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The events that unfolded on the night of 6 October 1854 only served to heighten the tension that was felt on the goldfields. James Scobie’s death and the manner in which the authorities dealt with the administration of justice began a chain of events culminating in the stockade.
Just after midnight on the night of 6 October 1854, diggers James Scobie and Peter Martin, noticing that a light was on, stopped at the Eureka hotel for a final round of drinks before heading back to the goldfields. Inebriated after a night of drinking, the rowdy pair became involved in a brawl that resulted not only in the breaking of a hotel window but also in the untimely death of the Scottish digger Scobie.
That afternoon, Coroner David John Williams held an inquest into the death of James Scobie. Twelve jurors (many of whom had known the Scotsman from the Eureka Stockade) were selected to hear the evidence and depositions presented, including forensic evidence from Dr Carr. During the inquest it was observed that the Coroner was interrupting the proceedings on a fairly regular basis, and many questioned his decision to allow the hotel proprietor, James Bentley, to cross-examine the young witness Bernard Welch; Peter Lalor had also seen Bentley talking to the Coroner while the jurors were deciding on a verdict.
James Bentley, in the deposition given at the inquest, stated that he had heard loud noises and knocking on his door and was told by staff that it was
‘some drunken men wanting drink about an hour or three quarters after that we were aroused and told that Dr Carr wanted to bring a person in who was supposed to be dead’ (VPRS 5527 Unit 1, Item 1).
Bentley, along with his staff Thomas Mooney, the hotel watchman; Thomas Farrell, a clerk; and William Duncan, the barman denied taking part in the murder but agreed that two men did come knocking after midnight.
Depositions were heard that contradicted those of Bentley, Mooney and Farrell, in particular that of ten-year-old Bernard Welch, who lived thirty yards from where Scobie’s body was found. Welch’s account of that evening places both Mr and Mrs Bentley at the scene, along with‘three or four other men’. Mary Ann Welch, Bernard’s mother, had also heard noises outside her tent:
‘My son the last witness and I had some conversation last night when we were disturbed during which I said I wonder if those voices are the voices of Mr or Mrs Bentley’ (VPRS 5527 Unit 1, Item 1).
After the depositions had been heard the jury found that there was not enough evidence against Bentley and as a result the matter was adjourned. However, unsatisfied both with the way the proceedings had been conducted and with the verdict, several individuals, including future stockade leader Peter Lalor, formed a committee to further investigate the proceedings of the inquest.
The pressure placed on the Ballarat authorities for a further investigation into the circumstances surrounding Scobie’s death resulted in a judicial inquiry presided over by Gold Fields Commissioner Robert Rede, Police Magistrate John Dewes and Assistant Commissioner Johnston on 12 October.
Dewes’s nefarious association with James Bentley was well known among the locals. The Police Magistrate’s financial association with Bentley had ensured that Bentley obtained the liquor licence for the Eureka hotel without the usual red tape involved. Dewes’s biased attitude was demonstrated throughout the proceedings. Any witness who appeared to display an unfavourable view of Bentley was subjected to regular cross-examinations, a fact that did not fail to attract the attention of those present in the courtroom:
The same deponents who had been present during the inquest now related their account of the chain of events of 6 October. According to Peter Martin’s deposition for the coroner’s inquest, he and Scobie had made their way to the hotel after noticing that the lights were still on:
‘Deceased went up to one of the windows and asked to get in and a blow was struck at the head of the Deceased through the window as if by a man’s hand I was knocked down… before I could distinguish who struck me… my eyes were attracted towards him [Bentley] because he was the only person I saw with a weapon in his hand’ (VPRS 5527 Unit 1, Item 1).
Martin was knocked down and then quickly ran thirty to forty yards from the scene of the attack. Upon his return he found Scobie unconscious and after examining his friend rushed towards the nearby butcher store owned by Archibald Carmichael, and he in turn went to summon Dr Carr. Upon his arrival, Carr was unable to detect any sign of life and recommended that the body be removed for a more thorough examination to Bentley’s hotel, where he was subsequently pronounced dead.
During the adjournment Police Constable John Dougherty and Constable Michael Costello observed Bentley entering Magistrate Dewes’s office where he remained for approximately ten minutes. Once the hearing had reconvened, Dewes and Rede announced that the accused were to be discharged. Assistant Commissioner Johnston, however, did not share this view, nor did the multitude of diggers who were expecting a finding of guilty.
A meeting to discuss the events was organised for all those who felt that justice had not been served. The same committee who had pushed for the hearing was now demanding that a more thorough investigation take place, one that should be heard by a jury. The date for the meeting was set for 17 October outside Bentley’s Eureka hotel.
In many ways the riot that occurred at Bentley’s hotel that afternoon acted as a catalyst in bringing the case of Scobie’s murder to trial. The formation of the Committee for the Prosecution of the Investigation into the Death of James Scobie had sent a petition to Lieutenant Governor Sir Charles Hotham in Melbourne:
‘That your petitioners, feeling dissatisfied with the manner in which justice has been administered in regard to the death of one James Scobie who was brutally murdered near Bentley’s Hotel’ (VPRS 5527/P Unit 1, Item 6).
Two days after the riot a reward of £500 was offered to any individual with information that could lead to the arrest and conviction of any persons involved in the death of James Scobie. Thomas Mooney was taken into custody and Detective Senior Sergeant Cummings travelled to Melbourne to apprehend Mr and Mrs Bentley.
On 22 October the government was advised that new evidence had been brought to its attention. Thomas Mooney, a witness to the murder, conceded to the authorities the circumstances surrounding Scobie’s death, and provided a detailed account of the events, implicating both the Bentleys and Thomas Farrell:
‘I did not see Bentley strike the man but he had a spade in his hand he got the spade from near a tent … Mr Bentley said that is the right way to serve the vagabonds for breaking our windows they all went back to the House and I think they went to bed as the lights were put out’ (VPRS 5527/P Unit 1, Item 5).
New depositions were collected for the upcoming trial, including the additional depositions given by mother and son Mary Ann and Bernard Welch. Michael Welsh, a waiter at the Eureka hotel, was also able to provide a deposition incriminating not only the Bentleys but also two of their staff members, barman William Duncan and former Chief Constable Thomas Farrell, the hotel clerk. Evidence implicating a man named William Hance was also brought forward and he too was apprehended.
The case of Queen v. James Francis Bentley, Catherine Bentley, William Henry Hance and Thomas Farrell in the murder of James Scobie commenced on Saturday 18 November, in Melbourne’s Supreme Court. Judge Redmond Barry presided over the case, Mr R.D. Ireland acted as Counsel for the Bentleys, while Mr A. Michie and Mr Whipman represented Thomas Farrell and William Hance respectively. Crown Prosecutor, Attorney General W.F. Stawell, presented evidence that had been previously used in the inquests and magisterial hearings, but on this occasion called two new witnesses, who would alter the fate of the accused. The waiter, Michael Welsh, who resided at the Eureka hotel, testified that on the night of Scobie’s murder he saw the victim arguing with the accused William Hance through the broken window of the hotel. This evidence was supported by the testimony given by Mooney.
In his sworn statement to the court Thomas Mooney gave a detailed account of his direct involvement in the murder of James Scobie:
‘Farrell struck Scobie and knocked him down I collared Martin and he was drunk and stumbled and fell, the Clerk and Farrell both kicked Scobie while he was down…I did not strike Martin but took him by the collar and he was so drunk he fell’ (VPRS 5527/P Unit 1, Item 5).
Mooney’s testimony also revealed Bentley and Farrell’s mendacious attempts to conceal the nature of what had transpired in the early hours of that morning:
‘he told me not to say anything about it except that 2 men were in the front of the house and he was in bed himself and that the 2 men went away, when Bentley said this Farrell was present the Clerk told me the day following not to say anything about it when Bentley returned from the Camp with the police he called me in again and again told me not to say anything more than he previously directed’ (VPRS 5527/P Unit 1, Item 5).
The jury took only fifteen minutes of deliberation. James Bentley, William Hance and Thomas Farrell were all found guilty of manslaughter. The following Monday, 20 November, the three prisoners were each sentenced to three years hard labour on the roads. Catherine Bentley, heavily pregnant at the time, was found not guilty. That very same afternoon Judge Barry was to preside over the trial of the Eureka hotel Rioters.