09 May, 2013

The Riversdale Tragedy

As alluded to in my post Where did it all go? I have dealt with the topic of murder in relation to the Barwon before. These cases (which received media coverage at the time) were within living memory, however  the case which recently caught my eye dates to a much earlier period and at least indirectly involved the Roadknights. Well, to be more precise it involved the property Barwon Crescent, the home of William Roadknight from the 1840s and by 1876 owned by his son Thomas.
In the mid 1840s, William built a large brick home for the family to replace the more modest "Barwon Cottage" in which they had previously lived.  His eastern neighbour on the opposite side of Pakington Street was the lawyer, pastoralist and politician Charles Sladen Esq. whose residence - known as Sladen House - was built only a few years after Barwon Crescent in 1849/1850. To the west was the one-time property of Captain Foster Fyans, known as River(s)dale and it was from this that the Bendigo Advertiser took the title for its article of 15th February, 1876. The title which I have also used for this post.
William also established an orchard which from later context, I believe was located on the low-lying land between the river and the bottom of Pakington Street. Today, this area of river flats forms part of the park lands along the river trail. It has been revegetated with native plantings and Barwon Water has recently made several changes, removing a boardwalk which ran from the stairs at the bottom of Pakington Street.
Looking west from below Pakington Street across what may have been the
Roadknight orchard. The chimney of the Austral Paper Mill is in the
middle distance
In 1876 however, it was an orchard which the Roadknights had leased out to a market gardener by the name of William Stenton and his family. According to newspaper reports, on 11th February, 1876, Stenton and his adult daughter were picking fruit in the orchard at about 2:30pm. The pair returned to the house in which they were living (by implication I am thinking this may have been the older Barwon Cottage, as Thomas and his family were living at Barwon Crescent at the time).
On her way back down to the orchard, the daughter heard cries of "murder!". The report posted in various newspapers including the Queenslander of 26th Feb described the events which then unfolded thus:
She [the daughter] rushed up there and found her father standing over her mother and holding her by the hair, battering her head on the stone door-step. He then took off his boots and struck her a terrific blow on the temple. The daughter screamed and ran to Mr. Roadknight's house, but there were no men about. The alarm was sent to Sir Charles Sladden's(sic) residence, which is opposite, and that gentleman's groom, named Hinchcliffe, rushed over to Stenton's and saw him. Stenton seized a log of wood and made at Hinchcliffe, who ran for the police, informing several of the neighbours on the road, several of whom ran down, and the first man there found Stenton lying on his back a few yards from the house, with his throat cut from ear to ear, and still grasping a razor in his hand.
This image, held by the State Library of Victoria was first published on 19th
February, 1876 in the Police News
The Colac Herald of 17th February and Bendigo Advertiser of 15th February give broadly similar accounts, but have Stenton attacking his wife and chasing his daughter before once again setting upon his wife who returned inside against the daughter's advice. The mother then died in her daughter's arms in the bedroom where she had taken her after the first attack to dress her wounds. Stenton it seems then grabbed a razor and slashed his own throat before staggering outside. He was still alive when concerned neighbours began arriving, however by the time a doctor was summoned it was too late.

Current path leading from the river flats up to the bottom end of Pakington Street
But what drove him to such lengths? According to the same articles, some months prior to these events, much of Stenton's crop had been damaged by flooding. Whilst there is little in the papers which indicates a significant flooding event in the months prior to Stenton's death, there was mention of sheepskin sales being low in early June as a result of flooding along the Barwon. Perhaps it was at this time his crop was damaged. Furthermore, according to the Queenslander, at about this same time, one of Stenton's three sons ran away to sea.
The resultant stress, it was believed, so unhinged his mind as to render him a "dangerous lunatic". As a result, in December, 1875, the local magistrate's court committed Stenton to be confined at the Kew Lunatic Asylum.
The Kew Lunatic Asylum in its early years, image held by the State Library
of Victoria

One can only imagine the stigma associated with having an "insane" relative in the 19th century and one who furthermore was the family's chief bread-winner. This is not to mention the inconvenience of having their father and husband incarcerated in Melbourne. Why he was not committed to a local facility is not made clear, however perhaps Kew - opened only five years earlier - was seen as the state-of-the-art facility at the time.
Likewise, Geelong Hospital had its own "lunatic ward" which was first mooted in 1867 and finally established in 1872. Ironically in view of the events at Barwon Crescent, an article appearing in The Argus of 15th March, 1869, quoted Charles Sladen as saying that the hospital trustees did not have the power to approve the erection of such a ward on hospital grounds as this was outside the scope of the original intention for their use. Eventually it seems, his opinion was overruled and the ward built. Prior to this time, Geelong's mentally ill patients were housed at the Geelong Gaol about which I have blogged previously.
However the question remains as to why Stenton was sent to Melbourne for treatment. An article published in The Argus on 16th February - after the deaths of William and his wife - indicated that William had been admitted to the asylum suffering from depression and insomnia on 9th December, 1875, but that he was neither "dangerous nor destructive". After a week or two his symptoms were greatly alleviated and his physical health -which had not been good- improved. He was keen to return home.
Closer to the river, the land has been revegetated and the Barwon River Trail
runs through it, however further back a creek or drain runs below the steep drop
from Pakington Street and the area is choked with reeds as well as ash, elm
and poplar which no doubt date back to the 19th century
Regardless he remained there a few weeks longer until his family, learning of this improvement in his condition, successfully secured his release on a two month trial on 12th January, 1876. However, upon returning home, some reports claimed he would often fly into a rage, threatening his family with violence whilst others indicated that he was quiet and refused to see guests, but until the afternoon of his death, he used no force and caused no physical injury.
In a sad adjunct to the whole affair, it was indicated that Stenton's eldest son was soon to be married, the banns due to be posted a third time only two days after the death of his parents. The wedding, it was stated, would have to be postponed.


  1. Can anyone tell me who sourced this information?

  2. Hi Richard, I believe the sources I used are stated in the article and most (if not all) were obtained from the newspapers of the day via Trove.