Call us appraisalists, historical researchers, or even cyber archaeologists. Most of our day consists of using a wide variety of historical material to pull together the histories of sites around Canterbury (and to make sure those archaeologists in the field are digging in the right spot). It is only a matter of time in the course of our research before we come across some unusual and quirky stories in Christchurch’s history. Some of these stories from the early times of Christchurch stay with us, and we are often heard exclaiming about some exploit of the early colonists in our office.
So today we thought we would share a couple of the not so successful exploits of the early settlers of Christchurch. We enjoyed the research and hope to post more of these stories later in the year (on a lighter note maybe?)
A poor remittance – the life and times of Horatio Parkes
Horatio John Parkes was the cousin of British diplomat based in China, Sir Henry (Harry) Parkes. Horatio was a ‘remittance man’ (Christchurch City Libraries, 2015: 7–8). Those who were identified as receivers of a remittance were often immigrants to British colonies financially supported by family back home. Reasons for this support varied from those wishing to seek their fortune, establishing a base for family to follow, or safety from personal tribulations such as legal or family troubles. In Horatio’s case we think the latter applies as he was shipped out on one of the four first ships, the ‘Sir George Seymour’, in 1850. Horatio was supported by his cousin, and lived on a section purchased for him in Christchurch called the ‘Grange’. Part of this section would eventually be sold to the government for the ‘Roimata Settlement’ which now forms part of Woolston today (Christchurch City Libraries, 2015: 7–8).
Horatio is first mentioned in the local papers in 1853 for escaping with his life in the swollen Selwyn River in 1853. Sadly, however, is also noted that the very expensive horse and dray that he was borrowing were swept away (Lyttelton Times 7/5/1853:6). Over the course of the next thirty years Horatio would appear in the local magistrate’s courts for drunkenness, a tussle in a pub, unlicensed dogs, and even supported a friend in court when his ducks were unlawfully shot (Lyttelton Times 25/2/1860:4; Star 27/1/1886:3; Press 29/7/1889:3).
It seems that for all intents and purposes Horatio was a good guy who, unlike some remittance men, wanted to live a simple quiet life. Unfortunately for him, his run of bad luck (and possibly bad decision making) all came to a head in 1897 with a tragic death and an arrest for murder!
‘The Woolston Homicide’ took place in January 1897. Michael (or Patrick, newspapers were conflicting in the name) Ryan had been released from gaol months prior with nowhere to stay. As the story goes, Horatio allowed Ryan to stay a couple of nights, but it seems that Ryan outstayed his welcome. It is noted in one newspaper that Ryan used to arrive home drunk and abusive. On the night in question, Ryan assaulted Horatio with an axe. Horatio then managed to wrangle the axe from Ryan and responded with two blows of the axe, killing Ryan. Horatio maintained it was self-defence and at the age of 71 was charged for murder and, later, manslaughter (Waikato Argus 23/1/1897:2; Star 22/1/1897:3; Timaru Herald 25/1/1897:3). The coroner’s jury returned a verdict of justifiable homicide and the Grand Jury at the Supreme Court threw out the bill against him. Horatio died 25 June 1898, aged 73, and is buried in the Woolston cemetery (New Zealand, Cemetery Records [Woolston] 1898; Star 27/6/1898:1). Not much was recorded after this incident, apart from the Public Trust and the settlement of his estate in 1898 (Press 16/7/1898:10).
So, just remember that tucked away somewhere in the suburb of Woolston is the site of an unfortunate murder of circumstance. It could be said that bad luck followed Horatio Parkes to the ends of earth, or maybe just the outer reaches of the British colonies.
The severed hand – a mysterious case
On 16 December 1885, the Godfrey brothers, Elisha and Frederick, discovered a severed hand whilst fishing at Taylors Mistake (Star 17/12/1885: 3). This discovery precipitated one of the most widely reported and sensationalised criminal cases in 19th century New Zealand. Inquest into the severed left hand began the following day, and the gold strap and buckle ring found upon one of the fingers identified the owner as Arthur Robert Howard (Press 18/12/1885).
It was reported that on 10 October 1885 Howard had gone for a swim at the Sumner beach and had drowned. His clothes were found neatly folded on the beach the following day (Evening Post 19/12/1885: 2). His wife, Mrs Sarah Howard, soon sought to make an insurance claim. However, the insurance companies were suspicious of a mechanic who earned £150 per annum but whose life was insured for £2,400. They refused to pay without proof of his death. Mrs Howard quickly advertised a £50 reward for the retrieval of his body (Figure 2).
Little was heard of the case again until two months later when the severed hand was discovered. The Sumner area was relentlessly searched for Howard’s body, all to no avail (Star 19/12/1885: 3). The police were soon suspicious of the convenient discovery of the hand. To begin with, the hand showed little of the signs of decomposition which would be expected for a hand floating in the ocean for nearly two months. When medical experts were brought in to examine the limb, little consensus could be met as to the cause of the hand’s severance. Some believed the hand showed signs of being severed by a shark, while others noted blows which looked to be created by a sharp instrument. Other examiners even questioned the sex of the hand, believing it to look quite feminine (Press 22/12/1885: 3). The gold ring found on one of the fingers had the letters “A. H.” engraved on the inside, further identifying Arthur Howard as its owner. However, when jewelers examined the ring, they noted that the rough burrs around the engraving indicated it was done within the last fortnight and, while done with a sharp instrument, it was not made with an engravers tool (Press 23/12/1885: 3). On 21 December Elisha and Frederick were arrested for conspiracy to defraud the insurance companies (Star 21/12/1885: 2). Mrs Howard’s arrest soon followed (West Coast Times 23/12/1885: 3).
The case was further sensationalised when the supposedly dead Mr Howard was arrested in Petone, just outside of Wellington on 4 January, 1886 (Press 5/1/1886: 3). Mr Howard’s story was soon uncovered. Following the faking of his own death in October 1885, Howard had removed to Waitapi in the Wairarapa district, where he worked on the Cameron’s station under the pseudonym of “Watts”. In December he moved to Wellington, where he donned a dark wig and mustache and went by the name of “John Watson” (Press 6/1/1886: 3). Howard also wore a black glove on his right hand, with gutta percha stuffed in the inside of the thumb to disguise the missing appendage he lost while fighting in Mexico (New Zealand Herald 8/1/1886: 5; Press 15/1/1886: 3). When Mr Howard was arrested his trunk was searched and a secret drawer containing a plethora of wigs and pigments to assist in forming disguises was found (Star 8/1/1886: 4).
On April 8, 1886, Mr and Mrs Howard, along with the Godley brothers, appeared before the supreme court in Christchurch. Arthur Howard was convicted of attempting insurance fraud. He received the maximum penalty of two years in jail. Mrs Howard and the Godleys, however, were acquitted (Press 8/04/1886: 2). Despite a number of graves being exhumed in in the Christchurch, Wairarapa and Wellington area, no handless body was found (Southland Times 22/1/1886: 2). The owner of the hand that was found on the beach remains unidentified to this day.
The story of the severed hand created a sensation throughout New Zealand. Companies jumped on the band wagon of the media hype and used the case as a means of advertising their products (Figure 3). People even complained that unless an article was headed “Severed Hand” no one would even read it (Star 18/1/1886: 3). Even before the case reached the supreme court, advertisements for a copy of “The Severed Hand: A full account of the Howard Mystery” appeared in the Star, complete with illustrations of all the conspirators (Star 29/1/1886: 2). This tale continues to intrigue readers today, with many readers still wondering whose hand it was…
Lydia Mearns and Annthalina Gibson