Teaching Module

New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)

Shocking Disaster at Cambridge [Newspaper Article]


This particular news report is drawn from a collection gathered by a Waikato University undergraduate student, Pauline Hunt, when investigating the hazards of life for colonial children during the 1880s. Her unpublished study concentrated on two regional newspapers, the New Zealand Herald, published in Auckland; and the Waikato Times, printed in Hamilton. The types of accidents, fatal and non-fatal, reported during this decade included: drownings; injuries involving horses; burns from fire and scalding water; poisonings, frequently from youngsters chewing the phosphorus head on matches; falls from trees, over cliffs, into disused mine shafts, and off a house balcony; gunshot accidents; attacks by animals; and work-related injuries or death involving machinery or moving vehicles, such as tramcars or horse-drawn drays. Water, horses, and fire were the three most common causes of accidental injury or death for those under 15 years of age. (Disease, infanticide, neglect, cruelty, or assault were not included in the research project.)

Only a very few reports made reference to Maori children; the majority dealt with Pakeha whose communities were, by the 1880s, becoming dominant in the region. Daily or weekly papers were the principal means of disseminating local, national, and international news. The columns devoted to accidents gave a wealth of medical detail, including explicit descriptions of the injuries, and sometimes concluded with an expression of sympathy for the family. Warnings or words of advice were frequently printed as well. Both language and content reflect contemporary attitudes concerning the need to keep children safe. Communities as well as parents needed to protect the "social capital" that their youngsters represented.


Waikato Times, "Shocking Disaster at Cambridge: Three Children Burned to Death." November 8, 1884, p. 2, col. 5. Annotated by Jeanine Graham.

Primary Source Text

Three Children Burned to Death

One of the saddest fatalities that have ever shocked the senses of the people of this district occurred at Cambridge on Thursday afternoon, resulting in the burning to death of three young children, Hedley James Osborne, aged four years, Julietta Alice Osborne, aged two years, and Mary Agnes Osborne, aged five months. . . .

Mrs Osborne, having some shopping to do in the town, put her infant child to bed, and locked it up by itself in the bedroom, so that it should not be disturbed by the other two children. Seeing that everything was safe, there being no fire in the house since breakfast time, she shut up the boy and the girl in the kitchen, and proceeded to town on her business. When leaving her home in this way, it was a usual thing for Mrs Osborne to shut up her children, believing that did she not do so they would find their way to the river, only a few chains distant, or to a deep well adjoining. . . .

"I was in the habit of leaving my children at home by themselves about once a week. I was generally away from about one to two hours. I very often took the baby with me. . . . There was neither fire nor ashes in the stove when I left home at twenty minutes to one. I forgot to put the matches away. The matches were on the ledge over the mantelpiece, and the boy must have got the broom and knocked them down. I have seen the boy get the matches frequently and try to light his father's pipe. . . I was generally careful in keeping the matches out of his way. There was some paper underneath the sofa, and under the cushion of the chair there was a Weekly News. The children were in the habit of reading the paper and playing with it. The inside of the house was papered. . . I usually keep the matches in the bedroom, and the children saw me put them above the fireplace before I left."

The Coroner then summed up. He referred to the boy's habit of using matches as described by the mother, and he had no doubt but that the fire originated by the boy getting hold of the matches on this occasion, and in some way setting fire to their clothes or some paper that may have been lying about. . . . He thought that the children might have been left with some neighbour.

A juryman informed the coroner that there were no neighbours in the vicinity, and the unfortunate people were not in a position to employ a girl to look after the house in their absence.

A verdict of accidental death by burning was returned.

How to Cite This Source

"New Zealand Childhoods (18th–20th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #93, https://cyh.rrchnm.org/items/show/93 (accessed August 10, 2021).