Grave robber’s macabre deal on the verandah of East Maitland’s Victoria Inn

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The Old Victoria Inn, East Maitland, 2018. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection


EAST Maitland’s Victoria Inn, west of Newcastle in the Hunter Valley, has had many incarnations since its original construction. Its most recent manifestation in 2015 has been a labour of love for James Morgan, who restored the historic landmark.

The Old Victoria stands proudly today as it has done for nearly 180 years. Lovingly restored,  the boutique hotel, once known as the Queen Victoria, offers old world charm accommodation, great food and beverages for visitor and locals alike.

Tales abound about the old inn, the most grisly though being the story of how the Church of England sexton was offered £1 by a pub patron if he removed the heads of two men who had recently been buried in the nearby graveyard.

Whether you’re looking for a romantic weekend away or a mid-week break, The Old Vic is two hours from Sydney, 10 mins from Maitland and 40 minutes from Port Stephens and the Hunter Valley, Pokolbin Wine Country.

The historic hotel has a long an interesting history. It has traded as a pub for just over 25 years, before its taps ran dry in 1863.

Although the historic pub reopened as the Old Victoria Inn in about 2015, interestingly, the Colonial building has been dry longer than it has been wet.

The Victoria Inn’s story starts with Irishman, John Wisdom, who established the wayside stop in 1838.

Wisdom was a native of the county of Louth, in Ireland, and arrived in the colony of NSW with the 50th Regiment, in the year 1834.

Resigning his position in the army in the year 1837, he went forth in search of fortune in the bush of Australia, and finally settled and opened a wayside inn at East Maitland in the year 1838.

Wisdom retired in 1844 to his property Duckinfield Park, near Morpeth, where he died at the age of 64 in 1869.

The pub was sold to Sam Clift, who owned the property until his death at the age of 71 in 1862. The inn closed for business the following year.

The last publican of the inn was Henry Finch, who was host when a macabre incident took place on its front verandah.

Bill House, the Church of England sexton, was offered £1 if he removed the heads of two men who had recently been buried in the nearby graveyard.

Bill had arrived home to his wife, Amelia, who delivered him a bizarre message that a gentleman was waiting for him with an offer at Henry Finch’s Victoria Inn.

Bill made his way to the inn, and was approached in the bar by Archibald Hamilton, a well-known phrenologist, who he had listened to lecture just the night before in the courthouse.

Phrenologists believe that the human mind has a set of various mental faculties, each one represented in a different area of the brain. Phrenologists would run their fingertips and palms over the skulls to feel for enlargements or indentations.  The phrenologist would often take measurements with a tape measure of the overall head size and more rarely employ a craniometer, a special version of a calliper.

“Are you the sexton?” Hamilton asked Bill as he walked from the Victoria Inn’s billiard room.

“I am,” he replied.

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The verandah of the Victoria Inn, where Hamilton propositioned Bill to remove the heads from two bodies in a nearby graveyard. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Hamilton took Bill by the arm and led him out onto the verandah. Outside, he asked him if he remembered John Jones and Jim Crow, who were hanged at Maitland Gaol for the murder and rape of Rebecca Bailey, two months earlier. He asked Bill in what part of the graveyard they were buried, and which was did their heads point.

Bill told him that they lay in the nearest corner of the burial ground, towards the gate.

Hamilton was direct, and said he wanted the heads of the two dead men to study. He told Bill if he would take the earth out of the grave where they were laid, and unscrew the coffin lid, and take off their heads and give them to him, he would give him £1.

Bill declined the offer, but Hamilton persisted, saying the law would take no effect on men that were executed in the gaol. He told him on the day they were executed he took the moulds of their heads, and he would have been granted their heads, were there not so many people in the gaol yard.

“Any moonlight night, you could go and get them, as the earth would work soft, their not being in long,” he explained to Bill. The sexton again refused to undertake the gruesome task, and reported the offer to the church wardens.

Hamilton was committed trial for having tried to induce the sexton of St Peter’s, East Maitland, to exhume the bodies of Jones and Crow, recently hanged there, and to cut off their heads. Hamilton admitted having solicited the sexton to exhume the bodies, but urged in his defence that offences of a similar kind had been committed both in the colony and elsewhere, under the eye of the authorities, and no notice had been taken; and also that the bodies were those of a murderer and an aboriginal (Crow was Indigenous), and he believed them to be beyond the class of those whose burial in consecrated ground would constitute the act of their removal an offence. He pleaded not guilty, and conducted his own defence when appeared before the Maitland Court on August 11 1860.

The jury retired, and returned after a quarter of an hour with a verdict of not guilty.

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The Victoria Inn, East Maitland. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
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The entrance into the Old Victoria Inn, East Maitland. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection

Licensees, Victoria Inn

1838 – 1844: John Wisdom
1845 – 1846: Samuel Clift
1847 – 1848: Thomas Baldwin Cox
1848 – 1855: John Borthwick
1855 – 1858: Joseph Clift
1858 – 1859: Thomas Paterson Borthwick
1859 – 1863: Henry Finch

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The public bar of the Old Victoria Inn, East Maitland. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
© Copyright Mick Roberts 2018

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