PIHA, AUCKLAND. In 1939 Piha was in the news for something completely unrelated to its beach; it was in the headlines for a house fire claiming the life of one person. As the events unfolded, more information rose to the surface and ultimately the story of the ‘Piha Fire’ of 1939 became one of the most curious crimes in the archives of NZ’s history. This is the tale of Gordon McKay and The Duplicitous Inferno.
Visit www.truecrimenz.com for additional information on this case. Including a transcript of this episode, with supporting pictures, sources, and credits.
Hosted by Jessica Rust
Written and edited by Sirius Rust
Music sourced from:
“Sorry, I Meant to Say That You Are Eating A Cheeseburger”
Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
“Dama-May”, “Day of Chaos”, “Interloper”, “Past the Edge”, “Private Reflection”, “Sunset at Glengorm”
“What Is and What Could Be”
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 4.0
The podcast version is the intended way to consume this story but I make a transcript available for those that would rather read instead. This can be found below.
Case 19: Gordon McKay
The coastal area 39km west of central Auckland was settled by Maori prior to the birth of the nation of New Zealand. The black sands of west Auckland housed a 16-million-year-old volcanic object. Today the object is known as Lion Rock due to its resemblance to a lying male lion, but prior to European influence the Maori dubbed the object ‘Te Piha’ translating to ripple at the bow of the canoe which the waves breaking around the rock were likened to. The area around Te Piha became known simply as Piha.
In the early 1900s, European industrialists built a timber mill in Piha to take advantage of the abundance of Kauri trees populating the surrounding Waitakere Ranges. A small settlement began growing around the sawmill and its workers. A cookhouse was built to supply meat to the burgeoning population along with a general store known by the uncomplicated name ‘Store & Refreshments’.
The sawmill closed in 1921 leading to an exodus of workers looking for new opportunities. However, attracted by the surf and the picturesque landscapes the population continued to grow. The village rebranded as a holiday town and bachs began springing up in the surrounding area.
By the 1930s, Piha and it’s famous beach were well established as an essential destination in the Auckland area, the economy was supported with plentiful shops, tearooms and a hotel.
Over the years, Piha and its beach became somewhat notorious for its pounding surf and treacherous rips. Piha beach is responsible for taking at least 24 human lives.
However, back in 1939 Piha was in the news for something completely unrelated to its beach; it was in the headlines for a house fire claiming the life of one person. As the events unfolded, more information rose to the surface and ultimately the story of the ‘Piha Fire’ of 1939 became one of the most curious crimes in the archives of NZ’s history. This is the tale of Gordon McKay and The Duplicitous Inferno.
Gordon Robert McKay was born in 1896 in Sydney, New South Wales, Australia. By the late 1930s Gordon was married with five children to support. However, Gordon struggled to support his fledgling family in his native homeland. He worked as a fellmonger; the profession of working with animal hides or skins but he frequently dreamed of becoming someone of more consequence.
In 1939, a 43-year-old Gordon travelled to the Land of the Long White Cloud with his good friend 38-year-old and fellow Sydney native James Arthur Talbot to start up a new business for Gordon’s sons in the land across the Tasman Sea. They arrived in Auckland in early February 1939. The twosome hired a car which was stored in a garage in Avondale to keep the car secure when they were not using it.
Before the business could get off the ground, Gordon had a troublesome issue to deal with — he had to address the ongoing problem of his perpetual toothaches. Gordon and James visited an Auckland dentist and Gordon’s teeth were in such a state of decrepitude — the dentist removed all of his remaining teeth.
To ameliorate over the weekend from the painful procedure Gordon and James travelled in their hired car west and rented a small cottage in the coastal settlement of Piha on the 11th of February 1939.
12 FEBRUARY 1939
In the early morning hours of the 12th of February 1939, around 1.30am, James Talbot awoke to the cottage he had rented in Piha with Gordon McKay ablaze. The fire was evidently emanating from Gordon’s bedroom. The blaze quickly spread to the rest of the bach.
James attempted to fight through the inferno to save his friend, but his attempts were futile as he was driven back by the fierce flames. The fire quickly took control of the small cottage and James ran down the road screaming for assistance. Two locals came to help the wailing Australian but the blaze was too ferocious. James Talbot could only watch as the inferno reduced the cottage to ash, taking the life of his best friend Gordon McKay with it.
Once the fire was abated, investigators scoured what little remained of the modest bach. The fire burned so torrid that all police uncovered of Gordon McKay’s remains were mostly ash, leaving only a handful of bones along with a skull without any teeth. Investigators from the nearby Henderson precinct determined that the fire ignited from either Gordon falling asleep while smoking in bed or the kerosene lamp used for light being upended during the night.
Either way, it left a sorrow-filled James Talbot destitute in a foreign land with many of his own belongings also being lost in the blaze. The locals of Piha felt for the tourist from ‘across the ditch’ and circulated a collection plate to help the grieving Australian get back on his feet. James left Piha with a few coins in his pocket and returned to Auckland.
The report was closed on the ‘Piha Bones’ case and Gordon McKay was buried in the Waikumete Cemetery in the west Auckland suburb of Glen Eden. The only mourner being James Talbot who laid a wreath on the grave of his deceased compatriot.
Soon after the death of Gordon McKay, solicitors acting on behalf of the McKay estate informed the life insurance conglomerate MLC in Australia that one of their clients had passed away. MLC looked up Gordon’s life insurance policy which was created on the 19th of September 1938 and discovered he had insured his life for what was a huge sum of money at the time £25,500; equivalent to about $2.3m in 2020 dollars.
Feeling uneasy about paying out such a large sum of money, MLC appointed one of their best actuaries to look into the policy, Alf Pollard. An actuary is a profession used by insurance companies to analyse data and calculate the financial risk to the company in regards to policies.
Alf looked into the ‘Piha Bones’ case and found something he thought was suspicious. The mattress springs that Gordon had been sleeping on had fused together, this suggested that a chemical accelerant had been used in the blaze, could this be evidence of something more sinister? Alf informed the NZ branch of MLC of his concerns, he asked them to do some more digging before paying out the policy.
MLC NZ informed the local police of their concerns and they agreed to do some more investigating. The man put in charge of the reinvestigation was Detective Sergeant Frank Aplin. He first travelled back to Piha to inspect the site of the fire closer. Frank agreed that the intensity of the fire was suspect considering the bach was made of asbestos sheeting and corrugated iron, not exactly explosive materials. Further forensic testing also uncovered the presence of kerosene at the site.
Looks of suspicion were being directed at Gordon’s friend James Talbot, could this be a case of arson? Still, more evidence was needed to make any arrests. The case continued to get colder until the police issued pictures of Gordon McKay and James Talbot in the local newspaper asking anyone with information on the pair to come forward. The owner of the garage that Gordon and James stored their rented vehicle contacted the police. Eileen Hearling confessed to police that the night the pair stored the car in her garage she had peeked through a hole in the garage and had seen a shovel, along with a long, round sack.
Detectives investigated the garage and discovered the pair had left behind the shovel. The shovel was analysed and they uncovered that it had leftover clay deposits on it, presumably from digging. The hunt was on to match the clay deposits from the shovel to any recent dig sites. Police began collecting clay samples from all over Auckland, from Helensville to Bombay. It didn’t take long to resolve the clay’s origin. It was determined by a government analyst that the clay had come from Waikumete Cemetery, and further investigations found it came from the grave of a recently buried soldier, an Australian veteran of the First World War, Patrick Shine.
Detectives spoke to Patrick’s son about how his father could be wrapped up in all this and he told them that the day after his father’s death, he was visited by two Australians who said they might have known his father during his time in the First Australian Expeditionary Force. To confirm whether they actually did know him, the pair said they remembered Patrick not having any teeth and asked his son to confirm this was true. Patrick’s son confirmed, yes his father had false teeth. Well, it must be their former comrade the Australians confirmed. When Patrick’s son was shown a picture of Gordon McKay and James Talbot, he confirmed that they were two Australians he was visited by.
Detectives began formulating a disturbing theory. One that could only be confirmed by exhuming the remains of Patrick Shine. They obtained exhumation papers and travelled back to Waikumete Cemetery. The grave of the Australian veteran was exhumed, and to the horror of everyone present; the coffin was found to be… unoccupied.
The remains of ‘Gordon McKay’ were then exhumed and confirmed the detective’s distressing theory — the corpse found burned in the Piha fire was not Gordon McKay but the skeletal remains of Patrick Shine. Gordon McKay and James Talbot had dug up Patrick’s recently buried body and transferred it to the Piha site in an attempt to falsely claim Gordon’s massive life insurance policy.
A warrant for the arrest of James Talbot and the supposedly dead Gordon McKay was issued. James was located promptly and was charged with the crime of interfering with human remains and conspiracy to defraud.
The search for the recently dead Gordon McKay continued on. Until police were tipped off by an astute fisherman about a suspicious bearded man in the Auckland suburb of Grafton who was seen in the company of a woman and would suspiciously only go out at night.
Police staked out the house in Grafton and eventually the bearded man was arrested. The man insisted he was not Gordon McKay but instead Tom Bowland. ‘Tom’ also acted mentally defective in an attempt to throw police off, but once fingerprints arrived from Australia it was confirmed that Tom Bowland was (to the surprise of noone) Gordon McKay.
James Talbot was found guilty of arson and interfering with human remains and sentenced to two years in Mount Eden Prison. Gordon McKay was found guilty of the same, and sentenced to four years in Mount Eden.
When asked why he came up with such a devilish scheme, Gordon told police he had fallen in love with another woman and desired to be separated from his wife. This fraud was the most beneficial for both parties, if Gordon ‘died’ then she would inherit a small fortune to support herself and their five children and Gordon would be in essence ‘divorced’ and free to be with his new love.
The story of Gordon McKay remains one of the most bizzare crimes in NZ history. Little is known of Gordon’s life after he was released from Mount Eden prison. We do know he returned to Australia at some point. Whether he continued a relationship with his wife or his new lover is unknown. Or what his relationship with his children was like post release from prison.
However, one piece of information is known about the Australian fraudster, which you can draw your own conclusion from — as a strange epilogue to the tale of Gordon McKay; he attempted once more to take out a life insurance policy on himself with MLC Australia in 1955 — not unsurprisingly… his application was denied.
Tony Williams, The Bad, the Very Bad and the Ugly, 1998
Graham Hutchins, Bad, 2010
John S. Croucher, The Kid from Norfolk Island: The Story of the Remarkable Alf Pollard, 2014
Papers Past, Jury’s Verdict Piha Fire Trial, https://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/newspapers/EP19390526.2.26
National Library of Australia, Piha Bones Case, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/52299799
Bush and Beach, Piha, https://www.bushandbeach.co.nz/all-tours/piha/
Piha, All about Stores at Piha, http://www.piha.co.nz/all-about-stores-at-piha/
Wikipedia, Piha, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piha