight years earlier, Jack O’Connell’s life was needlessly sacrificed some 200 metres from the memorial sight, and the circumstances that conspired to rob me of my grandfather were that day bitterly imprinted on my soul.
Jack O’Connell’s whole life had been punctuated by tragedy – he had lost his eldest son to a mining accident, he lost his farm land in Frankton during the great depression and he was twice widowed. He was playing out his twilight years and living alone; care taking a farming property in Hyde on behalf of a man who had left to fight for his country (World War 2) and as a child I felt so privileged to know him. In spite of the litany of reversals that life had yielded to him, he had a dignified and majestic presence that to me was quite alluring. To me as a four year old child he was my beguiling hero. He was a mystical magnet and I was inescapably drawn to him; and I loved him. He did not deserve to die at the hands of a drunken train driver.
Jack O’Connell was an exceptional horseman and not surprisingly he was drawn to horse racing. He had boarded the Cromwell/Dunedin train that day to attend the King’s Birthday race meeting at Wingatui, and my ever-attendant mother saw the need to visit him – prepare his clothes and see him safely on the train. She and I had walked some two miles to be with him prior to his departure and my enduring memory is his comment that he was ‘in two minds’ as to whether he really should be travelling – and my mother’s imploring response that she had ironed his shirts and packed his bag and – ‘he should go and enjoy himself!’
The train crashed only minutes after leaving Hyde. The word quickly spread and by some means (of which I have no memory) my mother vanished leaving me in the care of her teenage brother. I now know precisely why she did that, but I was left – a bewildered four year old – trying to fathom why everyone was so hysterical. The hotelkeeper took me in and plied me with lemonade, and after what seemed an eternity I was alerted that my grandfather was in the back seat of a car outside the hotel. I did not have the discretion to wait until asked – I raced outside and found him swathed in bandages that were failing to stem the blood flow; his limbs contorted in the most unnatural way. But he was conscious and he recognised me, and his last words to me are indelibly imprinted in my memory – as he took my hand and said “little fellow – I’ve taken some knocks in my time, but this was a big one.” The car he was in was supposed to get him to the Ranfurly hospital but had run out of petrol, and due to the wartime shortages none was available. And thus my beloved grandfather and my childhood mate died.
It was common knowledge that the drunken state of the crew was the direct cause of the needless carnage and loss of life that occurred that day, and it was a watershed event in my young life. That night as my mother held my hand and wept, I pledged to her that I would never drink alcohol. In the years that have followed and throughout my varied life from the shearing sheds to my career in politics - which saw me dining with Her Majesty the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh, I have constantly been questioned why I don’t take alcohol. I have never managed to develop a satisfactory answer (that doesn’t sound judgemental) to that question. I generally fudge the response by commenting that I ‘had a bad experience with alcohol as a child’
Why do I write as I do? I have been asked (as a relative of a victim) to record the mood and thoughts that occupied my mind on the day of the unveiling of that wonderful memorial.
In truth my thoughts were raw and personal (perhaps even bitter) and the comfortable option would have been to ‘decline the offer to write - with thanks.’ But then I reflected on one of the many inspirational quotations of that brilliant 18th century philosopher Edmund Bourke, when he said “All that is required for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing”
Thus I am motivated to write as I do. The circumstances that lead to the multiple sacrifice of life on that cold mid-winter’s day in 1943 were evil and the story ought to be told. Misguided sensitivity had for decades seemed to have decreed that a veil of denial should cloak the truth. For reasons that escape me, this ugly chapter in the history of Hyde was given ‘sacred cow’ status – to the point where the honorary editor of the 1969 publication of the history of the Hyde school - an ‘august and venerable’ former railway executive – threatened to withdraw his services if any reference was made (in that publication) to this shameful event.
The unveiling was presided over (inter alia) by Richard Walls, the Mayor of the City of Dunedin, and my crowning moment was when he generously invited me as the City councillor representing the district, to partake in the unveiling. Sombre though the occasion was, I felt an extraordinary surge of pride. I am in no doubt that the reason why the experience that embraced my soul was extraordinary (as opposed to ordinary) was because Jack O’Connell; the man who held a child’s hand (my hand) as he died – was on my shoulder.
This script written by Maurice Prendergast (grandson of Jack O’Connell) when invited to contribute his thoughts/sentiments (as part of a wider history of the 1943 Hyde train disaster) specifically on the 1991 unveiling of the stone cairn which was constructed to memorialise the lives of those lost. For road safety reasons (dictated by roading authorities) the cairn is not located precisely at the accident site. The actual site of the fatal crash is approx 200 metres to the north of the memorial.