Monday, December 22, 2008

The Attack on Miss Rose Thomas

An incident took place on a summer’s evening in Avondale over a hundred years ago, which led to a police line-up, an arrest, and not one but three court hearings.

In mid January 1905, Miss Rose Thomas took up employment as a servant for Charles Grey, director of the well-known Grey & Menzies firm of soft drink manufacturers, Avondale school committee member, and later mayor of Auckland City from 1909-1910. She worked at Grey’s Avondale home of Banwell, just off what was then known as Windsor Road (today’s Chalmers Street).

On the 28th of January, a week after she began her job at Banwell, Rose went to Arthur Page’s store to buy some groceries at a quarter to eight in the evening, and was served by Edward Qualtrough. From there, she headed to a baker’s shop, run by one of her cousins, stayed there for around five minutes, then headed for home at around 8.30 pm. From Page’s store, she headed across to Binsted’s corner and along St Georges Road, past the public hall and the Presbyterian Church on the other side. A short way past Binsted’s butcher’s shop, she later told the court, a man she didn’t know passed her on the footpath, kept ahead of her, then disappeared. 200 yards further on, she looked back, and saw a man following her. Rose then turned into another road.

A short way along that road, Rose felt a man catch her by the throat, throwing her to the ground, saying, “Not a murmur, or I will blow your brains out.” He bumped her face against the stones on the road, and she lost consciousness. When she came to, she was on her back in a ditch beside the road, the man there beside her, holding what appeared in the gloom to look like a revolver (although Rose later said it may simply have been a piece of stick). He made “some improper suggestions”; then told her to keep still as they both heard the sound of people walking along the road nearby. He told her to keep still, but once the people, Mrs. Ellen March, three other ladies and some children, came nearer, Rose let out a scream.

The man tried to put his hands around her throat to stop her screams, but she got free and started to scramble away. The man went over a hedge and disappeared into the dark. Rose screamed again, “Save me, he will kill me!”, and ran out of the ditch, her hat on one side and her hair disheveled. She clung to one of the ladies as they took her to Grey’s house up the hill.

Constable O’Grady was at Page’s Store himself until 8.45 pm. On his way home, he came upon the ladies and the distraught Rose Thomas. Hearing from them about that had taken place, he asked Rose to give him a description of the man who had attacked her. All she could say was that he wore a slouch hat, dark coat, and a collarless white shirt. O’Grady then headed back to Avondale, and said later that he recognised a man fitting the description Rose gave him, standing under the lamp of the Avondale Hotel and with dust on the knees of his trousers – John Hughes, a married local resident. He questioned Hughes as to his whereabouts at the time of the attack, and was told that Hughes had seen Rose Thomas at Pages Store earlier that evening, while he was buying a fishing line and a copy of the NZ Herald. He passed her on the way to his own house, and was there for around 10 minutes before he decided to head back out to the hotel. On his way there, he passed Mrs. March and her companions, just as one had struck a match and then sent one of the children with them back to the store. This was around 8.45 pm.

In Avondale, as he was making his way to the hotel from the footpath outside Page’s Store, he was spotted by William H. Scarlett from where the other man stood on the hotel’s verandah opposite the store, and invited by Scarlett to make up a four-handed game of cards at the hotel. At the door to the hotel, Hughes was stopped and questioned by Constable O’Grady, promised to turn up at the Police Station the next day, then went inside and played cards until 10 o’clock. Scarlett described Hughes as sober, and quite calm.

The following day, O’Grady organised a line-up at the station, and got Hughes to stand in line with some other men. O’Grady counselled Rose to be very careful and see if she could recognise the man who had attacked her. She picked out Hughes. Hearing his voice and seeing his hands, she said, made her feel more positive it was him. O’Grady then arrested Hughes, charging him with attempted rape. Hughes remarked, “I did not assault the girl, but if she says so I suppose I must put up with it.”

Hughes fronted up before the magistrate at the Police Court on 6 February, and over the course of two days the details of the case were laid before the public. Right from the start, Hughes’ lawyer raised the point that the prosecution of his client rested solely on identification – and that was prone to error. The lawyer, J. R. Lundon, questioned Rose as to whether her assailant had whiskers or not, and whether Hughes was the only man in the line-up with a white collarless shirt. The answer to both questions was no, but Rose wavered slightly in her certainty. It didn’t help that there was apparently another attempted attack on a young girl in the area a few days after Hughes’ arrest. Hughes was still committed for trial at the Supreme Court however, the magistrate feeling that there was a case to answer. Hughes was allowed bail in his personal recognisance of £200 and two others of £100 each.

Then came a long wait for the Supreme Court hearing. I trawled through the newspapers from February to May, looking for the hearing – the wait for Hughes must have been nerve-wracking. Whether he remained in Avondale while awaiting the verdict, even if he did post bail, is not known. If he did stay here, the gossips would have had a field day.

Finally and eventually, on 26 May 1905, his second trial took place. This also took two days (Friday and Saturday), but was abandoned for a retrial the following Tuesday. At his third trial, all over in a day, he was finally acquitted.
“In summing up yesterday evening in the case against John Hughes, charged with indecently assaulting a girl at Avondale, His Honor said it was plain to him that the evidence of identification was not strong enough. And the case depended entirely on identification, the fact that an assault was committed by somebody not having been disputed. No doubt there was strong suspicion about the matter, and it was unfortunate for the prisoner that he should have been about near the scene of the assault about that time, dressed in clothes which answered the description given by the girl to the police immediately after the occurrence. However, it was not sufficient that the clothing was identified, because there might reasonably have been other men about the district with slouch hats, dark coats and white shirts. There must be something more than that before they could convict … The case certainly looked very suspicious, but he did not think they could say that “beyond all reasonable doubt” the prisoner in the dock was the author of the outrage … Under all the circumstances he thought the jury would be quite safe in acquitting the accused.”
(Auckland Star, 31 May 1905)

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