As a wedding party celebrated inside a Gisborne bungalow on an autumn night, a jealous sheep farmer nursing rejection aimed his rifle through a window at the woman he thought was the bride.

But when he pulled the trigger, a bullet smashed through the dining room window and hit, not the bride, but mother-of-three and wedding guest Queenie Eleanor Pettit, 35.

Pettit looked similar to the bride, Noelina Victoria "Winnie" Oman, who was in another part of the dining room and out of view to the gunman, George Edward Nowell.

Pettit was the niece of the long-serving politician Sir James Carroll, who had died in the year before the 1927 shooting and had been the first Maori to be Minister of Native Affairs.

Herald report on the Gisborne killings. Source: NZ Herald archives
Herald report on the Gisborne killings. Source: NZ Herald archives

Nowell, 25, fled and took his own life.

Formerly in the British navy, Nowell moved to New Zealand around 1924 and took up farming in the Waikohu area inland from Gisborne. He was married but his wife left and took their child to Auckland. Nowell took to living at a Gisborne boarding house for several months.

George Nowell had a sheep station at Waikohu. Map:
George Nowell had a sheep station at Waikohu. Map:

Nowell and Oman met a year before her marriage, when she was Winnie Bennett. "She had spent a holiday on his station," the Herald wrote following Oman's testimony to the inquests into the deaths.

"The friendship between Nowell and witness [Oman] ripened after Mrs Nowell left six months ago, Nowell becoming infatuated with her, but this was not reciprocated.

"She became engaged to [James] Oman at Christmas. She had met Nowell three weeks prior to the tragedy and had intimated she did not wish to have anything more to do with him. He was very angry and threatened to drag her out of church if she married anyone else."

He also threatened "to do for her" if she married.

For months, Nowell threatened to kill himself if she wasn't friendly towards him. She described him as a man who made few friends, had an ungovernable temper, suffered violent headaches and had been worried over his farm's mortgage.

The farm was said to have been financially unsuccessful.


Bennett and her fiance didn't decide on the date of the wedding until the night before the ceremony.

According to wedding guest Henry Langlands, Nowell appeared wild and upset on the night he went out to his sheep station to get his rifle and shotgun.

He had become obsessed with Winnie Bennett. Langlands didn't want Nowell to know of the wedding so on the day of the ceremony, Thursday March 31, he took him for a drive because he was afraid Nowell might make a fool of himself.

After the ceremony, however, Nowell turned up beside the house in Hirini St where Winnie Oman had been staying with two other women, both dental nurses. He had earlier seen people leaving for a wedding.

After dinner at the Masonic Hotel, the wedding party went back to the house.

Oman and Pettit were both in the dining room. Oman wouldn't have been in view to Nowell, who at around 8pm aimed his Westinghouse five-chamber rifle from the vacant lot next door.

He shot Pettit through the dining room window pane. She fell into the arms of Dr G P McSweeney, a neighbour who had come to the house to see Pettit about her children - she had three, aged 5, 7 and 10.

McSweeney tried unsuccessfully to staunch Pettit's bleeding. Within two minutes she was dead.

Pettit's husband Percy wasn't in the dining room when he heard shots. He went to the front door where he was confronted by Nowell, who had blood dripping from his head from an apparent suicide attempt.

"Good God man, what are you doing," said Pettit.

Nowell is said to have replied: "I killed Win. I've done myself in."

"Let me do for both of them," Nowell said, referring to the newlyweds.

Pettit grappled with Nowell and wrenched the rifle off him.

The killer fled to his boarding house and later took his own life. He was found dead in Harris St.

Oman told the inquests she was frightened by Nowell's anger when she explained she would have nothing more to do with him. She feared he might do something serious and it was partly for this reason that she had kept her marriage quiet.

Police Inspector Eccles asked Oman: "Don't you think it would have been wise to have held the wedding away from Gisborne?"

Oman: 'I don't think that would have made any difference."

Coroner E C Levvy asked her: "Was there anything in your conduct to lead Nowell to think you were encouraging him, and to make him break as he did when you got married?"

Oman: "No, I don't think so."

The coroner found that Nowell was suffering from a "temporary mental breakdown".

"I am satisfied that while ... Nowell meant to kill, he made a big mistake and slew an innocent, unoffending woman. He was labouring under stress and mental agony; but it remains that he meant to slay a woman with whom he had been infatuated, and by whom he had been repulsed.

"Sympathy must go out to Pettit and the children."