AN ongoing feud between Cecil ‘Tibby’ Bell and the Thornton brothers came to a tragic end outside the public bar of the Camelia Grove Hotel in Sydney’s inner-south on a summer’s night in 1930.
Born in 1910, Tibby Bell grew-up in the tough neighbourhood of Waterloo, where different crime gangs, also known as The Push, fought amongst each other on the streets.
Tibby Bell, at the young age of 20, was sentenced to death for the shooting murder of John ‘Jack’ Thornton after a pub brawl on Boxing Day 1930.
Unfortunately for 32-year-old Jack Thornton, a husband and father of two young children, Tibby Bell had shot the wrong man. The fatal bullet was intended for his brother, Charlie, who Tibby had fought with earlier in the backyard of the pub.
The murdered man, who was employed at the Eveleigh Railway Workshops’ paint shop, was watering the garden outside the family’s modest Alexandria cottage when one of his brothers pointed out that 6 o’clock was approaching, and together with another brother they went up to the Camelia Grove Hotel, in nearby Henderson-road, to squeeze in a few drinks before closing.
After last drinks were called at 6pm, the men gathered – as they did – outside the pub where a confrontation erupted between the Thornton brothers and Tibby Bell. Bell claimed he was set-upon by about six men in the yard of the pub, and he had to flee to escape injury. However, he returned soon after with an old-fashioned six-chambered revolver.
Walking towards Jack, who was standing with others under the hotel awning, Bell drew his gun and fired. “I’m done,” gasped Thornton, as he fell to the pavement, wounded just above the groin.
A confused scene followed, some of the men running for safety, others attending the fallen man, and some endeavouring to chase Bell, who stood a few feet away, with a smoking revolver in his hand.
“The wrong man has died,” cried someone in the group, and the men dashed after Jack’s attacker. One man had to dive behind a hedge just as Bell was about to fire at him, and another shot was fired at a pursuer.
Police arrested Tibby Bell in Abercrombie Street, Redfern, later that day and despite his please of self defence, he was charged at Redfern Police Station with murder.
The police had claimed the shooting was the result of a long-standing feud between gangs in the neighbourhood, and there had been threats of violence, and counter-threats of retaliation between the families for some days.
Tibby Bell was just 20 years of age at the time of the shooting. He had married Esther White in 1929 and they had a 12-month-old baby girl when he fired the fatal bullet on Boxing Day 1930. While in custody, his 20-year-old wife, Esther gave birth to their second child — a boy Cecil Jnr. However, Tibby Bell would never see his new-born son.
In March 1931, he was sentenced to death for the murder of Jack Thornton. While awaiting his appeal, his baby son died of pneumonia.
After a failed appeal, Bell’s death sentence was later commuted to 10 years imprisonment through parliament.
Cecil ‘Tibby’ Bell lived-out the remainder of his life in Sydney and he died at the age of 67 in 1977.
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