It was Anniversary Day in January 1852. The whole population of Wellington was en féte.
“The harbour, during the earlier part of the day, presented a most enlivening spectacle. Whaleboats and other boats in the sculling or pulling races, and Maori canoes in the paddling races, created intense interest. Sailing races of different kinds also added to the gala appearance of the bay, as the craft glided over the silvery waters.”
“Induced by the calm and cool appearance of the water, and the pleasure of an invigorating dip, some six or seven men belonging to the 65th Regiment then stationed at Wellington, made up their minds for a swim out amongst the ships lying at anchor in the middle of the harbour.”
“After swimming a considerable distance, all of them but one had turned for shore again. A lad who was sculling about for pleasure, noticed the solitary swimmer, and, thinking that he might be of service to him, went in pursuit. He arrived within hailing distance of the athletic young soldier who evidently enjoying the relaxation in answer to the inquiry if he would like a lift, laughingly replied that he could go on for another hour or so, and intended going back the way he came. The words, however, were scarcely uttered, when the sight that met the youthful sculler’s eye nearly caused the oar to drop from his hands.”
“There, within thirty yards, rose from the water the dorsal fin of an immense shark. Screaming at the top of his voice “A shark! A shark! Johnny, come to the boat!” he redoubled his efforts to reach the swimmer. Looking, he saw that he had heard him and turned, but was terrified to see him disappear beneath the water, pulled down by the voracious monster. Still the brave lad strove to reach the spot, and with delight saw that the soldier had reached the surface, and was again striking out vigorously in his direction. He had got to within twenty feet of the boat when a swirl of that horrible tail above the water, followed immediately by a second disappearance of the ill-fated young soldier, showed how completely he was at the mercy of the terrible fish.”
“The bright handsome youth was again lost to sight as completely as if he had never been there but the sudden crimsoning of the sea told a fearful tale of the tragedy that was being enacted beneath. Again he rose to the surface, but this time quite close to the boat. He had once more freed himself from those cruel lancet-lined jaws, and, grasping the gunwale, scrambled on board, and in doing so narrowly escaped swamping the small boat. All the vitality of which he was apparently possessed had been expended in this last supreme exertion, and lying down, in less than five minutes every drop of his life’s blood had left his veins, and he was dead.”
“When the body was taken from the boat, it presented a most melancholy appearance. Marks of the shark’s teeth were plainly visible on the kneecap of one leg, the fleshy part of which had been partially torn away. The effect of the second attack of the monster was shown upon the other leg, fully fifteen inches of the back part of the thigh being completely gone, leaving bare a considerable portion of the bone. The wonder is that any human being, after receiving such mortal injuries, could have sufficient strength left to have gained the shelter of the boat.”
“This dreadful calamity, it is needless to say, cast a gloom over the whole city. The victim, Johnny Balmer, was a most promising musician in the splendid band of his regiment. Though barely having attained the full age of manhood, he was truly a fine specimen of a British soldier.”
Over the weekend we raised a glass to my great great great great Uncle John, who was the first and only person to have been killed by a shark in Wellington Harbour. Some 165 years later, we commemorated his death the only way we knew how.
Five toy sharks now sit on his grave in the Bolton Street Cemetery (tasteful I know), we raised a glass (or 4) in his name at the Thistle Inn where his body was taken for an autopsy, and that was basically it. BUT isn’t it fascinating when you dig a little deeper what fascinating stories you can find in your family lineage?
Previously no sharks had been noticed in Wellington Harbour. The presence of this one however was accounted for by the arrival of two whaling ships, the Lord Duncan and Lord Nelson (good one guys). The shark followed these vessels in from the ocean no doubt attracted by the delicious combination of offal and whale blubber being thrown overboard. A plan was then made to destroy the incredible monster. It was caught once or twice , but the first hook and line proved unequal. As a last attempt, a special hook was made and fastened to a strong line by pieces of chain. Secured with large bait to a cargo boat and laid out at night… the shark was caught.
Sacred to the memory of John BALMER, of the Band of H. M. 65th Regt, aged 19 years and 6 months. His death was caused by the bite of a shark when bathing in Lambton Harbour on the 22nd day of January 1852. “Thou mourner dry that thoughtless tear, and gaze upon the dead, tis but a bier: no’ earthly spirit lingers there, on Wings of light to heaven tis fled! This tablet is erected by his comrades of the Band as a last ,tribute of respect to one who was much esteemed by them. Also to the memory of his nephew, John SPEAKMAN, son of Warn (sic) & Elizabeth SPEAKMAN, Serge H.M. 65th Reg, who departed this life 14 July 1855, aged 1 year and 6 months.
Thanks Great Great Great Great Uncle John for providing your descendants with a piece of treasured family history.
And from a family of avid genealogists, it’s worth taking the time to research where you came from- you never know what you might uncover!