Gilfillan killings near Whanganui

18 April 1847

John Gilfillan and his surviving daughter (Alexander Turnbull Library, 1/2-070343-G)

A Māori raid on the Gilfillans’ farm at Matarawa, just east of Whanganui, left four members of the family dead. John Gilfillan − an able artist whose many sketches provide useful insights into Whanganui’s early colonial history − and one of his daughters were severely wounded.

This attack was utu (a reprisal) for an incident two days earlier in Whanganui, in which a young Māori was accidentally shot in the face by a midshipman from HMS Calliope. The town’s military surgeon tended to his wounds, and as he recovered it was hoped that the matter would go no further.

However, on the evening of 18 April six Māori men attacked the Gilfillan homestead. Though he was badly injured, John Gilfillan escaped and sought help, believing that he was the real target and that his family would not be harmed. But when he returned next morning he found his wife and three of their children dead and the house burned to the ground. Two younger children had escaped unharmed, while another daughter had been wounded.

Those responsible − young men aged between 14 and 19 − escaped up the Whanganui River. Rivalry between Māori of the lower and upper Whanganui came to the fore when Māori from Pūtiki (a kaingā across the river from Whanganui) captured five of the culprits and handed them over to the British authorities. Military justice was swift. On 23 April four of the prisoners were found guilty of murder and hanged. The 14-year-old was spared, but banished from the district.

Fearing widespread fighting, many outlying settlers fled into Whanganui and the town’s defences were strengthened. In May the Ngāti Hāua te Rangi chief Te Mamaku attacked Whanganui with 300 warriors. Governor George Grey arrived with additional troops and there were several skirmishes over the next two months. The fighting ended after an indecisive battle on 19 July at St John’s Wood, on the western outskirts of the town. Te Mamaku returned to his upriver stronghold, near Pipiriki.