Story: Fell, William Raymond

Page 1 - Biography

Fell, William Raymond

1904–1986

Policeman

This biography was written by Brian W. Stephenson and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 5, 2000

William Raymond Fell was born on 26 October 1904 at Melksham, Wiltshire, England, the son of Edward Thomas Abraham Richards Fell, a farmer, and his wife, Mary Blanche Collett. The family came to New Zealand in 1912 and settled at Southbridge, Canterbury. Bill Fell attended Southbridge School and Southbridge District High School, where he played in the First XV. From about 1920 he worked on his father’s farm. He then became a teamster driving Clydesdale horses, and later worked on a mobile threshing mill. He developed woodworking skills at night classes, learned to play the Highland bagpipes and was a member of the Ellesmere pipe band.

Fell joined the New Zealand Police Force on 22 December 1925 and entered the criminal investigation branch three years later. In order to interview witnesses more efficiently he attended a secretarial school, becoming proficient in shorthand and typing. On 1 April 1929, with the rank of detective sergeant, he was assigned to Western Samoa, then a New Zealand mandate from the League of Nations. Tension had been increasing between the New Zealand administration and the Samoan independence movement, Mau, and on 28 December Fell was involved in an incident remembered in Samoa as ‘Black Saturday’. He was in charge of a police party that attempted to arrest a man in a Mau parade in Apia when violence broke out. Fell was struck on the head and received multiple stab wounds; police on the balcony of the nearby police station opened fire, causing the death of 10 people, including High Chief Tupua Tamasese Lealofi III; a New Zealand policeman died from a blow to the neck.

Fell returned to New Zealand in mid June 1930 and in Otahuhu, on 25 June, married Kathleen Muriel Iris Elliott, a teacher. The couple had no children, but brought up a nephew of Kathleen’s. From 1932 to 1936 they lived in Samoa, where Fell did a further tour of duty. He had two more short periods there in 1956: when he was seconded to investigate the theft of the Samoan police payroll, and later for three months as superintendent of police and prisons, prior to the first Samoan becoming head of the department.

Fell was stationed in Wellington in 1936–37, then in Palmerston North until April 1942, when he became head of the CIB in Auckland. In 1947 he headed the investigation into the death of Gladys Ruth Rusden, which led to the conviction of Pansy Haskell for murder. On 8 June 1949 the commissioner of police, James Cummings, notified Fell that in view of his outstanding work he was to be advanced in seniority by four years – from senior detective to detective sub-inspector. The minister of police approved the advancement, which moved Fell ahead of over 50 other officers. However, the departure from the seniority system became an issue within police ranks and the New Zealand Police Association supported a successful application by 27 officers from throughout the country for an injunction to stop the promotion; it was subsequently withdrawn.

Bill Fell was a resourceful and persistent detective. He had an orderly mind and was an astute observer of human behaviour. These qualities were perhaps best exemplified by his work on the ‘missing bride’ case, when his painstaking piecing together of evidence over several years saw George Cecil Horry convicted of murder in 1951 without his victim’s body ever being found. In 1959 Fell became head of the Wellington CIB and on 7 October 1961 was appointed chief superintendent and head of the CIB for New Zealand. He was promoted to assistant commissioner on 28 February 1963.

That year the deaths of four police officers in two shooting incidents in less than a month shocked police and public alike. During a casual conversation with the then commissioner of police, Leslie Spencer, Fell suggested the idea of a special squad that would be on immediate call and trained to contain and negotiate with armed offenders. Spencer liked the idea and authorised it to proceed, appointing Fell the director of the training course. The first New Zealand Police Armed Offenders Squad was trained in 1964.

Fell’s last investigation was the Ward parcel bomb homicide in 1962. James Patrick Ward, a Dunedin solicitor, died of injuries sustained when a parcel posted to him exploded in his office. Despite a careful and persistent inquiry, police were unable to solve the crime. Fell retired in December 1964, but maintained an interest in the case and remained frustrated by the lack of any firm leads.

Bill Fell was awarded the Queen’s Police Medal for Distinguished Service in 1964 and was honoured as the patron of a wing of cadets inducted into the police in 1966–67. Throughout his service he had a clear view of the role of the police as the preserver of life and property. Tall and strongly built, he was fair-minded, even-tempered and conservative by nature. Religion was important to him: having converted to Roman Catholicism before his marriage, he strictly observed the tenets of his church for the rest of his life.

A skilled home handyman, Fell helped build his own house and produced cabinet-making work of a high standard. He was a foundation member of the Auckland Police Highland Pipe Band and later served as president of the Auckland centre of the Highland Pipe Bands Association of New Zealand. In the early 1950s he hosted the weekly Scottish programme on Auckland’s 1YA radio station. In his last five years Fell suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. He died in Auckland on 12 November 1986, survived by his wife.