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CASE 12: NOT A RESERVED GIRL
We are born into this world without a map. Each new life is a relative soup of random possibility drawn together from family, animal intellect, health and adaptability. If fate is brutally unsympathetic dealing out the combinations, religion reduces life to hope of an afterlife where pain is extinguished and eternity awaits. In this divinely ordered universe individual action is preordained, while adventurous behaviour is judged as heretical rather than experimentation … particularly if it involves provocative females.
Sunday Morning 26 July 1914
Accompanied by arguing dawn birds and the click of his heavy souled boots, George Samuel Lawrence trundled through the early morning Broadmeadow streets after his watchman’s shift. He was considering breakfast, a bed and drinks later that day to celebrate his birthday. The sky was lightening to navy blue when he reached the Showground’s main gates where he followed the newly concreted stormwater drain mapping his final leg home. For George the drains camouflaged a childhood of serpentine waterways and creeks; a daydream world unpolluted by the nearby mines in water clean enough to swim; a place alive with yabbies, rats, platypus, fish; where fat ducks scattered at gunshot, and time moved to the pace of hovering, lucent bugs and dragonflies.
The drain ran parallel to the Showground fence before separating near a large black mouthed culvert. Close to this entrance George recognised a human body on its back. He took it for a yahoo who had drunkenly fallen in after one too many. He slid down the side wall and noticed a floral pattern peeking out from a green coat. He found himself beside young woman those throat was cut hideously from ear to ear. Her brown eyes stared back like she was frozen screaming. There was a man’s razor lying not far from her hand. Her makeup was still set for a night out. The floral dress –– fashionable as far as George understood –– was ripped in places. His empty stomach churned. He couldn’t bring himself to touch her. He had witnessed industrial accidents including amputations and even death, but this was incomprehensibly vivid and unreal, made somehow worse her pixy good looks and the serene way she lay there like a discarded doll. She may have looked familiar but he couldn’t give her a name.
Broadmeadow police fenced off the area for Newcastle detectives and a photographer/constable from Wallsend. Folded arm locals formed conspiratorial groups behind the rope, already disputing unfounded conclusions and theories, a side-effect of the crime scene’s fenced geometry, which redefined a dirt and tufted grass patch into a space of respectful purpose, full of concentration and covert possibility. The hunched police systemically poked about the area, reconstructing time and place in reverse. Each significance alerted the photographer: Clotted blood splashes along the bank of the drain; a half crushed, feathered hat with a gold pendant sunk in the uneven grass; shoe marks ran lines in the dirt back to a large pool of blood (a ghost track suggesting the victim had been bled out like an abattoir beast before being dragged rolled in the drain). Detectives surmised the woman was abandoned while being dragged into the culvert tunnel for hiding; perhaps the killer (or killers) were interrupted, had panicked, or exhausted their energy.
Apart from the razor, there was no evidence of another person having been in the area. By midday Sub-Inspector M’Hardy dispensed with George Samuel Lawrence as a suspect and removed the body of local girl, Edith Houghton, to the morgue for immediate autopsy.
Dr Harris was called from his family lunch. He found rough bruising on Edith’s arms, legs and ribs. The front of her dress was torn up to the waist. His report detailed the viciousness and precision of the wound running across Edith’s throat from just beneath the left ear to just behind the right ear, through everything to the backbone. He deemed the razor found at the scene incapable of the act: The wound presented all the features of having been inflicted by a single strike with a large knife, like a butcher’s knife. The only consoling fact was that death would have been quick, no more than one minute after the wound was inflicted.
Edith Houghton was a 22 year old barmaid and single mother living with her parents in Brown Road Hamilton, a casual ten to fifteen minute walk from where she was murdered.
The week before her death Edith joined excited queues for The Lyceum Picture Palace’s ‘extraordinary’ Mary Pickford week: Edith was a sight with her Pickford tizz. She splashed out on the hairstyle while walking out with a charming, peripatetic carpenter she met working at Connors Hotel. He said she looked like the dizzyingly beautiful movie star, but he disappeared as suddenly as the end of a film reel when Edith told him she was duffed with his child. Despite a broken heart she embraced the birth, and after weaning the child went back to work. Her parents provided their daughter and bastard grandchild with persistent and public love, immune to the prudish judgements of relatives and neighbours.
She was determined never to be a maid, and after the carpenter, never give her heart easily again. Men would be for uncomplicated fun. She left romantic fantasies for sleeping dreams or the movies, and accepted the unrelenting working days and motherhood as what life was. Good looks, a sense of humour and a sharp tongue made her a popular barmaid. Returning to work at Connors she met the handsome and athletic Herbert Ashman. The gasworks labourer was instantly smitten. They were the same age, but Edith quickly tired of Herbert’s obsessive doting, which soon turned to sour badgering. He was yet another man-child just out of knee pants. Herbert idealised Edith as a goddess unaware she needed saving from her wanton ways. The fact his sister was married to Edith’s brother gave him complete justification to stalk her. He would turn up to her work shift, berating her for flirting openly with customers, accepting their compliments, or sharing their blue jokes.
After failing to convince Herbert gently, or telling him straight, Edith took to walking out with other men. Herbert was reduced to ear-wigging her parents about their daughter’s damnation. The Houghtons drank a lake of tea over many jaded hours with the incessant young man. When Edith left Connor’s Hotel for the Westbrook in Broadmeadow to be closer to home, Herbert Ashman was there on her first night, drinking furtively in a corner ingle.
Herbert’s stalking also focused attention on Edith’s public reputation as an attention seeking floozy. Her death in the local paper euphemistically noted she was not what might be called a reserved girl. Some blamed her wildness on her parents, while others saw her death as proof of the moral degradation caused by motion pictures.
Saturday afternoon 25 July 1914
The Broadmeadow Showground was decked out in bunting, roped fencing and carnival rides for the French aviator Maurice Guillaux. The current holder of the Pommery Cup (awarded twice a year to the airman or airwoman who flew the greatest distance in one day) was in the city for a one off aerobatic performance in ‘the looper’, his dragon-fly-like, Bleriot XI.
Guillaux produced an amazing and deft exhibition of aerobatics in his two forty minute displays that Saturday afternoon, his perpendicular dives being particularly thrilling. He inspected local medical corps and autographed cards. Local school choirs and the Band of the 16 Regiment filled the afternoon with International airs. Guillaux later told locals that during his second flight he reached ‘cloudland’ at eleven thousand feet, and felt confident enough to fly directly to Sydney, before remembering the Newcastle Agricultural Society had arranged a smoking concert in his honour for that evening.
Edith paid her shilling to see the second flight after arriving late from Greta – where she’d been visiting her sister since the Thursday. She left before Guillaux landed to avoid the departing crowd gridlock and found Herbert Ashman waiting at the main gates. After a tetchy conversation Edith agreed to meet him at the Broadmeadow tram shed between 7 and 7.25 that evening –– he had bought tickets for them both and his three sisters to see Jane Eyre; One of the Rabble; The Auto Race and Stormy Love Affairs (from the popular romantic comedy series ‘Mable’ Edith loved so much). There were also Two Keystone comedies ‘to dispel all business cares and family worries’. Edith convinced her disagreeing mother not to worry about meeting the foolish boy. She had been too tired to argue with Herbert, and besides, she liked his sisters, who understood their silly brother. She would be straight home after the moving pictures.
Herbert Ashman met his sisters at the movie theatre but was too restless too sit and watch the full program. He had given up waiting for Edith around eight o’clock. He sauntered about the tram shed and surrounding hotels, taking in a beer or two with various mates and acquaintances. His eldest sister advised him to slow down on the grog, even if it did quell his simmering anxiety at being jilted again, or worrying about which Romero she was out with tonight: Henry Davis from the gasworks; Robert Gregg a fireman from the sulphide works; Jonathan Ash the machine driver or Reg Stewart, the bloke from the railways who was always wore spick and expensive cutaway frock coats. His sisters told him to forget her, which they meant leave Edith alone. Herbert wouldn’t reveal to them Edith was in trouble again, and he silently hoped he was the father.
After seeing his sisters off and downing a few last pots Herbert caught the tram home to the Gully Line just before 11 pm. He sat awhile in front of the fire before falling asleep. Detectives arrived the following day to question him about the previous night. He was taken to Newcastle police station and kept on the grill for the rest of the day and most of Monday. On Tuesday morning he was charged with maliciously murdering Edith May Houghton. His shocked mother and sisters wept on the court house steps for their Herbie. He remained in custody until the inquest in early August.
By the time of the inquest police had not progressed beyond what was found on the first day: Police photographs documented how Edith had died but no fingerprints or footprints were discovered: the razor blade was bloodstained, but the handle had been wiped clean. While Herbert remained their chief suspect, police interviewed the list of Romeos Herbert gave them. At the inquest these men produced solid alibis for Saturday night and Sunday morning. Their answers gave a more engaging outline of a free spirited if contrary women. Henry Davis last saw Edith about a month before her death. She had mentioned being with child to Ashman, and jokingly – perhaps – said she would do away with herself rather than have a child go through life with Herbert as their father. She had told Ashman Gregg was the father. David described Edith as too smart and sharp for a girl, and good fun, if she did sometimes miss an appointment with him. Yes, he thought her suicide talk was just talk.
Davis and Ashman both worked at the gasworks, but rarely crossed paths. A week before the murder Davis heard Ashman was making noise about him for trying to steal ‘his Edith’.
Jonathan Ash mentioned he liked Edith as you would a good sort, but grew tired of her habit of making appointments with different men for the same evening, and going off with one and jilting the others. She had told the machine driver that Ashman had knocked her down, but she did not say where or when.
A senior-constable from East Maitland stated he had spoken with Herbert’s brother-in-law, Benjamin Gegetta, who told him ‘I believe they have got the wife’s brother in connection with the Broadmeadow murder. I am afraid they’ve got the right man. When he has a drop of drink in him he is quite silly. Some time ago he was going to shoot a girl at Kurri Kurri whom he had a difference with, and I took the revolver from him, and afterwards pawned it, and added money to what I got, and bought a ring, and made it a present to him’. Under sober questioning, the young constable had to admit Gegetta was equally prone to exaggerating with a drop of drink in him.
A distraught Emma Houghton spoke of having pleaded with Edith not to meet Ashman that evening. Emma traumatically recalled being up all night after Edith did not return home. Her husband William had said to wait until morning, thinking she had stayed with her brother in Adamstown, as she had done before. Sunday morning brought news of a young woman found dead in the drains. William Houghton said he generally kept out of his daughter’s business. She had been keeping company with Herbert Ashman for about six months. Like his wife, he was troubled by Ashman’s fecklessness, and the domestic trouble he always seems to provoke. This included a fist fight between Ashman and William’s son (married to Ashman’s sister). The two young men reconciled recently after a long and tense silence between them. William often met Edith at the Broadmeadow railway gates after she finished night work. He knew she could look after herself, but he didn’t like her being alone on lonely roads. He wanted the court to know how precious their grandchild was to them.
The inquest made brief mention of the erratic and headstrong Herbert being part of a Newcastle town larrikin gang, but this amounted to a group of young men shooting tin cans in the bush on weekends. A procedurally clueless Herbert Ashman contradicted himself throughout giving evidence, such as claiming not to have known the area Edith was murdered before claiming it was their secret meeting spot, but was adamant he didn’t kill her – the last time he saw Edith was when he was watching the flying man. He was not at the place of the murder at all on the Saturday night. He could not say how she came by the Injuries which caused her death. He had no idea. He did not possess a razor. He had no necessity for one, as he did not shave. In the end his public conspicuousness and multiple witnesses saw Herbert released from custody with charges against him dropped. The inquest drew a red line through the theory Edith was suicidal at being pregnant and single a second time (If the razor being left at the scene was to incriminate her, it only suggested she know her assailant). Dr Harris’ autopsy made no reference of Edith being pregnant. In the end Edith had was deemed to have been murdered by someone unknown. It was hoped the police would continue to investigate but despite a proclamation in a Government Gazette offering a reward of £250 for information that will lead to the conviction of the person or persons who murdered Edith May Houghton at Broadmeadow, her killer, or killers, were never found.
A master Chinese poet wrote that memory is a clouded world. By the end of 1914, a war consumed much of the Western World’s energy and Edith’s murder drifted away as a forgotten file. Her pleading dead eyes remained burned into George Samuel Lawrence’s thoughts though, and the empty shadow play of night-lit warehouses and factories that once provided him with solitary contemplation, was now consumed with the adumbral presence of Edith’s restless, revenant spirit, unable to articulate to him the final hours of her life.
Edith’s family commemorated her passing each year with a long newspaper dedication memorialising a much loved daughter, sister and mother. It hinted that while the authorities had forgotten her, the family never would. Her mother and father left their church despite a scaremongering and persistent local priest. For all the choices Edith made, she treated her life as a gift of joyful purpose. Religion exploited this, the priest claiming any good in her life was merely a reflection of God’s love. Her baptism might save her, but her parents considered this a fickle insult after what their daughter had suffered in this world. The grief of paternal love was all that mattered, something beyond the scaled judgement of what God decided might be right or wrong at the time. The Houghton’s politely told the priest to leave.
In the later summer of 1915 some gangs of Sydney larrikins caught the train to Newcastle for a town festival. They caused mayhem in local hotels, demanding free drinks and sparking streets fights. They manhandled a barmaid going home from work into a laneway, where she was saved by passing constables, but not before having her clothes partially ripped off. After threatening her with butcher’s knife they told her to stop screaming or she’d end up like that prissy slut from Broadmeadow. The thugs responsible escaped on the last train that night. Those arrested were released with fines and a Police Sergeant’s boot up the arse the following morning. Similar gangs had worked the crowds at Guillaux’s aero show the previous year, but were never considered seriously in the original investigations into Edith’s murder.
David Murray is a university medalist with a Creative Arts PhD from Newcastle Uni. He has published two books of poetry: “Swinging from a broken clock” and “Blue bottle” (Sultana Press), and contributed to Overland, The Australasian Journal of Popular Culture and Mascara Poetry Journal.
Murray treats historical true crime as a cultural marker wherein everyday life and ordinary lives reflect Luc Sante’s observation that ‘violence, misery, chicanery, and insanity exist in a continuum that spans history; they prove that there never was a golden age”.
3 thoughts on “COAL RIVER TRUE CRIME: NOT A RESERVED GIRL”
Edith was and is my fathers cousin my grandparents were Emily Ashman and William Houghton from the gully line my mother told me my dads cousin had been murdered and found in a drain this is the first time I have researched this family history about her Edith’s murder thank you so much
Hello Sandra. I am Peter Stephens, the son of Norma Stephens (nee Houghton) and the grandson of Gwen Houghton. I have only recently come across this story and I am baffled by the mystery surrounding Edith Houghton and Herbert Ashman. Clearly, this was kept quiet within the family. The whole incident is astonishing. Peter