The Accidental Mrs Poppleton
By Lisa J Truttman
As flames lit up the December night in 1872 at the junction of Rosebank and Great North Roads in the district then known as the Whau, and as Martha Poppleton huddled nearby with her husband and family watching the first hotel in the district burn to the ground, I do wonder if she thought, “Oh, no, not again?”
Martha Rainey was born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1843. The Rainey family emigrated to Tasmania by early 1845. In 1855 Martha married Yorkshire-born James Poppleton in Victoria, and the couple headed briefly back to England in the early 1860s. They arrived in Auckland in November 1868.
The Poppletons appear to have settled immediately in Avondale. Martha was an accomplished amateur singer; she joined in with community performances at the local asylum at Pt Chevalier, and special events raising funds for various causes at the Whau Public Hall on St Georges Road. In December 1870, James Poppleton got the licence for the Waikomiti Hotel, and the family shifted further west.
On Monday 1 May 1871, the Poppletons entered local legend with Martha’s first accident.
About midnight on the Sunday before the incident, a man named James Thomas Steer had had somewhat too much to drink at another hostelry, was in possession of a revolver, and decided then was a great time to bang loudly on the Poppletons’ door to regale them with the story of a wild bull that had tried to attack him. Steer told the bleary-eyed Mr Poppleton that he’d fired his revolver three times at the bull and scared it away. Poppleton kindly invited Steer in to sleep things off for the rest of the night.
The next morning Steer, still quite excited by his adventure, decided to tell Martha Poppleton about it as well. He felt that, to prove the truth to his story, it would be a great idea to hand the weapon in question to Martha to check out. Martha, though, was quite inexperienced with any type of firearm, and was unaware that it was loaded, capped, and cocked at the time. It went off, while it was aimed at Steer.
To quote the news report from the time, Steer “then became very much excited, and Mr Poppleton and his servant got the wounded man put into a cart, in order to convey him to the Provincial Hospital. While being brought into Auckland, Steer got very violent, and bolted from his guardians. He then made rapidly for Auckland, and was arrested by Sergeant Walker and another constable at the Anchor Hotel, under the impression that he was suffering from mental derangement.” He was later examined, found not to be a lunatic but simply a man who had been accidentally shot by a woman in the shoulder, and was taken to hospital, where he later recovered.
Not long after this, in June 1871, James Poppleton took up the license for the Whau Hotel, and moved back to Avondale.
Things were fine. Martha was still singing and entertaining people, performing “in a manner that called forth a warm acknowledgement” from appreciative local audiences. She and James, as proprietors of the hotel, were at the centre of Avondale’s early community, the hotel being as much a gathering place for meetings and events as the public hall at the other end of the settlement. In mid-December 1872, James Poppleton was deeply involved with a committee planning for Boxing Day sports on one of the nearby paddocks.
On the night of 17 December 1872, Martha decided to hang a dress beside the last embers of the kitchen fireplace, then went to bed. James was the last to retire at 11.30 pm, checking that everything was all right before he did so. The only fire still alight was that in the kitchen.
Between 1am and 2am, Martha awoke, and found the hotel full of smoke. Frantic, she woke up James, who went downstairs to investigate, and found the kitchen ablaze, all round the fireplace. He decided not to try to put the fire out, as he felt it was beyond that. He called out to Martha, and the couple evacuated their family and tried to save what they could of their possessions, mainly the hotel’s money box, and some furniture. Within an hour, the entire two-storey, ten-roomed building, dating from 1861, was burned to the ground. While there was no real evidence as to the cause presented at the resulting inquest, it remains local belief that Martha may have hung that dress a bit too close to the embers …
The Poppletons moved away from Avondale after that. James would come to have the Eden Vine Hotel, then a store at Henderson, before the family left for Australia, where he died in 1882 after a painful illness. Martha outlived him by a number of decades, passing away in Victoria in 1924. Today, where Martha would practice her songs and had hung her dress to dry on that December evening, you can get your teeth examined by one of the local dentists. There are no signs left of the accidental Mrs Poppleton.
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