Pioneer Motoring Family and the Bandit

Pioneer Motoring Family & the Bandit

The Skeates family arrived in Auckland from London in 1872 and engaged in many aspects of colonial business and enterprise. These were diverse activities, from farming, local government and cheese-making at Whatawhata in the Waikato, shares in the copper mining project on Kawau Island and gold mining on the Coromandel. In Auckland two of the younger Skeates brothers followed in their father’s footsteps and set up a jeweller’s shop.  Percy Robert Skeates was a handy cyclist, often placed in top events, and was elected Treasurer when the Auckland Cycle Club was formed in 1895.

Skeates Enters Business

Percy’s hobby turned into a business sometime about 1897 when he arranged to make bicycles after which he bought out Auckland Cycle Company in Customs Street.

Newspaper advertisement September 1897

It became Skeates Cycle Manufacturing Company with 3 models of cycles bearing the Skeates name going on sale. In 1898 the business was renamed Skeates and Bockaert: Mr E. Bockaert introduced two innovations – the very latest designs for cycles recently personally researched in Europe and a new look for the Queen Street shop-front and in-store fittings based on the chic of latest Paris trends. The same year, maybe early 1899, the firm imported a three-and-half-horsepower, single cylinder, belt-driven Star car, the first automobile in Auckland. The company also set up in Christchurch where, in November 1900, it is credited with “the first motor-car sale in New Zealand,” according to the “Star” newspaper, “it sold for £135”.

The Star car, imported by Skeates and Bockaert, 1899

Their business flourished as demand for cars increased and, as advertisements of the day indicate, they were principal agents for Darracq, New Parry and Oakland cars as well as BSA and Indian motorcycles.

Percy Skeates’ 6hp 1903 Darracq on a run near Tauranga c1909

By early 1920s the partnership name had changed to Skeates and White… the name most people probably recall in connection with the pioneering motor firm which was to continue for another 40 years. Skeates Jewellers also survived until relatively recently, latterly on the corner of Shortland Street and Queen Street.

 Youthful Customer

But it was in March 1913 that the name Skeates was involved in life-threatening high drama.

On the morning of March 13th the latest American-made, 35 horse power, 5-seater “New Parry” car sat, gleaming in the Queen Street showrooms of Skeates and White, downtown Auckland. But not for much longer.

A young, fresh-faced man is looking over the vehicle, engaged in knowledgeable conversation with the salesman and indicates he wants to buy it for his taxi business on the North Shore. Proprietor Percy Robert Skeates overhears the conversation and, sensing a sale, hurries out into the showroom to clinch the deal. Skeates is quickly impressed with the young man’s detailed familiarity of automobiles, their engines, maintenance requirements, and especially the capabilities of this particular model of the “Parry” and its suitability as a taxi. Skeates realises he probably has a sale.

Magazine advertisement 1912

Excusing himself, he goes to his office to check papers the customer had brought with him: correspondence with several motor companies seeking a suitable taxicab. There’s no question, the bona fides of the young man, Robin Jasper Crago, check out. He wants to take immediate delivery of the car.

Delivery Drive

A price is agreed with Skeates which will be paid cash-on-delivery at the Crago home in Takapuna. But the customer demands a tail-light is fitted before the deal is done. A suitable light is immediately sourced and fitted. Company mechanic, young Bert Hanna prepares to drive the car out of the showroom for its delivery trip to the North Shore and guesses that he may have to give the youthful new owner a few tips on how to drive. The sale finalised, Skeates says he’ll go with them to receive the cash payment once the car’s delivered.

They take the vehicular ferry Goshawk across Auckland Harbour to Devonport.

“Goshawk” en route to Devonport

N.Z. Herald – Sir George Grey Special Collections, Auckland Libraries, 1370-508-02

Once on the North Shore they motored on to Takapuna, continuing towards Murrays Bay and the Crago residence. The young man points to a house some way off the road… their destination. At the gateway he asks “Can we stop here so I can check the letter-box?” Bert Hanna pulls up and their customer gets out and goes behind a hedge to collect the mail. 

Shots Fired

The next thing the two in the car know is that they are being fired upon in a shower of bullets, a surprise ambush. Bert Hanna was struck first in the shoulder. Turning, he saw the gunman, Crago, was now focussing the revolver on Percy Skeates seated in the back of the car. Skeates received several shots, one to the head, and fell, twisting and struggling to get out of the car, only to receive another shot in the left side. It was Hanna’s turn again, and he received a grazed neck with the next shot, followed by several more aimed at him. He fell to the ground. Crago now goes up to the car, sees Skeates is inside leaning helpless against the back door, and deliberately opens it so that the disabled Skeates tumbles out on to the road. Crago reloads the revolver. The injured Hanna looks over at Skeates lying motionless beside the car. He appears dead, beyond help, so Hanna, fearing for his own safety, decides to make for cover in scrub beside the road. He looks back just in time to see Crago go up to the car, steady his aim against the side of the vehicle and fires, point blank, at Skeates.  Skeates remains motionless. Crago believes he has finished him because, just as quickly as it began, the shooting’s all over. Crago gets into the driver’s seat, eventually starts the car and drives off.

The Sequel

Crago motors straight to the Takapuna Police Station to report “a shooting affray” by persons in a  car out on the Silverdale Road near Murrays Bay. Crago explained that he was taking Skeates and Hanna out to see the district in a car he intended to purchase, and that he had occasion to leave the car and go into the scrub. He heard some shots fired while he was away, he said, and he returned to see Skeates lying on the side of the road and Hanna running away in the direction of Brown’s Bay. Worried about those who had been shot, he told how he got into the car and hurried back to Takapuna to inform the police. Constable Steere sent Crago to fetch Dr Fullerton and while Crago was away on this mission the injured Bert Hanna arrived at the police station… only he told a totally different story! Crago returned with the doctor and was immediately accused of firing the shots, but denied it. Hanna’s wounds were dressed and Crago drove the doctor to the scene. Police followed in another car.

They were looking for Percy Skeates’ body in the roadway but on inquiry they found he had been taken to a nearby cottage for first aid. Percy Skeates was lucky to survive the 5 shots he received, suffering injuries to various parts of his body. He will take months to recover and court proceedings are held up until he is well enough to give evidence.

Crago, who turns out to be 18 years of age, again denies he was the gunman… “…someone else must have came out of the bush with a gun… … perhaps he was after the £420 I handed over to Skeates for the car on the way to Devonport”. But police soon discovered that no money had changed hands and they found that Crago had purchased a revolver and ammunition the day before. The salesman at the gun shop who served Crago easily recognises both the firearm and the customer. And then there was the evidence of bullets taken from Skeates’ wounds, from folds in his clothing and found in the “Parry” car and at the scene. The handgun was later recovered from roadside bush. The bullets matched the gun. And where was the money coming from to pay for the car? Well, it didn’t exist. Crago lied to police that he had recently won the lottery.

eHe changed his plea once he was before the Supreme Court, admitting the attempted murder of both Skeates and Hanna. “The Motor Bandit”, as New Zealand Truth newspaper labelled him, was sentenced to 10 years’ reformative treatment. He was obviously not of such good character as painted in the documents he had dishonestly fed to Percy Skeates because at the time of the shooting Crago was still bound by a Court Order to keep the peace. This resulted from a conviction after he sent threatening letters to well-known Auckland businessman, J. J. Craig, seeking money… “or else!”.

 Prisoner Escapes

And then, 3 years later, Crago escaped from Waikeria Prison, hailed a taxi on the main road near Te Awamutu and half-strangled the driver hoping to steal the cab and make his getaway to Auckland. For this Crago received 5 years in jail and an additional 5 years of reformative treatment. Cocky to the last, at his trial he tried to complain about his malicious treatment by authorities in both Invercargill and Waikeria Prisons. “Write down your complaints and send them to me”, invited the judge, His Honour, Mr Justice Cooper, “…and I will see they get to the right people”.

Robin Jasper Crago must have survived his alleged mistreatment, his lengthy prison term and supervision, and cured his “thing” for cars. He next pops up in 1926 travelling the world promoting “the international language, Esperanto…” (as the newspaper of the time says) “… having made a study of it over many years until now he can justly claim to be a proficient exponent”.

Perhaps he hadn’t exactly wasted away those years he spent behind bars! 

Post Script

News of Auckland’s “Motor Bandit” went world-wide in March 1913. Within 2 months a man named Duvignor, in a copy-cat crime “… on the pretext that he wished to purchase a car, lured M. Dardenne, manager of a Paris motor firm, to drive him out, then fired ten shots from a revolver, severely wounding M. Dardenne. The bandit left the injured man, and bolted with the car.

Duvignor was sentenced to 20 years in jail”.

Sources:

New Zealand Herald

The Auckland Star

New Zealand Truth

Auckland Libraries Collection

Google.

Papers Past, National Library of New Zealand

RCC  2015