Friday, November 6, 2015

Death at Ayr Street, 1958

(John Cardwell from the Timespanner page on Facebook did most of the research for the following, as well as provide the image of the house as it is today.) 

Two lives intersected tragically at 24 Ayr Street, Parnell, one Friday in April 1958. 

Grant Caldwell Lofley was born as one of a set of twins in 1933, but his sibling died soon after birth. His parents separated; he was in Dingwall Orphanage in 1942, according to a family tree on Ancestry. He attended Otahuhu Tech College in 1950 (his last year) -- his mother apparently reckoned he wanted to be a marine engineer. By 1954 he was instead working at the Albert Hotel. In 1958, he was a bar steward. 

John Richard Donald Woodhouse, aged eight in April 1958, was the son of George Harvey Woodhouse, and attended Newmarket school. He was always driven by his father to school in the morning, but in the afternoon he usually walked back home to Brighton Road. On Friday 11 April, when Mr Woodhouse returned home at 4.15pm, it was to find that John had not returned. The Woodhouses had a guest that afternoon, who didn’t leave until 5.30 pm; despite the rising anxiety John’s parents felt as to his absence, both of them felt they found it difficult to bring up their concerns in front of their guest. 

Once their guest had left, Mr and Mrs Woodhouse drove the family car along John’s usual route, in hopes of spotting him, but to no avail. They contacted the school, which was opened up by a committee member so they could search, along with their daughter and her fiancĂ©. They checked with the hospital. A number of volunteers helped them search high and low, but – at 3.15 am the next day, the police contacted them, advising that young John was dead. 

On that Friday, after “a good win at the races”, Lofley had been drinking brandy, lime and soda at the Waitemata Hotel from 11.30 until around 2.30 pm, appearing “sober” after eight drinks, according to Basil Thompson, barman at the hotel. Lofley got into a cab at Victoria Street around 3.15pm, intending to head straight to Ayr Street, but stopping along Parnell Road between St Stephens Ave and Cathedral Place where Lofley was sick. The cabbie watched Lofley walk away afterward. 

At the time, Lofley was sharing the house at 24 Ayr Street with a builder named Cornelius Devitt. Devitt was away from the house all day, returning at 4.30 pm. Lofley was in the basement, apparently passed out. Coming to, he came into the house between 5 pm and 5.30 pm. At 6.30 pm, he told Devitt he was heading out again to see a film. Emil Fruean testified that he met up with Lofley in a billiard saloon at about 7pm, where Lofley shook hands with him and said, “Goodbye, son. I won’t be seeing you for a long time.” Fruean asked what he meant but was told he’d know soon enough. 

Soon after 1 am, Lofley entered the watchhouse at the Central Police Station, asked for a drink of water, and said that he had something serious to say, and that he wanted to give himself up. “I murdered a kiddie today; don’t ask me why. Something just snapped inside me.” He told the police his name was Frank Caldwell Wilson, nicknamed John, and that he had killed a kiddie at 24 Ayr Street by strangling him. 

Lofley told the police that, on returning home he looked out the window, saw the boy walking past, and followed him. He asked young John if he wanted to see a kitten, and invited him back to the house. In the basement to the house, he murdered the boy. He led police back to the house, and showed them the body. 

Part of the defence implied that Lofley might have had some sort of epileptic fit which led him to do something like this which he had not done before. However, the Crown contended that “a criminal act of a gross nature was intended.” Lofley awoke from passing out in the basement to find the boy’s body beside him – yet calmly placed the body where Devitt didn’t spot it later, and went about the rest of his evening until fronting up to the police the next morning. 

It was said by defence counsel, in summing up, that if John Woodhouse had followed his customary route home, going nowhere near the gully between Ayr Street and Brighton Road, which his parents had forbidden him to do, he would never have met up with the still inebriated Lofley that day. 

Lofley was found guilty of John Woodhouse’s murder in July at the end of a two day trial. He was sentenced to death for the young lad, but the judge passed on a recommendation for mercy and the sentence was commuted to life imprisonment. 

By 1978 he was living in Christchurch, and died there in 1983. 

John Woodhouse was buried at Purewa Cemetery.


  1. What a horrible event, but well fleshed out. Even back then a life sentence did not really mean a life sentence.

  2. Part of the job of a defence counsel is sprinkling doubts and insinuations, but that's a curious detail from the summing up, of John's taking the wrong way home. Suggesting what: just a quirk of fate that the boy should be in the wrong place as if fate willed the murder? that the boy was a little culpable too through disobedience? or even that the disobedience was symptomatic of some character flaw that might have goaded Lofley to murder? If John Cardwell read the trial transcript (I've no idea if full court proceedings were recorded, let alone preserved) perhaps he can shed more light on this?

    1. What we know comes from newspaper accounts of the trial at the time. I think the defence was trying to get at the point that, if Lofley hadn't been tempted by the boy going along Ayr Street at that time, it wouldn't have happened. Not really a great defence, as if it hadn't been John that day, if Lofley was as out of it mentally as he was another day and another kiddy went past ...

      The judge did put in a plea of mercy when sentencing him, so probably took into account that this was (at that point) a one-off, and Lofley apparently hadn't offended before. A strange case.