Dramatic real-world events inspired the plot of Murder By Vote, the third Penrose & Pyke Mystery.
The story is set around the time of the formation of the Women’s Franchise League in Dunedin (28 April 1892). At that time, the local newspapers were peppered with reports of bombings by Anarchists overseas, such as this one:
In exquisite irony, reports of Anarchist bombings occurred in the same edition of the Otago Daily Times (19 April 1892) as an advertisement for explosives available for sale to the public at Arthur Briscoe’s store.
What a gift to an historical mystery writer! (Kiwi readers will know that Briscoes still operates today, even if it no longer includes dynamite amongst the available bargains!)
Murder By Vote, the third Penrose & Pyke mystery, is set during the 1892 campaign for women’s franchise in New Zealand. The suffragists set out, once again, to prove that women wanted the right to vote, by collecting an enormous number of signatures on a petition to parliament. (The final petition, in 1893, was signed by around one in four adult women in New Zealand – an extraordinary achievement.)
They had an uphill battle on their hands from the many opponents of women’s franchise, from politicians and publicans, to moral and religious campaigners, to traditionalists who saw women’s rights as an attack on the role of women as wives and homemakers. Here’s a small taste of the times, taken from Papers Past and other digital archives.
Although many Members of the House of Representatives favoured votes for women, others were staunchly against. Opposition centred around a group supported by the liquor lobby, including Henry Smith Fish Jr. Within parliament, stalling tactics and devious last-minute amendments were a favourite method of foiling the Women’s Franchise Bills.
Anti-suffrage feelings came to a head in Dunedin, in April 1892, when Henry Fish organised his own petition to prove that women did not want the vote. Allegations soon swirled in the newspapers that his petition was collecting signatures using dubious methods – by allowing signatures from people under the voting age, bribing men with alcohol, and paying canvassers (thus encouraging the collection of signatures by use of false pretenses and outright fakery).
Here are a few clippings from newspapers of the period.
I’m happy to say that the suffragists triumphed over Henry Fish’s petition a few weeks later, when a counter-petition proved misrepresentation.
Part of the reason for the fierce opposition to women’s suffrage was the concern that women voters would support stricter alcohol licensing or even total prohibition. Hence the support of the liquor lobby. They had real cause for concern. Alcohol was a massive social problem in colonial New Zealand (and remains so today). The Temperance lobby was not only holding regular meetings, but also getting their members voted onto the local licensing committees. They had already achieved several closures of local hotels, with many more in their sights. Publicans were losing their livelihoods with no compensation – and you can imagine they weren’t about to take that without a fight!
Naturally, there were many other opponents of universal franchise, notably amongst those with strong religious or moral views around women’s role in society. Long letters to the editor were published on a regular basis, filled with verses from the bible and assertions on the nature of women. Here are a couple of examples:
And a poster from the era, opposing suffrage. All I can say is, thank goodness things have changed for the better (mostly!).
The Penrose & Pyke Mysteries are set in and around Dunedin, New Zealand. Readers who haven’t been lucky enough to visit (yet) might like to know a little more about the city.
Dunedin is built on the collapsed remains of a volcano, so the views are stunning. Fortunately, it’s a long extinct volcano, unlike our biggest city, Auckland, where the youngest of about fifty volcanoes is only 600 years old. This fiery past contributes to several outstanding features – very steep streets, beautiful black rock for building, and a wonderful harbour ringed to the south by the green hills, steep cliffs and beaches of the Otago Peninsula.
If you think I’m exaggerating the steepness, check out this video of the much-loved Jaffa Roll. In the past, thousands of the little round sweets were rolled down the steepest street in the world each year, but no more. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=F42VcDVQ7Ro
The Otago Peninsula is known for its scenery and wildlife, especially the Royal Albatross colony, where you might see the birds soaring with their three-metre wingspan. Rare yellow-eyed penguins, blue penguins, seals and sea-lions are some of the other treats for lovers of fur and feather. And don’t miss the chance to visit the historic homes and gardens, like Glenfalloch and Larnach Castle (see previous blog post), built on the peninsula in the heyday of Victorian wealth.
Hard to believe now, but Dunedin was once the wealthiest and largest city in New Zealand, after settlement by Scottish, English and other immigrants was turbo-charged by the discovery of gold in the 1860s and the on-going wealth that flowed from sheep farming. The distinctly Scottish vibe are a legacy of those golden years. It’s not called the “Edinburgh of the South” for nothing.
Dunedin city is a treasure trove of Victorian and Edwardian buildings, from worker’s cottages to mansions, churches to civic buildings, hotels to factories, and the oldest (and prettiest) university in New Zealand. Hours of fun for the history buff, thanks to the relative lack of modern “development” compared to other cities. And all those students make for a lively place (not just for their infamous couch-burning parties).
Visit the railway station and shout for joy that a functional place can also be made beautiful.
Sadly, the only passenger trains these days are the tourist routes up the coast and into Central Otago via the Taieri Gorge – both must-do excursions with fabulous views, on routes hewn from rock in the 1800s.
The end of the Taieri line is a great place to start a cycling trip through Central Otago, along the old railway route all the way to Clyde, then back down the mighty Clutha River.
Apologies for the adjectival-overload … I admit to being just a teeny bit gushy about one of my favourite regions of New Zealand! I can’t resist adding some pics of my last bike trip thru Central Otago, as a bonus lure to come visit. Oh, the smell of wild thyme, hot from the sun on the rocks.
If you visit, bring a warm coat, stout shoes, and a sense of adventure.
I have to admit a fascination for the Victorian era. Industrial innovation, scientific advancement and exploration made for a heady mix of momentous change. And how those successful nouveau-riche Victorians loved to flaunt their newly-minted wealth!
One such man was William Larnach, who built New Zealand’s only castle in 1871. If you are in Dunedin, I’d highly recommend a visit. According to their website (https://www.larnachcastle.co.nz/), “It took more than 200 workmen three years to build the Castle shell and master European craftsmen spent a further 12 years embellishing the interior.”
While the castle is glorious and the location is spectacular, it is all the interior detail I loved the most. Birds in domed display cases, sumptuous furniture and accessories, and totally over-the-top interiors are just some of the delights.
As the website says: “Materials from all over the world were used – marble from Italy, slate from Wales, floor tiles from England, glass from Venice and France. No expense was spared in creating Larnach’s dream home! Many New Zealand native woods were also used – kauri ceilings, rimu floors and honeysuckle panelling. In 1885 a 3,000 square foot Ballroom was added.”
Since 1900, the castle has had many uses, “as a lunatic asylum, a hospital for shell-shocked soldiers and a nuns’ retreat. The Ballroom was once even used as a sheep holding pen!”, before falling into decline.
Three cheers for the Barker family, for six decades of dedicated renovation to bring the derelict mansion back to its current extraordinary state.
William Larnach doesn’t appear in my latest novel, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, but he does provide some inspiration for the characters and locations.
His own history would scarcely be believed if it was written as a novel. He started as a banker (his bank on the Australian goldfields was “a tent and his equipment consisted of dogs, a gun, and strong boxes”), before moving to New Zealand when gold was discovered in the 1860s. From there he expanded into shipping, farming, landholding, politics, speculation and a career in politics.
Unfortunately, it didn’t end well. Economic depression led to financial difficulties, drinking and depression. In 1898, Larnach locked himself in a committee room at Parliament and shot himself with a revolver. His final legacy to the world of Victorian excess was the enormous mausoleum in the Dunedin Northern Cemetery, a miniature replica of Robert Lawson’s First Church.
Agog as I am at the ostentatious wealth of the era, my own interest is at the other end of the spectrum – the tarnished reverse side of the shiny coin of economic wealth. The machinery of mass production put many skilled workers out of a job or forced them into unskilled labour or, if things got really dire, workhouses. Others took the courageous decision to emigrate to British colonies, like New Zealand – a migration that had profound consequences for the indigenous population as well as the new immigrants.
While the divide between rich and poor persisted in New Zealand (as it still does), the balance of power was tipped towards workers, who were a scarce resource, and women, who were an even scarcer resource.
Thus, the late Victorian era was also a time of great social change here, achieving advances in workers’ rights and women’s suffrage that would not have been possible in other countries.
A great source of pride to Kiwis and, happily for me, a rich vein of background material to plunder for the first three books in the Penrose & Pyke Mystery series. The first book (with a workers’ rights theme) will be released this week. Thank you to all the lovely readers who have pre-ordered it. I hope you enjoy it!
As soon as I read about the marvellous New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, I knew it was perfect place for a scene in Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre.
Grand exhibitions were all the rage in the 1800s, showing off the extraordinary innovation and prosperity of the Victorian period. The Dunedin event was hard on the heels of the 1889 World Fair in Paris, for which the iconic Eiffel Tower was built. Not to be outdone by the French, Dunedin constructed a replica Eiffel Tower, albeit scaled-down to 40 metres and made of wood. Featuring a steam-powered lift, which carried 16 people up to a height of 30 metres, and electrically-powered lights on the viewing platforms, it was a smash hit.
The NZSS Exhibition also had a switchback railway (the humble precursor to roller-coasters – a bit of it can be seen in the photo above), a merry-go-round, musical entertainment, gardens and exhibits of everything imaginable from around New Zealand and the world.
The event was so popular that more visitors were said to have gone through its gates than the entire population of New Zealand at the time.
One can only imagine the wonder and excitement on their faces as they approached the Moorish-domed entrance!
The next time you’re burning the midnight oil at work, spare a thought for how it used to be, when the ‘midnight oil’ was a feeble lamp lighting the piecework taken home by women after a long day on the factory floor. And give thanks to the campaigners for workers’ rights, who fought hard for better conditions (and who still do so).
My new book, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, was inspired by the events of 1890, in New Zealand’s biggest and wealthiest city (at the time), Dunedin. Many workers slaved for long hours in appalling conditions, although arguably with better conditions than they had faced in Britain, from whence most of the population had immigrated since 1840. Some workers even managed to get an eight-hour day, as first celebrated fifty years later, in October 1890, by our first Labour Day. (The cartoon lampooning the Employers’ Union Labour Day float is from the Alexander Turnbull Library.)
After the depression years of the 1880s, any job was better than none, even if the pay scarcely covered a subsistence living. Families often fended off starvation by sending their women and children to work.
Enter the Reverend Rutherford Waddell and his widely publicised sermons on the ‘Sin of Cheapness’. Waddell was the minister of the St Andrew’s parish, in an area so notorious for drinking and debauchery that it became known as the Devil’s Half Acre. It was so bad that Walker Street, which is the epicentre of events in the story, was later renamed Carroll Street in an attempt to blot out the taint. (Waddell photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)
Waddell’s powerful advocacy helped to establish the first union for working women, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. The first vice-president of the union was Harriet Morison, one of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) pioneering feminists, who later played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. (Harriet Morrison photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)
The government responded by setting up the Sweating Commission, which first convened in Dunedin on the tenth of February 1890, with Waddell as one of the commissioners.
Here’s a sample of one inspection by the Sweating Commission: ‘Factory crowded to excess. Badly lighted, and not ventilated. The building has three flats. In the upper one the sewing girls and clickers are in one room, and some of the employees are juvenile in appearance. The ground-floor is crowded with machinery and men, and the cellar is utilised as workroom for considerable number of men. The cellar from floor to ceiling is not more than 6ft. high, and two boys there are practically working in the dark.’
The photos below, of women working a clothing factory and looms at a woollen mill, are from the early 1900s, when conditions had improved significantly (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).
The commission concluded that sweating did not exist, in the sense of the accepted definition, albeit with three dissenting commissioners, including Waddell. However, the evidence of long hours, poor conditions and inadequate pay was undeniable. The Liberal government subsequently made significant changes to labour laws, including the Factories Acts of 1891 and 1894.
For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend Ian Dougherty’s fascinating biography of Waddell – Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner, Rutherford Waddell (2018, Saddle Hill Press, Dunedin, New Zealand).
Medicine has always fascinated me – the life-and-death drama, the clever use of forensics to uncover the truth, and especially the weird (and frankly terrifying) drugs and equipment used in the past.
Like Chlorodyne, which promised to cure a startling array of complaints, from cholera to coughs to insomnia, but contained a mix of chloroform, morphine, hemp and goodness knows what else. (Image source: Alexander Turnbull Library)
In my new series, Penrose & Pyke Mysteries, Grace Penrose is determined to become the first female medical student in the country.
In real life, that honour went to Emily Seideberg, way back in 1891 (Image source: Hocken Library). Her success was just one of the firsts for women during a time of extraordinary social change in New Zealand. (Universal women’s suffrage was passed two years later.) Emily quietly defied societal norms and went about the vocation of becoming a doctor, although not without copping significant disapproval from the medical fraternity and ribbing from other medical students.
According to the recollections of Mr “Wullie” Goodlet, a former lab assistant: “Miss Siedeberg was the first lady to take the medical course, and I must say she deserved great credit for the way she stuck to her work in the dissecting room. She had a very unpleasant time among the male students. They did not want lady doctors … The young men would throw the flesh at her every chance they got.”
Emily does not appear in the story (other than in spirit), but Professor John Scott, the visionary Dean of the Otago Medical School from 1877 to 1914, has a small part (Image source: Hocken Library). Emily Seideberg graduated five years later and gave exceptional service over her lifetime, for which she received a CBE. The second female student, Margaret Cruickshank, was also outstanding and so revered by her local community in Waimate that a statue was erected in her honour.
Emily Seideberg has a plaque on the historic walk in the beautiful old town of Clyde, one of the main towns of the 1860s Gold Rush in Central Otago. By one of those amazing twists of fate, the plaque is located right outside the old schist cottage I was staying in (where my family lived in the 1930s) and I was thinking about plot ideas when I literally stumbled upon her. And so, Grace Penrose was born.
Spoiler Alert:Mentions several scenes in the plot.
The interior of the palace is fabulously ornate – a statement of power and prestige that could hardly be missed by visitors. The Hall of Mirrors is unforgettable today – how much more amazing it must have been in Louis XVI’s day, when mirrors were an expensive novelty. (Source: Jessica Kantak Bailey @Unsplash.com)
Yet for all its grandeur, 18th century accounts often mention the smell, the hordes of gawkers and the inconveniences. The smell came from a pungent mix of animals, rubbish, the marshy ground, unwashed bodies (bathing was rare as water was said to spread disease), disease, carelessly emptied chamber pots, and people relieving themselves in the corridors if they couldn’t find a convenient pot. Charming! Many aspects of royal life, even dining and childbirth, were carried out with an audience of enthralled on-lookers. The dining experience wasn’t helped by the fact that the food would often be cold, due to the long walk from the kitchens.
It’s well worth doing a tour if you get the chance to visit. Behind the grand public halls are the more intimate and even more beautiful private rooms of the king and queen (although ‘private’ is a relative term, given the number of advisers, courtiers, guards and servants who had access to even the most of intimate rooms, such as the queen’s bedroom). Two of my favourite rooms are the clock room and king’s library, featured in the book.
As a statement of the richness of the décor at Versailles, it’s hard to go past the Queen’s bedroom. The hidden door, through which Marie Antoinette escaped when Versailles was invaded, is near the corner of the room. (Source: the official website of Versailles, https://chateauversailles.fr)
The story features the gorgeous works of Jean-Henri Riesener, favoured cabinetmaker to the royal household. This photo of Marie Antoinette’s private ‘Gilded Room’ shows a magnificent commode and desk by Riesener.
The commode is described in the Collections list as: “By the quality of its amaranth and satin veneer, framing a precious marquetry with diamond patterns and sunflower flowers, by the finesse and delicacy of its bronzes where dominate the floral motifs so dear to Marie-Antoinette, this piece of furniture is a magnificent testimony to the perfection and refinement of French royal furniture at the end of the Ancien Régime.”
The desk is described as: “veneered with amaranth wood and stained sycamore, rests on four tapered legs with octagonal section whose corners are underlined by twisted rods in gilded bronze; a ring with grooves and oves ensures the connection with the body of the table. It is decorated on its four sides with bas-reliefs of gilded bronze representing musical love games among clouds; symmetrical compartments show on a background of sycamore tinted in green an alternation of grooves and florets.” (Source of image and descriptions: the official website of Versailles, https://www.chateauversailles.fr)
If you get a chance to visit Versailles, allow loads of time to explore and check out the fascinating official website before you go.
I also had hours of fun looking through photo books about the palace. A couple of recommendations:
Kisluk-Grosheide, Danielle and Bertrand Rondot (editors) (2018) Visitors to Versailles from Louis XIV to the French Revolution. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Yale University Press.
Delalex, Hélène, Alexandre Maral, Nicholas Milovanovic (2016) Marie Antoinette. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.
On our recent trip to Tongariro National Park, we treated ourselves to a night at an historic New Zealand hotel, as a celebration of a successful final year at school and making it through 2020.
The Chateau Tongariro is New Zealand’s only 4-star hotel located in a World Heritage area, tucked at the base of one active volcano and within ash-spitting distance of two others. The following history of the hotel is mainly based on a booklet available at the hotel: Legends & Stories of Bayview Chateau Tongariro (www.chateau.co.nz). All historic images were sourced from the endlessly-fascinating collections at our National Library (https://natlib.govt.nz).
Tongariro National Park is the fourth oldest national park in the world, established in 1894. The Chateau dates back to the 1920s, which shows in some of the décor elements, though the overall Georgian-style channels ‘European alpine resort’ more than art-deco. It must have been a challenge to build, sitting in the middle of the wilderness on a high plateau with winter snow and poor roads.
Credits: (1) New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch. New Zealand Railways. Publicity Branch: Chateau Tongariro National Park; best reached by rail. Issued by the Publicity Branch, N.Z. Railways. N.Z. Railways Studios. [Printed by] C.S.W. Ltd, N.Z. [ca 1932]. Ref: Eph-E-TOURISM-ca-1932-01. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23083829. (2) Chateau Tongariro, and Mount Ruapehu erupting behind. Davis, Bruce Valentine, 1913-2003 :Photographs and negatives. Ref: 35mm-00702-a-F. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/22757948
The first skiing on the mountain was recorded in 1913. Presumably most of the early guests travelled on the main trunk railway, which passes near the park. After two decades of hard grind and engineering feats, the ‘last spike’, of polished silver, was driven nearby by the Prime Minister in 1908. The rail journey can still be done today, in much greater comfort, and is well worth the time. We took the train to National Park in winter a few years ago; a relaxing way to get to the ski-field. www.greatjourneysofnz.co.nz
The war years were an interesting period in the Chateau’s history. With travel for pleasure no longer possible, the hotel was requisitioned for the patients of the psychiatric hospital at Porirua, which had been damaged in the 1942 earthquake. The fresh air and splendid surroundings must have done wonders for the mental health of the patients. Unfortunately, the 1945 eruption of Mt Ruapehu put an end to what must surely have been the most luxurious hospital in New Zealand.
The hotel is fixed in my own memory as a place of fairy-tale splendour, after staying there as a child. All my other childhood holidays involved sharing an ancient canvas tent with family at various beach and lakeside campgrounds, so the elegant décor, grand lounges, chandeliers and high ceilings of the Chateau really made an impression. I don’t think I’d ever eaten in a restaurant before, let alone stayed in an hotel.
Going back after so long risked disappointment, but it was just as magnificent as I remembered. The room even had a ‘pillow menu’, so one could select the optimum comfort for a good night’s rest after an active day.
With overseas tourists shut out of New Zealand, the rooms were reasonably priced and the number of visitors sparse enough that we scored the prime dining table by the ‘Ngauruhoe Window”, a huge 3m by 3m picture window framing the volcano of ‘Mt Doom’ (Lord of the Rings movie) fame. What a view it would be during one of Ngauruhoe’s occasional eruptions!
Credit: People in a lounge at Chateau Tongariro with Mount Ngauruhoe visible through the window – Photograph taken by Leslie Hinge. New Zealand Railways: Photographs. Ref: 1/1-003889-G. Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand. /records/23154729
All-in-all a special trip and a great way to end the year.
Whatever you are up to this holiday season, I wish you all the best for the New Year. My thoughts go out particularly to those who cannot be with loved ones or enjoy the delights of travel. Fingers crossed for a successful vaccine rollout. And finally, thank you to everyone who has taken the time to read this blog in 2020.
With saturation coverage of elections at the moment, take a moment to reflect on how far women have come over the last few generations.
I was in Christchurch (New Zealand) recently, where the Canterbury Museum is displaying taonga/treasures collected over the past 150 years. The biggest drawcard was the dress worn by women’s suffrage campaigner, Kate Sheppard, on the NZ$10 note.
The city also has a memorial celebrating NZ women gaining the right to vote. As any local will proudly tell you, New Zealand was the first self-governing country to achieve universal voting for women, way back in 1893. [Note the careful wording – other parts of the world gave votes to women earlier, like the state of Wyoming, or gave women with property the vote, as on the Isle of Man. Kudos to all of them.]
The NZ Electoral Act of 1893 substituted the word ‘person’ for ‘male’ and even included a handy definition noting that ‘person’ included women. Radical! We take the right to vote for granted these days, but back in the mid-1800s women had no legal identity apart from their husband, who controlled his wife’s property and their children. Given the rampant abuse of alcohol and high level of violence against women, it’s no wonder the campaign for women’s rights sprang out of the temperance movement.
The victory came after a very long campaign, featuring the epic 1893 Women’s Suffrage Petition – a 270m long list of the signatures of 24,000 women of all walks of life – as shown in the photo, being wheeled in a barrow. Several thousand more women signed other rolls of the petition, which no longer survive. Almost a quarter of New Zealand women signed, an extraordinary achievement, testament to the door-knocking, speech-giving dedication of a band of determined campaigners.
The National Library has published a wonderful compilation of potted biographies of women who signed the petition: The Women’s Suffrage Petition: Te Petihana Whakamana Poti Wahine 1893 (2017, Dept of Internal Affairs and Bridget Williams Books). Well worth a read to give a sense of the range of women who signed and an insight into their lives. You can see a docudrama about the campaign at: https://www.nzonscreen.com/title/votes-for-women-what-really-happened-2012
At least one of my ancestors signed the petition, despite living in a shepherd’s cottage miles from town. She came to New Zealand from a Scottish ship-building town in 1884, endured a long voyage, then learned new skills in order to survive off the land. Hard times: no heat that didn’t involve chopping wood, no vegetable not grown in their own garden, and no doubt a monotonous diet of mutton. Unfortunately, she died young, soon after the birth of her seventh child.
So, ladies, enjoy your right to vote and think of those who went before us, whose hard work and determination have got us to where we are today – celebrating an outstanding woman being elected to the US vice-presidency and a newly-elected NZ government that is the most diverse ever (lead by our third female Prime Minister).
And spare a thought (or an action) for the millions of women in the world today who still do not have basic rights and even more whose rights are trampled by misogynists in power.