Friday, September 1, 2023

"With intent to injure or annoy ..." The 1949 Blockhouse Bay milk poisoning case


Highlighted in this snip from a 1947 White's Aviation aerial photo is the house where Gilbert and Adrienne Honey lived with their children. Donovan Street at the bottom, right is Blockhouse Bay Road. WA-10778-G, National Library of NZ

It was around 5.30 in the quiet of a still-semi rural Donovan Street, Blockhouse Bay, on the morning of Labour Day, 24 October 1949. At a gate at the end of a long pathway, which led to a simple house at the rear of the section, a woman stopped, lifted the lid of a billy can, and dropped barbiturates, broken drugs capsules, and ground glass into the milk that had been delivered there an hour before. Then, replacing the lid, she headed down the road to her own home, and waited for the results of her early morning’s work.

Her name was Una Jean Riga Corin, born Una Brasting in 1916, the youngest of nine children. Her father Jānis Brastiņš or John Brasting as his name was Anglicised, was born in Riga, today in Latvia but when he was born, it was still part of the Russian Empire. Brasting arrived in 1892, became a naturalised British subject in Christchurch in 1899, and died in Auckland in 1937.

In 1936, Una married a builder named Kenneth Noel Corin, and together they would have three children, living in Hillsborough, Auckland. But, the marriage didn’t last long. In 1941, a neighbour of the Corins showed Kenneth letters written by Una to another neighbour, with whom she was having an affair. Una admitted it all, and the marriage dissolved into separation. As a result, Una tried to kill herself. For that, she was convicted on 4 August 1941, but discharged without penalty.

Just over a year later, in October 1942, the uncontested decree nisi was granted, and the Corins divorced. Una had custody of the three children. By 1943, she had moved to a house on the northern side of Donovan Street, before settling in a house further along on the road almost opposite Whitney Street by 1946. By that stage, she was receiving a regular monthly supply of pheno-barbitone on prescription, as well as dilantin, an anti-convulsant.

Around 1946 was when the Honey family moved into two small houses off Donovan Street, near Blockhouse Bay Road. Today, the local supermarket carpark lies across where the family lived and their children played, set against the backdrop of the pine plantation at the Avondale South Domain. Gilbert Hartley Honey (1924-2010), a carpenter, his wife Adrienne (died 2012) and their children lived in one house, while Hartley’s brother Leonard (1923-1995) and his wife Cora lived in the other. Gilbert and Leonard’s parents, George James (1881-1947) and Hannah Honey (1881-1962), lived just across the way at 4 Donovan Street.

Another newcomer couple to Blockhouse Bay around this time were the Mittons, Harry (c.1888-1957) and his wife Letitia Mary. Harry, born in England, came to New Zealand at some point before 1911 as a jockey, and lived initially in Northland. Also at some point, he had to have his left arm amputated at the elbow – at least before 1913, when this distinctive feature appeared alongside his occupation still as a jockey in the NZ Police Gazette report on his conviction for theft in Kawakawa with a sentence “to come up if called upon.”

By 1919, Harry had shifted to Fairy Springs near Rotorua as a farmer, and married Letitia Mary Scott in 1924. Then in 1927 he was fined £5 in Putaruru for attempting to bet with a bookmaker. Letitia meanwhile set up an accommodation house at Whakarewarewa in 1930, and Harry ran a store – but in 1932 both Harry and Letitia were fined for brewing without a license and selling sly grog. In 1944, one-armed Harry Mitton was fined £10 in Rotorua for “mischief.” After that, he and Letitia moved to Auckland, and settled at Blockhouse Bay.

Harry, noticing that the Honey’s property had lots of pine needles from being so close to the domain, called upon them to pick up the pine needles for his wife’s strawberry patch. Through this, he came to know Adrienne Honey, but they remained simply casual acquaintances. When asked later, Harry denied ever entering the Honey family home during his visits to the property.

Soon after, Una Corin came to live on Donovan Street, and she “became quite intimate” with Harry Mitton around June 1948, according to him. Around this time, he began to have marital problems with Letitia, perhaps due to the affair, and they separated. Harry was now living in a house on Blockhouse Bay Road near the school, just around the corner from Donovan Street, his wife Letitia on Matata Street.

In March 1949, Harry was prescribed 30 nembutal tablets, and later said these were in his room when Una came to visit him. He denied, though, giving any to her. She may have simply taken them.

In June or July of 1949, Una started her jealous fixation on Adrienne Honey. She accosted Adrienne in the street, accusing her of “having associations with Harry Mitton,” which Adrienne firmly denied. Later Una told Adrienne that “detectives were watching her,” and that she knew she (Adrienne) would be going to Rotorua with Harry. Adrienne and her husband went round to Una’s house so she could make the accusations in front of him – but Una said then she was unwell, so things went no further.

Twice though, Una was seen entering the Honey’s property, heading for the pine trees at the back, standing there for a time, watching the house, then disappearing into the bush. Another time, Una sent one of her sons around to the Honey’s home just to see if Harry was there. One Friday, Adrienne returned home from shopping to find Una just inside the front door, agitated and saying she was looking for Harry, while pushing a piece of paper into an overcoat pocket.

Una took things a step further though, when she headed to Gilbert Honey’s mother’s home in late August. There, in front of Gilbert, she told his mother that Adrienne was “having an affair” with Harry Mitton. She added that she didn’t want trouble, but that Gilbert should “watch his wife.”

Two weeks later, in September, Una was still apparently “worrying” and pestering Adrienne. Gilbert and Adrienne went to Una’s house again to see her about this and tell her to stop the nonsense. There, it was Harry who opened the door, and talked with them for around 10 minutes. Una, according to their later testimony, briefly “came out, appearing to be half dazed as if sick, and went back again.”

Three weeks after that, possibly early October, Una and Harry turned up at the Honey’s house. Gilbert Honey later told the court he thought Una and Harry may have had an argument about the whole situation just before they decided to go to the Honeys . Once there, however, Una started up yet again about her belief that Adrienne was seeing Harry behind everyone’s back and sleeping with him, and Gilbert angrily ordered Una and Harry to leave.

Then came the morning of Monday, 24 October 1949.

One of the Honey’s sons went down the path to the gate around 7.30 am to retrieve the milk billy can and carry it to the house, for the family breakfast. There, Gilbert poured some into a jug – and noticed a “yellowish substance” (also described as a brown colour, part red and green) floating at the top and “sediment” at the bottom of the can. He scraped at the sediment, and found that it was glass. Together with “another substance” he put both into a jar and took it to the police. The remains of a capsule was floating in the milk.

Later, a government analyst would testify as to finding pheno-barbitone and nembutal (from Mitton’s prescription) in the milk sample. Samples of soil taken from around Una’s Donovan Street home “contained pieces of glass of a specific gravity identical with that of the glass found in the milk.” The analyst doubted though that the ground glass would have been deadly, although it might have penetrated the walls of the stomach and intestine “especially of a young person.” The amount of drugs present in the milk would have been harmless to a healthy adult, and in his opinion its bitterness would have put children off from drinking much of it.

Una Corin was arrested and charged with attempted murder on Monday 5 December. At that stage, it was believed that there was enough barbiturate in the milk to kill the Honey family. Una freely admitted to tampering with the milk. In her written statement, she said that she had indeed put “some of the nembutal capsules and 40 or a dozen pheno-baritone tablets and some ground glass” into the milk at the Honey’s gate at around 5.30 or 6 am on Monday 24 October. “When I put the stuff in the milk I had not the intention of killing or doing serious injury to anyone. I just thought that if they found that their milk had been interfered with it might stop Mitton associating with Mrs Honey.

“I did not put all the nembutal capsules in the milk. I emptied about four of them into the billy and threw the capsules away in the grass and placed two of the capsules in the milk, so that they would be seen. My intention was to let the Honeys know there was something in the milk and it would probably frighten them.”

The next day, Una appeared at the Auckland Magistrate’s Court, charged with attempting to murder Mrs Adrienne Honey. Her counsel applied for her to be remanded and released on bail, and her name to be suppressed as “she is living apart from her husband and has three young children.” The remand was granted, but no bail was set, and no order granted for name suppression. Her three children were placed in the care of their father.

Two weeks later, on 20 December at the Police Court hearing, the police downgraded the original charge of attempted murder. It became that Una “with intent to injure and annoy, did attempt to cause to be taken by Adrienne Honey a noxious thing.”

Finally, on Friday 17 February 1950, Una was found not guilty at her Supreme Court trial. It came down to the jury deciding whether or not “these drugs comprised the use of a noxious thing in a noxious way,” as the judge summed up, and clearly they did not think Corin actually meant to injure or harm Adrienne Honey. Doubt would have been there as to whether the relatively harmless pheno-barbitone and nembutal was actually “noxious,” but the judge did have his doubts as to the “harmlessness” of the ground glass.

Una remained in her Donovan Street home through to her death in 1964. Harry’s divorce from Letitia was finalised around 1952, but by then Una seems to have moved on from him. Around 1954 she had married an Australian WWI veteran 21 years her senior named Ernest Joseph Ross, who died in 1961 leaving her a widow. Harry Mitton died in 1957 at the age of 70.

The Honeys lived at their Donovan Street home through to around 1963, when they moved away from Blockhouse Bay to Mt Eden.

And today, after more than 70 years and changes to the landscape all the participants would have known as their neighbourhood, the rather odd incident where imagined jealousy led to tampering with the contents of a billy can at a gate has been long forgotten.


  1. An interesting history! Thanks for posting it.

  2. Another great story about what took place in an area we are now familiar with