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Two contrasted books shed light on colonial life in nineteenth century New Zealand

Part 2 Vile Crimes: The Timaru Poisonings historic nineteenth century crime investigated by lawyer Peter Graham

Reviewed by Dorothy - 20/06/08

Vile Crimes: The Timaru Poisonings
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To travellers driving through Timaru the impression has long been of a pleasant provincial city with an attractive beach a peaceful place in which to settle to bring up a family, develop businesses to serve the surrounding farming community, enjoy the social life and spend retirement years. Its well-to-do citizens certainly thought of it that way in the 1880s. The town boasted some beautiful Victorian buildings and fine homes, and distinctions in the social classes were becoming clearly defined. Among those regarded as upper class were the Hall family and Captain Henry Cain and his step-daughters.

Despite the pleasant images of Timaru, for many years after 1886 it was thought of as the Poison Town. Why?

Peter Graham opens his investigation into Vile Crimes: The Timaru Poisonings with this attention catching statement -

"On a drizzly Monday morning, 16 August 1886, the inhabitants of Timaru woke to astounding news. Tom Hall junior, a well-known local businessman and man about town, nephew of former New Zealand Premier, Sir John Hall, had been arrested for attempting to murder his wife, Kitty, by poison. Also charged was Meg Houston, Kitty Hall's lady-help."

This extraordinary happening was followed by another Hall being charged with the murder of his father-in-law, Captain Henry Cain. To gain evidence of Hall's guilt the body of Captain Cain was exhumed in the middle of a stormy night an episode vividly described in the book.

Peter Graham is a New Zealander who for many years practised as a barrister in Hong Kong. He is therefore well qualified to examine the legal matters involved in the case. In the Preface he describes how he became interested in the case through the purchase of a copy of the reports of the trial of Thomas Hall. The account in these reports is supported and enriched by research into contemporary writing about the case, as in Helen Wilson's book, My First Eighty Years, newspaper accounts, and Cheerful Yesterdays by O. T. J. Alpers. His keen interest in history has led him to research the development of South Canterbury and of Timaru in particular up till the 1880s.

In the opening chapters he gives a very interesting account of the background to the crimes the development of large sheep runs in Canterbury, the influence of the Rhodes brothers in the founding of Timaru, the barrier of the Rakaia River limiting travel from South Canterbury to Christchurch, the growth of the town and port at Timaru, the role of Captain Cain, and the town's growth and prosperity.

Tom Hall's motivation for marrying a wealthy heiress, his feigned solicitude for his wife who after the birth of their son developed a mysterious illness, his research into poisons and their effect are all described to form the background for the court case. This is followed by a clear and riveting account of the trial and subsequent events.

I usually enjoy a well-written story of crime and detection, and when I bought this book I wondered whether my interest would be equally held by a description of a crime and trial when the outcome was already known. Such is Peter Graham's skill that I read the book with enthusiasm and my attention was held until the last page. I strongly recommend it to readers who enjoy stories of crime and detection and are also interested in New Zealand history.

Vile Crimes: The Timaru Poisonings published by Canterbury University Press November 2007. ISBN 9781877257599. Paperback, 168pp, $NZ29.50.

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