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An enquiry was held at the Resident Magistrate’s Court this morning, before Dr Trevor, coroner, and a jury, of whom Mr D. Williamson was chosen foreman, touching the recent destruction by fire of Cookson’s stables and Tait’a saddler’s shop, in Wills street,

Sergeant Felton conducted the enquiry for the police. The jury having been sworn proceeded to visit the scene of the fire, after which the following evidence was taken:— Edward Oookson deposed that he resided in Wills street, Ashburton. Lately occupied premises known as the Livery Stables in Wills street. They were burned down on Saturday morning, about two o’clock. The premises were insured but the stock Was not insured. Estimated dead loss at between LSOO and L6OO. The roof of the stables was part iron and part shingle. The stables were lit with gas, and no other light was used as a general rule, although a lighted candle may have been used occasionally. Witness lived in a cottage at the back, but there was always someone who slept on the premises. The front part of the building was a saddler’s shop, occupied by Jas. Tait. Between the shop and the stable there was no communication whatever. Dhe shop Was lit with gas. Knew Mr Tait very well ; was in his shop constantly. He had a good stock, and appeared to have a very good trade. He employed an assistant. No one slept on Tait’s premises. About two o’clock witness was called by his son on the Saturday morhing. The stables had large folding doors with a small door at the front, and two doors at the back; The doors were :kept locked at night. son did not smoke, nor did .he read in bed so far as he knew. He had candle and matches to use when the gas was out. There was some hay, etc., in the loft of the stable.

H. Oookson said he was a son of the last witness. On Friday night last he slept at the stables. Went to bed about nine o’clock. The outer doors, front and back, were closed ; the front door was bolted, the back door fastened. Witness did not smoke, and did not read in bed. Turned the gas out before he went to sleep. Was awakened some hours afterwards by a loud crackling noise. The fire was in Tait’s shop, and the flames were just breaking through the partition when witness Was first aroused. Was quite SUre about the fire being in Tait’s, because he could see it When the fire came through. The three stall stable was quite cleat*, and had rib rubbish about it. Tait kept some straw underneath his counter, which he used in his business. On opening the front door witness saw a man who he thought was a constable. Did not look through Tait’s window from the footpath. James Tait, said he lately occupied the premises adjoining Cookson’s stables. Was a weekly tenant of Cookson’s. Did not sleep at the shop. Had a good stock, which With the tools, etc., would be Worth at the very lowest calculation LiSO. Was insured in the South British office for L 250, The insurance had been originally effected by Wood Bros., from whom it had been transferred to Cookson, and from Oookson to the witness. It had never been altered. It would be a little before 6 on Saturday evening that witness left, and was there again between 1 and 2 o’clock on the morning of the 30th. There was no fire then. Was at home and asleep when the fire-bell rang. When witness got up the fire was burning right through the roof. Witness resided half a mile from the shop. Was keeping ordinary saddlery goods at the shop, and kept some straw. There were some leather cuttings about, not more than half a sack-

ful or a sackful at the most. There was a small gas stove. Could always tell when the gas was escaping by the smell. The gas was turned off at the metre the night of the fire. Could not say whether there were any matches about the shop or not. Witness’s man usually stopped after he had left. They both had keys of the shop. There was no other way into witness’s shop except by the door Had received between JL3B and L4O worth of stock in the shop during the last month. The policy held by witness was a floating policy. Sometimes he might have over and sometimes under the value on the premises.

W. W. White, saddler, and lately in the ’ employ of James Tait, deposed that he left the shop at 6 p. in. on Friday last. There was a good all-round stock, and roughly it was worth L4OO, and it belonged to Mr Tait. No rubbish was allowed to accumulate. The shop was kept clean, and swept out every morning. There were some candles, but they were not used for burning, but merely used in the trade. There were no matches about and no rats. Nothing combustible was kept under the counter. There was a gas stove. Tait was doing a good business, and the fire was a great loss to him. Witness had been in his employ for twelve months. There was a little place up the right-of-way large enough to admit a dog or cat. Geo. St. Hill said : Was at a party with some friends on the night of the fire, and left for home at five minutes past 1 o’clock. When the fire bell rang, looked at his watch and found it was 26 minutes past 2. Was at the fire, and saw Constable Neil remove the wooden box produced. [Large wooden box, with charred bottom and side washer, produced. The box contained some ashes. 1

Witness (resuming) stated that the box had a piece of wood lying on the top of it. The box contained cool, wood, and paper. The coals underneath were quite hot. The box contained some photographs, as well as paper, etc. The Court to witness : Do I understand you to say, Mr St. Hill, that you imagine the fire in the box to have been purposely ignited ? Mr St. Hill : Most undoubtedly. In reply to a question from a juror, Mr St. Hill said that the box was so hot underneath that he could not put his hand there. It seomed to him as if a fire—hot coals—had been placed on the top, and fuel heaped upon the top of all to make a fire. Witness could not say what the fire was wanted for. He simply stated what ho saw.

John Maiklejohn, cattle dealer, remembered the morning of the 3rd inst. Was returning from Rakaia when he heard the fire bells and went to the lire. The flames were coming out through the roof. Burst open Tait’s door, but could not get in for smoke. Commenced to take out some whips. The fire appeared to be coming through the roof from The lorr. Did :mt «■><•!« behind i.he

| ciiuiii. 1 ;; nii;.' would not admit of it. i;id uui ihink t-hero was any firo in the shop. Thought i was coming through ; ho simp. witness been five minutes sooner he thought he could have got all the goods out of the shop. Saw young Cookson at the fire. The fire was coming through the roof when witness burst the door open. Robt. Elston deposed to going to the fire. Saw plenty of people were helping at the side in Wills street, so went to the front door and there met Mr Henry, photographer, standing at the door. Henry ran upstairs and witness ran after him to help him to remove his things from his room. Saw the box produced containing coals, paper, and sticks on top, alight in the corner outside on the balcony. The fire was blazing in the box. Witness, on catching sight of this, said — “ Henry, here’s the fire already.” Henry said, “ Never mind ; come in ; there’s no help for it; it must go. Let’s keep out the draught. ” Witness said, “ But I do mind,” and forced his way to the box. Henry tried to shut the door. Witness caught up the box and dropped it over the balcony and it got broken. Henry was fully dressed, he seemed very agitated and excited. Believe he had moved some of his property, but would not swear to it. A spark from the stables might have set the box on fire, but witness thought it very improbable that it had done so. Richard Lechner deposed that he was a clefk in the Post Office, Ashburton. ~

Remembered morning of the 3rd, and to attending the fire at Cookson s. Went to the front of Saunders’ Buildings. Saw Mr Henry in his room. He had. nja arms full of things which he earned out. Witness took some pictures off the walls and wrapped them in the tablecloth. Mr Henry was away for two or three minutes. I asked Mr Henry if there was anything more, and he said no. He then opened the door of the room opening on the balcony. Elston was there, and Henry wanted to pull him back, and told him to shut tbe door, and keep out the draughty | Witriess caught Hold of Henry by the tail of the coat. Henry Said nothing could save the place ;it must go. Henry tried to prevent Elston and witness from going out to where the fire was. Saw Elston take, up the box and drop it over the balcony. There was a good blaze in the box- The fire seemed to be composed of paper. There was some coal dust at the bottom of the box. The box was in a corner near Henry's tank, between the tank and the door. It was a damp night, with mist. There was very little wind. Witness afterwards went upon the roof over Henry’s studio ; no sparks were Coming from the stables there. By the Coroner i When Henry said " Never mind, they must go/' or words to that effect, witness did not think there was any great danger of Saunders’ Buildings going; No sparks fell on the balcony when witness was, there. There was a flre-plachifi Henry’s tbdrii. Joseph Dolman deposed that he vVaS captain of the Fire Brigade and fire inspector for the borough. Was present at the fire, and whilst it was burning went, at Sergeant Felton’s request, with him to examine the box produced. Also saw six papers that had been removed from the box. Went to Henry’s room and found Lechner and Elston there, with whom they went through the studio on to the roof. The box was on the -balcony, or the right hand side of the door, close tc the door and alongside of the : tank. Henry was asked how he thought the bos got on fire, and he said he thoughl it must have been from the emben or the sparks coming over the rool from the fire at the stables. He said he had cleared out the spouting of timber him Self. Henry said that th« only way lie could account for the fire was that a spark had fallen in the boi and kindled the paper. There was n< wind to speak of. It was not possible, ii witness’ opinion, for a spark to have li the fire in the box. _ . Thomas Hicks, constable stationed n Ashburton, was at the fire on the nigh of the 2nd and morning of 3rd. Was o: duty in East street. When opposite th Post Office, saw two men under th verandah of Saunders’ Buildings. _ Wet across and saw a light burning in Fait shop. Thought there vtas' somethin curious about the light, and gave th alarm of “ Fire.” I knocked at the dooi, but received no reply ;. then tried to burst open the window. ' Went away to give alar pi, and on return found stable doors open, and Mr Cookson was running about in his shirt. Elston gave witness the box produced into witness’ eustody. The box was quite hot at the time. Took the two photographs produced out of the box. Otherwise it was in the same state in which witness received it.

By the Coroner : I did not recognise the men who were going under the verandah.

Xu reply to a juror, who complained that they were met there to investigate a fire in Wills street, and not one in a box elsewhere, the Coroner said that the evidence on the one fire might help to clear up the origin of the other fire. In fact, as a mere matter of fairness and justice to Messrs Cookson and Tait, the evidence respecting the box ought to be received. [At this stage of the proceedings the jury once more proceeded to view the scene of the fire.] On resuming, G. F. Henry was put in the box.

The Coroner said, addressing him, t! Your name has come up in connection with this fire, Mr Henry. ¥ou are not obliged to make any statement unless you like.”

Mr Henry then deposed to being aroused by the fire. He carried out some things from his room. Mr Elston was there and drew his attention to a box in which he kept fuel, with the exclamation, “ Oh, my God ! this box, is on fire.” Sparks were blowing about in all directions. Witness had three lenses on the premises, worth L 25 each. Had also lid or LSO worth of negatives. Had also some pictures. There was a fire in Saunders’ Buildings about seven weeks ago. That fire was extinguished by witness. Never heard of a tire at the stables or buildings about a year ago. Nobody lived on the premises (Saunders’ Buildings’) but witness. It Ferriman, of Poyntz and Co., commission agents, deposed that his firm were also insurance agents for the North British and Mercantile Co. Henry had effected an insurance in them of LIOO. Since the fire he had handed witness a claim for L 27 odd.

W. Hutcheson, of the Bank of New Zealand, stated that Saunders’ Buildings were the property jof the bank, and insured for L 7.000.

The Coroner, in summing up, said that the result of the enquiry into the recent fire left it as great a mystery as ever. There was no reason to suppose that either Mr Oookson or MrTait had anything to do with the fire because they were both heavy cases. The box which was discovered on fire led to the suspicion that an attempt had been made to burn down down the buildings in two places. There were some very suspicious circumstances in connection with this fire. After about fifteen minutes’ absence, the jury returned with the following verdict—“ That Cookson’s stables were burnt down on 3rd December last, but that there is no evidence to show how the fire originated/ 1

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Bibliographic details

INQUEST ON THE LATE FIRE., Ashburton Guardian, Volume III, Issue 501, 6 December 1881

Word Count

INQUEST ON THE LATE FIRE. Ashburton Guardian, Volume III, Issue 501, 6 December 1881

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