Volume 1. Number 8.

A stranger to Napier

This is the Clive Memorial that memorialises the rescue party which set out to help people stranded by the devastating flood of 1897. The rescue party became engulfed in a sudden and violent explosion of water when a riverbank burst and two boats were swept out to sea. Of the ten on board, all drowned. Only four bodies were ever found.

The monument is vast in scale. At 36 feet (approximately ten metres) it still has great presence. It looms high over contemporary lampposts, dwarfs passersby and is an enigmatically powerful presence on the Parade, Napier’s primary boulevard.  And even though urban clutter has been allowed to grow up around it, it still evokes a mysterious power.

Any stranger looking at it asks him or herself: what does it represent? What is the story behind its presence?


I first became interested in the Clive Memorial for two reasons. Both had a disjunction at their heart. One was the fact that the Memorial listed the men who had drowned on Good Friday 1897 but one of these was someone called Florence O’Donovan.

I wondered whether the single woman had been subsumed into the all-male narrative for reasons of narrative economy. On both sides of the memorial it just talked of ‘men’.  Was it too expensive to add the words ‘and a woman’? And who was Florence O’Donovan?

The other disjunction lay in the fact that the Memorial on the Parade is quite a magnificent monument, heavily larded with significant words. But where the four bodies were actually buried – up in the Napier Hill cemetery – the headstones are notable for the sheer absence of words.

It is as if all the energy of language had been expended on the Memorial and when it came to the actual space in which the mauled, bloated, fish-nibbled corpses lay, the ability of language to stretch that far – failed.

These headstones were budget ones, lacking all ornament – and indeed any words beyond the simple names of the dead men and the date of their death. (Florence’s body was never recovered.) This disjunction between extravagant high flown sentiment and budget reality piqued my curiosity.


When the Clive Memorial was unveiled on Thursday 26 September 1900 the speakers strained to evoke the overpowering scale of ‘that sad, fatal, and fateful day’. (1)

On Good Friday,  April 16 1897, a subtropical storm of great ferocity broke over Hawke’s Bay. The conditions were ‘the most wretched it is possible for mortals to endure. ‘ (2) Incessant rain led to rivers swelling, breaking their banks and the entire plain of Heretaunga becoming a sea.  (The dean of Waiapu, Dean Grogan, estimated the ‘huge inland lake’ soon formed ‘not less than twenty miles in extent.’ (3) He eloquently said ‘As the dense darkness came down on the waters, sorrow, affliction and distress invaded every soul’ (4). ) Water began coursing through the streets of Napier.

For the people of Clive, living on only slightly raised ground right beside the epicentre of the riverine plain, the floods were catastrophic. Houses were flooded, stock carried off. Local people huddled on the railway bridge desperately calling for help.

In these circumstances, G.H. Swan, Napier’s mayor (speaking at the unveiling) said he was visited by two old friends ‘and a stranger to Napier, Mr Rose’ . (5) He was told Clive desperately needed help. ‘I put on my boots’, (6) Swan said, and he went and tried to organize relief on what was a closed down holiday weekend. He got hold of the police, (the firemen were out attending Napier emergencies) then he went to the railway station and ‘arranged to get steam up on an engine.’ (7) Two boats were obtained and ‘certainly not more than an hour and a half’ (8) later the two boats and the ten – soon to be drowned – men (and others) took off.

‘How little did we think when we left them to come back and get a second batch of boats, that we should find a yawning gulf on our return where formerly was dry land.,’ (9) Swan said, his tone still expressing disbelief three years later. In a ‘tremendous outburst’ the banks at Roy’s Hill had exploded and ‘sent those men to eternity in a moment’s notice.’ (10)

It was the speed with which vast volumns of water raced over the plains which gave a sense of the overpowering force of nature. (William Colenso writing philosophically about the floods later said the removal of so much vegetation to create farmlands had effectively removed anything that could staunch or hinder the rush of water.) (11)  As a contemporary ode said about the disaster:

 ‘The waters racing wildly o’er the fen,

  resistless on their raging course to sea,

The flood defied obstruction and these men

Were launched into the great Eternity.’ (12)

It was the ‘howling waste of waters’ (13)– its blind anarchic force – which people talked about, again and again.

‘The majority of our drowned brethren were never seen again,’ Dean Hovell said at the unveiling, ‘The sea gave us back some few of them, but the greater number lie there.’ (here the Dean pointed to the sea) ‘– a highly effective gesture, in the circumstances. ‘The ocean is ‘their vast and wandering grave.’ (14)

Those people standing on the wind-battered shore would have been faced with a reality which haunted them: a fierce sea which had devoured human flesh and returned not so much as a bone of six of the men. But it was worse than this.  The four bodies that were recovered were so mauled by being in basically a roller-tumbler of tidal force that there was great difficulty identifying their bodies.

It is a poignant statement that two of the bodies of the heroes of Clive were only discovered ten days later, 3 miles North of Pania reef, floating among animal carcusses. (The other two were discovered weeks later in probably unrecognisable form.)

Among the floating carcasses was Mr Rose, a ‘visitor to Napier’ whose body now lies up on the Hill.


Who designed the monument?

It was described on opening day as ‘a handsome and imposing structure of monumental Gothic design,’ (15) which it certainly is.

There was a committee involved in fund raising but the Hawke’s Bay Herald tells us ‘Mr D.B.Frame’ was ‘ honorary architect to the committee’ and the monument  – always described as a fountain in its own life time – was  ‘a credit’ to D.B.Frame’s ‘ability.’ (16)

Who was he?

Frame’s name does not have the same resonance today as architectural contemporaries in Hawke’s Bay like Rush, Vautier or Natusch.

D.B.Frame’s name first appears in the Daily Telegraph in June 1885, having a strangely tentative presence at the bottom of a column, just below H.P.Cohen’s budget store ‘The Little Dust Pan” in Hastings Street. (17)

By November he advertises himself as having an office ‘over Mr Welsman’s Chemist shop in Hastings Street’, (18) the main shopping street in Napier – but upstairs indicated this was not  perhaps a very prestigious address.

By 1900 however he has shifted to the slightlier tonier Tennyson Street where other architects, like Vautier, cluster. (19) Yet if one looks at the contracts he puts out for work, they are mainly domestic architecture, some in relatively ritzy addresses like Seapoint Road and in the newly opened up estate of William Colenso in Colenso Avenue (‘a two-storey residence’ ) (20) but others are for dowdier addresses, like Faraday Street, or small additions and cottages. A larger commission for commercial premises, such as addition to the Napier Gas Company, were relatively rare for Frame. (21) On February 22 1889 Frame advertised that he would be teaching pupils architectural and mechanical drawing. His advertisement was followed immediately by information about collection of night soil. (22)

I began to wonder if the monument was a spruiking exercise for an architect with too much time on his hands? Most of the other people involved on the monument provided their services on a charitable cut-price basis, so it was not a job which would have earnt Frame much money. But hopefully it would do wonders for his reputation.

By 1900 the style of the memorial was old fashioned. It looked back to the greatest piece of funerary art in the 19th century, or at least the most famous. This was the Albert Memorial, the refined Gothic spire done by  George Gilbert Scott in 1872, in memory of  Queen Victoria’s workaholic husband. The Albert Memorial was both celebration and a fond farewell, attempting to solidify ‘Albert the Good’s’ achievement in architecture. In a similar way the Clive Memorial attempts to register heroic acts and a community’s gratitude in the ‘eternal’ substance of stone.

If you put the Clive Memorial side by side with the much older Albert Memorial the correspondences are obvious.

This is not to diminish the Clive Memorial however. It is a memorial with some presence and even, I would venture to say, beauty. This is through its narrow verticality, its slimness and its soaring spire. This spire is given an added dignity by its tessellated use of limestone blocks, so it has an added visual impact.  It is both dignified and significant. Its style harks back both to the renaissance and gothic styles in the accepted tumult of simultaneous styles that the wildly energetic and impure 19th century celebrated.

Its tonal variation too is subtle – running from the creamy-grey of the limestone to the darker accents of the bluestone granite. The Timaru bluestone is necessarily heavier, more monumental in its use. But overall the monument manages to do what it was meant to do: bring you to a stop, and start you questioning: who would create such a large monument and what does it memorialize?


Where the monument becomes more interesting is in its materials, which were intensely local (that is, of New Zealand.) ‘The stone used was principally local crystalline limestone, a small portion being’, as I have said, ‘Timaru bluestone.’ (23)

If one looks closer at the limestone it takes on a storied, almost pre-historic form seeming to evoke shell formations condensed together by the motion of glacial time.  So in one way this memorial, which looks back to essentially European architectural traditions, is created from very local materials. Time is to a degree frozen within the material of the monument.

Everything to do with the memorial was also – fittingly – local. The masonry (Mr P. McNamara), construction (Mr E. Fraser), cementing (Mr J. King), plumbing (Mr J. Constable) , marblework (Mr J. Waterworth), gun metal castings (Messrs J.J. Niven and Co) all showed that the work went to local firms. Nothing came from outside Hawke’s Bay, apart from the Timaru bluestone. (24)

This tells its own story – that the monument, despite its European heritage in design – is drenched in locality, in place. In fact, beyond its contract price, all the work was done for free. The Harbour Board generously gave the limestone.


What about the ceremony? What does that tell us? ‘Not only was the immediate vicinity of the monument crowded… but the adjacent hills and other points of vantage were occupied by many spectators.’ ‘The impressive and memorable ceremony was witnessed by about 2000 people.’ (25). Men in uniforms of the Fire Brigade and Salvage Corps (two of the drowned had been members of either corp) provided a sense of military dash. Everyone wore hats, of course, which meant at significant moments men could remove their hats as a traditional sign of respect. A bare head had eloquence in the 19th century, a symbolism we can barely imagine now.

If it were a ceremony today this event would have been presaged by Maori ritual, with its own curious mixture of indigenous and migrant Christian culture. In 1900 however the majority of the people attending the event would have been migrants, born in different parts of the British Isles, or at the most, children of these migrants. They were memorializing too an event in which these migrants had to come to terms with the power of local landscape and weather. Hence the rituals – the music, the form of orating, reminiscing and talking – employed symbols drawn from the rich European culture these migrants had left behind – or rather brought with them, as important tools of cultural survival.

The music performed by the City Band, one of several local brass bands, was based on a magnificent piece of Handel’s operatic music from ‘Saul’. Its luxuriously processional pace, fabulously morbid, was so powerful it was used in the funerals of British monarchs – Edward VII for example in 1910 – Saul’s Dead March (www.youtube.com/watch?v=12tvIp8enpA)

When the mayor’s wife, in a traditional division of gender roles, ‘turned on the water’ of the fountain the band played Harwood’s ‘Vital Spark’ that was based on an Alexander Pope poem, ‘The Dying Christian to his Soul’ (see below) . This in turn was based on a poem which the Roman emperor Hadrian wrote when he was dying in 138A.D. (also below). In essence, then, on the Napier foreshore, one has elements of a rich thread which fingered its way back through the magnificent baroque of Handel to an ancient Judeo-Christian tradition (Saul and David) as well as acknowledging the lyric skills of a bisexual Roman emperor who had lived in Britain at one point and was instrumental in promoting Hellenic civilization in Rome.  At the same time Pope’s lyric celebrated the role of Hellenic culture in smoothing over and civilizing a bucolic eighteenth century Britain.

Whether anyone present on that windy, wet foreshore was conscious of this is another matter (that is, could articulate what they had absorbed by cultural osmosis – the way we might look at Lady Gaga and see both Madonna and Tiny Tim and Alice Cooper and the Dadaists and surrealists all mixed together in a new and potent brew…without necessarily having to articulate this to ourselves and thus acknowledge it.)

But there was also a nod to the local. A piece of poetry, one is tempted to call it doggerel, had been composed about the disaster. An ode, written by Mr F. Bull, called In Memoriam was read by Dean Howell.

   Out from the waste of waters came a cry,

    And with spontaneous, generous thought of aid,

    These men set forth. Alas!’twas to die…’ (26)

(Perhaps the straining to include an essentially local event in the classically European form of an ode expressed the strange push-and-pull of Pakeha culture at this time – its own special lack of ease and ache – but also high aspiration.)

It was typical of this period too that the rituals involved greenery. It was not unusual, at a time most people had not grasped that the ‘bush’ in New Zealand was a finite resource, to decorate halls with a truly astonishing décor of ferns, flax and other indigenous plantings. (Was this to celebrate or to obscure these essentially migrant spaces? To show how place had been conquered or that migrants now were actually at the beginning of their journey towards appreciating the rare local space they were lucky enough to inhabit? Probably all these. Like most humans, these migrants and children of migrants were full of mixed emotions, intuitions – and blindspots.)

The greenery tells its own strange story of mixed metaphor and place. In fact the decoration itself is full of mixed messages. The dias on the seaward side was decorated by ‘red, white and blue cloth’. The marble tablets themselves were covered with the ‘Union Jack and other flags’. (27) (What other flags?) ‘The base was fenced around with iron posts and chains, decorated with greenery. This was emblematic of the trees of different nations associated with death and mourning having been selected under the supervision of Mr Henry Lascelles. They included Camphor Officiallis (Japan), weeping willow and Cupressus Funebris (Great Britain), Cordylena (New Zealand), Seanoia Sempervirens (California), Toyalosa (Portugal), Photinia Sevenalata (Labrador), all tied together with New Zealand flax (phormium tenax).’ (28)


What of the wider symbolism? What is one to make of a memorial which is about remembering men who died by drowning which itself spouts water?

As you glug are you meant to remember – or forget – men who died by so much water forcing down their gullets that they could no longer breathe? Isn’t this a mixed message? Or does it illustrate a characteristic Victorian civic virtue; to make life better. To give the thirsty, in a Christian sense, water to drink? In one way it evokes place again. The whole memorial points to weather events of daunting severity of the kind Hawke’s Bay specializes in: sudden storms, deluges in which cliffs collapse and people’s livelihoods are destroyed. While free water points to its polar opposite: droughts so intense you desperately need water to rehydrate.  (That the water was free and available to everyone was a democratic – colonial – virtue.)

But there was also that strange attempt at communicating with eternity which was revealed in Christchurch when the Robert Dudley statue was overturned, exposing one of those weird containers that Martians are meant to ponder, with long gluey green fingers: a time capsule.

What was in Napier’s time capsule in September 1900?

Well, Martians needed to know two things. Earthlings a la Napier were brave or foolhardy (they are prepared to be drowned to save other people from drowning: a narrative of the events was placed in a bottle.) But perhaps the more fascinating document was ‘the balance sheet of the Hawke’s Bay flood fund and other articles’. (29) The ‘other articles’ are left enigmatic but I like to think of Martians nodding and tutting at who in Hawke’s Bay gave money and in what amounts – and who didn’t. Charity never had a more local hue.)

‘The bottle was chemically prepared’ we are told,’ so as to prevent water entering it, which would render the documents worthless.’ (30)



‘There have been critics who argued that the money expended upon the monument would have been better spent in some other, and that a more practical way,’ The Very Rev Hovell said, wasp-lipped.’ I have always found, ‘ the Christian gentleman went on, ‘that arguments of that kind come from men little inclined to give anything to anything at all.’ (31) ‘In all ages and amongst all nations it has been the custom to commemorate in some permanent way the illustrious dead,’ he continued, illuminating what we now know: this immense catafalque is a forerunner for those war memorials which only too soon will ‘decorate’ every small town, every dusty crossroads throughout New Zealand – memorials to the young men killed in the coming world wars.

‘If you go into the great cities of the world,’ Dean Grogan said – (and here one feels he is addressing the children of migrants, people so divorced from their parent culture they no longer know ‘how things are correctly done’) – ‘you will find monuments in all the public places. They are there as teachers, educators, in a certain sense school masters.’ (32) ‘And this monument has its lesson – and what does it teach?’  The message is simple: self sacrifice. ‘Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.’ (In other words, community good can outweigh an individual person’s worth – the clarion call that would lead millions of young men to slaughter in 1914.)

So – here we have it – a magnificent monument, an echo of Prince Albert in Napier, evoking a terrible event, bravery, and at its heart a time capsule displaying a narrative which the Trojans would have understood – sitting beside a set of accounts – while the bodies – in their putrescent state – are buried up on the hill, in a state of modesty and anonymity which evokes a kind of poverty – or at best an exhaustion of charity. (I should add however these remains were carried up the Hill with a maximum of flourish – with bands, military uniforms and mass attendance. 3000 people attended the funeral of one of these men – at a time the population of Napier was around this number.) Maybe the money devoted to the monumental fountain had just – run out. There wasn’t enough to put the word ‘rescue’ on the tiny marble tablets up on the Hill – or even birth dates.

And it is here, as I have said, we find this ‘stranger to Napier’. He was father to a young family, a commercial traveller from Melbourne.  Someone who just happened to find himself in Napier on a fateful day and who, on the spot, may have been carried away by the excitement and so stepped into the boat. (33)


As for Florence O’Donovan. It turns out Florence was a man’s name in the nineteenth century. Its root was suitably neo-classical – Florentius – a Roman name meaning ‘flourishing, vital’. So Florence O’Donovan wasn’t at all the Amazon I had hoped to find. She turned into a he, and he was actually a police sergeant called in during the emergency.  Did ‘a man called Flo’ however have to face other challenges in his life? In our supposedly more sensitive contemporary times (actually just differently prejudiced) this is what someone said online in answer to this query:

Is Florence a man’s name, a women’s name or can it be both

Naming a boy “Florence” would damn him to a life of torment, until he grew to be 6’4″, weighed 225 pounds, none of it fat, with steel teeth and a 5th degree black belt in Tae Kwon Do. Even then, he’d spend a couple of hours a week scrubbing the blood off his knuckles.

I will leave you then with the clamour of this contemporary sentiment. And a monument on a foreshore that hardly anyone thinks about anymore, let alone the men who died and the event which the monument is meant to remind us.  Memory is short. Grief is long.  Like so many war memorials it stands – not so much as testament to the livingness of memory – but to its brevity.

And the eternity of the materials of memorials stand as a reproof.

Just like the water, which the mayor in September 1900 said would ‘flow forever’ (34)

It no longer flows.  It has dried up.

Peter Wells


The Dying Christian to his Soul

Alexander Pope.

Vital spark of heav’nly flame,

Quit, oh, quit, this mortal frame!

Trembling, hoping, ling’ring, flying,

Oh, the pain, the bliss of dying!

Cease, fond Nature, cease thy strife,

And let me languish into life!

Hark! they whisper; Angels say,

Sister Spirit, come away.

What is this absorbs me quite,

Steals my senses, shuts my sight,

Drowns my spirits, draws my breath?

Tell me, my Soul! can this be Death?

The world recedes; it disappears;

Heav’n opens on my eyes; my ears

With sounds seraphic ring:

Lend, lend your wings! I mount! I fly!

O Grave! where is thy Victory?

O Death! where is thy Sting?


Animula Vagula Blandula:

Publius Aelius Trajanus Hadrianus Augustus


Animula, vagula, blandula

Hospes comesque corporis

Quae nunc abibis in loca

Pallidula, rigida, nudula,

Nec, ut soles, dabis iocos…

P. Aelius Hadrianus Imp.

Roving amiable little soul,

Body’s companion and guest,

Now descending for parts

Colourless, unbending, and bare

Your usual distractions no more shall be there..



A Stranger to Napier

1. Hawke’s Bay Herald 27 September 1900, p3.

2 – 10. Ibid.

11. Hawke’s Bay Herald 16 January 1894. As can be seen by this date, floods were an annual event on the Heretaunga plains, varying in their intensity. Colenso, living at Waitangi at the mouth of several rivers, was personally acquainted with their destructive force. 1897 however stood out as a singular event.

12-16. Hawke’s Bay Herald 27 September 1900, p3.

17. The Daily Telegraph, 27 September 1900, p6.

18. The Daily Telegraph, 14 November 1885 p1.

19. The Daily Telegraph, 21 September, 1901.

20. The Daily Telegraph, 26 March 1900.

21.  Ibid.

22.  The Daily Telegraph, 22 February 1889.

23. Hawke’s Bay Herald 27 September 1900, p3

24. Ibid.

25. The Daily Telegraph, 27 September 1900, p6

26. Hawke’s Bay Herald 27 September 1900, p3

27-32 Ibid.

33. Hawke’s Bay Herald, 1 April 1898, p2.

34. Hawke’s Bay Herald 27 September 1900, p3


3 Comments on “Volume 1. Number 8.”

  1. Valerie Wilkinson says:

    Thank you for such detail account of the Clive Flood and the men that lost their lives.
    I have been tracing my relative Frederick James Ansell, and it was just wonderful reading.
    You mentioned two mens names that were found. Were the other 2 named?

    • Editor says:

      Valerie, I am relying on ‘Somebody’s Darling’ the HBMAg catalogue which I co-wrote with Gail Pope which I think is still available at Beattie & Forbes. On p79 it says that on 27 April 1897 the bodies of Henry Brierly and John Rose were found. Constable Stephenson’s body was found on Sunday Ist May, followed by the body of John Prebble on 2nd May. So it would appear that your relative Frederick James Ansell was one of the unfortunate men whose bodies were never recovered. Peter Wells.

  2. Emily O'Donovan says:

    Hi Peter, thank you for your interest and research on the memorial and the circumstances that gave rise to it. I suppose I must be one of the few people who knows about and often thinks of this tragedy that occurred 115 years ago now. Florence O’Donovan was my great-grandfather, so in our family’s case both grief and memory have been long. However, if I ever have a son I think it’s safe to say I won’t be passing on the name to him!

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