The fire in Freswick Street . . .
I'm really fascinated by history and in the last few years particularly that of my own family. For that reason our very own 'Papers Past' is a goldmine of information. We are very lucky in New Zealand to have so many papers digitised and freely available and with a relatively brief colonial past, there is a lot to discover for anyone who cares to look. It was such a surprise to come across this article recently which to anyone else won't seem important, but was quite a find for me. In its entirety it is a very long and quite tedious story of the inquest into a suspicious fire at a cottage in Freswick Street, Blenheim on the 22nd of January 1888. Numerous witnesses are called and whilst it appeared to be an insurance job, due to the confusing nature of the testimony and the garbled style of court reporting by the Marlborough Express, it remains unclear in the end who started the fire or what the jury's verdict actually was. Two segments relevant to me are below.
Of significance and the source of my surprise, were two of the people present in court that day.
The coroner, John Allen, my 2nd great-grandfather and one of the witnesses, Archibald Pye who also happens to be my 2nd great-grandfather. Both of my parents' paternal great-grandfathers.
In that courtroom on the morning of the 31st of January, 1888 they presumably sat near to each other. One, listening closely to the evidence of the witness, the other waiting on the judges directions to the court. Strangers, I suppose. At least I imagine they were strangers. A magistrate and a plumber. Perhaps, in small town Blenheim they knew each other at least by name. What they didn't and couldn't possibly know was that 80 years later — a world, an island and a lifetime away, their respective great-grandchildren would marry in Auckland, with my three sisters and I being the result.
It seems so unlikely to me that their paths should cross at all. Archibald lived in Blenheim for only a short few years before abandoning his wife and fourteen children for Australia. He was already a discharged bankrupt with a trail of failed business ventures in his wake. He had been part of the 'Patea Light Cavalry' and served at Parihaka. A boy from inner city Edinburgh who arrived in Dunedin at fifteen as a tinsmith with only his young sister to accompany him. He seems to have been a bit of an inventor along the way, applying for early patents on washing machines. No photographs remain of him and he died in Auckland in 1940 after eking a living as a street hawker for many years. John the older of the two, had a very different life. Born to a wealthy Nottingham manufacturing family, he also came to New Zealand as a young man. Not to escape anything except the English weather and to cure his ailing health. He found nothing but success laid out before him. Longtime resident of Picton, landowner and father of ten children, he was educated and influential within his sphere. Life was no doubt far easier in many respects. His relationship to local Maori could not have been more different either. Still within the wider family are some artefacts gifted by a local chief, after an act of kindness on John's part was noted and reciprocated.
I wonder about that morning. About the cottage and the suspicious fire and the assorted cast of characters that gave evidence. Mostly though, I wonder about what those two men thought of each other across that courtroom even for a brief few moments. Sometimes it seems as though nothing is accidental. We are each made up of many pasts and distinctly individual histories without even considering the DNA. Truth being stranger than fiction and all that, this seems like a very unique point in time to be able to locate and identify. At least to me anyway.