Back in early 1903, Thomas John Kidd's coach and mail service was truly a lifeline for the settlers' families along the Eltham/Opunake Road.
He was not only the coach driver, but also a valued friend who delivered mail, parcels, medicines and support to isolated families at the fledgling villages and farms at Mangahume, Te Kiri, Awatuna and Riverlea.
Rollo Arnold in his book, Settler Kaponga, says ‘Kidd had a reputation for being a first-class hand with horses’ which was a highly valued skill in those days.
Tom Kidd left Opunake around 6am daily with his coach laden with mail and drawn by four horses, to pick up passengers and more mail bags along the way to connect with the morning train to Hawera.
On the morning of 14 August 1903, it was typical Taranaki spring weather. The journey was nothing like the easy half-hour trip from Opunake to Eltham that it is today. The partially metalled roads were very muddy, with few bridges and many dangerous fords crossing the numerous mountain streams.
It had been raining for several days and nights and when Kidd arrived at the western bank of the Mangawhero Stream around 9am his only passenger, Charles Hansen, was so concerned at the height of the swirling, muddy water that he tried to persuade the coach driver not to attempt the crossing. He was joined by local men, Tom Davidson and Michael Lawson, who were unwilling to risk their own rigs in the river and were about to carry their milk cans across the nearby footbridge.
However, Tom Kidd was known for his dedication to duty and stated that ‘he was bound to get over somehow!’ and proceeded to force his unwilling horses into the ford. The two leaders swerved off down stream trying to turn back. Expert work with reins and whip got them back on track. Then one of the ‘pole’ horses was washed off his feet, knocking his partner over and the offside wheels became stuck, probably on a boulder or a scoured-out hole and the watchers saw the coach begin to tip up.
‘Tom, jump for your life’ (quote from the inquest, Hawera Star) they shouted to Kidd and so he jumped, but he was washed downstream by the force of the water and became tangled amongst the wheels and horses.
He surfaced twice – first grabbing the front of the coach, then as it fell apart he was seen again holding the tail of one of the horses. After that, the whole tangled mess of coach, man and horses disappeared around a bend in the river, and Tom Kidd was never seen alive again.
The funeral at Eltham was attended by the townsfolk and settlers from all over Taranaki. As one of the largest ever seen in the district, it indicated the high esteem in which Tom Kidd was held. He is buried in the Eltham Cemetery in the Methodist/Salvation Army section nearest the road, (plot 20/No 86)
As a consequence of the inquest into this accident by the coroner, F.W. Wilkie, donations (including £100 from Tom Kidd's family) were made towards the bridging of this dangerous stream.
Mr. Wilkie headed a bevy of requests to the Minister for Public Works to do something in the interests of safety and, finally, in March 1904, work was begun on the bridge. It was completed on 8 August 1904.
To give the people of Eltham and districts an opportunity to pay tribute to Thomas John Kidd, one shilling subscriptions were taken up to erect a marble drinking fountain in Taumata Park in his memory, and this was unveiled by Sir Joseph Ward on 25 May 1905.
My thanks go to the late Janet Old who gave permission to use her research file on Thomas John Kidd.
First published 8 August 2003
Carriage Nut – an all-metal mail axle key. Used for turning the axle caps that were screwed on the outside ends of factory made axle boxes.
Horse Bit – Consists of two opposing hinged bars with a large ring through the head of each bar. Made locally from Taranaki ironsand.
Horse Stirrups – Safety stirrups so that if the rider is thrown off the horse the stirrups spring open and release the rider's feet instead of the rider being dragged along the ground. Made of solid nickel by Scott's, from Jury's stable in New Plymouth.
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