Mr Toner’s Court Case

One of the amazing things about newspaper stories, is the unusual discoveries that can be made through them, telling of history that cannot easily be found elsewhere. One such story is the tangled web concerning Mr Toner of Alford Forest, as told through local newspapers.

On 17 April 1886 the story broke of Mr James Toner, a ‘fairly well off’, ‘small farmer’ from Alford Forest, who had been convicted of stealing saplings of ‘nominal value’ from the Alford Forest Company land. He was duly charged 40 shillings plus costs, which more than one paper thought unreasonable.

The Press championed Mr Toner, who said that he made an honest mistake, as the boundary between the ‘open for all’ Pye’s Bush and the Company’s land was poorly defined. The story went on to say that the constable was called and he arrested Mr Toner, who objected to this action, so was threatened with being handcuffed and tied to the tail of the policeman’s horse and made to walk the 13 miles to Methven.

While Mr Toner spent the night in Methven jail, his house was ransacked by the same constable as it was believed that a man who would steal wood might steal anything. Sympathy goes out to poor Mr Toner, an honest man wronged.


A misinterpretation

But Edward Herring, manager of Alford Forest, then wrote and said that the papers had misinterpreted everything. The Company’s bush was well defined and there had been an ongoing problem with theft – almost 80% of the wood cut by the Company for firewood or construction had been stolen. Herring was determined to make the next person caught an example.

Maybe he should have left it at that; but Mr Herring went on to state the Mr Toner had helped himself to wood many times, and his representation by newspapers as a upright citizen was dubious.

Herring described Toner’s house as an unclean slab hut open to wind and rain with a quagmire of putrid urine at the entrance. Herring had worked as an overseer in England and had visited the poorest areas of Ireland and England but never before had he seen such poverty, hunger and dirt as at Mr Toner’s.

Libel and countersue

Naturally, Mr Toner was upset and laid a charge of libel against Mr Herring. Mr Toner stated that  all Mr Herring’s allegations were untrue and were proof of Mr Herring’s malice towards him. The hovel (which during the case was also called a chaff house) was not Mr Toners, who lived with his brother in law, but Mr Toner’s ‘man’s’, James Bullivant.

The case saw many locals give evidence for both sides. Mr Toner on the day was the victor.

Mr Herring then countersued Mr Toner (and James Bullivant) for perjury during the libel case. While these two men were waiting to stand trial for perjury they sued Mr Herring for malicious prosecution. Eventually the whole case blew over with Mr Herring fined.

It’s a complicated and often confusing story that spans over 12 months of court cases, letters to the editor and editorial comment.


The real treasure

What makes the story so interesting is the quantity of detailed information, which is the real treasure.

Naturally we learn a lot about the main players – Mr Herring and Mr Toner, as well as the pieces of land under question. However, we also meet up with a number of witnesses. For example, we hear from bushmen who, not owning land, don’t appear in such lists as electoral rolls. We discover that a Mr Goldsmith left Alford Forest on 23 March to live in Springbank (information that is gold, if you were researching that family).

We learn that bushman John Nelson could read and write but had not practised writing for 28 years and that he had been a member of the Temperance Lodge but, ‘fell off the wagon using some the Lodges money’. We hear that William Brown lived at the Boulton’s for a while, and indeed many of the Boulton family gave evidence including Caroline, a married woman, and George who was just 15.

Women and minors are often invisible in history, but because of this case we can hear about their lives and find out what they were doing during that time. While you may know your ancestor was living in an area often you don’t know exactly where, or with whom, or what their accommodation was like.

Although people do consult newspapers, it often for things they already know – obituaries, accounts of marriages (which often list who gave what presents and what everyone wore in surprising detail), reports of accidents or inquests, or well-known historical facts such as fires or the opening of businesses.

The National Library’s website Papers Past has great search functions and has an amazing collection of digitised newspapers. The museum and library also hold complementary collections if you want to pop in and browse, including editions not available online. They give eyewitness accounts of some really interesting stories from our District.

By Kathleen Stringer


  1. Villain or man just doing his job? Edward Herring. ©Ashburton Museum.
  2. First decade group from Alford Forest School Jubilee 1946, including George Boulton and Christopher Grieve who gave evidence in the case. From left, Andrew McFarlane, [Unknown], Arthur Grieve, Tom Evans, Tom Bates, Mungo Henderson, George Boulton, Chris Grieve, Bill Grieve, Franks Evans, Bob Grieve, Margaret Muirhead, Ellen Bates, Adeline Knight, Alice Corry, Nellie Boulton. ©Ashburton Museum.

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