Domain spruiker’s tragic end while fumigating a pub at ‘The Rocks’

New York Hotel Sydney 1930 NBA ANU

The New York Hotel, George Street, The Rocks, Sydney, 1930. Picture: Noel Butlin Archives, Australian National University

WHILE fumigating the landing on the second floor of the New York Hotel, in George street, Sydney in 1921, Robert Rose was overcome by escaping fumes.

The publican of the New York Hotel and his cook were almost overcome by the piosonus cyanide fumes as well when trying to rescue the well-known Domain soap-box spruiker from Ultimo.

Rose’s death made headlines around the country. The Sydney Truth reported on February 27 1921:


Famigator’s Fearful End

Dies Outside Closed Door

The tragic though painless death of Thomas Rose, the fumigator, who some of his acquaintances thought was still alive after the doctors had pronounced him to be dead, and who busied themselves in delaying his funeral, formed the subject of inquiry by the City Coroner, Mr. John Jamieson, S.M., on Friday.

Rose was fairly well-known as a Sunday afternoon speaker on social and political topics in the Domain. He was of herculean build, and even though a good rhetorician, was even fonder of work-qualities which are not often possessed by the one Individual.

As the evidence showed, it was his fondness for doing his work well which unwittingly caused his untimely end, and the pity of it is that his relations, wherever they are, know nothing of his fate. Frank V. Mitchell, of Macarthur-street, Ultimo, said that his friend Rose was about 36 years of age, a Tasmanian native, and had been with him six months in Sydney. Outside of the £19 found on Rose’s clothing, he possessed nothing of value. He was a Jack-of -all-trades, as well as a fumigator, and they lived together.

The last time he saw Rose alive was the day before his death, when Rose mentioned that he was going to the New York Hotel to fumigate. Referring to the cyanide, he said, “I’ll make that stuff a bit stronger, Frank”.

Mixing the chemicals was Rose’s own special work, which he understood well. Rose told him that he had worked in a poison-gas factory in America on a secret preparation, which he supposed had killed many Germans, and he had fumigated in South Africa and Adelaide. Mitchell said he knew nothing of the dead man’s relations, but believed him to be single. On the Sunday evening a man told him in the Park that his partner was dead, which was the first intimation he received of the tragic occurrence.

In fumigating, the practice was to seal all the apertures and openings of the room, then set fire to the chemicals in the room, and get outside as quickly as possible and seal the door. On Monday, after identifying Rose’s body, he visited the New York Hotel, and from his examination he was of opinion that the lock of one of the doors was defective. It was possible that Rose was detained in trying to fasten it securely, and the fumes found their way through the crevices too quickly for him to escape.

Dr. A. Palmer, one of the Government Medical Officers who examined the body, said there were no marks of violence, and in view of the history of the case, he was of opinion that Rose died from poisoning by inhaling cyanide fumes. Cyanide was a very efficacious mode of fumigating, but nonetheless it was highly dangerous. Catherine Tulloch, a young woman, employed as cook at the New York Hotel, George-street, near the Quay, said that Rose, who had arranged to fumigate the premises, arrived at the hotel at 6 p.m. on Saturday, the 12th inst. He stayed at the hotel overnight, and everything went well.

After finishing the kitchen in the morning, he went upstairs to do the other rooms, and she saw no more of him until about 12.15 p.m. on the Sunday, when she discovered him lying in the corridor upstairs. She reported to the licensee that she thought he was asleep, and the licensee came with her and tried to rouse him, but they failed, and then she saw that he had been overcome by the gas fumes. She felt the effects of the gas, and so did the licensee, and both fell down the stairs. Shortly, however, she became better, and went downstairs and gave the alarm. Constable Farrell came, and the licensee and Rose were carried down stairs, where the licensee recovered.

About 8 o’clock that morning she saw Rose on the top landing, and asked him whether she might enter her own room. For he had told her that he would fumigate it during the night. He explained now that he had decided to take no risk, as people were sleeping on the next floor, and that he was just about to start on her room then. She could not tell from which room the gas had come which overpowered her.

Constable Michael Farrell said that at 12.25 p.m. on Sunday, the 13th, he went to the New York Hotel, where he found the licensee semi-conscious, and the last witness informed him that a man was lying upstairs apparently dead. Accordingly he went upstairs, and on the second landing in the passage he discovered Rose lying with his head resting against a doorway which had been partly sealed up. He picked him up, assisted by another man, named Hodson, who had followed him upstairs, and carried Rose along the passage. But here his helper was partly overcome by the fumes and had to run downstairs. However, he carried Rose nearly to the top of the stairs before the gas partly overcame him, but after putting his head out through an open window for a breather he felt better, and Hodson came back and assisted again in carrying the poor man downstairs, and in endeavouring to resuscitate him.

The ambulance arrived shortly, and Rose was conveyed to Sydney Hospital, where life being pronounced gone, the body was taken on to the Morgue. Money to the extent of £19 9s 6d was found in Rose’s pockets. The Coroner returned a verdict of accidental death.


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