Page 1: Biography
Naval seaman, Victoria Cross winner, goldminer, farmer
This biography, written by Denis Fairfax, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.
Samuel Mitchell was born on 8 September 1841, at Aspley, near Woburn, Bedfordshire, England, the son of William Mitchell, a labourer and later a Wesleyan minister, and his wife, Eleanor Field. Mitchell entered the Royal Navy as a naval apprentice in August 1857. He served in the ships Crocodile and Excellent, before joining the screw sloop Harrier in August 1860, and sailing from Portsmouth for the Australia station in December of the same year. He was soon made the captain's coxswain and captain of the mizentop, and later advanced to captain of the foretop. By 1865 he was boatswain's mate.
The Harrier was in New Zealand waters in 1861–62 (New Zealand became the focus of the Australian squadron's activities in the early 1860s), and its first action was an armed reconnaissance up the Waikato River in late 1863. Mitchell then served in the naval brigade, formed from the men of the squadron, which took part in the Waikato campaign, including the battle of Rangiriri in November 1863.
Active operations in Waikato ceased in late 1863, and the squadron followed the British troops to Tauranga. On 29 April 1864 the Maori fortification at Pukehinahina, or the Gate Pa, on Tauranga Harbour, was attacked. An assault column, comprising a naval brigade and soldiers of the 43rd (Monmouthshire Light Infantry) Regiment, stormed the pa through a breach in its palisade. The force fell back within minutes under fire from concealed Ngai Te Rangi warriors, 'the men running away in an awful state of confusion.'
Edward Hay, the leader of the naval brigade and captain of the Harrier, fell mortally wounded. As Hay's coxswain, Mitchell had stayed close to him in the assault and carried Hay out through the rear of the pa under fire, even though Hay had ordered Mitchell to abandon him. For this act, Mitchell was awarded the Victoria Cross on 23 July 1864, and was promoted to petty officer, first class.
Accounts of the action imply that Mitchell alone rescued Hay. This may not have been so. One eyewitness noted that Hay was carried out by Mitchell and another soldier, and that a sailor, himself wounded, also assisted. However, the dying Hay 'particularly requested the Commodore to get something for Mitchell his coxswain'. Mitchell received his Victoria Cross from the governor of New South Wales at a public ceremony in the Sydney Domain on 24 September 1864.
Mitchell probably returned to England in the Harrier soon after the investiture, and in May 1865 obtained his discharge from the Royal Navy. He returned to New Zealand soon after to join the West Coast goldrush, and took up land on the Mikonui River, near Ross, south of Hokitika. He farmed there until his death. On 21 May 1870, at Ross, he married Agnes Ross. Mitchell became a prominent member of the small Mikonui community, and was an active freemason in Hokitika. He was physically strong, and an experienced ferryman. Surprisingly, he met his death, in March 1894, by drowning. His body was recovered from the Mikonui River on 16 March. He was survived by his wife and 10 children.
Mitchell's Victoria Cross had a curious history. It was left inside his sea-chest, which was lost in Sydney in 1864. Initial attempts to recover it were fruitless, and it was not until 1908 or 1909 that the decoration reappeared in the collection of an English army officer. Mitchell's descendants purchased it in 1928 for £70; it is now displayed in the West Coast Historical Museum in Hokitika.