Sydney’s Royal Hotel: Teenage lift operator stabbed guest eight times

Royal Hotel George STreet Sydney C1910
The Royal Hotel, George Street, Sydney C1910. Picture: State Library of NSW 

The tragic tale of the murder of a publican’s wife


TWO years after the Royal Hotel in Sydney’s George Street closed for business in 1914, a young man who had committed a horrific murder from within its walls was released from Goulburn Gaol. He was 24.

In a frenzied attack in 1906, the young lift operator at the Royal Hotel, Tommy Quinlan stabbed a guest during a botched robbery. The gruesome murder by a 15-year-old boy shocked Sydney at the time.

The Royal was one of Sydney’s oldest and most respected hotels when the teenage employee stabbed the woman eight times.

The Royal Hotel and Theatre was established in 1827 by Barnett Levy before it was destroyed by fire in March 1840.

Royal Hotel George Street Sydney C1830
The original three storey Royal Hotel C1835. Picture: Supplied.

The property was bought by John Terry Hughes, who from the ashes built Sydney’s tallest building, the 100-room Royal Hotel – the first building in Australia to reach five storeys in height. It was also the first hotel to have a lift installed.

“Few things,” said a writer in 1848, “strike new arrivals with more surprise than the external appearance and the inner appointments of that huge building, the Royal Hotel, in George street – its ranges of balconies without, its labyrinth of corridors within.” The writer described the Royal as a “curiosity of colonial architecture”.

“With a frontage of 72 feet and a depth of 170 feet, the exterior walling of the Royal Hotel is extremely plain. The building is enclosed by a series of balconies supported by Roman columns. It is five stories in height, with a basement story used for cellars. A side entrance leads into an open quadrangle court, situate about the centre of the building, and there we find a series of flights of wooden stairs, ascending to the different stories of the building. The main entrance is in George-street, where the excellent cheer of Mr. Sparkes tempts even the hypercritical in art to be blind to the follies of the architect. The principal vestibule is of polygonal form, and enclosed with glass sashes all round, being at the extreme end. Two grand saloons, each nearly 100 feet long, occupy a portion of the south side, one immediately above the other, the lower room being frequently used for concerts, bazaars, and public meetings. Including the large saloons, the billiard-room, and principal coffee room, the hotel contains nearly 100 apartments.”

The murder of Mercy Gregory, wife of John Gregory, licensee of the United Club Hotel, Coolgardie, Western Australia, by the hotel’s lift-boy, Thomas John Quinlan made newspaper headlines around the country in 1906.

Mercy Gregory. Picture: The Sydney Mail, February 7, 1906.

Mrs Gregory’s bloodied body was found by the night porter, Alfred Hewit, who heard a piercing scream in the early hours of Thursday, February 1 1906. He was on the ground floor, cleaning guests’ boots, when he heard the cry, and rushed to the third floor. He found the door of Mrs Gregory’s room partly open and looked inside. There he saw Mrs Gregory sitting on the floor at the side of a bed in a pool of blood.

The day before the murder, Tommy had been given noticed that he was no longer needed as an employee at the hotel. New licensing laws, it was reported, had prevented 15-year-old Tommy from serving drinks to customers, one of his many jobs he was required to undertake at the hotel. He was devastated, being the main income earner to support his four younger siblings.

The following night Tommy went upstairs and hid himself under the bed of Mrs Gregory, waiting until she had gone to sleep.

The candle was left burning, and thinking she was asleep he crept from under the bed and went to the dressing table to steal her jewellery.

“I went to rob her,” he told detectives; “she woke up and caught me, and I went for her with the knife.”

The weapon was a butcher’s knife that he had purchased the day before in George Street.

“She was very kind to me,” he explained when shown the knife; “I must have been mad to use it.”

Mrs Gregory had no chance. There were eight wounds in her body; the one inflicted near the heart, which severed an artery, proving fatal. It was not until the body had been examined that all the wounds were discovered.  The first blow delivered was in her heart, and she managed to struggle to her feet in an effort to reach the door of the room. Tom then stabbed her seven times from behind, until she sank dead at the edge of the bed.

Tommy Quinlan in the dock during his trial in 1906.

When police arrived they found Mrs Gregory sitting on the floor. Her head was hanging down, and her right arm was on the bed. A large knife and its sheath were close to her on the bed.

The murder was easily traced to the Tom, after he left his straw hat and pair of boots under Mrs Gregory’s bed.

Police went to Tom’s home, in William Street, Darlinghurst, where detectives found him in bed with one of his hands bandaged. His brother was with him when the detectives arrived, and he was reading a story in the “Evening News” about the tragedy.

Detectives then took the teenager to the Phillip Street police station, where he was shown the boots and the hat. He then admitted that they were his property, and confessed to murdering Mrs Gregory after he was disturbed robbing her room.

Throughout the trial, Tom reportedly showed no remorse for his actions and he calmly walked down the trap-door to the cells beneath the court room when he was sentenced to death for the crime.

The prison photograph of Tom Quinlan, 1906. Picture: Museums of History NSW

When appearing to give evidence at Tom’s trial for the horrific murder, his mother, Norah Quinlan sobbed bitterly on entering the witness box, explaining how she had had “a good deal of trouble in her day and her boy had early to do for himself”.

Tom’s mother’s comments were a huge understatement. Delving into the boy’s past has revealed a sad, dysfunctional childhood, which undoubtedly lead to his tragic life.

The 15-year-old had taken his step-father’s surname of Quinlan, although he had never met him, and seems to have lived apart from his parents for some time.

Born in Roma, Queensland, to parents Norah and Patrick Conmee on September 4, 1890, Tom was just five years of age when his biological father deserted the family.

His mother was left to care for five children, aged between three and eight.

Tom’s father Patrick Conmee was born in outback Queensland in 1861, and worked as a carrier, before marrying Norah Scanlon in 1886.

The newly married couple operated a general store at Roma in the late 1880s before Patrick was declared insolvent and was forced to sell the shop. This is when Tom’s family fell to pieces, his father leaving Roma to look for work, eventually securing a job at the boiling-down or wool-scoring works at Barcaldine.

Patrick Conmee never provided any support to Norah and the five children, despite a court order requiring him to do so. He died interstate in Cloncurry at the age of 47 in 1908, and, considering the massive media coverage, would have found it difficult not to have been aware of the horrible crime committed by his son in 1906.

Norah meanwhile struggled to care for her children, and young Tom reportedly was accidentally administered an overdose of chlorodyne when he was three years of age that his mother believed often lead to his “strange moods of abstraction”.

Chlorodyne was advertised widely at the time as a treatment for cholera, diarrhea and insomnia. As its principal ingredients were a mixture of laudanum (an alcoholic solution of opium), tincture of cannabis, and chloroform, it readily lived up to its claims of relieving pain, as a sedative, and for the treatment of diarrhea.

Norah’s troubled life resulted in several attempts at suicide, including taking an overdose of Chlorodyne, and in 1896 she was found unfit to care for her five children. The children were ordered to be received in the notorious Meteor Park Orphanage near Rockhampton.

Norah Conmee became licensee of the Hector Hotel, about eight miles out of Rockhampton on the Mount Morgan Road in 1896, where she remained for a couple of years before making her way to Sydney and remarrying a man by the name of Quinlan. However, no official records can be found.

When he was about 14, Tom gained work at Sandeman, Sons, and Co. in Sydney, where he was employed with other boys in the wine cellars. While there, he was caught pilfering money from the clothes of other employees. He was fired, but the other boys pleaded to give him another chance. Before another week had passed, Tom was again caught going through the pockets of coats left hanging in the cellars, and on that occasion he was given his marching orders. He was also employed as a telegraph boy at the Sydney General Post Office, before gaining work as a lift attendant at the Royal Hotel.

Quinlan being escorted to the court by detectives.

The Governor commuted Quinlan’s sentence of death to penal servitude for life in April 1906. Under the NSW prisons’ regulations, a life sentence at the time was deemed to have been served after 20 years.

Tom would therefore have been free at the age of 35 years, even if no special remission of his sentence was granted.

The teenager became known nationally for the gruesome crime and he and his victim became the subject of a wax effigy in a travelling show during the later half of 1906.

After intense lobbying from his mother, Tom was eventually released from gaol in 1916 at the age of 24. He immediately signed-up to fight in the Great War as a private in the Field Company Engineers, leaving Sydney for Europe in November 1916.

After seeing action at the front, Tom was wounded and sent to hospital. He was then offered a clerical position in London, which he refused, and when well enough returned to the firing line in France where he was killed in battle. The Sydney Sunday Times reported on November 18 1917:


A Fine Atonement

We gladly publish the following, supplied by a well-informed correspondent, regarding the case of the late Thomas Quinlan. “I think that in some particulars,” he writes, “your statement re Quinlan did not quite do justice to the young man. I have learn from Mr. D. R. Hall, the Attorney-General, who took a great interest in the case, that he did not make it a condition of Quinlan’s release from gaol that he should enlist. As a matter of fact, he tells me, no such condition has ever attached to the release of any prisoner. Quinlan was working in Sydney after his release, and, remarkably enough, he and his partner volunteered on the same day and fought together in France.

“The part of the article which refers to the crime committed by Quinlan exaggerates, I think, his wrong-doing in some respects, and quite overlooks the fact that at the time he was a boy of 15 years employed in the lift at an hotel, and having in his shoulders a man’s responsibility of providing for two younger members of his family. That he lost his head in wrongly trying to steal money for his brothers after he had received notice of dismissal from his employment is not, perhaps, to be entirely wondered at. “In any case, the evil done in a single hour by this young man may well be buried in his grave, and the memory of his sacrifice for his country’s sake remain green.”

Interestingly, the people of Coolgardie, in Western Australia, erected a large memorial monument to the murdered Mercy Gregory, who was a well-respected hospital matron before becoming the wife of a local publican. She was buried in the Waverley Cemetery in Sydney.

The fate of Tom’s mother remains a mystery. She reportedly married for the third time, a man by the name of Kinchington, in September 1906. However, I’m unable to find any further information.

The Royal Hotel became the property of the Skarrett family, and in turn the Government Savings Bank of NSW in 1910.

The Royal Hotel when Dymock had established a book shop at Street level. Picture: Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW

In 1914 the license of the Royal Hotel was cancelled after authorities found that the premises were in a dilapidated condition and unfit for occupation. The Sydney Morning Herald reported on Friday February 13 1914:


Before the Licensing Court yesterday, Ernest Albert Hayter-Cullen, the licensee of the Royal Hotel, George-street, city, was proceeded against by Sub-Inspector McLean for allowing his hotel premises to become dilapidated. Mr. Bathgate, of the Crown Law Office, appeared for the complainant, and Mr Sanders for the defendant. Sub-Inspector McLean said that he had visited the premises on a number of occasions, and pointed out the dilapidated condition of the building to the licensee, who said that he had not the money to put it in repair, as he was only acting as manager. Witness considered that the premises were unfit for occupation. There was no evidence for the defence, and the license was cancelled. The Royal Hotel is one of the oldest hotels in the Commonwealth, and has been occupied for nearly a century. The premises are the property of the Commissioners of the Government Savings Bank.

The former Royal Hotel when it became the Sydney Soldiers’ Club in about 1916. Picture: Supplied.

The old hotel closed its doors soon after it was de-licensed, and became a Soldiers’ Club. The Soldiers’ Club was one of the most popular meeting places of soldiers and sailors in Sydney during the war. It closed as a Soldiers’ Club after the war.

The property was bought by Dymock’s Book Arcade Limited, in 1924, which had occupied a portion of the building since 1890. The Royal was demolished and replaced with the Dymock’s Building in 1926.

The Dymocks building in George Street, Sydney.

Read more about the history of the Royal Hotel and the discovery of a mystery sword during its demolition at the Time Gents website.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2017. Updated: 2023

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