Author: Tara Oldfield
Edna Hill’s crime spree began in 1920, when she was just 20 years old. Black-haired, blue-eyed Edna, who had never been in trouble before, “succumbed to temptation” as the newspapers put it, and stole from her employer.
She was working as a domestic servant at the home of Mr and Mrs Harling. While Edna was making the bed one day, she came across Mr Harling’s wallet. She took it.
In the criminal trial brief, Edna’s statement reads:
“I am a single woman and I reside at 29 Drummond Street Carlton. I remember the 21st of September 1920 I was employed as maid by Mrs Harling of 52 Armadale St, Armadale. I was employed on the previous day. At about 7.30am on the 21st of September 1920 Mr and Mrs Harling left the house for their place of business leaving me in charge of their home. As soon as they left I started to do my day’s work and went into Mr Harling’s bedroom to make the bed. As I pulled the clothes off the bed I found underneath the pillow a wallet and a revolver. I examined the wallet and saw that there was two £100 notes. I then made up my mind to go away with the money as I had been in trouble and my baby was sick. Since I have taken the money I have spent all the notes. I spent portion of it and then tried to make it up by betting on horses. I lost about £100 in this way.”
She told the police she wished they had found her sooner so she wouldn’t have spent it all.
The judge took pity on her and suspended her prison sentence, allowing her out on bond and to be of good behaviour for two years. She lasted only a few months.
Black hat burglar
By April 1921, her crimes were more than just giving into temptation – she was actively seeking out houses to break into “for the excitement of the game” as she later told detectives.
From ten households, across the South Eastern Bayside suburbs, she stole clothing, watches and clocks, glasses, jewellery, and household items such as pillow cases and baskets (perhaps used to carry the items out of each house). She used some of the valuable jewellery to apply for loans, under false names, at various loan offices around Melbourne, and pawned other items at pawn shops. Staff identified her in court.
She was also identified by Joseph Leslie Backman, a bread carter who tried to deliver bread to one of the houses being burgled. He saw her at the back door of the house in which she told him that no one was home. She pretended to be visiting, knocking and waiting for an answer. He left two loaves of bread and left. She was also seen by a gardener leaving another house with a fur coat over her shoulder.
Brazenly, she even took a stolen item to court! She wore a wide-brimmed black hat with flowers that a witness claimed was one stolen from her house.
“The two dresses and watch produced Exhibit M they were stolen from my place. The hat accused is wearing at present is mine. Accused had no authority to take them,” Maud Appleton said in her statement.
According to newspaper reports, Edna smiled broadly at this.
Police found some - but not all - of the stolen other items in the room she was staying in, in Exhibition Street. When questioned she told the detectives that she had stolen from houses for the excitement, most of the items she didn’t even want or need. She said:
“I put them in the van of a tram at Malvern, they were so damn heavy to carry. I did not worry over them. I have not seen them since.”
She was found guilty and sentenced to 12 months in prison.
Mere months after getting out of prison she was back in court, again facing multiple charges. Among the charges were an April 1922 robbery committed while working as a domestic at the Downs Hostel in Carlton. She stole clothing from her employer Edith Peacock. She also stole £160 worth of clothing and pearls from the home of Percy and Ethel Blackburn in South Yarra, again shamelessly wearing the stolen items, this time while being questioned at the police station in full view of Ethel who positively identified the belongings as her own.
She stole more items from a house in East Malvern, and while attempting to rob a house in St Kilda, a grazier caught her red handed and took her to police. The grazier also pointed out to detectives that he’d seen a man in a car nearby the house, as if waiting for Edna. Edna also claimed that a man named Quinney had assisted her with the robbery. It’s unclear from the record whether the police pursued this Quinney character any further.
“No one in the St Kilda Court last Friday would have supposed that Edna Hill, a young woman, aged 22, dressed in a smart mouse-coloured costume, sitting beside Sergt. Dainty at the bar of the Court, was there for the purpose of answering a charge of housebreaking. She was at intervals in the case chatting with Sergeant Dainty quite in a merry style, laughing softly with a musical laugh, just as if she was one of a party of young women enjoying themselves at a fashionable restaurant.” The Prahran Telegraph.
Her charms didn’t work on the judge and jury. She was sent back to gaol.
An earnest attempt to reform
While in prison, Edna was found to be in such poor health that an operation was deemed to be necessary upon her release – it’s not clear from the records what exactly the health issue and/or operation was. On the 8th of December 1925 she was placed in a convalescent home under the supervision of Miss Henderson, a former Deaconess of the Presbyterian Church. While staying there, a Doctor advised her that immediate surgery was no longer necessary and that she should be well enough to take on a job. Court records relay that she tried hard to stay away from crime, including working jobs as a domestic and even speaking with Vida Goldstein about her situation, but was being persistently pursued by old criminal friends who wanted her to rob her employers for them.
“The girl made solemn promises to the Board before release that she would not again fall into dishonest ways. She appears to have made an earnest attempt to reform but her lack of training and her environment have been too much for her, and she has gradually slipped back to crime.” Indeterminate Sentences Board Chief Secretary.
While working for Mrs Dorothy Cone in Toorak, Edna stole an assortment of clothes and jewellery. It seemed that Edna Hill had not yet learned not to wear stolen goods in full view of their rightful owners! She wore Mrs Cone’s coat, jumper, stockings and diamond ring to the police station.
And so, by July 1926 she was back in court.
Her three and a half page letter to Judge Wasley detailed how she had been severely ill while trying to make a go of an honest living. She was constantly pursued by criminals wanting her to steal for them. She said she tried leaving town and taking on numerous positions under different names but they always found her. The stress of all this made her fall back into her old ways.
“From the time I was eighteen I have been under the influence of a man, whom I believed to be my husband. After I had been married some months I found out he was already married when he married me. I left him for some time but later he talked me over and I went back to him…. I was completely under the influence of this man… During my last sentence this man died and I felt that at last I could start afresh…
I ask you to believe that my intentions are not criminal. I’ve never had a mother or any home life nor have I had the chances most girls have. I hoped that by making good I would be able to live down the past and be a mother to my son who is under the care of a relative. In asking you to deal leniently with me I do not desire to evade punishment but I hope I still do make good some day.”
It appears she finally did make good. According to her record, her crime spree ended once released from prison in 1929.
As to what she did with the rest of her life we aren’t sure.
Newspaper articles in 1941 reported that a woman of the same name and age unfortunately lost her arm in a workplace accident. While working at her husband’s butcher shop her hand got caught in a mincer. Her hand was amputated at the wrist as a result. It’s not clear if this is the same Edna.
Her file in the Bound Circulated Photographs and Criminal Offences of Convicted Persons is marked “Deceased 16/6/1957” in blue pen.
Research PROV's crime records
Edna Hill is an example of the kinds of stories that can be found within the records in our collection. If you're interested in historical crime, delve into our Justice, Crime and Law Topic Page to get started.
We hold thousands of record series which relate to criminal convictions and court trials in Victoria. The files we've used in this story include criminal trial briefs and register of female prisoners. Cross checking these types of records against what was being reported in the newspapers of the time, via the National Library Trove website, is a great way to start to build a picture of the life of the criminal and crimes of your interest.
- Edna Hill 1920 criminal trial brief, VPRS 30 P0 unit 1907 item 664
- Edna Hill 1921 criminal trial brief, VPRS 30 P0 unit 1921 item 225
- Edna Hill 1921 criminal trial brief, VPRS 30 P0 unit 2139 item 407
- Edna Hill 1922 criminal trial briefs, VPRS 30 P0 unit 1972 item 315, 317 & 318
- Edna Hill 1922 criminal trial briefs, VPRS 30 P0 unit 1973 item 332 & 336
- Bound Circulated Photographs and Criminal Offences, VPRS 7856 P1 Unit 3
- Central Register of Female Prisoners, VPRS 516 P2 item volume 14
- Young Woman's Lapse, The Argus, 3 Dec 1920
- Girl Steals £215 and Gratuity, The Daily News, 3 Dec 1920
- Sudden Temptation, The Age, 16 Dec 1920
- Girl Housebreaker, Daily Mercury, 16 Apr 1921
- Woman Admits Housebreaking, Recorder, 11 Apr 1921
- Woman Housebreaker, The Argus, 9 Apr 1921
- A Girl Housebreaker, The Age, 9 Apr 1921
- Grazier's House Robbed, The Age, 27 May 1922
- Woman Housebreaker, The Northern Standard, 27 May 1922
- Merry Edna Hill, The Prahran Telegraph, 2 Jun 1922
- Pearls and Fur Coat Stolen, The Age, 9 Jun 1922
- Prisoners Sentenced, The Age, 9 Jul 1926
- Toorak Home Ransacked, The Age, 11 Jun 1926
- Edna Hill at Malvern, The Age, 13 Jun 1922
- Edna Hill Declared Habitual Criminal, The Age, 24 Jun 1922
- House Breaking Charges, The Advocate, 24 Jun 1922
- Woman's Ordeal, The Age, 26 Aug 1941
- Woman Loses Hand, The Argus, 26 Aug 1941