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.

the erased epitaph - Louisa Richardson, Fortrose

The Cemetery

In the little cemetery, which is near the small town of Fortrose, is one of the strangest gravestones I've ever seen.  Reading it would lead you to think that there are two people under it - Louisa Richardson and James Welsh.  But there's only one.  And three grooves where words have been chiseled out.

Twenty year old Louisa Richardson came to New Zealand from Ireland in November, 1877, and found a job on a farm on the Taieri Plain.  There she met James Welsh, whom she married.  They lived and worked at Waikawa Station in the Catlins - he as a ploughman, she as a cook.  They were married for all of two months when disaster struck.

The Murder

Peter Anderson, a carpenter at the station, was returning to the station at dusk on September 15 when he noticed something strange about the house where the Welshes lived.  He entered and found Louisa, on the floor, legs bare, quite dead from a long wound to her throat.  It was too dark to see whether there was any blood.  James was nowhere to be seen and a note was on the table - "Touch nothing till the trooper comes."  This had been left by the nearest neighbour in the early affternoon, the first to find Louisa.

Later, in court, Anderson related an incident from earlier that day.  A shepherd, leaving the station, gave Louisa a ride on his horse.  Only a short one, before her husband removed her from the horse.

The alarm went out over the murder.  A description was issued of the suspect:

"Description - Irish, thirty-three years, 5ft 4in high, dark brown hair, light whiskers inclining to red and full on cheeks, small moustache same color, small face and forehead, shaves temples, teeth very dark, brown eyes with wild expression, while walking leans forward and swings from side to side with legs wide apart; dark tartan Mosgiel dress, check about half an inch wide, nearly new. Had a meerschaum pipe, eagle claws round bowl, centre one broken."

A doctor came to inspect Louisa's body before it was shifted and police began searching the area near the station for James Welsh.  He was found two days after the murder and a bloodstained pocket knife taken from him.  On being arrested and charged with the murder of his wife, Welsh merely replied "Yes."  Whether he was admitting to the murder or acknowledging the charge, Inspector Fox the arresting officer could not be sure.

Welsh also said something on being arrested which might have indicated a motive for murder.  On having his pockets searched he stated: "I have got no money; she took all my money and then turned around upon me; she spent it on one thing or another, and I don't know where it has gone to."

The coronial inquest on the body of Louisa was convened the following Friday:

"A foreman (Mr 0. Brandon) having been appointed, the body was next viewed. It was enclosed in a strong wooden shell wrapped up in sheets, and presented a most ghastly appearance. Notwithstanding the time |that it had been kept it was still far from showing many external signs of decomposition. On the large wound in the throat being exposed so deeply was the windpipe severed that there was every appearance of her being stuck like a pig in addition to the mere severing of veins and artery. The utmost ferocity must have been shown in the desperate struggle, and the cuts on the woman's hands show how hard she must have fought for dear life. So youthful did she look, that she could hardly be more than twenty, and when alive one could understand how she was generally liked by all she came in contact with."

Anderson, the carpenter engaged to build a house on Waikawa Station for the landowner, was able to describe James Welsh's personality and offer an insight into his relationship with his wife:

"I had some conversation with him in the bush about the 10th of the month, when cross-cutting. He was the most peculiar man I ever saw, and I could never get him to talk much.  Welsh and his wife were working in their garden, and she said to me in passing, she felt so awfully melancholy she did not know what to do with herself. She was often crying, and said she had great cause for sorrow, and nobody knew it. She said one day she would like to stop at McRae's, and if her husband did not work there she would never go with him elsewhere. I saw no quarrels between them. She had no faults as far as I saw. She was cheerful beyond what I have said, except when she turned melancholy and started to cry. This she did often. The prisoner's demeanour I can hardly describe, it is very peculiar. If you start to speak to him he will say nothing."

The inquest witnesses' description of defensive wounds suffered by Louisa, as well as the fatal one,  ruled out any suggestion of suicide.  Bloodstains in the couple's house and on Welsh's clothing were also described.  The evidence was conclusive.

"...the Jury returned a verdict of "Willful Murder" against the prisoner. On Saturday the prisoner was conveyed on horseback from Fortrose to Wyndham, thence by coach to Edendale, and then on to Invercargill by rail. During the inquest he preserved throughout the inquiry the most stolid and cool demeanour, only waking up, as it were, whilst Inspector Fox gave his evidence. Even when the lamp was held close to his face, for the purpose of comparing the hair discovered with that of his beard, he never once blinked or changed colour. As soon as he was captured, a burden seemed to be lifted off his mind, and he now eats well, and converses quite freely on any subject but the murder."

The Trial

James Welsh made a plea of "not guilty" when he came to trial.  He claimed that he had quarreled with his wife on the morning of the fatal day, had gone out of the house and found her body on his return.  None of his explanation accounted for the blood on his clothes when he was arrested, nor the bloodstained pocket knife he was carrying.  His defence counsel made the best of a lack of perceived motive for murder and, as was common in capital cases, reminded the jury of the awful consequences of convicting an innocent man.  The jury, on retiring, took 35 minutes to decide their unanimous verdict of guilty.

The verdict being returned, the judge then asked James Welsh to speak.

"When asked what he had to say why the Court should not pass sentence of death upon him, he replied with considerable hesitancy that it was the first time he had ever been in a Court in his life, either for that or anything else. His Honor having assumed the black cap proceeded to pass sentence in a low impressive tone of voice. He said—“ Prisoner at the bar, after a long, patient trial, during which you have been ably defended, you have been convicted of a brutal murder by a jury of your countrymen. I have no doubt whatever in my own mind as to the correctness of the verdict, or the justness of the conclusion to which the jury have come. I can only say that I hope that during the short time that you will still have to remain in this world you will turn your mind to repenting of the crime which you have committed. All I have to do now is to pass the sentence of death upon you. The judgement of the law is that you, James Welsh, be taken from the place where you now are to the prison whence you came, and thence to the place of execution, and there, by the manner and form by law appointed, to be hung by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul.” After a short and impressive pause His Honor ordered the prisoner to be removed, and having alluded to the manner in which the jury had discharged the painful duty imposed on them dismissed them. The Court then adjourned."

The perceived lack of motive on the part of Welsh made a few people who followed believe that he did not deserve to die and that a verdict of insanity should have been reached.  A petition on Welsh's behalf was made to the Governor General but it was declined after a group of medical experts examined Welsh and found him "in full possession of his senses."  On being told that there was no chance of a reprieve, the reserved Welsh became more so.

On the appointed day, February 19th, 1879,  James Welsh spent time with Father Higgins, the appointed Catholic Priest.  At the appointed hour of 7am the appointed officials (including the arresting officer, Inspector Fox) gathered for the execution.  At 7.30 the hangman entered Welsh's cell and bound his arms.  He was marched to the gallows, Father Higgins walking and praying beside him.  Prayers continued as his legs were restrained and the noose adjusted.  And prayers continued as the trapdoor bolt was withdrawn and James Welsh dropped seven feet to his fate.  The hangman added his weight to that of James on the rope, to make sure the job was done.  The usual coroner's jury was convened and the usual verdict was added to James Welsh's death certificate.

The Stone

Louisa was buried in the little cemetery at Fortrose and a number of concerned locals paid for a gravestone.

to the memory of
murdered by her husband
at Wakiawa Stn on Sunday
15th September 1878
Aged 20 years
Requiesat in Pace amen
Erected by public subscription

The above picture of the stone appeared in an illustrated magazine some years later as something of an historic novelty.  Tourists visiting the area made a point of seeing the odd and macabre inscription.  Eventually the local Catholic priest grew tired of what he regarded as impropriety and had the relevant words chiseled out.

But why did James kill Louisa?  He said nothing about the murder or his motives except to mention money.  Did she spend all of his money?  Savings against the future, savings to buy land and therefore independence were of vital importance back then.  Evidence from witnesses would indicate another motive - jealousy.  The physical descriptions of the couple indicate a short man, possibly odd-looking and also possibly aware of the attractiveness of his much younger wife.  Perhaps James saw admiring looks and perceived those looks returned.  Of course, we will never know.