Explosive fishing… and other tall tales

Historic newspaper reports of strange and unusual events, crimes and encounters never fail to amuse, and the Ashburton Guardian is full of tall tales from over a hundred years ago. If there’s one lesson to learn from these old stories, it’s that we, as people, have always been a bit odd.

We often look back on our society from the Victorian era through to World War 1 and consider our predecessors as unsmiling, stiff conformists who kept rigidly in-line with social norms. The lack of smiles in old photographs couldn’t be helped of course, due to the long exposure times of cameras back then, but nonetheless this contributed to an impression that has stuck. An impression that is very fun to call into question.

In past blog posts we have discussed such strange incidents such as tree thievery in the Domain, a prisoner going walkabout, serial swearing, sly-grogging, confidence tricks, grim inquests and much more.

It’s time to expand this growing list of unusual historic happenings from the Ashburton District, starting with an amusing public tantrum from 1879.

The human volcano

On 3 March 1879 “Captain” Parker West was brought to court for “quarrelling in the street, stone-throwing, using obscene language, and generally causing a row last evening opposite the Royal Hotel” (Moore Street.) The offender explained that he “had been interfered with” by a man who threw a stone at him while he was bargaining for a job.

Royal Hotel under snow, Moore Street, 1899-1901. This faded photograph shows the scene of Parker West’s outburst as reported in the Guardian.

A constable who was at the scene said that there had indeed been “boulders flying about,” but they had been thrown by West rather than having been thrown at him. The Resident Magistrate was unimpressed, and according to the Guardian he “thought that a dark volcano that belched ‘boulders’ from its crater to the danger of the lieges should become extinct at once, at least for a time, and the ‘captain’s’ light will therefore be hid for a week in the gaol.”

A terror to trout

In late 1915 a group of men were charged with poaching in the river using an unusual method.

The Guardian stated that “Thomas Crowe, Christopher Hutchison, Harry Stevens, Thomas Connolly, and Ernest Vaughan (Mr R. Kennedy) were charged with using an explosive to catch or destroy fish in the Ashburton River.” According to Mr Kennedy, who pleaded guilty on behalf of the group, Stevens and Connolly had laid the charge of explosive and the others had merely come along with them.

The group used an explosive called gelignite, which was used for many things such as blowing up stumps, demolition, mining and so on. This type of explosive is infamous for having caused a slew of incidents and accidents throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.

A blast from works to re-align the Rakaia Gorge Road, about 1972. While it is not clear whether gelignite was used, a similar explosive would have been. This demonstrates the power of what those creative fishermen were messing with.

Despite most of it now being out-of-date, it’s still a formidable substance today. In 2010, a farmer brought a box of gelignite to the Balclutha police station and left it on the front step in good faith, causing a bomb scare which prompted an evacuation of 40 people.

“The effect of [the gelignite] was not to kill the fish, except those in the immediate vicinity of the explosion; the other fish near might be stunned, but would probably recover,” the Guardian explained. It was reported that after the incident, Connolly had since enlisted in the army and was at Trentham, the Guardian reporter quipping that “he might use his knowledge of explosives in a better direction later on.”

Although poaching had been going on for some time along the river, this was the first prosecution of its kind in Ashburton due to the fact that it was “the first occasion upon which the offenders had been caught.”

Maybe the massive bang gave it away…

The crudest crime yet

A particularly vulgar case came before Mr T. Bailey and Hugh Ward, which occurred in Methven on 28 August 1913. It involved a farm labourer, a box of teacups and a substance which the court called “offensive matter”. You can guess where this one is going…

The crime occurred following a social held at Highbank, in a shed on the property of a Mr. McLean Frank Thomas and two of his mates snuck back into the shed after it was locked when the social finished at 3 in the morning, with the intention of “securing some eatables.” (We should really start a trend of calling food “eatables”.)

They could not find anything to eat, and so “the defendant took one of the cups from the box, filled it with offensive matter and smeared over the remainder of the crockeryware!”

Several witnesses gave corroborative evidence. One George Frizelle who was with Thomas when he did the “dirty trick” heard the defendant say “I’ll fix them up” while committing the offence. Thomas denied doing it, stating that he was not on friendly terms with the witness Frizelle.

According to the Guardian, after summing up the evidence, “His Worship said it was the second case of its kind that had come up for hearing at Methven and he had not come across a similar case anywhere else. It seemed as if many of the young men of the district had filthy minds and a filthy way of playing practical jokes.”

Thomas very well could have been locked up for the offence but he got away with a fine. It was said that “if any similar cases came before the Court the offenders would be sent to prison.”

There you have it, perhaps the strangest one of them all so far. The fact that something like this happened at least twice back in the day just proves my point: that people have always been capable of some pretty strange things when they set their minds to it.

By Connor Lysaght

Unless otherwise stated, photographs and research materials on this page are owned by the Ashburton Museum & Historical Society Inc. This post was modified for this blog and was originally published in the Ashburton Guardian, 9 October 2021.

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