This morning on 2SER Breakfast, Dr Rachel Franks talked to Tess Connery about the ‘murderous’ Bridge Street Affray in 1894.
In the very early morning of Friday 2 February 1894, three men were trying to break into a safe at the Union Steamship Company offices in Bridge Street in the city. They were probably disturbed by the night watchman doing his rounds who had noticed something amiss and was consulting with a policeman on his beat, and they rather rapidly left the building before completing the job.
Three other policemen in the area noticed them leaving and thinking it looked suspicious, gave chase. The robbers used their jemmies, or crowbars, to attack the officers, knocking two unconscious and threatening the third, Senior Constable Ball, with a gun.
The thieves ran. One, who was never charged, sensibly ran towards the Domain. The other two, Charles Montgomery and Thomas Williams, had only recently arrived in Sydney (they’d been in Pentridge Prison in Melbourne before that), and they ran down Phillip Street towards what we now think of as the Police and Justice Museum, but which was then the Water Police Station and Court.
Senior Constable Ball was, meanwhile, shouting for reinforcements, who, of course, poured out of the Water Police Station which the two escaping thieves were running towards. There was another fight as the police tried to arrest them and three more police officers were seriously injured before Montgomery and Williams were finally incarcerated.As a result of the affray and the injuries to the officers, police on night duty the next day were issued with revolvers, and the Premier, Sir George Dibbs, quickly agreed to the arming of police officers in general, a policy which remains in place today.
The trial of Montgomery and Williams at Darlinghurst was held on 3 April 1894 and the jury found the two men guilty of various charges including breaking into premises and malicious wounding with intent to murder. The judge Justice Alfred Stephen, decided they were ‘desperate character’ and sentenced them to death. New South Wales and Tasmania were the only states at the time where attempted murder remained a capital crime.
There were huge public appeals for clemency, with demonstrations in the Domain and the Sydney Town Hall, and a petition signed by more than 25,000 people, including at least six members of the jury who’d found them guilty and two of the injured police officers and one of their wives, but these appeals all failed, and the two men were executed on 31 May at Darlinghurst.
Unfortunately the execution was bungled. Somehow the ropes allocated to each of the men were confused and while Montgomery, who was taller and heavier, died quickly, the rope around Wiliams’ neck wasn’t long enough to drop properly. He fainted and his arm became tangled in the rope, to the point where the assistant hangman had to shake the rope to try to untangle it and allow the body to hang in an upright position. Williams eventually died from suffocation.
This Thursday (31 May) is the anniversary of the executions.
Head to the Dictionary of Sydney to read Rachel’s entry on the Bridge Street Affray for more information: https://dictionaryofsydney.org/entry/the_bridge_street_affray
Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator, Education & Scholarship at the State Library of New South Wales, a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She’s appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel!
You can also hear Rachel talking about crime writing with Meg Kenneally and Dave Warner next Monday in the Sydney Mechanics School of Arts Mystery & Crime Festival. See the SMSA website for further details: https://smsa.org.au/events/event/deadly-words-crime-writing-essentials-panel/
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