Monday, 30 May 2016

"I tell you plainly: we suspect foul play." James 'Jimmy' Adams, 1880

W S Greenville's battery.  "I have been threatened by a person . . ."

In the early hours of Christmas morning, 1880,  Edward Scott was woken by a dog barking. The fishmonger, who lived in Cook Street, Hape Creek, Thames, then heard footsteps going towards what was known locally as the 'big house', about 75 yards from his house.  He heard nothing else and fell asleep again.  About an hour later, at 20 minutes to 3,  his wife woke him up, having heard a window smash.  Edward then heard the loud somewhat drunken shriek of "Let me out! let me out! let me out!"     He also heard a shout of "Greenville!" Sleep- fuddled and thinking someone had set fire to his smoke house in the back yard, Edward pulled on a shirt and ran outside.   But it was the 'big house' that was going up in flames.  He ran towards the gate and at that moment an explosion blew out  the north side of the house. Another explosion took away the four corners of the building and a third, the skylight.  He then heard a fourth explosion which appeared to come from the dining room.  Edward shouted "Fire!"  

About 3am Mr Cartwright, the Grahamstown watchman, rang out the alarm of fire. The Grahamstown and Shortland Fire Brigade's and the police were quickly on the scene. It became known that there was a man in the house, and alarmingly, a quantity of gunpowder.   The fire brigades, assisted by neighbours and police bringing buckets of water from the creek,  worked hard to save the building, but their efforts were hopeless, the house being completely enveloped in flames, and a few minutes after the conflagration was discovered the gun powder exploded blowing the house to bits.  Grave doubts were held as to the safety of the occupier, who was seen returning home at 1.30 that morning.

The 'big house' was owned by Mr W S Greenville, a mine battery owner, and occupied by James 'Jimmy' Adams.    The house was a spacious building situated close to Mr Greenville's battery in the Hape Creek.  It was erected on a mound set apart from other houses and could only be approached from the road by a pathway or through a slip rail abutting the small dwelling belonging to Edward Scott, unless the creek and flumes were crossed from the battery side.  There were a small number of wooden cottages in the surrounding neighbourhood and next to the piece of ground on which the house stood was a butchery fenced off from the house by wooden fence palings.  The house was plainly visible to residences dotted here and there along the hills and as the burning timbers lit up the scene, the grandeur of the spot became apparent. 

Thames Volunteer Fire Brigade (1899)

Jimmy Adams was aged 35 and a native of Northern Ireland.  He had returned to Thames about three years previously with a considerable sum of money, most of which he subsequently lost, and for some time he was employed as a carter.  Lately he had a tribute in Mr Greenville's  mining ground and had  lodged  a payable crushing on Saturday, leaving him well in funds.
The house belonging Mr Greenville  was uninsured. A number of barrels of gunpowder  were  stored on the premises - Mr Greenville kept these  for the use of the mine. There  were some alterations being made in the machinery at the battery and consequently there was much property in store, which was all totally destroyed.  Mr Greenville's loss was estimated at about 200 pounds.    When the flames were at last subdued the police entered and found the remains of Jimmy Adams who was almost cremated.   A watch,  a pair of spectacles and a knife were found where his bed was presumed to have been.  Twelve shillings and eight pence were found near the body. He was  conveyed to the morgue at Shortland Police station  until the inquest.

'A miner roasted alive' shouted the horrible headlines, followed quickly by speculation and rumour.   Jimmy Adams, in whom Mr Greenville placed the greatest confidence, had always been a trustworthy and quiet man, and his sober habits were never questioned.  But it was whispered by local residents that the unfortunate man had frequently been seen wending his way home in a state of insobriety and that on more than one occasion, knowing that gun powder was stored on the premises, neighbours entered the house at a late hour and extinguished his candle.   Gossip said  that voices were distinctly heard in the big house between the time of Jimmy's return home and the fire.  Even the cry of "Murder!" had been said to have been plainly heard.

At the inquest a juror asked  how long the inquiry was likely to last, as it was Christmas and the jury wished to enjoy themselves.  He asked for an adjournment.  Also asking for an adjournment was  Mr Dodd,  a solicitor who appeared on behalf of the relatives of the deceased.  To the Coroner's questions of  "On what grounds?'  Mr Dodd   replied darkly "I tell you plainly: we suspect foul play."

Sergeant Major O'Grady was incensed and  said it was a liberty on the part of Mr Dodd, unprecedented in the history of coroners juries, to take the stand he had.  It was for the police to bring forth evidence and after that Mr Dodd could ask for an adjournment.  Despite the frequent outbursts from Mr Dodd, the trial went ahead. 

 The foreman asked if there had not been rumours as to how Jimmy Adams came to his death.  Sergeant Major Grady  thundered  "Rumours are inadmissible."  Mr Dodd thought the importance of the case demanded the admission of any statement. Sergeant Major O'Grady again protested against Mr Dodd interfering with the inquiry.  The Coroner said he could not silence Mr Dodd.

Several witnesses gave conflicting evidence as to Jimmy's demeanour on Christmas Eve.  
Seen near Mrs Percy's hotel between 12 and 1am  Jimmy Adams appeared "tight" and staggered a little, but also appeared to be able to take care of himself.  About a quarter to one, while being accompanied part of the way, home Jimmy was described as drunk.

But John Granity, a labourer, residing in a Hape Creek house about 50 yards from the one destroyed, said that he  returned home about 1am or a little later on Christmas morning to find Jimmy Adams sitting in his kitchen.  Jimmy was not drunk, only jolly.  John Granity himself was perfectly sober and said Jimmy talked sensibly.  He left after 2am, shaking his hand and wishing him a Merry Christmas.   A little later John saw a light on in Jimmy Adams' bedroom window when he was in the backyard.  Afterwards, when he was in bed, he heard a shout.  It was an unusual sound.  He could  not distinguish any words.  The sound appeared to be either like a "great fight or murder."    Then he heard a window cracking and his  wife crying out "For God's sake save him."    He ran out and saw the fire but could not give any assistance as the heat was so intense.  He heard a dull report and Mr Scott shouting to him to "clear out" of the way of the powder.  From the noise that he heard he did not think there was more than one person in there.  He thought Jimmy  cried out when the fire caught him. 

Poor Edward Scott. the fishmonger,  was startled to realise he was suspected of murdering Jimmy Adams when  the foreman asked him if he knew he was  believed to have set fire to the building. In answer to questioning he  said Jimmy was, in his belief, a very decent man.   He last saw him alive on Friday morning when he brought some fish from him. 

By now the frustrated Foreman thought they ought to adjourn as all the evidence was contradictory and perfectly unsatisfactory.  He also wanted to adjourn until such time as it would prevent the trial  clashing with the Thames horse races.  But the trial continued.

William Dick testified that he  worked at Mr Greenville's battery and  lived about 300 or 400 yards from the big house.  Jimmy was well-known to him.  He had entered Jimmy's house and spoken to him about his carelessness in leaving a candle burning at night.  Jimmy would go out to change the horses, of which he had charge, on a whim.   This was when he was a carter and  prior to him taking up the tribute.  It was in consequence of powder and other stores being kept on the premises that William Dick thought he  was duty bound to draw his attention to the candle being left burning.

William S Greenville said he knew Jimmy well.  He last saw him alive about 9pm on the 24th.  Jimmy and his party had sold 14oz 13dwts  (penny weights)  gold to the Bank of New Zealand for which 34 pounds 5shillings was paid.  He never heard of Jimmy leaving his candle burning after he went to bed although he once heard of his leaving the candle burning on the mantleshelf while he was out. "I have been threatened by a person," said Mr Greenville, " that, if I did not do certain things, I should be 'gone for'.  I have reason to suspect foul play . . .    if there has been foul play it would have been to have a "go" at me, unless it was for the money the deceased was supposed to have had.  I believe the deceased came to his death by otherwise than accidentally."

 Detective Farrell got somewhat angry and told the witness he wished to drag people into court who could be no service whatever.  He had visited the parties named and on interrogation was satisfied that their evidence would be valueless.
The Thames Star editorial despaired of  the unseemly manner in which the inquest was conducted.  "It does not add lustre to the system in vogue on the Thames for prosecuting investigations . . into . . . mysteries peculiar to violent deaths or destruction of property by fire."  Mr Greenville had  introduced suspicion that some person or persons unknown were responsible for the death of poor Adams and the destruction of property.  The inquest was  a rowdy display instead of what should be an earnest, calm and patient investigation. Valuable time was wasted over trivial and senseless objections.

But despite the mischief caused by interruptions, rumours and jurors wanting a holiday a verdict was brought in.  The jury found  that James Adams came to his death by fire which occurred in a building situated in Hape Creek, the property of Mr Greenville, on the morning of 25 December, 1880,  but how or in what manner the fire arose there was no evidence to show.  

The funeral of Jimmy Adams left from the Shortland Police Station on  Monday 27 December at 11am.  It was largely attended considering the holidays and the absence of any notice.

But doubts still lingered as the New Zealand Herald confided  - "there is a feeling in the minds of some who are acquainted with the circumstances that the fire was not altogether an accident."

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 (Source: Papers Past, Sir George Grey Special Collections AWNS 4-8721', AWNS 18990714-31)

© Meghan Hawkes and Dead Cert 2016