MURDER ON COLOMBO STREET

Mrs. Rebecca Money couldn’t quite believe her ears. She had been wiping down table tops in the dining room of the Victoria Hotel she owned with her husband Charles when she heard the first scream from the street. Confused at first, Rebecca paused before glancing out into the night from the window.
An eerie orange glow flickered against the darkness and then another scream came that caused her skin to prickle. This time, the message was loud and clear.
“FIRE!!!”

At this Rebecca broke into a run, hitching her dress up and away from her boots. As she headed to the front door, her husband met her there and the pair broke into the street. She grasped his arm as she took in the horror that was happening right next door. The Money’s weren’t alone on Colombo Street, others had begun to pile out of nearby buildings and Market Square (Victoria Square) was fast becoming a scene of chaos.

Charles Money turned on his heels and headed back into the hotel. Rebecca staggered with shock towards Market Square. The General Store belonging to John Densley Swales and John Rankin was on fire and posed an immediate threat to neighbouring properties. Standing calmly in front of the Market Place Post Office stood John Densley Swales, a Top Hat on his head and his eyes fixed on the flames.

“What a dreadful thing, Mr. Swales, your house is on fire,” Rebecca cried as she came up beside him.
“Yes, Mrs. Money, my house is on fire,” Swales replied calmly.
As the question of how he could be so calm came to her lips, she noted Mrs. Sarah Pope in the middle of the road, crying, attempting to stop those who rushed past her. By the time Rebecca made it to her side, some brave souls had stopped to help her.

Sarah operated a store of her own, selling ribbons, materials, buttons etc (Yes, the beginning of the retail chain Mrs. Popes) and the fire was licking the side of her shop. Item by item, her stock was removed and brought to her where she had taken refuge in Market Square.

Meanwhile, Swales continued to watch the fire. Whether or not he turned to watch the Fire Brigade arrive from Armagh Street, no one knows. Others now surrounded Swales asking about his business partner, John Rankin, Was he safe? Had he been in back flat they shared? Did he get out? Swales replied that he had woken to the smell of smoke and had called out to Rankin with no reply. He then grabbed his clothes, carpet bag and got out. As the crowds listened to his story, they noted that his beard and skin on one side of his face had indeed been burnt.

Having more questions than answers, those around Swales that summer night were instantly suspicious. Even more so when at first light, a charred body was found in the ruins. John Rankin was dead. When the police asked Swales to accompany them to the site (he had been found over a beer glass at the Duke of Wellington Hotel at 5am), he began to become difficult for the investigation. This led to him resisting arrest and he made a break for it. He was later reasoned with and allowed himself to be taken into custody. Was anyone surprised? The neighbours weren’t.

The two John’s were not good friends. Their arguments were legendary and were usually over money. They lived together upstairs over their General Store and had no problem back stabbing each other to anyone who would listen. Swales told John Cass, the Market Place butcher that Rankin was “…lazy and pig-headed…” Rankin had become tired of Swales drinking problems and the unfortunates of the female gender who were constantly coming by the business looking for Swales.

Isaac Allen told the investigators that Swales had offered to buy out Rankin’s share of the store and had approached himself with an offer of a partnership. Mrs. Elizabeth Smith from the Duke of Wellington Hotel spoke of Swales telling her that he had plans to move to Melbourne as he found life in Christchurch ‘dull’. He carried on saying, “All we want is a fire after the flood to ruin us utterly.”

A few days previous, a huge storm had hit Canterbury which caused the Waimakariri River to flood and resulted in a surge of water up the Avon that flooded the city. Waters rose a metre in Market Square and understandably caused much damage to businesses.

It was Sarah Pope (as shown in the attached drawing) who had the most to say. She had been sewing in her back room when she heard the door of the General Store close. It was 10pm. An hour later she heard crashing and banging and the crackle of what sounded like fire. She had pulled aside her curtains to indeed see fire. She quickly fled into Colombo Street where she noted Swales watching quietly and not raising alarm. It was her screams that the Money’s had heard.

Swales attended an inquest on the 10th February 1868 but went to trial for arson and murder on the 5th March. The contents of his carpet bag didn’t help his case but still raised doubts on his guilt. It had been packed with a fresh change of clothes, the business account book and the insurance policy. He pleaded not guilty.

Would a murderer stick around and watch the crime scene like he had? Maybe he was packed because he indeed had plans to move to Melbourne…but then why on the morning of the fire had he taken on a rental on the East Belt (Fitzgerald Ave) from John Lewis. More questions than answers.

After a 3 day trial, John Densley Swales was found guilty of arson and murder and was sentenced to hang. He was taken to Lyttelton Gaol. On the morning on the 16th April 1868, he went quietly to the gallows and was hung for his crimes.

*image courtesy of http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/ *

One Response

  1. Rick Giles says:

    As far as I know manslaughter was automatically classified as murder back then. My view is Swales was guilty of arson and manslaughter because he lacked the intent to kill his partner.

    Between the flood and the store being nearly out of stock, Swales had been trying for some time to commit insurance fraud by arson. It had never mattered on previous failed arson attempts that Rankin was in the building or not, he wasn’t the target. The bag had been packed for some time.

    Murder then, by the standards of the day and manslaughter to us.

    Staying to watch the fire is consistent with someone wishing to collect on insurance fraud arson. Running away would have been consistent with having done murder- which Swales did attempt to the next day upon finding out he had gone too far and killed his partner.

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