On 22 March 1931, 13 residents of the Horowhenua town of Foxton set off for an autumn boating and picnic excursion on the Manawatu River - only eight made it back alive.
Tragically, the five dead came from just two families.
By all accounts the weather was favourable on the morning the party, all residents of Union Street, set out on the recently refurbished, 30-foot (9-metre), kauri launch Nina. The boat was owned by Foxton Borough Council waterworks engineer William Neville, who was aboard with his wife and three children. Also aboard were flax worker Frederick Henry Henricksen, his wife Ellen, their children Elsie, Edna and Cyril, and neighbour 18-year-old Manly Symes, who was to become the hero of the day. The party was completed by launch’s skipper, Hape Hakaraia and his 10-year-old son Charlie.
The party left Foxton at about 10am and sailed upstream towards Palmerston North. Nearing lunchtime, about 20 kilometres from Foxton, someone spotted some wild blackberries bushes growing along the riverbank. Hape was urged to pull the Nina over so the ripening berries could be picked and added to the lunch table. Once the baskets were full, the picnickers got back into the launch to sail a few hundred metres upstream to a small beach on the other side of the river where a fire could be made.
As the women went about preparing the lunch fare aboard the boat, tragedy struck. About 100 metres from their destination, in the middle of the strongly-flowing river, the Nina hit a large submerged object. The boat’s hull was torn off, sinking it within seconds. Most of the picknickers were thrown into the water. The life belts floated away down the river out of reach of the struggling party. Ellen Henricksen, her daughter Edna and Connie Neville managed to cling to one of the remaining belts, but fearing it would not hold all three safely, Mrs Henricksen let go, sacrificing her life. Frederick Henricksen, who could not swim, was also thrown into the water and drowned.
Hape, Charlie, Jimmie Neville and Manley Symes swam for the bank. During the swim, Hape suffered a seizure and dragged Charlie under the water with him. Both drowned. Manly Symes made it to the shore, but twice jumped back into the water pulling Jimmie, Edna and Connie to safety.
Still clinging to the boat, were William Neville and his wife, who was also holding young Cyril Henricksen. William grabbed his wife by the coat and started swimming for the riverbank, but his feet became entangled in some ropes. Mrs Neville sank beneath the water and lost consciousness letting go of little Cyril. By the time William reached the shore and managed to pull his almost lifeless wife from the water Cyril was gone.
The township of Foxton mourned the tragic loss of lives. Hape Hakaraia, born in Otaki, had lived in the town for many years. He was a noted singer, performing as the lead in many concerts in the area. Frederick Henricksen was born in Grovetown in the South Island, the child of Danish immigrants. His wife Ellen was the daughter of one of Foxton’s earliest settlers Abraham King. Frederick and Ellen Henricksen and Cyril are buried next to Abraham King at Foxton Cemetery. Hape Hakaraia and Charlie are buried in Otaki in the Rangiatea Churchyard.
But from the tragedy love blossomed. Three years later, two of the survivors, the hero of the day, Manly Symes, and Frederick and Ellen’s oldest daughter Elsie Henricksen, married.
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