Police arrested a man in Wellington in 1900 for a cold case, a murder-arson which had taken place 8 years before in England. The arrest was the start of an amazing saga of indecision, inconclusive statements and mistakes, all surrounding the true identity of the man in custody headed towards extradition to England – and the gallows. The story becomes comedy at times: scores of witnesses were called-on, both in Wellington and in England, to positively identify the accused, but few could. DNA testing and fingerprinting, unavailable in those times, would have certainly prevented this comedy of errors.
Birth of a Cold Case
The cold case occurred half a world away, in Colchester, England, on December 8th 1893.
On that night the charred remains of Alfred Welch, a clothier, had been found in the debris of his premises which had been gutted by fire. There had been a noose around his neck: doctors at the inquest said Welch was dead before the fire, his corpse dragged into the room where his remains were later found. A strong box on the premises which was known to contain about £100 was found empty, the keys alongside the charred body.
Detectives believed Welch was killed for his money, lugged upstairs into a bedroom whereupon the house was set on fire, the murderer hoping to destroy all evidence of the crime.
Prime suspect was Mr Welch’s employee, Arthur Blatch, who was known to have been with his boss when the clothing shop was closed up for business on the day in question… and who had not been seen since. Detectives said he disappeared from Colchester.
Wellington police believed Blatch had been in and around Wellington since 1897 but they failed each time they tried to intercept him. Blatch was injured in the collapse of scaffolding at Parliament Buildings and police narrowed their inquiries to Wellington Hospital, but their man disappeared during convalescence.
Detective George Nixon of Lambton Quay Station, like a dog with a bone, did not give up on the case, determined to find Blatch. He worked in tandem with Detective Charles Broberg and over the years the duo followed up several other sightings and found people who said they had known Blatch in Colchester when they had resided there. George Hewson, for instance, a public servant, told Detective Nixon he had seen Blatch in Wellington, recognising him from earlier days in Colchester and that he was familiar with reports of the Welch murder in English newspapers. Hewson said a woman, Margaret Archer, who had recently visited Wellington, was once in a relationship with Blatch back in England. While in Wellington she told Hewson that she had positively identified Blatch. But she returned to the UK before police could interview her. Others stated that they knew Blatch since he arrived in New Zealand. All said that they could positively identify the man, which was a comfort to police because it was going to be essential to prove the man’s identity before a Court would order detention while awaiting extradition to England to face the most serious charge.
Then, in November 1900, seven years after the murder, the Evening Post was advising an astonishing development. Wellington detectives told the newspaper that they had found Blatch and interviewed him. They had arrested and charged him with the Cold Case – Welch’s murder – and that the next day the accused would be appearing in court. Detective Nixon, the newspaper said, “deserves great credit for his pertinacity in striving to bring to justice a man suspected of such a terrible crime”.
A Difference of Opinion
But while detectives reckoned they had Arthur Blatch in the cells, their prisoner said he was someone else. He claimed to be Charles Lillywhite, saying he had proof of his real identity, that he was innocent of the Colchester murder – in fact he had never been to the place – and that he was a citizen of the United States, 42 years of age.
Police were relaxed about this claim which they believed easily discounted – they already had statements from a number of people saying the man they had arrested was Blatch.
Blatch, alias Lillywhite, was charged before the well-experienced magistrate, William Haselden. In evidence Detective Nixon said the statement from Margaret Archer who had been visiting Wellington, “a person not of good repute” he admitted, was the trigger for his recent investigations but he missed Blatch at that stage so issued a warrant for his arrest and continued inquiries. Once back In England Margaret Archer told Colchester Police of her “find” in New Zealand saying the man, Blatch, was now using the name Lillywhite and lived in Wellington.
Detective Nixon came up with a man, George Drawbridge, who attested “…I knew Blatch in Colchester and can corroborate his identity although until today I had only seen a photo. Blatch had been a groundsman at Colchester recreation park and was a part-time porter for the dead man, Welch. But this morning I have seen the prisoner in the flesh and he is Arthur Blatch”.
At this stage the accused, Lillywhite, interposed “I am not. I am an American, and I don’t know Margaret Archer. I was never in Colchester in my life, and never kept the grounds there. I left England in 1885, and I have not been there since. I was born in London in 1860, as near as I can say. In 1893 I was in Tacoma, Washington, America.”
The prisoner was then charged with the murder of Alfred Welch, to which accused replied…”l don’t know Blatch or Welch. Who is Welch? l went to America from England, and I had a partner named Clarke in business as a painter in Tacoma, and I had a place fourteen miles out of Tacoma.”
The court was told that the appearance of accused tallied with the description of Arthur Blatch given in the Gazette. Accused asked several questions… “who was I supposed to be with and how is it it’s assumed I was acquainted with a woman? I never chummed up with any woman in Wellington. Blatch and I are two different people entirely”.
The accused then complained about his treatment in jail and asked the magistrate if he could have a lawyer. When Mr Haselden heard Lillywhite’s claim to be an American citizen he said the prisoner would have access to the American Counsel and to his personal papers.
Blatch, alias Lillywhite, was remanded for a week so British authorities could be alerted and their intentions sought.
At this stage police must have known that identity was the key question and that the people produced so far were short on substance. Ms Archer was, in Detective Nixon’s words probably not totally reliable, Hewson identified Blatch after many years since he last saw him and Drawbridge had relied on an aging photograph. Surely Detective Nixon had more credible witnesses who could positively say the accused was Arthur Blatch?
Blatch or Lillywhite?
This question took centre stage in subsequent court sessions. Blatch alias Lillywhite was remanded weekly, for a month, and each hearing took on more comic theatre than the last. Errors unfolded.
Horace Attwood, travelled especially from Invercargill to give evidence, said he knew Arthur Blatch in Colchester “for many years”. He had met with the accused that morning, had a brief conversation, seen police photos from England but his statement was “I can’t say the prisoner is not Blatch”.
“Look hard at the photos and the man in the dock” implored the Magistrate. Same answer. The Magistrate told witness to have a longer private conversation with the prisoner but Attwood later returned to the court to reveal “I have nothing more to say”. And it was the same after a blitz of questions from lawyers.
The accused again complained about his cell at The Terrace Jail, the food… and the ventilation “…which does my state of health, diabetes, no good”. The Evening Post labelled conditions in the jail “barbaric” after which the authorities defended their facility and published a list of daily rations and asked the prison doctor to examine the inmate.
He is nor diabetic!” was the professional opinion.
Between court appearances the police arranged for the cook of HMS “Mildura” to visit Blatch alias Lillywhite because the seaman had known the accused in Colchester. The chef was unable to help: he would not say one way or the other.
And a woman, a widow from Auckland, arrived in the Capital to support the accused: it turned out she was engaged to be married to the man in the dock and their wedding had to be delayed when he was arrested. She thought she was marrying Charles Lillywhite but said she really didn’t know his background.
At the next hearing George Drawbridge was called in person to give his previous statement that he knew Blatch in Colchester for 5 or more years when Blatch was a green-keeper. He had seen him there very often and was sure the person in the dock was the same man, Blatch. He had not seen him for about 10 years, but he was nevertheless certain and his positive identification was not shaken by numerous questions from counsel and the Judge.
The defence produced letters and personal papers showing that Charles Lillywhite, not Blatch as the witness said, was an American subject and had lived in Tacoma. The Judge said he had seen all the documentation, but it might be Lillywhite’s property now in the hands of prisoner Blatch giving him a false persona.
Several tradesmen were produced to state that Lillywhite, as they knew him, often spoke about United States, never about England, that he was a competent painter, a journeyman, who had worked his passage as a ship’s painter.
Next George Hewson appeared to give his formal evidence. He said he knew Blatch very well in Colchester and frequently met him, together with the murdered man, Welch. He said Blatch had a prominent Adams Apple. His statements were quite compelling. Until he mentioned that he was blind, that he had been so for 18 months and these days could not see very far at all. And certainly not the distance across the courtroom to the dock where the accused was now seated.
Robert Barcham was next in the witness box. His evidence was short – he was from Colchester and knew Margaret Archer on the same boat out to New Zealand but he could not recall anyone by the name of Blatch in his home town.
Week by week the remands continued and Blatch alias Lillywhite spent Christmas in the cells. On 27th December the court was advised detectives, who would identify the accused, were en route to New Zealand from England and a further remand was granted.
Witnesses from England
On 17th January two visitors from England were in Court, Sergeant Frost of Colchester Police and John Marsh, keeper of the Colchester Town Hall.
Sergeant Frost told the court that years ago in Colchester he had seen the man, Blatch, almost every day but he was now unable to positively identify him. After many questions about detailed facial features (nose, nostrils, and ears), voice and methods of speech, dress and personal tidiness, physical build and gait, the judge intervened: “If you say that this man is Blatch he must be sent Home for trial. Are you prepared to take that responsibility and say that he is Blatch?” To which Sergeant Frost said “to the best of my knowledge he is”. Frost could not confirm that Blatch had suffered small pox and was left with marks, (the accused had residual pock marks), whether he played a concertina (the accused did) and whether Blatch had ever been to America (the accused had many papers, as Lillywhite, connecting him with the United States).
Frost said he could not positively identify photographs said to be of Blatch, neither could he identify the man in the dock.
City Council Officer, John Marsh, followed with a similar description of the wanted man, whom he knew as green-keeper employed by the Council. He remembered Blatch as a man of bigger build, who was always clean-shaven, unlike the man in the dock. “Blatch was a consummate pipe smoker who had worn a V in his teeth where he clenched the pipe. Accused, I have to admit, has no such teeth”.
Defence counsel – “Do you agree If the man in the dock is Blatch he was a remarkable actor taking the part of Lillywhite.
Marsh: “Yes, I agree”.
Defence: “Do you think he is Blatch?”
Marsh: “I have a suspicion he is”.
The Judge: “Is that all it amounts to?”
Change on Minds
Both Frost and Marsh were recalled after the luncheon adjournment during which the prisoner had been shaved.
Frost said “After seeing the accused with his whiskers off, and hearing him speak I am prepared to swear that he is Blatch. I noticed the Essex dialect in several words that he spoke”.
Defence counsel reminded the court that Frost was not certain that morning and could not pick him out as Blatch. There had been a change of mind!
His Worship agreed – “I know myself that the witness first entirely failed to recognise him as Blatch”. Frost was further cross-examined and ended with “I swear that in my opinion the accused is Blatch”.
Marsh, too, told the court he was now almost positive it was Blatch, the wanted man. “His voice has altered since he first spoke that morning, I can almost swear to his voice”
The Judge said “I am not going to have the responsibility of sending this man to England on a mere opinion”.
Marsh: “l’m prepared to say it is Blatch. I am quite certain”
Judge “Are you prepared to say with all human certainty that it is Blatch?”
Defence counsel: “Will you swear on your oath that he is Blatch?
Defence: “Do you, using a careful, sober, discreet judgment, swear that man is Blatch?”
Police called other witnesses saying Blatch (or Lillywhite) had been seen in Otaki but identities of women, locations of places, and dates either varied or were unconfirmed: the Magistrate, William Haselden, would later say he put no weight on this evidence.
Summing up, Mr Haselden said he was moved chiefly by what Sergeant Frost and Messrs Marsh and Drawbridge had said. “They have had extraordinary opportunities of considering the matter, and have taken the responsibility of saying that they identified this man, and there was not the slightest reason to suppose that they were actuated by any improper motives. How the accused could be Arthur Blatch, and at the same time have possession of those documents and sustain such an examination, I do not know. I am convinced of this – that is, he is Charles Lillywhite but by far the best thing for him is to go to England, where he need be under no apprehension of condemnation if he is an innocent man. I have the plain duty to commit accused. He will not be surrendered to the police from England for fifteen days to allow for an appeal”.
The accused’s lawyer filed a writ of habeas corpus which challenges the state’s right to detain a prisoner.
Before the case began Blatch, or Lillywhite, received letters from abroad, America mostly, saying how absurd it was he was in trouble, confirming he owned land, assuring that he was a first class painter and backing up his claims of a skilled musician. Tacoma’s Police Chief also wrote confirming “…Lillywhite is who he said he is, not Blatch and I will get other townspeople here who know him to also vouch for him”.
Two judges, the Chief Justice and one other, heard the appeal. The Crown advised that Magistrate Haselden decided the prisoner could be Blatch and should be handed over to police to stand trial for murder in England.
The Crown: “There were 3 witnesses who identified the man as Blatch”.
The Defence: “The documents in the man’s possession identify him as Lillywhite, plus the correspondence from Tacoma”.
The Crown: “The Magistrate had no alternative but to commit the prisoner to England.
The Judges considered the case and later advised that they were divided about the matter: they agreed that the Magistrates’ Court had correctly decided Blatch’s deportation but they were uncertain about the Supreme Court’s role in the process. And they were divided on this point of law and had delivered opposing judgments.
In New Zealand law at the time, it required both Judges to agree: if it was a split decision, as in this case, the habeas corpus failed: the appeal was lost. But the Judges said the case could be re-argued in the Supreme Court… or the accused might waive this course and agree to be extradited.
Through his lawyers he said he preferred to go to England to put things to rights, seeking a sea journey via America so he could pick up personal papers and further evidence to prove his identity.
This was denied – on March 9th 1901 the warrant for extradition was actioned when, accompanied by Sergeant Frost, the accused left New Zealand for passage to England via the Suez Canal.
The Evening Post newspaper, 16th March 1901, summed up the pros and cons whether the accused was Blatch or Lillywhite and then went on to say “… the question of his identity should easily be set at rest in England. There are many people in Colchester who knew Blatch for years before the murder. Margaret Archer is, we understand, available, and Blatch’s wife and a young woman with whom he is alleged to have lived with for some time prior to the murder, should be easily found, and will probably be able to say whether Lillywhite is the man. On the other hand, Lillywhite states that he has relations, in various parts of England, and they should, if his story is true, be able to prove that he is not Blatch, but an entirely different individual”.
The Evening Post, along with other newspapers, subsequently published correspondence between Charles Lillywhite’s brother, Isaac, in England, along with an interview with Isaac by a reporter in Colchester who concluded Charles Lillywhite was not Blatch. “The authorities have been misled by a chance resemblance!”
At the same time London newspapers raised the possibility that Blatch had carefully and thoroughly taken over the identity of Lillywhite… further complicating the case.
And to heighten the mystery, Arthur Blatch’s wife told British newspapermen that her husband was dead: she had indisputable evidence he had drowned several years before.
The Evening Post’s London correspondent wrote in May 1901 – “At present the affair is a complete puzzle, and promises to be a cause celebre in the history of criminal law”.
Then a month later the same correspondent suggested that there was speculation at Colchester Council that the two men, Sergeant Frost and Mr Marsh, had gone missing, their whereabouts unknown.
Back to the Courtroom
But this question was answered when the trio arrived in England with the accused, Blatch or Lillywhite, who appeared before Colchester Court on 16th June, charged with murder. The hearing was in closed court.
By late June it was advised that all-out police efforts were underway to identify the prisoner… and that they were failing. Some 40 Colchester people who reckoned they knew Blatch in earlier days could not identify the accused as Blatch. They had the opportunity to see the prisoner both bearded and clean shaven, apart from a moustache, who paraded with eighteen other men and the witnesses were introduced one by one. None could identify the man as Blatch, or Lillywhite.
“Doubts were manifest” said a Colchester newspaper. One man, William Gates, upon whom police had most trust to make a sure identification, blundered. He went along the line-up and pointed out a man whom he thought was Blatch. But it was really a local man who had been working on the Colchester roads for the last fourteen years. Gates said he was positive, that it was definitely Blatch with whom he had lived for some time and he was so certain that he sent for his wife.”
The newspaper continued that she also knew Blatch very well: after all, he had boarded with the couple. But she failed to identify Blatch/Lillywhite, and passed on to the self-same man that her husband had selected: plainly wrong. The man he Gates pointed out was miles away from the spot at the time the murder took place, and his ‘history’ was well known to the police authorities at Colchester. He may have been a petty criminal but he was not Blatch! And the Press pointed out other striking instances of non-identification”.
“Mr. Page, farmer, of Fingringhoe, said he knew Blatch well, but could not see him in in the line-up. Mr Sizzey, who was manager in Mr. Welch’s tailoring shop where Blatch was porter, also failed to make any identification”.
“Even more surprising, Isaac Lillywhite, picked the wrong man as his brother. But he afterwards selected the accused, and had long conversations with the prisoner, chatting about many occasions during their childhood which confirmed that the man police claimed to be Blatch was, in fact, Charles Lillywhite.
On 26th June the accused was confirmed as being Charles Lillywhite, mistaken for Arthur Blatch, and was released.
The question of compensation for false detention and travel to England, plus a need for Lillywhite’s rehabilitation, was quickly raised in the press and in New Zealand parliament.
Costs to the Colchester Council for “the chase to New Zealand” (some would say the wild goose chase!) amounted to £400 and it was revealed that the P and O Line refused Frost and Marsh’s return passage because they had with them an undesirable… a prisoner suspected of murder.
The Leeds “Mercury” newspaper said “The New Zealand police made a bad mistake in arresting the man Charles Lillywhite without first thoroughly investigating the extraordinary story of the woman who pretended to recognise him. It was at the best a very doubtful tale. Had they made quite sure of their man before sailing for England, Colchester would have been saved hundreds of pounds, and the unfortunate victim their egregious blunder along with the pain and anxiety of such an extremely trying experience. It is to be hoped that Lillywhite will be adequately compensated for all he has gone through since he was taken into custody at the beginning of last November”.
On 8th January 1902 it was announced in London by the Home Secretary that the Imperial Government had paid Charles Lillywhite a sum of compensation for his ordeal, £600 plus a free passage back to Wellington if he chooses to return. “This is not as the result of a claim, but compensation for extraordinary circumstances that transpired”. New Zealand newspapers welcomed the news in their editorials, saying this pay-out would no doubt bring an end to the New Zealand Parliament consideration’s for recompense: there would not be two sums paid out.
This brought the near 2 year saga to an end: much longer than Charles Lillywhite dreamed of when, at the first remand in Wellington in November 1900, he asked the Court “…how many weeks is this going to go on for?”
Charles Lillywhite settled in Seattle and it’s not recorded whether the Auckland woman to whom he was engaged at the time of his arrest joined him there.
Did the case of mistaken identity, the indignity to Lillywhite – and angst that took him within reach of the gallows – plus the cost to the Crown in both New Zealand and in England, have an effect on the careers of the two policemen George Holbrook Nixon and Charles Robert Broberg? They originally arrested the suspect and tried so hard to identify him with a succession of witnesses giving inconclusive evidence as to his identification.
After the case George Nixon was transferred from Wellington to Gisborne where, a newspaper write-up said, he was wasted and frustrated with little serious crime to be investigated.
But long-term effects on his future with the police cannot be known. He died in Auckland in 1905 aged 37 years while taking a break between appointments: he was on transfer from Gisborne to Christchurch.
For Charles Broberg there was apparently no repercussions following his mistake over Lillywhite. He went on to make numerous notable arrests as a detective, work on serious crimes for which he is best remembered. He oversaw police and security protection during three Royal Visits and was promoted to Superintendent in 1924: he retired in 1928 and died in 1937.
Once Lillywhite was properly identified and acquitted of any wrong-doing, one of the New Zealand newspapers reckoned Sergeant Frost – one of the few to “positively” identify the accused – would be “Frost by name and frost by nature“ now that he had been proven wrong. To which I will add my own two points. Of course the sergeant was frosty: it was after all a cold case! And secondly, the prisoner proved to be Lillywhite by name and by nature!
Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand
RCC August 2020