Ah, that spring and summer wondrous treat – fresh strawberries with cream. A staple of pleasure gardens in and around Auckland since the 1860s, and a certain drawcard for the crowds, even now. Who would have thought that their presence in the early 1920s at an advertised social function out in West Auckland would have resulted in a prominent politician of the day almost being hauled over the coals for illegal election practices?
The politician concerned was the Hon. Christopher James Parr (1869-1941). At the time of the 1922 General Election, in which he ran for the seat of Eden here in Auckland (which included, then, Mt Albert, Avondale, and much of West Auckland) he was a minister holding the public health and education portfolios. It is perhaps the former responsibility which made him the target.
The complainant was one John Pool, of Mt Albert, backed by Labour Party interests. Quite apart from the fact that this was clearly a Labour vs. the Conservatives thing – the fact that Mr Pool hailed from Mt Albert, which had just come through a thyphoid outbreak and that local identities such as Forbes Eadie (also Labour-leaning) had pointed the finger of blame directly at Parr during the campaign … A connection may well have been there, amidst the muddy undercurrents.
The petition against Parr was a charge of “treating”, an illegal electoral practice since 1858 under the first Corrupt Practices Prevention Act and succeeding amendments. A candidate found guilty of paying, wholly or in part, for any meat, drink, or entertainment for electors on a polling day in 1858 risked being sued and paying a fine of £50 for each person taking suit against him, and being removed from the electoral roll. By 1881 the risk was a £400 fine, and exclusion from the electoral roll (and the right be elected) for five years.
The incident took place on 3 November 1922, at part of the Levy family property in Glen Eden, and revolved around two and a half crates of strawberries “devoured by the ladies of Glen Eden”, as the NZ Truth described it. (3 March 1923) Another similar allegation, around an incident at Avondale, was dropped before the court case.
On 3rd November, five weeks before the poll, Mr. Parr, by advertisement, called all prepared to assist him in his candidature to meet in the Glen Eden district. Forty people were present, including [W H] Shepherd, who became chairman, and [Percy] Levy, who became secretary. [Shepherd was a leading light in the campaign to have Glen Eden break away from the Waitemata County Council. ]Levy explained that if the women would provide afternoon tea they would provide strawberries and cream. Invitations were issued, and strawberries were ordered on three different occasions. The conversazione took place according to plan. Shepherd introduced the candidate, and Mrs. Parr was also present. After an address by Mr. Parr afternoon tea was ordered, and those who wanted strawberries and cream partook of them.
When challenged about the strawberries the same evening, Mr. Parr denied that they were paid for by him. Counsel proceeded to indicate that there was some trouble about who should pay for the strawberries.
Judge Hosking raised a question as to whether counsel would not have to prove agency. Mr. Quartley said it would be proved that the treating took place with the knowledge of the candidate. Even though it may have taken place without his knowledge, though the prosecution did not admit that, and if, by sending out invitation cards signed by Mr. Parr the committee turned an innocent affair into an act against the law, then the election was void.
(Evening Post, 26 February 1923)
One thing about the case – as the trial proceeded, readers were given almost a roll-call of strawberry growers in and around Glen Eden at that time.
Mrs. Hill gave evidence that she attended a meeting a week before the conversazione at Levy's, at the invitation of Mr. Shepherd, who stated that Mr Mrs., and Miss Parr were having a ladies meeting the following Saturday. Ladies could bring cakes, and they would provide strawberries and cream. She was pretty sure Shepherd said: "Mr. Parr is the man to vote for." In reply to Mr. Skerrett, witness said she did not know there had been a discussion among the ladies whether they should provide strawberries and cream.
Percy Wood said Percy Levy spoke to him last November about supplying strawberries "for Mr. Parr's turnout across the road." He rendered an account on 11th January, and on 11th February he rendered an account to Mrs Enckson on the suggestion of Mr. Routley. who ultimately paid him. William Qualtrough said that Shepherd asked him to tell his wife to come to the conversazione, and said: "We are doing it simply to get the women together for a friendly chat. It has nothing to do with the election. You can vote for whom you like." Witness said G. Levy asked him to order a crate of strawberries from Dick Woods, and he did so.
Richard Woods said he supplied one crate, of strawberries, and saw Levy in regard to the account. Levy said: "Do not send the account to me. I cannot have anything to do with it, as I am Parr’s secretary." Levy told him to send the account to Mrs. Erickson, secretary of the social committee. Witness declared he also sent the account to Levy. Mr. Skerrett said no such account had been received.
William John Pugh, farmer, said after the meeting on 25th November he received an account or statement for 10s. which he passed on to Mr. Levy. He believed strawberries were mentioned in the account. To Mr. Skerrett: He did not pay the 10s, as he did not know to whom it should be paid. Levy said it was a mistake, the account was sent to him.
Bernard Alps, strawberry grower, spoke of supplying half a crate of strawberries to Levy. He was paid for the fruit last week by Mrs. Erickson. He first sent the account to Levy, but last week he was met by Mrs. Erickson, who asked him to come to her home, and she would pay for the strawberries.
(Evening Post, 27 February 1923)
Mrs Naomi Kinniburgh, Avondale’s first Mayoress, was even brought into the saga, giving testimony that she had attended the infamous strawberry-and-cream gathering that day out West.
Mrs. Naomi Kinniburgh, wife of the Mayor of Avondale, said she had a particular reason in listening, as she wanted to know which way to vote. In her opinion, Parr did not make a sufficiently political speech.
(Evening Post, 27 February 1923)
The following day, the defence laid down their evidence that Parr hadn’t paid for the entertainment or the catering at Glen Eden, and that it wasn’t even an especially political meeting at all.
Parr would go into the witness-box and tell the Court he had absolutely no knowledge of the proceedings at Glen Eden until he went there on the afternoon, intending to address a political meeting. Further, on 4th November, one day after the committee was set up at Glen Eden, he wrote expressly stating that his committee was not to enter upon any monetary contract without his personal sanction. Counsel submitted it was absurd to suggest that the supply of a few strawberries was done from corrupt motives. He would submit strong evidence to show it was not done for political purposes, but was only reasonable hospitality.
Christopher James Parr stated in evidence that he attended a meeting at Glen Eden on 3rd November, and chatted with his supporters. He suggested that those willing to work for him should hand in their names. Levy was appointed secretary, and Shepherd chairman. When he arrived at the Glen Eden meeting he found the room decorated, and asked: "Who has done all, this?" Mrs. Routley replied: "The women have pushed the men out to give you and Mrs. Parr a social afternoon."
(Evening Post, 27 February 1923)
The fact that only a handful of men attended the meeting at Glen Eden, at which the now-famous feast of strawberries was served, was used by Mr. Quartley, counsel for the petitioner, at the Auckland Supreme Court as a ground on which to base the query as to why if this was not a political meeting, all other men were excluded. Mr. Justice Swinger pointed out that the invitation cards produced for the inspection of the Court bore the legend, "Ladies and friends" and that it would be unkind to suggest that Glen Eden women had no men friends, reports the "N.Z. Herald." Mr. Justice Hosking, on the other hand, put forward the view that, as most of the men in the district would be working men; they could not afford the time to go to afternoon tea parties. "When they can afford the time," he said with a reminiscent smile, "they generally avoid them."
(Evening Post, 1 March 1923)
In the end, the petition against Parr was dismissed, on the grounds that he was completely ignorant of any “treating” that might have happened at the instigation of the local organisers.
"The evidence in our opinion clearly establishes that, the respondent and his wife were ignorant of the intention that the women's meeting for which he had fixed the date was to take the form of a gathering such as that described, or until they arrived at the hall that there was to be anything in the nature of entertainment. It is not shown that he knew anything beforehand of any particulars of his committee in the arrangements, although of course on arrival at the hall he could but have assumed that the committee must have raised no objection to the ladies using the occasion for the purpose they did. It is also completely established that the respondent himself was never called on to pay, nor ever did pay any of the cost of the entertainment. This disposes of the contention that the respondent by remaining at and taking part in, the social, adopted the acts of those concerned in getting it up so as to make him personally responsible for any corrupt treatment involved, .for to entitle that conclusion it must be shown as a preliminary condition that the respondent was aware of the facts and of a corrupt intention on the part of those concerned. The evidence, we consider, clearly establishes he was ignorant of these circumstances, so that he stands acquitted of all personal complicity in corrupt practice alleged."
(Evening Post 5 March 1923)
Surely a disappointing, not to mention court-cost expensive, time for those who muist have been certain that they smelled Parr's blood in the water politically. Instead, all they got was the fragrant scent of Glen Eden strawberries ...