I’m sure little George McIlraith paid little attention to the melting of the ice that had encased his older half sister Jane’s heart whenever John Deans had been in view or the subject of conversation. He would have been too far busy rumbling around Auchenflower farm to concern himself with foolish adult troubles. But George was to spend the last few years of his young life very much tied up with the love story that was John and Jane Deans.
The melting of the stubborn ice of Jane McIlraith must have been very much in the forefront of young John Deans mind who would have had his moments of wondering what he had done to welcome such a frosty reception. From what he came to understand, her returning from finishing school to discover him living at Auchenflower was a threat to her very reputation. She had frozen him out and that had made things very clear cut in his thoughts. He kept his head down, worked hard, learned farming and focused silently on a new life that sat at the very end of the world. But now, his eyes sought the wants of his heart. And he wanted Jane McIlraith. He would look for her – and now she would look for him; venturing close by him during her chores, her smile bringing his very life to a standstill. She had warmed to him and how sweetly complicated it had all become.
On a hill at the estate of Knockdolian, the young lovers quietly sealed their fate together forever and that of Jane’s eldest half brothers (James, Hugh, George, Alick) and Elizabeth McIlraith – who played together as children, unaware of this pact, amongst the other picnickers. They would all follow Jane to Canterbury, New Zealand. But there would be quite a wait first.
When the time came for George to pack up his worldly belongings for his voyage to Christchurch and his widowed sister (John had tragically died in 1854 of tuberculosis at the age of 34), he was 19 years old. I wonder if he felt like his father’s wedding present to Jane as he was promised to the newlyweds just 3 years previous. Or maybe he was excited to leave Scotland and have the chance to posses his own land one day and make his way in the world. Either way, he and his older brother Hugh headed out to face their destinies.
Jane couldn’t believe how much her brothers had grown up when they arrived at Riccarton on the 10th May 1856 and what a comfort they were to her. John had been dead for nearly 2 years and little Johnnie had long been walking. As George didn’t see Homebush (Coalgate) until September, one can imagine the brothers working/learning around Riccarton Farm and rattling around Christchurch as a couple of lads. How small Canterbury must have felt.
Before Hugh and George left Scotland, they met with James Deans – the last surviving brother of William and John Deans – and made arrangements to manage James’ half of Homebush for him. They were to open a sheep station where the rest of Homebush would be cattle and under another manager, which was at the time, ‘Honest’ John Cordy. The sheep station was situated on the eastern side of Homebush, close to today’s township of Waddington. Things were rough to start with, the brothers making their furniture, including beds made of sacking and tussock. But soon, they had their own cottage with a garden that produced quite a bounty. No one saw 22nd November 1858 coming.
“It was a terrible night to me when Hugh came down [from Homebush to Christchurch] for a doctor, and would not let me go with them. He feared the worst. They met a messenger half-way up, saying it was no use going, as all was over…I was very restless with dreading what it might be, and could find no comfort.” – Jane Deans
20 year old George had been killed after being dragged by his horse. He had attempted to get in his saddle but tragically the animal bolted before he could. If this hadn’t been enough to bear, the cemetery where George was to be the first to be buried had been purchased with the help of Jane – who I’m sure never imagined that one of her brothers would be the first to use it.
When John Deans died in 1854, Christchurch’s only burial site was the Anglican Barbadoes Street Cemetery in which the Anglicans were very protective of. Jane faced a battle to have John buried at Barbadoes Street Cemetery and won but it proved to Jane that need for another burial site for those outside of the Anglican faith.
By 1858, the St Andrew’s Presbyterian Church (Canterbury’s first Presbyterian Church) had been serving the community for two years and Jane had helped secure land for what would become known as the Scotch Cemetery – now known to us as the Addington Cemetery on Selwyn Street. I can’t imagine her heartache when George was the first burial there.
George was later joined by older brother James, his sister Elizabeth, and his 5 year old niece Jane (the daughter of Hugh McIlraith). Jane was buried with her beloved John at Barbadoes Street and Hugh was buried at Linwood Cemetery.