Chapter 17
Alfred James Gore Hellyer

Alfred James Gore Hellyer, Alfred after his father, Gore after the family whose neighbours and friends in Hope Street the Hellyers were, “Jim” in the family circle, was the only male Hellyer besides Mum’s father to survive to adulthood [H.1]. Mum’s “Uncle Jim” was born in 1882, 14 years junior ro Harry Hellyer. Later the parents may have regretted re-using “Alfred”, the father’s name they had already given their first-born, who died in 1879 aged only 13.


Figure 17.1: Alix Kinvig and Adelaide Hellyer with Gordon and Freda Titchener in “flying machine” at the Dunedin and South Seas Exhibition, 1926

I had never heard of “Uncle Jim” until I began to take an interest in family forebears, and got Mum to name not only her grandparents but also her aunts and uncles. “Jim was very musical and played the piano,” said Mum. “Uncle Jim died young,” she added. “What did he die of?” “It was an accident,” she said, and went on to explain that he went in the night into the bathroom to get some toothache liquor. In the dark he took Jeyes fluid by mistake. She did not remember when he died.


Figure 17.2: Jim Hellyer in “territorial” uniform

It was a horrible story. It was also untrue, although I am sure Mum did not know that. Nor did I, of course, until Fleming Kinvig and I met at Yolande’s. “He died in gaol,” Fleming had said. “Why was he in gaol?” “He got a young society woman in trouble.” That seemed to be all Fleming knew. If he knew more he did not say.

Before the meeting with Fleming I had found out a little about A.J.G. Hellyer. Quite accidentally I stumbled across his name in the “Cyclopedia of Otago and Southland” while looking up James Gore who figured in it. Under a section dealing with the Volunteer Forces that were a significant social if not military presence during that imperialist time James Hellyer is recorded as:

“Lieutenant Alfred James Gore Hellyer of No.2
Company New Zealand Garrison Artillery Volunteers is the
youngest son of Mr A Hellyer of Dunedin. He..joined
the B Battery in 1899, and left with the rank of sergeant.
He was elected lieutenant of his present company in September
1903. Lieutenant Hellyer has always taken a keen interest in
athletics, and is a member of the Otago Rowing Club and
the Dunedin Football Club. He occupies a position in the
warehouse of Messrs Sargood, Son and Ewen.”

A photograph of him in the Cyclopedia shows a young man in ceremonial uniform, with a strong, even stern face. He sits, very straight- backed, on the edge of a table, white gloves in the right hand, the left hand on the hilt of his sword, the epitome, one would say, of the fine upstanding young man of the day. Perhaps all that is unconventional is the absence of the conventional moustache.

The Cyclopedia was published in 1903. As I discovered from the New Zealand Index of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Jim Hellyer died in 1907. A copy of his death certificate shows that there was an inquest and gives as the cause of death “Suicide by poison. Self administered while in a state of unsound mind”. It also shows that he died in Christchurch Hospital, not in gaol as Fleming had said, although he took the poison while in gaol. The date of death was April 22, 1907.

If there was an inquest, I reasoned, there would probably be a newspaper report of it. There was, and a good deal more, in the “Christchurch Press” of April 23. Under the heading “The Alleged Child- Murder Case. A Sensational Ending” the tragic sequence was unfolded.

“The alleged child-murder case came to a sensational
end yesterday. The accused, Alfred Hellyer, after appearing at
the Magistrate’s Court in the morning, was taken violently ill
in the police cells in the afternoon, and was removed to the
Hospital, where he died shortly before eight o’clock. Death,
it is understood, was by poison self-administered.

“Hellyer was arrested at Belfast on Sunday morning on
a charge of having murdered an illegitimate child, named
Clifford Gunning, of which he was alleged to be the father.
When the child was born he informed the mother he intended
to have it adopted, and with that object in view he arranged
to meet her on the Belfast Road, where he was to take
charge of the infant for the purpose of handing it over to the
people who were to act as its future guardians. The girl, in
company with a married woman, accordingly went to the
place mentioned by the young man, where he joined them.
He expressed annoyance at the presence of the third party,
and spoke rather severely to the mother of the child for her
want of fore-thought in allowing the other woman to
accompany her. The child was handed over to him and he
walked away in the direction of the River Styx, wheeling
his bicycle in one hand and carrying the baby with the other.
The mother, shortly afterwards, returned to her home in
Dunedin, and in reply to questions put to her there explained
that she had left the child with the father in Christchurch.
The police, not imagining for a moment that anything was
wrong, but simply to make sure the child was not being
boarded out in an unlicensed home, interviewed Hellyer here
in order to ascertain the whereabouts of the child, but the
man, notwithstanding the positive statement of the mother of
the child, supported by the other woman, denied point blank
having ever received the child. Suspicion was then aroused,
and Hellyer was warned not to leave the town, and he agreed
to remain. He disappeared, however, shortly afterwards, and
all trace of him was lost until Friday last, when it was
ascertained that he was hiding in a stable in Belfast. On
Sunday morning he was arrested by Constable Pratt and
brought to Christchurch lock-up by Detectives Eade and

“He remained in the lock-up until yesterday morning,
when he left, in custody, to attend the Magistrate’s Court.
On entering the lock-up he was duly searched, and his
belongings collected together and lodged in the strong-room
in the usual way. In one of his pockets was found a glass
phial containing some white tabloids, and that was removed
with his other property. Early yesterday morning he asked
Constable Wright, the watch-house-keeper, to give him the
phial, explaining that he wanted to use the contents for the
purpose of deadening toothache pains from which he stated
he was then suffering. The constable complied with the
request and gave the prisoner the contents of the phial, but
retained the phial itself in his possession. Whether Hellyer
then made use of the tabloids for the purpose indicated is not
known, but at all events he appeared at the Magistrate’s
Court at half-past ten in apparently normal health, although
he seemed to be suffering from a mental anxiety natural
under the circumstances.

“At the Court he was charged firstly with killing the
child, Clifford Gunning, on or about March 2nd; and,
secondly, with stealing a bicycle on April 12th. [There is
surely something strange about these dates? ALT] Chief
Detective Chrystall, who represented the police, applied for a
remand till April 30th, which was granted by the presiding
Magistrate, Mr H.W. Bishop, Mr E.T. Harper, counsel for the
accused, offering no objection.

“Bail was not applied for, and the accused was escorted
back to the Police Depot. The fact that he had obtained
possession of the contents of the phial was apparently known
only to himself and to Constable Wright, for on the part of
the other police officers no misapprehensions existed as to the
safety of the accused while in their custody. He was given
his dinner with the other prisoners, and left in a cell until the
afternoon, pending his removal to the Lyttelton Gaol, where
prisoners on remand are lodged.

“When a constable went to fetch him shortly before 3
o’clock he found him lying in a sort of stupor.

“It was at once apparent to those in attendance that his
condition was grave in the extreme, and Dr Symes was
hastily summoned. He found the prisoner suffering acutely
and in a very grave condition. The symptoms pointed to
poisoning, probably with prussic acid.

“The doctor ordered the patient’s removal to the
hospital, and a stretcher and an express being hastily
requisitioned, the patient was conveyed to the institution as
speedily as possible, arriving there a few minutes before 3
o’clock. He was subjected to the proper treatment at the
Hospital, but he never rallied, and finally succumbed shortly
before 8 o’clock.

“After Hellyer had been removed to the Hospital a
careful search of his cell was made, and a few small
fragments of some kind of whitish tabloids were found. As
cyanide of potassium is sometimes put up in this form it is
understood that this poison was the cause of death, but an
analysis of the stomach is being made with the object of
ascertaining definitely to what poison death was due. The
fragments found in the cell are also to be subjected to
chemical analysis, to ascertain whether they are identical with
the contents of the phial, and the poison found in the

“An inquest will be held in the Hospital this afternoon.

“From time to time when they first suspected that the
child had met with foul play the police have been making
diligent search to discover the body of the child, but so far
without success. The River Styx has been carefully examined,
also the surrounding country, but no trace of the missing
baby has been found. The search, however, is to be
continued, until all reasonable attempts have been exhausted.”

Mum was a girl of 11 at the time of her Uncle Jim’s death. I have no doubt that the story she recounted to me was a story devised by the grown-ups to account to the young members of the family for Uncle Jim’s death. Today the sorrow and the scandal and the shame can hardly be imagined; but time and the invented story did their job.

One of the strange ironies is that, at the end of 1906, Jim Hellyer presented his niece with a copy of “Pilgrims Progress”. It is inscribed:

“Miss Freda M. Hellyer
45 Chester Street
A present for passing the Fourth Standard 1906 Exam
Uncle Jim Hellyer”

It is written in a somewhat showy hand and with a flourishing signature.

Even as Uncle Jim was writing he must have been in torment over the illegitimate baby either just born or soon to be born, and over what was to become of it, of its mother, and of him. Within a few months he was dead by his own hand. Unlike John Bunyan’s pilgrim, Christian, poor Jim perished in his Slough of Despond.

The headstone of the Hellyer grave in the Southern Cemetery, Dunedin, carries five names:

“Alfred Francis died Apr.14, 1879 aet 12
Annie Josephine died Dec.7, 1887 ae 4 yrs
Edwin Walter died Sept.9, 1895 ae 8 yrs 10 mths
Alfred James Gore Hellyer [with no dates]

Also their father
Alfred Hellyer of England died 15 Jan. 1915 ae 73”

Annie died of diphtheria, Walter of meningitis.