Tuesday, 12 December 2017


The Southern Cemetery, Dunedin

 The Cumberland Street Tragedy of 1880
James Robb was a member of the Dunedin Volunteer Fire Brigade.  At 6.40am on the 14th of March, 1880, his father woke him to say there was smoke coming from the house across the street.  James quickly pulled on his Brigade trousers and ran over to knock on the front door of the house.  Hearing no answer, he ran around to the back door, which was open.  The hall of the house was full of smoke so James crawled to the front rooms.  Reaching the bedroom, he heard someone making a gurgling sound and called out "Get up!"  There was no reply.

Still crawling, James entered the bedroom and found a body.  The smoke was too thick for him to see anything of it so his next move was to grab a bucket and run to the back of the house for a tap, also alerting the nearest neighbours.  Returning to the bedroom, James doused the fire and found another two bodies.  James Dewar was on the burnt bed, his brains protruding from his skull.  Unmarked but also dead beside him was his nine month old daughter.  His wife, Elizabeth, also showed horrible head wounds but was still alive though only barely.  A doctor was immediately called.

Doctor Niven arrived with dues haste and supervised the removal of Elizabeth to hospital, where everything possible was done to save her life.  But it was not enough, she never regained consciousness.  A bloodstained axe was found in the bedroom and a candlestick under the burnt bed.

The Dunedin police were not slow in identifying a suspect: an habitual criminal who had been known, and arrested, under a number of different names over the years.  In the year 1880, he was known as Robert Butler.

James Robb was awarded the United Fire Brigades' Association medal for valorous conduct for his quick thinking and acting on that fateful morning.

"Your money or your life!"
And here the story necessarily becomes that of the villain of the piece.  Robert Butler, alias Donelly, alias Warton, alias Wilson, alias Lee, alias Medway, alias Lees was a man without empathy for his fellow human being.  I've read that the difference between a psychopath and a sociopath is that the former is born bad and the latter becomes bad at some time in life.  Butler might have been both.  He grew up on the mean streets of Melbourne and was intelligent but not physically strong.  His first conviction was at the age of twelve, for vagrancy.  His parents were incapable of controlling their son and he lived in vacant houses, heating himself on cold nights with boards from nearby fences or, if necessary, interior walls of his accommodation.  No relative was able to vouch for his conduct when he was arrested and he spent to following twelve months in prison.  Three years and two further terms later the year was 1864, he was sixteen and went, as the term then was, "on the roads."

Armed with a pistol, the young Butler chose a labourer named John Geddes who was walking home through the Fitzroy Gardens.  "Your money or your life!" called Butler, pointing his pistol, and Geddes obliged with all he had - a half crown and a few coppers.  Butler also took his watch and threatened him with a dire fate should he complain to police.  The threat wasn't obeyed.

Meanwhile, young Butler was found by a policeman in an unoccupied hut, asleep under a cloak.  A fully-loaded pistol was on the floor around him, as were a number of stolen books, the spoils of a recent burglary.  Before long, the youth was identified as one who had pawned Geddes' watch and he confessed to the crime.  Five more years were spent behind bars.  On his release in 1869 he maintained a more or less constant relationship with Melbourne's law enforcement community until 1876 when he left for Otago.

"the wings of the angel of death"
Butler had read voraciously in prison, particularly the lives of great men, men for whom the usual rules of decent society did not apply.  He clearly saw himself in the mould of someone outside the rules, someone for whom other humans were of value only as far as they were of use to him.  On reaching Dunedin, he set off for the goldfields, not to dig but to take up the position of teacher at Cromwell's Catholic school.  On the western side of the Dunstan Range, near Bendigo, Butler (then calling himself Donelly) stopped for a rest at the "Rise and Shine" gold mine and was proudly shown the results of a week's work.  One of the four miners also offered him a bed for the night, which he readily accepted.  But Butler had plans which did not include much in the way of sleep.  James Rattray, writing to the Otago Daily Times in 1928, recounted the story he had been told:

"...Butler’s subsequent career of murder and criminality showed how unflinchingly capable he was of wiping out the miner’s family and home when the tragic moment of doom should seal their fate. The moments fraught with destiny passed unsuspected in the bosom of the miner’s family and cottage. The sands of the hour-glass gave no inkling of the secret held in their sinking, save to one. The evening was passed in quietness, with conversation on general topics. The miner, his wife and daughters, and the stranger busy with their own thoughts and duties, until at length the Bible was laid on the table by one of the children - her nightly duty, upon the performance of which to-night would hang momentous issues. Butler was informed of the fact that it was their custom to hold family worship before retiring, and at the same time he was invited to participate if he had no objections. With the design of murder in his heart at that moment, he nevertheless accepted the invitation of his intended victims, and joined in the evening’s worship. The father “ waled a portion wi judicious care” from the family Bible. The family, as was their customary habit, each engaged in prayer, and all included the stranger within the gate in their supplications commending the keeping of their souls to God. 

"Upon a scene so hallowed the mantle of sleep fell silently, softer than the beating of the wings of the Angel of Death. In the morning the miner put Butler on the road for Cromwell, not before the pair had had serious conversation on spiritual matters - conversation carried over from the night before. Butler finally confessed his inability to accept the views in these matters as presented by the miner’s recital of the facts of his own conversion. Anxious that Butler should commence his 16-mile walk to Cromwell dry-shod, the miner carried his departing guest over a fast-running mountain stream on his back, but in mid-stream affected to stumble with his load. Butler exclaimed: “You are not going to let me fall?”  “ No!” replied the miner, “I was just giving you an object-lesson in trust. You trusted me, a mere man, to carry you safely across the stream. In spite of the fact that I could have failed, you had confidence, and you trusted me. That is what I mean when I ask you to trust God. He cannot fail; He will carry you through, safely over the stream.” The two men stood facing each other in the handclasp of farewell. 

"Before turning to go his way Butler made the full and frank confession that he had entered the miner’s home on the previous evening with murder in his heart, determined at that cost to possess himself of the stock of gold he had been shown so unsuspectingly. Coveting the gold, he had schemed and decided on wholesale murder that night. He further confessed that through the sincere personal efforts put forth for his good, and through the simple confidence and earnestness of the family devotions he had been deterred from his awful purpose. The miner paid no particular attention at the time to Butler’s strange voluntary confession. After events proved, however, that Butler was fully capable of carrying out the dark designs of murder and robbery. At the close of that very day he had robbed a church of its communion silver plate, and very shortly afterwards was standing his trial in connection with the murder of a family in Cumberland Street."

Butler did well in Cromwell, teaching in the Catholic school and also establishing a profitable night school as well.  His past was unknown and his education and charm would have stood out in the mining town.  But he soon slipped into his old ways and he burgled the house of his employer, Father Kehoe, stealing the large sum of fifty pounds.  When the crime was discovered, Butler was successful in passing suspicion onto one of his pupils but Butler's coincidental extravagance in clothes and jewellery put the authorities on the right track.  Butler fled to Dunedin.

four years penal servitude
On July 23rd, 1876, Butler attended a performance at the Queens Theatre, Princes St (soon to host the debut performance of "God Defend New Zealand" on Christmas day of that year) and hid while the place emptied and doors were locked.  Searching backstage, he secured a cornet, a couple of wigs and a brace of pistols - altogether worth twenty two pounds, ten shillings.  Soon after, on August 2nd, he burgled the house of the Catholic Bishop, Moran, stealing a gold pencil case, gold binoculars and an umbrella.  Four days later he was at work again, burgling two houses and making away with goods and cash to the value of one hundred and eighteen pounds.

Two days after this, on August 8th, police searched his residence and found the goods, the cash, and his burglary tools.  He was tried and convicted on six charges and the judge, taking into account that no previous crimes were recorded against his name, sentenced him to four years penal servitude.

Penal servitude meant hard labour, and hard labour for prisoners meant being taken the short distance from the Dunedin Prison and put to work on the lowering of Bell Hill.  While paying the price for his crimes in this way, Butler formed (at least in his mind) a relationship with a nanny who would bring her charges each day to watch the work on the Hill.  Butler would nod at her and she would nod back in greeting.  If the warders' backs were turned, he would say "Good day' and she, possibly pitying the prisoner at hard labour, would reply.  This stimulated what might be called the finer feelings in the prisoner and he spent his free time in the prison in cultivating his manners and artistic skills so that, on release in 1880, he might be found worthy of her.
Prisoners at hard labour, Bell Hill, 1870s.  Hocken Library photo.

Alas for the tender heart of Butler, it was all for nothing. On release he sought out his heart's desire, declared his feelings, promised that his future life would be an example to all, and proposed marriage.  His intended listened as long as was polite then ran for home.  Butler was not to be put of by this, of course, and the nanny's daily walks became less than pleasant.  She eventually informed her uncle, a warder at the prison, and Dunedin's detectives agreed that the city would be a better place without him in it.

A job was found for Robert Butler on a harbour dredge and all seemed well.  But shortly after this, the Dewar family were found, brutally murdered.

James and Elizabeth Dewar
Police were not slow in coming to suspect Robert Butler of the hideous crime for two good reasons; his "sweetheart" had complained that she was being pestered by him again, meaning he had not gone to his dredge job out of town, and a strange conversation that a detective had had with him, concerning the use of arson as a cover for burglary.  The telegraph wires were put to good use and Butler was confronted by two policemen just short of Waikouaiti.  Butler ducked behind a flax bush to draw his pistol but one of the constables rushed him and made the arrest.  He was described at the time as: "unquestionably a notorious and desperate criminal. His age is 28; he is a smart, clever, intelligent looking man, of good address and carriage; and he has a really good education (said to have been received chiefly in Pentridge Gaol, Victoria)."

 The official inquest into the deaths of the Dewar family took place the day after the arrest and the verdict was willfull murder.  It was also reported that Elizabeth's mother, taking a train to visit her from Hampden, heard of her daughter's death from a stranger reading a newspaper in Palmerston.  It was further reported that there had been another house fire, possibly connected with a burglary, the night before the Cumberland Street tragedy.
"did kill and murder"
Butler was charged that he: "on the 14th March, 1880, at Dunedin, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, did kill and murder one James Dewar, Elizabeth Dewar, and Elizabeth Dewar, an infant, against the peace of our Lady the Queen, her crown and dignity." 

He was further charged that: "on 15th March, 1880, at Main North road, near Dunedin, did present, point, and level at and against one James Andrew Townsend certain loaded arms - to wit, a pistol, then loaded with gunpowder and six leaden bullets - and did then feloniously attempt to discharge the same at the said James Andrew Townsend, with intent in so doing, then and there, feloniously, wilfully, and of his malice aforethought, to kill and murder the said James Andrew Townsend."

Robert Butler, 1880.  Print held at Te Papa
Butler chose to defend himself, though with as much professional advice as he could find beforehand.  The evidence against him was mostly circumstantial - he had been seen in the vicinity of the crime by several witnesses, a suit of clothes worn by him was found in a small gully near the junction of Dundas Street and Lovelock Avenue and they were stained with blood, he had taken a room in the Scotia Hotel close to the murder scene only a couple of days before the murder, tiny specks of blood were found on the shirt he was wearing when arrested, the Publican of a Waitati hotel observed his reaction to the news of the murder arriving there.  The opinion of the Dunedin public was that a dreadful crime had been committed and a dreadful person arrested, who would soon receive justice.  But this was not to be.

After the Crown Prosecutor made his speech to the jury, Butler asked permission to address the Judge:

His Honor: "What is it you have to say? The ordinary course is for the Crown Prosecutor to call his witnesses. You cross-examine them and when the Crown case is closed then you call your witnesses if you have any to call, and then you address the jury. Have you any further observation to make? 
Butler: I wish to say a few words to your Honor. You said just now that you were sorry I had not had counsel to defend me. Whilst the adage says "The man who is his own counsel has a fool for his client," I can only say there is another, which says that "Thrice armed is he who has his quarrel just." I have to ask your Honor's assistance, and beg that you will not allow any irregularities to go against me. 
His Honor: Certainly, I shall take care that you have fair play. I do not think the Crown will press unduly against you; but if there is anything which you wish brought out - any points that you think are in your favor, I shall certainly see that it is done. 
Butler duly returned his humble thanks...NZ Truth, 7/8/1915
Butler's defence initially consisted of an energetic, if not particularly skilled, cross-examination of the prosecution witnesses, particularly the police.  Knowing that he had been charged in connection with the earlier burglary and arson, he claimed that his sudden exit from Dunedin was because he was wanted for that crime, not the triple murder.  The prosecution's case took almost two days and, when it closed, Butler elected to make his defence on the third day of the trial, and asked that he be brought the suit of clothes he was alleged to have worn while murdering the Dewars, so that the blood stains could be pointed out to him by the medical experts who had presented them as evidence.  After some hesitation, his request was granted.
Butler opened his defence the next day by stating that he had no witnesses to call.  That included himself - there would be no cross-examination of the one person who was most likely to ruin his defence.  "Now, prisoner, is your time to address the jury." said the Judge, and Butler began.  It would be more than five hours before he was finished.  "Gentlemen of the jury," he began:

"This is a case wholly of circumstances which has been brought against me mainly by the fact that I was once before guilty of a crime, which at the time I frankly acknowledged. I wish you, gentlemen, to observe that the police started this inquiry with the evident conviction that Butler is the guilty party. This conviction getting into their minds seems to have prevented them from following any other trail. No other clue has been followed out. It has not even been attempted to follow any other clue. It has been evidently assumed at once by the police that I was the guilty man. 

"If not, then the murderer, out of the confusion and diversion that have been caused by my arrest and trial - whatever the result of that may be - the guilty man may escape. You know that there is a sort of little fish that generally escapes from its enemies by the turmoil and mud raised by it in the water around where it is. I have said that this case is one wholly of circumstantial evidence. There is not one particle of direct evidence - it is entirely, purely, and as I have said in every particular, circumstantial evidence. 

"Now nobody should be judged guilty of any crime on circumstantial evidence, unless the proof is exceedingly strong. In almost all cases like this it is a matter of the greatest import; it is here a matter that involves life or death - a matter of the last import to me, and of not 'the least import to you, gentlemen of the jury - I say that in such a case as this, if in no other case, the circumstances should be clear and certain; without leaving any doubt whatever. Not only should there be a certainty in your minds that I am guilty, but there should be the equal certainty that nobody else can be guilty. You must follow that up - not only must you be sure that I am guilty, but be equally sure that no one else can be guilty. Even at this stage I ask you the question - I ask you; to put the question to yourselves individually - think, can this be said of me? Can this be said of this case? I ask you to say whether, though certain circumstances have been twisted against me, you can fairly and honestly, without the smallest sediment of doubt in your minds, say that the man who stands before you, whose life is in your hands, is guilty of the awful crime which is imputed to him..."

Butler had a number of features of the judicial circumstance on his side - and he needed them.  One was that Victorian juries were loath to convict on a capital crime unless they could be absolutely sure of their decision.  A verdict of Guilty was usually a sentence of death and it was a heavy weight to bear in anything but complete certainty.  This, he played upon strongly.  By presenting his defence he was not obliged to enter the witness box for cross-examination by the Prosecution - and the prosecution had no right of reply to his defence speech.  Being his own Defence, the Judge was careful to advise him in his case - if only to exclude grounds for a future appeal of the jury's verdict.  And Butler was fighting for his life.  In the words of Dr Johnson: "Depend upon it, sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."  Butler had much less than a fortnight to save his own life.

The material evidence of blood on his shirt was easy to discount.  He had, he said, encountered brambles or bush lawyer on his way out of town and showed the scratches on his hands. He had continued to wear it, despite the minute spots of blood, because the blood was there as a result of brambles, not murder.  The police evidence he discounted as equal to persecution - the police seized upon him and him alone as the suspect and made no effort to investigate in any other direction.  Naturally, they would find evidence against him because that was the only thing they looked for.  A knife was found at the scene which was not recognised as belonging to the Dewars - a butter knife of no use at all either for burglary or defence.

Then, as now, a jury was charged not to arrive at a guilty verdict on a balance of probability but "beyond reasonable doubt" - and reasonable doubt was all that Butler needed to produce in the minds of his jury.  All of his conduct after the murder, as described by witnesses, Butler was able to attribute to his fear of the consequences of another crime - the burglary and arson of a Mr Stamper's house the night before the murder.  This, of course, was equal to a confession on the court record but it was not a confession to a capital crime.

The Judge's summing-up stressed the importance of the jury's finding their verdict on the evidence presented in court, rather than anything they had heard outside of the trial.  They retired for three hours and returned a verdict of Not Guilty. 

Butler was held in custody over the other charges laid against him - that of presenting his pistol at the arresting policemen and the burglary and arson committed before the murder of the Dewars.  As he was led out of court he was booed and hissed by the crowd.  "Bah!" was his reply, "The murderer is among you!"

How right he was.

On his second trial, Butler was found guilty and sentenced to 28 years in prison.  When he appealed for mercy, the judge made it clear that he had been acquitted of murder not because the jury had found him innocent, but because the evidence had not been enough for a guilty verdict.  Butler served 16 years.

Two years after his court appearances, while serving his 28 year sentence Butler confessed all - at least, that is, if you accept the story of a fellow jailbird, the bushranger Henry Garrett who published a story under the title "Prison Portraits."

In brief, according to Garrett, Butler's story covered the salient points in the trial as follows:

The motive: Elizabeth was a lady friend of his from his Melbourne years (records show she was born in the State of Victoria) and had been given the jewellery for safekeeping when Butler arrived in Dunedin on his way to Cromwell. When he got out after his four years for burglary she refused to return them.
The blood: Butler deliberately lacerated his hands with bush lawyer thorns during his walk from Dunedin to where he was arrested.
The axe: on the night before the murder, Butler went to the Dewars' house to demand the return of the jewels.  He was refused but he noted where the axe could be found.
The knife: was found in the back yard of a hotel
The jewellery: Butler found what he was looking for after the murder and before setting the fire.  He stashed it the next day, about half an hour before his arrest.  It might still be where he left it.

Garrett's "portrait" was strongly criticised for its suggestion that one of the victims was a past accomplice of Butler.  But as an explanation of motive it certainly fits, as does the timing of her marriage to James.  His assessment of Butler's character, based on his jail experience, was uncannily echoed by an Australian judge in later years.

nervous, trembling, and scarcely able to stand
Butler was next in court in August of 1896, in Melbourne.  Garrett's description of him is echoed by the judge's assessment of his character - right down to the abject, quaking fear which follows the bullying and bluster...

"Robert Butler (or James Wilson, which is the name he has been convicted under in Melbourne) came up for sentence before Mr Justice Holroyd on Monday. He was already undergoing a sentence of 12 months for being illegally at large in Victoria. The crime for which he was to be sentenced was breaking into the shop of Mr Dickens, hairdresser, at South Melbourne, and stealing a wig, &c. He had been acquitted for the sticking up at Hawthorn, and the charge of attempted housebreaking at Richmond was not gone on with in the higher court. When he was put into the dock on Monday Butler said he was 50 years of age, and had been a teacher. On being asked if he had anything to say why sentence should not be passed on him, be said, "I have handed a statement to Your Honor" and the judge replied, "I have read it."

"Mr Justice Holroyd then said: James Wilson - if that be your name - you have pleaded guilty to breaking and entering a dwelling house and stealing from it. The record of your crimes, as I have it before me, commenced in February 1863. You were then in Victoria and between 1863 and 187l you were four times convicted of stealing in a dwelling house, of robbery, of receiving, and of burglary. Your sentences combined amounted to 11 years 8 months. In 1876 you appear in New Zealand. On one day you were there convicted of six gross crimes - three times of larceny and three times of burglary. That was on the second of October 1876. You then received six sentences of four years, making 24 years, but they were all made concurrent. Scarcely had your sentences expired when you were again before the New Zealand courts on a charge of burglary and larceny, and the judges thought proper to sentence you in all to 28 years, of which you were to serve 18 years. 
"Such a catalogue of criminality has seldom come before me. You are now undergoing a sentence of 12 months for being illegally at large in Victoria. It is difficult to know what to do with such a man. The first duty I have is towards the public, and the second, if I had any hopes of your reforming, is towards you. You have sent me a letter, and in that letter you have stated something supposed to be a history of your life before the year 1863. It ends with that date with one exception, which I am going to mention. You have drawn a narrative that might be taken from some of those sensational newspapers which are written for nurserymaids, and in that you have thought proper to read me a lecture on the manner in which I should pass sentence on you, and to ask for a lenient sentence. In your letter you do not give one single word of information from which I can ascertain whether anything you say ever had any existence in fact at all. 
"You refused when asked here to state what your real name is. I cannot find out that you ever yet attempted to do in the whole course of your life, on your own statement, one single good thing, or that you can bring before me one single person who can say one single thing in your favour, or that there is the remotest chance if let out of gaol now of your ever doing any good to yourself or anyone else. That is the conclusion I form from what you say of yourself and from the manner in which you have stated it to me. It appears to me that it is a great, pity that a man with your knowledge, information, vanity, and utter recklessness of what evil will do, cannot be put away somewhere where he can pass his life without the slightest chance of being mixed up with his fellow man. In my opinion if there was no hope of your doing good before there is still less of your doing any good thing now. 
"But you can do a great deal of harm, for it is evident that you are possessed with intense vanity, and that you are one of those who can incite others to criminality and lead them astray. The sentence of the court is the longest one I can give for this offence, and I take into consideration your previous convictions, and what I have before me of your record. The sentence of the court is that you be imprisoned with hard labour for 15 years, and that the first three weeks of the 7th, 13th, 20th, and last months but one of your detention be passed in solitary confinement.
"Prisoner (leaving the dock) : An iniquitous and brutal sentence!
"Mr Justice Holroyd (with great sharpness): Come back. Bring that man back. When Butler was placed in the dock again, his Honor said: No insult that you can offer me will induce me to inflict upon you one single hour more of imprisonment, but I advise you never again to offend the dignity of the court: If ever you get out of gaol, and are brought up again, never offend - 
"Prisoner: Iniquitous and brutal!
"Mr Justice Holroyd : I utterly despise your comment. I cannot tell you the scorn I feel for a man like you.
"Prisoner: Publish my letter, and let the public judge.
"Mr Justice Holroyd: Take him away. 
"Prisoner (descending to the cells) Publish my letter, and let the public judge.
"Subsequently, after another prisoner had been called up, Mr Justice Holroyd had Butler recalled. The prisoner reappeared in the dock nervous, trembling, and scarcely able to stand.
"Mr Justice Holroyd said: I am told that I read your sentence out of my book as 15 years, I should have said 10 years. The prisoner was then removed."
- from the Otago Witness
Butler, aka Wilson, aka Lee, aka Donelly.  The Australasian, 1896
There was an odd occurrence at the 1896 trial.  When proceedings had ended and he was being led out of the courtroom, Butler started violently at the sight of two women near the door.  They indicated that they ercognised him and, on being taken to the holding cell Butler had what can only be described as a panic attack, running fingers through his thinning hair and banging his fists and head against the cell walls.  The women, half-sisters of Butlers, said they would like to meet him and he consented, though saying "Yes, I suppose so; let them come in.  I would not have cared for anything, so long as they did not know."
inoffensive appearance and plausible manner
The last chapter in the despicable life of Robert Butler, then going by the name of Warton, occurred in Brisbane in 1905.  A mugging victim resisted the theft of his watch and, in the ensuing struggle, was shot by Butler.  At this trial he showed little of the command of the floor that he had 25 years before: 

"Counsel for the prisoner having obtained permission for the latter to address the jury, Warton, who was very nervous, and spoke in a weak voice, made a statement, in which he detailed the hardships endured by him during his wanderings in search of work since July last, when he got out of work in Melbourne. The only work that suited him was journalism, and for that he was rendered unfit by an attack of influenza. He visited Sydney and Brisbane, arriving at the latter place in August, but being unable to get work he walked back to Sydney. He then described further hardships endured up to the time of his return to Brisbane. Regarding the shooting of Munday, prisoner said that months of illness and privations had told on him, and his actions were those of a man who had become a fool. He also said the shooting was accidental." - Otago Daily Times, 19/6/1905

The jury were neither convinced nor impressed and found him guilty of murder.  Butler's appearance at the time was described as: "an old gentleman who was bald-headed and rather refined in appearance...It was his inoffensive appearance and plausible manner that had enabled him to impose on people. It was said that he could tell a tale that would move a stone horse to tears, looking as sad and sentimental as a Quaker all the time. I was present at the Supreme Court trial and heard him address the jury, but he did not then show similar shrewdness to that with which he was credited at Dunedin in his younger days. Probably he was getting tired of life. He accepted the sentence of death quite philosophically."  NZ Truth, 17/7/1920 "Hangmen I have met"

Butler was hanged.  The NZ Truth, reliable as ever in matters bloodstained, described in lurid detail the hanging, conducted by a man in disguise, which seems not to have gone entirely to plan:

"On entering the door, immediately behind the drop, Warton gazed at the rope and marched straight ahead until he butted into the railings which served as a barrier to prevent him going further. A light touch on the arm by one of the gaol officials took his attention from the streak of greased hemp, when he turned abruptly to the left and went to the northern end of the scaffold where the entrance is. 
"On reaching the spot through which he was to fall into Eternity, Warton placed his legs together, drew himself up into an erect attitude, and stood thus while the begoggled, bewhiskered, legalised man-butcher adjusted the greasy noose around his throat. The proceedings having gone thus far, Warton motioned with his hand, the arms being pinioned, and the clergyman stepped on to the drop and shook hands with the murderer. The Church of England clergyman, who had been attending Warton during his last days, then repeated in a solemn voice the words: "Our Father which art in Heaven; Hallowed be Thy name; Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is done in Heaven; Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who have trespassed against us. Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil, For thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory, for ever and ever. Amen." 
"As these words were spoken, Warton stood with the rope around his neck, his head erect, a grim, stoical look on his face, and awaited further developments. The silence was painful. Only a moment elapsed between the utterance of the Lord's Prayer and the chief warder's charge to the man about to die, but it seemed an hour. Warton stood, still game, awaiting the final operation. When Chief Warder McDonald said: "James Warton! This is the last opportunity you will have of speaking. If you wish to say anything, you may say it now." Warton cocked his head on one side, gazed reflectively towards the roof for a few seconds, and then said in a firm, though low voice: "I am sorry. If there were anything I could do to atone for the past I would do it," The condemned man reflected for a few moments, and then added; "If there be any to receive me, I commend myself to His hands, and can only hope for forgiveness." Warton paused again, appeared to think deeply for a few seconds, and then, in an almost inaudible voice said: "That is all." 
"The silence at this juncture was almost visible to the naked eye. A cold chill crawled up the spine of the spectators as the snakey fingers of the bewhiskered Quilp in goggles passed about the attenuated neck of the condemned man to finally adjust the rope ere placing the white bag over his head. Warton stood there, brave enough, but the hands of the hangman trembled and twitched as he tied the tapes attached to the white cap. When the tapes had been fastened the squat figure of the legalised man-killer vanished as if by magic, and suddenly bobbed up near the lever. The executioner stood awaiting the signal from the sheriff and, during that brief moment, Warton, if the clergyman's statement be worthy of credence, albeit the press representatives in the corridor did not hear it, murmured, in a low, husky voice: "Oh, my God; Oh, my God!" Almost immediately the sheriff raised the handkerchief above his head as a signal and, as the bolt was about to be drawn, clapped the handkerchief over his eyes to shut out the awful sight. Instantly there was a dull thud, and James Warton's body, bloodstained and limp, dangled at the end of the hempen line. 
"The suddenness of the whole thing had a shocking effect on the nerves of the spectators, but some of the more callous walked close up to the cadaver, keeping just outside the pool of warm human blood which had gushed from the veins of the deceased, and closely inspected the torn and bloody throat of the unfortunate wretch. The inspection revealed the fact that Warton's head had been almost torn from the body - only a "ribbon" of skin, or a sinew as thick as one's finger was holding it to the trunk. The body was allowed to dangle and revolve for the space of about five minutes ere Dr. Marks stepped forward, and after feeling the cold, clammy wrist of the ghastly object on the rope's end, pronounced life to be extinct. In the meantime a bag of sawdust had been thrown over the pool of blood which steamed beneath the corpse. The executioner came and removed the straps from the legs and arms of the deceased. Then there was an awful silence, as the little fat man with the hand made whiskers and black goggles climbed up a ladder to unfasten the rope from the beam. This having been done, the coffin was placed beneath the corpse which was lowered. 
"As the body came down to a convenient level the feet were grasped and placed at the bottom of the coffin, then gradually the corpse was dropped. As the weight left the rope, the head of the unfortunate man practically rolled under the shoulders. The executioner immediately pulled the head from beneath the body, removed the rope, and the lid was placed on the coffin and screwed down. As soon as the last screw was driven home the undertaker lifted the shell, carried it to the vehicle in waiting and the mortal remains of James Warton were carted off to the South Brisbane cemetery. 
"Warton's grave had been dug on Saturday, while he still lived, in readiness to receive his corpse, hot from the hangman's hands, on Monday morning. On Sunday the open grave was a centre of attraction for hundreds of morbid-minded visitors who peered into the dismal depths of the dark hole, as they discussed the feelings and the awful fate of the convict, then in full health, who was probably busily engaged debating the existence or otherwise of the Supreme Being. On Monday, as the undertaker's van, with the coffined cadaver left the gaol gates, several small youngsters with smiling and grimy chivvies followed up behind. The van was accompanied by a gaol warder and a constable, while the Church of England clergyman, Rev E. C. Ganley, followed a little later. At the grave side, fully 100 persons, mostly lads and lasses, were gathered, but there were male adults and a few women. The Rev E. C. Ganley, in compliance with Warton's request, read prayers at the grave-side, and the remains of the convict were thus interred with due regard to a section of the ethics of Christian burial."
In my opinion, it was a damned sight more than he deserved.

Tuesday, 21 November 2017

Last berth on the SS Athenia...and a posthumous letter...

The SS Athenia was a trans-Atlantic ocean liner, built in 1923.  It was the first British ship sunk in the Second World War.

The Athena left Liverpool at 1pm on September 2nd, 1939, with 1418 people aboard.  One of them was Annie Fletcher, born in Bendigo, Australia, who had grown up in Dunedin with her sister. War had not been declared, by Britain against Germany but the invasion of Poland had begun the day before and the war clouds, as they say, were gathering.  The next day, at about 4.30 pm, Britain and Germany had been at war for five hours and fifteen minutes and a German submarine sighted the Athenia.  The submarine commander, Fritz-Julius Lemp, later claimed that he observed a darkened ship on a zigzag course, a course outside the usual shipping lanes and concluded that it was a vessel of war and a legitimate target.

Two torpedoes were fired at around 7.40pm and one hit the Athenia.  The ship took fourteen hours to sink and a number of the deaths were caused by the torpedo explosion which trapped some passengers in the dining room where they drowned.  Further deaths occurred during the rescue effort when a loaded lifeboat was sucked into the propellor of one of the rescuing ships, the Norwegian tanker "Knute Nielson," and another lifeboat capsized in the dark of the night, killing ten more people.  Three further deaths were caused while transferring from lifeboats to Royal Navy destroyers and still more people died from drowning or exposure in the cold Atlantic waters.  It is not known how Annie Fletcher died.

In October 1939 Annie Fletcher's sister, Mrs Elizabeth Roberts, received letters written by Annie just before she sailed in the Athenia.  The first one stated "I was fortunate to get the last berth on the Athenia."

Annie had almost not gone - "I had changed my mind and thought of going to Cornwall Instead," she said in the second letter, "but they were so busy at the shipping office when I went to cancel my berth that I decided to keep to my original intention and leave by the Athenia"  She had grown up in Dunedin with her sister and lived in Australia for the previous twenty years.  Her British visit was one last look before returning to Dunedin to stay.  She was seventy years old.

The German news service broadcast the claim that the Athenia was sunk by a British submarine, on the orders of the then First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill.  This was partially to counter the claims that torpedoing a passenger liner was a war crime and partially due to the belief that no German submarines were in the area - a belief which was corrected when Lemp returned to port.

SS Athenia

The wreck of the SS Athena was discovered by oceanographer and archaeologist David Mearns in October of this year.

397811 Flying Officer William Harcourt Coleman, DFC 1916-26/7/1940

"Citation DFC (22 Oct 1940):
Flying Officer Coleman took part in twenty seven bombing attacks on Germany, Holland, Belgium and France since the beginning of 1940, one major bombing attack on Denmark and one night reconnaissance and raids over Germany. By his consistent determination and outstanding skill as captain of aircraft this officer set an example of the highest order."
Flying Officer William Harcourt Coleman is buried in Holland and commemorated in New Zealand.  One place he is commemorated is on the stone of the family grave in Andersons Bay Cemetery, Dunedin.  While searching for information about him I found that his story had already been written.  Here is where to find it:
The job has been done in a better and more complete way than I could manage - here instead are some photos of the planes he flew.
Tiger Moth

Hawker Hart
Hawker Fury

Handley Page Heyford
Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley
Avro Cadet
Handley Page Harrow

Vickers Wellington

Capitalist class justice? Dish it out! - John Robinson, 1883-3/8/1940

John Joseph Robinson was born in Tapanui in 1883.  He spent his early working life on the Central Otago gold dredges and was a compositor for the Alexandra Herald.

From the Otago Daily Times, November 1st, 1928:

"Mr John Robinson the Labour candidate for Dunedin Central, was born in Tapanui in 1882, and was educated at Roxburgh. He has lived in Dunedin for the last 20 years. He served an apprenticeship as a compositor. He followed the dredging boom, and at that time gained considerable experience in the blacksmithing and engineering trades and in bridge building and general construction work. He was employed in the Railways Department, and later, for five years, in the Gas Department of the city Council. Later still he served for about four years as conductor and motorman in the Tramways Department. Mr Robinson has always taken the keenest interest in Labour matters, and was one of the two persons responsible for the publication of the Democrat, a monthly Labour journal now out of print. Messrs Robinson and Murrow produced this paper solely by their own efforts and in their spare time. Mr Robinson is secretary of the Otago Labour Council, the Trades Hall Board of Trust, and the following trades unions: - Bootmakers’, Boot Repairers’, Brick and Tile Workers’, Canister Workers', Coach Workers and Wheelwrights’, Cordial Workers’, Cement Workers’, Retail Chemists’ Assistants, Manufacturing Chemists’ Assistants’, Plasterers’, Electrical Workers’, Metal Workers’ Assistants’, Rope and Twine Spinners, Paper Mills Employees’, Green Island Iron Rolling Mills Employees’, Theatrical Workers’, and Warehousemen's. He is also president for the second term of the Tramway Employees’ Union. He was chosen by the local Labour movement to give evidence before the Labour Bills Committee of Parliament on the Government’s proposed amendments to the Industrial Conciliation and Arbitration Act, and be was one of the local workers’ representatives to the National Industrial Conference called by the Government at the beginning of this year. He has been associated with the Labour Party for many years, and is a member of the local executive."

Capitalist Class Justice? Dish it out!

John Robinson lost the election for the seat of Dunedin Central.  He moved to Wellington and, with the Great Depression dominating the politics of 1930, he and Richard Griffin, General Secretary of the Communist Party of New Zealand, were tried for "inciting 'divers unknown persons' to resist, assault, or obstruct constables of Wellington in the execution of their duty; inciting lawlessness; and obstructing the traffic in Dixon street." "Capitalist class justice?  Dish it out." called Robinson from the dock.  Cries of "Hear, hear!" and a couple of verses of  "The Red Flag" were heard from the public area of the court. “What did you say?” asked the magistrate. “Dish it out,” was the reply. "The magistrate offered the prisoner an opportunity to change his plea of guilty to not guilty, but a moment or two later accused broke out again: "I understand that the justice I get now will be capitalist class justice,” he said. Cries of “Hear!, hear!” came from the back of the court. “The justice you get, I hope, is the law of the land, the same as anyone else.” said the magistrate.  Both men were jailed for two months.  Three cheers rang out in court as they were taken away.

What had Robinson said to incite lawlessness?  Addressing a crowd of unemployed men, referring to previous "unrest" at a similar meeting in Christchurch, he said: "The workers will have to unite and form a labour defence corps for Wellington to resist the police, who are forces of the capitalists. The purpose of the labour defence corps is to march ahead of the unemployed and fight and overcome the police. Able-bodied men will be necessary." A full report of the meeting in Dixon Street, Wellington, is here:

"he is an agitator"

There was another supportive crowd in court a few years later when Robinson was charged with various counts of assaulting and obstructing police.  This was the result of a march on Parliament of a group of unemployed men who were refused entry to the grounds.  As the agreed deputation were being admitted, they tried to rush the gates of Parliament and were met by police.  Robinson was chased by a police Inspector who brought him down with a flying tackle.

"It is clear that Robinson introduced a disorderly element into the procession." said the presiding magistrate. "It seems to me that he is an agitator. I am sure that conduct like his must hinder, rather than help those who wish to place their views before the authorities."

On his part, Robinson's statement was that police evidence was contradictory and that, as one of the deputation chosen to meet the Minister of Labour, he was entitled to enter the grounds of Parliament.  He claimed that police and the press were prejudiced against him due to his membership of the Communist Party and that police were persecuting him.

1932 unemployment march on Parliament, photo from "NZ History."

"expressing a seditious intention"

The end of 1931 saw Robinson arrested again.  This time it was for the content of a copy of "The Red Worker," published in September of that year.  The charge was made under a wartime law from 1915, which had been renewed in 1920.

"Counsel quoted various extracts which contained the words, 'Infamous Unemployment Act,' 'Refuse to go into slave camps,' 'Boss class breaks agreements with impunity,' 'Workers can never expect anything from the master class and Courts.' Counsel said the 'Red Worker' urged the formation of a Young Communists' League to 'instill in the minds of the young the knowledge that they were being exploited and crushed by class parasites, and that a tremendous force would be created that would send capitalism crashing to its ruins and establish Communism.'" - NZ Herald 9/2/32

Robinson was found guilty. the penalty was fifty pounds plus costs.

"workers of both sexes were batonned"

He was evidently undaunted by this finding, being charged again with sedition over the contents of an issue of the "Red Worker" in April of that year.  The following quotes were offered as evidence of the seditious nature of the publication:

 "The tide of retreat before the attacks of the bosses has been stemmed and the First of May marks a festival when we renew our youth and vigour, throw down the gauntlet of new demands, and prepare for counter-attack." 

"When we have built up committees of the workers in all enterprises and when we have linked these together in a united front of struggle and when we have built up a virile, strong, and disciplined revolutionary party to act as the vanguard in our struggles we shall be able to look forward with certainty to the day when New Zealand will celebrate a Victorious May Day, when Capitalism and its evils will only be a memory, and when we, after our long winter of struggle, shall prepare to enjoy the fruits of the earth."

This was the "Red Worker's" take on what became known as "the Queen Street Riots:"

"Precipitated by the savage and cowardly actions of the bosses police, the long-standing dissatisfaction with the slave-driving tactics of the Forbes-Coates gang of boss-class political leaders came to a head in Auckland on the evening of Thursday, 14th April, when fighting and rioting broke out and. raged through Queen street until midnight. The provocation of the police resulted in more than 200 casualties, and damage totaling thousands of pounds to Queen street business premises. Workers of both sexes were batonned with the utmost ferocity while even innocent bystanders of the bourgeois type felt the heavy end of the cudgels of the brave and gallant constables."

Found guilty, the three defendants were sentenced to three years' "reformative detention."  The sentences were reduced on appeal.

John Robinson was back in Dunedin in 1936, during the first Labour government under Prime Minister Savage.  He was in the less revolutionary role of a Workers' Advocate, taking part in disputes over wage rates.  He ran for the office of St Kilda Mayor in 1938 but was unsuccessful and was still working as a Workers' Advocate in July 1940.  He died the next month.

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Lysander to Calais - 42129 Pilot Officer Ernest Elliot Howarth, 1919-27/5/1940.

Ernest Elliot Howarth was born at Ohakune in 1919.  He grew up in Baker Street, Caversham and was educated at Otago Boys High School.  On leaving school he took up an apprenticeship at the Hillside Railway Workshops as a fitter and turner.  He applied and was accepted for a short service commission in the RAF in 1938 and left for Britain in February 1939.

He was classed as a "direct entry recruit" - that is, one with no previous flying experience.  For him and others like him, training was ten weeks at a civilian flying school then a further eight months training with the RAF before being drafted to an operational Squadron.

On the 12th April, 1939, the New Zealanders were met on their arrival at Waterloo Station, London by a throng of newspapermen.  Flashbulbs went off and the two of them whose height was over six feet led to the description of "sunburned giants" by one paper's aerial corespondent.

Howarth joined those who were sent to Yatesbury, a training school run by the Bristol Aircraft Company.  They trained on the Tiger Moth, the standard trainer of the day.  Almost inevitably nicknamed "Digger," Howarth impressed as much with his sporting achievements as his flying proficiency.  He was gazetted as Pilot Officer on January 26, 1940.

By that time, he was in France with his Squadron, No. 26, flying the Westland Lysander on tactical reconnaissance missions.  They had arrived in October with the British Expeditionary Force and stayed until May when they returned to Britain and flew reconnaissance, bombing and resupply missions across the English Channel.  By this time, things were looking very grim for the BEF.  German forces had split them from the French and reached the Channel on May 20th and the British were falling back on the ports nearest home.

Key to the defence of the BEF was the port of Calais.  Taking that city would threaten the beaches to the north where troops were massing for evacuation.  The men at Calais knew that there would be no evacuation for them and they fought as hard as they knew.  German forces asked for surrender, it was refused.  The Navy and Air Force did their best to support the troops in Calais, the Navy taking off wounded and using their guns, the Air Force dropping bombs on the enemy and water, food and ammunition to the troops.

On May 27, 38 Lysanders of 26 and 613 Squadrons flew over Calais at dawn to drop ammunition.  Their crews were aware of the danger of their mission and how vital it was to those below.  They did not know that the British soldiers below them had surrendered.  They were sitting ducks for German anti-aircraft guns and three of the twelve crashed.

Ernest Elliot Howarth's Lysander was one of those three. He was 21 years old.

His family were given the news on May 31st when he was listed as "missing, presumed killed."

His official status was altered on March 28th, 1941, to "believed killed."  He was buried in the Calais Southern Cemetery.

Howarth's commemoration on the family stone in Andersons Bay Cemetery

Howarth's Lysander, L6863, on the ramparts of a disused fort at Calais.  Also killed was his gunner, Leading Aircraftman John A. Bolton 

My thanks to Susan Madden-Grey, Curator of the Otago Boys High School museum.