Friday, August 21, 2020

The Cardwell Street Murder, New Lynn, 1928

(left) 1st Viscount Cardwell, and (right) detail from 1865 map of New Lynn, 
NZ Map 4498-5, Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections

In a period where Aucklanders increasingly felt the effects of the recession of the late 1920s, one which gave a taste of what the coming Great Depression would be like just two years later, a woman in West Auckland lost her life in a brutal fashion, and a street’s name became so infamous that petitions were organised to change it forever. 

The street was once Cardwell Street in New Lynn, originating from the 1865 subdivision of the north-eastern portion of Allotment 257, likely named in honour of Edward Cardwell, 1st Viscount Cardwell, Secretary of State for the Colonies 1864-1866. Into the 20th century, it was part of the residential area of New Lynn which, from the post World War II period would be dramatically transformed into the more familiar commercial and light industrial area we know today.

The woman who was murdered in this ordinary New Lynn neighbourhood was Ernestina Mary Norgrove née Henderson who was born in what was then known as Waitakere South, 28 October 1888, the second eldest child of six, to William Thomas Maddocks Henderson and his wife Ernestina Mary née Bock. Her father William was born in Aberdeen, 18 April 1864. His father in turn was also named William Thomas Maddocks Henderson, a master hatter who married the likely pregnant Agnes Bruce in Aberdeen, Scotland, in August 1863. Ernestina Mary Bock was born in New South Wales in 1867, daughter to William and Mary Bock. She married William Henderson 18 April 1885 in Auckland. 

Young Ernestina wasn’t even five years old when disaster struck the family on Friday 4 August 1893. Her father William, employed as a carter by an Onehunga shipping agent named Cunningham, was driving a heavy two-horse dray from Onehunga to Auckland via Parnell. For some reason, he was standing on the shaft of the dray. A wheel hit a rut in the road, and Henderson slipped off, falling to the ground. The dray’s wheel passed over him, crushing his ribs, which in turn punctured his lungs. He coughed blood all the way to the hospital, and died in the early hours of 5 August. 

The family had only recently shifted from where they had lived near Wasby’s Bush in the Waitakeres (near Nihotupu) into the city, living in Airedale Street at the time of the accident. William and Ernestina had five children at that point, the youngest fourteen months old, with Ernestina pregnant with number six; Annie Murdoch Henderson arrived into the world on the night of 5 August, the day her father died. The NZ Herald and Auckland Star both started fundraising subscription campaigns for the family. Goods were donated by grocers. Others gave clothing, as well as money. A special benefit concert was held on Sunday 13 August 1893 in the City Hall by the Suburban Popular Concert Company, under the auspices of the Mayor of Auckland William Crowther, as a fundraiser for the Hendersons. 

The family nearly had to split up. The Charitable Aid Board did consider the admission of four of the children, including the four-year-old Ernestina, into the Orphan Home in order for them to receive rations, but decided that Mrs Henderson and her children didn’t need the assistance, so the application was declined. 

Salvation though came from another source, when Ernestina Henderson married Terence Henderson (no relation to her late husband) on 9 February 1895. Terence was a labourer at the Chelsea Sugar Works near Birkenhead, and that’s where the family moved to. The youngest, Arthur (making the number of children seven), was born later that year. 

Into the new century, at some point the young 20 year old Ernestina met up with 23-year-old Clarence Norgrove, member of a well-known family involved with the butcher trade. She married him on 8 September 1909, just before she turned 21. In 1911 the couple were living at 20 Trinity Street, Herne Bay. Clarence likely worked for his uncle Charles, who had started his own business in 1896, first at Three Lamps in Ponsonby, before shifting to Richmond Road, Grey Lynn by 1907. In 1909, Charles Norgrove was established enough to run for political office, and stood for a seat on the Grey Lynn Borough Council that year. He won, and would remain on the Borough Council until 1913. He was made a Justice of the Peace in 1907, and retired from business in 1911. 

By 1914, Clarence Norgrove had found another job, working in New Lynn at the Binsted abattoir near the Whau Creek, today the site of Ken Maunder Park. Clarence and Ernestina relocated to Binsted’s Road. By that stage, the couple had had two children. Two years later, a fire at the slaughterhouse probably curtailed operations there, and Clarence found other work later, as a commercial driver, an echo of the occupation followed by Ernestina’s father. Three children more would be born during the family’s residence at New Lynn, with a move to Ward Street, the youngest born around 1924. 

Then, on 26 February 1925, Clarence died from pneumonia. He was only 38 years old. For the second time in her life, Ernestina was in a family cast into uncertainty and financial insecurity due to the death of the breadwinner – but this time, the risk was to her own welfare and that of her children. 

3 Cardwell Street, New Lynn. NZ Herald, 8 March 1928.

By 1928, Ernestina was living at 3 Cardwell Street, New Lynn, with her daughter Mavis aged 18 and son David William, aged 12. The younger three children were living in the Manurewa orphans home – unlike her mother, Ernestina had not been able to keep the family together, in the face of the recession. 

On 7 March that year, Ernestina Mary Norgrove was murdered. 

Articles of clothing checked later at the pathological department at Auckland Hospital were all stained with blood: a ladies dress, a man’s silk handkerchief, shirt, collar and tie. As well as a flat iron. 

Tranby House flat irons, 1800s. Photo by Gnangarra, via Wikipedia 

The 7th of March was to have been young Mavis’ wedding day. That morning at 6.30, Ernestina Norgrove left her house at 3 Cardwell Street, and headed across the road to No. 2, the Pirrit residence, where she did the washing for Mrs Frances May Pirrit. To help make ends meet, Ernestina did tasks like laundry for others. The night before, a pretty cinnamon-coloured dress had arrived at the Pirrits for Ernestina – while she was at their house, she pressed it. Mrs Pirritt left her house to travel to town at 10.30, and that was the last time she saw her neighbour alive. Mrs Pirrit saw the dress again, now blood-stained, once more at the inquest. 

According to Mavis, her mother headed into their house briefly to pick up some shoes and underclothing, before heading back to the Pirrits' to have a bath and put on the dress. Mavis headed off to have lunch with David at 11am, across the road at No. 3. 

While Mavis and David were there, Alan Norgrove turned up, demanding to know where Mavis and her husband-to-be were going to live, then demanding to know where Ernestina was. He told Mavis that her mother would not be going with them to the registry office. When Mavis protested that her mother had to go to the registry office, Norgrove then stated that he would come along, then bring Ernestina straight back home. After discussion around the wedding reception planned that evening at St Thomas’ Hall, where Norgrove apparently claimed Ernestina had deceived him, he then told Mavis to “get the hell out of it,” and she and David left the house. 

Olive White, another neighbour who lived at 1 Cardwell Street, watched Ernestina walk across the street just before noon, wearing the cinnamon-coloured dress, and carrying a pink hat. After Ernestina had gone back inside her house at 3 Cardwell Street, Mrs White heard raised voices. A window opened, and Mrs White saw Ernestina crying, then grasping the window ledge, as if she was trying to jump out and leave the house. Then Ernestina looked up, saw Mrs White watching, and let go of the ledge, backing away from the window and putting a hand up to her forehead. She said “I will,” twice, and from behind her saw Alan George Norgrove come into view. He said, “Well, I am going too.” Mrs White looked away – when she looked back, the window was closed. 

The next noise Mrs White heard was “a noise as if a chair was being pushed on the floor.” Then there came six “bumps” in succession, like muffled thuds. Some 15 to 20 minutes later, Mrs White saw Alan Norgrove leave the house, his hands in his trouser pockets, walking between No. 1 and No, 3 towards the road. 

Alan George Norgrove was 13 years younger than his brother Clarence, born in 1900, and lived at 13 Sussex Street, Grey Lynn with his father David and mother Martha. Like others in his family, he worked as a butcher at the time. From soon after Clarence’s death, he was a regular visitor at Ernestina’s home almost every weekend, and did share her bed. The couple’s relationship, though, was one blighted by domestic violence. Francis William George Postlewaight, who had known Clarence Norgrove, described at the inquest how one time Ernestina’s son David had fled the house, heading to where Postlewaight lived in nearby Binsted Road. 

When Postlewaight went over to investigate, he found Mavis hanging out of her bedroom window, and heard sounds “like someone was getting a hiding.” Ernestina was getting off the floor of another room, while Alan Norgrove “was trying to bash the door in to get to where Mavis was.” According to Mavis, the fight had started over Norgrove’s drunken demands that Ernestina return to town. When she said she couldn’t, she hadn’t the money, Norgrove punched her in the face, knocking her to the floor. He then pulled her up again, and punched her again, breaking her teeth. 

Postlewaight went round to the back, David in tow. Norgrove came out, and said to David, “I will kill you, you bastard.” He seemed intent on getting to David, but Postlewaight stopped him, asking what was going on, and telling him “not to fill the neighbours’ mouths.” Norgrove turned and asked Ernestina whether she was “his woman.” According to Postlewaight, she seemed disinclined to answer. 

Another quarrel, according to Mavis, had started over the wording Ernestina had penned for the memoriam she had sent to the Auckland Star for the third anniversary of Clarence’s death. It read: 

It isn’t known whether Ernestina would have seen the murder weapon, a flat iron, coming towards her face. There was a wound found on her right hand, two inches long, with an incised cut an inch long in the middle. On her face was a wound measuring three inches, from an inch above her right eyebrow, diagonally across to her left cheek. The wound gaped, so Dr Norman Douglas Watson Murray told the coroner’s inquest on examining her body. Shattered bone could be seen. The skull over the eyes was fractured, as was the right cheek bone. Blood issued from her right ear, which was bruised. Another large wound behind the ear measured 3 inches by 3½ inches. This wound had happened so violently, bone was missing due to being pushed into the brain. There was a star-shaped wound on the top of the skull, and another at the base of the head. Four distinct blows had led to fracture of the skull, laceration of the brain, and Ernestina’s death. Ernestina appears to have fallen against a chest of drawers – a corner had broken off, and was later found in a pool of blood. 

The flat iron, according to Mavis, was kept in the bathroom. Alan Norgrove, enraged that Ernestina had plans that day that did not include him, that Mavis was marrying Robert Firth with whom he’d already had arguments, seems to have gone into the bathroom, picked up the flat iron, then followed Ernestina into the bedroom, where he struck her and killed her. Then, in the quiet aftermath, he straightened the cinnamon-coloured dress she wore, and set the pink hat down neatly beside her, before heading to the living room, dropping the bloodied flat iron on a settee. Then, with front door locked and blinds drawn down, he made sure the back door was locked as he left, and walked away. 

Norgrove travelled by bus to Ponsonby where, around 12.45 pm, he went to the Ponsonby Police Station, and gave himself up, telling the officers there he had killed a woman in New Lynn with a flat iron, and produced the key to the back door. He was described as being sober and rational, but agitated, as he gave a statement which was typed out, and he then signed. While Norgrove was giving his statement at Ponsonby, Constable Jeremiah Horan from Avondale turned up at the house in Cardwell Street at 12.55pm, after receiving a call from the Detective Office, that had been informed by Ponsonby station. He broke in by smashing a pane of glass at the front door. 

Mavis and Robert George Firth married the following day. Given what had happened, she said later, she wanted to have the comfort of her husband during the time of grief. 

1928 Police Gazette

At the Supreme Court trial which began 14 May 1928, Alan Norgrove pleaded not guilty to the charge of wilful murder. His defence was that he was insane at the time he killed Ernestina Norgrove. His counsel told the court that his client had been “abnormal from his infancy … a child of melancholy and moody disposition, subject to occasional outbursts of violent and uncontrollable temper.” He had to leave work a year before. Several members of his family, the counsel went on, had been inmates of mental hospitals, and one still was an inmate. 

Dr Robert Martin Beattie, formerly in charge of the Auckland Mental Hospital, felt that Alan Norgrove wasn’t “normal,” and suffered from “mental instability”, especially over the course of the previous three years. Beattie contended that, while Norgrove knew what he was doing when he picked up the flat iron, through “dementia precos” (a now obsolete term for schizophrenia) he wasn’t aware of what he was doing when he hit Ernestina and kept hitting her head with the iron. Dr. Henry Mallock Prins who was superintendent of the Auckland Mental Hospital at the time of the trial, however, disagreed with Beattie’s diagnosis, and said that Norgrove was quite capable of knowing what he was doing when he struck Ernestina with the flatiron. It was revealed during Prins’ statements in court that Ernestina herself had once been an inmate in a mental hospital. Dr Henry Douglas Hayes of Porirua Mental Hospital and Dr Tom William James Childs from Tokonui Mental Hospital both agreed with Dr Prins. 

His brother David claimed that he’d had to carry Alan Norgrove to school for three years because of “nervousness”. He said that his brother had “strained his heart” twice, so had to leave work. It was revealed, however, that in 1924 Alan Norgrove had lost his temper in a billiard room, smashed a pane of glass, and was convicted and fined £3. 

On 15 May 1928, Alan George Norgrove was found guilty, and sentenced to hang. In summing up, the judge pointed out that it was clearly a case of a murder which was at the culmination of a quarrel, rather than an act of momentary insanity. However, after strenuous representations made to Prime Minister Gordon Coates – in that year, seeking re-election – Norgrove’s sentence was commuted to “imprisonment with hard labour for the term of his natural life.” In this way, Coates seems to have wanted to appease both families, with Ernestina’s own family campaigning for the death sentence to have remained in force. 

As it turned out, “term of his natural life” proved to be either rather shorter than some probably imagined, or with a different definition. Norgrove was out of prison by 1941, after just 12 years at most, featuring on an Army ballot that year, once again living at 13 Sussex Street. By 1949 he was living in Mangere as a laundryman, got married in 1956, and died 11 December 1990 at the age of 90, having outlived at least four of Ernestina’s orphaned children. 

NZ Truth, 19 July 1928

In July 1928, Ernestina’s brother-in-law Edward Buchanan received a phone call from David Norgrove demanding that Ernestina be exhumed and removed from beside his brother Clarence Norgrove’s grave at Waikumete Cemetery. According to Buchanan, himself a monumental mason, Ernestina had been trying desperately to save up enough money to buy the plot and pay for a headstone. But, it turned out, Clarence’s plot had been purchased by the Norgroves in the intervening years between his death and hers, and so they now demanded that her body be removed. By August, after some hue and cry by the NZ Truth who broke the story, the demand was withdrawn by the Norgroves. But today, Clarence and Ernestina’s last resting place there at Waikumete remains unmarked by a memorial headstone. 

Auckland Star, 2 November 1929

The name Cardwell Street, by the end of the Norgrove trial, had become notorious. After a man named Edward Ryan tried poisoning himself there in 1929, the residents petitioned New Lynn Borough for a change of street name. And so, Veronica Street, named after a variety of tree, came into being. Today, the site where Ernestina met her untimely and brutal demise is just north-east of Great North Road, and very much obliterated by commercial land use, as with much of the old New Lynn these days. 

Auckland Star 7 March 1930

Fading memories of the Cardwell Street murder, and an unmarked burial plot at Waikumete Cemetery, are all that remains of a point where lives collided so fatally.

Photo courtesy Ruth and John Snashall, February 2020


  1. A really interesting read. What hard times. Alan Norgrove would surely been given a longer non parole period today. Thanks for the great article.

  2. Ernestina was my great, great grandmother (Mavis being my great grandmother). I had known of the story and seen a photo of the house but did not know all the details. So much sadness for one life. Thank you so much for sharing the full story.

  3. Ernestina was my grandmother, Mavis was my aunty and I do remember visiting her.
    When I was 12 years old I was visiting a cousin during the school holidays who told me our grandmother had been murdered by a hot iron.
    My mother had previously told me her father died at a young age from pneumonia, but didn’t speak about how her mother died. When I questioned mum about what my cousin had told me happened to her mother I was told it would not be discussed.
    Thank you for writing this, I came across it today quite accidentally while looking at ancestry for a different reason, but now understand a lot more about about my family and the past.

    1. Ernestina was my great great grandmother as well.
      Just came from discussing this story with my grandparent today (the son of Mavis and Robert) where they showed old newspapers and photos of the case. Out of pure curiosity, I searched the case up online and came across this article. Such a very sad story to hear. My granddad was always told the same by his mother “it will not be discussed” whenever he asked about what had happened to his grandmother. So it is very interesting for them to finally find out details of what happened. Thought it was very sad to read, thankyou for writing this and providing some clarity for us.