Derby Claffey: Custodian 1880 – 1896

In his “Pukekura Park, its Origin and Development. A brief History” (Taranaki Herald 4 August 1916), Robert Clinton Hughes had this to say of Darby Claffey: “…. Mr. Darby Claffey, a young man fresh from County Cork. Darby, as he was generally called, knew little of botany or horticulture, but he was hardy and strong and not afraid of work. He was skilled in making sod banks, and most of his work of this kind stands well to this day. He was a good sample of an Irish peasant. His native wit and droll sayings amused visitors, and also brightened many an hour which the writer has spent working alongside of him. To him fell most of the heavy and rough work involved in turning a wilderness into a garden. He served the board for many years, but when the development of the grounds seemed to demand a better knowledge of trees and of horticulture and landscape gardening, Darby (to the regret of the writer) was superseded.”

During Darby Claffey’s employment a lot of his time would have been spent developing pathways around the grounds.  In 1886 he increased the area of the Main Lake south of The Poet’s Bridge by more than one acre. Other projects he was probably involved with were in 1893, the cutting of the paths on Cannon Hill and installation of the cannons on its summit and the creation of Fountain Lake.

Claffey was well known for the donkey and cart that he owned. Like its owner, the donkey was apparently well-liked by visitors to the park – especially children. The donkey and cart would have obviously played a useful part in many of the projects such as the creation of the sports ground, Fountain Lake and the new pathways around the two lakes. However as popular as the donkey was, there were times when it could also be a bit stubborn – as this item from the Taranaki Herald on 22 December 1894 shows: “There was plenty of fun provided in the Recreation Grounds on Friday afternoon by the antics of “Darby’s Ass,” who refused to be ridden. The Recreation Grounds pet dislodged several, including his owner, but at length three lads succeeded in keeping their seats and riding the animal around.”

Some of the significant plantings that occurred during Claffey’s time were the Maritime Pines on the Eastern Hillside in 1885, Monteray Cypress Cupressus macrocarpa and Torrey Pines Pinus torreyana in 1888, Norfolk Island Pines by Poet’s Bridge and the Curator’s office, a boxthorn maze in what is now Rhododendron Dell in 1892, the Morton Bay Fig Ficus macrophylla in 1895 (a planting curated by Francis Hamer Arden) and, in August 1895, Arbor Day plantings on land given to the Recreation Grounds by the Jockey Club (southern end of Totara Hillside).

Plant expertise was not necessarily Claffey’s strength, as indicated by this excerpt from Robert Clinton Hughes “Pukekura Park, its Origin and Development. A brief History” (Taranaki Herald 4 August 1916): “On one occasion a visitor, having heard there was a fine display of Native convolvulus in the grounds, asked Darby where it was to be seen. Darby, who made no pretence of botanical learning and yet had no desire to proclaim his deficiency, led the visitor to a lovely clump of furze in full bloom.”

Unfortunately three deaths occurred in the park during the time in which Darby Claffey was Custodian, which made the news. Firstly, the murder of Stephen Maloney on 12 April 1890, who lived in a small cottage in the grounds and was found dead under a pine tree on the path leading up to Rogan Street. Claffey gave evidence at the inquest and subsequent trial where a young Maori, Mahi Kai, was convicted of murder. An example of Darby’s sense of humour shows up in a report in the Taranaki Herald 10 October 1890 in relation to evidence he had given in trial: “A witness in the Maloney case was being interrogated the other day by Mr Fell as to his evidence. After hearing what he knew, the Crown Prosecutor said ‘Oh! You are a most important witness; you were the last person who saw him alive.’ Witness: ‘I was not!’ Crown Prosecutor: ‘Who was then?’ Witness: ‘Why, the man who killed him!’ Crown Prosecutor: ‘Oh; you are an Irishman, I believe.’ Witness: ‘I am.’ The dialogue here closed.”

The second was the accidental drowning of Mr J.T. Davis, who was chairman of the Recreation Ground Board and the donor of Poet’s Bridge, in the Main Lake in September 1891. The inquest into the death of Mr Davis was reported in the Taranaki Herald on 19 September 1891 and records the jury verdict as follows: “The Jury are of the opinion from the evidence produced that the deceased, James Thomas Davis, went to bathe in the Lake in the Recreation Ground, and was accidentally drowned.”

Thirdly the suicide/drowning of Mr George Duncan in December 1895. The circumstances of the Duncan suicide, which Claffey was witness to, contributed to his dismissal as Custodian as it was felt by some that he had shown a lack of action and had not done enough to try and save Mr Duncan, whom he had seen jump off Poet’s Bridge and subsequently drown.  The Taranaki Herald on 17 December 1895 gave a report of the inquest into Mr Duncan’s death and the jury’s verdict: “From the evidence the jury are of the opinion the deceased, George Edward Duncan, came to his death through drowning in the lake in the Recreation Grounds on December the 16th while temporarily insane. The jury regret that the custodian so far lost his presence of mind as not to utilise the appliances provided for these cases, and would urge upon the Recreation Grounds Board the necessity of instructing him to use the appliances immediately in future.” In January 1896 the board gave Claffey three months’ notice of his dismissal.

Ian Hutchinson