Fire that raced through Auckland’s luxurious Grand Hotel in May 1901 resulted in five deaths… and a radical make-over of the city’s fire protection. The tragedy, and findings of an inquest into the blaze, forced the City Council to upgrade an impoverished fire brigade, providing up-to-date equipment and investing in a fire alarm system.
But no one counted on the sensational evidence given at the inquest!
Inquests, before a jury, were held as a matter of course into serious fires in those days. The coroner inquired into any aspect of the blaze and to call witnesses to testify about what had happened. Townsfolk… and the law… looked to the jury to determine the cause, how to prevent recurrence and whether anyone was directly responsible. Criminal charges often followed.
But the inquest into the Grand Hotel fire became a drama in itself when one of those who escaped the flames on May 30th was called to give evidence. The “Auckland Star” newspaper’s headline was “Sensational Witness” and as the inquest progressed this proved to be no over-statement….
Call Jessica Minns
The coroner, Thomas Gresham, looked to hear the next witness. The clerk called Florence Jessica Newbegan Minns, but after a short pause it was obvious she was not present, nor in the precincts of the Central Hotel, venue for the inquest. Mr Gresham issued a warrant for her arrest and, as he put it, “her apprehension to secure her attendance”.
Jessica Minns, as she was best-known, was a 26 year old scullery-maid at the Grand Hotel at the time of the fire, one of those among the 17 guests, staff members and licensee’s family who managed to escape. 5 occupants did not survive: the licensee’s 3 young daughters who died in their room, a maid who leapt to safety from an upper floor (and later died) and a guest, a middle-aged man whose remains were found in the debris.
These deaths, and the loss of the hotel, meant there was intense public interest in the inquiry and, arising from it, the coroner might find the cause and anyone culpable.
The Silent Jessica Minns
Police had apprehended Miss Minns and she appeared when the inquest resumed, accompanied by her mother. But Jessica Minns could not be encouraged to give evidence nor answer any questions. Mr Gresham “…used all his considerable persuasive eloquence…” the Auckland Star reported, “…but the woman remained absolutely dumb, she remained deaf to every question”.
She looked down at the floor, avoiding eye-to-eye contact with anyone.
At last her mother spoke up… and immediately a sinister angle was introduced to the circumstances surrounding the fire in the Grand Hotel. “My daughter is intimidated by a promise she made to a man she came across in the hotel’s pantry the night before the fire”.
The inquest wanted to know more about this intriguing turn of events. Mr Gresham advised Miss Minns that any promise made to the man was not binding, but he could not cajole the woman to say anything more and he adjourned the hearing.
Next day the reticent Miss Minns was back at the inquest and just as reluctant to participate. She was hesitant about taking the oath but eventually recited the words and kissed the Bible, as required.
Slowly, as if frightened or suffering acute nerves, she repeated her revelation of the previous day, but in much more detail. Having completed her chores as scullery-maid she retired, but, as was often the case, she could not sleep. She told the court that there were often “peeping toms”, men spying on her through her bedroom window and this made her wary, adding to her insomnia. On the night before the fire she had seen two men coming from the hotel’s billiard room, another from the pantry who shook his fist at her and after exchanging a few words all three men left. She did not see them again that day but on the night of the fire she said she was aware that there were men again trying to peep into her room as she undressed but she did not put a light on, so, thwarted (she thought) they went away. Unable to sleep, about one o’ clock that morning Jessica went upstairs to fetch a book from the pantry.
Explosives in the Pantry
“I came across a man there” she said. Sub-Inspector Mitchell, for the police, pounced. He thought he better take his opportunity while Miss Minns was now answering questions and get in quickly. “What was the man doing?”. He stabbed the question at her. And the surprise answer he got might have pointed to the cause of the tragic fire.
“He was fixing powder to the range,” Miss Minns replied, and then elaborated in answers to a series of questions from the startled policeman: he was not the only one in court who was rocked by her evidence.
“The man had explosive powder and a fuse: he fixed a rubber tube to the gas jet on the mantelpiece. It led to the stove. When I entered the pantry, he said ‘I have been caught!’ and jumped up and seized me by both hands, asking if I had seen what he was doing. I said, ‘yes, I have seen, and what are you doing it for?’ The man replied that his actions were his business, adding ‘you won’t be here another night. You mention a word of this to anyone, I will kill you, understand?’”.
Miss Minns, answering Sub-Inspector Mitchell’s questions went on say that she saw two more men near the pantry at the time. “The night porter came along the passageway just then but I daren’t call out to him”.
Where is “the Bully”?
“This was because one of the men showed me a knife and a pistol, saying he would use them if I made a sound. By now two men had hold of me and they asked questions about ‘the bully’. I found out they meant the licensee, Alexander Johnston, and they wanted to know where his bedroom was and what time he retired each night. At last the men said ‘stay here’ and left, taking with them brown paper parcels which they had earlier hidden in the pantry. But before they went, one asked me if I had ever had revenge on anyone and I said ‘no’. ‘Well, I have’ he went on, ‘I have revenge on the conceited lady and the bully and they will soon find out they can’t do as they like with everybody’. Eventually all three men left but not before one again threatened me that I would be killed if I revealed to anyone what I had seen and heard. As they parted one said ‘We now know where the Johnstons sleep, we have looked around all the rooms carefully‘. The men took the brown paper parcels with them and as I went downstairs I heard one of them say ‘Things will be blown sky-high tomorrow night and we will make it warm for them’.
This evidence related to events on the day before the fire: now Sub-Inspector Mitchell turned to the night immediately before the fire.
Miss Minns told how she went to the bathroom sometime after 8.30pm and must have dozed off and gone to sleep in the bath, for much later she was awakened by noises in the passageway, men laughing and talking. “I recognised the voices as those from the night before. I dressed and went to go back to my room only to come across one of the men I had previously seem near the stairs. He said he was looking for the keys to the rooms and that staff member Camille would not give them up. The man was trying doors but they were all locked. I quickly returned to my room… my room-mate was asleep… I could not sleep and heard the clock chime the hours. At about half past twelve, it must have been, I heard noises in the dining room above my bedroom”. To the coroner she said they were “confused noises, like people running here and there quietly and pulling something along the floor of the dining room: no voices. It woke my room-mate who asked what was going on. I said it was upstairs and I did not know”.
“The noises stopped and immediately we heard screams, probably from the top flat. ‘That’s the Masonic Hall on fire’ my roommate said.
Backing up a touch, Sub-Inspector Mitchell had a snap question for Miss Minns. “What was the book you went looking for on Wednesday night?”
“A ‘Family Reader’” was the immediate reply.
More Startling Evidence
Sub-Inspector Mitchell now turned to events immediately before the fire, and again responses he received were beyond his wildest expectations.
“When mention was made of three men mingling with hotel staff, you would not discuss them. Why?” he asked.
“Because the three were watching the place on Thursday, I saw them. It was George Sage and two others I don’t know, they were in the billiard room in the hotel. I would know the men if I saw them again. I also saw them while the fire was going on. They were in the rear yard near the fence where I was thrust over to safety, out into Bank Street. One of the men asked if I was injured and I said no… to which he replied he was glad – ‘… but others had been warmed up’. The three men jumped the fence and were gone”.
Mr Mitchell then asked Miss Minns if she had distinct recollection of what she had told the jury and she replied that she had, that she had not gone to sleep and dreamt it all, as the policeman suggested, because she could not sleep, always finding it difficult. “Why didn’t you like to come to this inquiry and give evidence?” he asked. “Because I was frightened” was the reply.
Continuing responding to Mr Mitchell’s interrogation, Jessica Minns said that just before the three men jumped the fence at the rear of the hotel and disappeared during the fire, that they said they were on their way. ‘We won’t be back until all this is over’ one said. They wanted to shake my hand, but I refused. They said they were going away, didn’t tell me where, but one said they would probably make their get-away by boat”
Sub-Inspector Mitchell had one or two other aspects he wanted to clear up.
“How did you recognise the fuse when you saw it in the pantry?” Miss Minns replied that she had seen fuses in possession of her father who was a miner at Thames and that the powder she described was not loose, but in parcels.
“How long have you known the three men?” The witness surprised the court when she said “every day for about a month before the fire. Usually in the hotel’s billiard room. They would say ‘good morning’ or ‘good evening’ to me, but I would not reply because I did not like the look of any of them”.
“And did you ever hear noises in the dining room above your room similar to those you heard on the night before the fire?
“Yes, about 6 weeks before, Mr Johnston lost some silver. I heard something drop that night in the dining room upstairs and also someone running. The noises were more distinct than those the night before the fire”.
“Anything else you would like to tell the court?”
Her evidence concluded, Miss Minns left the witness box. The Coroner then excluded the press and the public while a witness was heard in camera. George Sage, former billiard-marker at the Grand Hotel was recalled but, according to reports, gave “no satisfaction” in his evidence. When the hearing resumed in public Mr Sage said that while he was on duty in the billiard room men often visited, including on the day before the fire when three mates had been in for a game.
Miss Minns Recalled
Sub-Inspector Mitchell was not finished with Jessica Minns and had her recalled later that week. She was again accompanied by her mother who, when Jessica was once more reluctant to take the oath, explained that her daughter felt that the copy of the Bible being used was dirty, handled by so many people before her. The oath taken, Mr Mitchell asked about her insomnia, to which she said she had long been inflicted – her previous employers, hoteliers, could attest to this. She would often read a book in bed until two or three in the morning. Sometimes three or four times a week she would be in the pantry at the Grand Hotel until a late hour, reading, and that the night porter often saw her there. He sometimes offered her a cup of cocoa.
There was a series of questions about why Miss Minns was so reluctant to talk about events at the Grand Hotel in court or with her colleagues on the staff, notably the night porter. She could not be budged to give any information.
Juryman’s Direct Question
Members of the jury were free, at any time, to ask questions to elucidate evidence being given. One of the juryman, obviously frustrated by Miss Minns’ reluctance to give all the information she had, cut to the chase and put a direct question.
“Now Miss Minns, to save time and to save worry to Mr Johnston, tell us how the fire started… was it an accident?”
The coroner asked “Are you sure?”
“Yes” replied Miss Minns
Thinking aloud, the coroner told the court “for the first time the witness hasn’t hesitated: she must know, therefore, how the fire started”.
Sub-Inspector Mitchell, at the risk of being upstaged, quickly got in with a question, “how did the fire start?”
Miss Minns replied that neither she nor the night porter was involved. And then: “it was the three men, the names I gave to you. I was in my bedroom when the fire was started and I don’t know where the porter was”.
“And…” the policeman asked “..if you were in your room how do you know the three men started the fire?”
Miss Minns said it was the consequence of what they had told her the night before. She denied any Involvement in the plot by the night porter. There was then an exchange with Mr Mitchell which resulted in the Court adjourning briefly so he could have a word in private with Miss Minns. It was then revealed to the Court that she had been reticent to mention the night porter because he sometimes had a sleep while on duty and that she did not want to get him into trouble with his boss. That apparently cleared up, the Sub-Inspector set out to test other matters.
He asked how long the witness had known the three men she had seen in and about the hotel.
She said “oh, for a long while, before I went on holiday at Easter”.
The policeman asked for their names.
“Well, the names I gave before are not their real names: one of them told me this on the night before the fire”.
“Which one told you this?”
“Butcher. They all had nicknames. ‘Butcher’ was Alfred Wilson, a very tall man. George White was ‘Springy’ and there was a sailor named ‘Blacky’.
“Why did you not tell this before?” asked Mr Mitchell.
“Because I did not tell all”.
The coroner remarked to the witness “And you haven’t revealed everything yet, but you will have to. We will see to that!”
The Sub-Inspector than put a series of questions about books Ms Minns had recently read, whether she had dreamt what she told the court, then returning to the names of the three men. “What harm is there giving the names?”
“Springy told me on the night of the fire that I must fall in with secrecy”.
The coroner, addressing Miss Mins, “you have told us the worst of this, and if what you say is true those three men are guilty of murder. Why not, therefore, help us to end this mystery?”
Miss Minns did not reply, repeating one of her long looks towards the floor.
Sub-Inspector then asked Jessica whether she had seen any of the men since the fire and she said yes, with three others and mentioned another man, ‘Boncer’.
“Where is this leading?” the coroner asked.
“I am trying to convince the jury that this witness’s first statement was pure invention,” Mr Mitchell replied.
Somewhat testily the coroner, reserving his authority, told the officer “If I could be convinced I may take some steps. I don’t intend people to come here and trifle with the court”.
Rebuked, the officer explained that he wasn’t saying the witness was wilfully misleading but he thought she was not quite accountable. He resumed questioning but Miss Minns returned with her own question – “What’s the use? When I tell you, you don’t believe me”
The coroner again interjected. “Don’t say that of me, please. But you do appear to be fencing with us…. tell all and go home… it’s only you causing the delay”.
Mr Mitchell asked about ‘Boncer’ which led to testimony from Miss Minns about her more recent encounters with the men, by now she had met all six again and that she had been with her mother when she saw some of them in the street. She had also seen some of them behind the Albert School fence and some near the house where she stayed. One, Alfred, had said ‘now we know her mother and where she is we will follow her and hunt her down wherever she goes!’ My mother reported this to the police. One of the men, William Smith, has shaved off his moustache in disguise.
Coroner Gresham asked what more Miss Minns knew about the men starting the fire. No reply. And at that point Miss Minns entered one of her periods of silence, stubbornly declining to answer any further questions.
The coroner asked her to resume, saying “we have already exercised a great deal of patience and you are wasting our time, you must tell us!” There was a lull in proceedings until Sub-Inspector Mitchell had an exchange with her, after which he continued his questioning -and again he got more than he imagined!
Miss Minns told of coming across men in the Grand Hotel on the Thursday before the fire. “In the pantry I saw William fixing the tube to the gas jet, exactly the same as the night before… he told me to get out and go upstairs as Alfred was waiting for me. At the top of the stairs I could see Alfred, accompanied by George, both rubbing stuff on the carpet, white stuff that had a funny smell. William had said ‘If you do what we want, you’ll get half what we get’. He wanted me to help put the stuff on the carpet. I declined. Then Alfred and George put the same stuff on the walls. Alfred gave me a parcel to take downstairs for William, this I did and he put it on the balcony. I asked him if he got the silver from the dining room, and he replied ‘Yes and the others have down below’”.
Coroner Gresham interrupted to tell the court that the evidence was now pointing to two motives – robbery and revenge, and asked Miss Minns directly “who had set fire to the building?”
She said straight out “Alfred did”.
Sub-Inspector Mitchell, keen to regain the lead, asked whereabouts Alfred had set fire to the hotel, to which Miss Minns said ‘in the centre’, and though she had not seen him do it, he had told her exactly where he would be setting the fire.
“When did you first think of this, just now, or before” asked the doubting Sub-Inspector Mitchell.
“Before, but William told me to keep it a secret and that I would get half of what he got”.
In reply to Mr Mitchell’s questions about the Johnston family, Miss Minns said the girls were always rude and cheeky to her but she was sorry and frightened when, because of her promise of secrecy, she found she could not bring herself to tell Mr Johnston what she knew.
A plan of the Grand Hotel was produced so that Miss Minns could make it clear where she thought the fire had been set. She pointed to two places on the second level in the older part of the building, saying that Alfred Smith reckoned that as soon as he struck a match it would catch fire so quickly because of all the stuff they had spread all over the carpets and on the wall.
Miss Minns stood down. Miss Hipkins, who had worked with Jessica Minns, was called to give evidence about Jessica. Hipkins corroborated personal and other matters already adduced about Minns… “nothing strange about her, a soft and good-natured girl”.
People who frequented the Grand Hotel gave evidence: none had heard the names, or nicknames, of the men mentioned by Jessica Minns.
The licensee, Alexander Johnston was also called, saying he told police that he thought the fire was deliberate and may have been set to cover theft of silverware from the dining room: utensils and plate. He admitted most was silver-plated, not pure silver, and that he considered the theft may not have been entirely of silverware. He said that he had not seen the men hanging around the hotel, as described by Miss Minns, and that he had personally questioned her after the fire but she would not give any details saying “I must not tell… I will be murdered if I tell!”
The remainder of the day was taken up with evidence of the Fire Chief, Herbert Gladding about how and when the alarm was received, the fire brigade’s response, fire-fighting and then discovery of the bodies.
The rest of the week was evidence taken from fire-fighters, waterworks engineers, architects and builders.
“The Auckland Star” evening newspaper had a scoop on its hands when, nearly a week after Miss Minns last gave evidence, her mother revealed to a reporter that all the evidence given by her daughter had been concocted, untrue, inspired by one of the books she had read. It was pure fabrication, beginning to end.
“The Auckland Star” in the first publication of the spectacular, almost incredible, revelation put it like this: “The story about the three men with the powder and fuse, who threatened to kill her if she “breathed a word”, which provided the newspapers with such sensational copy, was merely the creation of some imaginative novel whose story so imprinted itself upon the memory of the impressionable Jessica that she was able to reproduce it with much convincing detail before the Coroner’s jury”.
Mrs Mary Minns told the reporter that her daughter Jessica had already admitted to the police that her story was made-up. Mrs Minns said the basis of the story came from a book “Fred the Miner”, including coating the wall and carpet in flammable liquid. The nicknames came from the same book. She said Jessica invented the story to try to protect some members of the staff whom she had seen on the pantry stairs with three unknown men. The story also hid her reticence to give this evidence and she embellished her story when she thought Sub-Inspector Mitchell was putting words into her mouth, leading her to say things, forcing her to give evidence.
This disclosure meant that all the Court’s patience, the coroner’s insistence on answers, and the policeman’s persuasions had been in vain. Miss Minns had made up her evidence as she went along, based on a book she had been reading which enabled her to be so sure, so definitive, about her “evidence”.
It must all now be discounted pending her admission of telling lies before the coroner.
Back before the Coroner
The inquest was still underway when the revelations had been made in “the Auckland Star”, followed by other newspapers. Jessica Minns was recalled to the witness stand.
Sub-Inspector Mitchell asked her if she had anything to say and she whispered that “she had read it all in a book”. The coroner asked if this was everything she had given in evidence and she said that it was. He then curtailed further questioning because, he said, the matter of perjury now arose.
The coroner issued a warrant that afternoon and Jessica Minns was arrested, held in the cells overnight and appeared in the Police Court next morning. But it was not about perjury, as most people thought.
Florence Jessica Newbegan Minns was charged with the murder of Lenora Johnston and others on May 31st 1901. Lenora was one of the 3 Johnston girls who died in the Grand Hotel fire. Jessica Minns’ counsel, Mr Martin, questioned whether his client would be bailed – the only evidence against her appeared to be what she had said at the inquest. Minns was allowed bail.
When the hearing resumed a few days later, the town was flooded with townsfolk seeking a glimpse of Minns as she was conveyed from the police cells to the Magistrate’s Court. The courtroom was packed. The prosecution outlined her work as a scullery-maid at the Grand Hotel before the fire, her subsequent reluctance to give evidence at the inquest and then, on oath, describing the actions of three men in the hotel, their intentions to blow the premises sky-high or to burn it down. On the night of the fire a light usually left burning in the pantry for security had been doused, keys to some locks were missing and the back gate to the hotel yard had been left open. By her own evidence, the prosecution said, Minns was guilty of murder… then she said she had read it all in a book. “It is possible that Minns had carried out the arson and then invented the story at the inquest to cover her tracks”.
Legal argument then ensued. One of the points made by Mr Martin for the defence was that Miss Minns had been unduly threatened by the coroner into giving evidence: she had not done so voluntarily. “ The coroner’s references during the inquest were too harsh when he said that she would be forced to appear, or go to jail, that she must give evidence and that the inquest would get the truth out of her with compulsion if necessary”.
The Magistrate, Mr T. Hutchison, said that where there is any doubt that a statement is other than a voluntary one, it has to be rejected by the Bench. He found numerous ways during the course of the inquest in which Minns’ statements were not likely to have been made voluntarily. He was referring to the Coroner having the woman arrested and escorted to court, his repeated insistence that she give evidence and that he would be getting her evidence out, no matter what. The magistrate dismissed the case: Miss Minns went free.
So ended the story of her sensational evidence which, day after day during the inquest was inclined to be believed by the coroner, Thomas Gresham, but at the same time doubted by the police, notably Sub-Inspector Mitchell. And jury members must have been impatient as “evidence” was slowly extracted from the reluctant and conniving Miss Minns. And all to no avail.
While Jessica Minns’ part in the inquest had to be discounted, the court’s findings included a censure against the City Council and the fire brigade’s for their shortcomings, resulting almost immediately in far-reaching improvements in Auckland’s fire protection.
Their Royal Highnesses the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York were due to tour New Zealand within weeks of the fire which destroyed the Grand Hotel – it had been reserved for their exclusive use while in Auckland. The day after the blaze officials rushed from Wellington to hurriedly arrange alternative accommodation for the Royals and their touring party at the Northern Club.
Despite the licensee Alexander Johnston’s opinion that the Grand Hotel had been deliberately set on fire, no one was arrested and charged with an offence.
Jessica Minns came to police notice again in 1917. She was charged with vagrancy (homelessness, perhaps begging) and sentenced to 3 months’ jail with hard labour.
Jessica Minns died in June 1926 and was interred at Waikumete Cemetery.
The Grand Hotel was rebuilt, retaining the design of the façade, and re-opened as a five-star hotel just one year after the destructive fire. The façade remains behind which in 2018 a high-rise apartment block is being constructed.
Text: Papers Past- National Library of New Zealand