Story: Tricker, Walter Pettit

Page 1: Biography

Tricker, Walter Pettit

1823?–1907

Farmer, soldier, victim of injustice

This biography, written by Diana Beaglehole, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1990.

Walter Pettit Tricker was born in Stowupland, Suffolk, England, and baptised there on 18 August 1823. He was the son of Mary Edward and her husband, Walter Pettit Tricker, a husbandman. Nothing is known of his early life but he can have received little schooling for he never learnt to read or write and was described as a labourer when he enlisted with the 65th Regiment in November 1845.

The regiment left England on the Java on 18 May 1846 and reached Auckland, New Zealand, on 27 November. Tricker served in Wellington, Pauatahanui, and Wanganui until he purchased his discharge for £20 on 31 December 1849. He worked for James McDonnell, a farmer in Rangitikei, for two or three years and then spent seven to eight months at the Victorian diggings. On his return he worked for Cornelius Campion in Rangitikei and briefly in Napier. Although quick-tempered, he was respected as hard-working and trustworthy. On 2 January 1858 he married Deborah Witt in Wanganui. The first of their 11 children was born in February 1859 and in July 1860 he purchased 60 acres near Bulls.

Until then Tricker's life had been typical of that of many new settlers, but over the next 30 years it was anything but typical. In September 1860 he shot a heifer on untamed land behind his farm. Local settlers often shot wild cattle when they wanted beef but the heifer had strayed from the property of a neighbour, Robert Rayner. Rayner laid a complaint and on 2 September 1861 Tricker was found guilty and sentenced by Justice Alexander Johnston in Wellington to 18 months' imprisonment with hard labour.

There was considerable sympathy for Tricker in Rangitikei. Nearly all the male inhabitants petitioned Governor George Grey for a remission of sentence. None was granted, other than for good behaviour. On his release Tricker returned to his farm and family. As well as running sheep, he worked for the Campions and belonged to the local militia.

The events of 1860–61 were merely a prelude, however, to further trials and petitions and a far longer term of imprisonment. Early in September 1863 Rayner's body was discovered partly buried near his ransacked home. Robbery seemed to be the motive. Rayner had not been seen since the night of Thursday 27 August. He had received £200 for fat stock that day and only the postmaster knew that he had sent the money to Wellington. Suspicion first fell on two youths, Hoani Tawhira and Henry Hamilton, described as a 'half-caste', who had worked for Rayner but who had disappeared. Both were arrested but at the inquest in Bulls they insisted they had last seen Rayner, alive, when leaving his service early on Friday 28 August. Tricker was also held when it was remembered he had made veiled threats against Rayner for his part in the earlier arrest. But when he too denied any knowledge of the murder, an open verdict was returned.

Over the next six months rewards totalling £450 were offered to anyone giving information leading to a conviction. The governor offered a free pardon to anyone implicated in the murder who gave information, other than the actual murderer. Late in March 1864 Hamilton declared that Tricker had shot Rayner between 9 and 10 a.m. on Friday 28 August 1863. Tricker was committed by the Wanganui magistrates to appear before the Supreme Court in Wellington.

The trial opened on 8 June 1864. Justice Johnston was again on the Bench and the prosecutor was C. B. Izard. C. B. Borlase and J. G. Allan appeared for Tricker. They tried to prove the murder was committed on the Thursday night and that Tricker had an alibi for that night and for Friday morning. Gunshots and an unusual barking of dogs had been heard on the Thursday night but there was no barking and no smoke from Rayner's chimney on the Friday morning. Tricker had stayed Thursday night at the Campions and left for Scott's Ferry on horseback at sunrise. He was seen on the way to the ferry, and on his return journey delivered letters to two settlers, G. W. Wheeler and A. Winks.

At the time when he had allegedly killed Rayner, he was clearly riding between Wheeler's and Winks's farms. But there was conflicting evidence over the time he took to cover that distance; the defence putting it at 45 minutes, the prosecution at 70. Time enough, Izard contended, for him to cut across country, murder Rayner, bury the body and ride back to Winks's farm. The judge accepted this view and allowed 24 minutes for the murder. He did not question whether it were possible to ride the required distance in 46 minutes. Nor did he question the honesty of Hamilton's evidence. Tricker was found guilty and condemned to death.

There was general disquiet. No one who knew the district believed that Tricker could have made a detour across sandhills and swamps in 46 minutes. Editorials and letters in Wellington and Wanganui newspapers either claimed he had been wrongfully convicted, or should have received the benefit of the doubt. Petitions were circulated immediately after the trial. One from Wellington with 'upwards of 700 signatures' was handed to Borlase within a week, and another with 167 signatures from Rangitikei to the Reverend Arthur Stock, a Wellington clergyman, at the end of June.

Stock had become convinced of Tricker's innocence while visiting him in gaol. In letters to the press and in a petition to the government he drew attention to many crucial facts that had not been produced in court. Later in the year the Executive Council advised Grey not to confirm the death sentence. On 17 November it was commuted to life imprisonment.

Tricker's supporters did not let the matter rest. Stock collected further evidence and in August 1867 published a pamphlet in support of a petition to the General Assembly. However, a committee of the House of Representatives saw no reason to ask the legislature to intervene largely because three fellow prisoners claimed that Tricker had confessed to the murder.

In March 1868 a petition from Rangitikei was forwarded to Governor G. F. Bowen and in May the petitioners were informed the governor had been advised not to interfere. In August another petition from the district was presented to the government by Charles Brown, and one from Stock by William Fox. Two commissioners, J. T. Edwards and W. J. Willis, were subsequently appointed to investigate, on the spot, all evidence connected with the murder. They found, as Stock had already pointed out, that a large swamp stretched across the area. As Tricker could only have crossed it five miles distant from the place where he was alleged to have crossed it, he could not possibly have ridden to Rayner's and back in 46 minutes. The commissioners cited the evidence of Donald Frazer who had taken an hour and 20 minutes to ride from Wheeler's to Rayner's; his horse was 'so beaten' he was unable to ride it back. Yet despite finding Tricker's alibi a good one and establishing that Hamilton had committed wilful perjury, the commissioners too were unable to declare him innocent, in the face of prisoners' statements and similar allegations made by Micaiah Read, warden of the Wellington gaol.

Further petitions were forwarded by Stock in July and from Rangitikei in August 1869. For some reason neither petition was presented. However, the Rangitikei settlers were informed in December that the government could not recommend a pardon be granted. Stock had meanwhile laid his views before the governor in November. Hearing in February 1870 that Bowen had been advised to take no action, he organised a public meeting for 10 March and enlisted the support of 47 leading citizens. A Tricker Defence Committee was formed with John Johnston, MLC, as chairman and the resolutions passed at the meeting were presented to the colonial secretary, William Gisborne, on 21 March. On 6 and 8 April 1870 Fox and Gisborne examined the prisoners and the warden at Wellington gaol. Stock, Johnston, Allan and the attorney general, James Prendergast, were also present. The prisoners contradicted their earlier statements and Read's conduct towards Tricker was found to be totally reprehensible. Governor Bowen was advised to release Tricker.

He was released on 13 May 1870. However, he did not receive a free pardon; instead, his life sentence was commuted. Although the matter was raised by John Johnston in the Legislative Council in July and pursued by Stock and others over the years, a full pardon was not granted until 7 July 1891. Nor did Tricker receive any compensation. No charges were ever laid against Hamilton and the case was never reopened.

Few cases have aroused as much interest and few have been as protracted and involved. For Tricker the personal and economic costs must have been enormous. And life cannot have been easy for Deborah Tricker and their three children during his years in gaol or for their expanding family before the pardon was granted. That Tricker felt the stigma of being 'branded as a felon' was evident when the pardon was presented at a public meeting in Bulls. Equally clear was his gratitude to Stock, John Johnston and other supporters.

Indeed, two of the more remarkable features of the case were Stock's persistence and compassion and the continuing support of a rural community. This support, and the qualities which earned Tricker the respect of his neighbours, enabled him to endure his misfortunes and re-establish himself. By 1880 he had increased his holding to 600 acres and when he died on 29 January 1907, every swamp had been drained and every sandhill covered with grass. The property is still farmed by his descendants.

How to cite this page:

Diana Beaglehole. 'Tricker, Walter Pettit', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1990. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/1t106/tricker-walter-pettit (accessed 19 July 2019)