Will Pateman kicked through the river gravel, the stones scattering and rebounding over the path that passed under the bridge. The heavy whitebait net dragged behind him, carried with all the weight of a boy whose older brother had forced him to haul it.
As that brother, Alex, walked freely ahead towards the Waimakariri, Will cursed at him under his breath. He had wanted to go shooting again – the full moon was almost a week away and the whitebaiting would be better then – but his brother insisted, using a swift punch to the arm as his negotiation tactic.
With his head down, scanning the gravel for the best stones to kick, Will saw the hat they’d shot at a few days before. Alex had claimed the holes in it were from his rifle, but Will knew better. As he lost himself in imagining he had shot the hat right off someone’s head, he didn’t notice Alex had stopped in his tracks.
It wasn’t until he was a few steps short of bumping in to his brother that Will looked up. Ready to unload abuse on the elder Pateman, Will couldn’t find the words as his eyes moved in the direction of Alex’s.
There, in the gravel, was a body.
Francis Matthew Betts was born to Josiah and Martha Betts on January 11th 1844 at Riverstone in Sydney’s north-western corner. The third child of the couple, Frank was born at the family home, “Wilmington”. The two-story wooden residence was set among sprawling farmlands with fruit trees, vineyards, and land for cattle. Frank and his six siblings would grow up with Wilmington as the backdrop.
While Josiah made a name for himself through business and politics, Martha Betts’ place in history had already been etched through her family name; Marsden.
Her father, the Reverend Samuel Marsden, arrived in Sydney in 1794 as the Assistant Chaplain to the colony of New South Wales. By 1800, Marsden had risen to be Chaplain to New South Wales and his sights had become set on expanding the Anglican influence to New Zealand and the Pacific. While he was known to regularly host Maori visiting Sydney, it would take until 1814 before he set foot on New Zealand soil.
Through this and subsequent visits to Aotearoa, Marsden promoted peace and implored settlers to cease in the trade of muskets and gunpowder. He also put much effort in to learning and understanding Maori culture and urged the Governor to put a stop to the disgraceful trading of tattooed heads.
On his last visit to New Zealand in 1837, the 71-year-old Reverend was treated with great fanfare as hundreds came to see him in settlements throughout the Bay of Islands. The reverence with which he was treated has largely continued through history, with Marsden remembered in a much better light than many of his contemporaries.
Throughout his final four-month visit to New Zealand, Marsden continued his missionary tasks with a special guest at his side: his favourite daughter, Martha.
Word came to the police station just as Sergeant Wilson was arriving for the night shift; the Pateman boys had found a body near the bridge at Stewart’s Gully. His first thought was that they were just stirring up trouble again – he’d moved south from Whanganui four years ago and the brothers had been the cause and focus of many enquiries since. Still, it was his job to investigate.
It was 10.30pm by the time Wilson and another sergeant arrived at the Waimakariri River and, in spite of his reservations, the Patemans were helpful, guiding them by lantern to the body.
William, the younger boy, handed him a hat that they had found 100 yards up the river. As Wilson fingered the shot holes in the hat, the brothers’ eyes darted down to focus on their shoes.
Although the lantern offered little illumination of the scene, the flickering light allowed Wilson to see something that sent a chill up his spine.
Between both the man’s feet and hands, a length of rope had been tied.
In 1863, Josiah Betts died from an overdose of opium that was ruled to be accidental. He had been suffering from an ailment that caused intense stomach pain and was self-medicating with opium and laudanum. The coroner ruled that Josiah had been taking doses of opium that were of a much higher concentration than he was aware of.
Around the time of his father’s death, Frank Betts left the family home and Australia to study at the University of Cambridge. Where the teachings of his grandfather had inspired both of his parents to, initially, study theology, Frank was destined for a career in law.
That pursuit saw him start as a student of the Inner Temple in 1867, being called to the English Bar three years later. We don’t know much about Frank’s time in London, but we do know he met a young New Zealander while at the Temple: Andrew Duncan.
Andrew’s father, with whom he shared his name, was a significant early settler in Whanganui, moving to the area soon after landing in Wellington on board the Bengal Merchant in 1840. Andrew Senior’s farm, Otairi Station, was eventually taken over by his other son, John, leaving Andrew to become a lawyer.
For both Andrew Duncan and Frank Betts, home was the immediate destination after their studies had concluded with Frank heading to Sydney and Andrew having set up shop back in Whanganui by April 1871.
Business was good for Andrew in Whanganui and he soon sent word to Sydney that his university pal should join him.
September 1871 saw the first advert in the local paper for the law firm of Duncan and Betts.
Saturday September 23rd 1893 dawned fine in Christchurch as Sergeant Wilson cycled to work. The city had experienced a run of fine days following a dull, wet introduction to spring and the Sergeant was happy to once again feel the sun on his back. It was only a brief respite from the events of the previous night, however, as his thoughts returned to the body he’d retrieved from the banks of the Waimakariri River.
There was something about the lifeless face that felt familiar, and that feeling had lingered throughout the night.
Who was he?
Who had tied the knots he was bound with?
Why was he thrown in the river?
At the station he met Detective Benjamin and the pair set to the task of identifying the deceased. Benjamin started by investigating the shot-up hat but the face, although swollen beyond recognition, showed no signs of any gun-induced trauma. Wilson’s mind flashed back to the sheepish look on Will Pateman’s face as he’d handed him the hat the night before.
As Benjamin carefully removed the bindings on the feet and hands, Wilson set about exploring the contents of the man’s pockets. Spreading them out on a table, the Sergeant only stopped briefly to examine the items as each felt more inconsequential; a handful of coins, a small section of cord, a silver watch, and a handkerchief.
As he placed the handkerchief down, it caught a ray of light from the window illuminating a name written on the opposite side.
Later that day, The Press put that name in print: FM Betts.
Frank Betts didn’t arrive in Whanganui with much money, but life appeared to be good for him as he settled in to his new town. Based on court reports, the new firm had plenty of clients in its first year and Betts had more responsibility in its operation with Andrew Duncan returning to England. Along with business success, Frank started building up an impressive personal library and he soon became a member of the Royal Society of New Zealand.
Outside of these business and intellectual pursuits, Frank established himself within the sporting landscape of Whanganui almost immediately. His first summer in New Zealand saw him join the local cricket club where his name regularly appears in match reports with his “free-hitting” deemed worthy of note.
It wasn’t all glory for Frank, though: he made a pair of ducks on debut and would score nothing as often as anything more praiseworthy.
Frank must have been making the right connections in sporting circles, however, as the 1872-73 summer saw him elected as captain of the Wanganui Cricket Club.
His sporting leadership was further reinforced by having also captained the town’s football team during the winter. His lean run with the bat continued on the cricket field and few, if any, innings that summer were worth writing about.
Somehow, that didn’t matter when it came to selecting a Wellington team to play the touring Aucklanders in November 1873 as Frank was one of four Whanganui men picked to join their city counterparts in the match.
In previewing the contest, the Wellington Independent introduced Frank to the public as a “good cricketer […] a good bat and an excellent field”.
The newspaper went on to describe the setting;
“The ground is in splendid condition for the match, and should the weather be fine the scene on the Basin Reserve will be the most brilliant ever witnessed there.”
A low-scoring first innings from each team gave way to a thrilling run-chase in the second, with the visitors prevailing by 3 wickets. Frank made 2 runs in each innings and was described as “hitting wildly”.
Back in Whanganui, the same could perhaps be said to his approach to business since Andrew Duncan had left.
The inquest began with Sergeant Wilson giving a description of the body he had been tasked with removing from the banks of the Waimakariri. He put his age at around 60, noted he was clean shaven but for a moustache, described the ropes tied between his hands and feet, and again noted the name inscribed on the handkerchief.
The last point prompted the judge to ask if the man Wilson had described could be the FM Betts who had been missing since May, the FM Betts that Wilson had been familiar with during his time in Whanganui. Sergeant Wilson could not swear to that identification.
Before Detective Benjamin took the stand, Dr Moorhouse outlined the medical elements for the judge. He confirmed what the police officers had suspected: the shot holes in the hat had no bearing on his means of death which came via drowning. He also gave some indication of the time of death, noting that the body had likely been in the water for two weeks.
Like Wilson, Benjamin had also come across Frank Betts some years before in Whanganui and so, when the judge asked if the body was that of the solicitor, he hesitated for a moment, reaching deep in to his memories, before answering in the affirmative.
The contradictory word of each policeman led the judge to leave the identity of the body as undetermined in his final ruling.
There was one thing that both the judge and the officers were clear on: the length of the ropes binding the deceased, and the small section of the same rope in his pocket, meant they had been tied by his own hands.
Frank Betts had written to Andrew Duncan in 1872, telling him that the business was doing very badly in his absence. It wasn’t so much a plea for Duncan to return as it was Frank putting the wheels in motion to dissolve the partnership. That event occurred a year later, with Duncan’s brother acting in his stead as the firm of Duncan and Betts was wound up, apparently without incident.
Even without the business tie to the man who had brought him to Whanganui, the town remained Betts’ home and he continued to represent clients in court and pursue all manner of personal interests. These included working as an examiner for the Education Board, where he was largely unimpressed by the French and Latin skills of the local students.
It was in this role that he would’ve had his closest dealings with Gilbert Carson, chair of the Education Board and soon-to-be three-time Mayor of Whanganui. As the owner and editor of the Wanganui Chronicle, Carson would later write of Frank Betts as a “cultured gentleman, a man of honour”.
While his original business plan was to leverage Andrew Duncan’s family name, Frank had found more success in going his own way. It wasn’t all plain sailing, however, and, in 1881, Andrew Duncan would again come to play a role in the direction of Frank’s life.
Gilbert Carson opened the telegram as soon as it arrived, its contents forcing him to exhale and sink deep in to his chair.
He took it straight to the print room and requested it was printed verbatim in the Chronicle. He then took his hat and set about relaying the message personally to those he knew would be most affected by the news that Frank Betts was dead.
There were many old friends of Betts who had been casting enquiries about the man around New Zealand and to Australia. They had much to worry about, their friend of years’ past was a shadow of his former self, but few would ever expect his demise to come in this way.
As he had done several times before, Betts had returned to Sydney to recuperate with family but Carson had suspected that the effect would perhaps not be so positive this time, such was the despair of the man. He was saddened by just how correct he was.
After spreading the news, Carson returned to his desk to read the telegram again before he began writing a eulogy for his old friend. It was clear he would focus on the man Betts’ had been, not the man he became, but there was one line in the Christchurch message that still weighed heavily on his mind:
“It is supposed the deceased jumped off the railway bridge.”
Late in 1877, Andrew Duncan returned to Whanganui and quickly signaled his intent to resume his old profession. While he had initially left for London, reports in the intervening years indicate that he spent some time in Japan. It appears he was welcomed back to his home town and, for four years, his name remains separate from that of his former business partner.
That changed in 1881 when Duncan took Betts to court.
Duncan was, apparently, attempting to recoup some costs from their joint venture which he felt had been unfairly compensated when his brother had negotiated the end of the partnership on his behalf, almost a decade earlier.
Today, it is challenging to follow the arguments through historic newspaper reports of the proceedings. This isn’t surprising as, at the time, one report described the case as being “full of hair splitting quibbles and vain repetitions” which left the jury yawing while the judge and legal teams sorted through the facts.
The falling out with his old friend, who at one point was the sole beneficiary of Frank Betts’ will, may not have made up for the fact that the case saw “practically a complete victory for the defendant.”
While Carson over at the Chronicle had jumped straight in to printing the Associated Press report from Christchurch, James Duigan wasn’t going to take it as read like his rival. Where Carson had spent time eulogising Frank Betts, Duigan had begun investigating the story and he was prepared to question everything.
From the assertion that the body of a 48-year-old was described as being that of a 60-year-old to the fact that, among his friends, it was known that he had travelled to Sydney some months before, Duigan put pen to paper writing a piece refuting the death of Betts.
With his print deadline nearing, Duigan added his final piece of evidence – the Australia-post-marked letter received by a friend in Christchurch only weeks before Betts supposedly died – and headed to the print room to have the copy prepared.
As the type was set, Duigan’s assistant came rushing through the door. He knew what his boss had been working on, and the impending deadline, so he was nervous to share his news. He also knew, however, that it would be much worse if he didn’t deliver the note.
He handed the paper with two simple facts scrawled on it to Duigan;
“Betts arrived Lyttleton August 27, Det Benjamin certain of identification.”
In the years immediately after the court case with Andrew Duncan, Frank Betts continued working, playing cricket, and generally keeping up appearances in his social circles.
Just three months after the case, Frank had one of his biggest victories in court as he had Robert McGarry cleared of any guilt in the theft of £400 worth of silver from the ship Stormbird. The charge would’ve carried very serious consequences for McGarry had he been found guilty, but Betts appears to have been very efficient in proving his client’s innocence.
In 1883, his sense of community was further evidenced when he led an effort to raise funds to support the family of Whanganui footballer, Timothy Coakley, who badly broke his leg representing the town in their match against Nelson.
Frank’s life changed immensely in 1885 as his attempts to keep his legal practice afloat fell flat. First, in February, his library was placed up for sale. A collection numbering around 250 volumes, they included “many valuable and rare books”.
Then, in July, his solicitor John Bates placed a notice in the local newspapers advising the public that Frank Betts’ legal practice was winding up and would be closed in the coming months.
It appears Frank left town and returned to Australia at this point as, in 1886, he was in Goulburn, New South Wales, working for his cousin. From this point on in his life, Frank Betts would spend much of his time travelling between New Zealand and Australia.
John Bates sat in his Whanganui office, yesterday’s Chronicle sitting open on his desk alongside the day’s Herald. Much of the talk around the town was of the plight of his former client – the news filling contemporary column inches just the latest chapter in the descent of a man who had once been as respected in the legal profession as John himself.
The man he’d known a decade before had become scarcely recognisable in the intervening years. After he wound up his business for the first time in ’85 he had moved in to a cycle of returning to Sydney to convalesce, coming back to Whanganui to much fanfare, before spiraling into despair again.
All the while he kept up appearances, with each of the jockey, cricket, and lawn bowls clubs claiming him as a committee member. But Bates had acted as his lawyer in some of his darkest hours, at times when he couldn’t represent himself, and he knew that a demon was never far from Frank’s hand.
That demon was alcohol, and it had been slowly robbing Frank Betts of his own mind for years.
From his time in Goulburn in 1886 through to his death, Frank Betts would visit Australia most years. It’s not obvious why he returned so frequently, but it is obvious that his return to business in Whanganui was not the success he might have hoped.
After the high of proving McGarry’s innocence in the Stormbird case and the many high-profile men he represented in his early years, 1890s court reports featuring him are limited to a small number and liquor licensing cases seem to have become his forte.
In 1893, Frank made a final trip to Australia and his friends thought he was there to stay. However, in late March, he boarded the Warrimoo and set sail for New Zealand once again. He may not have returned to Whanganui and his last known address is the Railway Hotel in the Wellington suburb of Thorndon.
It was the proprietor of this hotel who advised police that Frank Betts, who had been staying at his premises for seven weeks, had gone missing.
The last sighting of Frank in the city came on the evening of Saturday 27th May 1893, with the newspaper reporting on his disappearance the following week;
“Some days before his disappearance he seemed to be very restless, and it is just possible something may have happened to him.”
Mr Betts was then a highly educated, cultured gentleman, a lawyer in good position in his profession; and moving in the best local society; an ardent lover of cricket and all manly sports; a genial, kindly-hearted man, liked by all.
Full of merry jest, a man who had a kindly word for one and all, liked just as well by the lads, whom he loved to coach on the cricket fields, as by his friends at the Wanganui Club, of which he was a regular and looked for number, Frank Matthew Betts was everybody’s favourite.
Alas, the same old story has to be told of him as of many a good man before him. He gradually became his own enemy, alas, his worst, his most bitter enemy. Slowly, but surely, the ‘drink fiend,’ that mysterious, modern demon who poisons so many lives, ruins so many homes, and breaks so many hearts, clutched him in his loathsome arms and choked out of him in time all his manliness, his culture, all his refinement.
Meanwhile as to poor Betts, kindly hearted, true gentleman, he will be deeply mourned by many who knew him in his better days and who will long treasure his memory in sorrowful remembrance.
Charles Wilson writing in the New Zealand Mail, September 30th1893
Piecing together what happened at the end of Frank Betts’ life is something of a challenge and there are many contradictory reports of his movements over his last months.
It is obvious, particularly after reading the eulogies for him, that alcohol was a major factor in his death. We can’t know how long it had affected him but he never quite seemed settled in his working life, with the stop-start nature of his businesses reflecting this, and that only worsened over his last decade.
Those eulogies were written by well-respected men – Gilbert Carson at the Wanganui Chronicle was a former-Mayor and soon-to-be Member of Parliament – and they are unanimous in their praise for the man that Betts once was. They are equally unanimous in their damnation of alcohol’s impact on the man he became.
Such was the hold that drink had on Frank, Charles Wilson – writing under Scrutator in the New Zealand Mail – believed that he would’ve found a way to drink even if prohibition had been in place.
Hopelessly despondent, weary of life, a lone, lost man, he, poor soul, sought release from the agony of his mind and the cravings of his body in the cold waters of the Waimakariri.
It is not our mission to speak unkindly of the dead. The sad case under notice we would not if we could, and we could not if we would.
Few are the men whom it can be truthfully said that they were nobody’s enemy but their own. Yet, so far as we have ever heard, such might have been said of FM Betts.
The friends of his earlier days, upon whom he had no claim save the memory of mutual comradeship of a score years ago, stood by him as far as was possible up to the last. Yet, painful as the admission must have been to themselves, it could not have been otherwise than evident to them for years past that the friend of former days was dead beyond all possibility of resuscitation, and that the sooner the poor, useless body was laid to rest the sooner would the once-honoured name cease to be a reproach and a shame.
Farewell, FM Betts!
Gilbert Carson writing in the Wanganui Chronicle, September 26th 1893
Frank Betts came to the attention of the New Zealand Cricket Museum because of that single First-Class match he played for Wellington. The game has an important place in our cricketing history as it was Wellington’s debut in First-Class cricket. The eleven men who lined up for the province in that match beginning a tradition that continues in the Plunket Shield today.
His death was, initially, just a footnote which set him apart from the many cricketers whose representative appearances were limited. It caught our attention, however, as it looked like a mystery begging to be investigated.
With more research, that mystery deepened and Betts’ place in New Zealand history – as the grandson of the Reverend Samuel Marsden – increased his ancestral significance to our broader history. Frank never married, and no children are on record, so the Marsden ancestry did not continue through him.
In the end, however, the story of Frank Betts is a sad one that is all too pertinent in our society today. It is also one that is, sadly, far too common in cricket history.
Frank Betts took his own life after years of alcoholism. His friends saw the impact it was having but could only stand by and watch at a time where support for addiction and depression was limited at best.
Thankfully, that is no longer true. If you need help, or someone to talk to, please reach out.
Where to find help
1737, Need to talk? Free call or text 1737
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Suicide Crisis Helpline 0508 828 865
What’s Up 0800 942 8787 (for 5–18 year olds)
Youthline 0800 376 633, Free text 234, or email email@example.com
If it is an emergency, call 111
In this story we have referred to both Whanganui and Wanganui. The modern spelling has been used throughout, except in instances where referring to the name of a group or organisation that was contemporary to Betts’ life and involvement or, as below, to groups that have not updated the spelling in their name.
We searched extensively for an image of Frank Betts, without any luck. If you think you have a photograph or drawing of him, please contact us.
The novelised sections (in italics) of Frank Betts’ story are, generally, based on facts and all of the characters are real people involved in his life. For example, it actually was a fine day in Christchurch on the 23rd of September 1893.
As well as using the excellent Papers Past website to research many elements of this story, we would also like to thank the Whanganui Museum, the Wanganui Jockey Club, and the Wanganui Bowling Club for their assistance.