In the late 1920s Shorters of Shortland Street, in Auckland’s central business district, offered rental cars in what was fast becoming a lucrative business, the hire-car industry. The “Drive Yourself” innovation differed from taxis and chauffeured trips, giving renters utmost liberty in their travels. Advertisements, for instance, enticed tourists to “see New Zealand the interesting and economical way… drive yourself in latest model cars”.  Two visitors from overseas rented a car… and drove straight into crime – and notoriety.

Advertisement, New Zealand Herald, December 1928
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

Unremarkably, an Australian man, Roy Patrick Kitching and an American, David MacKenzie Stewart, called at Shorters Rental Cars in the city and together hired a car to get around Auckland in pursuit of their business interests. They used false names on the rental agreement documents, but Shorters were not to know that. The pair gave Central Hotel in Victoria Street as their address while they were in the city. The month-long hire of the car would enable them to travel in connection with their project in aviation, to set up the New Zealand Aerial Service in Auckland. They had a second string, telling some people that they were also “motor brokers”.

Party types

Kitching and Stewart had arrived from Sydney aboard the “Marama” on November 6th 1928, cleared customs on tourist visas with “nothing to declare”, and immediately rented a furnished house in Epsom and hired the car at Shorters, paying £26 as a deposit.  To observers the two were obviously well-heeled… and everyone they came in contact with could see that social interests, rather than business, preoccupied the pair. The house in Liverpool Street, Epsom, rented as a base for commercial activities, soon became entertainment-central. Late-night parties, comings and goings at all hours and loud dance music into the wee small hours did nothing for the image in the quiet, suburban neighbourhood. But for those locals who got caught up in this whirl of lavish entertainment, including social go-getters and an attractive damsel from a well-known legal family/firm, it was all good fun.

Hard-up

But the money was running out. Kitching had arrived in New Zealand with £100, Stewart with £5. They owed the Central Hotel £3. They figured they knew Winnie Turner at the hotel’s desk well enough and settled their account with a cheque for £23. She passed over the £20 and they were in funds again. But the £20 would not provide their lifestyle for long, so they hatched a plan. They would emulate olden day “highway robbers”. They discovered there was a weekend race meeting at Te Kuiti and it was likely cars returning to Auckland in the evening would contain passengers… and cash. They would stop likely-looking cars and rob the occupants. As crims would say they “cased the joint”, carefully choosing a likely spot at Westfield on the Great South Road where the railway deviation was being constructed. Back in their cosy Epsom bungalow they fashioned black stockings to create masks and polished their plans for the hold-up. To deter pursuit after the deed they purchased a couple of packets of tacks… and packed their two revolvers, an automatic and a Colt. So much for their “nothing to declare” statement at the border when they arrived from Sydney! Off they went to set the trap at Westfield.

Hold up

They parked the rental car out of sight behind trees at Westfield and used a few branches to make a barricade. At this stage they both lost their nerve. With each passing car they thought it not such a good idea. They did not even have enough courage to accost a motorist who stopped to clear the barricade! “If only I could get my hands on those who set up this obstacle” he said. The pair played dumb. Finally, around two o’clock in the morning, a car approached, the occupants of which were obviously intoxicated.  It happened to be a couple of jockeys and their friends returning from Te Kuiti horse races.

The pair’s nerve returned for such an easy quarry: they went into action. But they bungled. Kitching had the automatic: it was not loaded but it was flourished to be impressive. Stewart kept the revolver in his pocket, though later it would be claimed that at least one shot was fired. They got the driver to pull ahead a bit and got the car’s occupants to take off outer clothing, and then looked for money. The woman in the party laughed hysterically throughout, in the end thrusting out her handbag – “Here, take it and the money, but don’t shoot us, we have three children at home!”  What money they did get was put on the car’s front seat. Another occupant remained asleep in the back seat until the drama (perhaps black comedy) was nearly over. But the bandits had no time for him; they did not search him, just wanting to quit the scene. Forgetting to collect the money they had gathered up, they hopped in the rental car and headed back to Epsom.

The Chase

Douglas Wallace and two others riding on his motorcycle/sidecar happened on the scene just as the rental car was leaving. Told what had happened, they gave chase at high speed (later described as a “a thrilling ride”) along Great South Road and between Westfield and Penrose they spotted a stationary car. As they approached, a man jumped on the running board and the car quickly took off towards Auckland. It was then the 3 on the motorcycle saw what they thought were beads of glass sparkling on the road ahead but which, on investigation, turned out to be carpenter’s tacks. The trio guessed they had been spread by the man in the car to stymie any pursuit. But the 3 decided to keep up the chase. They got within 50 yards (about 50m) and were gaining on the car, when there was a report and a flash… they had been shot at from the car. Soon after this, near the Penrose railway overbridge, the tacks had done their work and, with three flat tyres the motorcycle/sidecar was unable to continue.

No Escape

The bandits made it back to base in Epsom but lost no time in making tracks out of Auckland, planning to get away until “things cooled down”. That same afternoon they left for Northland, first obtaining groceries and supplies from Hutchinson’s shop in Newmarket, paid for with another worthless cheque.

The pair was eventually tracked to Ninety Mile Beach in the Far North and arrested in Kaikohe after an intense manhunt by detectives who found the revolver and the loaded Colt, with 15 rounds of ammunition, concealed in their hotel room.  “I have nothing to say” Stewart said to police under questioning, “…it would not be wise to admit being owners of things like that”.

Back in Auckland, police found the masks in the Epsom house along with a few packets of tacks, left over from the escapade.

The men, who each had been using several false names since they arrived in Auckland, were charged with robbery under arms, discharging a revolver with intent to injure and obtaining credit by fraud, including the £20 from Winnie Turner of the Central Hotel. The two pleaded not guilty in the Magistrate’s Court but in written statements both apologised for their actions, saying they would recompense all those out of pocket. Kitching said the hold-up was Stewart’s idea and as far as he (Kitching) was concerned he was relieved they had been caught and he was freed from Stewart’s influence. Stewart apologised for the shot fired during the getaway… “the revolver went off accidentally”.

The two were sent for trial. In the Supreme Court they changed their pleas to guilty to the charge of robbery under arms. The other charges, except one of false pretences, were withdrawn. Sentencing was delayed until Kitchings’ relations arrived from Australia in support of the prisoner. Stewart told the Court he had telegrammed his family asking for money to be sent by cable to make restitution.

On the day of sentencing Kitchings’ family was in Court to suggest he return to Australia where he would be confined to an outback farm, out of trouble. Stewart said he was unable to pay back those financially hurt. The telegram he had received from America read simply “Love and Sympathy, Trust in God – Mother”.

The Judge, Mr Justice Blair, described the two as “amateur highwaymen” and sentenced Kitching to jail for a year, Stewart for 18 months.

Shorters got their car back… as well as tales to tell about its criminal adventures not to mention the considerable mileage that had been run up. In the words of that Shorters’ advertisement the car had “…seen New Zealand in an interesting way…”, well much of Northland, anyway, including travelling some of its unformed roads, fording un-bridged streams and being bogged in the salty sands on Ninety Mile Beach.

Sources:

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

 

RCC August 2013/June 2019/April 2020

This is the unlikely story of two successive Wellington fire chiefs whose personal lives cost them their jobs. It was almost incredible that not one, but two, Superintendents resigned from the same brigade around the same time after falling for women outside their marriages.

The first, in 1912 was William O’Brien and then the same fate awaited the man who took over from him, Harry Tait, who was involved in a scandal in 1925.

William O’Brien

William O’Brien was an Australian who was appointed Superintendent of the Wellington Brigade in 1908 and shaped to be the “best firefighter Wellington ever saw” according to a press report of the day. Part of O’Brien’s tasks was to oversee the licensing and inspection of “places of public assembly” and it was while checking on His Majesty’s Theatre in Courtenay Place sometime in 1910 that he met the “house pianist”, Mrs Alberta Mixner.

William O’Brien
“From Bells to Blazes”

Despite being married with a daughter, William O’Brien, began seeing the queen of the keyboard and, infatuated, left his family home to be with Alberta who had a son living with her. This did not please Mrs O’Brien’s brother who gave William a beating, trying to knock some sense into him and a return to matrimonial responsibilities. But it did not work – a little later a deed of separation was drawn up and the O’Briens parted with a financial arrangement in place.

Tragedy

On April 14th 1912 Superintendent O’Brien had faced tragedy: the death of one of his own when Third Officer and officer-in-charge at Newtown Station, William Robert McLean, was killed while fire-fighting near Willis Street in the city. The ladder he had scaled touched power lines and he was electrocuted.  McLean was accorded a Brigade funeral with full honours. Then followed an inquest as well as an inquiry by the Wellington City Council’s Fire Brigade Committee, both at which O’Brien was a key witness. He told the coroner that, while directing fire-fighting it was he who had asked McLean to get up on to the roof to see what progress firemen were making from that side of the building on fire. McLean arranged the ladder, the top of which was in contact with electric wires stripped bare of insulation by the heat of the fire. The ladder’s ironwork conducted the electricity and McLean was killed instantly when he neared the top of the ladder and grasped its sides.

Mystery

Some two weeks later, on Friday 26th April, 1912, Superintendent O’Brien did not report for duty. He had not advised illness or other reason for his absence. Newspapers were reporting that he had disappeared in mysterious circumstances. Confronted with this unusual occurrence, Mrs O’Brien, it was reported, believed her estranged husband may have committed suicide. Was he blaming himself? Other scribes, perhaps playing on this, were saying that O’Brien had noticeably taken McLean’s death very badly and it may have had serious mental effects. Yet another newspaper opined that the Superintendent could not stand facing yet further questioning in formal inquiries about the circumstances of McLean’s death… so he disappeared.

In O’Brien’s absence, Deputy Superintendent Harry Tait, was appointed officer-in-charge until it could be ascertained what had happened to the missing Fire Chief. Some folk reported having seen O’Brien on the Friday when he first did not turn up for duty. He was observed in a Willis Street cafeteria having afternoon tea with none other than Mrs Alberta Mixner. Mrs O’Brien reported that the visited Mrs Mixner that same afternoon – O’Brien as with her and he said that he would return on Sunday to see his 10 year old daughter.

Revelations

That was the last reported sighting of William O’Brien. But within a few days the Town Clerk received O’Brien’s letter of resignation. The postmark was Wellington. But it was soon established that O’Brien had fled, taking the liner “Aorangi” to San Francisco. Speculation was rife about why he had abruptly left town. Until, that is, it was discovered that Mrs Alberta Mixner and her son were also passengers bound for (surprise, surprise)… San Francisco.

Mrs O’Brien had her husband’s sudden departure confirmed on Monday morning when she received a letter from him, preparing her for the shock of his parting and advising there was a sum of money for her lodged with his lawyer. Within days Wellington City Council accepted O’Brien’s resignation and confirmed that acting-Superintendent, Harry Tait, was the permanent replacement in the top job at the fire brigade.

Harry Tait

Harry Tait began service with the fire brigade when he was 18 and worked his way through the ranks until, now, in 1912 with O’Brien gone he was appointed Superintendent. The 30 year old had a great physique; he was athletic, very fit and led his men in swimming and diving exercises in the harbour and on runs around Mt Victoria. He was well-liked and a respected leader, particularly during fire-fighting operations.

Harry Tait
“From Bells to Blazes

“Harry Tait’s career suggests a mind as well as a good nerve behind a strong muscle” one newspaper wrote in 1925. Tait had the burdensome and continuous task finding recruits when firemen went off to the front during World War One. Determined to keep the numbers up, he trained men unsuited for military service. Inevitably the inexperienced “newbies”, led by Tait, often faced major fires… including shipboard fires, a factory fire, a block of downtown shops and a timber mill. Tait also had to shoulder shortages in staff caused by the 1918 influenza epidemic. He pressed for construction of the South Wellington station which began in 1918 and supported, then oversaw, the introduction of the Brigade’s petrol-electric turntable ladder with a reach of 87 feet (26.5m).

Innovation: Wellington’s Ladder was commissioned in 1918 and seen here being pensioned off in 1959. Alexander Turnbull Library

Separation

Tait’s personal life first came to notice in August 1925 when it was reported Mrs Aroada Thursa Tait had taken proceedings in the Supreme Court against him and had been granted judicial separation. It turned out that he had been having an affair with a Mrs Robertson, wife of the Deputy Superintendent, but the matter of adultery had been dropped from the court proceedings. It also became known, that to protect the Tait children, the Judge had heard the case “in camera” so the facts were supressed, not be published.

On 28th August newspapers glibly reported “trouble at Wellington Central Fire Station, the result of which the Superintendent, Mr Tait, has been suspended”.

That rather bland announcement, without detail, signalled the rather incredible lead-up to Tait being relieved of his position and, ultimately, his resignation.

Following the Taits’ separation on 12th August, as might be expected, there was talk, jokes and innuendo among fire-fighters at Central Station. Mrs Robertson was apparently mentioned, and not all spoke of her favourably. Superintendent Tait heard that his partnership with Mrs Robertson was being discussed among his troops and he wanted to get to the bottom of the matter.

On the Mat

At 3.30pm the following day, 13th August, Fireman Theodore d’ Mey was asleep in his bedroom at Central Station, resting after attending a fire for most of the night.

(D’ Mey was born into aristocracy… his father was Baron Jean Jacques de Mey d’Alkemade, a descendant of Netherlands nobility born in France in 1882 and a graduate of Lille Military Academy, and Lille University. He was an expert swordsman and athlete and an accomplished linguist, being a master of seven languages. The Baron came to Wellington in 1879, introducing the Swedish form of physical training to New Zealand schools and the military. He enrolled in the Nelson Volunteer Rifles and later volunteered as a member of the party that went to Parihaki in 1881 to arrest the Maori Chief Te Kooti. The Baron retired to Levin)  

Theodore D’Mey
NZ Truth

A colleague awoke the sleeping fire-fighter from his mid-afternoon siesta. “The boss wants to see you… now!” was the message. D’ Mey washed, dressed and went to Tait’s office.

Standing at attention on the mat, D’ Mey was confronted with the accusation… “You have been making slating remarks about Mrs Robertson and me…”

There was a brief exchange of words, voices were raised, blows were traded. D’ Mey complained to police and they charged Tait with assault causing bodily harm, later reduced to common assault.

“A Torrent of Blows…”

In court it was revealed that D’ Mey had been subpoenaed to give evidence against Tait when the adultery part of the divorce proceedings were to be heard. But adultery was dropped as a contributing factor towards the separation so D’ Mey did not have to give evidence.

“But I stand by my statement,” he told Tait during the interview in the office, asking whether he was on the mat for an “official” or an “unofficial” meeting. “Unofficial,” said Tait, “and you have made disparaging remarks about the chastity of Mrs Robertson, a good woman!”

“And I stick by them,” D’ Mey said. He then described in court what followed. “I looked down to the desk whereupon, off my guard, I received a sharp blow below my left ear and this was followed by a torrent of punches, right and left uppercuts from Tait. I was sent spinning into the corner”.

…Then An Axe”

“I opened the office door to make an escape: Tait followed me, still raining blows, shouting out that my actions were contemptible. By now we were in the engine bay. I looked to protect myself so I grabbed an axe off one of the fire engines and wielded it towards Tait. I know the axe was sharp and I admit shouting out, that I would cut Tait to shreds. But he said he wanted to see it out by way of a fight, without weapons, and took of his coat in readiness. At that stage we were both restrained by firemen who came to see what the disturbance was. Once separated, I immediately called my lawyer and went to the doctor for treatment for my injuries. I was in bed for two days recovering… here is the doctor’s certificate which concludes that the injuries were likely caused by blows from a fist.”

D’ Mey said he had his hands in his pockets, defenceless, when the first blow was struck but Tait’s lawyer said firemen were never that casual while on the mat in front of the Superintendent. Continuing, Tait’s lawyer asked if D’ Mey had been in trouble before.  “Didn’t you threaten to throw the cook out the window?” he asked. D’ Mey agreed, “I did it because the cook put kerosene in our tea, but that has nothing to do with the present case!” The lawyer called firemen to give evidence on what they had seen and heard that day… they attested to raised voices and the sounds of punches from the Superintendent’s office “and the door bursting open and D’ Mey flung against the running board of a fire engine, after which he seized the axe”.

Further Revelations

Now it was D’ Mey’s lawyer’s turn and he asked Tait if he had been in trouble before. “No!” was the response. The lawyer then reminded Tait of evidence in the recently-completed divorce proceedings, and asked if it was true that Tait had previously used force to “persuade” his wife not to give evidence about his infidelity.

This question, (or was it a deliberate expose?) by the lawyer included evidence given in the divorce proceedings which was heard in camera, suppressed by the Judge… but now these matters were out.

The bench, Messres I. Salek and J. Read, Justices of the Peace, closed down the line of questioning saying “No, we shall not have any more of it. We do not want it. What happened in the divorce case does not concern this. We refuse to admit it as evidence.”

Judgement

In delivering their verdict the Justices cautioned Tait. “It was very unwise”, said one of the J.P.s, “to have summoned a man to your office in the station and introduce so dangerous and delicate a matter. You have a fine record of service in the brigade, and it is highly regrettable that this thing should have occurred – that a man in your position should forget himself so much as to assault someone. The court will have to convict”. Harry Tait was formally convicted, fined £5 and ordered to pay legal, and medical expenses, £6 6s.

Harry Tait resigned and in December 1925 was presented with a gold medal for 25 years’ service.  Joseph Creeke was appointed Superintendent, vice Sydney Fire Brigade.

Joseph Creeke
“From Bells to Blazes”

He too faced a scandal in 1932, not over an affair of the heart, but inconsistencies in the accounts for running the Brigade’s motor cars. Creeke had to take some of the responsibility for the shortcomings of his Deputy, Clarke, who was dismissed. Creeke was reduced in rank to Deputy, with Charles Woolley appointed Superintendent.

Ironically in the book “From Bells to Blazes – The Story of the Wellington Fire Brigade 1865 – 1965” the details of the O’Brien and Tait chapter in the brigade’s history are missing, passed over. While other aspects and events are detailed, O’Brien’s leaving the brigade in 1912 is merely mentioned that he “…resigned later that year…” while Tait’s departure is put “… he had a difference of opinion with the Council and he later resigned”. The book misses the point that the Brigade’s destiny might have been very different had either of these capable and visionary leaders served their full term without distractions of the heart and the resulting attached scandals.

 

RCC  25/08/2018

 

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

“From Bells to Blazes, The Story of the Wellington Fire Brigade 1865 – 1965”, Rex Monigatti