SUCH SWEET SORROW
Some of the district’s sweets makers lived lives shrouded in mystery – or experienced deaths equally surrounded by conjecture.
The Suspicious Shooting Party
A powerhouse in the chocolate and confectionery, MacRobertson’s, had a presence in Bendigo as early as the 1880s and the death of the local factory manager, Frank Robinson, raised many questions – and much gossip – in 1890.
MacRobertson’s were a household name nationally throughout the late 19th and to the mid-20th century, developing iconic lines like Old Gold, Freddo Frog, Cherry Ripe and Columbines, but the company had its origins in boiled sugar sweets, made in the kitchen of the Robertson’s Fitzroy household in 1880 [i]. The company, headed by the ostentatious Macpherson Robertson (later knighted for his vast philanthropic enterprises), grew and prospered, with techniques introduced from overseas and the use of attractive packaging to add value to the brand.
MacRobertson’s, or more fully, MacRobertson’s Steam Confectionery Works, had a factory in Fitzroy – later known as the White City – and one at Ballarat which made engineering parts for the Fitzroy plant. While there were many shopfronts and depots across the 20th century in Bendigo, including Pall Mall, Williamson Street and the top end of Mitchell Street, in 1887 they established a factory in Mitchell Street (near to the current day Bendigo Smartphones store) though it is unclear if the output was chocolate products or machinery.
The manager of the factory in 1890 was 25-year-old Yorkshireman, Frank Hopkinson, who had been employed by MacRobertson’s for six years; he boarded at the Limerick Castle Hotel (now Bicknell’s Sports) in Williamson Street, within a block of his workplace. He was a sporting man, connected to the polo club and skating rink, as well as being a member of the Ancient Order of Foresters and a follower of racing in the Marong district. It was not out of character then for Frank to ask his friend Thomas Hutchinson, a jeweller in Mitchell Street, to join him in a spot of rabbit shooting early in February of that year.
Hutchinson agreed and arranged to get cartridges but when he reached the Station on Tuesday, there was no sign of Frank. Returning home, he encountered his friend who procured a horse and cart and they headed to Ravenswood. Part way there, they changed their minds and instead stopped at Lennon’s Queen’s Head Hotel in Lockwood. There they met two strangers – Joseph Gardiner, a labourer staying in Lockwood, and Edwards – who asked to join them; Gardiner borrowed a breach load gun from the landlord and they all left the pub, turning into the bush at Boyd’s.
Australian Women's Weekly, 23 Oct 1957, p57
The party then split up, with Gardiner and Frank heading one way, Hutchinson another. Within minutes, Hutchinson shot a hare and called to his friend, who replied but soon after the two parties were out of earshot from each other. Gardiner soon found a hare, but being too far away, Frank moved away to his left in order to turn the hare back toward their position – the last time anyone saw him alive, or so they deposed.
Parish plan of the Mitchell Street & Hargreaves Street area
Public Record Office Victoria, VA 3972 Department of Natural Resources & Environment, VPRS 16171 Regional Land Office Parish & Township Plans Digitised Reference Set, P1, S-Ti record Sandhurst Bendigo 18
On returning to the horse, Hutchinson found Edwards there but no sign of Frank or Gardiner. They waited for some time before deciding that the other pair had returned to the Queen’s and so went back there themselves. When Frank was nowhere to be seen, Hutchinson went to the Crown & Anchor Hotel, where he discovered that Gardiner had been there earlier but no sign of Frank. He went back to the Queen’s, where Gardiner had since arrived, in a ‘muddled state’ [ii]..
Although uneasy about the situation, Hutchinson believed that Frank must have stayed in the district with a view to attending the Marong races the next day, and at nine o’clock, returned to Sandhurst. When Frank still had not appeared after the last race at Marong, Hutchinson reported the incident to Sergeant Fahey and a search party was raised for the Thursday morning. The group departed from the Queen’s Head, searching the area between the Newbridge Main Road and the South Lockwood Road, but were unsuccessful in finding any trace of their friend. It was not until Friday that James Marwick found Frank’s remains, about 200m north west of the South Lockwood Road and around a mile and a half from where he parted with Hutchinson.
Frank was lying on his side, his hat and pipe some way from the body, a large stick clutched in hand and his gun, with one barrel discharged, three feet away, the stock nearest to the body. Constable Lysaght, who had headed the party from the Queen’s Head, then took charge of the scene. He searched Frank’s clothes, finding only a few ‘discoloured coins’, a pocket book, some letters, and a watch and chain.
The body was taken to the Crusoe Inn where the next morning, Dr Charles Gaffney undertook a post mortem; the result was not surprising – death resulting from a gunshot wound on the right side of the neck, below the jaw, though the outline of the original entry was obscured by decomposition and animal activity. The wound, said Dr Gaffney, would be ‘highly improbable to be inflicted by any other person’ and that had it been a result of suicide, the clothes would have been scorched. It was more likely, as he had seen in other similar cases, that the trigger of the gun was caught on a bush while walking.
An inquest was subsequently held at the Inn, by Edward Yeates, where Dr Gaffney revealed his findings, and Frank’s friends gave testimony along with Constable Lysaght, and David Robertson who had been brought up from Melbourne. David was the brother of Macpherson and co-director of MacRobertson’s; he gave evidence that Frank had had sole charge of the business in Sandhurst and last saw him on the Monday before the shooting excursion as part of a regular quarterly visit from management. Robertson assured jurors that Frank had been a trusted servant, their exchange had been pleasant and Frank was in his ‘usual spirits’, adding that he had no reason to believe that there was ‘anything wrong in his accounts’.
His friends deposed that Frank had been in good spirits; Marwick stated “I never heard him make any remark about doing away with himself” but the Bendigo Advertiser reported the incident clearly as ‘suspected suicide’ and it arose that he had recently come into money problems. His accounts at MacRobertson’s may have been in order but Frank’s personal financial position had recently become very precarious as the result of a poorly managed event.
In his capacity as secretary of the Centennial Polo Club, Frank had arranged a banquet and gave the order for it on the understanding that each attending member would pay three shilling and six pence for their attendance. ‘To the discredit of the Club,’ reported the Bendigo Advertiser, ‘only a few of those who had regaled themselves with the good things met their liabilities’ [iii]. As Secretary, Frank was liable for the debt of £9 for which Frank was sued for in the police court, the verdict given in the caterer’s favour. The journalist made sure to highlight Frank’s death in their reporting of the meeting.
The day following Frank’s funeral, a meeting of the Polo Club’s members was called at Straughair’s hairdressing salon with the view to collecting the fateful £9 arrears – but only two members appeared [iv]. No further meetings of the Club were advertised in Bendigo Advertiser after February 1890.
By the end of the year, the confectionery business at Mitchell Street was put on the market by MacRobertson’s but it continued for a further two years under Anthony Toms. By the end of 1892, Toms had been presented with a silver butter cooler and the factory closed down.
The situation suggested there were certainly financial reasons that may have led Frank to take his own life, yet the doctor was of the opinion given the state of his clothes, that this was not probable, nor was it likely another person inflicted the wound. Given the strange set up with the stick, were the doctor and coroner just lacking in imagination? Or was Frank, alone in the bush with an armed, inebriated stranger, using the stick for another reason? Could Frank have already been on the ground when he was shot? Why did Gardiner return to the Hotel alone, and why did he not mention leaving Frank on his own? Where had Edwards been when Thomas found him at the horse and cart? The jurors seemed satisfied that these matters were settled however – their verdict was that Frank ‘met with his death at Lockwood by a gunshot wound in the head accidentally received while out rabbit shooting’.
You can do you own interrogation of the depositions – and practice reading 19th century cursive - by taking a look at the original:
The Woeful Widow
Bessie Wright’s confectionery shop was located on McCrae Street, one of a strip of buildings owned by well-known Chinese herbalist, James Lamsey. It seems that she also resided here with her four youngest children, Elizabeth, Alice, Sam and Harry, after arriving in the district in the early 1890s; her eldest sons Charles and William were working the mines in WA. As well as her lolly shop, Bessie continued in her teaching, offering music tuition and also selling books.
Bessie had been born in Geelong where her father Dr Charles Strutt worked as an immigration agent; the family later moved to Bendigo where he took up the role of Police Magistrate for Echuca and later Bendigo so Bessie was familiar with the district. Well educated, it seems likely that it was her work as a governess which took her to Macalister’s Booligal Station near Hay in NSW and it was here, in 1878, that she married Edward Wright, a manager on that station, and where their children were born.
By the 1890s, Bessie, with the children had returned to Victoria and on September 10, 1895, announced that she had taken out the licence for the Oriental Hotel in Queen Street, with ‘the best brands of wines, spirits and cigars’[v]. Just five days after this announcement was made in the Bendigo Advertiser, Edward was found dead in his bed at a Coffee Palace in Sydney. Apparently there on business for Booligal, Edward Wright’s friend James Black called on him at the Grand Central Coffee Palace in the afternoon to find him deceased, at the age of 58; a Dr Purcell was called in to examine the body and finding that he had died of ‘natural causes’ – no inquest was held.
Bendigo Advertiser, 16 January 1896, p1
Unfortunately the City of Bendigo Rate Book collection is not complete for that decade and so the first confirmed proof of Bessie in the district is in 1897 but she may have arrived earlier – there is an Elizabeth Wright at Queen Street in 1892, describing herself as a widow [vi]. Could this have been Bessie, presuming the role several years before the fact? With false names and secrecy surrounding the enigmatic Bessie across the 1890s, it is a distinct possibility…
In 1897, the Council advertised the role of City accountant and 140 applications were received by town clerk Honeybone; of those there were many from interstate and Melbourne, but only one woman – Bessie, then living in King Street. Her application outlined that she was a 36-year-old widow with six children, who taught music, shorthand and languages. “Perhaps a female may be ineligible,” she wrote, “but of that I am not aware”, adding that she was prepared to undertake the duty as a much lesser salary than the £200 minimum advertised [vii]. She was not successful, and shortly after, opened her confectionery business in McCrae Street.
Not a completely straight trader, Bessie – as with many sweets vendors in Bendigo – was summoned in 1897 for Sunday trading, in contravention of laws at the time. Inspector Murphy had been instructed to prosecute traders for this offence and Bessie was the first to be brought after Plainclothes constable Taylor had found her shop open at 8PM the previous Sunday, and that she had sold some lollies during prohibited hours. She pleaded guilty and was issued with a fine of five shillings and the promise of a harsher penalty should she be found trading on a Sunday again.
Nine-year-old Herbert, or Sam, Wright died suddenly in the winter of 1898, leaving Bessie at McCrae Street with her three remaining children, Elizabeth, Alice and Harry. As the century came to a close, police – and death – would cross paths with the Wright family yet again but in far more tragic circumstances, in a case which the Elmore Standard described as ‘illustrating the wages of sin’ [viii].
In early November of 1899, an unknown man approached Sarah Jones, a nurse registered under the Infant Life Protection Act and operator of private midwifery rooms in Rodney Street. He inquired about her terms and prices but did not make any arrangements, Sarah did not know who he was or who he was enquiring for. Some days following this encounter, a woman named Elizabeth Hammond contacted Sarah by letter, with the return address of simply ‘Post Office Bendigo’, wishing to make arrangements for her confinement and the pair agreed on terms of 17 shillings and six pence for the event with £2 per week board following [ix].
On November 8, at six in the morning, Elizabeth Hammond and her 15-year-old daughter arrived at Rodney Street with Dr Hinchcliffe, who had also been engaged, arriving soon after. The woman was in labour, and by early afternoon had given birth to twin girls, after which she fainted. The girls were named Sarah Myrtle and Ivy Bessie, and though both were premature, Sarah was the weaker of the pair and very delicate. No father was recorded for either child on their birth certificate.
Dr Hinchcliffe and Dr Peebles continued to monitor the trio, with Elizabeth’s health never quite stabilising, with bouts of dropsy and further coughing fits though she told Sarah that she’d been subject to asthma and had had a cough for many years. On the morning of November 20, Elizabeth took a violent seizure of coughing, exclaiming ‘Oh, this coughing’, and by the time Dr Hinchliffe arrived, she had died.
Constable John Kelly was called to the property due to the unexpected and unexplained nature of the death, where he took notes before an inquest was called with William Webb JP presiding. Just as quickly though, he adjourned the inquiry – with strict instructions to police, witnesses, medical men and empanelled jurors not to release the name of the woman; “There is still something in the case to be cleared up,” he told the Bendigo Advertiser [x].
Sarah Jones was unable to provide any details about Elizabeth Hammond, other than that her teenage daughter had visited twice while at Rodney Street, and that she believed the woman’s husband was in Western Australia. On investigation by Plainclothes constable Taylor – who had summoned Bessie for Sunday trading two years earlier – it was discovered that Elizabeth Hammond was, in fact, the widow Elizabeth Wright.
The inquest took place at the Rodney Street property, Dr Gaffney having performed a post mortem and, with detectives till making ‘exhaustive enquiries’ into the identity of the father and Sarah Jones being engaged to care for the infant twins until adoption arrangements could be made.
Having taken evidence from young Elizabeth Wright, Sarah Jones and the two doctors, the jury returned a verdict of death caused by sudden clotting of blood within the main artery of the lung and a fatal syncope, despite ‘every attention paid to the deceased’ [xi]. While they discovered through the deposition of Elizabeth that Bessie had been a widow for four years and it was her sons in Western Australia, no further could be discovered on the identity of the father of the twins or who the mystery man who first visited Sarah in early November might have been – or even if the two instances were connected.
While the Elmore Standard reported the ‘sad case’ as one ‘illustrating the wages of sin’, the Bendigo Advertiser described Bessie as ‘a good woman of much intelligence and of good education’ [xii]. She was buried with her son Sam at the Bendigo cemetery just days later. Barely a month after her interment, the more fragile of the twins, now referred to as Myrtle Bertha Strutt Wright (rather than the recorded Sarah Myrtle), died while in the care of Sarah Jones. When Dr Hugh Boyd, who had been attending the infant, refused to issue a death certificate, William Webb found himself hearing evidence from Sarah and Dr Hinchcliffe yet again.
Excerpt from Elizabeth Wright inquest
Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2807 State Coroner’s Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 711 Item 1899/1360 Elizabeth Sarah Hammond Wright
At that time, no member of family or other person had made inquiry about the girls and Sarah Jones had been paid a weekly stipend of ten shillings per child by solicitors, Macoboy & Crowley. She noted that the ‘child has been delicate since its birth’; she also made it clear – perhaps in response to a specific question – that she had not been promised any further sum of money other than that disbursed by the solicitor’s office. On the evidence of Dr Hinchcliffe, the cause of death was recorded as ‘starvation resulting from inability to assimilate the food given’, with no suspicious circumstances recorded [xiii].
There are no records of the younger orphaned children going into care in Victoria and so several mysteries remain – why was Bessie recording herself as a widower before the fact? Was her new business and her seemingly estranged husband’s death a coincidence? Did Bessie believe the lengths she took to remain anonymous in confinement would be effective? Was the man who approached Sarah Jones connected to the incident? Who was the father of the twins, and what happened to Ivy and her half-siblings after Myrtle had died?
[i] Robertson, Jill, MacRobertson: The Chocolate King, Thomas C Lothian Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 2004
[ii] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2807 State Coroner’s Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 559 Item 1890/257 Frank Rolfe Hopkinson
[iii] 'The Centennial Polo Club and their banquet expenses', Bendigo Advertiser, 11 Feb 1890, p2
[v] 'Notices', Bendigo Advertiser, 10 Sep 1895, p2
[vi] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 4862 City of Bendigo, VPRS 16267 Rate Books, P0 Unit 36, 1892, p60
[vii] 'The appointment of City Accountant', Bendigo Advertiser, 10 Apr 1897, p6
[viii] 'Our Bendigo letter', Elmore Standard, 1 Dec 1899, p1
[ix] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2807 State Coroner’s Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 711 Item 1899/1360 Elizabeth Sarah Hammond Wright
[x] 'The Quarry Hill mystery', Bendigo Advertiser, 22 Nov 1899, p5
[xi] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2807 State Coroner’s Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 711 Item 1899/1360 Elizabeth Sarah Hammond Wright
[xii] 'The Quarry Hill mystery', Bendigo Advertiser, 22 Nov 1899, p5
[xiii] Public Record Office Victoria, VA 2807 State Coroner’s Office, VPRS 24 Inquest Deposition Files, P0 Unit 712 Item 1899/1476 Myrtle Bertha Strutt Wright