Wednesday, December 9, 2009

An explosive affair at Murchison

This is Murchison. Up until now, when mentioned to me, my brain would drag up the tidbit of a certain earthquake of note which took place there last century. However, 24 years before all that, it wasn't just nature getting startlingly violent in Murchison.

This from the Auckland Star, 2 August 1905.

One of the most remarkable events that has occurred in New Zealand happened at Murchison, Nelson, on July 14. A man named [Walter] Neame sued a neighbour named [Joseph] Sewell for the recovery of two heifers, which he claimed Sewell had wrongfully appropriated. The case was heard before Mr. Kendrick, S.M., in Downie's Hall. After the case had proceeded quietly for half an hour Sewell rose from a seat, and approaching the magistrate said, "I have a pocketful of dynamite, I can let it off in a minute, but I don't want to hurt you."

The police inspector noticed Sewell's eccentric behaviour, and enticed him outside the room and, with Constable Scott, went to arrest him.

Sewell evidently guessed their intention, and fumbled in his waistcoat pocket. This was immediately followed by a fearful explosion.

Sewell's body, except his legs, was blown to atoms. Inspector Wilson and Mr. [Elijah] Bunn lay stunned close by, seriously injured. Constable Scott and Mr. Fittall were 100 yards away. The direction of the explosion just missed others who were standing by, or all would have been blown to atoms. The force of the explosion is shown by the fact that a fence three yards away was blown to pieces. The explosion just missed destroying the hall, of which the corner was broken, the building being shifted three inches out of plumb.

All the windows in the vicinity of sixty feet were smashed to atoms, and the explosion was heard six miles away. The concussion affected crockery two miles away.

Great praise is due to Inspector Wilson and to Constable Scott for getting Sewell out of the building. Mr. Bunn is not expected to recover.

However, Mr. Bunn did indeed recover, and received ₤100 compensation from the government the following year. (Nelson Evening Mail, 29 August 1906)

Neame and Sewell had had a long-standing feud going on well before the explosive conclusion. At one point, Neame accused Sewell of leaving kerosene-soaked and burning rags at his door.
Six months ago Neame reported having found an ingeniously-contrived infernal machine two chains from his place, so devised that when he lifted the lid an explosion would follow, but no matches were in it, and the account was discredited. Three months ago Neame accused Sewell of poisoning his pigs, but this was also discredited.

Sewell, who was an elderly man of retiring habits, was deemed eccentric, as he had ideas and notions considerably advanced of the time. He was said to have devised a scheme of motor traction long before motor cars or 'buses were common, and his place of a few acres has some curious and ingenious mechanical contrivances of his own construction.

He also seemed to have realised the value of the "open-air treatment" long before medical science endorsed it; for his health and other reasons, he used to sleep in a van which he had covered in, and because of this he was regarded as a little "dotty." Those who knew Sewell very well, however, describe him as a quiet, intelligent, old man, extremely sensitive, but of warm, impulsive temper.

Sewell was greatly excited over the suit brought against him, and it is said he had a revolver in his possession, which he intended to take with him to the Courthouse. It is also said that on Thursday some Murchison people declared they would not enter the building while Sewell was there.
(Wanganui Herald, 17 July 1905)

Sewell was described as elderly -- but according to the Birth, Death & Marriages register, he was only 57 when he died. The hall where the case was being heard seems to have been known at the time as Downie's Hall, the only one in town and connected with the nearby Commercial Hotel and its proprietors, hence the name (after Charles Downie who owned the hotel from 1900). The hall was demolished in 1916.

Update 16 May 2012: This from Dave Grantham of Waikanae --

"Just came across your blog - very little seems to have been written about the Sewell-Neame saga. Walter Neame was killed in a trap accident near Lyell almost exactly a year later as reported in the Hawera & Normanby Star 9 July 1906. Both men's names appear in the Murchison Cemetery records online."

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