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Paeroa children have an open air geography lesson. Photo: SUPPLIED

Drowning in Paeroa river

As part of a Valley Profile series, MEGHAN HAWKES explores our local history by seeking out stories of life and death in the Thames Valley

Getting the children dressed for Sunday school was a busy and distracting time for Mrs Grant of Mill Road, Paeroa where the family lived on the banks of the Ohinemuri River. It was around 1pm in late January, 1905, and they were all gathered in an outhouse. As 11-year-old Willie put his boots on, Mrs Grant finished tidying up the other children.
Jane Grant, 9, gazing through the window of the outhouse, heard a splash and saw some waves in the river. She drew her mother’s attention to the splash and waves, but said it wasn’t Willie as he had gone inside the house.
When Mrs Grant had finished organising the children, she went out and called for Willie but got no answer. She went down to the river to see if the boy had fallen in, but she saw no sign of him. With rising panic, she ran to the nearby Māori settlement and told them she thought Willie had fallen into the river. Willing helpers started searching by diving into the river and dragging it with hooks and nets. Mrs Grant also sent the other children to look for their brother. The children’s father, William, was away from home when at about quarter to two one of his little girls came to him and said Willie was missing. William reported the matter to Constable Whelan then hurried home to help drag the river. Richard Willis and Mr Spinks were in a boat dredging the water with a pole and hook each. The search had begun around half past one and about ten past four Spinks caught the body of Willie with his pole. He was fully clothed in his Sunday best. An inquest was held at the Paeroa courthouse. Willie was described as a very healthy boy, not subject to fits or giddiness. He could not swim. It was thought he might have gone down to the river to wash his face as he sometimes did in fine weather. He had a toy boat, which was found alongside the steps leading into the river. He must have overbalanced and fallen in, and as he could not swim he was unable to get out again, the river being very deep at that part. The jury returned a verdict of accidental drowning. Willie, the only son of William and Jane Grant, was buried at Paeroa’s Pukerimu cemetery.
A few days later, the Ohinemuri Gazette commented on the need for swimming lessons for children. “The art of swimming is one that everybody should know, and if the younger children are taken in hand and instructed, the easier will they learn. In a good many places swimming classes have been started, and we see no reason why something of that sort should not be initiated in Paeroa.”
The results of a competition run by Messrs Collins Bros, publishers of educational books, were announced two months after Willie’s death, with Willie winning the prize for the Best Written Copy Books No’s 4 or 5.