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When a Spade’s a Spade: the hanging of John Hammell

Sydney Gazette, 5 May 1832, p2 via Trove Sydney Gazette, 5 May 1832, p2 via Trove

On 7 May 1832, John Hammell (also reported as John Hammill, John Haymell and Charles Hammell) was hanged for the murder of his boss George Williamson. Not everyone was sorry Williamson had been bashed in the head with a spade, but committing murder has consequences.

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The crime unfolded on 18 April at Grose Farm, now the Camperdown site of the University of Sydney. Williamson was the overseer of a work gang at the Farm. The day before he was killed, many members of the gang complained to him that their accommodation was not fit to live in. This was not a minor matter of a routine plumbing issue or a small leak: there was a stream running through the room.

The men were convicts, but they worked hard and believed they were right in requesting different quarters. Williamson, a former convict himself, refused. The Sydney Monitor reported that Hammell, and the other men in his gang, carried on until Williamson instructed Hammell to cut a drain ‘in a peculiar way’.

Hammell did as he was told, but when Williamson found fault with his work and told him he had not made the drain properly, ‘he lifted the spade with which he was working, and struck the deceased on the head, inflicting the wound of which he afterwards died’. The Sydney Monitor also covered the coronial inquiry which revealed that after killing Williamson, Hammell threatened his fellow labourers, but he ‘suffered himself to be secured, and was handed over in custody to some soldiers who came up; the deceased man’s head exhibited two or three cuts, and he expired in less than three hours after the wounds had been inflicted’.

It was shown that the victim was a quarrelsome vindictive tyrant, who would do all that lay in his power to annoy and torment those who offended him; that the place in which the gang slept at night was dilapidated, and admitted the rain in many places; that many of the gang slept on the ground, and, in consequence, on the night previous to the day on which the murder was committed, it being rainy and tempestuous, they were very wet and cold; that the deceased had turned the prisoner, with others of the gang, away from the fire, when drying their clothes, on the morning the murder was committed. The matter went to trial.

Now, in 1832 prisoners were not entitled to counsel. Before 1840, you only had legal representation in New South Wales if you could afford it. The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser reported that even without anyone acting for his defence, Hammell showed living conditions on the Farm were bad enough that he had ‘begged to be locked up in the cells until the morning’ rather than sleep in the poor accomodation provided. He also said Williamson provoked him by pushing him first.

The judge instructed the jury to, if they believed the prisoner had been assaulted by the deceased, to give a verdict of manslaughter instead of murder. The jury, after taking only fifteen minutes to consider their decision, found Hammell guilty of wilful murder. Justice James Dowling sentenced the prisoner to death.

View of Sydney from Grose's Farm 1819, by Joseph Lycett, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (ML 55) View of Sydney from Grose's Farm 1819, by Joseph Lycett, Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW (ML 55)

The Sydney Herald (now the Sydney Morning Herald) reported Hammell’s execution. For the crime he committed at Grose Farm, he ‘underwent the utmost penalty of the law for his offence, at the usual place of execution’. In 1830s Sydney, the ‘usual place’ for a hanging was the Old Sydney Gaol on George Street, near Sussex Street.

Unfortunately for Hammell, the hanging was not a neat job. After asking spectators to pray for him, he was sent off, but ‘he struggled in strong convulsions for at least five minutes. After hanging the usual time, the body was cut down and sent to the hospital to be dissected and anatomized’.

Highlighting the injustice of the punishment, the Sydney Monitor pointed out: ‘Had the prisoner been rich he would have had a Counsel. That Counsel would have written a defence for him’, and perhaps helped the prisoner better demonstrate ‘that on the present occasion, deceased had been the first aggressor’. A good defence could have also shown that Williamson ‘was a man of a cruel and brutal nature’ and so helped to secure a verdict of manslaughter for Hammell, allowing him to avoid the gallows.

Refs: Defence on Trials for Felony Act 1840 No 32a (NSW) Sydney Herald, 14 May 1832, p.3, accessed 1 May 2021; Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, 5 May 1832, pp.2–3, accessed 1 May 2021; Sydney Monitor, 21 April 1832, p.2, accessed 1 May 2021; Sydney Monitor, 12 May 1832, p.2, accessed 1 May 2021  

Dr Rachel Franks is the Coordinator of Scholarship at the State Library of NSW and a Conjoint Fellow at the University of Newcastle. She holds a PhD in Australian crime fiction and her research on crime fiction, true crime, popular culture and information science has been presented at numerous conferences. An award-winning writer, her work can be found in a wide variety of books, journals and magazines as well as on social media. She's appearing for the Dictionary today in a voluntary capacity. Thank you Rachel! 

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Blog 2ser 2SER Breakfast conviction convicts execution George Williamson Grose Farm John Hammil Marlene Evans murder overseer Rachel Franks trial University of Sydney Victoria Park