One Family

One Family - One Grave
The Tragedy of the Branks Family

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The "Admissions Book" for the Colonial Hospital (1847) lists as its first patient Rachael Branks of Porirua Road, aged 34. Rachael had been admitted to the Hospital on the day of it's opening (15th September 1847) following an accident at her home. A tree branch had fallen on her causing a "compound fracture of the right leg and simple fracture of the left." Fifteen days later, Rachael was dead as a result of, in those days an incurable disease, tetanus or lockjaw as it is described in the records. Rachael was interred in the grounds of the Episcopal Church on the site of what is now St John's in Johnsonville. She was the first settler to be buried there.

Mrs Rachael Macintyere Branks had arrived in New Zealand with her husband, John, aboard the ship Bengal Merchant on February 20th 1840. They had no children at this time and would have been looking forward to settling down in this fledgling colony to make a life and raise a family.

John and Rachael came to live in a cottage on the property of Thomas John Drake, Section 19, of the Old Porirua Road. This house, small and of wattle and daub, was about  five or six hundred yards beyond the Church (now St Johns Anglican Church) on the Porirua Road and about five miles from Wellington. John took on work for the landowner, Mr. Drake, and was highly respected by his neighbours as a sober, honest, industrious man. It was during these years that Rachael and John brought up three fine children - William, born in May 1840 not long after they had arrived, Catherine, their only daughter, born November 1844 and young John born in late 1846.

We must assume that John and Rachael had plans to make the best of this new opportunity and there is evidence that John was in negotiation to buy land from Robert Rodger Strang, the Deputy-Registrar of the Supreme Court and owner of section 18 across the road from the Branks residence.

It is at this time that the first of two major tragedies strikes the Branks family with the death of Rachael. It must have been extremely difficult for John to continue working, a necessity in those days with no hint of welfare or Government support, and bring up his new family as well. There is an indication that his brother, Robert and his young wife, may also have been in Wellington but it is not recorded if they were there to assist in John's time of need. Eighteen months later, on March 22nd 1849, the second and final tragedy was to befall the remaining members of the Branks family.

Some years earlier a Maori called Henare Maroro had been imprisoned for an un-recorded offence. His anger gave rise to a desire for Utu (revenge) and he vowed to exact vengeance of one "Pakeha" life for each year he had spent in prison. Those to fall victim to this barbarous vow were to be the recently widowed John Branks and his little family.

Not much is known of the events on the night of March 22nd 1849 but the picture next morning told much of the story. Those on the spot first (Inspector McDonough and a party of Armed Police, Superintendent of the Colonial Hospital and Coroner Dr J. P. Fitzgerald and Dr. G. D. Monteith) were to find a particularly gruesome and horrific sight. John and his three young children had been brutally hacked to death with an axe. John was found in the corner of his one-roomed cottage near the fireplace and all three of the children were found on the double bed in the opposite corner. All four had died through repeated injuries inflicted to the head and while these injuries are too horrific to relate here, they are well documented elsewhere. One can only wonder at the last moments of these little children as they watched their father being attacked knowing that they were, moments later, to suffer the same fate themselves.

The town of Wellington and its outlying districts was horrified and a reward of 50.00 was offered for information leading to the apprehension of the killer or killers. Friday night saw the arrest of Henare Maroro who had been seen and spoken to in the area several times on the nights leading up to the murders as well as on the night in question. It had also been reported that he had visited the Branks home the previous night and had staid very late at his house the previous night.

On the following Wednesday (28th) a Coroners Inquest was held and on Friday April 13th a Special Commission of the Supreme Court, Mr Justice Chapman presiding, was held to hear the case. The result of these investigations and their damning testimony was to convict Maroro of the murders. The judgement of Justice Chapman was that he be sentenced to death. His pronouncement was as follows:

Maroro, after a patient and lengthened investigation, you have been found guilty of the crime laid to your charge, and considering, as I have done, all the circumstances of the case, I cannot but concur in the justice of the verdict. (His honour then put on the Black Cap.) The sentence of this court is that you, Maroro, be taken from this place to the place from whence you came, from thence to the place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you are dead, that your body be buried within the precincts of the Gaol, and may the Lord have mercy on your soul.

Maroro died at 8:00am on Thursday, April 19th 1849.Two days before this he was to confess to the murders and a few days following his death this confession was published.

John, William, Catherine and young John Branks were buried in the same grave as their Wife and Mother on Sunday March 25th 1849. The newspaper report of the funeral contains this poignant and  final stamp on the hopes and dreams of a young immigrant family..."One grave now contains the whole family".

Copyright Denise & Peter 1999, 2000

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