Tragic tale of publican, who accidently shot his lover at the Observer Hotel

The Observer Hotel, The Rocks, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University. Inset: A newspaper photo of Nelson Buchanan Grindal 


THE publican of Sydney’s Observer Hotel was arrested and charged with murder in 1944, after shooting his lover in a tragic accident that made headlines around the country.

This is the heartbreaking tale of Nelson Buchanan Grindal, who had been a ‘dummy licensee’ for Matthew Regan Cranney, a Sydney hotelier who at the time had hosted the Union Hotel at the corner of Kent and Margaret Streets.

Dummy licensees were common during these times. Legally only allowed one license, hoteliers would often place and fund a licensee in pubs they owned.

Grindal, 39, came to Sydney from Melbourne to start a new life after separating from his wife, Monica, who allegedly had an affair with a visiting American serviceman in 1940.

With his new 28-year-old partner, Edna Lund, Grindal arrived in Sydney in 1941 where he gained work as a cellarman at the Chatswood Hotel, before becoming publican of the Observer Hotel in George Street, The Rocks in 1943.

Matthew Cranney paid Grindal £8 a week and ‘keep’ to manage the Observer Hotel.

Edna was also separated from her spouse, and the pair were arranging their respective divorces to be married when disaster struck at the historic pub on November 21, 1944.

“Edna was sitting on the bed while I was getting undressed,” Grindal reportedly told police officer, Sergeant F. Doolan when he arrived at the Observer Hotel after reports of a gun shot.

“As I was bringing the revolver across in front of me after taking it out of my pocket, it sort of slipped and I grabbed it to regain my hold of it and it went off.”

Grindal was charged with murder, and his war time court case made national news.

Sergeant Doolan told the jury during Grindal’s trial that when he arrived at the Observer Hotel he saw the body of Edna Lund in a bedroom. She had been shot in the breast, and that there was no evidence of a struggle.

Sergeant Doolan told the jury that Grindal told him the shooting was an accident, and the publican kept crying: “Edna, come back to me. I did not mean it. I love you.”

A boarder at the hotel, Percy Lynch, a naval ordinance examiner, told the jury that on the night he heard Edna say to Grindal: “Hurry up, dear.” To which Grindal replied: “I have had a wonderful night, love.”

About two minutes later there was a noise like the crack of a whip, and Grindal called out: “Help! Help!”

“I ran into their room,” Lynch said. “Grindal was standing at the foot of the bed with a revolver in his hand, and Edna was standing speechless in front of him.”

Lynch said that even if the dead woman had been his sister he could not be more satisfied that the shooting was accidental.

Observer Hotel George Street The Rocks Sydney 1949 NBA ANU
The Observer Hotel, The Rocks, Sydney, 1949. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University. 

Grindal was found not guilty of the murder of Edna at the Central Criminal Court. However, the jury instead found him guilty of manslaughter without criminal intent and made a strong recommendation for mercy.

Grindal sobbed in court as his counsel pleaded for the utmost leniency on his behalf.

Justice Street when sentencing Grindal in April 1945 said: “You were guilty of culpable negligence in carrying a weapon you were unable to control.” The Sydney Truth reported on Sunday April 22:

Grindal, who had been a picture of abject misery during his trial the previous week, collapsed at the judge’s words and had to be carried from court. Grindal had been charged with the murder of his mistress, Mrs. Edna Jean Lund (32). The jury had found him not guilty of murder but guilty of manslaughter without criminal intent and strongly recommended mercy. Grindal told the jury that he was taking his pistol from his hip pocket when it discharged accidentally, shooting Mrs. Lund. The judge said that if Grindal’s conduct in gaol was satisfactory he would recommend release at the end of three months.

After three months behind bars, Grindal was released on special license, but soon found himself back in prison after he was found to have perjured himself during his application for the license of the Observer Hotel back in 1943. The Sydney Truth reported on Sunday, April 7, 1946:

Nine Months For Perjury

April 4 is not a lucky day for Nelson Buchanan Grindal (42), former licensee of the Observer Hotel, George St. North. On April 4 last year Grindal was sentenced to two years gaol for the shooting of his mistress, Mrs. Edna Jean Lund, in her bedroom at the Observer Hotel. Grindal was charged with murder. A Criminal Court jury convicted him of manslaughter. Grindal’s story was that the shooting was accidental. On April 4 this year Grindal appeared before Judge Barton at the Quarter Sessions, pleaded guilty to committing perjury in a Licensing Court case on October 25, 1943, and was sentenced to nine months’ gaol. The gaol recorder (Mr. S. G. Pritchard) said Grindal was released on special licence after serving three months on the manslaughter charge. Detective Dogan said that, after consulting his solicitor, Grindal approached the police, told them he had committed perjury, and wanted to get the matter over. Standing in the dock last Thursday, Grindal looked 10 years older than in April last year. He was frail, walked with difficulty, was bowed, his cheeks sunken. Detective Dogan said that Grindal came to Sydney in April, 1942, from Melbourne. He got a job at the Chatswood Hotel as cellarman. He brought Mrs. Lund with him. He obtained the licence of the Observer Hotel from a man named Matt Cranney by telling the licensing magistrate that that he was financing the purchase of the hotel and no other person was interested. He said that Mrs. Lund was his wife, that he wasn’t a dummy for anyone and didn’t know Cranney. Detective Dogan said that in fact Grindal was acting as manager for Cranney. In fact, also, there was no reason why Cranney could not hold the licence. Mr. J. Thom (for Grindal) said that the prisoner was a dupe. He was used by other people to reap a benefit, and as soon as he had served their purpose he was dumped.

The former Observer Hotel publican seemingly found love again, and in 1958, at the age of 54, he married Jessie May Williamson in Sydney.

Nelson Buchanan Grindal died in Sydney at the age of 72 in 1976.

Observer Hotel, The Rocks, Sydney

First published 2016, updated 2022

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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