Knife wielding ‘lunatic’, suffering from ‘religious-mania’, ransacked Bulli pub

The Star of the Sea Hotel, Bulli in the 1890s. Inset: A man wielding a knife, similar to how John Reynolds confronted patrons at the Bulli pub.


A MAN discharged from a lunatic asylum caused headlines around the country when armed with a knife, he ransacked the Star of the Sea Hotel at Bulli, south of Sydney, in 1896.

John Reynolds and his brother, William were admitted to the lunatic asylum in May 1895 after they “showed great violence”, smashing-up their home at Austinmer, near Bulli, and attacking the local doctor with an iron fire poker.

The Bulli police were called and the pair were constrained in straight-jackets before they were placed on the “milk train” to Sydney where they were locked-up in the Gladesville Lunatic Asylum.

Newspapers at the time reported that their committal to an asylum for “several months” was due to “religious-mania”. Religious-mania or hyper-religiosity is a psychiatric condition in which a person experiences intense religious beliefs or experiences that interfere with normal functioning.

The Reynolds brothers were Welshmen and prior to their rampage were reportedly “industrious, sober men”, who were “well read”, and “greatly attached to each other”.

The brothers had resided in the Bulli district for 12 years, working as coal miners, when they first made the pages of the Illawarra Mercury for their “religious insanity”. At the time, John was aged 43, and William, who reportedly was a member of the Salvation Army, was 46.

The Mercury reported that the brothers’ “madness” was first shown at a concert in May 1895, owing to a Biblical recitation, one brother having travelled several miles to “interview the reciter”. The Illawarra Mercury reported on Thursday June 6 1895:



(From our Correspondent)

Austinmer, Tuesday.

On Saturday last some of the residents of our quiet little village were the spectators of a scene which will not readily fade from their memories. Two brothers, named Reynolds, whose conduct for a short time previously had been of a peculiar nature, on Saturday morning terrified their neighbours by behaving in a manner which left no doubt that their minds were unhinged. First they smashed the windows of the cottage and then almost everything breakable in the place – crockery, pots, etc., -shared the same fate, the unfortunate fellows the whole shouting loudly in the most distressing manner. It was soon seen that something would have to be done in the matter, and as Dr. Sturt happened to be on a visit to the locality, the manager of the colliery asked him to visit the men. This the doctor did, and narrowly escaped a very serious injury, for the elder brother made a charge at him with an iron poker, the full force of the blow fortunately descending on the door, which was split its entire length, Dr. Sturt escaping with only a slight bruise on the hand. The doctor informed the Bulli police of the case by a telephone message from Thirroul, and Senior-constable Ross and Constable Kelly were soon on the scene. It was seen that the capture of the men would be anything but an easy matter, but as there was no lack of assistants it was at last effected, although the poor fellows were most violent. They were secured with handcuffs and ropes, and escorted to Bulli by the 7.30 train, being lodged in the cells and straight jackets being made use of. On Monday morning they were brought before the court, when Dr. Sturt and Dr. Kane certified that they were suffering from religious mania, and they were ordered to be placed under restraint. They were taken to Sydney by the milk train. Great sympathy is felt here for the unfortunate men, as they were quiet and inoffensive and of temperate and industrious habits. The elder brother had for some time been a member of the Salvation Army. It may be mentioned that the police exercised the greatest consideration in their treatment of the patients.

The Star of the Sea Hotel, Bulli in the 1890s. Picture: Wollongong City Libraries

Just over 12 months later, in October 1896, John Reynolds was released from the lunatic asylum. His brother, William, however, remained  locked away.

The Sydney Evening News reported John Reynolds became “dangerously mad” soon after arriving at Bulli in October 1896. He had only been released from the Gladesville Asylum a week earlier.

Reynolds visited the Wesleyan Church, now the Uniting Church at the corner of Point Street and the Prince’s Highway, and St Augustine’s Anglican Church in Park Road, where he frightened parishioners during Sunday services, with his “strange” and “eccentric” behaviour.

On Tuesday, October 13 he made his way to one of Bulli’s oldest pubs, the ‘Star of the Sea’. The long-gone pub was established in the late 1870s and closed for business in 1911.

The single storey timber inn traded just north of today’s Uniting Church on the Princes Highway.

While Reynolds was at the pub he began smashing up a room, barricading himself inside and arming himself with a knife.

Hospital for the Insane, Gladesville, where brothers, John and William Reynolds were committed. John spent 28 years in the hospital and died there in 1923. Picture: Supplied

The police, with the assistance of eight customers, burst the door open and after a struggle, disarmed and overpowered Reynolds.

The Evening News reported that “great indignation is expressed throughout Bulli at the action of the authorities in releasing Reynolds from the asylum”.

John Reynolds, who was a single man, was taken to the Bulli lockup, where he was “muffed and guarded”, and later re-committed to the Gladesville Asylum. He died at the asylum in 1923 at the age of 71.

Although we know John’s brother, William was committed to the Gladesville asylum in 1895, his fate remains a mystery and is unknown.

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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