21 May, 2011

A Murder on the Barwon

As I walked my way around the river on Tuesday I was witness to a murder - a murder of crows. Well, to be more precise, they were probably Australian Ravens.
There are three species of crow (the Little Crow, the House Crow and the Torresian or Australian Crow ) and three species of raven in Australia - the Australian Raven, the Little Raven and the Forrest or Tasmanian Raven. Not all of them are found in Victoria but all of them are similar enough to make telling them apart difficult.
Various sources inform me that the base of crows' feathers are white whilst those of ravens' are grey. I can't say I've ever been close enough to a crow or a raven to study the base of their feathers, but perhaps next time I come across a stray feather I'll investigate.
Australian Raven
I am no expert, but I believe those on the Barwon are most likely Australian Ravens. On any given day, there are ravens (commonly called crows) here and there, often flying overhead or calling from the trees. Everyone knows their call - loud, coarse, common. But listening more closely, you notice other aspects like the tailing note which dies away with a long, continuous creak which I find quite intriguing, or the short "creak-creak" which sounds very much like a squeaky door being opened.
Their behaviour is likewise interesting to observe. Generally as I said, they call from trees or scavenge at ground level, but occasionally - and this was definitely the case on Tuesday - they will congregate in a large group of a dozen or more and circle overhead, calling loudly. It is at times like these, or when walking past a tree full of the birds that the collective noun "murder" makes sense. They can be quite ominous in large numbers, circling and calling. I have no idea why there were so many on this occasion, or what had set them off, but they along with various other species were particularly active this time.
Australian Raven
Crows and ravens are considered quite intelligent birds, showing signs of communication, the use of simple tools and the ability to mimic human speech. Perhaps because of this, crows and ravens have  often played a part in the mythology of various cultures. The Norse peoples considered them a symbol of wisdom whilst the ancient Greeks considered them a sacred bird. Several pre-Christian deities were associated with crows. Many European cultures associated the crow or raven with death and doom. Other legends involve the transmogrification of humans into the form of these birds. Such stories have even been associated with the legend of King Arthur. To various Aboriginal tribes the crow was considered a trickster and as an ancestral being.
In modern times, they are often viewed with distaste due to their tendency to eat carrion or prey on weak animals such as sick lambs. Whilst their diet is predominantly carnivorous, also including insects, other small animals, eggs and human rubbish, they also consume grains and fruit, placing them further in the bad books of many farmers whose crops can be damaged.
Murder of the other kind is not completely unknown on the Barwon either. A glance at newspapers from bygone eras will reveal several stories. One of the very earliest reports talks of a white woman who was killed on the river at South Geelong. The murder on this occasion, was attributed to the mythical bunyip, but little more is mentioned.
The next mention in the media of murder on the Barwon River was in July, 1946 when the murdered bodies of William Stewart Sheargold and Ernest Frederick Dew were pulled from the river. They had been shot and dumped in the river downstream of the current Princes Bridge (at that time a timber bridge named for Prince Albert located further downstream), with Dew's body being disemboweled after death. Two men were arrested and charged with murder, however this charge was reduced to one of wounding with intent to murder and an inquest concluded in September, 1946 with an open finding.
Princes Bridge, Newtown
In August, 1953, the grizzly remains of a dismembered human body were found in the Barwon River. The victim was Donald Brooke Maxfield, a Colac man who had disappeared some months earlier in May. Two other Colac men it was alleged, had beaten Maxfield, dismembered his body and dumped it into the river from the Prince Albert Bridge, the various parts contained in bags and a kerosene tin. Another tin containing Maxfield's clothing was eventually located about half a mile down river the following February. Maxfield and the others were believed to have been involved in an earlier shop breaking incident. Fearing Maxfield would give evidence against one of the offenders, it was decided to silence him. Like all well scripted murder trials, the co-accused, laid the blame on each other with one offender claiming police coercion. 
The pair was found guilty of Maxfield's murder and sentenced to death, however these sentences were commuted to a sentence of life with no parole and one of twenty years imprisonment.
In recent years, there have fortunately been no further reports of murder.


  1. My great-great grandfather drowned in the Barwon river in 1855. Apparently he left the Young Queens Hotel (in a drunken state) after an argument with the publican and later was found drowned in the river. He is suspected of falling of a bridge in the area. An inquest was held at the Young Queens Hotel. he had migrated from the Isle of Skye three years earlier on the ship Araminta.

    1. Hi - this Donald McDonald is my great great grandfather too. Would love to share information and find out more about what happened to the family.

  2. So many stories associated with the river! Sounds similar to my 3xgreat-grandfather in Brisbane who came off second best after an argument with a publican too. He died of his injuries a few days later.