Here in Australia, we have an online repository of old newspapers and publications online, known as Trove. Trove is a researcher’s treasure chest, because you can enter in a name and all sorts rises to the surface, and for better or worse, it’s left many of my hapless ancestors’ lives exposed. Not completely, because you usually only find snippets here and there, unless they were somehow impacted by crime, divorced or were wonderfully famous or notorious.
That’s how I came across this little snippet about my 3x Great Grandmother, Maria Bridget Johnston (Flanagan). Maria ended up in the newspapers after her home was set alight in an act of violence inspired by the recent Mosman Bombing Case. Bad luck for her, ironically it was good luck for me, as this incident shed just a little ray of light on her life, and who she was. It was much appreciated because she’s been a difficult nut to crack. Indeed, she’s one of those ancestors you want to bring back from the dead to give them a thorough interrogation. Fill in the gaps.
Maria Bridget Johnston (Flanagan)
For starters I’m not even sure that Flanagan was her last name, or the name of her late husband. She was apparently a widow when she married my 3rd Great Grandfather, Alexander John Johnston, who seemed to swap his names around whenever he felt like it. I only found out a few years ago, that he was a bigamist and had previously married Ellen Jones in Liverpool, England in 1855 and had a whole different family we knew nothing about living not far away in Dunedin, New Zealand at the time. By the way, once they arrived in Australia, he reverted back to the name of his birth…John Alexander Johnston.
Anyway, according to her death certificate, Maria was born around 1841 in County Clare, Ireland to father Martin Flanagan, and arrived in Victoria around 1858 where she allegedly married Flanagan, who passed away. Next, she turns up in Invercargill on New Zealand’s South Island, where she married my 3 x Great Grandfather, John Johnston, a Publican originally from Islay in the Hebrides, and 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, and went on to become the Contractor for 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 on the road to nowhere. Northbridge was bush.
John Johnston died in 1897 and he was buried out at Rookwood Cemetery with his sister, Elizabeth White. That was the end of his colourful story.
However, as I said, Maria made a sudden appearance in the Sydney newspaper in 1907 after it was deliberately set alight. Just to liven the story up a little further, apparently this darstardly act which was committed during the night while the three occupants were asleep, was inspired by the recent Mosman Bombing Case. I’d never heard of that before, and my interest was seriously piqued. Clearly, this was a story which warranted further investigation.
On the 12th January, 1907 vagrant Charles McCallum set fire to Maria’s home on Boulevard Street, North Sydney (now Cammeray). At the time, Maria and her daughter, Mary Ann Wilson, along with a third person which could well have been granddaughter, Ivy WIlson, were asleep when a shirt doused in kerosene was shoved under the floorboards of the house, and set alight.
While I haven’t yet managed to pinpoint the location of her house exactly, it was close to the Suspension Bridge (above) and the area was pretty much all bush, and very similar to the photo taken above.
By the way, the proximity of her house to the Suspension Bridge was no coincidence. Her brother-in-law, Alexander Johnston, was the Contractor for building the bridge, and after the land speculators who hired him went broke, Alexander ended up owning the bridge, and a toll was charged to pedestrians to try to recoup some of the costs. So, it’s quite possible that Alexander had provided the house, and I need to investigate this further.
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.
By the way, the Suspension Bridge is a story in its own right, but that’s going to take a lot of work and will have to wait.
Meanwhile, let’s return to the case at hand – where, on the 12th January, 1907, Charles McCallum (77) set fire to the dwelling house of Maria Johnston at Boulevard Street, North Sydney.
Charles McCallum Sets Fire to Maria Johnston’s Dwelling House.
On the 12th January, 1907 Charles McCallum (77) set fire to the weatherboard dwelling house of Maria Johnston at Boulevard Street, North Sydney. At the time her daughter, Mary Ann Wilson was living with her and one other, possibly grand-daughter, Ivy Wilson.
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, read the paper to them and discussed 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 with four kerosene tins, which 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.
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, aged 56, occupation Gardener, placed explosives under the house belonging to former employers, Ernest George Alfred Rich, Manager of the Haymarket Branch of the City Bank, and his wife, Mary in Clanalpine Street, Mosman.
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.
Fortunately, Ernest Rich had found the explosives before any harm had been done.
West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954), Friday 18 January 1907, page 5
THE ATTEMPTED BOMB. OUTRAGE. -4-WILLIAM BINGHAM ON TRIAL. SOME STARTLING EVIDENCE. Sydney, January 17. 0
Some startling evidence bearing on the attempted bomb outrage at Mosman was given at the North Sydney Police Court to-day, when William Bingham, aged 56 years, a gardener, was charged with having, on the 4th inst., placed against a building 1 lb. of blasting powder. six plugs of gelignite, and five plugs of dynamite, with intent to do bodily injury to Ernest George Alfred Rich, Mary Henrietta Rich, and others. Senior-Sergeant Gormly said: “When I charged Bingham. on the 9th inst. he replied that the last time he was at Rich’s place was a long time ago, and not since Rich had threatened to shoot him with a revolver. When I charged him he said it was a made-up charge of Mrs. Rich to get him into trouble. In the room at Neutral Bay where Bingham was living I found a new revolver, loaded in five chambers, four detonators, and a cardboard box containing 21ft. of fuse. Bingham said that the revolver was his, but denied all know ledge of the detonators and fuse.” Ernest George Alfred Rich manager of the Haymarket branch of the City Bank. who found the explosive in a sugar-bag under his verandah, said: “Bingham used to be employed at odd jobs in the garden and about the house. As he became very insolent to my wife I ceased to employ him.
Bingham, on one or two occasions, called at my office and used threatening language. He also wrote insulting end unpleasant letters to me.” Abraham Brindley’ employed at the Botanical Gardens, Sydney, said: “I met Bingham in December last. He told me he had to leave his employment on account of his eye sight. He also said that Mrs. Rich had bewitched him. Bingham had in his hand a brown-paper parcel, and said: ‘I have enough stuff here to blow her to -.’ I told him not to be foolish, to which he said: ‘Ill do it and then commit suicide.”‘ Charles Barry, a fisherman, of Neutral Bay, said: “I had a conversation, with Bingham, who asked me if powder would fire off dynamite to which I re plied: ‘No, I don’t think so. What are you going to do with it?’ Bingham said that he had a bit of a job to do. I told him how to prepare the dynamite in order to cause an explosion. Bing ham then said: ‘That will do the job all right.’ ” Carl H. Taussing said: ‘Bingham told me he had been wrongly discharged by Rich, and “he displayed resentment. against Mrs. Rich.” John Weigall said: “I was, working for Rich at Mosman, where I saw Bingham, who had a sharp knife, which he flourished about, and on two or three occasions said he would rip up Mrs. Rich, of whom he appeared to have a great hatred. 1 told Rich, that he had a very dangerous man to deal with.” Bingham: You’ve told the ___lie you ever told in your life. The Magistrate: You must not speak like that. Have you anything to ask the witness? Bingham: All I have to say is that what Weigall has said is a – lie. Bingham was committed for trial. Bail was refused.
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. It’s been a beautiful thing to be able to recompose these elements of her life, over 100 years later. That is something I will cherish, not only as an echo from the past, but also because she is a part of me, and my children, who’ll also be taking her journey forward.
She lives is in us.
Do you have any memories of the Northbridge or Cammeray area, especially the Suspension Bridge? If so, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.
 Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1923), Friday 15 March 1907, page 10