Prelude To Murder At The Oxford On Avon

When Mrs. Jane Smith breezed into The Oxford Hotel that February day in 1901, she had more baggage with her than just her physical luggage.  She was a pretty young woman and knew it, her eyes scanning the tavern before her with a poker-faced bemusement.  Even though she had telephoned ahead before her arrival, she again asked after the location of fellow hotel resident Patrick Conway as she paid for her room.

Even though the relationship between these two Dunedin-based characters has been analyzed through the courts – more than once – mystery still shrouds this story.  So much in fact, that poor Patrick Conway never found justice for his untimely death, in spite of the obvious shady character of Jane Smith and The Oxford Hotel where this all began.

The corner of Colombo Street and Oxford Terrace – close to the Colombo Street Bridge – sprang into life as early as 1850.  As it was situated close to the Avon and the domain that would became known as Market Place, the Canterbury Association surveyors erected a store house on its site.  After 1853, it became a shelter for Maori who had travelled from Port Levy and Kaiapoi to sell or trade their wares at Market Place.  By 1861, a Mrs. East had transformed the building into what she advertised as ‘The Oxford House’ – a respectable boarding house.  She wasn’t there long as the following year,  Antil Alfred Adderley ( a passenger of the Castle Eden – our 5th ship) was in ownership.  He did a complete rebuild and named the establishment ‘The Oxford Tavern’.  The place was never the same again and as the years crept over, the tavern became known as a place of petty crime, gambling and other unsavory activities.

A darker cloud covered the hotel in 1885 when a failed suicide/murder story was splashed across the papers.  Tom Dalziel (who had just died 4 months before the incident) was the owner and his wife Martha had just been released from hospital due to chronic alcoholism.  Martha and her 3 year old son were trying to get to Dunsandel where Martha had work as a housekeeper and appeared to many witnesses as they travelled by foot from Christchurch.  Some claimed she was drunk at the time where others say she was sober.  She was witnessed by two children on the 21st December to be on the banks of the Rakaia River, removing some of her items of clothing.  She then proceeded to tie her son to her using those items and then walked into the river.  By the time the children had found help, the 3 year old had drowned and Martha was unconscious.  Sadly, her friends claimed that before the Dalziels took the ownership of The Oxford Tavern, Martha had never touched ‘the drink’.  Just two years later, she was declared insane and was on trial for the murder of her son.

But back to Patrick Conway and Jane Smith, it is unclear how they met originally in Dunedin and why they came to be in Christchurch together that February.  One thing that people did know about Patrick was that he was very rich.  He adorned a gold watch, jewellery, had a gold pen and carried cash around in a handbag.  He was likable enough, answering when asked that his profession was as a butcher.  He had known Jane for a few years, being friends with her and her boot-maker husband, Percy Smith.  There was no evidence of an affair so were these two just meeting for business or were they just two old friends catching up?  Was foul play in the air?

The pair soon made plans and caught the tram to Sumner where they found a spot of the beach to drink away the day.  They soon became drunk and continued their party at the Mariners Hotel that evening.  Apparently Patrick handed over his watch, rings and his cash to Jane for safekeeping.  It was soon after this that he passed out.  He awoke alone in the stables of the Mariner very ill.  The hotel keeper had watched over him, convinced that Patrick was more drugged than hung over.  Despite feeling poorly, Patrick made it back to The Oxford Hotel, finding a just as confused, Jane Smith.  She told him that she had awoken in a deserted lot and had been robbed.  Not knowing where Patrick was, she had walked back to the Oxford.

Patrick chose to believe her.  The pair continued to make plans and together boarded a ship to Sydney which left from Wellington.  Patrick was in steerage where Jane travelled in one of the ladies’ cabins.  It was during this voyage that again, Patrick found himself very ill.  Before he was discovered in pain and suffering from fits on the deck, he had been seen with a young woman but the witness couldn’t confirm it was Jane.  Constantly asking to be held by the strangers around him, it took almost and hour and a half for Patrick to die.   Free from suspicion for the time being, Jane’s fellow lady cabin passenger also took to her bunk ill.  She luckily recovered and at the trial of Jane later that year, claimed that over a cup of tea, Jane had brought up the topic of poison.

Strychnine poison was found in poor Patrick’s organs and in spite of proof that Jane had purchased that very poison from a chemist in Christchurch; she was acquitted of blame after 3 separate trials.  Her husband Percy stood by her side and footed the bill of her legal battle to boot.  Poor Percy found himself kicked to the curb a few years later, bankrupt.  Amazingly, Jane became a nurse and moved her life to Sydney.  By reports, she married a few times more and divorced them all when they ran out of money.

The Oxford Tavern these past years has been known as The Oxford of the Avon – the home of two restaurants and a night spot.  Listed as a closed business and the phone disconnected, CERA listed this building for demolition in August 2011.

*All images courtesy of http://canterburyheritage.blogspot.co.nz*

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