When Albert Black set sail for New Zealand on the SS Captain Cook in 1953, he was a “ten quid Pom” or assisted emigrant, looking for a bright new future of full employment. Nearly 30 years before, my father, also a Protestant Irish man, born in England, had travelled the same route when it cost “ten bob” to emigrate. There were so many dreams to fulfil; my father never really found his but his voice would lend itself to me when I came to draw on that of Albert. Albert, or Paddy Black as he was nicknamed on board the ship, would face the gallows two years later, found guilty of murder. He was the second last person to be hanged in New Zealand.
I began the story of Albert’s short life and death because it illustrated a theme that has run through my mind for a long time, a concern for young people who make one terrible mistake and have not only had their own lives changed forever, but that of theirs and their victim’s families, and of the wider society.
By all accounts, Albert was a happy go lucky, gentle boy who revelled in shipboard life. His contemporaries from that time left letters and accounts of his later trial and death in Auckland. There are still living people who knew Albert. They include a woman who was a child in the house where he first lived in Naenae, a dormitory suburb of the Hutt Valley, near Wellington. She recalls a youth who built a playhouse for her and her brothers, kept a pet hedgehog in a shoebox and wept when it died, who sang Irish songs, and waltzed at Christmas time with her standing on his shoes.
But events in the Hutt Valley, in the time that he lived there, were to be a catalyst for a major scandal that soon swept the country. A policeman caught two young people making out on the shingle banks of the wide river that flows through the Hutt. One thing led to another and shortly afterwards a newspaper reported widespread promiscuity in the area, snogging couples in the back rows of picture theatres, young girls hanging out to meet motorbike riders at the local milk bar.
The presiding judge commented in closed court that the accused was an "outsider", not the sort of person wanted in New Zealand
The prime minister of the time was a right-wing politician, the leader of the National Party, who had ousted the Labour government on a platform of reinstating the death penalty, previously suspended for some 14 years. His outraged response to the growing “scandal” in the Hutt was to call for an inquiry, headed by his close friend Oswald Mazengarb. The Mazengarb report followed in 1954, an alarmist document calling for measures to curb youth revolt, heavy penalties for those who transgressed, and the banning and burning of books deemed offensive. The report, filled with moral outrage, was forwarded to every household in the country that received the family benefit, an allowance made to all families who had children 16 and under. I was a teenager then, just five years younger than Albert. The heavy tome landed in the letter box at our farm gate, but my parents whisked it out of sight, afraid it might give me “ideas”.
If anything, it fuelled youthful enthusiasm for change. American culture had arrived with the troops during the second World War and it was here to stay. It was the dawn of rock ‘n’roll, of dancing till daylight, of new styles of dress. Young English men brought Teddy Boy styles; and winkle pickers and bomber jackets, tight skirts and bouffant hairstyles, defined emerging bodgie and widgie culture. It might have offended rugby-worshipping, church-going New Zealand but there was no turning back.
Albert had become homesick for Belfast, and in an effort to make more money and return home, he moved north to Auckland where he was offered a position as the caretaker of a vacant mid-city boarding house. It was just around the corner from Ye Olde Barn cafe, frequented by bodgies, widgies and English seamen, jiving to the jukebox. The clientele began to gather at the boarding house for parties, whether Albert wanted them there or not, seemingly coerced into some of these gatherings. He gave free lodgings to the homeless. One of these was a knife-carrying youth called Alan Jacques, known as Johnny McBride, after the main character in the Mickey Spillane novel The Long Wait, his pseudonym and violent behaviour modelled on that of his hero. After a series of arguments over a girl, Jacques beat Albert severely one evening. The following night, at Ye Olde Barn, the fight reached its climax and Albert drew a knife. After one blow, Jacques died.
Self-defence as a defence for manslaughter was raised, but rejected. The many circumstances surrounding the case suggest it might have been a more credible verdict. The presiding judge commented in closed court that the accused was an “outsider”, not the sort of person wanted in New Zealand. His comments were relayed to the jury.
Back in Belfast, Kathleen Black raised a petition to the New Zealand government which attracted 12,000 signatures within a week and she also appealed to the queen. Not only was her petition turned down, the national government and its ministers denied her entry to New Zealand in order to say goodbye to her son. Five months after the death of Jacques, Albert Black was hanged in Mount Eden prison at the age of 20. His last words as he stood on the gallows were “I wish you a merry Christmas gentlemen, and a prosperous New Year.”
A painful eyewitness newspaper account of his death led to a wave of public revulsion for the death penalty, and its subsequent abolition. Albert Black’s story has thus earned a place in our history.
I continue to seek justice for the death of this boy. I would wish his crime downgraded to manslaughter. It would be a gift to one of my many informants, his daughter, born three months after his death, and her children and grandchildren. This is the hope I hold.
I am grateful for the assistance of the Linen Hall Library, Belfast, Births, Deaths and Marriages, Belfast, and the Belfast Book Festival where I was a guest in 2016.
This Mortal Boy by Fiona Kidman is published by Gallic Books (£8.99)on August 1st