Tuesday, 22 July 2014

"Murder on the Night Goods"

A "J" Class Locomotive of the type used in Southland and
South Otago in 1883. These locomotives were manufactured
by a number of English engineering firms including Avonside,
Dubs, Neilson, Vulcan and Stephenson. Locomotives and
tenders were generally painted in a "pleasant green" livery
with careful lining out. None are preserved but parts survive.
[Source : National Library of New Zealand]

"A Very Sad Tale"

I recently uncovered a very sad tale relating to a close friend of my maternal family of which I was previously unaware. Headlines in papers throughout the country read "Mysterious Murder on the Southern Line", "The Clinton Mystery", "The Wairuna Tragedy", "The Southland Tragedy", and "The Fatal Outrage". While initially viewed as murder but subsequently downgraded to manslaughter, the effects on the two families involved were hardly any less significant.

A "J" Class Locomotive with its mixed train about to leave
Invercargill Railway Station for points north. Oddly, trains
heading up the Main Line to Clinton first travelled south
in the opposite direction to this mixed train, taken 1885
[Source : "All Aboard", by RJ Meyer]  

"After Proceeding about 3½ Miles South of Clinton"

The sad story commenced when the 10 p.m. "No. 7 south goods train" pulled out of the remote rural Station of Clinton in the South Island of New Zealand on its return journey to Invercargill on the evening of the 23rd August 1883. On the locomotive footplate, almost certainly an attractively proportioned English "J. Class", were three men, the Driver, Peter Dunn; the Fireman, John [Jack] Henderson; the Brakesman, Charles Simmonds; with the Guard, Mr W. Duncan, in the van. After proceeding about  miles west of Clinton, and at a speed of around 12 miles per hour, the train entered a short cutting about a mile from the wayside Wairuna Station.

The route followed by the train from Clinton,
additionally showing the site of the Roy
residence and the wayside Wairuna Station.
[Source : "Dr Hocken's Laptop Guide To The South"]

"Oh, Oh, Oh, Peter, I Am Shot"

The sound of a shot being fired was heard from the left-hand bank, being about 10 feet high. Fireman Henderson, who was standing to the left, and apparently wondering if it was a fog detonator on the line, looked round for a better view before the second shot was quickly fired. The click of the gun hammer was distinctly heard and being pitch dark the flash of the blast from up on the bank was visible. Fireman Henderson "...immediately uttered a cry and fell back across the engine, exclaiming "Oh, oh, oh,  Peter, I am shot!." He then staggered across the footplate to Dunn, appeared to lose command of his legs then "dropped into witness's arms", the Brakesman urging Dunn to quickly "take hold of Henderson".

The Railway Line today, taken just to the east of the former
Wairuna Station and looking towards Clinton from an over-bridge
 on the "Presidential Highway" to Gore. The shootings took place
just under a mile down the line from here. Clinton lies under the
partly wooded Popotunoa Hill visible at centre right.
[Source : Google Maps]

"Greatly Fearing For Their Own Safety"

Although only three seconds separated the shots, steam had been immediately shut off at the first blast and the Brakesman told to put on the brakes. Obviously greatly fearing for their own safety, no search was made of the area (but a marker was dropped), the lights on the engine were quickly extinguished, the Guard was called up to the engine, then the train reversed back to Clinton.

"Plenty of Whistling"

Reversing contravened the "Rules and Regulations" of 1881 but circumstances demanded that this course of action be taken - and with all haste. Electric train tablets guaranteeing possession of a section of line had not yet been introduced and trains simply ran on "a time interval basis". Driver Dunn must have known he could safely make it back to Clinton without meeting another train but there would have been plenty of whistling [Rule 354] to not only alert the Station staff but also the night signalman who would have immediately placed a red lamp at sufficient distance from the station to warn any train approaching from the opposite direction to stop [Rule 86]. In these early years stations had no semaphore signals.

A "J" Class Locomotive with a long mixed train, taken
at Mandeville on the Waimea Plains Line, prior to 1900.
[Source : "All Aboard", by RJ Meyer]

"Dunn Ran For Dr. Low"

On arrival at Clinton Station, and not knowing if Henderson was dead or still alive, Dunn ran for Dr. Low but upon very speedily attending the deceased John Henderson was pronounced dead. It was, from a post-morten examination, obvious that the shots were of "Number One" or "Duck Shot", having hit the deceased in the left breast, heart and lower stomach region.

The Sensational Headline from the 'Otago Daily Times',
24th August 1883
[Source : "Papers Past"]

"Sensational News of The Mysterious Murder"

The local Police Constable and the Stationmaster were quickly in attendance with news of the "Murder" being urgently wired through to their seniors in Invercargill and Dunedin - one of the benefits of the excellent Post Office Telegraph facility available at this remote but busy railway crossing station. The sensational news of the "mysterious murder" even made the morning editions of the Southern papers. The developing story also appeared in Australian newspapers. A search of the scene that night by the Constable and four brave local volunteers proved fruitless but a daylight search in the morning critically found part of a small flute lying on the grass near the scene. An Inspector, two Detectives, and other Police promptly arrived on the morning Express from Dunedin and other district towns. The search for the perpetrator of this evil deed would be systematic and thorough, commencing with an examination of the (now somewhat over-trodden) scene of the shooting, pursuing any possible clue, and to make inquiries of all the settlers in the vicinity.

Clinton Railway Station in 1895. The Post Office and
Telegraph Office shared one side of the station building.
At left are the Railway Refreshment Rooms - and a Bar.
The Station burnt down in January 1900.
[Source : "Steel Roads of New Zealand"]

"Rumours of.... Revenge With a Murderous Intent

During the afternoon the Police received information that three local lads had been out that night rabbit shooting in the vicinity. During the afternoon the three young brothers, James Roy, aged 19; John Roy, aged 18 (as accessory to the fact), and Alexander Roy, aged 14, were brought into the Clinton Police Station under custody (i.e. having been arrested), together with their two recently fired "fowling-pieces". The main street filled with excited groups eager to hear further news. Wild rumours as to "motives of revenge with a murderous intent" had quickly spread around the district but these were quickly dispelled upon the arrests being made. The discovery of the other half of the flute, which was still in their possession, critically placed them at the scene of the shooting.

"They Did Not Know The Guns Were Loaded"

Without undue coercion the boys then gave evidence that they were indeed "firing at the train", "they had no idea of doing damage", "they did not know the guns were loaded", "though they saw the train stop and go back they did not know anything had occurred" and "We did not do it intentionally". They had additionally "heard of the fireman's death at 10 a.m. this morning but still did not know they had done harm to anybody". Overall they were "unconcerned" and "Took the matter very coolly, whistling at times". While generally looked on by those in the neighbourhood as "a little wild", the boys "don't bear a bad reputation" and "were well-liked". They may also have thrown a turnip at the engine close to Wairuna the previous evening, the deceased having called attention to it.

"They Must Stand the Consequences"

Their Father, Mr James Roy of Wairuna, a well respected part-time teacher (having set up a school in his own home), farmer, Justice of the Peace, and part time Presbyterian Church Preacher, testified that the boys had been out till around 10 and 11 o'clock on the night in question. When told he could visit his sons in custody he replied that "He had spoken to them often enough, and they must stand the consequences."

A number of Engine Drivers and Firemen posing with their
"J" and "F" Class Locomotives at the Invercargill Roundhouse,
taken 1882. Unfortunately all are unnamed.
[Source : "Register of New Zealand Steam Locomotives 1863-1971"]

"Only Married The Previous July"

It soon became apparent that the whole sorry episode had been the result of "reckless mischief". As for the deceased, Fireman John [Jack] Henderson aged 33 years, he had only arrived in New Zealand 12 months previous, having formerly been an Engine Driver in India. He would definitely have aspired to hold the same position with the New Zealand Government Railways. The additional tragedy was that he had only been married to his wife, Annie Henderson née Wyper, the previous July, now being in her confinement. A report quoting Henderson as having three children appears to be spurious unless he had been previously married in India.

"A Reckless and Wanton Piece of Mischief"

Those firing the two guns were believed to be James Roy and Alexander Roy but no charges were laid against John Roy. It was generally believed that the youths meant to hit the engine funnel or some other part of the engine but may have miscalculated the speed of the engine in the dark. They had not meant to harm anyone and there was certainly no motive to have induced them to intentionally fire at the deceased or his companions. The following statement appears to adequately sum up the unfortunate situation : "The whole affair has the appearance of being a reckless and wanton piece of mischief, which has terminated in an unexpectedly disastrous manner".

"The Spectre of Death by Hanging"

At a subsequent local inquiry before the District Coroner and a jury of 14 persons, all the evidence including the testimony of the witnesses were heard. While the Coroner believed that the guns were not maliciously fired, the jury were given the opportunity to bring in a verdict of murder if they thought differently. For James Roy at 19 years of age, this would have raised the spectre of death by hanging. But luck was on all their sides as after three quarters of an hour the jury returning their verdict; "We find that the accused, James and Alexander Row, did, during the night of the 23rd inst., discharge their guns recklessly and carelessly whilst the train was passing through a cutting, thereby causing the death of the deceased."

A forbidding looking Dunedin Gaol [Jail], taken 1880's
[Source : Te Ara - The Encyclopedia of New Zealand]

"Imprisoned in Dunedin Gaol

As this amounted to a "[more] minor charge of manslaughter", the two accused were remanded by the Coroner on bail of £200 bail each to await formal trial on the said charge. Both were tried in the Supreme Court in Dunedin but pleaded not guilty. After re-hearing all the evidence, including lengthy deliberations, the Grand Jury returned verdicts of manslaughter on both the accused but recommended leniency in the sentence. The sentence of His Honor, Mr Justice Williams, was that the younger Alexander Roy be acquitted on his Father's recognisance and payment of £50 [NZD$8,700 in today's values), but that his elder brother James Roy be imprisoned in Dunedin Gaol [jail] for a period of two months but without hard labour. His Honour commented that, "A lad of his age ought to know better than to play such a mischievous trick as this was."

"The Most Hypocritical Exhortation I Have Ever Perused"

Much local sympathy had been afforded to Mr James Roy Snr. who, in a public meeting, was urged to continue his district preaching work. But unfortunately he engendered some ill-feeling, which would certainly not have been his intention, after sending Mrs Henderson "a fulsome letter". A newspaper correspondent who viewed it (obviously with Mrs Henderson's co-operation) wrote, "After wearisomely wading through four pages, I considered it from first to last the most hypocritical exhortation that I have ever perused."

Mrs Annie Rennie (and widow of John Henderson),
taken in Invercargill circa 1885-1890.
[From my own collection]

"Did Mr Roy Think of His Duty To God?"

The correspondent added a further caustic comment; "I wonder, did Mr Roy think of his duty to God when he took a good stiff sum from the Court for expenses? ... I wonder after having received that amount, did he hand it over and tell Mrs Henderson that her prayers were heard?". I think the criticism is harsh. Detailed reminiscences written by Mr Roy in 1906 record that he was, in these early years, "not burdened with cash", being exacerbated by continual ill-health and with a large family to support. He makes no mention of the case. One must also not forget that he himself was responsible for paying the not inconsiderable Coroner's fine of £50. James Roy Snr. died at Wairuna in 1913, aged 79 years.

"His Chance to Redeem Himself Taken From Him" 

But what became of the errant boys? Upon the instructions of the Defence Department, James Roy, born 1863, is noted as being struck off the roll of the G Battery, N.Z.R.A., Invercargill in November 1883. One would have thought that some strong military discipline after his release would have been beneficial. But I was taken aback to then discover that he died at Wairuna after a short illness of "Bright's Disease" [chronic nephritis] in November 1885, being interred at Clinton. His chance to redeem himself and make something of his life had been taken from him.

His younger brother, Alexander Roy, born 1868, and Farmer of "Hunters" Waimate, North Otago, married Annie Francombe in 1906, and died at Waimate in 1943 where he is interred.

John [Jack] Henderson's marble Gravestone in the East 
Invercargill Cemetery, engraved "Erected by the Railway 
Employeesand "The Victim of the Wairuna Tragedy".
Taken Nov 2017 after the stone had been restored by 
a local Lion's Group with assistance from 
J Fraser & Sons Monumental Masons. 
[From my own collection]

"An Additional Tragedy"

Upwards of 300 people attended John [Jack] Henderson's funeral at Invercargill on the 25th August 1883 with Railways staff raising funds for his headstone. A public subscription also raised £101.15.4 for his widow which equates to a commendable NZD$17,632.00 in today's values. An additional tragedy may be that no record has been found of her baby which indicates that she either subsequently suffered an early miscarriage or the baby took her new husband's surname. In 1886 Annie married again, this time to Mr William Rennie of Invercargill but I note in later years that they "were childless" [they appear to have had three children who all died prior to 1900]. Annie remained a close friend of my family, all having been brought up in the same Parish in Lanarkshire Scotland.

Both Mrs Annie Rennie, who died in 1924, and her former husband John [Jack] Henderson are buried in separate plots at the Eastern Cemetery in Invercargill. Any further information concerning Mr and Mrs Henderson (and Mr and Mrs Rennie) would be very welcome. It would also be wonderful to obtain a photo of John [Jack] Henderson.

Last Update : 16 August 2017

Bibliography & Credits / Rārangi Pukapuka :
  • Watson family photograph collection (held by the writer)
  • Reminiscences of Mr Hugh Anderson of 'Brookdale', Hokonui (held by the writer)
  • Reminiscences of Mr James Roy, Snr. (Internet)
  • The National Library of New Zealand / Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa (Internet)
  • Te Ara - Cyclopedia of New Zealand (Internet)
  • Invercargill City Council Cemeteries
  • "Dr. Hocken's Laptop Guide To The South", compiled by the Rev J.G. Sinclair (from my own collection)
  • "Register of New Zealand Railways Steam Locomotives", by WG Lloyd, 1974 (from my own collection)
  • "Steel Roads of New Zealand", Edited by Gordon Troup, 1973 (from my own collection)
  • "Footplate - The Victorian Engineman's New Zealand", by Gordon Troup, 1978 (from my own collection) 
  • "All Aboard" by RJ Meyer, 1980 (from my own collection) 
  • Wyper family history (Internet)
  • With thanks to the East Invercargill Cemetery staff, the Invercargill Lions Club, and J Fraser & Sons Monumental Masons for their efforts in restoring Jack Henderson's Gravestone


  1. I wonder if the victim's family truly believed that the whole sorry episode had been the result of "reckless mischief". Certainly the shooting didn't seem to be targeted at the deceased, since he had only arrived in New Zealand from India. But young lads, out at night with weapons, unsupervised by adults???? hmmm

    1. Yes Hels, it would all be treated VERY differently now. I do wonder if this wild behaviour with disastrous results altered attitudes towards young adults / children and firearms, I could not find any direct references though.

  2. Hi Don, would love to talk to you more about this piece of history. Any chance of having your email address? Regards, marsh

    1. Just follow the "Click Here to Email Me" link in the right hand menu bar


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