October 19, 1923 - A Tragic Day For Waikino
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Posted October 19, 2021
History / Arts / Culture
Today is the 98th anniversary of the day Waikino went into the history books for being the scene of one of the world’s first schoolroom mass shootings.
According to history writings of the time Waikino was a company town for the Waihi Gold Mining Company, and home to the largest gold ore battery in New Zealand.
The village had a few shops near where the Ohinemuri river bends, a railway station, a rifle range and a two-room schoolhouse just outside town on the road to nearby Owharoa. And like any small town, it had its share of petty rivalries and odd characters.
Until October the 19th of October 1923 most of the people who knew John Christopher Higgins of Waikino regarded him as little more than a harmless eccentric. Nobody was prepared for the terrible tragedy that was to occur at 10 o’clock when Higgins ran amok with an automatic pistol, and attacked the school, shooting two children dead and wounding six others.
Lessons had just begun for the day when John Higgins marched up the school’s gravel path and announced to headmaster Robert Reid that he was there for revenge. Apparently Higgins had been complaining that he was being victimised by some of the community.
At first Robert Reid tried to calm Higgins down but when Higgins pulled out his gun the headmaster tried to yell for teachers and children to run for their lives. Robert Reid bravely put himself between the agitated gunman and the classrooms and was shot twice in the face area.
Higgins stepped over the critically wounded headmaster and went after the children. The headmaster feigned death for the duration of the siege fearing Higgins would finish him off if he knew he was still alive.
Kelvyn McLean, 13, was sitting at his desk when Higgins approached and shot him twice, killing him.
Charles Stewart was nine years old when he was also shot and killed by Higgins.
The wounded were:
Robert Theodore Reid Schoolmaster - shot in the jaw
Peter Raymond Shaw 12 years old - shot in the elbow
Alexander Bustard 12 years old - shot in the groin
Kathleen Clara McCarry 13 years old - shot in the thigh
James Peter McKinney 8 years old - shot in the elbow
Constable Herbert J Olsen was shot in the abdomen during the seige.
Local residents rushed to the school when they heard the shooting and were shocked to come across fleeing children who told them a man with a gun was shooting at them.
After shooting the headmaster and children Higgins barricaded himself in the headmaster’s office and shot at anyone who came near.
Police rushed to Waikino from Waihi and finally managed to talk Higgins into surrendering, taking him into custody and transporting him to the police cells in Waihi.
Higgins appeared in court the next day and was put on a train a few hours later bound for Mt Eden jail in Auckland.
He was charged in the Auckland Supreme Court with two counts of murder and sentenced to death. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. His sentence was later commuted to life imprisonment.
Robert Reid, the Schoolmaster, never taught again. He retired to Auckland and died at the age of 92.
The funeral for the two boys, where cherry blossom decorated the procession, was said to be the biggest in the Waihi district. The hearse bearing the boys’ coffins was followed by several hundreds, including the teachers and pupils of the Waihi and Waikino schools. The boys were laid to rest in Waihi Cemetery after the funeral on October 21, 1923.
The devastation and effects endured by the families of the lost and injured can only be imagined and that terrible day is a tragic reminder of how sudden events can happen anywhere at anytime.
There are many accounts of the tragedy online, including newspaper reports from the time.