You are currently viewing Farmer pinned by large rimu tree
Rimu trees in New Zealand bush. Photo: SUPPLIED

Farmer pinned by large rimu tree

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.

Emmerick ‘Bill’ Potoky had trees to fell in the bush on his Patetonga property to block cattle from getting through. He headed out around 9am on a Friday in June 1924 leaving John Millington, his sharemilker, and his mate, James Costello, at the house.

Bill, of Romanian descent, was a single 55 year old successful and experienced farmer and when he didn’t come back after several hours John and James became anxious and went in search of him. About one and a half miles from the house they were horrified to discover him pinned under a large rimu tree.
Bill was conscious, and told John to send James back for a spade to dig him out. Eventually the two men succeeded in freeing Bill. He was alert most of the time, but when his mates extracted him from under the tree he collapsed and died before help arrived to carry him out.
An inquest found that death was due to accidental causes. Bill’s funeral took place at Patetonga and was attended by the whole community who held him in the greatest respect. He was understood to have two sisters in the Auckland district, but their addresses were unknown and an advertisement in the NZ Herald asked that they come forward.
The two sisters were Bill’s only surviving siblings in a family of eight children. Their Hungarian father, Francis, was a military man who came to New Zealand around 1863, joining the 3rd Waikato Militia during the Māori Land Wars. Two years later he was joined by his wife Harriet and a daughter. The family settled in Ōpōtiki where he worked as a tailor and several more children were born. One of the daughters, Isabella, was a talented musician regularly charming Ōpōtiki audiences. She married at the age of 16 but this family happiness was overshadowed a year later by the death of two of her little sisters from diphtheria.
The family stability began to disintegrate further when Francis, who had brought 102 acres at Puhoi, north of Auckland, was declared destitute in 1879. The Potoky’s then washed up in Auckland where 9 year old Bill and his 7 year old brother Edmund were sent to an Industrial school as neglected children.  Industrial schools provided shelter, food and clothing for children who were also taught to read and work but this homely appearance often masked a sadder reality. Bill’s brother Edmund was hungry and he and others often absconded to steal orchard fruit. Called ‘Straying lambs’ in one newspaper report, the boys were punished with flogging or short term imprisonment. Despite this Edmund was bright and often commended for scholarly excellence.
In 1883 the Potoky’s, now living in Avondale, had another son who only survived a few weeks and the next 10 years dealt further blows to the family. Edmund, the once clever little boy, ended up in the Wairarapa where at the age of 19 he committed suicide. Francis left Harriet and went to Australia where he died 1893.
Bill appears to have moved quietly on from his earlier troubled life and found security. He moved to Waikaka Rd, Patetonga, as one of the first European settlers in 1905 when he was 36. In the intervening years Bill’s mother and two more sisters died, but the neglected little boy had done well. His past life never tripped him up but in the end Bill was caught by a supplejack vine – as the rimu tree came down he tried to jump clear, but the vine threw him back under the falling tree.