August 15, 1888 – Almost all of the children of Bourke, country New South Wales, were in the back of horse-drawn vehicles heading to the country town’s picnic ground by the Darling River.
The Annual Children’s Picnic procession would have been full of laughter and expectation, as the annual event brought the town together. There were games and races and food to anticipate.
The children had assembled and marched to Billabong Bridge, where horse-drawn lorries, carts, vans, waggonettes and buggies were assembled to take them to the picnic ground only three miles down the river.
But the following events would have had town movers and shakers regretting their decision to build railings on the back of lorries and treat the children to a special ride to the picnic.
A flag or banner spooked one of the horses pulling one of the largest lorries. This caused the children to surge to one side of the vehicle.
“The extra strain broke away the timber frame fixed around the vehicle, and precipitated a large number of occupants on to the road,” reported the Gouldburn Evening Penny Post.
The Sydney Morning Herald went as far as to describe which wheels killed how many children. “They then rolled out in a heap, the front wheel killing two and badly injuring another; the hind wheel killing one.’’
The Penny Post listed the most serious injuries: F Short, a girl, broken arm; Clancy, girl, broken thigh; Barlow and Dowling, girls, badly bruised; Groves, boy, broken collar bone.
A public meeting held the next night, chaired by the Bourke Mayor, resulted in about £90 being donated to those affected.
An inquest was held two days after the incident, on the bodies of Arthur C Paine, 3½ years of age; Annie McCarthy, 6 years (stat, her gravestone says 4 1/2); and Ada Lilian Wharton, 6 years.
The driver of the lorry involved, Henry Harvey, deposed that there were about 40 children in the vehicle.
“After going nearly a mile, one of the horses swerved to the near side, being a little frightened at a flag in front, which was on another lorry.
“The children were all standing, with the exception of two or three; all were swayed to the near side of the lorry; the rail there broke, and all but three of the children fell or jumped out of the lorry.
“It was rather an extra hard jerk, and as much as would be caused by going over a brick; the horses were walking at the time.
“The broken timber of the frame and some nails caught some of the dresses, and seemed to drag the children under the lorry, which was pulled up in about 10 yards.
The driver said he had full command over the horses.
None of the picnic committee was riding on the lorry.
The driver explained that all the children were standing, as they would not have fitted sitting,
An adult who was standing in front of the lorry when the incident happened said it was very difficult, even for an adult, to stand on a lorry in motion without holding on to something.
Member of the Picnic Committee, Mr TW Hardwick, deposed that it had been unanimously decided by the committee to drive the children down to the park in lorries.
He had instructed a carpenter to make some frames for the lorries, and told him to go to a sawmill and get suitable timber, and to be sure and make them strong enough and to fix them securely on.
Mr Hardwick had inspected the frames, and even braced them together with rope to make them stronger. He had felt that they were quite strong enough.
He also said that the children had been told to furl the banners and lower the flags.
Another Picnic Committee member, GH Snowdon, said he had personally tried all the frames and had fully believed that they were all strong enough.
Dr Sides, who attended the children at the scene said Paine and McCarthy had fractured skulls, and Wharton had suffered injuries to the chest. He believed these injuries were caused by the wheels of a lorry going over the children.
The verdict returned by the jury was that the children were accidentally killed, and that no blame was attachable to anyone.
All three children were buried in the Bourke cemetery the next day.
The funeral procession was thus described – “four girls dressed in white, with black sashes walked on either side of the hearse, and held the weepers.”
Many of the little girls in the procession were dressed in half-mourning, that is, dark clothing, but not black.
“The procession having reached the cemetery the first coffin was taken off the hearse, that of Annie, and a Roman Catholic service read in English rather than the usual Latin in a sign of inclusion of the varied mourners,
“Mourners then moved on to the Church of England section to lay Alfred Payne to rest, and then to the Wesleyan section for Ada.”
“Thus has passed away from us, in the bud of life, amidst scenes of enjoyment and every prospect pleasant, three little innocent ones, cut off as by the lightning’s flash. This sad end will long find a place in the hearts of the people of Bourke.
Annie’s headstone still stands proud in the desolate Bourke cemetery.
South Australian Register, Thursday 16 August 1888 p 5
Goulburn Evening Penny Post , Thursday 16 August 1888 p 2
The Sydney Morning Herald , Friday 17 August 1888 p 5
Western Herald, Saturday 18 August 1888 p 4
Children’s annual picnic, on bank of Darling River. Some boys in cadet uniform. Paddle steamer in background (identified in another photograph as the ‘Florence Annie’) – Bourke, NSW Online State Library Digital Collection viewed at https://collection.sl.nsw.gov.au/record/nGm3Gg0Y