Suicide On The Isabella Hercus

As the ‘Isabella Hercus’ – the Canterbury Association’s 6th ship – broke through the waves 200 miles north of the Equator that warm November morning, Chaplin James Wilson was on the deck, murmuring a desperate prayer.   He was aware of Captain Houston crouching down beside him impatiently but this poor dead young woman lying before him would have her last rights, despite of the delicate matter of time.

As the Chaplin brought his prayer to a close, the body, which had been sewn into a hammock, was quickly snatched away and slipped over the railing.  The sound of the woman hitting the sea seemed to signal to all those involved that they could breathe again.

The ‘Isabella Hercus’ had only been at sea a month, having left England on the 24th October 1850.  Also sharing the same voyage – at difference stages –  were the Canterbury Association’s first 6 ships with the ‘Charlotte Jane’ leading the way with only roughly 3 weeks left until her arrival at Lyttelton but the ‘Isabella Hercus’ had at least 2 months to go.  No one could argue that 3 months at sea for these fearless brave settler’s wasn’t easy.

Those aboard the ‘Cressy’ had witnessed fellow passenger Quinton Gale ‘go quite mad’ as their ship also approached the Equator.  After attacking his new wife, Quinton had to be restrained for the rest of the journey.  Once in Lyttelton, all the Association’s doctors had a look at him and concluded that with all the pressures of his quickie marriage, the actual voyage, his new job as Christchurch’s first Bank Manager and a ‘inflammation in the eyes that had spread to his brain’ had been the reasons for his cheese sliding off his cracker.  Quinton never quite recovered but in his later years, it was reported that he was always good humoured, enjoyed having visitors and seemed happy enough to spend his days beside his incredibly understanding, loyal wife!

But for poor Ann Freckingham of the ‘Isbella Hercus’, traveling alone to the end of the world, proved to be too much.  In the darkness surrounding her bunk, she tied string around her throat three times and strangled herself.  As she gasped and moaned, the others resting close by just thought she was having a nightmare.  At 9 the next morning, the discovery was made.  Ann was only 25 years old.

To avoid upsetting other passengers, she had been taken quickly up to the deck, sewn into a hammock and tossed overboard.  The other single women who shared the living space with Ann stated that she had become quite withdrawn and just spoke over and over that she ‘should never reach New Zealand.’  She had wept about a man she loved back in England and had a heart disorder that had been getting worse with the oncoming heat of being near the Equator.

As the ‘Isabella Hercus’ sailed into Lyttelton Harbour, the story of Ann Freckingham was well swept under the carpet – for some anyway.  It is highly likely that Ann would have looked for work – as she was domestic servant – after coming off the boat; with no one waiting for her, she slipped away to become the forgotten.  With the manner of her death, she just wasn’t brought up.  Her name remains on the passenger list but it was not noted that she had died, like the others who passed away naturally at sea.  There is also no record on what happened to the two sovereigns found sewn into her stays (corset) or the seven shillings from her pocket.

For those left behind in the Single Women Quarters, from the night of the discovery of Ann, they spoke of seeing her ghost. It is safe to presume that the remaining time at sea for these ladies was extremely unsettled.  One can imagine them attempting to sleep under their blanket, waiting for Ann Freckingham’s brokenhearted ghost to go swishing pass their bunks!

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