Recently, I’ve posted a few stories I’ve come across while researching my family history. This story concerns my third Great Grandmother Maria Bridget Johnston who was living in
On the 12th January, 1907 vagrant Charles McCallum set fire to the home of my third Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget Johnston, while they were asleep. This serious crime was said to be inspired by the recent Mosman Bombing Case, and was taken rather seriously by Police. Moreover, it also appeared in newspapers at the time providing all sorts of details not only about the case, but also a snapshot of her life at the time. Naturally, my interest was sparked, and I had to follow the story through from its fledgling beginnings, right through to its combustible finale.
Of course, you’d expect such a dramatic story to have been passed down through the family. However, the first I heard of it, was more than one hundred years later, while trawling through old newspapers online. So, now I’m now finding myself reassembling the pieces of what was, dare I say, an explosive story.
Maria Bridget Johnston
Maria Bridget Johnston (Docherty?) was my third Great Great Grandmother, and she was living in The Boulevard, North Sydney near the Cammeray Suspension Bridge at the time. Theoretically, she was born around 1841 in County Clare, Ireland and arrived in Victoria around 1858 where she allegedly married Quintin Flanagan, who passed away. Next, she turns up in Invercargill on New Zealand’s South Island, where she married John Johnston a Publican originally from Islay in the Hebrides, the son of a Whiskey Distiller. The Johnstons and their five children moved to Australia around 1879, and turned up next in Queanbeyan where John Johnston was the Publican of the Union Hotel while his brother, Alexander built the Goulburn to Queanbeyan Railway Station. John, along with numerous other relatives, also had a hand in that. Alexander Johnston then went on to become the Contractor for the construction of the Cammeray Suspension Bridge, which is colloquially known as “Northbridge”. However, by the time the bridge was completed in 1892, the North Shore Land and Investment Company which had hired Alexander, went bust, leaving him unpaid and in possession of the bridge to nowhere. Northbridge was hardly populated at the time.
By the way, the Suspension Bridge is a story in its own right. However, as beautiful and as riveting she might be, she’s only getting a fleeting mention here. Family stories have it that John Johnston was also involved in constructing the bridge, and the Sands Directory shows that he did go on to be a Contractor in his own right, although I haven’t come across any of his works.
As I mentioned, Alexander Johnston wasn’t paid for the Bridge, and to recoup some of the costs, they charged a toll for people to walk across it. While it can be difficult to pull apart the difference between family myth and what really happened, there has been talk that Maria collected the toll to walk across the bridge. There’s also been talk, that my Great Grandmother, Ruby McNamara used to collect the toll during the school holidays. There are also others who have been acknowledged in this role. So, it is hard to peel back fact from fiction.
Before we go too much further into the details of the case itself, we need to jump into our time machine and wind the clock back to 1907, when Sydney was a very different place. While at the time of the 2016 census, the suburb of Northbridge recorded a population of 6,347, back in 1907 it was still largely bush. Indeed, at the start of 1913, it only had 25 houses and 112 residents. So, we really are talking about a very small, isolated settlement which was barely a village, let alone a town. Moreover, this Northbridge was far removed from the omnipresent snarls of traffic snaking their way through the modern, urban landscape.
Charles McCallum Sets Fire to Maria Johnston’s Dwelling House.
On the 12th January, 1907 Charles McCallum (77) set fire to the dwelling house of Maria Johnston at Boulevard Street, North Sydney. McCallum, who came from Glasgow, had been living in a nearby camp for about 11 years and worked for several local residents as a gardener. He also used to visit locals, reading the paper to them and discussing current affairs. While he was described as living in a cave, he is also described as living in a tent where he had a table where four kerosene tins were used to make the legs, and also provided storage. The kerosene tins were important in the case, as McCallum pleaded not guilty and Police had to build their case, which was reported in detail in the paper.
While trying to set fire to a house with three people sleeping inside was a serious offence in itself, the gravity of the situation was intensified by a recent bombing in nearby Mosman and there were initial concerns that something sinister was afoot.
The evidence against McCallum went that Police went to Mrs Johnston’s house near the Suspension Bridge:
“The building was a wooden one, and under the floor of the front part of it he found a piece of bagging, a piece of wood, pieces of a pyjama coat, portion of a white shirt, and some handkerchiefs, oil partly burnt, and saturated with kerosene. The weatherboards and lining-boards near the window were burnt, also the blind and curtain. He examined the articles found, and on the piece of white shirt, he saw the name “H. Irving-near the neck. Witness then went to M’Callum’s camp, which was under a rock about 266ds. from the house. He saw accused in bed, and asked him if H. Irving was camped there. He said, “No: he never camped here. He used to live at Redfern, and has been dead four or five mouths.” Witness said, “Did he ever give you any clothing?” and accused replied, “All he ever gave me was two white shirts.” Witness asked accused how did he know the shirts were Irving’s. Accused said, “They had his name on them.” Accused also said that the shirts had been worn out and destroyed long ago. Witness picked up a billy-can and a bag in the camp, and both smelt of kerosene. Accused said they were his, but did not understand how the kerosene got on them, as he never used it. Witness also found a white shirt with “H. Irving” marked on the neck of it, and a handkerchief, both corresponding with the articles found under the house. He picked up a pair of pyjama trousers in a corner, which accused said were his, and had been given to him by Mr. Ricardi. He said the coat had been worn out and destroyed. The pattern and material of these were the same as in the coat. When charged at the police station, accused said he knew nothing at all about the matter, and it was a mystery to him. When witness got to the camp there was another man there, named Henry Rowley. Accused answered ail questions freely. Maria Johnston deposed that she had known accused for nine or 10 years. He had been in the habit of coming to her house every evening, unless it was wet. One night, they had been talking about the bomb sensation at Mosman, and accused said, “There are three or four I would like to do the same to!” He was at her house on the night of the fire, and left about twenty minutes to 10. Since the election he had been talking queerly. Witness went to bed on the night of the fire at 11 o’clock. She woke up at 1 o’clock in the morning, and noticed a lot of smoke. Her daughter pulled her out of bed, and witness saw the fire going up the front window. Afterwards she saw the articles produced lying under the house. She did not see them there before. Witness had trouble with accused about eight years ago. Accused reserved his defence, and was committed for trial.”
Ultimately, McCallum was found not guilty and released.
This brings me to the Mosman Bombing Case.
The Mosman Bombing Case.
On January 3, 1907 William Bingham placed explosives under the house belonging to Mrs Mary Rich. Bingham had packed the explosives in a paint tin, which he’d left it in a bag under their house. He had been working for the Rich’s for about five years, but had been fired just before Christmas for misbehaviour. It was noted during his trial, that his actions had led to a similar case in North Sydney (the fire at Maria Johnston’s house). Consequently, he was sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, with hard labor, in Goulburn Gaol.
A report in the Daily Telegraph dated Friday 15 March, 1907, provides additional details:
“Mr. Pollock, Crown Prosecutor, in opening the case to the Jury, said the charge against Bingham was that he placed explosives in a dwelling-house, with intent to injure the occupants. If the tin containing them had been knocked there would have been a terrific explosion. Certainly great destruction of property would have resulted, if not loss of life. Bingham had worked for Mr. Rich, of Mosman Bay, for a number of years, but five weeks before Christmas he was discharged for misbehaviour. Previously he had been abusive to Mrs. Rich, who was threatened by him, and she complained to the Police. On January 4 last Mr. Rich, on leaving his premises, saw a bag under the house. He took no further notice of it, but on returning at night his daughter drew his attention to the bag again, and he found it contained a paint tin, which contained several detonators. He removed the tin from the bag to a safe distance from the house, and then with a pair of pincers removed the lid. The tin contained a pound of blasting powder, some sticks of dynamite, and a quantity of gelignite. On January 9, the police arrested Bingham at Neutral Bay, where he was working. Bingham wanted to go into his room, and made a rush to get there. He was forcibly prevented from doing so, and an examination of the room disclosed a revolver, some cartridges, and a length of fuse. Bingham denied all knowledge of the fuse. He complained that Mrs. Rich had threatened to shoot him, and was a dead shot with the rifle. When dismissed, Bingham told an acquaintance that Mrs. Rich had behaved shamefully, and he would do for her. In his defence, Bingham made a statement. He said that he had been persecuted by the police, he admitted that he had been abusive to Mrs. Rich, because he had been drinking. He apologised, and with regard to a threat be only said. “This is my last appeal.” He did not place the dynamite under the house. He had an enemy somewhere. He would like to know who he was. He knew that he made noises when drunk, but he did not put that thing under the house. He was not made of that kind of stuff. The jury, after a retirement of some hours, found Bingham guilty, with a strong recommendation to mercy on the ground that at the time of the offence he was not responsible for his action. Asked if he had anything to say why sentence should not be passed upon him. Bingham said, “I’m innocent. I never put it there. I never saw a stick of dynamite in my life.” Only one offence, a minor one, under the Vagrancy Act, was recorded against the prisoner. His Honor said the crime was a stupid one. The term of imprisonment might be a very long one, and he would have imposed it if the prisoner’s character had not been such as it was, and if he had not been assisted by the jury’s recommendation. In the circumstances, he would not pass a heavy sentence, but be hoped the one he would impose would prevent him from attempting to revenge himself for some fancied wrong. He hoped, too, it would act as deterrent to others. After the outrage someone had attempted a somewhat similar one at North Sydney by setting fire to a house. Bingham was then sentenced to 18 months’ imprisonment, with hard labor, in Goulburn Gaol. The prisoner, as he was removed, said, “You have sentenced an innocent man.”
Reflecting on these happenings just over 110 years into the future, I’m very grateful, indeed, ecstatic to find these details about my Grandmother’s Great Grandmother. They were an absolute surprise, and in so many ways a gift and yet also a reward for many, many years of searching, without knowing what I might find at the end of the proverbial rainbow. While I don’t believe I have a photo of her and have no idea what she looked like, finding these snippets in the paper has, at least, composed something of a sketch of the world around her, and taken me back to where she lived. Still, I only know where she was at a particular moment in time, and little more. The rest I’ve teased out from the whereabouts of her husband and the births of her children. However, in this scene, she stands alone. After all, it is her house. She owns it. It is a beautiful thing, at least for me, to be able to paint a kind of story portrait of an unknown, almost anonymous woman one hundred and eleven years into the future, and almost give her the breath of life. It is something that I will cherish, not only as an echo from the past, but also because she is a part of me, and my children will be taking her journey forward. She is in us.
 Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1923), Friday 15 March 1907, page 10