Wednesday, August 23, 2023

The disappearance of Walter Ashton, 1948


Portrait of Walter Ashton by Clifton Firth, 21 April 1941. Auckland Libraries Heritage Collections 34-A32.

Walter Ashton disappeared from Piha one night in 1948.

He was described, according to Graeme Hunt in his book Spies and Revolutionaries (2007) as "a happily married man in his forties" and by the Communist Party of NZ as "an outstanding trade unionist with a remarkable record of consistent service." Also described as stodgy and solid, according to Hunt: "he had the name of a wowser, almost puritanical in his attitude towards drinking, and appeared meticulous in his handling of money."

Ashton was considered a rock-solid bloke among the local communists. National committee member since 1938, candidate for the Auckland Hospital Board in 1941, parliamentary candidate 1943, and was elected secretary of the Auckland Trades Council that year.

Then in April 1948, the communists lost control of the Trades Council. Ashton had an appointment with his replacement to hand over the books -- he didn't show. His car was instead found abandoned at Piha, then a two-hour drive from the CBD, containing "a quantity of Communist literature", a book called Flowers in the Dust, and his diary, with no recent entries.

Over the next few weeks, with records at the Trades Council examined, £521 of union funds was found to have either been stolen or misappropriated by Ashton, along with £1623 in money raised during a 1943 "Sheepskins for Russia" appeal.

As Hunt put it: "He had cheated not only rank-and-file unionists but Moscow as well."

A warrant was issued for his arrest. It was found that stodgy and solid Ashton had falsified accounts at the Trades Council for two years, assisted by another office-holder's habit of signing blank cheques. Months after his disappearance, the Auckland Woollen, Hosiery and Knitting Mills Employees Union instructed their solicitors to have the missing Ashton declared bankrupt in order to seize assets to distribute among the affected union organisations. There was a court hearing over the abandoned car, claimed both by Ashton's brother Alfred Charles Ashton, who paid the last installment owed on it of £35 and therefore claimed it for the Ashton family, and the president of the Auckland Trades Council. The judge hearing the case ruled that the car be sold, and money lodged with the Public Trustee, less £35 to be given to the claimant brother.

There were even rumours Walter Ashton been smuggled across the Tasman. Some stories drifted back of a man depositing large sums of money in a bank in Sydney. Then there were theories put about that he'd been picked up by a Soviet sub offshore.

But with no real traces found, the verdict came down that Ashton had simply parked his car, and walked into the surf, knowing that his dealings would be discovered in the transition of power.