Topic: Miller Family Tragedy at Mount Maunganui by Wendy Whyte

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Recently when I was at the Tauranga Presbyterian Cemetery I walked past a small headstone. It was very non descript but the wording on it had me intrigued. Who was Grace Pimella Miller and her three brothers who a died together on the 27th October 1923. There is no mention of other family just that they were taken home and with Christ. Papers Past soon solved the mystery, and it was a very sad end for these siblings, after what started as such an exciting day. The Bay of Plenty Times and other papers including Australian papers record the events in great detail.

Looking strange? see an archived version here

On the 27th October 1923 eldest brother Frederick who was at home for a holiday from Auckland where he worked had decided to take his siblings for a boat trip and a picnic. Grace known as Pimella and her younger sister and 5 brothers left Tauranga wharf in the 12 foot dingy leaving at approx 11am firstly for Sulphur Point  where they had lunch and then they went to the Mount near the Railway Wharf where they picnicked. Bruce aged 17 rowed and Fred was steering the little boat.

At about 5.30pm they set off for home but the wind had got up and the sea was choppy. The little boat laden with children was struck by a large wave and half filled with water. They were about 500 yards from the shore. They all grabbed at the little boat but all being on one side it rolled over, this occurred several times until only Fred was left clinging to the boat.

Fred saw his little sister Linea aged 11 and yelled to her to float. She was wearing a heavy overcoat and this possibly helped her. Linea later recounted that she had tried to hold onto the boat but it struck her a blow across one of her eyes and she lost her grip. She heard her brother Fred yelling at her and floated as he suggested.

Her brother Arnold was near her and she instructed him to float, he was also wearing a large water proof overcoat. When rescued they had their arms tightly linked.

Fred was rescued about 30 minutes after the boat capsized and was near exhaustion from yelling for help and struggling to keep afloat.

Linea also recalled seeing her older sister Pimella aged 20 (worked at the Public Works Department, Tauranga) on at least two occasions trying to save the youngest boys Hubert and Melvin. Unfortunately all three perished and it is felt Pimella sacrificed her own life trying to save theirs.

Bruce aged 17 was the only one who could swim and he had won a medal for swimming from Auckland to Northcote when he was 12. It was thought his heavy boots had caused him to drown.

The first to  the scene was local Isaac Jeffares who lived locally and was the Railway Stationmaster. No one had witnessed the accident but Mr Jeffares had heard Fred’s yells for help. Together with Mr Liddell , public works shop foreman, they assisted Fred ashore.

Messrs Isherwood and Nathan pushed a boat into the water to try and rescue some of the other children, they had no oars but luckily managed to grab the oars from the capsized boat and they rescued Linea and Arnold who had floated about two chains down the beach.

Mr Liddell searched the beach and the body of the youngest child Melvin was located lying face down. Attempts to resuscitate him were unsuccessful.

Constables Skinner and Clifford along with Doctor Cattell went to Mount Maunganui as soon as they were advised of the accident and they brought the body of Melvin  back with them to Tauranga.

The beach was patrolled all night and the beach dragged the following morning but the bodies of Pimella, Bruce and Hubert were not located at that time.

What a tragic day for the parents, John a local plumber who had previously been the manager of the Tauranga Gasworks and his wife Catherine known as Katie. The Millers lived at Hospital Hill,Tauranga and John had his own Business, the Tauranga Gas Proprietary which had a showroom on the Strand since 1909.

Tauranga Gasworks (1909)

The previous year they had suffered the loss of a stillborn baby and now they had to cope with the death of their youngest son and also that three of their children were missing presumed drowned.

Sadly on the evening of the 30th October,  the body of Pimella was found near the spot of the accident. It was discovered on that same day as Melvin Miller was buried at the Tauranga Presbyterian Cemetery.

The local paper the Bay of Plenty Times reported “… a native, driving his cart along the beach discovered the body close to the shore……the body was brought to Tauranga and an inquest would be held tomorrow”

Hubert Millers body was recovered also near the same spot  on Saturday the 3rd November and he was buried on the Monday. The final body of Bruce was recovered on Tuesday the 6th November on the Eastern Beach, between the Railway bridge and the town wharf. Bruce was buried the following day on the 7th November 1923.

Miller Family Headstone

Mr John Miller and his son Fred who had survived the accident appeared at the coroners inquest on the 7th November. The same day as the last child to be recovered Bruce, was buried.

John Miller was required to give evidence as to the identification of his four drowned children and Fred had to recount the events of that day.

Sadly for the Millers in 1933 they lost another child, Dorothy and she is buried with her siblings.

John Miller headstone

John and Katie Miller lived out their years in Tauranga where they had endured such loss. They  are buried near their children in the Tauranga Presbyterian Church. John died May 1946 and Catherine (also known as Katie) joined him a few months later in July 1946.

by Wendy Whyte (2015)


Those who drowned: 

  • Bruce O'Brien Miller (1906-1923) - aged 17 (reg. 1923/10425)
  • Grace Pimella Miller (1902-1923) - aged 21 (reg. 1923/10423) 
  • Herbert Whittam Miller (1915-1923) - aged 8 (reg. 1923/10424)
  • Othneil Melvin Miller (1917-1923) - aged 7 (reg. 1923/10426) 


See also:

Evening Post (29 October 1923, p. 2).

Northern Advocate (29 October 1923, p. 5).

Tauranga Presbyterian Cemetery Headstones by Heather McLean.

This page was archived at perma cc march 2017

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Miller Family Tragedy at Mount Maunganui by Wendy Whyte

First Names:Grace Pimella
Last Name:Miller
Date of Birth:1902
Country of birth:New Zealand
Date of death:27 October 1923
Place of death:Tauranga Harbour, Tauranga, New Zealand
Place of burial:Tauranga Presbyterian Cemetery
Date of arrival in Bay of Plenty:1909
Fathers name:John Miller
Fathers date of birth:14 October 1875
Fathers place of birth:Ballyshannon, Donegal, Ulster, Ireland
Fathers date of death:12 May 1946
Fathers place of death:Tauranga, New Zealand
Mothers name:Katherine Ann Whitten
Mothers date of birth:23 August 1875
Mothers place of birth:Kinlough, Leitrim, Connacht, Ireland
Mothers date of death:3 July 1946
Mothers place of death:Hamilton, New Zealand
Name of sibilings:Ruth Dorothy Miller (1907-1933), Arnold Edward Miller (1910-1991), Linea Agnes Miller (1912-1991), Herbert Whittam Miller (1915-1923), William Frederick Miller (1899-1989), Kathleen Elizabeth Miller (1901-1971), John Counsel Miller (1903-1982), Rhoda Alice Miller (1904-1982), Othneil Melvin Miller (1917-1923), and Bruce O'Brien Miller (1906-1923)