As a lover of ballads it is always exciting when you can pair a particular place and time with a ballad that has been circulating for 100 years or more. I had been singing Mary from Dungloe for many years without realising that Mary was a real person, who had left Ireland for New Zealand just as my ancestors had in the 1800s.
In this particular instance the reverse has occurred. I was inspired to write this ballad after reading the story in a local newspaper from 9th January 1864. The full story is available here, which is actually a re-print of the story in the Melbourne Leader. The original story from the Yass Courier was syndicated all over the country (maybe even back to England).
To summarise, William Williams, a plasterer who had only been in the town of Yass for ‘some months’, attempted to kill a seventeen year old girl and, failing this, attempted to cut his own throat. The incident was triggered, it seems, by the refusal or postponement of a marriage proposal. To me, this story had all the required components for a great folk ballad, and knowing the incident had occurred less than 1 kilometre from our house, along the river which we walk by every few days, made it all the more fascinating.
As a person who likes a puzzle, I was also intrigued to learn the identity of the young girl and the final fate of William William’s.
The area around Yass was first settled in 1830 and the town itself was gazetted in 1837. In 1848 there were 55 houses and 274 people living in the town. The Australian Handbook, printed in 1888, indicates that the population had risen to 2370 by that time. In any case, there cannot have been more than a handful of 17 year old girls in the town in 1846.
The following clues are found in the primary article about the incident:
- On Sunday (3 Jan) William and the girl walked by the Yass River, where on discussion about the postponement of the engagement, William produces a razor and threatens to harm himself. The girl grabs the razor from him and throws it in the river.
- On Monday (4 Jan) the two talk at the girl’s married sister’s house. William leaves to go to his lodging at a nearby public house.
- The girl retires in a room at the back of her sister’s house which has a half-glass door. William comes to her room after she is asleep, claiming he cannot get into his room at the public house. She refuses entry but gives him a blanket and key to the kitchen (a detached building).
- William leaves (in his work clothes), towards the river, saying he will drown himself.
- William returns when the girl and her sister have gone back to sleep in his Sunday clothes with a new razor. He breaks into the room, wakening the girl.
- William says he has come to murder her first and then kill himself.
- The girl screams for her sister, who is in a parallel bedroom.
- William grabs her by the neck, with the razor in his other hand.
- The girl’s sister opens the door to the parlour and she twists free.
- The girl’s sister flees through the front door to fetch their father who lives across the road.
- The girl flees into the parlour and gets to the other side of a large table.
- William cuts his own throat (evidently missing the carotid arteries) and bleeds all over the kitchen.
- The girl runs into the street.
- The girl’s sister and father re-enter the house to find William lying on the girl’s bed, still bleeding profusely.
- Sub-inspector Brennan and Constable Smith arrive in a few seconds.
- Dr O’Connor is sent for and eventually sutures the wound after a struggle.
- After hospitalisation, Williams claims to have left a sum of £70 or £80 pounds hidden under a stone by the Yass Bridge.
Yass – Town Map, 1898
The Yass Police residence has always been on Rossi Street, next to the Court House. The Rose Inn was built by Isaac Moses in 1837 on Comur Street (also next to the Court House) and is situated between the River and the houses on Rossi Street. The only places close to the Police Station, where there could be two residences across the road from each other would be 3-4 blocks within the intersection of Rossi and Dutton Streets.
It could be concluded that William Williams was staying at the Rose Inn, and that the girl and her sister were staying in a house on Rossi or Dutton Street.
I went through genealogy pages to look for girls who were born in Yass in 1845 or 1846 (would have been 17 in 1864) and cross referenced them with the property owners on Dutton and Rossi Street in 1898.
The only name that stands out is Margaret Carter, born 1846 to Eliza Bowra and James Carter. James was a policeman and owned a property on Rossi Street. Margaret had a sister, Sarah, born in 1843. It is a stretch, but Benjamin Warton, husband of Sarah Warton passed away in 1915 and there is a W. Warton property across the road from the Carter residence in Rossi Street.
I have lived in this town for over ten years, but hadn’t visited the Yass and District Museum. On the weekend I went there to look at some of the paintings and pictures of the town in the 1800s and also look at the build dates of various key buildings in the town. I was also able to take a photo of a razor from the period.
I still need to visit the local archives to make 100% sure, but I am reasonably confident that if any 17 year old girl of Yass in 1864 was going to have the presence of mind to wrestle a razor from a bigger, stronger, man, it is likely to be the daughter of a local policeman, Margaret Carter.
I haven’t been able to track down what happened to her afterwards with any certainty, but now with a name and a birth date, I think it should be possible.