140 years of mayhem and mischief

Last year, the Ashburton Guardian celebrated 140 years of reporting. Among that coverage are many stories of mayhem and mischief, showing how nineteenth-century life in Ashburton and in Canterbury as a whole was not as mundane as one might think. Old Guardians are peppered with reports of stand-out incidents and occurrences, ranging from macabre to downright ridiculous, which reflect both how much our world has changed, and how much it hasn’t.

Modern New Zealand was in its infancy during the latter decades of the nineteenth century, and was a land rife with industrial and agrarian accidents, quirky incidents, and draconian law practice.

Many events that occurred during the late Victorian and early Edwardian periods would have given modern Health and Safety inspectors a heart attack if they had transpired today, and quite a few lawyers would surely react in a similar fashion if presented with a selection of court cases from yesteryear.

The following anecdotes come from past issues of the Ashburton Guardian, spanning the last decades of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth century.

Troubled Transport

Before the Ashburton railway overbridge was constructed in 1917, people had much trouble navigating around and over the then-busy thoroughfare. A Guardian article from 1909 describes a couple who had some trouble retrieving their luggage from the goods shed after sending it ahead to Ashburton from Timaru.

Since the goods shed was on the other side of the tracks, the couple had to take a long way around, and upon arriving they discovered that no porter was there to help them with their luggage.

They were prevented from crossing the tracks back to the platform themselves, so they ended up hiring a cab to help them bring their luggage to the platform. The couple only just managed to make it onto their next train after the hassle, and the only reason they were on time was because they arrived 45 minutes early.

This kind of thing wasn’t the worst of the railway’s problems, since train accidents and near-misses, while common across New Zealand, are known to have occurred in Ashburton – at least near-misses.

In 1906, a girl was with her friend trying to cross the railway line, and their view down the track was obscured by trucks in the yard. She made a dash across the tracks without hesitation, only just managing to avoid being hit by the speeding express train that was merely yards away from her. 

The girl, while understandably shocked, came away unscathed, and the likelihood of such incidents happening again would be remedied by the opening of the railway overbridge just over a decade later.

Four months down the pipe

Amidst the old-fashioned prose of Ashburton’s first journalists, events such as the one following stick out as some of the period’s oddest, at least when it comes to the potential severity of New Zealand’s magisterial justice system.

The Guardian reported that on the December 12th 1879, a certain George Sinclair would serve four months in the gaol for stealing a tobacco pipe left at the bar of the Ashburton Hotel.

The owner of the pipe, George Martin, claimed that he had set his pipe down on the bar and went to check his horses, which is when Sinclair, drunk beyond all sense, took the pipe. Following this, Sinclair was arrested by a constable for being illegally on the premises, and the pipe was found on his person.

In summary, George Sinclair was thrown in jail for four whole months for trespassing in a bar while drunk, and for stealing a tobacco pipe.

This does seem harsh, but under our modern Crimes Act, if the value of stolen property does not exceed $500, then the maximum sentence a person can receive is still three months.

However, surely this case wouldn’t have warranted even that maximum for petty theft!

A kind-hearted twist

Compared to the previous two events, this anecdote from an August 1880 Guardian is a harmless yet intriguing one. To directly quote the Guardian, “A rather amusing incident occurred at the Christchurch Soup Kitchen one day last week. An eccentric individual applied for a bowl of soup, ate it, and on departing, laid a half sovereign on the counter. The Benevolent Association are anxious to relieve a few more cases of this sort.” Adjusted for inflation in terms of buying power for food goods, a half-sovereign – ten shillings – would amount to roughly $80 in today’s money. It would certainly buy quite a lot of soup for this man’s fellow diners.

If there is any moral or lesson to be taken away from each of these stories, then I suppose they would be: Don’t steal a man’s pipe while you’re trespassing in a pub, always watch for trains, and, at some point, an eccentric stranger may or may not shower you in cash (still waiting on that last one…)

By Connor Lysaght

This article was originally published on the 23rd of September 2019, and has been modified for this blog.


  1. People crowding around the tracks of Ashburton railway station, date unknown.
  2. A train travelling through the Ashburton Station, with the new rail bridge behind.
  3. A half gold sovereign with the head of a young queen Victoria.
  4. The quirky story of the soup kitchen incident as published in the Ashburton Guardian 24 August 1880.

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