Saturday, August 17, 2019

A Dreadful Occurrence (Excursions into the Petty Sessions Part 2)

Continuing with the findings on Charles Webster (click here for first part). In 1862 he was fined 2/6 for having an unregistered dog and then was the subject of several entries until 1866 in the Victoria Petty Sessions for Maldon.

The local district became a borough in 1863 and residents were subjected to increased rates or taxes as the next time Charles pops up is with a number of people appealing against these charges. Some were upheld, others dismissed or reduced. Charles’ brother T.B (Thomas Brown) Webster is also shown with his charge being “struck out” whereas Charles’ charge was reduced to £60.

The following year 1864, Charles was defending himself against someone with the surname of Reynolds who accused him of: “Assuming the title of medical practitioner”. The case was dismissed, but it suggests that the chemist/druggist Charles may have had ideas above his station and someone called him to account although the person officiating decided it was too trivial to bother about and it was dismissed.

Early in February 1866, an Alessandro Rainoni accused Charles Webster of Assault - in what manner is not revealed - but the case was also dismissed.

TROVE online carries many detailed reports of the “Dreadful Occurrence at Maldon” that took place on 6 August 1866, the basic facts being as follows:-

Charles Webster shot dead one Frank (or Francis) Silverwood, a local Miner, at the rear of his premises in High Street, Maldon.

Silverwood had gone to the rear of Charles premises around 10 pm, possibly to see either him or Charles’ partner, Dr. Craig, about a medical matter. Apparently Charles had attended Silverwood and his wife Alice previously when a child of theirs was ill.

Photo of Maldon in 1867, taken by Jonathon Moon, just a year after Frank Silverwood was shot
Maldon Museum and Archives Association

It seems that there had been earlier mystery disturbances at night behind Websters house when suspicious individuals (allegedly “Chinamen”) were thought to be after the fowls and Charles had primed a double-barrelled shotgun ready to scare them off should they return. 

Charles stated that he heard the prowler, went outside, but it was too dark to see. He called out “Who’s That?” and when he had no answer, fired off the gun. 
Alas! the chance shot proved a deadly aim. Lights were produced, and the dead body of Mr Frank Silverwood found; the charge had penetrated like a bullet into or just under the left temple … Mr Webster placed himself in the hands of the police until the inquest is known.”

The initial inquest into Frank Silverwood's death was held at the Beehive Hotel (R)
Photo J. Moon, c. 1867, State Library of Victoria

At the trial on 9 October, the Crown Prosecutor discussed the gravity of the charge, the differences between murder with intent and manslaughter, and also asked the obvious question why Charles didn’t use a safer method if he just wanted to alarm the intruder, i.e. load the gun with powder but not shot [or aim high perhaps?]. It was also puzzling as to why Silverwood did not answer when Charles called out.

The trial makes for fascinating reading but is too lengthy to reproduce here in full, so please follow TROVE and click here to read.

The judge decided that the case was manslaughter, and the Defence convinced the jury that it was an unfortunate accident, that Charles was filled with remorse. He was acquitted.

Interestingly, on 12 October 1866, Charles was again up in the Petty Sessions, this time as the Complainant against another Assault on him by Mrs. Craig - was she connected to the same Dr. Craig who was his partner at the time of the shooting of Frank Silverwood? Why was Mrs. Craig angry? What form did the “assault” take? Verbal or physical? Unfortunately the questions remain forever unanswered as the Petty Session Register does not show any resolution, simply the signature of the person who chaired the session.

As Frank Silverwood was well-known and respected in the community and left a widow and two daughters, Margaret, 12, and Mary Embley, 2, there could have been repercussions; perhaps some did not agree with the verdict or had suspicions as to what really happened. The original Letters of Administration granted to Alice Silverwood can be read via Ancestry but the trail on her and her daughters goes cold. ***

At this distance in time, one can only make assumptions about Charles, but together with the “dreadful occurrence”, the Petty Sessions records do provide some evidence that he may have had a short fuse, possibly was inclined to drink, as were many men in that area, or maybe he took some of his own weird drugs to relieve his state of mind. 

It appears Charles must have wanted to leave the district for some time as he had tried to offload his chemist and druggist business at least two years prior to the shooting, as per this advertisement from 13 May 1864 in the Businesses for Sale column of the Melbourne Argus:-

TO LEGALLY-QUALIFIED MEDICAL PRACTITIONERS - WANTED - Immediately, a legally-qualified Medical Man to take a practice which has been carried on successfully for the last six years by the advertiser, who is compelled to relinquish the same.
For further particulars, apply to -


Another image from c. 1867 of High Street where Charles Webster had his Chemist and Druggist business
Photo J. Moon, State Library of Victoria.

The reality is, not being a qualified doctor one can attribute more than a degree of quackery to Charles and his name was in the newspapers again at the end of the year in connection with a case with the lurid title of “Death of a Lunatic at the Gaol”. Read the full report on TROVE here.

Hannah Williams, 32, seems to have suffered some sort of hysterical episodes for no apparent reason which involved fights with a neighbour, leaving her husband and dumping her clothes in the street. 

Her husband took her to Charles who kept giving her some unnamed pills that knocked her out, then another doctor was called who “ordered her hair to be cut and mustard plasters applied to her legs”.  Hannah “before her excitement” complained about a man trying to take advantage of her.

Given Charles Webster’s recent history, this paragraph is interesting: 
Charles Webster, practising as a medical man at Maldon, but not legally qualified, visited the deceased at the request of Mr. Williams. He found her in a state of great excitement, which arose in his opinion from functional disease [constipation?]. He gave her one drop of Croton oil [a highly toxic purgative] which did not act; on Sunday morning she was still more excited and he gave her some saline purgative, consisting of tartrate of soda, which operated [worked].
This was followed by more visits by other doctors and poor Hannah wound up in a strait jacket in Castlemaine Gaol, hardly the place for someone suffering “acute mania”. It was intended she be removed to the Yarra Bend Asylum but she died before this could be done. A Dr. McGrath opened her up and “found great congestion of the brain and its membranes; there was no organic disease of the brain itself.” 

Castlemaine Gaol c. 1861 where poor Hannah Williams died
State Library of Victoria

The newspaper discussed the problems of keeping “lunatics” in gaol when they should rightly be in the asylum, but one can’t help wondering if the hair-cutting, mustard plasters and sedative/purgative treatment by Charles Webster and other dodgy medical men hastened her demise. 

So where did Charles go? 

A surprising entry in the 1871 UK Census shows a Charles Webster visiting the farm Tregaminion Wollas which is right on the tip of Cornwall at Landewednack. He gives his occupation as “Surgeon, University of Glasgow”. His age and birth place of Cheney Sutton, Leicestershire, fits exactly with our Charles Webster.

What was he doing there? Did he return to Britain and properly complete his medical studies at Glasgow, or was he continuing to give the illusion of being a doctor in far-flung places where his dubious past in Maldon would be unknown? He is not listed in the official Calendar of British Physicians and Surgeons, 1830-1923.

A search of British Newspapers finds a C. Webster, Surgeon, mentioned a few times in inquests and other cases held at Bewdley, Worcestershire, during the 1870s and as there is no close matching individual to be found in the relevant records, there is a chance it could be our Charles but the evidence is circumstantial.

From public trees available on Ancestry, it is seen that Charles came from a very large family. The brother mentioned in the murder/manslaughter of Silverwood, Thomas Brown Webster was a mine manager and well-established in the Maldon community. He is buried in the Maldon Cemetery and is the ancestor of many still living in the district. (Charles does not appear to have been married.)

One Webster brother ended his days in Pennsylvania and Charles may well have travelled on to the USA or some other corner of the world, but researching him any further is beyond the scope of this tale and so he slips through the cracks of history. 

*** Francis Silverwood was born in Yorkshire in 1827. He married Alice Embley in 1852 in Clitherhoe, Lancashire, and sailed to South Australia in 1855 on the Europa. Francis was a Blacksmith by trade and as this was the height of the Gold Rush he must have decided to leave Adelaide and seek his fortune in the Victorian Goldfields. The estate documents indicate that he had less than five hundred pounds in assets. Anyone reading this who knows what happened to Alice and her daughters, please do get in touch.

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