William Ellison Messervy Burke, 1830 - 1900

Burke was baptised on 26 February 1830 at St Heliers, Jersey, and married Laura Ennie Caggett on 22 January 1863 at Lambeth, London. He first arrived in Canterbury in the early 1850s, and was employed by the Resident Magistrate’s Court, Christchurch, from 1859-1871. From 1867 he was bailiff, resigning in 1871 shortly after being convicted of forgery and uttering, for which he was sentenced to four years’ imprisonment. He was pardoned on September 7th 1874 and released from prison shortly after that.

He had six sons, all born in Christchurch. Three of them, William Edmund (b. 12 September 1863), Walter Ernest Schmidt (b. 8 March 1866) and Rupert Edgerton (b. 15 August 1871) were baptised on the same day, 24 September 1871. This was just a month after Burke committed the offences for which he was jailed and five months before his trial.

Burke is thought to be the author of the newspaper clippings in his scrapbook, bylined By An Ancient and by W. Ernest Messervy, the latter being in comic Irish dialect and purporting to be the opinions of one Mrs Mulrooney, an Irish washerwoman, usually in conversation with Policeman X.

Burke is known to have attended the wedding of his son Walter in October 1894, his occupation being agent, but no record of his death has been traced up to the year 1910, though family information has his death around 1900. No Will is held at National Archives.

This information supplied by Alison Hollis (great-granddaughter) to the Alexander Turnbull Library and compiled from records held in the Aotearoa Centre, Christchurch City Libraries.

An account of Burke’s trial

William Ellison Burke, was indicted for that on the 17th day of August 1871, he did feloniously forge and utter a bill of exchange purporting to be accepted by Thos. I. Joynt of Christchurch, solicitor, for the sum of forty pounds. The indictment contained a number of counts.

The prisoner, who appeared to feel his position most acutely, was undefended, and on his arraignment pleaded Guilty.

The prisoner was then arraigned on a further indictment, for that he did on the 14th August 1871, forge and utter a bill of exchange for forty-seven pounds with the intent to defraud one R.W. D’Oyly.

The prisoner on this second arraignment pleaded Guilty also to this charge.

The prisoner was further arraigned on a third charge of having on the 19th day of August 1871, forged and uttered a bill of exchange for forty pounds, purporting to have been accepted by one J. L. Fleming, with a view to defrauding the said J. L. Fleming.

The prisoner on his arraignment pleaded Guilty to the third charge.

The prisoner on being asked what he had to say, but he had nothing to say, but he desired to call witnesses as to character.

The following evidence was given on this point:―

Alexander Back — I am sheriff of the province of Canterbury. I have known the prisoner for twelve years. He has acted as my bailiff for several years since I have held the office of sheriff. He was strongly recommended by my predecessor. He has had in his custody and power large sums of money, which he has always instantly accounted for. My opinion of his character was a very good one, and I cannot account for his having fallen into this dreadful state. My opinion has not changed up to the time of this occurrence, the prisoner holding the appointment of sheriff’s bailiff at the time.

His Honor — William Ellison Burke, the charges to which you have pleaded guilty are of a most heinous character, and it is exceedingly painful to me to find a man receiving such a character as you have received from the Sheriff placed in the disgraceful position in which you are placed today. You are probably aware that I might have passed a sentence on you which would have incarcerated you for the remainder of your life, but I hope ― although I have no clue to the motives which could have induced you to commit such a series of crimes as you have pleaded guilty to this day ― that the remorse which you now feel and which you will no doubt feel during the time of your imprisonment will lead to your reformation. I say I hope so, and it is under that hope that I shall pass a lighter sentence upon you than I otherwise should have done. The sentence of the Court is that you, William Ellison Burke, undergo penal servitude within the colony of New Zealand for four years on each of the charges, but the sentences will run concurrently, thus you will only be incarcerated for four years on all charges. The prisoner may now be removed.

The prisoner was then removed.

Source: The Press, Christchurch 4 January 1872 p.3

Burke was pardoned on September 7th 1874 and released from prison shortly after that. This is noted in the Police Gazette of October 1, 1874.

Page 1 ~ About the Burke Manuscript ~ About Mr. Burke