Tuesday, 15 January 2019

John Rodger, Gamekeeper.

The grave of John Rodger is one of the first to catch the eye at Tapanui Cemetery.  The stone is a large one and the words "died through a gun accident" catch the imagination.  Accidental gunshot and drowning seem to be the main causes of death in the New Zealand countryside in Victorian times.

A fatal gun accident happened at Tapanui to Mr Kelty's gamekeeper, Mr John Rodger, who was missed on Saturday, when he was expected to be present at a coursing match. Some uneasiness being felt about him, the head shepherd was instructed to go to deceased's hut on Sunday morning, which he did, but found no one at home. Thereupon a search party was organised, and the unfortunate man's headless body was found on the top of the Blue Mountain Range, surrounded by his faithful dogs. According to our correspondent's letter, the unfortunate man had evidently been loading one of the barrels of his gun, and the other one being already loaded, went off and shattered his head so that death must have been instantaneous. Two pieces of his skull, and the lower jaw, were found a few yards from his body, the rest of his head and neck being destroyed by wild pigs or dogs. Mr Kelty lost no time in starting for the scene of the accident, in company with deceased's brother, Constable Dunnet, and a number of men, who brought the body to the Brooksdale Homestead on a stretcher. An inquest was to be held yesterday. The accident has cast a gloom over the whole district, where deceased was greatly respected. His age was 38 or 39 years.  -Bruce Herald, 4/5/1880.

Inquest on Mr John Rodger's body. Dr Douglas, District Coroner, and a Jury, on the 4th inst., held an inquest on the body of deceased, who, it will be remembered, was gamekeeper on Brooksdale estate, and brother of the member for Tapanui Riding in the Tuapeka County Council. We abridge from the Tapanui "Courier's" report : —
James Rodger, deposed: I am brother to the deceased, and have seen his body, and identify it as that of my brother John Rodger. I identify it by the appearance of the body generally, and partly by the clothes; also by an old scar, semicircular shaped, on the leg above the ankle, it being the scar of a scythe-cut, received when he was a boy. He was forty years of age last January. I identify the body partly by the appearance of the hands. John Rodger is a native of Roxburgh, in Scotland, and a Presbyterian. Latterly my deceased brother acted as gamekeeper on the Brooksdale estate. He has been between five and six years on the Brooksdale Station continuously. I last saw my brother John alive within one month, but I am not sure about the exact date. I first saw him dead on Sunday last, the 2nd day of May, 1880. I was told on Sunday morning last that my brother John was shot. I thought there was something wrong when deceased was not present at the coursing on the Brooksdale estate on the day previous, as he was fully expected by Mr Kelty to be present, and to take charge of the dogs. After hearing of my brother's decease I immediately proceeded to the place with Constable Dunnett, John McColl, junr., and Dugald Ferguson. I reached the place with Dugald Ferguson, and found the body of my brother John Rodger. Archibald Revie and James McDonald were in charge of the deceased when I arrived. The body was lying in the neighborhood of a place known on the estate as the "Black Gully Siding." There was also a doublebarrelled gun lying in a flax-bush on a higher level than the body of the deceased, with its muzzle pointing downward to the ground. My deceased brother was well accustomed to the use of firearms. I believe my brother to have died intestate. John Rodger was a single man. 
To the Foreman: How do you think deceased came by his death? — From the positions of his body and gun, I am of opinion that deceased had been in the act of loading a discharged barrel, and the other barrel, loaded as I think, had discharged. I think he had inserted the powder into the empty barrel, and replaced the powder flask in his pocket, and also done that for the purpose of taking out the shot-pouch with his right hand. The ramrod was evidently in his left hand when he was taking out the shot-pouch. I am of opinion that it was at this stage the other barrel discharged, causing his death. I think his death must have been instantaneous. 
Mr A. Revin, head shepherd on the station, Dunnett (Police Constable at Tapanui), and Mr Kelty, the runholder, were also examined, and the verdict was that "The deceased John Rodger met with his death accidentally, by the discharge of one barrel of his gun while in the act of loading the other." At the close of the inquest the body was removed to the cemetery by the undertakers. The funeral cortege was by far the largest ever seen in the district, so well known and respected was deceased. The Rev. A. Bett, Presbyterian minister, performed the burial service.  -Tuapeka Times, 12/5/1880.

It was inevitable, I suppose, that local poet Dugald Ferguson would commemorate the tragic event in verse.  The scansion is difficult for the modern reader and it is very much a work of its time.  But true sentiment is there:

[In commemoration of John Rodger; a man beloved by all who knew him; who, alone on the mountain, met his death by the accidental discharge of his gun, by which his head was shattered. His body, which had evidently laid for at least two days, was recovered by the means of his hounds, who had kept faithful watch over it, and who in answer to the shepherds' coey were heard barking near the top of the mountain.] 

Once agian at every portal, Rings the thunder clap of doom
Warning each how frail is mortal, In mid-life how near the tomb
None may look upon a brother, Whose affection may impotr,
As they tread this vale together, On the road, one hour's support.

In their steps the grim sharpshooter, Lurks 'neath ev'ry shape and guise,
Whose dread shafts soon ernder neutr, All the claims of human ties
And his cruel hand defaces Each one's form, in whose blurred mien
One can scarce discern the traces Of what a late a friend has been.

While in mind we fondly treasure Every wonted look and tone,
That in yore gave us such pleasure, And for ever now are gone.
But for thy sake, O John Rodger, What deep woes thy bosom rend;
Now in the dark grave a lodger, Brought therre by so dark an end.

Yey a spirit in me doth urge, A love task thy worth bequeathed,
To enshrine thee in this death dirge, Than whom not a truer breathed.
Aye, although so homely fashioned, Yet within that body's span,
Rung in all his tones impassioned, The true mettle of a man.
Stamped upon that brow intrepid, That no fear of man could move;
In that eye that flashed so rapid, Yet so soft, could glow with love.
Was not tone or look uncertain, Of the soul within that glowed?
When enshrined with every fortune, Spotless honour found abode.

His the spirit truly gracious, although lavish we to blame;
Yet he gave unostentatious, When he marked the needy's claim.
All who knew him frank and fearless, Bright with humour's genial gleam,
Of world's gear so void and careless, Still found something to esteem. 

I, who in more near approaches, Oft beneath that careless mien
Caught view of the deeper touches Of the heart that beat within,
Saw thereon such worth engraved, That my spirit for the man
Kindly gave, as unto David, Clave the soul of Jonathan.

When my humble muse he rated, With a friend's too partial praise,
I small deemed how soon 'twas fated It would ring his funeral lays.
The Blue Mountains steep as plummets, Rise abruptly from the plain;
While beneath their rugged summits Toiled the threshers at the grain.

Saw no eye that white smoke curling? Heard no ear that faint report?
That, a body downward hurling, Sent a sprit to God's court?
Shall we venture through ills fancied? Of God's judgements to complain?
Or presume, with sorrow frenzied, The Most High will to arraign,

In prmitting to be smitten That brave heart by such a doom?
- Whose detail must be unwritten, Till the trumpet rends the tomb.
When no pitying frined was near him, as his shattered form fell prone;
Who, in his fond arms, might bear him, As he breathed his parting groan.                                                    
On the plain the chase sounds cheery, And the hunters' whistle clear;
But around still rubns the query, Why, is not John Rodger herer?
He, a sportsman, keen and ready, Well acquainted with the grounds
Who, like him, could aim so steady? Who, like him, could slip the hounds?    

Ah! little deemed one, vainly counting, Why he tarried from the chase,
That above him, up the mountain, Lay his brother on the face!
High above yon terrace woody, Where might reach the hunting sound?
Lay the body cold and bloody, Guarded by his trusty hounds.

Faithfully they watched around him, Day and night, with zeal unmatch'd,
Till the mournful searchers found him, On that spur's deep surface stretched.
But is this all - that friend, that brother, Who so lately smiled and spoke?
Hsh! dear Muse, and draw the cover, Lest such strong emotions choke.

Down the rugged spur we bore him'; Faces from which smiles had fled
Fonfly each one at the burden, Toiled in honour of the dead.
Sadly moves the longer procession, Like a dark stream winding slow;
Resume, O earth, now thy possession, Sprung from theee, to thee we go.

And have we lost thee, O John Rodger? Thou to me wast very dear;
But though now below a lodger, Long my heart will shrine thee here,
Man of cares and small vexations, What does this to thee unfold;
Thou in the land of hope and patience, and my friend laid in the mould?

Rest in peace, thou dear spirit, To me grievous is thy doom;
Yet it may be bitter merit, To learn wisdom at thy tomb.
With a chastened spirit lowly Moved by life's uncertain span,
In the path of duties holy, Live an earnest, faithful man.                      

So the use of this great sorrow
For thee cut off in manly pride,
Like a flow'r laid in the furrow
May for me be sanctified.
Dugald Ferguson.
-Otago Witness, 15/5/1880.

Tapanui Cemetery.

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