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Dunedin's Buried History

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WHEELER, JOHN

John Wheeler (1856-1910)

John Wheeler was born in Tasmania, Australia on 13th August 1856, the second child of William Wheeler and Jessie White. John's mother Jessie had spent time in the penal system following her conviction in 1849 for housebreaking at Anglesey in Wales. Jessie's birthplace was the town of Airdrie in Scotland. William and Jessie were married in Melbourne in 1855, and following Jessie's conditional pardon the Wheeler family migrated to New Zealand settling in North East Valley, Dunedin.

We do not know what education John received but his younger siblings first attended Mr A. McLeod's School, an early institution held in the North Dunedin drill shed.

In 1884 at age 24 John worked as a 'Hawker', his given occupation when he married Isabella Crawford Gillies, second daughter of Daniel and the late Mary Gillies formerly of Rothsay, Isle of Bute, Scotland. Isabella's family were anything but delighted by the marriage. Rough and ready John Wheeler seemed an unlikely match for the always fastidious Isabella, whose mother's family, the Stewarts, claimed descent from the Royal House of Stewart and the immortal hero Bruce.

The Gillies though had recently experienced difficult times. The Family had settled in Tokomairiro, later named Milton, a thriving township, 36 miles south of Dunedin. It provided goods and services for the local farming community and to prospectors trying their luck at the nearby Tuapeka gold-diggings. There was work aplenty for Daniel who was a journeyman blacksmith.

Dreams of a rosy future in the colony were shattered when Mary Gillies suffered a fatal stroke six weeks after the birth of the couple's ninth child (three of whom died in infancy). Isabella, who excelled at school, was required to leave and assist in the care of her four younger siblings. Bella was also a good seamstress, skills she put to good use making suits for her brothers and outfits for her new baby sister Dora.

Dunedin's rapid growth saw it outstrip Milton and in 1881 the Gillies family moved on to Dunedin with Isabella still in the role of family caregiver. Daniel's world fell apart with the loss of his wife and he drifted job to job leaving Isabella in charge. There was little chance of her having a life outside the home - enter, John Wheeler. Perhaps this young man from a different background appeared exciting to Isabella. Certainly he was someone to help share the burden of responsibility that had been placed on her shoulders from such a young age. Whatever the reason, this young couple were married, from the home of John's parents at North East Valley on the 15th February 1884. Family and friends expressed the view that "Bella had married beneath her, and she would regret it".

John and Isabella raised a family of two sons (Arthur and Jack) and four daughters (Alma, Ada, Margaret and Thelma. In addition they lost a child at ten months (Dora Gillies Wheeler). Isabella was also called upon to nurse her younger brother James and sister Mary. Tragically these children she had helped to raise died as young adults, James Gillies at just 23 years of age and Mary Stewart Gillies at 24. They are interred in the Northern Cemetery Dunedin, with John Wheeler's parents. Isabella's older sister Jessie, her inseparable childhood companion, died aged 26 of tuberculosis. The Gillies family were not alone in losing several of their loved ones. Many New Zealanders fell victim to tuberculosis, the leading cause of death in the colony at the time. Birth and death were an accepted part of life, for the wealthy as well as the poor. Vaccinations were in their infancy and there was no effective treatment for bacterial infections until the discovery of penicillin in 1929, and it was a further 12 years before the drug came into use.

Life for Isabella did not get any easier. John Wheeler was a hardworking, kindly man who was indulgent of his children, the youngest Thelma was nicknamed Boonie because she was, he said, his little boon, but he suffered from diabetes. This caused health problems which dogged him throughout his life, affecting his ability to work and culminating in the amputation of a foot after gangrene set in.

In addition to carting work John was in business as a cab proprietor. Three years into their marriage he was in financial trouble. Despite Isabella taking in sewing, John Wheeler, carter, North East Valley, was declared bankrupt. Money worries and John's poor health became the story of their lives. The family moved often. Isabella's needle was always busy. Good with horses, John took up work as a horse tram driver, but in 1892 he was again in bankruptcy.

It took no small skill to drive a four horse team, controlling a fully laden double-decker tram at canter to hard out gallop up the steep incline that was early Princes Street. Skill and strength were needed too, to pull up the team if an emergency occurred as in this harrowing incident reported in the Otago Witness, 6th Feb. 1896. "Fatal Tram Accident" ran the headline. " A man cut to pieces in Princes Street". Excerpts from the inquest paint a colourful picture of Dunedin's inner city at the time. On Saturday night last the streets were thronged with people, and filled with noise; the hum of voices and the tread of feet, the rattling of vehicles and the voices of the street preachers at the Cargill monument. The mild weather had tempted out many more than the regular band of pedestrians and, the town being full of visitors, their numbers were swelled by strangers, and the noise was greater than usual, especially as cabs and expresses were at that time rolling up from the railway station with passengers and luggage from the North Train. Small wonder then that the victim, passing up the street in conversation with a friend did not hear the warning cries and found himself overtaken by a tramcar driven by John Wheeler.

The car was a double-decker, pulled by four horses, the horse on the near side (called a tracer) was ridden by a boy. The horses were heading up the hill between a canter and a gallop when the man stepped out, seeming oblivious to the shouts from the lad on the tracer and a police constable on duty blowing his whistle. The driver put on the brake and bought the car to a standstill but to the onlookers' horror the pedestrian went under the horses' feet and was horribly injured. He died five minutes after being admitted to hospital. At the inquest a witness stated that the car had stopped very quickly considering the "way" it had on. He thought the driver pulled up in less than the car's length. John Wheeler reported that " he had brought the car up as quickly as any man possibly could, he was a strong man, and had all his wits about him. It was necessary to get a certain amount of way on to get up the hill". It was a huge relief to John when the jury took only five minutes to return a verdict of 'accidental death with no blame attached to anyone'.

John's life was similar to many during this period in New Zealand History. A simple man, earning his living by the sweat of his brow, working hard to provide for his family at a time when there were no handouts even in the event of ill health. He died at age 52 after lapsing into a diabetic coma, leaving Isabella as the family provider, a role she was well aquainted with. John now lies here in the Northern Cemetery with his wife and children.

Lesley Treweek


John Wheeler
Image courtesy of:
Lesley Treweek

Monumental Inscription


There is no monument or inscription on this gravesite, only a nameplate saying "Wheeler".



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