Family historians know the value of a good murder. A death and some intrigue in colonial Australia often left a great paper trail in the records, one that can reveal all sorts of details when you know where to look.
Historian Catie Gilchrist, from the University of Sydney is one such person. Catie has always been interested in the post-convict and post-gold rush era of Sydney – the 1860s to the 1890s. “Sydney changed and grew so much during these years,” explains Catie. “It truly was a cosmopolitan and polyglot city made up of immigrants from across the globe. Many of the sandstone buildings we know and love today, such as Town Hall and St Mary’s Cathedral, were built during this remarkable period.”
But it wasn’t death and murder that Catie was especially interested in, that is until a conversation one day in 2017. “I was looking for a new research project to get stuck into and during a casual chat with a colleague at the University of Sydney he said two fatal words – ‘coroner’s inquests’,” she says. “I immediately began looking at inquest reports in the Sydney newspapers from the mid to late 19th century and I was hooked!”
There was one name that particularly stood out in the newspapers – Henry Shiell, the Coroner for the Metropolitan Sydney between 1866 and 1889. Catie decided to follow him and his inquests to give her research a particular focus and also a defined time frame.
Shiell’s particularly long career spell as the coroner meant he saw Sydneysiders at their best and their worst over the course of three decades. And the level of detail given in the registers means they are a goldmine for family historians.
“Most of the coroners’ original papers from the period 1852-1915 have sadly not survived,” says Catie. “Some that concerned criminal deaths have been archived together with criminal court records. But with the help of the registers of coroners’ inquests, newspaper reports, morgue registers and court records, detailed obituaries of peoples’ lives can be carefully stitched together.
“Inquests had to come to a majority verdict as to the cause of a person’s sudden death. And before they did, a whole wealth of information and stories might be shared to the coroner and his jury from family members, friends and witnesses. Jurymen also had the right to ask questions. Had the deceased been ill? Had they led a temperate life or one of insobriety? Was the young woman ‘found drowned’ pregnant or not? Was anyone at fault for causing the death – or had it been a dreadful accident?
“But not every verdict would have been correct, even when method of death was certain. So, for example – had the person who drowned accidentally died or had they in fact taken themselves for one intentional last ever swim? Accident or suicide?
“Helpfully, the Morgue Registers of Bodies, 1881-1908 that are available via Ancestry are incredibly detailed (and often rather gruesome). They record the date and time the deceased was brought to the morgue and by whom; name, sex and age, birth place and occupation, when and where found, a personal description, any possessions, wounds or injuries, whether there was a postmortem or an inquest and who identified the body. There was also a separate register kept of every post mortem examination performed at the morgue which included details of the doctor and his assistant, their medical findings and ultimately the cause of death.”
So what surprised Catie the most about her findings? “So many children were drowned. So many women burnt to death. And so many men were killed at work,” she says. “But one of the most intriguing was the fact that inquests were often held in Sydney’s pubs and taverns. And because the body had to be viewed by the 12 jurymen to legally validate the inquest, the deceased was also often in attendance at the pub. Refrigeration in the city’s morgues was not introduced until the 1940s – so one can imagine how awful this would have been (especially in the high heat of a Sydney summer).”
“Looking at the ways people died, tells us as much about how they had lived. This was also an unexpected outcome that I had not anticipated when I first embarked on my research.”
So what were Catie’s top resources when researching Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends?
First up, of course is Trove – “for the amazing colonial newspaper reports that were written about all the strange, sudden or suspicious deaths in Sydney and the coronial inquests that were held into them.”
Ancestry® was also a goldmine, Catie says, “mostly for the Sydney Morgue Registers of Bodies Index, the Registers of Coroners’ Inquests 1821-1937 and the NSW Gaol Description and Entrance Books. Plus the Criminal Court Records, 1830-1945.”
Because Shiell came from a family of slave owners in the West Indies before migrating to Sydney, the Legacies of British Slave ownership project hosted by University College London was also another invaluable resource. “This impressive database lists the beneficiaries of compensation paid to former slave owners by the British Government in the wake of abolition in 1833. It also includes many other details provided by people researching their family trees through Ancestry®.”
Another fantastic resource was The Coroner’s Letter Books held at the State Records.
And finally, Sydney herself, says Catie. “During my research, I spent many happy hours walking through the city’s parks and streets, past her sandstone walls and visiting the pubs and the churches that Henry Shiell would have been familiar with. For much of his career he had an office near the Hyde Park Barracks and he lived in Upper Fort Street, directly opposite the Sydney Observatory. Although his house is long gone (to make way for the Harbour Bridge) – I went along anyway and tried to imagine his view from up there. It has probably changed – but not too much! Immersing myself in Henry Shiell’s daily life in the city was an exercise in creative historical imagination – and also a lot of fun. And today, I find that everywhere I go, I am mentally ‘mapping death’ as I walk along the streets and through the parks and in the Domain. It sounds a bit macabre, but I can’t help thinking – oh so and so died there, right there!”
And what was Catie’s most compelling story from the wealth of anecdotes and characters she discovered through the records? “That’s really hard to answer because my book is chock full of stories of the lives and deaths of ordinary people living in colonial Sydney. I think Henry Shiell’s first murder case was probably a standout, however. It involved a severed head of a dark-haired woman, her armless torso and not a lot else found on wasteland on Sussex Street. Weeks of mystery followed then an extraordinary story of bigamy and butchery emerged to capture the morbid fascination of horrified Sydneysites.”
Murder, Misadventure and Miserable Ends (HarperCollins, $35) is out now.
Cassie Mercer founded the award-winning magazine Inside History in 2010. The history bug struck her when she discovered the story of her 5x great grandparents – in the late 1700s in Ireland, one was a highwayman and the other was the madam of a brothel, of the Lower Sort.