George Lawrence

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George Lawrence and the elephants of Wakefield

The Waimea South Historical Society was recently gifted two intriguing photographs, of elephants bathing in the Wai-iti River and penned beside the Methodist Church on the corner of Arrow and Edward Street, Wakefield.

lawrence elephants bathing in the River Waiiti. George Lawrence Collection Tasman District Libraries

Elephants bathing in the River Waiiti. George Lawrence Collection Tasman District Libraries

The photographs were taken by George Taylor Lawrence, grandfather of the donors, Doug and Sally Lawrence. This is George’s story, and the story behind the images.

George Taylor Lawrence was born in Invercargill in 1859, after his father, William Taylor Lawrence emigrated with his wife from Herefordshire, England in the 1850’s.  As a relatively well-to-do settler William was able to purchase 300 acres of land on the outskirts of Invercargill, 13 acres of which became devoted to fruit growing that provided the raw ingredients for jam making. His jam became well known throughout the South Island.

Here William raised a family of three daughters and five sons, one of whom was George. George was a religious man and a keen amateur astronomer.  In the sprawling farm house he built on the Maple Grove estate, behind his father’s house, he constructed a central tower - a place to meditate and pray but also to see the stars.

In 1881, when he was 22 years of age, George was a passenger on the steamship Tararua which ran aground on a reef at Waipapa Point while on a regular journey between Port Chalmers and Invercargill and later sank with a large loss of life.  After two unsuccessful attempts to get passengers off the ship it was decided to try once more to send a boat, with a strong swimmer with a rope to reach the shore.  George volunteered.1 

Lawrence Wreck of the Tararua 1881 from Illustrated N Z Herald

Wreck of the Tararua 1881 from Illustrated N Z Herald

Despite George’s efforts, 131 people perished in this shipwreck.  George was one of the 20 fortunate survivors.   He had risked his life in getting a rope to shore and raising the alarm, yet ironically it was that act of courage which ultimately saved him.

George continued on with his life at Maple Grove, working in the family industry which he and his brothers had established.  Although a very sociable person he did not talk much about his dramatic swim on that autumn night in April.  As he neared retirement the warmer weather of the north beckoned and, when the opportunity arose, he moved to Wakefield in 1919, aged 60.

Lawrence Laurel Bank Wakefield Waimea South Collection

Laurel Bank Wakefield. George Lawrence Waimea South Collection

George’s first wife - a daughter of Samuel Evans, draper, of Dunedin -  and two of their three children had died in the influenza epidemic of 1919.  His second wife, Emily - who was 27 years his junior and aged 33 at this time - had originally been the housekeeper at Maple Grove. As a baby she had narrowly escaped death during the Tarawera earthquake of 1886 when a falling brick from a chimney top just missed her pram which was parked outside. Her connection with the family began when she started work in their jam factory.  Together George and Emily had three children: George (Bruce), William (Victor) and Elsie.  Bruce joined the RNZAF, trained in Canada but was shot down over Amiens in January 1945.  Victor (Vic) went to work in the Post Office.

Lawrence Laurel bank Wakefield1924 Waimea South Collection

Laurel Bank Wakefield1924. George Lawrence Waimea South Collection

Having sold his share of the jam making business in Invercargill, George purchased an Edwardian villa on two and a half acres of land situated on a terrace at the entrance to Wakefield Village, which was named Laurel Bank.  Here he developed an interest in poultry farming and lived the life of a retired country gentleman with an interest in croquet, garden parties and photography.

Lawrence Croquet on the lawn at Laurel bank Wakefield

Croquet on the lawn at Laurel Bank Wakefield. George Lawrence, Tasman District Library

When Perry Brothers' Circus made one of its periodic tours of the country, in the summer of 1928-29, George found plenty of subject material for his growing photo collection. The circus began its tour in the south and worked its way slowly northwards.  On 4 December 1928 The Lake Wakitip Mail reported on the impressive circus of “60 people, 20 horses and ponies, 10 cages of wild animals comprising lions, tigers, leopards, hyena, wolves, Tasmanian Tiger, and many other rare animals, including Jumbo the huge elephant and his pal, Tommy, the midget” 2 coming to Queenstown.

Lawrence Elephants visiting Methodist church

Elephants visiting the Methodist Church. George Lawrence Tasman District Library

By the 3rd of January, 1929, they had reached Christchurch.  On the 17th January the New Zealand Herald reported what could have been a disastrous incident.3 En route from Westport to Murchison, near Hawkes Craig, a cage containing a lion, lioness and a tiger slipped off a trailer and rolled down a steep bank.  Fortunately a gang of railway workers was on hand and, with the aid of an elephant which had to be brought back six miles to the scene, the animals were eventually recovered without significant damage.

Sometime between the 17th and 29th of January, when they were reported performing in Wellington, they must have passed through Wakefield, where the elephants were photographed by George beside the Methodist Church in Edward Street and bathing in the Wai-iti River – no doubt by the Pigeon Valley Bridge

George enjoyed a comfortable 26 years of retirement in Wakefield as a “man of means” able to entertain, and even own a car during the depression years.  George, hero of the Tararua, was 86 years old when he died at home in 1946.

This story was first published in "Windows on Wakefield" a community newsletter for the town of Wakefield, Nelson.

 Roger Batt 2016

Sources used in this story

  1. The Cyclopedia of New Zealand [Otago and Southland Provincial Districts], 1905
    NZETC.
  2. Lawrence, Doug and Sally  for notes and family photographs from their grandfather’s collection. [Photo album held in the Waimea South Collection, Tasman District Libraries, Richmond, Nelson.]
  3. Macintosh, Joan (1970). The Wreck of the Tararua, Reed, 1970.
  4. Perrys' Circus and Zoo. (1928, December 4) Lake Wakatip Mail, p. 5
    http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/LWM19281204.2.41
  5. Fall of fifty feet(1929, January 17) New Zealand Herald, p. 10
    https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/NZH19290117.2.29

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