Grisly episode in NZ Navy history

Devonport waterfront carries a clue to 1847 murder nearby
HMNZS Otago will berth at Queens Wharf on Anniversary Weekend. Photo / Greg Bowker
HMNZS Otago will berth at Queens Wharf on Anniversary Weekend. Photo / Greg Bowker

Auckland has been New Zealand’s naval hub for almost 175 years but few people know the Navy’s establishment in Devonport was marred by a brutal triple murder and scandal.

The victims – Lieutenant Robert Snow, his wife Hannah and their 6-year-old daughter, Mary – were found in 1847 in the ashes of a burned house, their bodies severely mutilated with an axe.

Snow was the first signalman in the New Zealand Navy but was also tasked with setting up the naval depot. He was instrumental in the choice of Devonport as the base.

The site endures to this day and is immediately across the harbour from where HMNZS Otago will berth at Queens Wharf on Anniversary Weekend to host an open-air concert on its flight deck during Auckland’s 175th Anniversary celebrations.

Intriguingly, Snow’s fate was entwined with his successor as signalman – one Thomas Duder, the first of a well-known family still prominent in Devonport and that includes author Tessa Duder.

Snow had been in New Zealand setting up the first mast and boatshed.

His home, on Mt Victoria, was no mansion – it was a raupo whare that let in the biting cold.

There were clashes with local Maori and threats were made against Snow.

On the morning of October 23, 1847, the quartermaster on watch aboard the warship HMS Dido spotted that Snow’s house was on fire.

A party was sent ashore but was too late to rescue the victims.

Once the fire burned out, investigations showed the bodies had been attacked with some type of axe before the fire was set. The axe was found in the ashes – indicating the perpetrator was trying to cover his tracks.

The plaque marking the execution spot. Photo / Doug Sherring

Duder had become signalman in 1843 and he also lived on Mt Victoria. He told police he had seen the fire and helped identify the bodies. But the initials “TD” were noticed on the axe and Duder fell under suspicion.

Two months later, a former Navy shipmate of Duder’s, Joseph Burns, was arrested and charged with an assault on his common-law wife, Margaret Reardon.

At his trial in March the following year, Burns also confessed to the murders, alleging Duder and another man had been involved. Reardon gave evidence to support this claim and Duder was arrested.

However, within a few days, Burns and Reardon confessed they had lied and the charges against Duder were dropped.

It turned out Burns had thought pension money was stored at Snow’s house and killed the family while looking for it.

Shortly after the trial, Burns was paraded down Auckland’s Queen St, taken by boat across the harbour – seated on his coffin – and hanged on Devonport waterfront, close to the site of the murders.

He was the first Pakeha hanged in New Zealand. Before the execution, some reports say he asked Duder for forgiveness for the false accusation.

Today, a plaque on Devonport waterfront opposite Mays St marks the site where the murder and the execution are believed to have taken place.

This story is part of a content partnership with Auckland Council and ASB.

Anniversary concert

HMNZS Otago will be open to the public at Queens Wharf 10am-6pm, Saturday, January 24 and 10am-3pm on Sunday, January 25. The concert will be on January 25, 5.30pm-9.30pm and the Sky Tower fireworks display begins at 9.30pm. The concert includes performances from Tami Neilson, Will Crummer and the Rarotongans (with Annie Crummer), the Modern Maori Quartet and the Royal Naval band.

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