Humphrey Ezekiel Hancock was born on November 26 1856 in Woolwich, Kent, England. His father, James was 34 and his mother, Sarah (nee Hancock) was 28. James was from Ettington, Warwickshire, and Sarah was from Smethwick in Staffordshire. They married in 1845 and lived in Staffordshire, then somewhere between 1852 and 1856 the family moved to Woolwich in Kent where James & his brother Robert were working for the War Department. In the 1861 census Humphrey Ezekiel was 5 years old and ten years later in 1871 he was also working at the Arsenal.
In 1874 Humphrey married Maria Jane Lacy at the Robert Street Chapel in Plumstead Kent. Maria was originally from Devon and came from a family of mariners. I’ve written about her father Robert William Lacy in a previous blog post [http://donnarutherford.com/?p=56] Their first son Robert James William was born on January 21 1875 in Woolwich. Later that year Humphrey, Maria and baby Robert left England on the “Rodney” for the shores of New Zealand. A year ealier Maria’s parents had also set sail for New Zealand on the ship “Golden Sea”. Humphrey’s parents, James & Sarah, were still living in Woolwich, but perhaps Humphrey and Maria saw a better life for themselves and their children by following her parents to New Zealand.
Migration to New Zealand in the 1870’s was the most significant in the country’s history. Between 1871 and 1885 nearly 300,000 people flooded into the country. This more than doubled the non-Maori population at the time. The reason for the influx of people, three quarters of which were direct from the UK, was that the government were offering assistance for immigrants to settle on land secured during the earlier period of the New Zealand Land Wars. Assisted Immigrants were able to travel to New Zealand free from 1873 and those already in New Zealand could nominate friends and family to join them. Perhaps Maria’s parents nominated Maria & Humphrey.
Humphrey and Maria settled in an area of Taranaki known as Midhirst, a small village under a mountain then known as Mount Egmont (now called Mount Taranaki). Midhirst was a farming community and the Midhirst Co-operative Dairy Company was established there by local farmers in 1895.
The family lived on a small farmlet in Radnor Road, Humphrey was a plate layer and ganger on the railway – working his way up New Zealand’s North Island to Taranaki. Their second child George was born in Taranaki in 1876 and more children followed, daughter Maria Jane in 1878, son Humphrey Ezekiel in 1880, Alfred James William in 1882 (who is my great grandfather), James in 1887 and John in 1891.
Sadly, and probably instrinsic to the tragedy about to befall them, Humphrey’s wife Maria Jane passed away in 1896, she was 45 years old. Maria’s death certificate states that she’d had phthisis for 10 years (an old name for wasting away disease or TB) and then had Pleurisy and Pneumonia for 5 days. She left behind 6 boys and a daughter, the youngest, John, being only 5-6 years old. We believe this photo of the family was taken on the day of Maria Jane’s funeral, the boys are wearing black arm bands, Humphrey is seated in front and his daughter Maria Jane on his left.
By all accounts things were going to be tough, his deceased wife’s parents were not living close, they were many miles away in the neighbouring province of Manawatu. I suspect that daughter Maria Jane, who was 17 nearly 18 when her mother died, had to take on the role of raising the boys. Sadly Maria Jane was not going to live to see her 21st birthday.
Based on witness statements produced in court at the coroners inquest – Humphrey was starting to have health problems, he had been complaining of bad headaches and had started seeing a doctor. Maria Jane wanted to leave the family after constant arguments with her father. It appears that there was some home help, another girl living with the family but Humphrey and Maria were not getting along and Maria was threatening to leave.
On the 20 June 1898 the boys had their breakfast and went off to work and school. Maria Jane did not make it out the house that day. Humphrey attacked Maria with the bread knife from the breakfast table and cut her throat. The coroners report suggests that Humphrey was not an aggressive man by nature, so he must have been at his absolute wits end. He sat down and wrote his suicide note. I’ve seen his note and held it my hands – it’s a two sided page written mostly legibly and in great detail – including a list of borrowed books and amounts of money to be paid. Humphrey went outside, tied a large iron bar to his leg, took the top off the well and jumped in. Later in the morning when the whole tragic scene was discovered, only Humphrey’s pipe and cap could be seen floating on top of the well.
A coroners inquest was held, the papers across New Zealand carried the story of a “Tragedy at Midhirst” – not one person spoke ill of Humphrey or Maria, it seems the whole story was a shock to Humphrey’s workmates and neighbours.
Humphrey and his daughter Maria are buried together in the old Midhirst cemetery, their graves can hardly be distinguished now, but their story is finally known throughout the family.
When I first started working on the New Zealand side of the family tree, I was not prepared to find such a terrible story. It had not been passed down the family and had never been spoken about amongst the older generation. The day I picked up the death certificates in person from the New Zealand registers office – I tore the envelopes open trying to find out why these two people died on the same day, I had expected an accident. I must have gone quite pale when I read “murdered by having her throat cut” and “suicide by drowning” as I distinctly remember the ladies behind the desk asking me if I was OK. It can be difficult finding out that these things happen in our families, but we must remember we are not the same people as our ancestors, we are not defined by their actions, and we most certainly live in a very different world then they did. Well over a hundred years have now passed since this tragic day in our family history, and I think most of us have come to accept it is part of our history. I like to think that in these days and times anyone who needs help, before reverting to such actions, can get the necessary help before things spiral out of control
Humphrey Ezekiel Hancock and Maria Jane Lacy’s other children mostly all lived long and fruitful lives, marrying and having their own families. Sadly second son George Hancock died one year after his father and sister – of suspected lead poisoning, he was 22 1/2