THE SLUM KILLINGS. The Auckland suburb of Freemans Bay was long feared as a breeding ground of sickness, crime and unrest. In 1951, the city council decided on a slum-clearance plan. Dilapidated, cheek-by-jowl hovels would be replaced with modern, terraced housing and green spaces. On the slopes below Nelson St, commercial and industrial buildings would be erected. The motorway later ploughed its wide path through the area. The Herald looks back at six killings connected with the central city in the 1940s and 50s.

He wanted to kill for love or hate or jealousy, but when William Ruha Matthews wielded an axe and knife in a dingy wash-house of an Auckland home, he missed his main targets.

Instead of his former lover or her new man, he killed a hawker, Govind Ranchhod, 58, who was also known as "Suzy", drove a horse and cart, and retrieved old bottles.

There were plenty of bottles to collect at 129A Nelson St, now long demolished but in April 1949 a dilapidated party house.

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The victim, Govind Ranchhod. Photo / Herald archives
The victim, Govind Ranchhod. Photo / Herald archives

Matthews, 28, had lived with Nicky Wihongi, 30, for eight years and they worked together at gardens in Mangere and Panmure.

But their relationship foundered. Wihongi left Matthews after they argued and on one occasion he hit her, according to a Herald court report.

Herald report the day after Govind Ranchhod was killed. Source / Herald archives
Herald report the day after Govind Ranchhod was killed. Source / Herald archives

She moved in with Ray Husband, a seaman, at the Nelson St House. When Matthews said he wanted her back, Wihongi refused, unless he would divorce his wife and marry her.

Govind Ranchhod's horse and cart in Nelson St, Auckland. The house in which he was killed is at left. Photo / Herald archives
Govind Ranchhod's horse and cart in Nelson St, Auckland. The house in which he was killed is at left. Photo / Herald archives

They went to see a lawyer, but Wihongi said when Matthews later talked with her and Husband through a bedroom window at the Nelson St house, "Matthews asked me if I was finished with him [Husband].

"He then said he was going to kill all of us," Wihongi told Matthews' committal hearing when he was charged with murdering Ranchhod.

And at Matthews' Supreme Court trial, she said he had threatened to kill her when he saw her and Husband kissing.

In Matthews' pocket the police found a letter in which he wrote: "Some day I am going to kill every one of your family and you, because I love you till I die."

About a week after Matthews' threat to kill, Husband opened the Nelson St door to Ranchhod, who lived just down the road and was on his morning collection round. He went downstairs to get the bottles from the wash-house.

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In the dark room, he was confronted by Matthews.

The police said Matthews stated: "I went to see Nicky. Suzy was collecting bottles. After getting down there I asked Suzy where the woman was.

"He told me to look upstairs. I asked him to go up and look. He said, 'No.' I grabbed him by the shoulders and he started to yell out. I tried to stop him.

"He picked up an empty bottle and tried to hit me. He missed. The bottle hit the wall. He then picked up another and I stabbed him with a knife all over. Then this fellow [Walter Smith, who lived next door] came running in, and I thought he had a knife, and I hit him with the axe."

Ranchhod was found in a pool of blood.

Matthews contended he did not intend to kill Ranchhod. He pleaded not guilty to murder and his lawyer argued he held no malice against the victim; proving malice was an essential ingredient of murder.

The jury found Matthews guilty of manslaughter, not murder.

This baffled the judge, Justice Finlay, who imposed the maximum sentence, life imprisonment with hard labour, for what he considered a "particularly vicious and callous offence".

"On your own admission you went to Nelson St to murder," the judge said to Matthews.

"Any finding in your favour of self-defence would have been a perversion of the basis on which self-defence rests."

"That the finding was one of manslaughter and not guilty of murder, and the apparent assumption that you did not intend to kill, is beyond all comprehension.

"The finding is the prerogative of the jury, but my difficulty is to find what they saw in the case to reduce it from murder. It is incomprehensible to me."

Read more:
Killings in an Auckland slum - Freemans Bay and the inner west side
Auckland bride Mary Eileen Jones was killed by 'British secret service' fraudster
Aucklander Lee Hoy Chong killed for $200 and a packet of opium
Jury urged mercy after mum convicted of killing sons
The killings in Auckland's Queen St that fuelled a moral panic

Matthews unsuccessfully appealed against the sentence. It was argued for him that because the death penalty was abolished for murder in 1941 and life imprisonment had become the sentence, a prison term of less than life could be imposed for manslaughter.

But the Court of Appeal said the only punishments reviewed - and abolished - by Parliament in 1941 were flogging, whipping and death by hanging. Other punishments in the Crimes Act were not changed.

Parliament had not indicated an intention that other punishments should be scaled down, or that the maximum sentence should never be imposed.

No case of manslaughter could be worse than Matthews' and the maximum penalty was appropriate, the court ruled.

Govind Ranchhod was buried at Waikumete Cemetery. Photo / Martin Johnston
Govind Ranchhod was buried at Waikumete Cemetery. Photo / Martin Johnston

Professor Warren Brookbanks, of the Auckland University of Technology Law School, commenting in 2017, said the sentence of life imprisonment for manslaughter in New Zealand was rare, but not unique.

The house is long gone from Nelson St, Auckland, and the site below the cycleway has been redeveloped. Photo / Martin Johnston
The house is long gone from Nelson St, Auckland, and the site below the cycleway has been redeveloped. Photo / Martin Johnston

The series

• Eileen Turner, July 1942

• Govind Ranchhod, April 1949

• Lee Hoy Chong, May 1950

• Stephen and Peter Wingrove, December 1949

• Alan Jacques, July 1955, Sharon Skiffington, March 1955