A few weeks back, I was checking a few details about Leila Adair’s New Zealand tour on Papers Past when I noticed something that had previously escaped my attention.
Mr A. Blackwell appeared to be part of Leila’s entourage. He is listed as a passenger with Miss Adair and Mr Cornell on the Mahinapua to New Plymouth and he is one of the performers at the benefit concert for Leila Adair at the Alexandra Hall on the 23 April 1894. Could he have morphed into Arthur B. Adair, who replaced Frank Cornell as her manager after the debacle with the Manawatu Rifles at Palmerston North?
I did some desultory checking of Arthur Blackwell on various websites, but without knowing his age or if he was from Australia or New Zealand I didn’t get very far. There were a few likely suspects which I soon eliminated, but there was one which continued to niggle at me that I couldn’t discount or confirm. That is until now…
Arthur Willis Blackwell married Rose Wittkofski, a recent Polish immigrant to New Zealand in 1898. By the early 1900s, electoral rolls had them living in the Whangaimoana, Wairarapa where Arthur worked as a ploughman on J.P. Russell’s station.
In 1914, A.W.B. alias Arthur Jones was adjudicated bankrupt. He’d been farming near Waverley, Taranaki then disappeared as his debts were about to catch up with him. A representative for his creditors asked the Assignee to communicate with a Waimate solicitor to “see what he knows about the fortune alleged to have been left to the bankrupt.” (Patea Mail, 10 June 1914). Then in 1916, A.W.B. was arrested for theft. The Christchurch Sun 10 May 1916, gave a full report of the trial:
Arthur Willis Blackwell, a middle-aged man, who had been arrested in Otago, was charged that, on or about September 2, at Lincoln, he stole a large quantity of jewellery and other articles, the property of Solomon Khouri. There was an alternative charge of receiving goods knowing them to have been dishonestly obtained. Accused pleaded not guilty. He was defended by Mr M. Donnelly. Solomon Khouri, a hawker, residing in Barbados Street, Christchurch, deposed that early in April 1915, he was hawking in the Lincoln district. He suddenly became ill. He had a lot of goods in a hawker’s van. He knew the accused, as a customer, and when he was taken ill he drove to Blackwell’s place and left his wagon and horse there. When witness went out to Lincoln, after recovering, he found the house burned down and the van broken open. Very little of the stock which had been in the van was left. The value of the goods recovered was from £25 to £27. The more expensive items of jewellery were not recovered. At this stage, Mr Donnelly conferred with the prisoner and then informed the court that Blackwell withdrew his plea of not guilty and now pleaded guilty. Counsel appealed for clemency for the accused, who was a married man, with eight children. When Khouri left the van at Lincoln Blackwell was ploughing at Glenmark. On his return, he found that the children had broken the parcel containing Khouri’s jewellery. He then put all of it, except one watch, into a tin box. Adversity came upon him and his family. His house was burned down, and his family had to live in a shed. Their clothing was destroyed and accused took some boots and clothing from Khouri’s stock. Then he heard of work in Otago and went there. Blackwell intended to pay Khouri for what he had taken. Mr Raymond said that accused was 50 years old. He was a farmhand who took ploughing contracts and rented a small farm at Lincoln. He was apparently very much in debt. Hitherto he had borne a good character. His Honour took into consideration the previous character of the prisoner and the circumstances in which the crime was committed. He ordered Blackwell to pay a fine of £l2 (to cover the cost of the prosecution) with the alternative of two months’ imprisonment, and also ordered him to pay to Khouri, within a month, the sum of £25, which Khouri agreed to accept in satisfaction of the goods not recovered. The court then adjourned until this morning.
A.W.B. remained in the Otago/South Canterbury region where this curious advertisement appeared in exclusively in the Otago Daily Times in June 1919:
On 8 June 1921, A.W.B. was again wanted by the law:
Not surprisingly, A.W.B. vanishes…for the next fourteen years…until this story, which was widely reported in papers throughout Australia and New Zealand in 1935.
Sound familiar? And too good to be true? You’re right.
The police traced him to Reporoa, but he’d already given them the slip.
In 1942, his wife Rose died intestate and the Public Trust placed this public notice in The Press 18 April 1942:
Presumably the opportunity to claim against his wife’s modest estate wasn’t enough to tempt A.W.B. to reveal his whereabouts.
But was Arthur Willis Blackwell the same person as Arthur B. Adair? I did a bit more digging into his family history.
Arthur Willis Blackwell was born about 1866 to George Blackwell and Mary Anne Coombs (nee Banting) in Gloucestershire, England. Mary Anne and her infant daughter died in Jan 1871. In the 1871 census, his father George was with his sons-in-law, William and George Coombs, and children Arthur and Anne.
On 5 Mar 1874, George and his two children arrived as assisted emigrants on the Scimitar to Otago. Arthur was severely injured after falling from a horse when he was eight – which probably accounts for the shattered jaw – he was not at Gallipoli.
But A.W.B. did have eight children. This is from his first wife’s probate records:
His father did die in Bristol in 1912 (after leaving New Zealand in 1902), but he never left a fortune of £50,000.
A.W. Blackwell, a farmer aged 46 years, left New Zealand on the Tainui 16 April 1913 for England and returned 19 July 1913 on the Ionic — probably empty-handed as his father had remarried.
In 1926, A.W.B. bigamously married Annie Catherine Frederickson (age 24), in Victoria, Australia (giving his age as 43 when in fact he was almost 60 years old).
On 30 August 1899, A.W.B. signed the memorial for his first wife’s naturalisation.
Compare the letters A and W in his signature with those in the letter that Arthur B. Adair wrote to the Wellington Town Clerk asking for use of Newtown Park for a balloon ascent.
Eureka! I can now confirm that Arthur B. Adair’s real identity was indeed… Arthur Willis Blackwell.