Lt William Mitchell

Shots from the river bank

An unfortunate incident in war

It was potatoes – or more precisely the harvesting of them – that lead to the death of Lieutenant William Mitchell in February 1864, during the Invasion of the Waikato in the New Zealand Wars.

The young Lieutenant, only 22 years old, had arrived in New Zealand aboard the troopship HMS Esk, and during the invasion of the Waikato has also served on another river gunboat, the Pioneer. He was promoted to senior Lieutenant in May 1863.

Mitchell was aboard the river gunboat Avon. They were patrolling the Waipa River, up beyond Ngaruawahia near Whatawhata, when in the words of a report in the Daily Southern Cross newspaper [Friday 5 February 1864], “It appears that as the Avon was going up the river, a number of Maoris were seen on the bank, and a volley was fired at them which they did not return.”

The article continues with an inexplicable supposition: “When the steamer was coming back on Tuesday morning last, four or five persons were standing on the paddle-box of the steamer, one of whom was Lieutenant Mitchell, little suspecting that the enemy were in their vicinity, when suddenly some shots were fired from Maoris in ambush along the bank.”

The journalist then returns to the facts of the incident. “Eight shots were fired, but only one took effect, a bullet striking Lieutenant Mitchell on the shoulder, entering the body, grazing the heart and kidney, and passing out at the back. His death was not immediate, for he lived twenty hours after and died yesterday morning.”

In the book The Waikato River Gunboats – New Zealand’s First Navy, author Grant Middlemiss concludes a short passaged on the death of Lt Mitchell with: “Later reports from Maori indicated that the attack on Avon was in retribution for it having fired, some days earlier, on Mari who were collecting potatoes.”

The Daily Southern Cross article provides more detail about Lt Mitchell’s short military career, and the arrangements for his funeral. “He had been acting senior naval officer for some time past at the Transport Depot, Ngaruawahia, and had been engaged in bringing up stores to the head-quarters.

“The death of Lieutenant Mitchell is the more to be deplored as his services and conduct as an officer are spoken highly of. His body was brought into town yesterday, under an escort of the artillery and the boatswain of one of the men-of-war.

“For want of barrack room accommodation, it was temporarily deposited in the dead house, but that the same respect may be shown to the remains of the deceased as were shown to those of the other officers who have fallen during the war, a tent is to be erected between the magazine and the hospital, in which they will be placed, with a guard over them until the funeral, which will take place to-morrow (Saturday) at 4 o’clock in the afternoon.”

The paper ran a short report on the funeral on Monday 8 February: “[MITCHELL] The Funeral of the Late Lieutenants Mitchell and Manteath. [-----]. Notwithstanding the number of draughts which have been made to the front recently, the procession was far from being a small one, and public interest and sympathy were evinced in and for the deceased by the number of persons who followed the procession to the cemetery. Arrived there, the officers were deposited in graves higher up than those in which the officers, who had previously fallen, were buried. The funeral service was performed by the Rev. Mr Kinder, Garrison Chaplain, and three volleys having been fired over the graves the assembly dispersed.”

Lt Mitchell was buried in the Anglican section of the cemetery, on the same day as a Lt Manteath who had died of illness while at the Waikato front.

Mitchell's was one of the graves disturbed by the building of the motorways. His remains were moved to be under the Anglican memorial.

His gravestone was one of many placed along the stone embankments of the motorway onramp. It was destroyed by vandalism.

  • <p>The Avon was an iron clad steamer that served as a gunboat on the Waikato and Waipa Rivers, during the Invasion of the Waikato in 1863-4.</p><p>Lt Mitchel was aboard the Avon when he was shot.</p><p>Image courtesy Grant Middlemiss.</p>
  • <p>The headstone from Lt Mitchell's grave was placed by the stone embankment to the motorway onramp. The headstone has since been destroyed by vandalism.</p>