Constable William Hird

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Constable William Hird

Headstone of Constable William Hird. Courtesy G. Gerrard and City of Canterbury.

Gruesome find Perhaps the first vicious crime committed in Canterbury was the murder of Constable William Hird near Prout’s Bridge on 13 August, 1885. Hird’s body was found by two gardeners early the following morning ‘under circumstances that revealed the perpetration of a brutal murder.’ He had been killed by a ‘terrible blow’ possibly from a large stone, completely smashing the right side of his head.

The Crime A reconstruction of the crime reveals that two young men were involved. They had been employed in scrub clearing operations at Redman’s Bush. An axe had been purchased in Sydney and no doubt after a drinking spree, the suspects returned to Canterbury where they created a disturbance. Hird’s attention was drawn to their activities and ‘a desperate struggle’ ensued, ending with the constable’s murder. After returning to camp, the axe was given to one, Cameron. A police cordon thrown around the district netted Joseph Thompson and Ellis Birch, ‘both lightly built and somewhat intelligent young men’, who, judging from their general appearance, did not appear to belong to the labouring class.

Eulogy The usual eulogies were made about the victim, Hird, a native of Aberdeen, who joined the colonial police force in 1882 and had served in Canterbury for two years. He was ‘a powerful man’, but by nature, ‘quiet and sober’, and in general, an ‘inoffensive and peaceable man’, devoted to his wife and five young children.

Coroner's inquest The coroner’s inquest, held at the Rising Sun, attended by a large crowd, caused ‘great excitement’, and as a mark of respect, most businesses and homes were partly closed. The two defendants, ‘pale and careworn’, faced the coroner and Thomas Austin Davis, foreman of the jury. They were found guilty of murder and committed for trial.

Court case The case was heard at the Central Criminal Court before Justice Innes on 31 August. Thomas pleaded guilty and Birch, not guilty, but the jury, much to the surprise and annoyance of Justice Innes, brought in a verdict of manslaughter for both defendants. He chided the jury for returning such a verdict and though he was ‘always reluctant’ to express dissent from a jury’s verdict, he emphasised that it had been returned in the ‘teeth of the evidence.’ There had been ‘a great miscarriage’ of justice for which he was not responsible. He, therefore, passed the ‘severest sentence’ appropriate under the law. Thompson was to be kept in penal servitude for the term of his natural life, the first three years in irons. Birch, when sentenced to fifteen years, strongly protested his innocence, despondently declaring that he had neither justice in the coroner’s court, nor any in the Central Criminal Court.

Burial William Hird, lies buried in the old graveyard of St Paul’s, Canterbury. His headstone is a permanent record of the foul and bloody events of the night of 13 August. 1885.

Source I. E. Currey, Prout’s Bridge Murder, Canterbury Historical Society Journal, Series 2, No. 4, pp. 17-18. Sydney Morning Herald, 14, 15, 20, 22, August, 1, 2, 4 September, 1885. Both sourced in Larcombe, F A. Change and challenge: a history of the Municipality of Canterbury, NSW. Canterbury, NSW: Canterbury Municipal Council, 1979. pp 184-185 See eBooks on this wiki