The Mangatapu Mountain Murders


Twenty minutes by car from Havelock, along State Highway 6 following the Pelorus River valley heading towards Nelson, is a little settlement called Canvastown. It is sited on the banks of the Wakamarina River which feeds into the Pelorus River.

One day in 1860 Mrs Elizabeth Pope was rinsing clothes in the Wakamarina River when she happened to see yellow specks gleaming in the gravel. It was gold all right! But her discovery aroused no great interest. A year later, however, gold was discovered in Otago at Gabriel's Gully. And Otago boomed as a result.

Meanwhile, Marlborough became envious of the profits from further discoveries in Otago and in Canterbury-owned Westland.
In 1863 the Superintendent of the four-year old Province of Marlborough offered a bonus of 1,375 for the discovery of a 'Workable Goldfield'. And so the Wakamarina Gold rush 'took off' in 1864. By the end of the year 2800 hopefuls were fossicking between Canvastown and the head of the Wakamarina Valley. Sadly, not all were nice people to know. (From L G Kerr)

Five innocent victims

"On a tall column in the Nelson cemetery one can read these poignant words:

This monument was erected by public subscription in memory of five late residents of the province of Marlborough who are interred here. They were waylaid, robbed, and barbarously murdered by a gang of four bushrangers, on the Maungatapu Mountain in this province, June 12 and 13, 1866.

The sorry tale began on 6 June, 1866, when the little steamer Wallabi arrived in Nelson from the West Coast. Among her passengers were four of the most blood-thirsty and cold-blooded scoundrels New Zealand has ever known. They were: Thomas Kelly (alias Noon), convicted robber, who served three years for robberies on the Otago goldfields; Richard Burgess
(alias Hall, alias Mullen), London burglar, with ten years spent in Australian penal gangs, three years' gaol for robberies on the Otago goldfields; John Joseph Sullivan (alias McGee) an ex-convict from Australia; and William ('Phil')
Levy, past unknown, believed to be an ex-convict.

Although this quartette intended to rob a Nelson bank they were, in fact, prepared to stop at nothing. How many unfortunate diggers they had already murdered on the Otago and West Coast trails will never be known. Sullivan later casually mentioned "twenty or thirty" between Hokitika and Greymouth alone!

Even as they stepped ashore at Nelson, search parties near Greymouth were scouring the bush for the body of young surveyor George Dobson, brutally strangled by the gang in mistake for a gold buyer. Their gain from his death was a
pathetic 6.

The gang found Nelson a different proposition from the disorderly mining towns they usually frequently- too risky a nut to crack. So they set out for the Wakamarina, by the lonely Maungatapu Mountain Track between Nelson and the Pelorus River.

June 12 - morning. William Newman was riding over Maungatapu Mountain. Suddenly he was accosted by four villainous-looking men. Spurring his horse he rode straight at them and galloped away-almost certainly saving his life.

Walking over the track that same afternoon, heading for Nelson to catch a ship to his old home in Hobart, was old Jamie Battle, a former whaler and lately a farmhand at Tua Marina. He tried to defend himself with his sheathknife but they shot him dead - for the sake of 3 and a little silver.

The following day saw the gang in ambush behind a large rock near the summit of Maungatapu Mountain. Into their trap walked four Wakamarina storekeepers. Pontius was shot through the head, J Kempthorne through the right ear, Dudley was strangled with a scarf, Mathieu was bound head and foot and then shot and stabbed until he died.... For the lives of the five men they gained about 300.

Unlike many of their other victims, the storekeepers were well-known men. They were immediately missed. Foul play was suspected and the gang, being strangers in the district, were soon arrested. Down the hillside where today runs a reasonable unsealed road formed for power line maintenance, trudged a sad column of volunteers bearing the victims' bodies in canvas bags slung beneath long poles.

Sullivan turned Queen's Evidence to save his skin, and informed on his mates. He was eventually pardoned, only to be despised by all men for the rest of his life. Kelly, Burgess and Levy went to the gallows [in Nelson]."

(Taken from Historic Gold Trails of Nelson and Marlborough, by Tony Nolan.)