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An Exciting Incident

by David Radcliffe

On Saturday evening, 7th February 1903 a series of robberies took place in Esplanade East followed by a high speed chase down Spring Street East culminating in a dangerous collision with a cable drawn tram in Bay Street opposite the Town Hall. The unfolding drama was captured by an unnamed staff reporter at the Argus under the headline An Exciting Incident.[i] The account is reproduced below in full to illustrate the narrative style of reporting in the press of that era.

An exciting succession of incidents was experienced at Port Melbourne on Saturday through the house of Mr. Peter Grut, of the Esplanade East, being broken into, followed by a tram accident which nearly resulted in the death of a lady passenger. From the information received the two events seem to be closely connected. It appears that at about half-past 9 o’clock Mrs. Pearson, who lives next door to Mr. Grut saw two men, who had been hawking fruit, getting over Mr. Grut’s back fence. There was a pony cart a short distance off, in which were two other men. She informed Mr. Grut, and while he and Mrs. Pearson were standing at the front gate they heard a noise upstairs. Mr. Grut, who is a man upwards of 70 years of age, did not care about going upstairs alone and while waiting for assistance a man suddenly appeared on the balcony above and slid down the post of the verandah. Mr.Grut clutched this man by the leg of the trousers, but the intruder struggled and got away. Almost immediately another man came down the verandah post, and was caught by Mrs. Pearson but he also got away. A search was made after the alarm had been given, and Mr. Grut found that a chest of drawers upstairs had been ran-sacked, and a purse containing 22 sovereigns taken away. Two coats were removed from the pegs in the hall and at the back gate two small boxes of fruit were found, and also a pair of boots.

Constable Hickie was informed of the occurrence, and shortly afterwards he stopped a pony cart, in which were two men named John Noel and Arthur Donnelly. On searching the cart he found some clothing, which was afterwards identified as belonging to Mr Thomas Page who lives directly opposite Mr. Grut’s residence. The men were arrested for stealing the clothing and the cart was given into the charge of a man standing near to be driven home. On getting into the cart the man drove away at a furious pace along Spring Street leading into Bay Street. Here a tram was passing and before the pony cart had time to be pulled up the horse dished into the dummy of the tram Mrs. Alfred Alan who was sitting on the dummy fortunately saw the cart coming towards her and stood up when the shaft of the cart passed through her dress and pierced a hole in the seat on which she had been sitting had she not stood up on the instant the shaft must have passed through her body. As it was the impact caused her to faint and she was carried to the surgery of Mr. Cuscaden close by, where it was found that her legs were bruised and she was suffering from shock but otherwise she was uninjured.

A crowd quickly gathered and the conductor of the tram tried to detain the man who was driving the cart but as is too often the case, the crowd assisted him to get away. This is the more unfortunate as the police were anxious to interview the man in connection with the robbery at Mr Grut’s house.

Noel and Donnelly will be brought before the local court today.

The final paragraph speaks to the sense of solidarity that is the very essence of Port Melbourne, of people supporting each other and having a healthy suspicion of authority.

Bay St (circa 1909) showing a tram near intersection with Spring St East. Dr Cuscaden’s surgery is seen on the left with the “widows walk”. State Library of Victoria

In early March, four men were charged over the events in Esplanade East, William Allen and Walter Tyrell as well as John Noel and Arthur Donnelly. They appeared before a magistrate with locals in the attendance. In addition to other witness accounts and police reports the following exchange took place. While the writing style is different, it evokes the world of CJ Dennis.[ii]

Rachel Summers said she was a married woman, but her husband had gone abroad. She remembered Noel being arrested. She knew Donnelly by sight only. She met Noel at his mother’s. There were two other fellows at Mrs. Noel’s. They were “Squib” and “Chow” (Laughter). She now knew that “Squib” was Tyrell and “Chow” was Allen. Mrs. Noel said if she (witness) would go in the cart with Jack it would keep him from drinking, as she could take the money. She went in the cart with Jack Noel and Donnelly when they went hawking on the 7th. Jack did not give her any money. While Jack and Donnelly were away hawking “Squib” put the coat and vest In the cart. He also took something out of the pockets. Allen was some distance away waiting for Tyrell. They then went away and the cart was driven to the corner. Just then a girl came running up and said the two other men were in a house. Noel said tell them I want them at once. Witness then left. [iii]

As the case progressed Tyrell and Allen saw the weight of evidence against them so both pleaded guilty. Noel and Donnelly were discharged.

As a footnote, in April 1904 John Noel and Arthur Donnelly were charged with stealing two bags of onions from the wharfs and trying to sell one of them to the proprietor of the Yarra Bank Hotel. Each of them had prior convictions and were both sentenced to three months imprisonment.[iv] This was not the last time that the activities of Noel and Donnelly caused them problems with the law.

[i]An Exciting Incident, Argus (Melbourne), Monday 9 February 1903, p5.

[ii]CJ Dennis, The Songs of the Sentimental Bloke, Angus & Robinson, 1915.

[iii]Charged with Stealing, Standard (Port Melbourne), 28 March 1903, p3. 

[iv]Stealing from the Wharves, Argus (Melbourne),18 April, 1904, p7.


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We respectfully acknowledge the Traditional Custodians of the land on which we meet and work, the Bunurong Boon Wurrung and Wurundjeri Woi Wurrung peoples of the Eastern Kulin Nation and pay respect to their Elders past, present and emerging.