Tragic Loss Of Young Life On Port Hills – 30th March 1883

The fact that little William David Mason had left home with enough money to pay the fare to get home safely must have grieved his mother Eliza Mason beyond all imagination.  The fact that her 10 year old was found deceased on the Port Hills added to a puzzle that all began on the evening of 30th March 1883 with a nasty storm raging overhead.

That Friday morning, with a loud whistle sounding from outside his Salisbury Street home, William made a dash to the door, grabbing his bamboo fishing rod on his way.  Even though Eliza was at home, he didn’t say goodbye or even inform her that he was on his way out.  But she had heard the whistle too and knew it would only be Archie Lilly and mostly likely, the boys were off to Opawa to go fishing.  She would later tell the coroner that they did this all the time, just not this time.

For some reason, William and Archie decided to be more adventurous and took to the Bridle Path, heading to Lyttelton to do their fishing.  As dusk began to settle over the Port, Mrs. James was visited by the boys on their way home and she later admitted that she had felt troubled by the thought of the boys heading back home via the hills, stating how the historic path was in disrepair near the summit.  Sadly, for all involved Mrs. James’ concern proved to be right as she would be the last person to see the boys alive.

With both boys officially missing and a notice in the paper, it wouldn’t be until 2nd April around 5pm that William would be found.  Addington Workshop blacksmith, James Courtney made the grisly discovery near the Rapaki Track, returning to the site with 3 police officers despatched from Phillipstown.  Still grasping his fishing rod, little William stared peacefully to the sky as his pockets were searched, two dice and a pipe mouthpiece being the only content.  No money was found.

As for the distraught Lilly family, little Archie would not be found until 27th May, his body discovered by John Keogh who had been mustering sheep around the Mount Vernon Spur.  Numerous search parties had combed the hills for weeks, the largest party being 400 strong with volunteers walking up and down the slopes between the Bridle and the Rapaki Tracks in a straight line.   It was later determined that the boys had become disoriented with the sudden arrival of bad weather and night fall.  Regardless of becoming separated by accident or choice – which would always remain a mystery – it was sadly noted during the inquest that, William succumb to exhaustion and the elements less than 2 kilometres from the nearest house and help.

Two monuments now mark the sites where the boys were found – both eerily in view of a rocky peak known as ‘Witch Hill’ these days.  As one looks out over the view of Christchurch from Summit Road, one can appreciate how frightening that stormy night must have been for those boys, wandering hopelessly from the Bridle Path to Mount Vernon in what would have been complete darkness.  Such an innocent childhood adventure should have not ended this way.

They are both buried at Barbadoes Street Cemetery.

*Photos taken by Chris Bulovic*

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