Winter in the Ashburton District can be slightly chilly at the best of times, and can get much worse than that. This is not recent news – it has been observed for over a century that winters in Canterbury have deadly potential.
The story of one unlucky “swagman” has been recounted in several works of Ashburton history, and it is a story that encapsulates the dangers that winter presented to early European settlers in New Zealand.
In order to tell the tale of Jesson Davis the swagman it is important to set the scene, and acknowledge the challenges of the nineteenth century swagman.
A Swagger’s Life
Swagmen, or “swaggers” as they were sometimes called, travelled from one end of the country to the other in search of temporary work, usually on farms. They were named after their swag, or luggage, which they unfailingly hauled along on their journeys.
As written by an anonymous correspondent for the Otago Witness in June 1908, “their only home [was] the gaol and the road.” According to this writer, a swagman’s pack could weigh at least 18 kilograms or more, and was often carried along for up to 18 to 28 kilometres a day.
“Suffering and ill-health from exposure, from cold, [and] from bad weather” were some of the swagman’s greatest ails, and with this in mind it can be said that the story of Davis was a worst-case-scenario for a swagman on the road.
Davis’ fateful journey is told in the Early Days in the’ Ashburton County’ by A. Hewson, and ‘Bush, Bullocks & Boulders’ by William Vance. Finer details vary slightly, but both accounts complement each other to produce the definitive tale.
According to Hewson, the winter of 1862 was one of the worst in Canterbury’s history. Davis had stayed at Mesopotamia Station, and he started in the morning with the intention of walking down to Hakatere Hut.
Davis had no trouble crossing the Rangitata as he went, but he was soon to make an assumption that would make his journey harder. Davis reasoned that since there was little snow at Mesopotamia, there would be even less as he travelled down-country.
Davis found that his reasoning was dead wrong once he reached Potts Hill. When he glanced down on the landscape, he saw that the snow only got worse towards the Hakatere Hut. Davis was not swayed at the sight of the heavy snow ahead and continued on course whilst the snow got deeper.
At one point Davis threw away his swag, which may have occurred on Lake Clearwater, since Davis claimed at a later point that he saw nothing but ice when he scraped the snow away.
Despite no longer being laden by a heavy swag, Davis’ condition worsened significantly as he approached Hakatere Hut.
Davis was fighting the overwhelming urge to sleep, and by this point he had lost all feeling in his legs. Suddenly, he stumbled into a fence, and was forced to crawl. Luckily by then, he saw a light coming from the hut and began to cry out. Some musterers heard his cries and emerged, picking up Davis and carrying him indoors to safety.
Unfortunately, these two musterers by the name of Bill Allen and Jim Bradford were unable to treat his legs themselves, and they had to seek out a doctor.
In the morning, Dr Enderby was brought from Greenstreet Station, and he intended to amputate. However, this was not possible to perform at Hakatere, so the only other way was for Davis to be brought to a hospital in Christchurch.
Davis was driven for four days on a bullock dray up to Christchurch, where he was sadly relieved of his frostbitten legs.
Then and Now
Jesson Davis survived the whole ordeal, and was later seen working on a farm in Kirwee where he rode a horse using a saddle with pockets for his upper legs. Jesson’s story represents just how dangerous the elements could be in early New Zealand, emphasising not only the dangers of the country’s past, but also the degree of comparative safety we enjoy today.
Winter wear is better than ever, indoor heating is more efficient, and safety measures and protocols are firmly in place for when winter delivers more than we ask for. Thankfully, it no longer takes four days to travel to Christchurch, which is great considering how long it can sometimes feel getting there today!
By Connor Lysaght
- Cartoon of a swagman, from William Vance’s ‘Bush, Bullocks & Boulders’.
- Pre-1900 photograph taken at Mesopotamia Station, where Davis embarked from in 1862.
- Horse and dray at Tinwald. Davis was likely pulled in a similar vehicle up to Christchurch.
- A hefty blanketing of snow.