Haunted suicide room left its mark on Hillgrove’s Sydney Hotel

Sydney Hotel Hillgrove. Picture: Town & Country Journal August 17, 1904.


DESPITE every effort to have it removed, a stubborn, mysterious stain was said to have persisted on the glass of a window of a pub in an old gold mining town on the northern tablelands of NSW.

The imprint of a hand, wrist and arm reportedly remained on the window of Hillgrove’s Sydney Hotel, south east of Armidale, for over 20 years.

Legend has it that the print belonged to a woman who had swallowed cyanide in a pub bedroom, and in ghostly defiance, it remained on the window until the pub’s demolition in 1922.

The town of Hillgrove was established in 1884 and mushroomed in the 1890s after the expanding production of gold mines. At its peak in about 1898, the town’s population was close to 3,000, similar to that of nearby Armidale.

Hillgrove then had four churches, six hotels, two schools, school of arts, a hospital, several banks, a stock exchange, a court house, police station, a recreation ground, a technical college and a cordial factory.

The home of the mysterious hand print, the Sydney Hotel sat on the corner of Bracken and Brereton Streets, Hillgrove, directly opposite two other pubs, the Commercial and Tattersalls. Of the three corner pubs, the Commercial was the more substantial, architecturally – a two storey structure, while the other two were single storey inns.

The Sydney Hotel, however, was the more profitable, a favourite with the hard drinking miners.

commercial hotel hillgrove
The Commercial Hotel, Hillgrove early last century. Picture: Town & Country Journal August 17, 1904.

The Sydney Hotel was established on the south west corner of Bracken and Brereton Streets by Sam and Mary Williams in 1892.  During the 20 short years it traded, the pub was owned and entirely operated by the Williams family.

Sam Williams was 31 years of age, his wife Mary 36, when they bought the license from Michael Spruhan in February 1892, to establish the pub, when the gold mining town was commercially at its peak. Sam and Mary mistakenly had confidence in the future of the settlement, being also the major shareholders in a gold mine. They were not to know that within 30 years the bustling township would be on its knees.

A native of County Clare, Ireland, Sam came to Australia as a young man, settling in Emmaville, also in the New England region, where he resided for 19 years. He managed the Rose Valley Tin Mine, in which he was a large shareholder, and was also connected with the Wiri Waterholes Mines. When Sam moved to Hillgrove he had purchased a large share in the Hillgrove Proprietary Mine.

Sam’s wife Mary was born in Walcha, a town at the south-eastern edge of the Northern Tablelands, before they became the popular hosts of the Sydney Hotel. The pub contained 24 rooms, and did a roaring bar trade, second to none in Hillgrove. The Freeman’s Journal (Sydney NSW) reported on March 27 1897:


The town is composed of all wooden structures, as is usual in mining towns. It is built on a hill, 3330, feet above the sea level, being 70 feet higher than Armidale, and therefore delightfully cool in the summer time, but greatly subject to climatic changes. In the winter it is bitterly cold, and the keen air blows with pitiless fury over the hills. The hum of busy life is to be heard in the streets ; the track which Bracken cut is now the main thoroughfare, and more business is done in a day here than is done in a week in Armidale. At night all the shops are lit up with the incandescent light, which gives a bit of tone to the place. New shops and private houses are going up, which may be taken as a silent indication that the field will be a permanent one. Mr. S. Sullings has a fine two-story hotel, which does a good business; but I think I will make some of the hotelkeepers mouths water in other places when I tell them that there is an hotel here, the owner of which banks from £250 to £300 a fortnight. I allude to Mr Sam Williams, who is extremely popular. His wife, a daughter of Mrs Nolan, of Emmaville, is equally well liked. Sam is also well known down Vegetable Creek way, and his friends will be glad to hear he has struck such a good “gold mine” as the Sydney Hotel.

The Williams family were large property-owners in Hillgrove, and must have been nervous when the mines starting winding down. The family’s good fortunes turned for the worst with the death of one of their boys at the pub in 1908. The following year Mary was left a widow, and managing a failing pub, after the death of her husband, Sam at the age of 61 in December 1909. Sam, beside Mary, also left behind six daughters, and a son.

Meanwhile getting back to the story of the mysterious un-removable hand print on the window of the Sydney Hotel; It was said to have belonged to a woman who had committed suicide in the pub. Sarah James, in October 1898, was staying the night at the hotel with her husband Charles, a tailor, when she was discovered dead in her bed the following morning. A post mortem was ordered after the discovery of poison in her room. The suspicions were confirmed when the autopsy found that Sarah came to her death by self administrating  a dose of strychnine. The Guyra reported on April 27 1922:

Hillgrove has been the scene of a number of mysterious happenings. One of the most remarkable has now come more directly under public notice. For over 20 years, and despite every effort to efface it, the imprint of a woman’s hand, wrist and arm, perfect in all details, has existed on a window of the premises recently occupied by Mrs Williams, known as the Sydney Hotel, and which will, in three weeks’ time; be pulled down and removed to Armidale, the purchaser being Mr G C Mann. This remarkable phenomenon was known to a few, but not generally. Since the building was vacated, however, the news has spread, and the scene has been visited by people from all parts, who agree that they have never seen a more remarkable spectacle. The mysterious hand, furthermore, with its gesture of appeal, seems to possess some magnetic fascination for all who gaze upon it – a curious feature the most sceptical can test for themselves. There is no question that the original imprint was made by a live human being, and a woman at that who possessed a most shapely hand. Every line of the fingers, palm, and wrist is clearly shown, and any effort to remove a single line seems to only make it more indelible. Close examination reveals that the imprint is not in the glass, but on it. Naturally there has been considerable conjecture as to its origin, and the result of close inquiry shows that some twenty years ago a young married woman was found dead in the room, from an unusual cause. It is believed the imprint was made by her hand when endeavouring to attract attention. Furthermore, it is definitely asserted that the imprint only appeared on the window after the dead body was found. What is the explanation ? What caused the ineffacable imprint ? The room has long since been known as ghost-haunted, but some material explanation may be possible from scientific investigation. Later the window will be brought into Armidale. Great care will be taken with its removal, as a peculiar happening is said to befall the person who breaks it.

Hillgrove’s gold finds were exhausted by the 1920s, leading to mining companies shutting down operations. Shortly after, most of the town’s buildings were dismantled and relocated to Armidale and other centres. By 1933 there were just 241 residents left. Today there are less than 100.

Mary’s profitable pub was drying-up, and the mine, in which she was a major shareholder, was forced to close. Property, in which the family had speculated, had become almost worthless. Of the six pubs in Hillgrove, the Sydney Hotel was the second last to close. The Northern Star (Lismore NSW) reported on January 10 1922:


Hillgrove, which was a boom town years ago, is a sorry sight today, says a recent visitor. Only two hotels are left and one of them is closing in about a fortnight. Everywhere can be seen the traces of buildings removed. To judge by appearances another 12 months will just about put the town off the map altogether.

hillgrove intersection 2017
The intersection in 2017 where three pubs, the Commercial, the Tattersalls and the Sydney hotels once traded at Hillgrove.  Picture: Google Streetview.

Following Sydney Hotel shutting shop in April 1922, only one of the other two pubs on the opposite corners remained. That also was not to last. The Tattersall’s Hotel closed a couple of months later. By the end of 1922, a township that once boasted six pubs had none. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on November 7 1922:


The last hotel was closed at Hillgrove recently. The license is not to be renewed. The old mining township is gradually passing away. A very large number of buildings have been removed, including large hotels.

The Williams family packed-up, and moved into Armidale where Mary continued in the hotel business. The Armidale Chronicle reported on April 29 1922:


Mrs Williams and family, of the Sydney Hotel, took their departure from Hillgrove last week. Since the “good old days,” Williams’ Hotel has been looked upon as a house second to none in the town. It was only at the last Licensing Court that the magistrate, after hearing the police report, stated that the community was fortunate in having such a well conducted hotel in the district. Prior to the family’s departure, a valedictory was arranged in St Joseph’s school-room, and a most representative gathering assembled.

Grand Hotel Armidale 1924
The Grand Hotel, Armidale 1925. Mary Williams was host from 1923 to 1933. Picture: Australian National University, Noel Butlin Archives.
St Kilda Hotel Armidale 1924
St Kilda Hotel, Armidale 1924. Mary Williams was host from 1933 until her death in 1944. Picture: Australian National University, Noel Butlin Archives.

Mary took over the running of Armidale’s Grand Hotel in Rusden Street during 1923, where she remained as host until 1933. In February 1933 she took control of the St Kilda Hotel, in the same street, and died at the age of 88 in 1944, while still the licensee.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2017.

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5 replies

  1. An excellent article about Hillgrove Mick – I really enjoyed it.
    Mark E.

  2. My Great Great Grandfather was the licensee of the Tattersals hotel until his sudden death in 1903. His son’s took turns in running it but I’m not sure when that stopped.

  3. My Great grandfather James Mathew Callinan was the licensee and owner of the Steam Engine Hotel, later renamed the Grand Hotel in Armidale in 1906. My Grandfater, Herbert John Callinan was the licensee from 1933 to 1948

  4. What happened to the imprint, does it still exist?

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