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

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 traded as a pub for just over 25 years, before its taps ran dry in 1863.

Although the historic pub reopened in about 2015 as the Old Victoria Inn, 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.

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 had been recently hanged at Maitland Gaol for two seperate crimes.

Jones, a navvy, had been sentenced to death for the murder of Rebecca Bailey. Crow was hanged on the same day at Maitland Gaol as Jones for the rape of Jane Delanthy, at Thalaba, near Dungog. 

Hamilton asked Bill in what part of the graveyard the two men had been buried, and which way 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 promised Bill £1 for removing the earth from the graves, unscrewing the coffin lids, taking off the heads, and delivering them to him.

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, 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. He also said that the bodies were those of a murderer and an aboriginal man (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”.

Hamilton pleaded not guilty, and conducted his own defence when he 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.

Hamilton went on to have a fairly successful career lecturing and consulting. He died at Redfern, Sydney in 1884 at the age of 65. The North Australian reported on Friday September 5, 1884:

The other day there passed quietly away at Redfern, Sydney, and extraordinary character in the person of Archibald Sellars Hamilton, phrenological lecturer and general political bump diviner. He died aged 65. To the last, the old man travelled over the crania of Sydney residents, discovering hidden greatness and the most minute defeats at a guinea a block. Poor Hamilton, well meaning as he was, by no means earned the gratitude of his country. It was he who discovered the bump of statemanship in John Davies, and of finance and liberality in the great abigail; and it was not till Dan O’Connor asked Hamilton to examine his head that he (Dan) began to think there was something in it, and that he was cut out for Parliament: a perennial flow of Grecian eloquence has been the result. However, we hope poor old Hamilton is at rest; he was a man of mighty brain – the empire of his thought extended from pole to pole.

The Victoria Inn, East Maitland. Picture: Mick Roberts Collection
Phrenologist —”This man has the bump of ‘foresight’ very large. He can look far ahead and see what is going to happen.”
Jones —”Not much! If I could I wouldn’t have got married. My wife raised that bump with a broom-stick.”
– The North Queensland Register, July 27, 1903

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

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

* Story updated July 2021 with thanks to additional information supplied by ‘History Buff’.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2018

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2 replies

  1. A correction to your story. John Jones was hanged at Maitland Gaol for the murder of Rebecca Bailey however he was never accused of rape. Jim Crow was hanged at Maitland Gaol for the rape of Jane Delanthy but did not murder her. The two criminals and crimes were unrelated and the only commonality they share is that both men were hanged on the same day.

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