Frank Guinness: entrepreneur, activist, magistrate

Ashburton’s magistrate in 1879, Frank Guinness, a grandson of the famous brewer, was not afraid of controversy and had a strong, even extreme, sense of his own authority.

When he wanted something, he usually got it. Sometimes, however, he was on the receiving end – especially when he met the Ashburton Wizard, who may have been the instrument of family revenge against Frank for a long-standing grudge.

Guinness was a curious mixture of entrepreneur, public servant, and political activist. Disaffected by what he saw as family hypocrisy he left Ireland when he was 18, worked in India for 15 years, then came to New Zealand with his wife Catherine and five children in 1852.

His first venture was farming at Tai Tapu but that failed and he became agent for his cousin Michael John Burke.  On a trip south to Lake Aviemore with a Mr West, a sheep owner, and John Evans, a shepherd, Evans took exception to Guinness giving him instructions and walked out of the arrangement. Burke later tracked him down and took him to court where he was given light treatment.

By 1860 and well engaged in community affairs Guinness was appointed a lieutenant in the new Christchurch Volunteer Rifle Corps. It seems he handled that role capably and was promoted to captain.

Comfortable in authority roles Guinness joined the Canterbury Police Force, as sub-inspector, and shortly afterwards was promoted to inspector.  But perhaps he found it difficult to get the right balance using authority.  Early in 1863 Guinness prosecuted one of his own staff, the jailer at Akaroa, Constable Deighton.  Deighton had complained about the size of the town lockup, especially the risk of the cramped conditions in summer heat. One January night Deighton took matters into his own hands, and left the door ajar.  The magistrate dismissed the charge against Deighton and urged Guinness to “forcibly dwell” on the difficulties when reporting to his seniors.

Then in April 1863 Guinness was riding into town when one Thomas Homans coming in a cart towards him veered in front of him forcing him onto the wrong side of the road. Guinness initiated a prosecution but the magistrate pointed out a flaw in the wording of the law he had used so dismissed the case. 

Several years later in Greymouth, Guinness then clerk of the Warden’s Court, was appointed acting Receiver of Gold Fields Revenue. Some of his work issuing mining licences was carried out by Police sergeant John McMinn. Several months later auditors found discrepancies in the accounts to the total of £23 so Guinness started proceedings against McMinn.  Unfortunately for Guinness as the case progressed it became clear that the problem was his book-keeping, a faux pas which cost him the job of chief clerk of the Westland County Council to which he had just been appointed.  

Frank Guinness’ greatest controversy was his questioning of Christchurch doctors Silas Stedman and James Turnbull at the inquest into the death of one of their friends, Dr. Peter Hilson, in December 1862.  Hilson, known for his dissipation, died of delirium tremens and Dr. Turnbull arranged for his burial without a death certificate or autopsy. Rumours began circulating in the town and the Police, directed by the Coroner, arranged a belated post-mortem and inquest.  Guinness questioned both Stedman and Turnbull about the decision to side-step formalities. Turnbull refused to answer his question. Guinness tried three more times to get a good explanation from Turnbull and was rejected each time. Even the Coroner intervened and his questions too were rejected.  Turnbull accused the Police Commissioner of laxity allowing someone as inexperienced as Guinness to conduct the inquest and described the proceedings as the “foolish officiousness of busybodies”.  In the days after the hearing Turnbull received much public support for calling out Police interference and followed up his threats that there would be repercussions by lodging a complaint with the Provincial Superintendent.  In the following weeks tempers cooled and the enquiry concluded that the Coroner had had no option but to hold an inquest to silence the rumours which were in fact more damaging than the Police action.

In effect Guinness was exonerated, but his boss Commissioner Robert Shearman concluded that he was not suited to Police work. He reckoned he lacked competence and was too sympathetic to the interests of the rank and file Police officers. He transferred Guinness to Akaroa, and then eventually dismissed him.   

So Guinness was used to people turning against him, but was he ready for the mischief done to him by the Ashburton Wizard in front of a full Town Hall audience in July 1879?  At a fund-raising concert, the Wizard asked for volunteers to come forward and lend him a top hat. Magistrate Frank Guinness was chosen and handed over his topper.  The Wizard then calmly shredded the hat with a pocket-knife and handed it back saying he had forgotten the rest of the trick – how to put the hat back together. The audience was stunned and amused. We can only guess at Guinness’ reaction.

Who was the Wizard and what possible motive did he have?  His surname was Bristow, initials W H. That is all that newspaper advertisements and reports of the event show. Not his full name, so identifying him is a matter of conjecture.  There was a William Hunter Bristow living in Ashburton at the time and research could find no other records of men with the name in the town or indeed in the South Island at the time.  But with just initials it is not possible absolutely confirm they are one and the same man.

By strange coincidence however William Hunter Bristow had a connection to Guinness.  Bristow was married to a young lady named Charlotte Stedman, in Christchurch 16 months before the infamous concert.  She was a daughter of Dr. Silas Stedman, one of the medics strongly examined by Inspector Frank Guinness at the Hilson inquest in Christchurch in 1862.  Charlotte was only six years old at that time, but did the family hold long-standing animosity towards Guinness, and did the new brother-in-law Bristow learn of that animosity and discover to his surprise that the villain was in his own town.  Was the Wizard’s trick Bristow’s way of family revenge on Guinness? 

We will never know.  We don’t know for sure that the Wizard was William Hunter Bristow?  Or if he was, that historical revenge was the motive. Perhaps he had observed Guinness in action in Ashburton and learned of his authoritarian, some would say pompous, manner, and saw a need to bring him down to size.  Whatever, it was the only reported performance by the Ashburton Wizard. Given his unreliable memory perhaps his appeal as an entertainer was short-lived.

And once again, in family history we end up with more questions than answers!

By Rod Smith, author of Guinness Down Under and speaker at the Ashburton Museum, 13th May 2021.


  1. Frank Guinness, clad in his uniform.
  2. The old Ashburton Courthouse, where many a tough magisterial decision was no doubt made by Guinness.
  3. Cartoon of the Ashburton Wizard performing his “trick” on Guinness’ top hat.
  4. Guinness Down Under by Rod Smith.

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