01 October, 2016

What really happened at the Friend in Hand Hotel

In my previous post, I looked at some of the stories surrounding the ghost which supposedly haunts the site of the old Friend in Hand Hotel which stood for a time during the 19th century on the corner of the Fyansford-Gheringhap and the Friend in Hand Roads. Now I will look for some truth amidst the fiction of the Friend in Hand ghost - Thomas Brock.
Immigration records show that in December, 1849 Thomas - a 24 year old Englishman - arrived at Port Phillip on the Andromache, along with his mother Mary Ann and three younger sisters. The following year, his mother married Thomas Solomon Crabtree, a local builder whilst her son Thomas entered into the butchering trade.
Next, on 3rd August, 1854 the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer reported the purchase of allotment 2, section 9 of the Parish of Gheringhap. The block consisted of 108 acres, 1 rood, 28 perches of land located on the Ballarat Rd (Fyansford-Gheringhap Rd). The purchaser as recorded in both the newspaper and the Victorian Government Gazette, was Thomas Brock* (see note below). It was here, on the north western corner of the Friend in Hand and Fyansford-Gheringhap Roads that Brock decided to build a hotel.
Section of the 1891 Gherineghap Survey map overlaid on Google Earth, showing
Brock's land but with the purchaser's name as Thomas Brook
Within months of the date of purchase, construction was underway on the new establishment. I can find no call for tenders to build the hotel, so suspect that it was his step-father who undertook the building work with the assistance of subcontractors. The hotel is described in John W Pescott's Children's book The Ghost at Friend-in-hand as a two-storey, solid-brick construction with a slate roof and a later newspaper advertisement described it has having a sitting room, bar parlor, five bedrooms and a bachelors' hall. Also from the context of those reports, it did have a second storey, this was not a small establishment. Sadly, I have not been able to find a picture of the hotel.
Whether or not Crabtree had any financial interest in the building is not clear, however with the hotel still under construction in May, 1855, he was declared insolvent. Despite this, building appears to have continued and in any case, the extent of Crabtree's financial difficulties may not have been extensive. After the usual round of meetings to establish debt and creditors' claims throughout May and June, Crabtree gave notice in the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer of 8th October, 1855 of his intention to apply to the Commissioner of the Insolvent Court for his "certificate, free from all debts and liabilities after this date". In other words, he would be cleared of his insolvency.
By late October, the hotel was nearing completion and Brock along with his mother and step-father was living in the building itself. Tents used by sub-contractors also working on the site had been erected near the main building. Things should have been coming together for the family, however Crabtree it seems was a regular drinker, who became aggressive, even violent when drunk and Brock probably knew how to stand up for himself. Perhaps the stresses involved in organising the construction coupled with his insolvency put strain on the relationship between Crabtree and his step-son and this, when combined with a night spent drinking, had fatal results for Brock.
The first report of Brock's death appeared in the Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer on 29th October, 1855 when a short article reported on a murder "committed in a tent, on the Ballarat road, between Fyans' Ford and the Eureka Inn" on the night of the 27th-28th of October. It (erroneously) gave the name of the deceased as Brooke and indicated that his father-in-law had been arrested on suspicion of murder. (The misconception of the exact relationship between Brock and Crabtree it seems, has carried through from the earliest newspaper reports to the present-day folklore about Brock's murder.)
On the same day that news of the murder broke and with the post mortem still being conducted in the tent where he died, a coroner's inquest was held at Brock's hotel, only metres from where his body lay.
Brock's mother Mary Ann, gave evidence that she had retired to bed at about 11pm. Her son had arrived home shortly afterwards. He was sober. Crabtree arrived home drunk about half an hour after that. Brock told his mother that he had endeavoured to bring his step-father home, but to no avail.
The keeper of the toll gate they passed on the way home [presumably Fyansford] gave evidence that the pair had approached his gate and that Crabtree was drunk and "making a great noise about his carpenters". He sent them on their way, after which they must have separated.
Some time later, Crabtree arrived home and demanded to be let in (Brock having arrived earlier). Not long after, both Mary Ann and Richard "Dick" Dibley - a bricklayer living in one of the tents at the building site - heard a noise "like something falling on the floor" or "like the kettle [being] overturned". This no doubt was the sound of Crabtree hitting his sleeping step-son over the head with the saucepan.
Cast iron pot probably similar to that used to hit Brock. Image from Wikipedia
Mary came downstairs to find her husband sitting within a yard of her son who was conscious on the sofa with a "cut on his eye". During the course of discussion about Brock's injury Crabtree told his wife "it's only gammon, see how I am hurt!" meaning that Brock's injury was "nonsense" i.e. not serious and referring instead to a cut on his own face, received from Brock in an earlier altercation, perhaps when Brock had attempted to bring his step-father home.
Dibley stated that Mary Ann had then called out "Dick, do come, for I think that Thomas is Murdered". Dibley spoke to Crabtree and when asked what he had done, Crabtree replied "not half so bad as he has done to me", referring again to his own injury. He also admitted to striking Brock with the flat part of the saucepan which was tendered as evidence still in its bloodied state. Inside the house, Dibley found Brock sitting on the sofa and bleeding profusely from what he described as a "great wound on his right eye". This was no small cut.
He and Mary Ann washed the wound whilst -Dibley claimed - an agitated Crabtree swore at his wife and called his step-son expletive-laden names (an employee of Brock's also present claimed not to have seen Crabtree at that time or heard his bad language, however Dibley reaffirmed his own evidence). At Brock's request, he was removed to a tent outside where he lost consciousness at around 5am Sunday morning. Prior to this and still able to speak, Brock told his mother when asked, that he did not remember being hit and said to Dibley "Oh! Dick, I think I'll never get over this--never!"
Between 8 and 9am Dr John Gordon was called to attend to the now unconscious Brock. Once again Crabtree was keen to stress the severity of his own injury, telling the doctor "he has not got half so much as I have got". Dr Gordon then bled the patient and applied mustard plasters, but to no avail. Brock died at around 1pm that afternoon from significant head injuries, described in detail at the inquiry and in the media. His age was given as 28 years.
When asked about the relationship between Brock and Crabtree, Mary Ann - as might be expected - claimed the two got on well and that there was no conflict between them, either over Crabtree's insolvency or the property. Dibley on the other hand deposed that he had heard the pair arguing over the insolvency and stated that Crabtree had said "this property had been bought for him" suggesting perhaps that the family's financial arrangements were intertwined.
Upon learning that Brock had died on the Sunday afternoon, Dibley said that Crabtree claimed he "was very sorry for what had happened, and if he had thought it would have killed him he would never have done it...he jumped up...and said, "O! good God! Dick don't say so, I never thought that he would die".  On the Sunday afternoon, Crabtree went to Batesford to hand himself in to the police.
The inquest concluded and the jury returned a verdict of willful murder (Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 30th October, 1855). Subsequently on 2nd February, 1856 Thomas Crabtree pleaded not guilty to a charge of willful murder and after direction by the judge, a jury instead found him guilty of manslaughter and sentenced him to seven years hard labour on the roads (The Argus, 6th February, 1856).
The judge and jury of the Geelong Circuit Court sitting at Thomas Crabtree's
murder trial, Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer, 4th February, 1856
I have found no subsequent record of sale for Brock's hotel, but do know that it was operating as a public house by late 1857 under the name of the Friend in Hand, although where this name came from I do not know. In April 1859 William Roberts took over as the licensee and, I believe owner. Then, after another bizarre display of behaviour by Crabtree - who it can only be assumed did not serve his full sentence for the murder of Brock - on 7th August 1860 Roberts had him charged  with having "attempted to take forcible possession of the Friend-in-Hand Inn, Ballarat road". Crabtree it was stated, had arrived at the hotel during the afternoon of the 5th August, "used grossly insulting language" towards Roberts, before attempting to physically throw him out. Crabtree claimed that "the Friend-in-Hand premises were his lawful property. He bought them years ago. Had never willingly parted with them and went to take possession". He was ordered to pay a fine of 40s and to keep the peace for the next six months (Geelong Advertiser, 8th August, 1860).
The following month, Roberts appears to have struck financial difficulties, with the two-storey brick hotel listed for sale by the mortgagee. With no buyer forthcoming, Roberts renewed his liquor license in April, 1861, however this did not stop him once again putting the hotel on the market barely a month later, the advertisement stating that he was intending to leave the district. The furniture and stock-in-trade was to be auctioned on 25th June.
In September, 1861 the license for the premises was transferred to Thomas Lloyd Poole, who I suspect was only leasing the property. Poole however, was no more successful in his endeavours than Roberts and by the end of June, 1863 the hotel's stock, household furniture and stock-in-trade were being auctioned off as the tenant (presumably still Poole) was "under distraint for rent". The name of the owner seeking arrears on the rent is not stated.
Auction notice for the Friend in Hand Hotel, Geelong Advertiser, 29th June, 1863
By 1866, barely 11 years after its construction and the death of Brock, the Friend in Hand Hotel was no longer trading. An article in the Geelong Advertiser from March that year noted that "the old landmarks of the Ballarat road are gradually disappearing, the old Friend-in-Hand is closed up...to one who can remember the coaching days, when one could not go from Geelong to Ballarat without meeting four or five hundred drays laden with merchandise the road, one half of which is only used, presents a most dreary and uninviting prospect".
And it was this, perhaps far more than "Brock's ghost" which was responsible for the ill fortune of the Friend in Hand Hotel. By 1855 when Crabtree and Brock set about building their hotel, there were already several licensed establishments in the area to service those heading to the goldfields. At Fyansford the Fyansford and Balmoral Hotels had recently opened, whilst at the top of Fyansford Hill the Fair View Hotel had also opened its doors. By 1856 the Swan Inn was once again trading as a public house, or for those wishing to stop further out of town, the Eureka Hotel at the corner of the Ballarat and Buninyong Roads (Fyansford-Gheringhap Rd and Midland Hwy) had been catering to the passing trade since 1853. Thus the opening of the Friend in Hand made six hotels along a seven mile stretch of road from the top of Fyansford Hill to Gheringhap, all competing for the patronage of those heading to the gold fields.
To make matters worse, by the 1860s, many of the alluvial gold deposits at Ballarat had been worked out and gold extraction was shifting towards company-based, deep lead mining. The days of the hopeful digger toting his swag to Ballarat had passed. Then, in 1862 the Geelong-Ballarat railway line opened, meaning a further decline of road traffic between Geelong and Ballarat. As the traffic along the Ballarat road from Fyansford declined, so did business at the Friend in Hand Hotel.
At some point the hotel and the land were sold once again. The next owner - John Rock (aka Rook) - already owned land in the area. He was not a publican and instead, used the hotel land to run stock, before leasing it out in 1866. By 1870 he had also leased the hotel building to Daniel Butler Watson who in March, 1870 gave notice that he intended to apply for a "beer license".
Whether or not such a license was granted, Watson was living at the hotel by 1871 where he was operating a small store from the site. In July however, he was arrested on charges of forgery, uttering a false cheque and obtaining goods and money using a valueless cheque. The only witness for the defence was Jane Nichols, a married woman was described as Watson's "paramour" who was living at the hotel with Watson and her children who were described as being "badly clothed, and bearing the stamp of wretchedness an want". Jane made a poor witness and Watson was committed to stand trial.
Could this be the period in which the hotel became the home to passing tramps (and criminals) suggested in Roy Holden's notes on the hotel? If this was the case, it is perhaps not surprising that in early 1876, Rock decided to demolish the building, auctioning off the building materials therefrom on 24th February. Today, the site is an empty field, ploughed and waiting for a crop.
Panoramic view of the site where the Friend in Hand Hotel stood, looking north
west across the block, September, 2016 (click to enlarge)
As for Thomas Brock, he is said to have been buried in a plot of land just behind his hotel. According to Pescott's version of the tale, Brock's overactive ghost was the reason for the hotel's lack of success and it was claimed that no-one would buy the goods and chattels from the hotel when auctioned, for fear of upsetting the ghost. It also tells that Brock's grave was eventually ploughed over and lost, leaving his spirit wandering the nearby paddocks and lane ways, looking for his final resting place - a location I would also like to find!
And on a final cautionary note, the records for Geelong's Eastern Cemetery show that Thomas Brock (aged 28) was buried in an unknown grave at the cemetery on 29th October, 1855, however local sources inform me that this was probably a modern record of a lone grave taken from details in the Geelong Advertiser and recorded with the cemetery for cataloguing purposes. Brock's true resting place most likely lies under a ploughed field beside the "Ballarat road from Fyansford", lost more than a century ago.

*NOTE: Whilst the 1891 survey map for the parish of Gherinegap indicates that the purchaser was Thomas Brook, the Victorian Government Gazette and Geelong Advertiser and Intelligencer both give the name as Thomas Brock.


  1. Wow, your research, as always, is in such great detail and is very informative. Thanks, Jo.

  2. We lived a 5-50 fyansford gheringhap Rd. The property that has the historic Swann inn stables.... Most of us never slept well and had freaky experiences in the House. Know anything about this site?

    1. It mentions that stable in the book.