Canterbury’s First Hanging – 16th April 1868

On 16th April 1868, a date kept secret from the public, convicted murderer and arsonist, John Densley Swales became the first man to be hung in Canterbury. This took place at 8.15am at the Lyttelton Gaol (the remaining prison cells pictured here).

On the evening on 7th February 1868, a fire at the general store (situated on Colombo Street, opposite Victoria Square) owned by John Densley Swales and John Rankin brought those in the surrounding buildings out onto the streets. No one could quite believe how calm Swales was as he just stood across the road in front of Christchurch’s first Post Office, in his top hat, watching his livelihood go up in flames.

“What a dreadful thing, Mr. Swales, your house is on fire,” Rebecca Money, the publican’s wife from the nearby Victoria Hotel, cried as she came up beside him.
“Yes, Mrs. Money, my house is on fire,” Swales replied calmly.

Others now surrounded Swales asking about his business partner, John Rankin. 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.

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.

Swales attended an inquest on 10th February 1868 but went to trial for arson and murder on 5th March. He admitted to the arson for insurance reasons but not to the murder.

Six more men followed Swales up to the gallows, the last facing the rope in 1918.

For a more in depth look at the story of John Densley Swales, please check out the following link:

*Image courtesy of Annette Bulovic*

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