The Lonely Graves are a poignant remnant of the 19th century Otago gold rush days when young men came from all parts of the world to try for their fortunes. It’s a sad fact that many of those seekers died or disappeared, frozen, drowned, accidentally killed in rock falls or collapsed mine shafts, or even murdered; unknown and uncommemorated by any grave or entry into a register.
‘Somebody’s Darling’ might have suffered the same obscurity had it not been for the compassion of William Rigney. One day at the end of 1864, Rigney was strolling near the tail-race of the gold claim he and others were working on the Molyneux River - the old name for the Clutha - when he noticed, on the river bank, a dog standing shivering over a huddled shape.
It turned out to be the body of a fair young man who appeared to have drowned. Rigney called the police from Roxburgh who investigated but were unable to establish his identity. Rigney attended the subsequent inquest at which the verdict on this unknown man was determined as death by drowning: there were, it seems, no suspicious circumstances.
Rigney, an erstwhile theological student from Dublin, was deeply moved by the sad anonymity of the victim and requested the coroner’s permission to give the body a decent burial. A funeral was arranged for which Rigney dug a grave near Horseshoe Bend in woods close by an ancient Maori track through the bush. Every one of the local population turned out and they brought the body, on a bullock sledge, to the grave where a service was conducted by the schoolteacher.
Rigney later prepared a piece of black pine planking for a headboard: on it he poker-burned the words:
LiES BURiED HERE’
LiES BURiED HERE’
For many years, Rigney tended the grave which he’d surrounded by a fence to protect it from wandering stock but, naturally, the timber board became weathered over the years from 1865 so a public subscription was taken up and in 1903, a new, smart, marble headstone was erected at the base of which, in a special, glass-fronted frame the original headboard was incorporated.
Rigney let it be known that he wanted to be buried next to ‘Somebody’s Darling’ and in 1912, forty-eight years after his touching gesture, William Rigney was laid to rest beside the man he never knew.
The story is deeply intriguing because here at these lonely graves, surrounded by stone-littered hills of golden broom, you find yourself wondering just who ‘Somebody’s Darling’ might have been. What was his story? What romance moved him? Was he, perhaps, the heir of a wealthy family in the ‘old country’ here in the colony to make his mark and win the hand of the girl he’d left behind? Was he one of that great band of itinerant diggers who moved from California to Australia to the West Coast and Central Otago? Was he on the run from the law? And could it just be possible that he was a member of your own family?
Who knows... but as William Rigney knew for sure, he was ‘Somebody’s Darling’.
© DON DONOVAN