Monday, 27 August 2012

The Downfall Creek Tragedy: a Brisbane murder lost to history

The Edinburgh Castle Hotel, c. 1929 (State Library of Qld)

Some time ago now, we promised that from time to time we'd focus on "Forgotten Brisbane" - stories about our city that have been lost to time.  Usually, during my travels through the historic record, I come across many stories that fit this category...however, on the back of last week's article about the Normanby Hotel, & the death of 26 year old omnibus driver George Pearson, a specific story immediately came to mind. Our story dates back to the very dying days of 1889, however if we're to get a better understanding of the story overall, we really need to travel back a few more years to the early months of 1885...& a little further again...

In April of 1885, 43 year old Michael Goodwin applied to the Licensing Board for a Publican's Licence which would allow him to sell "fermented and spirituous liquors."  Having immigrated to Australia at the age of nine from the port town of Foynes in the mid-west of Ireland, Michael's arrival in Australia had been rough - having boarded the Maria Soames at Gravesend in England on the 18th of February 1852, with his father, pregnant mother & nine siblings, Michael's life would change in ways he could never imagine.  After having been at sea for nearly 120 days, the Maria Soames anchored off Moreton Island...& Michael's mother Johanna went into labour.  Despite the best efforts of the ship's surgeon, both Johanna & her baby died onboard, a tragic but all to common occurrence in the early days of immigration to Australia.  Before the ship made port in Brisbane, Johanna & her infant child were laid to rest on the shores of St Helena Island - then nothing more than an island, pre-dating the St Helena Penal Settlement by fifteen years.  The sad event is documented in Henry Berkeley Jones' book, Adventures in Australia in 1852 and 1853 - "There we interred a poor emigrant and her infant child, who died just as she had completed her voyage, leaving her husband the guardian of ten surviving children - a heavy charge and drawback to this poor man, who was a peaceable, well-conducted Irishman."

After struggled through his formative years in between his siblings, Michael married Bridget Walsh, another Irish immigrant from Thomastown in south-east Ireland, at the age of 19 in 1861.  The couple would themselves have ten children, although life in those days was rarely 1863, they lost their first-born son William at 13 months old.  This tragedy would replay itself twice more over the following fifteen years, with their second daughter Elizabeth passing away in 1873 just ten days shy of her third birthday, & their second youngest John slipping away due to complications in 1878 less than a week after his birth.  Having soldiered through such terrible events, however, by 1885 Michael & Bridget had formulated a plan to ensure the continued well-being of their remaining seven children...& hence began their connection with the Edinburgh Castle Hotel.  The premises, located alongside the Brisbane to Gympie Road (now simply known as Gympie Road), had been built in 1865 by a man named William Orr.  However, the location of this establishment differed to the current site of the Hotel, having existed on the other side of the current Edinburgh Castle Road where the BP Service Station now exists.  At that stage in history, Kedron lay on the absolute outskirts of Brisbane, with the Hotel being almost the last bastion of civilisation for many miles north on the route to Gympie.

Michael's Publican's Licence Notice (The Brisbane Courier, 4th April 1885)

Within their first year at the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, life for Michael & Bridget was was solid, & they had expanded their holdings to include an omnibus service - an undertaking that would eclipse the revenue brought in from the Hotel.  Their expansion into public transport in 1886 would see the first horse-drawn buses brought to the area, plying their trade between the centre of Brisbane & the outlying areas around Kedron.  Robert Goodwin, Michael & Bridget's 22 year old son, would act as one of the business's head coach drivers...a position he would hold for over 6 years, amidst multiple summonses & fines for breaching the omnibus regulations as stipulated by the Council.  For the purpose of this week's article, Robert played a major role in the drama, however that story is soon to come.  Unfortunately, in 1893 Robert would become the victim of a tragic accident, falling from his horse whilst traversing floodwaters outside the Kedron Park Hotel...immediately after being dismounted, bystanders managed to cast a rope out to Robert, who clung on for dear life.  In a sad twist of fate, whilst being pulled in, the rope parted in the middle & Robert was sucked into Kedron Brook beneath the flood surge, his body finally being recovered downstream a few days later.

However, business at the Edinburgh Castle Hotel continued unabated until April 1888, when Michael's Publican's Licence came up for renewal.  At the meeting of the Licensing Board, his renewal was opposed on the grounds that, "the premises having become dilapidated, were no longer fit to be licensed.  After inspecting the plans of proposed improvements, the bench granted the application, subject to the completion of proper sanitary arrangements."  However, Michael had grander plans for his establishment, as advertisements appeared in The Brisbane Courier a few weeks later calling for tenders in the construction of the new Edinburgh Castle Hotel - a new Hotel would be erected to the design of architects John Hall & Sons, alongside the original establishment on the grounds of the current Edinburgh Castle Hotel (Edinburgh Castle Road didn't exist at the time).  According to Wikipedia, which always seems to be a highly dubious source at best, the new Edinburgh Castle Hotel was completed in 1892.  Unfortunately, a number of other sites on the internet blindly follow suite, however we know this simply was not the case...& we know purely for one reason, which is the basis for this week's article...but why??

Edinburgh Castle Tender (The Brisbane Courier, 27th April 1888)

On the 28th of December 1889, a woman by the name of Wells entered the Edinburgh Castle Hotel well under the influence of alcohol...she'd previously been drinking at the Kedron Park Hotel all afternoon with her husband (William) Henry Wells, who had punched her in the face on the grounds that she would not leave him alone.  Both were eventually evicted from the premises, & went their own ways...Mrs Wells had immediately travelled the two kilometres up the road to the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, arriving at around 5:30 in the afternoon.  On arriving at the Edinburgh Castle, Bridget Goodwin ordered the woman out, who subsequently fell asleep on the back step of the Hotel.  Her husband Henry, guessing the whereabouts of his wife, hailed down a spring-cart owned by Patrick Mackearn shortly after, & hitched a ride north to the Goodwin's establishment where he arrived at about 6:30pm.  On finding his slumbering wife there, the couple re-entered the bar & ordered more beers.  Half an hour later, however, Thomas & Margaret Ingram witnessed Henry strike his wife three more times in the Hotel's parlour, stating "If you don't go out, I'll knock your head off."  Thomas rose to his feet in defence of Mrs Wells, & Henry attacked him, the two men trading blows in the hallway of the Hotel.  After Henry had been knocked to the floor, Mr & Mrs Ingram left the Hotel, not wanting to play any further part in the affair.

Over the space of the night, however, a third party became involved - John Joseph O'Halloran.  Whilst the testimonies put forth in both the Magistrate's & Supreme Court are sketchy at best with regard to detail, the insinuation exists that whilst Mr & Mrs Wells were brawling within the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, John O'Halloran provided Mrs Wells with a sympathetic ear.  Of those who knew O'Halloran, he was a very peaceable, amicable young man, who even when drunk was highly tolerant & understanding.  The Hotel closed at 10:30pm that night, & John O'Halloran purchased two bottles of beer to take home with him.  On her final walk-around, Bridget found both Henry Wells & his wife standing outside & told them both to head home.  Michael & Bridget locked the doors, cleaned up as necessary, & readied themselves for bed about midnight...when all hell broke loose.  From the back of the hotel, loud cries of "police" & "murder" echoed, to which Michael immediately ran downstairs & out into the back yard - there he found John O'Halloran & Henry Wells with his wife.  On Michael's appearance on the scene, Henry immediately insisted that John O'Halloran had beaten him, & insisted on Michael examining his face.  Needless to say, Michael had likely dealt with similar behaviour before, & told the group to "clear off"...a sentiment that Bridget also broadcast at the top of her voice from the upper balcony of the Hotel!

Afterwards, all was quiet alongside the Brisbane to Gympie Road...for a few hours.  At about 2am in the morning, Robert Goodwin was roused from his sleep by a woman screaming, "Get off, you are hurting me; Oh! Harry."  Immediately afterwards, he heard repeated blows, coupled with a woman shouting, "Don't kill him Harry!"  This was coupled with a man shouting, "Yes, I will kill the bastard!"  Running to his parents' room, Robert woke his father Michael, & the pair moved into the yard of the Hotel to find the body of a man lying alongside their woodpile.  The man was bleeding profusely from the head, had a wooden paling lying across his chest & not a soul could be seen in the vicinity.  Robert immediately jumped on a horse & rode for Nundah, where he knew the Police were stationed, & Michael kept the crime scene clear for their arrival.  Ultimately, the body alongside the Edinburgh Castle Hotel was identified as John O'Halloran - his clothing was handed to the Government Analyst Robert Mar, & his body underwent a thorough post mortem examination.  The blood on the clothes, as best could be determined in 1890, was found to be mammalian, however the autopsy would be far more telling - Dr Tilston who performed the examination on the body found multiple contusions about the head & neck with blood exhuming from the right ear, nose & mouth.  Further bruising on the cheek, jaw & mouth suggested that the victim had been struck many times about the head by a blunt object...most likely the lump of wood that was found lying on his chest.

Henry Wells, having been arrested the next morning at Alexander Melrose's residence nearby, swore that he had acted in self defence - on being questioned about the murder, Wells stated, "I know all about it, Sergeant; I did it, but I did it in self-defence."  Harry would continue with this testimony throughout his extended trial.  According to Harry's testimony, O'Halloran had forced himself on Mrs Wells, & when he had interjected, John O'Halloran had attacked him - even though this testimony would fly in the face of the evidence, which would show that O'Halloran had suffered his wounds from the wooden weapon whilst lying down.  Ultimately, despite his best efforts to sway the Judge to believe he acted in self defence, & given the overwhelming testimony put forward by multiple witnesses regarding the Wells' activities that night, Henry Wells was found guilty of manslaughter...&however, this is where the case becomes somewhat bizarre...

Despite witnesses testifying that Henry had punched his wife at least twice whilst at the Kedron Park Hotel, & further witness testimony that Henry had punched his wife at least three times whilst at the Edinburgh Castle Hotel, all testimony was overlooked.  So was the evidence that declared that John O'Halloran had received the first blow from a lump of wood whilst lying down on the ground, clear indication that he posed no threat to Henry Wells before he struck the victim numerous times about the head & neck...despite Wells' feeble testimony that he had been acting in self defence.  At the end of the Supreme Court trial, & at the request of the Jury who recommended mercy be shown in sentencing, William Henry Wells was sentenced to three months for his crime.  This request for mercy on behalf of the defendant was based on the notion that he had been provoked whilst under the influence of liquor.  As a result, having already served three months in remand during the trial process, Henry Wells was released as a free man, after having assaulted his wife & murdered another man in cold blood.  Unfortunately for Michael Goodwin, the trial's conclusion coincided with Publican's Licence renewals...according to an article in The Brisbane Courier on the 3rd of April 1890, the head of the Licensing Board, Mr Pinnock, spoke merely from his own impressions whereby "in accepting the jury's rider, [he] considered at least that the jury must have sufficient grounds to justify them in arriving at that decision."  As a result of the trial & Henry Wells' virtual acquittal, Michael's license was almost cancelled...almost...

Their business having barely survived the murder that took place in the back yard of their Hotel, the Goodwins finally managed to continue on in both the liquor & public transportation trade.  Sadly, fifteen months later in 1891, Michael would pass away from Cirrhosis, as would his wife Bridget fifteen years later in 1906 - both husband & wife breathed their last breaths within the Hotel they'd toiled for so many years amidst triumph & tragedy.  The story of the Downfall Creek Murder, the Edinburgh Castle Hotel & the Goodwins holds a special place in my heart - Michael & Bridget Goodwin were my great great grandparents. Michael & Bridget Goodwin still visit the Hotel they built, & does John O'Halloran still linger around the BWS Drive-thru built on the land behind the Edinburgh Castle Hotel where he was brutally murdered so many years ago??  To be completely honest, I have no idea...that's a question for the current owners to answer...


  1. Excellent article, Liam. The amount of facts you can provide never ceases to amaze me. I always look forward to your weekly stories.

    1. Thank you, Maureen - I truly appreciate your ongoing support, & can promise that I have some amazing stories to tell yet through 2012 & well into 2013!

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  3. I am so glad I found this! Michael and Bridget Goodwin are my great great grandparents too. This is definitely a lot of information that I didn't have before... thank you :-)

  4. Very interesting. This is the first article of yours I have read. Stories about Brisbane's Northside aren't as common as others so it was nice to read. Nicki

  5. Hi Liam, excellent article. You state Michael had 9 siblings, but the immigration record only gives 8 names including Michael. Were there older children in the family who arrived independently? My interest is his sister Bridget.

  6. i enjoyed reading your family history story. I am sure there are many more to share.