Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The bandits of Westfield bridge

[This is another draft chapter from my manuscript about the Great South Road. I'm still checking one or two of the details.]
Sam Henderson had been driving for hours. His passengers were sleeping drunkenly. He slowed as he approached Westfield bridge, where the Great South Road twisted over the rail line that connected two blocks of a freezing works.

A length of wood balanced on two kerosene tins blocked the road just before it crossed the bridge. A hurricane lamp sat on the wood.

Two men stood beside the barricade. They had covered their faces with black stockings; their eyes were ripped slits. Even before Henderson had stopped his car, they had jumped onto the running boards beside his front doors. One of the masks spoke with an American accent; the other sounded Australian.

An arm reached through an open window, and pushed a colt revolver against Sam Henderson's ribs. A second pistol nuzzled the forehead of Sam's friend George Holland, who was sitting beside him in the front passenger seat. Sam's wife Grace had been sleeping in the backseat, alongside Eric and Len Manson. Now she began to tell the masked men about the three children waiting for her at home, and about the money they were welcome to take from her handbag.

George Holland and Eric Manson were not so eager to part with their cash. As soon as they had seen the barricade they had pushed rolls of pound notes under the back seat of the car.

As the barrel of a revolver pressed harder against his chest, Sam Henderson heard the voices promise him that no one would be hurt, that any money taken would be returned, that he would be compensated for the theft of his car. The robbers explained that they weren't really criminals, and were only waiting for a change in their fortunes. The masks were talking at the same time, and their voices were getting shriller.

One of the bandits kicked away the barricade, then leapt back onto one of the running boards of the car and ordered Sam Henderson to drive over Westfield bridge and a few hundred yards down the road. Then the doors were open, and Henderson was being invited, shrilly but politely, to step out of his car, to remove his coat. The gun was gone from his ribs, but his heart struck painfully against the bruise it had left. His wife and George Holland and Eric Manson were beside him; they were all climbing out of their suits in the same clumsy way they had climbed out of the car.

For most of the twenties Sam Henderson had been one of New Zealand's most successful jockeys. At a steeplechase in Paeroa in 1926 his horse had collapsed and died; he had broken so many bones that the New Zealand Racing Conference had assumed he would never race again, and had paid him one thousand pounds compensation. Henderson was riding again in twelve months. George Holland and the Manson brothers were also jockeys. They were all returning from the annual Te Kuiti Race Meet, which had begun on Saturday and attracted thousands of punters.

Henderson and his friends did not necessarily need to ride to make money at events like the Te Kuiti Race Day. Jockeys were forbidden from betting on races, but many made wagers through surrogates. With their knowledge of the sport and their access to gossip they could pick winners much more easily than most punters.

Sam Henderson had a better view of the bandits now. One was tall; the other had the body of a jockey. They were groping the pockets and tugging the sleeves of their victims' coats. Then a revolver was pointing down the Great South Road toward the Westfield bridge and Otahuhu, and an American accent was telling the Hendersons and their friends to walk away; the car was leaving. The robbers slid into the vehicle's front seats, slammed the doors, and started the engine. Then a doors opened again, as the robbers shouted together. They had discovered Len Manson still asleep in the back seat. Manson was not happy to be woken to be woken. 'You big Yankee mug!' he yelled, as the tall man dragged him out of the car.

Manson stood with his friends and watched the tail lights of Sam Henderson's car disappear. The little group waited in the dark for several minutes, until a single light appeared in the south. Douglas Wallace was bringing his motorbike from Ngaruawahia to Auckland with his friends Percy and Henry Fletcher. Percy was riding Wallace's motorbike for the first time; Henry was clinging to his brother's back, while the owner sat in a side chair.

For a minute or two, the motorcyclists thought they were being treated to some complicated joke. They smelt the alcohol on Sam Henderson's breath; they waited for his wide eyes to narrow mirthfully, and for his dry lips to curl into a smile. But Sam Henderson wasn't joking, and soon Percy Fletcher was revving the motorbike and setting out with his friends across the Westfield bridge and up the Great South Road. Douglas Wallace wished that he was driving. From his perch in the sidecar he noticed dozens of shards of glass spread out over the road. Had the thieves driven their new car into a wall or a tree? 

Percy Fletcher reached sixty miles an hour on the straight stretch of the Great South Road that ran through Penrose towards the Harp of Erin inn. Two cars idled in the distance, beyond a stone crushing yard. Fletcher got closer, and a pair of men slid out of the back car. They pointed down the road, shouted at each other, ran toward the other car. One of them scuttled into the driver's seat; he had already started to pull away when his companion jumped on the sideboard. Percy Fletcher recognised the car he was chasing as a Morris-Cowley saloon, fashionable and expensive. Douglas Wallace saw a flash of white light and a flame, and heard a cracking sound. The bandit on the running board was shooting at him.

The bike soon slowed, as the tyre of its sidecar wobbled. As the Morris-Cowley disappeared Percy Fletcher braked, and his passengers dismounted. Wallace stooped by the side chair and found one tear after another in its tyre. He thumbed the tube free from its casing, and found more tears. He walked down the road in the lamplight, looking for bullet shells. Instead he found the dozens of long tacks he had mistaken for fragments of glass. The bandits had anticipated pursuers.

The next morning trenchcoated detectives clustered around Sam Henderson, as he walked from Westfield bridge towards his abandoned vehicle. Reporters and photographers and kids on bikes followed at a polite distance, and families in slow-moving cars brought up the rear of the strange procession. The people of Penrose and Ellerslie wandered out of their houses and looked for bullet casings in their gutters.

The Auckland Star was running a report on the ambush and chase under the headline 'Bandits at Westfield', as well as a long interview with Grace Henderson entitled 'Don't Shoot Us!' The New Zealand Herald offered a photograph of the Westfield bridge, and explained that the bridge's underpass offered perfect cover for highwaymen. It was the 27th of November 1928, and Auckland was in shock.

In the 1860s the Great South Road was built by and for soldiers. Maori nationalists sniped at and ambushed the road's first users, and pillaged many of the houses built beside it. For a few years the road was defended by redoubts and patrols. Cemeteries and monuments were built to store and commemorate its victims. By 1928, though, the roadside violence of the sixties had been forgotten by Pakeha New Zealanders. Theirs was a stout and peaceable society, and highway robbery was inexplicable and appalling and perhaps a little thrilling.


Three weeks before the ambush at Westfield bridge a pair of young men stepped off a steamship called the Marama and into New Zealand. Roy Kitching was twenty years old, and had blonde hair that he parted in the middle. David Stewart, who also used the aliases Stonor Stewart and Stonor McAfee, was eight years older and about a foot taller than his companion, with dark receding hair and rimless glasses. Both men wore new suits and felt hats. Kitching had ten pounds in his wallet; Stewart carried one hundred pounds and two handguns.

Kitching and Stewart had met in Melbourne about a year earlier, shortly after Stewart arrived in the city from America, claiming to be an emissary of Shaw Aviation, one of numerous small companies trying to turn air travel from an adventure sport into an industry. Kitching came from one of Melbourne's wealthier families, and was recovering from a car crash.
Using homophobic code, the New Zealand Truth would later describe Kitching as a 'delicate youth' with a 'weak mouth', who was inevitably 'dominated' by his older companion.
In the spring of 1928 Stewart had needed to leave Melbourne urgently. He and Kitching had driven north to Sydney, then sold their car and caught the Marama. They stayed for a few days at Auckland's Central Hotel, at the bottom of Queen Street, and drank and ate at Auckland's best bars and restaurants, where they quickly made friends. Stewart introduced himself as the director of the 'New Zealand Aerial Service', a company that would soon begin flights between Auckland and many cities and towns in the North and South Islands. Kitching was his secretary.

Stewart chartered a car, then rented a bungalow on Epsom's Liverpool Street, close to Cornwall Park. He hired a housemaid, but asked her not to begin work too early in the morning. Some of the solicitors and doctors who lived on Liverpool Street complained to one another about the nightly parties at the bungalow; others preferred to drink with the glamorous foreigners, and hear about the airline they were establishing. The Truth would later report that 'more than one damsel of alleged social standing' also joined the festivities at 11 Liverpool Street.

On November the 24th, after two and a half weeks in Auckland, Stewart and Kitching ran out of money. Both men cabled their families to ask for funds. Kitching's family did not reply immediately; Stewart's mother cabled him her love, but did not send any cash. The American began to write valueless cheques.

Stewart and Kitching soon decided to turn to Aucklanders for help. They would only take what they needed, and would be careful to return what they had taken as soon as their families replenished their bank accounts. On Sunday, during the rest day in the Te Kuiti races, they drove slowly up and down the Great South Road, and discovered the recently built Westfield bridge, with its swan neck curve and dark underpass. They noticed a hurricane lamp amidst some roadworks, and timber lying about at a small lumber yard close to the bridge. They returned on Monday afternoon, left their car a couple of miles up the road, and hid under the bridge.


The Te Kuiti races ended at about four o'clock. The sale of liquor was banned in Te Kuiti and in the rest of the King Country, so punters could not hole up in a nearby pub. Many had already gotten drunk on beer and spirits they had bought at the pubs of the Waikato and smuggled across the Puniu River, or acquired from local bootleggers at the edge of the racecourse. The pubs of the Waikato closed at six o'clock, so if the racegoers from the north hurried home they could hope to get back across the border in time to drink a bottle or two.

By ten o'clock cars were stuttering through Auckland's southern suburbs, near the end of their journeys from Te Kuiti. One jockey was a couple of miles north of Otahuhu when he noticed two men standing on the road, on either side of a hurricane lamp. The men were waving their arms, as though they needed help. The driver sped up, and swerved to avoid the lamp. Kitching and Stewart fled.

A little later another driver noticed a length of timber. He stopped and stepped out of his car and pushed the barricade aside, shouting 'I'd like to get hold of the man who put this here!' The bandits again retreated to their underpass.

In the statements they eventually gave to police, Stewart and Kitching remembered that by one o'clock in the morning they had been ready to abandon their plan. They had been nervous enough when they arrived at Westfield bridge, and the resistance of the Great South Road's motorists had made them almost hysterical. They were about to walk back to their car and drive home when Samuel Henderson's vehicle appeared. Henderson was driving slowly, and his passengers appeared comatose. The bandits decided that they could cope. 

But the ambush was unprofitable. Kitching and Stewart were too nervous to search the captured car carefully: they missed the wads of cash that George Holland and Eric Manson had hidden. Stewart had intended to steal and sell Henderson's car, but Percy Fletcher panicked him into abandoning the vehicle.

Kitching and Stewart reached their bungalow at one thirty, only half an hour after they had stopped Sam Henderson. They sat up all night, waiting for lights in their drive and fists on their door. The police did not come, so in the morning they drove the Morris-Cowley to the Central Hotel: perhaps they were hoping for a drink, or a cable from abroad. The Central's doorman smiled at the two men, and congratulated them on their robbery. In a town as tight as 1920s Auckland, the bandits' exotic accents had been enough to give them away.

Stewart and Kitching fled north, stopping at Kaikohe's hotel. They quickly spent the little cash they had taken in their robbery. The police had by now raided Liverpool Street, and learned of the bandits' destination. They contacted their counterparts in Northland. 

The bandits soon left Kaikohe. They went further north to Kaitaia, then exchanged the gravel of Highway One for the ironsand of Ninety Mile Beach. They reached Te Paku Stream, near the end of the beach and the end of New Zealand, and asked locals if its waters were very deep. The locals lied, and the hired saloon car was soon submerged in six feet of water and stuck in sand.

Now Stewart and Kitching were stranded and broke. They retreated from the car to the scrub hills at the edge of the beach. They shot rabbits with their revolvers and cooked them on a fire kindled with broken toi toi and lupins. They slept in the open for two nights, then somehow rescued their car, drove back to Kaikohe, and took another room. When Constable Duddy of Rawene and Constable Wolfendale of Kaikohe pushed their way into the room they found a colt revolver and fifteen rounds of ammunition on the pedestal of the bed the men were sharing.


A crowd surrounded Auckland's Supreme Court on the 28th of November, blocking the van that rolled up Anzac Avenue. Aucklanders had come to see the bandits, and they were more curious than bellicose. Stewart and Kitching emerged from the van holding felt hats over their faces. Suddenly ashamed of his height, Stewart stooped into his hat. Unable to see their way forward and disoriented by the noise of the crowd, the highwaymen staggered toward the door of the courthouse. A bemused policeman walked slowly behind them.

In the statement he had already given to police, Kitching had said that he was 'relieved' to be arrested, because he was 'weary' of the company of the man he called Stonor. The American had charmed and corrupted and manipulated him. Kitching wanted to return to Australia, and to never see the other bandit again. In the dock of the Supreme Court, though, Kitching chatted happily to Stewart. The two men smiled at each other when some of the details of the Westfield ambush were recited by a prosecutor.
When they appeared in court again in the first week of February, Stewart and Kitching pleaded guilty to aggravated robbery, and not guilty to a slew of more minor charges, which were promptly dropped. A representative of the Kitching family had arrived in Auckland with an affidavit about Roy's character signed by sixteen worthy Melbournians. A manager of a local bank appeared, and confirmed that he was holding a large sum of money on behalf of the Kitching family, so that the victims of the Westfield ambush might be recompensed.

The bandits' lawyers explained that their clients had been determined to steal as politely as possible, and to return the cash they took as soon as funds arrived from Australia and America. Stewart had not intended to push his gun into Samuel Henderson's ribs; Kitching had fired accidentally at the motorcycle pursuing him. The men did not really block the Great South Road: the structure they made with kerosene cans and timber was too flimsy to be considered a barricade. Stewart and Kitching deserved probation, not imprisonment. They had already spent months waiting for trial in the unsalubrious Mount Eden prison. If Kitching were allowed to leave New Zealand, he would sequester himself on a farm his brother owned in Western Australia. Stewart would return to America.

Judge Archie Blair had the job of sentencing David Stewart and Roy Kitching. Blair had been admitted to the bar in the nineteenth century, but had only recently become a Supreme Court judge. He was fascinated by engineering as well as the law, and had designed one of New Zealand's first speedometers. Blair agreed that the men were 'amateurs in crime', but declined to give them probation. He sentenced them to a year's reformative probation. They would go to jail, but would not have to swing hammers and push barrows in Mount Eden's quarry. Stewart would get an extra six months' detention for passing bad cheques.

By contrast, three Maori robbers who had put a gun to a farmer's ribs outside Rotorua had each been sentenced to two years' hard labour plus two years' reformative detention in 1926. A sexagenarian who robbed an Auckland bank in 1925 got five years' detention.

The New Zealand Truth denounced the sentence. The paper reminded Justice Blair that Stewart and Kitching were 'highwaymen', albeit highwaymen with 'social aspirations' and 'timorous dispositions'. They had been spoiled by their families; now they were being 'spoon-fed' by the justice system. Blair's sentence suggested that the 'ancient game of highwayman' was now 'less serious, insofar as the consequences are concerned' than the mundane offense of breaking and entering. Had the judge been influenced by the 'romance' of Stewart and Kitching's crime?

The Truth claimed that the light sentence given to Stewart and Kitching was the 'sole topic of conversation' at Mount Eden, and suggested that the two men would not enjoy the rest of their time at the prison.


If Stewart and Kitching were villains, then Percy Fletcher was, for a while at least, a hero. 

The Auckland Star called his pursuit of the bandits 'wildly thrilling', and the Truth ran a photograph of him sitting on Douglas Wallace's motorbike, like a knight ready to ride into battle.

In 1934, six years after the chase up the Great South Road, Percy and his brother Henry appeared again in Auckland's newspapers. They were tried for the theft and conversion of two cars in the same court where Stewart and Kitching had stood for sentencing.  When the Fletchers were found guilty of receiving stolen goods, their lawyer argued for mercy, explaining that Percy was suffering from epilepsy, and that he and his brother were poor. The court was reminded of the bravery Fletcher had shown on the night of November the 26th, 1928, when he pursued two bandits up the Great South Road in a spectacle that excited all of Auckland.

Percy and Henry Fletcher were sent to Mount Eden for a year. Unlike David Stewart and Roy Kitching, the brothers got hard labour.

[Posted by Scott Hamilton]


Blogger Richard said...

A strange story. Many of the crimes in NZ have this bizarre, almost sad aspect to them. I met an ex Court Registrar who told me the background to some quite well known case. There was the case of the dwarf and the prostitute and the Australian-NZ criminals who crashed their car through the doors of Foodtown and the cash they took they left for a young man to bury or hide. He buried it but started (years before digital "selfies" by photographing himself naked with the money on a hotel bed (a young female witness later commented that he had two assets dear to the heart of many women!). He then photographed his progress, complete with marks on trees and even showing the hole he dug, and the money, then soil on top, then more, then the finale.
One of the criminals was caught in the process of a traffic violation.
The case caused much amusement as Christopher Harder (the lawyer who acted for many in Auckland and was well known) was the defence lawyer and the young man was called Long (or Short), some ridiculous combination of names! He said that was a very amusing even therapeutic case!
Ditto the dwarf one which I had heard about, as the dwarf kept disappearing into the witness box!!

This vicious man had tried to kill the husband of the stripper. Both were in love with each other....

The Registrar fellow (I once had a small business where I installed telephones, radios, repaired communication equipment etc) and I put another phone in his house (before cell phones took off): he told me about these cases but said a lot of the stuff he had to read through was pretty harrowing or depressing.

'Last Words' by Christopher John Lewis is an interesting, sometimes exciting, and also tragic story by Lewis of his life and his claim he was innocent of a murder, and his attempts to get a martial arts business going which would also help young men and so on. But it also reads, in parts, like a story by Morrieson (or a film like 'Good Bye Pork Pie): and in parts it is quite funny, almost like a Keystone Cops movie with Lewis racing all over the South Island at one stage, doubling back, avoiding or outwitting cops only to be caught later...

He was once in Lake Alice Hospital where he played chess with some 'old fellow' an ex-champion player...I think that was my friend Brian Douglas who played in the NZ Champs in about 1962 or so. He studied psychology, taking one unit a year, as, as he told me, he was obsessive. He then told me he was a paranoid schizophrenic. We used to talk together either at my place of his place. He had done nothing with his MA in psych. and told me how he had once spent several thousands on camera equipment but had never used any of it, it simply obsessed him.

He was a nice fellow. It is strange the by ways people go down. He attempted suicide by electrocution and was committed. Later he wrote a letter, with a copy to me, to Lange, telling Lange how he had committed a "terrible crime" of enormous significance to the security and safety to the state. Lange's reply, or that of his office, was quite kind. It gently comforted Brian, and pointed out that there was no record of any such terrible crime they could find. They wished him well.

Then there was Simmonds, who lived around here in the 50s, who we saw shooting out (with a .22 rifle on his motor bike!) the windows of the buildings that had been built by the US Army along with Camp Bunn...I heard of a man dying in a shoot out with the Australian police years later. He was called Simmonds. I was sure that was him.

The stories go on...

10:33 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Lewis committed suicide by the way, although there were rumours the police done it, but it is like all these things, open to conjecture.

By the way Scott (away from crime but in stories), I still remember that (presumably real) story you told on this blog about the young Astronomer, and his letter.
Do you recall that post?
It was also a strangely sad story. You somewhat dismissed 'The Magus' that he was reading. I had started the original of that book about 1970 and found it too strange at the time.
But I read a later edition of it (I don't know how different it is from the original, not much probably): and I found it highly absorbing, although it didn't have the immediate impact as when I was much younger (when I was a bit frightened of it in fact, it seemed so unheimlich or uncanny at the time). So, it is a good book for sure, so much so that I am now reading other books by John Fowles.

10:43 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for the comments Richard. I actually read Last Words and hated it. Threw the book out, which is unusual for me to do. There was something terribly sad and seedy about Lewis: the way he claimed to have walked into a university lab and solved some important problem in physics, the way he claimed to have worked with a left-wing organisation called the National Guerrilla Army. But it is a fascinating memoir.

Have to split now: kids yelling ominously!

9:48 am  
Blogger Richard said...

I think that's the point though. And it's strange how a lot of women love these guys: many fall in love with killers and psychos, people they perceive have power in some way, or are extreme in some way. Hard to explain the fascination of this surreal "underworld". I'm not reading 'The Collector' which I think is a brilliant book. Again we have a strange, essentially lonely young man, but a kind of dialogue between classes and sub classes, and intelligence levels. She calls him Caliban. He doesn't know about Caliban or why she calls him that. He, The Collector, collects butterflies, as Nabokov did (which makes me think of Lolita and the fact that Nabokov also collected butterflies, was an entomologist or naturalist): and there is Joyce Carol Oates's book about a serial killer...
I don't think it succeeded but Jack did.

Yes, crime isn't my favourite writing or subject. I did read 'Silence of the Lambs' after I saw the movie (several times as well as the other Hannibal one). The book is good. It comes close to being a great book...Faulkner, one thinks of Faulkner perhaps. Or Cormac McCarthy. What's his game?

Oh well, talking of kids, I saw daughter's son Blake on Friday. Walked around a park in Green Bay. Great place they have...

Be interesting to see the movie and the book re the GSR when it emerges.

12:24 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Should be "now" reading....should have previewed...oh well, getting too old to see things easily.

12:25 pm  
Anonymous jono said...

That should probably read Te Paki Stream in the Far North, Scott.

There is a six hundred year old Toheroa midden under the new DOC dunny up there caught me by surprise. My spade tests went 80cm into the sand with no archaeological material but six months later when they went a bit deeper it was all burned shell and hangi stones. People have been transmitting Oneroa by way of Te Paki for a long time!

9:10 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Thanks for that correction Jono. Local knowledge! That excavation sounds fascinating. I hate to mention it, but you hear that Hilliam's on the job again?

2:03 pm  
Anonymous Jono said...

We are probably blessed that Hilliam chose pseudoarchaeology and not business as his hobby. He seems to be a master practitioner of a historical version of the share price 'pump and dump'. One sees these articles about great mysteries and grand uncoverings about to commence...Then it all goes quiet...Then two years later, a new, soon to be revealed, lost antiquity hits the news with Hilliam's name attached, and often, new and different collaborators providing money and gear. Some times it goes further that the Dargaville rag or the Northern Advocate and even the Journal of Archaeological Science gets taken, but nothing conclusive is ever actually found.

9:44 pm  
Anonymous Scott Hamilton said...

Well summed up I think Jono!

2:00 pm  
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