Ramblings of a much published New Zealand author

05 October 2009

The Lonely Grave of Somebody’s Darling

In New Zealand’s South Island, if you find yourself driving on State Highway 8 south of Roxburgh make sure you visit the Lonely Graves. To get to them, cross the Clutha River to Miller’s Flat, turn right at Faigan’s store and take the shingle road that leads along the northern bank of the river towards Craig Flat. You can’t miss the graves, two simple stone slabs within a clumsy concrete and steel enclosure which in the season of the year looks pretty in a sea of blooming daffodils. (In my illustration I have moved them closer together).

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:


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’.



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By Don Donovan

About Me

My photo

Don Donovan: Biography

I was born on 20 January 1933, nine days before Hitler came to power in Germany, I grew up in south London. Although evacuated during the phoney war and the quieter times I lived in and out of air raid shelters during the blitz and experienced both V1 and V2 attacks on London. Left grammar school in 1948 aged 15 substantially undereducated. I wanted to go to art school but because of family ‘poverty’ joined a commercial art studio in the West End. I was, thereafter, variously a messenger boy, commercial artist and typographer. I was in the Royal Air Force from 1951 to 1953 when the only useful thing I did was to take part in King George VI’s funeral parade.

In 1955 I married Patricia O’Donnell, a RADA graduate, at that time playing opposite Derek Nimmo, they were juvenile leads in a touring repertory company. He went on to great success because he had a funny voice.

We came to New Zealand in 1960 where I worked in advertising. At length I became managing director of one of the companies of whose holding company (the largest domestic advertising complex in New Zealand) I was also a proprietor and shareholder. I left the industry in 1990 when my company was bought out by American interests. My timing was brilliant, at that point my first book had been published and the next was on its way.

We have two daughters and four grand-children.

Now, apart from writing, I function as a self-educated grumpy old man.

Books & Writings

‘New Zealand Odyssey’, with Euan Sarginson, Heinemann-Reed, 1989.

‘One Man’s Heart Attack’, New House, 1990. (A special edition of this book was purchased by CIBA-Geigy for distribution to NZ doctors).

‘Open 7 Days’, Random Century, October 1991.

‘The Good Old Kiwi Pub’ by Saint Publishing in 1995 followed by:
‘New Zealand House & Cottage’ in 1997. (Saint Publishing have also published calendars for the years 1994 to 2004 using my watercolour illustrations).

‘The Wastings’, my first novel was published in July 1999 by Hazard Press. Although an international subject it had very limited distribution, only in New Zealand, and the rights have reverted to me. (Colin Dexter read 'The Wastings' and wrote to me: 'I enjoyed and admired "The Wastings"... a beautifully written work... a splendid debut in crime fiction... More please!'.)

Also the texts of photographic books:
‘Colourful New Zealand’
‘New Zealand in Colour’
‘Top of the South’
‘Above Auckland’
‘Hauraki Gulf Destinations’
‘Bay of Plenty’
and a compilation of photographs and quotations titled ‘Anzac Memories’ 2004 all published by New Holland.

My written and illustrated book, ‘Country Churches of New Zealand’ was published in October 2002 by New Holland, who also published ‘Rural New Zealand’ 2004 (photographs and text), and a series of four humorous books of photographs and quotations in 2004 and 2005 titled ‘Woolly Wisdom’, ‘Chewing the Cud’, ‘Fowl Play’, and ‘Pig Tales’. My most recent book was published in August 2006 by New Holland, titled ‘Political Animals’.

Over the years I have written for NZ Herald, Heritage Magazine, Next Magazine and various local and overseas travel and general interest media.