"Oh memories."

Two final words engraved in white on an old granite headstone in Waihi Cemetery.

It marks the resting place of 13-year-old Kelvin Maurice McLean. "Our" Kelvin. "The Dearly Loved."

Killed in the Waikino School Tragedy, the inscription says. 19th Oct. 1923.

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Ninety-five years yesterday.

The other young boy killed in New Zealand's first and only mass school shooting is buried not far away, in another area of the cemetery.

You walk past crumbling concrete grave markers and a line of cherry blossom trees. You dodge rabbit holes, the neatly mowed grass riddled with them. Some rabbits have burrowed through dirt graves.

In the Anglican section, you find the headstone for Charles Alan Stewart, aged 9 and a half years.

"Who was killed in the Waikino School Tragedy," it says.

The epitaph is from Matthew 19:14.

"For of such is the kingdom of heaven."

Waihi Cemetery is empty on this sunny spring day. A cold wind whips through, and the sound of State Highway 2 traffic is steady.

When Kelvin and Charles were buried on October 21, 1923 – a Sunday – hundreds of people were here.

The boys' bodies were brought from Waitāwheta and Waikino and the funeral procession, more than half a mile long, passed through Waihī.

It was reported that more than 1000 people were present at the graveside.

A few days later, the school was burnt to the ground. The identities of the people responsible were a closely guarded community secret.

Over time, the sad story of the Waikino School Tragedy seemed to fade from New Zealand's collective memory, occasionally brought up in books, newspaper articles and television programmes.

But the small village of Waikino, 10km from the cemetery on the other side of Waihī, nestled in bush at the southern end of the Karangahake Gorge, has never forgotten the shooting.

This is a story about memories. Memories so painful they played on the mind of a man his entire life, even as he lay on his deathbed.

Memories so strong and enduring they brought tears to the eyes of that man's son, 95 years after the horrific crime was committed.

These are memories that are still being talked about, albeit carefully and quietly, and that have been passed down generation to generation – sometimes with a well-kept secret.

Out for revenge

Waikino School, the scene of the shooting tragedy. Photo / Waihi Arts Centre and Museum Association
Waikino School, the scene of the shooting tragedy. Photo / Waihi Arts Centre and Museum Association

Waikino School stood on top of a steep hill, half a mile from the township, and at the end of a long winding path.

The building had two main classrooms, each flanking a wide corridor. The headmaster's study was at one end.

About 10am that Friday in October 1923, the headmaster's dog Pax began to bark.

Robert Theodore Reid threw open a window and looked out. He told his dog to be quiet.

Standing outside was John Christopher Higgins, a firewood dealer and settler who lived nearby in Waitāwheta.

He said he had come for revenge.

Reid quickly ushered Higgins into the study. The agitated visitor then pulled out a gun.

He said his neighbours were persecuting him, and his horse was dead. He blamed them for the animal's death and the loss of other stock.

Headmaster Reid tried to talk Higgins around, urging him to leave.

Newspaper reports at the time said Reid, after realising the gunman wasn't listening to him, attempted to warn the teachers and children.

He physically tried to stop Higgins, but was shot in the face and collapsed on the floor.

Reid went to call out, but couldn't. Blood was filling his mouth and throat.

The gunman, six foot tall and powerfully built, turned his attention to the children.

The three Daniels

There are three people named Daniel Bustard in this story.

Two of them were there that day and the third – Daniel Earl Bustard – wasn't yet born.

He is now 81 and lives in Waikino.

Sitting at his dining room table this week, he shared an emotional story about how the shooting unfolded and how his dad, uncle and granddad were caught up in it.

There were long pauses, and tears.

Daniel's father was 10 at the time and was in class with his brother, Alexander, when Higgins arrived. Granddad Daniel was working nearby at the Victoria Battery.

A newspaper report reveals how young Daniel later recounted the ordeal in court.

On entering their classroom, the gunman said: "I'll have a shot at you lot."

Daniel was sitting near a window in the second row of desks. His friend Charles Stewart was nearby.

Higgins fired in their direction, and Daniel immediately saw blood coming from a wound on Charles' face.

At this stage, children were fleeing the school in all directions, some climbing through the windows. Others hid under and behind desks and cupboards. Brave teachers shepherded as many as possible outside to safety.

Daniel got through a window unscathed. But his brother, 12-year-old Alexander Bustard, was shot as he was running from the room. Limping, he managed to get out of the building.

"My uncle; he got shot through the belt-line, and the bullet came out of the groin," a choked-up Daniel Earl Bustard said this week.

"And he managed to run from the school down to Waikino township and collapsed outside the butcher's shop.

"By this time, my grandfather, who was working at the battery site at the time, being a mad Irishman that he was, took off and went over to try and sort things out and see what was happening."

The town's residents heard the gunfire and a group of men from the battery rushed to the school.

They arrived to find Higgins barricaded inside the study, where headmaster Reid was lying in a pool of blood.

Higgins had shot three other children; they would survive their wounds, and so would Alexander Bustard.

Kelvin McLean did not.

Higgins was said to have walked right up to Kelvin, who knew him by name.

The boy reportedly pleaded: "You won't shoot me, will you, Mr Higgins? You remember I used to help you fill your wood bags."

Higgins shot him dead at close range, as he did Charles Stewart.

Kelvin Maurice McLean (right) with one of the other pupils who was wounded in the shooting. Photo / New Zealand Herald
Kelvin Maurice McLean (right) with one of the other pupils who was wounded in the shooting. Photo / New Zealand Herald

Three policemen from Waihi and two doctors arrived at the school soon after the men from the battery and, with some of the civilians now also armed, a long siege ensued with Higgins. He fired from the window of the study.

A police constable was shot as bullets flew back and forth.

Eventually, Higgins was overcome, and he threw his gun out of the window. The door was broken in, and an infuriated crowd rushed at him.

He was also found to be carrying a knife and plugs of explosive gelignite, complete with a detonator attached to a fuse.

"The civilians said afterwards that if it had not been for the police, they would have lynched or shot the maniac in cold blood," a report in the New Zealand Herald said.

"The senior sergeant said he had never seen a crowd so mad with fury as the Waikino men were on Friday morning."

Meanwhile, remarkably, headmaster Reid was found still alive in the study. He and the other five wounded were rushed to Waihi Hospital.

The two dead children were taken to the miners' hall at Waikino.

Higgins was eventually convicted of murder and sentenced to death, but this was later commuted to life in prison, on the grounds of insanity. He is said to have spent his final days in a mental institution in Auckland, where he died.

But decades later, the trauma of what he did remains alive.

Still talked about

Four children who were injured during in the shooting, with Alexander Bustard second from the right. Photo / New Zealand Herald
Four children who were injured during in the shooting, with Alexander Bustard second from the right. Photo / New Zealand Herald

Neil Cummings lives on the family farm on Pukekauri Rd, near Waikino.

The 77-year-old's mother, Alwyn Shaw, was about 5 when "old Higgins" turned up to the school. She was in class.

Cummings said this week his mother was one of those who jumped out of the window when the shooting started, but a boy behind her got hit.

"When she took off from school, she ran … and was around Waitāwheta somewhere, still running. I don't know who found her," he said.

"They were all just horrified."

Cummings said you hear people in the community talking about the shooting from time to time.

"Lots of different stories. Nowadays not so much, but all the old identities all talk about it."

Bev and Homer Stubbs, both in their 80s, are Waikino's foremost historians.

Homer has lived in the area for 81 years and Bev, 58 years.

They have both spoken to people who were involved in the school shooting as children and have written about the event in various books and publications.

Bev has a letter from the daughter of headmaster Reid.

"She said although she was very young at the time, the tragedy did have a big effect on her father. And he never went teaching again," Bev told me over the phone this week.

She said it was important to speak sensitively about the tragedy "because there are still people alive who have been connected with that story".

That was a lesson learnt early by the current principal of Waikino School.

Joanna Wheway has been there for a year and a half, after leaving Auckland for the quiet community hidden in the hills.

She said the story of the shooting was unavoidable.

"If you Google Waikino School, it's the first thing that you see, at the top of the Google hit list."

Wheway discovered it for the first time when she was looking at applying for the job. She had never heard of a New Zealand school shooting.

After the initial shock, she quickly realised it was ancient history.

But, having now lived and worked in Waikino, Wheway knows the tragedy is still strongly felt. She said a lot of old families in the area have a connection to it.

"Even how long ago it was, it's quite an upsetting thing still for the community; a lot of them are quite reluctant to talk about it."

Her students are busy working on a multimedia project titled "Stories of the bush" in which they have been gathering information about the history of the area. Locals have visited the school to share their knowledge and experience.

A 98-year-old man came in one day, Wheway said, and told the children about his relative who was involved in the school shooting.

"It's highly engaging for kids finding out about their area and history."

But there is little information and few tributes in public spaces to remind locals or educate newcomers about what happened.

Of course, there are the graves of the two young boys in Waihi Cemetery.

Marking a tragedy

Robyn Ramsey (left) and Harriet Taylor, two members of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, Waihī Branch. Photo / John Borren
Robyn Ramsey (left) and Harriet Taylor, two members of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, Waihī Branch. Photo / John Borren

A glass jar containing murky brown water sits at the edge of Charles' grave – possibly the remnants of long-decomposed flowers.

The flowers at Kelvin's resting place are ceramic and inset in a concrete slab.

Robyn Ramsey and Harriet Taylor – two members of the New Zealand Society of Genealogists, Waihī Branch – guided me to the two headstones this week.

They organise cemetery history walks once a year and in the past have stopped and shared Charles and Kelvin's stories with those in attendance.

Harriet also works as a researcher at Waihi Museum, so I asked her why there wasn't an exhibition there about the Waikino School Tragedy.

"I would think it would be too insensitive to do that," she said.

"I think people would resist. That would be my impression, and I certainly wouldn't push it."

There have been some community murmurings in Waikino about a memorial or plaque – something formal to commemorate the shooting.

But no one I spoke to was particularly vocal about that.

Cummings said it "could be warranted" and Bev Stubbs thought it would be "a good discussion".

"You could do it for the centenary if that's what the people want," she said. "I'd say they should have a large say in it."

Bev wondered if the community would want to commemorate something so tragic.

She said she preferred to remember the heroes involved: headmaster Reid, the brave young teachers, and the children.

And of course Pax the dog, for barking a warning.

There are plenty of small stories and lessons worth remembering about that day – some of them unbelievable.

Like the little boy who ran back into the school to get his lunch, much to his teachers' horror.

"What has struck me too was the acceptance back into the community of Higgins' wife and family," Bev said.

"I think that was really great; that she wasn't ostracised."

Of course, there are also memories that are painful, and some that are hard to shake.

Haunted by memories

John Christopher Higgins (centre), with police escort. Photo / New Zealand Herald
John Christopher Higgins (centre), with police escort. Photo / New Zealand Herald

Daniel Earl Bustard said the events of that day in 1923 stayed with his father his whole life.

It wasn't something he spoke about a lot.

"The only thing that worried him was his mate getting shot that was sitting in front of him. He got shot through the head, and my dad got covered in blood and …"

The 81-year-old stopped to compose himself. He cleared his throat.

"And that played on his mind. Yeah, it played on his mind something terrible."

Right up until the very end, Daniel said, when his dad died at age 87.

"When he was laying in hospital dying he said to me that it was one thing that he'll be able to forget."

Daniel said it was a traumatic experience that scarred his father.

"Pretty horrific when you stop and think about it. I sort of kick myself that I haven't taken a bigger interest in the history of that particular thing."

His dad once took him up to the site of the old school.

There's not much there now. It's effectively an empty paddock on private land. The school was burnt to the ground in the immediate aftermath of the shooting.

A community meeting was being held that night; the people of Waikino were protesting the location of the school, which they had long complained was too isolated.

A resident rushed into the meeting and announced the school was burning. The locals immediately made their way to the fire, "where they found nothing but smouldering embers".

A strong wind was blowing that night.

A report in the Herald said the fire was thought to have been caused by "incendiarism" – a drastic protest against the lonely position of the school and the horrors that occurred there the week before.

Pools of blood had been left in the headmaster's study, the corridor and in one of the classrooms.

Walls were peppered with bullets, desks were overturned and books and school equipment were littered all over the floor.

Another Herald article said: "On the day of the shooting, not a few of the residents of Waikino were heard saying that they would not be sorry if the building were burnt to the ground…"

Police investigated the fire, but there is no record of anyone being arrested or charged.

Just who did the deed was never spoken about, not publicly anyway. Until now.

A secret revealed

The remains of Waikino School after it was burnt down in 1923. Photo / Waihi Arts Centre and Museum Association
The remains of Waikino School after it was burnt down in 1923. Photo / Waihi Arts Centre and Museum Association

Daniel Earl Bustard was let in on the family secret at a much later date.

"I don't know whether many people knew about what granddad did. But I know for a fact that he was involved in the burning of the school."

He is not thought to have acted alone. It was likely a community decision was made that the school "had to be got rid of, had to be wiped off the map".

"Because of all the shooting and the blood and the whole thing was just turmoil, eh," Daniel Earl said.

In an odd twist of fate, granddad Daniel ended up becoming the caretaker of the new school that was later built at a different location.

And, by even greater coincidence, his grandson – Daniel Earl – now lives right next door to Waikino School.

He believes the shooting tragedy is a story that needs to be shared.

A lot of people seem to have never heard about it, Daniel said, and he is open to the idea of a memorial or plaque.

"Yeah. I think it should be something. It would be nice.

"It's part of history, eh."