John Sangster (1928-1995) was a multi-instrumentalist and composer whose origins in the traditional jazz community in Melbourne during the 1940s were later effectively eclipsed by his involvement in a wide range of musical idioms and his astonishingly original contributions to them. In an obituary in the National Jazz Co-ordinator’s newsletter Jazzchord, Bruce Johnson wrote that ‘he leaves a body of work unrivalled in Australian jazz. In terms of tonal palette, originality, stylistic and emotional range, the creative attention he applied to the question of how to realize lived experience in musical terms, and the sheer quantity of work he produced, he is comparable to Duke Ellington.’ He is described by Mike Williams in his The Australian jazz explosion as ‘one of the most intuitive musicians Australia has produced in any idiom. Not the least of his qualities is his ability to create hummable themes which are both vaguely familiar and unique.’ Renowned for eccentricity and dissemblance, he left an idiosyncratic memoir, Seeing the rafters, that is extremely entertaining, while at the same time notable for its revisionism and invention.
As a composer his most significant work in the jazz idiom was his series of recordings based on the work of J. R. R. Tolkien, beginning with The Hobbit Suite in 1973. He was a member of The Don Burrows Quartet, and performed and recorded with Ray Price, Judy Bailey, Dave Dallwitz, Tony Gould, and others, as well as working as a composer and musical director in television, film, and advertising.
(For the purposes of present ease or gratification you may find the endnotes to this paper separately here, saving you the tedious obligation of flicking up and down the present page. You can print them off; they cover seven pages.)
Isabella Dunn Davidson was born in Perth, Scotland, on 26 May 1890.[i] The eldest of eight children born to stonemason John Thomson Davidson (1867-1907) and his wife Margaret (née Robinson, 1868-1954), who were married in Perth on 13 December 1889, she took both her given names from her maternal grandmother Isabella Robertson (née Dunn). Her immediately younger sibling James was born in 1892 and died probably at Ypres on 5 October 1917,[ii] and her father had died as a result of injuries sustained after falling from a bicycle, on 24 August 1907. Her remaining siblings[iii] and their mother migrated to Australia aboard SS Benalla, arriving on 26 June 1920. Isabella remained in Scotland with her husband, James Pringle (born 4 October 1888, St. Andrews, Fife), who worked as a window dresser and whom she had married in Perth on 19 February 1916. The Pringles later followed the remainder of Isabella’s family to Australia, arriving aboard TSS Moreton Bay, on 18 May 1922. Also listed among the 238 passengers on the ship was one John Sangster, aged 25.[iv]
After living a little while with Isabella’s family in Brunswick, just north of the city of Melbourne,[v] the Pringles moved during 1924 to a newly built house they appear to have rented at 3 Victory St., Sandringham. James Pringle however died at the Alfred Hospital in Prahran, from diabetes and broncho pneumonia, on 18 August 1927.[vi] His funeral left B. H. Matthews, Sth Yarra, on 20 August. On 6 September, after an interval of less than three weeks, Isabella Pringle and John Sangster (born in Aberdeen, Scotland, 10 September 1896) were married by Percy F. Clarke, registrar of marriages, at his office in Collins St., Melbourne. The address of both parties was given on the marriage certificate as 3 Victory St., Sandringham.
John (or Jack, or Jock) Sangster was one of at least ten children, five boys and five girls. He was the seventh born, and appears to have been the only one to come to Australia. His father, Harry Sangster, was probably born Henry Roll, in 1859; it is not entirely clear when (or even if) his mother Mary Jane (née McDonald) married the John Sangster whose widow she is said to be on her death certificate. She married William Roll on 2 December 1854, and their first two children, Lucy Ann (b. 1856) and William (b. 1858) both died of scarlet fever on 30 September 1860, one at midday and the other at midnight. Henry arrived a year later, but by the 1861 census his father has disappeared,[vii] and at some time thereafter his mother either married John Sangster or the couple persuaded people they were wed.[viii] It has become my impression that Henry Roll’s surname was quietly changed to Sangster at some point early in his life, and the nickname Harry took the place of Henry. He died in 1921, and his death certificate gives his parents as John Sangster, shipmaster (deceased) and Mary Jane Sangster, previously Roll, maiden name McDonald (deceased). Harry Sangster, listed in the censuses of 1901 and 1911 as a cashier at the Envelope Works, was married twice, firstly in 1879 to Margaret Reid Ross (1861-1888) and then in 1889 to Catherine Mary Milne Grant (1864-1929). The first partnership produced four children, and the second at least six.[ix]
Isabella and John Sangster’s only child was born at Moira Private Hospital, then at 47 Abbott St, Sandringham, on 17 November 1928.[x] He was named John Grant, Grant having been his paternal grandmother’s maiden name, and baptised by the Rev. J. Smiley at Sandringham Presbyterian Church on 9 June the following year.[xi] In the next few years, the family moved twice within Sandringham,[xii] and Grant J. Sangster – during his childhood he was known as Grant – was enrolled at Sandringham Primary School on 3 October 1933.[xiii] He spent only two years there before his family moved to Vermont and he began attending Vermont Primary School. The family’s home was in Glenburnie Rd.[xiv]
Grant Sangster completed his primary schooling in Vermont and then transferred to Box Hill High School, where he achieved his leaving certificate in 1945.[xv] As a teenager he was a member of the Vermont Scout troop, and developing an interest in music. It is during these years that Sangster’s published memoir, Seeing the rafters,[xvi] begins. Here he writes of working with rudimentary instruments – first a trombone and later a cornet – and a gramophone in the washhouse behind his family’s home, enraptured by his few jazz recordings and willing himself into the midst of their soundworld. Sangster gives the impression that most of this activity was conducted in isolation, although Sid Bridle, a friend from the Scout troop who shared an interest in jazz, was also keen enough to play trombone in the washhouse alongside Sangster’s cornet.[xvii] Later, they formed a band and rehearsed at Bridle’s family’s house in Forest Hill.[xviii] In 1946 Sangster commenced study at Melbourne Technical School towards a civil engineering diploma, of which he completed only a portion of the first year.[xix]
1946 was the year in which the Uptown Club, Graeme Bell’s cabaret at the Eureka Hall in North Melbourne, held its gala opening on Saturday, 29 June.[xx] Sangster writes in Seeing the rafters of travelling to hear the Bell band at the Uptown Club, and should this version of events be believed,[xxi] the performances to which he is referring must have taken place between June and September 1946.
On 21 September 1946, shortly after five p.m., Isabella Sangster died at home as a consequence of injuries to the head and neck. She had been struck several times with an axe. Her son was later charged with her murder.
This paper is an attempt to bring into the light a matter that has persisted in the Australian jazz scene as innuendo and rumour, and to clarify through an investigation of the recorded events the things that might be known about it. The intricacies of Sangster’s character have been alluded to in the past,[xxii] and his own writing, for all its jocularity and apparent generosity of spirit, has a notorious unreliability that is, it might be arguable, born of a will to obscure. The complexities of a man who could, in the years following his mother’s violent death, sustain a career composing and performing music as prolific and various as Sangster’s are worth investigating, but ahead of the speculation regarding the subsequent development of his character comes the attention to the narrative – the placing in order of events and their context.
The resources for this account are firstly the newspaper reports that appeared at the time of the incident, and these fall into two groups: the daily coverage that appeared as the case progressed, in the Melbourne newspapers The Age, The Argus, The Sun News-Pictorial and The Herald, and two longer accounts that followed in the first instance the coronial inquest, and in the second the conclusion of the trial, published in Melbourne’s Truth. Secondly, material is drawn from the brief held at the Public Records Office Victoria (PROV), and obtained under Freedom of Information through the Office of Public Prosecutions (OPP). The brief contains transcripts both of the coronial inquest, held at the morgue, and of the trial, conducted in the Supreme Court. Perusal of this material demonstrates the accuracy of the press reports, but fills in a great many details as well. Australian and Scottish genealogy records have been consulted, and I have also spoken with several people who knew Sangster at the time of his mother’s death in order to try to find out more about his personality in his youth and about his relationship with his parents.
SANGSTER.—On September 21, at her residence, Glenburnie road, Vermont, Isobel Dunn, beloved wife of John Sangster, and loving mother of John. —At rest.
SANGSTER.—The Funeral of the late Mrs. ISOBEL DUNN SANGSTER will leave our Parlours, 215 Glenferrie road, Malvern, THIS DAY (Tuesday), at 11 a.m., for the Old Cheltenham Cemetery.
ARMSTRONG AND WHITTLE (late A.I.F.), Malvern. U2443.[xxiii]
The death of Isabella[xxiv] Sangster is not a feature of Seeing the rafters; in fact, she is mentioned only once in those pages, as ‘Mither’, having ‘[come] frae Perth’ (on p. 56). Sangster’s father has left the story by the sixth page, and his presence at the outset is played mostly for comedy.[xxv] Bryony Cosgrove, who edited Seeing the rafters for Penguin Books, says that she immediately recognized ‘a lot of holes’ in the manuscript; ‘there were gaps regarding his childhood, parents; where he’d got that musical ability from, and as is always the way with autobiography, there were areas that he – I could tell, after that first meeting that he didn’t want to talk about them.’[xxvi] Sangster mentioned his mother on the interview record only once, to my knowledge. Asked about the musicality of his parents by Andrew Bisset (1953-2005) in the midst of research for what later became Black Roots, White Flowers,[xxvii] he said, ‘my mother used to play the piano extremely badly, but she did have two swing-out candlesticks that came out from the piano, and all the aunts used to gather round and they used to sing Presbyterian hymns. And thus crack me up.’[xxviii] I have not had the impression that Sangster ever talked in any greater detail than that about his parents, throughout his later life.
Of the friends of his with whom I have spoken, none can relate a great deal about either of John Grant Sangster’s parents. Of Sangster’s father, it is agreed generally that he was a quiet man, although one military colleague tells a story of his temper erupting quite unpredictably over a trifling incident.[xxix] Fay Shearer, who was at primary school with Grant Sangster, describes his father as ‘very abrupt; [he] didn’t show much sympathy to anyone.’[xxx] ‘You used to see him in the street, just sitting down on one of the chairs; he wouldn’t say anything to you…just watching the traffic; [he was] introverted…No-one really got to know him.’[xxxi] Sid Bridle particularly mentions that Grant’s father ‘didn’t have anything to do with us. Didn’t, you know, he wasn’t interested in the music, or us being out in the washhouse, or anything like that.’[xxxii] Grant’s enrolment at Sandringham Primary School gives his father’s occupation as a stock keeper.[xxxiii] Electoral rolls from the 1940s tell the same story. Previously, in Aberdeen in 1911, he had been an office boy at the Shipping Office.[xxxiv] He commenced full time war service in the 6th Supply Personnel Company on 1 July 1940, having signed his oath of enlistment on 24 June, and served around Melbourne until the beginning of 1944. That year he was transferred to New Guinea, returning in December 1945.[xxxv] He was discharged from the Army in May 1946. His report from the Army Service Corps School, dated 27 April 1942, describes him as ‘a very good type of N C O…[he] is confident and has a good style in lecturing. Exhibited a very keen interest and made good progress on the course. Power to command is very good. Has a very good knowledge of supply work.’[xxxvi] At the time of his death, in 1975, his occupation is given as ‘Clerk’, and this is how he identifies himself also at the inquisition on 31 October 1946.[xxxvii] Something of his relationship with his son is suggested by the court records, although the circumstances of its portrayal cannot be ignored.
Pictures of Grant’s mother are dimmer still. Physically she is described as ‘big, solid’[xxxviii] and personally as ‘a grim sort of person’.[xxxix] Fay Shearer reports that ‘she just sort of said hello to you and that was it.’[xl] Sid Bridle recalls meeting her only once, but that on this occasion it was after the boys had been playing in the washhouse and she prepared a hot supper for them, ‘spaghetti, it was, and you know, out of the can, that sort of stuff, but a hot supper! I thought this was terrific.’[xli] Robin Briggs (1938-2010), whose mother was Agnes Robertson Davidson (1901-1981), Isabella’s sister, gives more information about family dynamics and the place of Isabella (whom her family knew as Belle) within it. He writes: ‘I remember mum speaking of Belle as being used to getting her own way and always being very hard to get on with. She was the eldest, very determined and sure of herself, and in those days, (as now too, I suppose) biggest/toughest was very much the boss.’ He recalls having been taken to stay in Glenburnie Road for three or four days in 1942 or 1943; Isabella was alone as Grant was away either on a school trip or with the scouts, and her husband was in the army.
I don’t know what a five year old could have done! [But] I was expected to help with the chores that Grant would have done like chop wood for the stove and the open fire. As far as I recall, I had never chopped wood, (I was 4 or 5) and I didn’t know what to do, or how to cut it. She yelled at me and I remember when I got home telling my mother that she was a strict (and I suppose) bad tempered person. I wasn’t used to being yelled at, and was certainly spoilt.’[xlii]
Briggs also tells of Belle playing the piano for him, since he was missing his family, away from them for the first time. She played, he said, some Chopin that he had heard his father play, and this cheered him up.[xliii] And then
Grant did come home and he showed me his air rifle and his trumpet (which my father told me was a cornet from my description) and talked about triple tonguing which I didn’t understand (I remembered to ask my father and he explained when I got home). He played loudly and disturbed his mother who told him to chop the wood that I hadn’t done while he was away.[xliv]
Fay Shearer describes the young Grant Sangster as ‘very quiet [and] very reserved…[he] didn’t join in anything very much.’[xlv] While he did turn up to dances at the Vermont Scout Hall, he ‘looked the odd man out.’ He danced only with Shearer, she says, and he was ‘not a good dancer. Went from one corner to the other, then turned, and that was the extent of his dancing prowess.’[xlvi] Another primary school friend, Margaret Clarke describes Grant as ‘one lonely little boy’ and Shearer says that his parents were ‘not…very interested in him.’[xlvii] He was, she says, ‘uncertain…[he] didn’t get on very well; it wasn’t because he was nasty – just very quiet.’[xlviii]
Isabella Sangster’s unmarked grave in the Old Cheltenham Cemetery is now shared with her mother, who died in 1954, her sister Elizabeth, who died in 1957, and James Pringle.[xlix] So when she was buried it was just he and she who shared the plot.[l] The brief interval between her death and her funeral had included an examination of her body on 23 September by Dr Keith Macrae Bowden,[li] her husband having identified it at the City Morgue on September 22.[lii] Anything more about her valediction seems lost; the firm that conducted her funeral is no longer in business.
By the time Isabella Sangster had been buried, reports relating to the circumstances of her death had appeared in all four of the major Melbourne newspapers. Of those that appeared on Monday morning, The Argus carried the item on page one,[liii] whereas The Age and The Sun related it on page three.[liv] The essence of the story was thus: Isabella Sangster had died as a result of axe-wounds to the head; her son had summoned police on the pretext that he had returned home to find his mother had been attacked; her husband had been attending a football semi-final[lv] and not returned until the police investigations were underway. An axe, its handle recently broken, had been located at the scene, and finally John Grant Sangster, aged 17, had been charged later that evening at the City Watch House with murder. Although it was not mentioned in these reports, Sangster had also made a statement to police that outlined the events of the afternoon.
When the briefer article in the evening Herald was published, Sangster had appeared at the City Court — now the Magistrates’ Court — before the Police Magistrate, Mr Hill, and the hearing of the charge had been remanded until September 30. Sangster was ‘dressed in a dark suit, with a white collar and tie and khaki pullover. He did not speak when the charge was read or while the proceedings were taking place in the court.’ [lvi] The Age of the following morning gave the same basic information, noting that ‘no evidence was given.’[lvii]
The September 30 date must have been postponed at least once more, for the next occasion on which the press made reports was the coronial inquest, held at the morgue on October 31. Here Senior Detective Hugh Rupert Donelly assisted the Coroner, John Whitford Marwick, and Royston Cahir appeared for Grant Sangster. The inquest heard from Sangster’s father, and from Frank Eliam Guy (police photographer), Dr Keith Macrae Bowden (medical practitioner who performed the post-mortem examination), Constable William Ephraim Banks, Albert Edward Tovey (the Sangsters’ next door neighbour), Detective William Wall Warner Mooney, Detective William Basil Shiels, and Charles Anthony Taylor (the medico-legal chemist of Victoria). Six exhibits were presented: (A) Three photographs from the crime scene, (B) Statement by Dr Keith Macrae Bowden, (C) A broom, (D) An axe, (E) Statement by John Grant Sangster, and (F) Clothing belonging to John Grant Sangster. Sangster was committed for trial at this hearing, where it appears the manner of his mother’s death was recorded for inclusion on the death certificate, registered by William Henry Robinson one week later.[lviii] Here the cause of death reads: ‘Fractures of the skull, fracture of cervical spine and severance of the spinal cord then and there feloniously and of his malice aforethought inflicted upon her, (murder).’
Bowden describes the wounds:
There were three large wounds on the left-side of the face and the head. The upper wound was 8 inches long. It extended through the left side of the cheek, back through the upper portion of the left ear, which was severed, through the lower portion of the back of the head and neck…It extended through about the junction of the head and neck along the base of the skull, fractured the upper cervical vertebrae passing between it and the base of the skull. The spinal cord was crushed. There was a second wound 5 inches long through the left cheek and the anterior portion of the middle of the ear. That wound was parallel to the first one and ran across …into the front of the middle portion of the ear…There was a lower wound three inches long running into [the second one]. That wound was not quite in the same direction, it was more horizontal and ran into the second wound in front…
The upper wound divided the vertical portion of the jawbone as well as fracturing the facial bone in this position (indicating). It also fractured the base of the skull and the upper bone in the spinal column. The second wound fractured the vertical portion of the jawbone and the lower wound fractured the jawbone a little lower down.
There were also bruises and abrasions on the body, and a small laceration on the lower lip.[lix]
Sangster’s 21 September statement to police, submitted both at the inquest and later during his trial, reads as a confession to murder. It is not difficult to see how the devastating and apparently conclusive judgement inscribed on the death certificate was reached, on the evidence of this statement and the testimony of police and expert witnesses. The text follows:
JOHN GRANT SANGSTER……………………..STATES:–
I am a school boy attending the Melbourne Technical School and I live with my parents at Glenburnie Road Vermont. I am 17 years of age, my birthday is the 17th day of November.
Saturday the 21st day of September 1946 my dad left home about eleven o’clock. Mum and I were home together. Shortly after Dad left Mum and I started to row over not giving me my clothes to go out at night. When I wanted to go out as a rule Mum stopped me. About one o’clock Mum and I had lunch and we kept on rowing more or less continuously. About a quarter to five I was playing my Trombone in the sleepout and Mum came out and said she would break my Trombone if I did not stop. I put it down. Mum had the broom with her, I was fairly wild and I stayed out in the sleepout for awhile [sic]. Mum said if I went outside without her permission I would be locked out. I then went inside and I started to argue with Mum again about going out, I wanted to go to the Uptown Club Dance at North Melbourne tonight and she wouldn’t let me go. I then went outside to get the Axe to kill her and when I went out she locked the door. I went to the woodheap to get the Axe from where I had left it when I was cutting wood this morning. I heard Mum lock the door, she slambed [sic] it, I knew that it was locked as it has a Yale Lock on it. I went to the door and I broke the glass in the door with the Axe, I then opened the door and went in, I put my hand through and turned the Yale lock. I asked Mum for my clothes and if I could go out and she said no. Mum had the broom in her hand. I then went into the kitchen and she came into the kitchen with me, I kept asking her and she wouldn’t give them to me or let me go out. I rushed at Mum and swung the Axe at her head, she was side on to me at the time. I hit her on the side of the head with the blade of the Axe and she fell to the floor. Whilst she was on the floor I hit her three or four times on the head with the blade of the Axe. When I hit her the last time the handle of the Axe broke. I saw blood coming from her head. I then dropped the Axe near the back door as far as I can remember. I then went out and got my bike and rode up the road a little way and then I came back. I went to the back door, it was partly open and I opened it and stepped in and saw her lying there in a pool of blood. I then went out, got on my bike and rode to the Mitcham Police Station, it would be then about half past five or a quarter to six. There was a note on the Police Station Door to ring the Box Hill Police and the phone number. The note said there was no one in attendance there.
I then rode down to the phone box at the Post Office and rang the Box Hill Police. I told the Policeman that answered the phone that my mother was killed and he told me to ring Russell Street and gave me the phone number.
I then rang Russell Street and I told them who was speaking and that my mother was killed. I gave them the address and asked them to come out straight away. They asked me how to get to our address and I told them that it was the sixth house on the left in Glenburnie Road Vermont.
I then went back to the corner of Vernal Ave and Mitcham Road and waited until the Patrol came along and I showed them the way down home. I think it would be about ten to quarter past five when I hit my mother with the Axe.
I told the Patrol Police that I had been up the street for about half an hour and when I came home I found my mother dead and that the back door had been broken in. Mum and I were always having arguments and she had given me a tap occasionally, sometimes with the broom and only this morning she hit me over the head with a lamp cord that she uses on the Electric Light. She did not hit me with the broom today or try to hit me with it, altough [sic] she did threaten me that she would hit me with it early in the day.
[handwritten:] I have read this statement, and it is correct. Grant Sangster
This statement was typed by Detective William Wall Warner Mooney and read to, then signed by, Grant Sangster by 10.15 p.m. on the night his mother had died.[lx] Mooney’s manner of procuring the statement is the subject of a conjectural cross-examination at the inquest; Cahir makes a determined effort to undo Mooney’s recollections about the obtainment of the statement. Largely, this comes to nothing. At the trial, the inclusion of the words ‘to kill mum’ is investigated under cross-examination, since it has been inferred these were not spoken by Grant until the time of the taking of the statement.[lxi] Mooney insists that everything in the statement belongs to Grant, and that the interrogation was conducted without his being pressured or led.[lxii]
Sangster had arrived with police at Russell Street police headquarters at 9.25 p.m.[lxiii] and been questioned in a room at the Criminal Investigation Branch by Mooney, with two other police present: Senior Detective Donelly, who took notes during the questioning, and Detective William Basil Shiels.[lxiv] Shiels affirms Mooney’s testimony that Sangster had given the whole story before the possibility of his making a statement was raised.[lxv] Mooney sat at the typewriter with Sangster at his left; Sangster could see what was being typed and volunteered information as the writing of the statement went along. Throughout the questioning he had been ‘quite free and willing to volunteer what had taken place, the whole story.’[lxvi]
Earlier, as his statement and the newspaper reports show, he had told the story somewhat differently. When Sergeant Benjamin Harald Walker and Constable William Ephraim Banks of the wireless patrol met him at 6 p.m. on the corner of Vernal Avenue and Mitcham Road, Banks says ‘Sangster was very distressed, he was crying’, and spoke of having returned from riding his bike, to find his mother bleeding on the floor, possibly dead.[lxvii] He then showed them the way to his family’s house.[lxviii] Sgt Walker went from there to collect one Dr Cochrane, who returned to make the pronouncement of death, and Constable Banks conveyed Isabella Sangster’s body to the city morgue much later on in the evening.[lxix]
The homicide detectives, Mooney, Shiels, Donelly and Charles Herbert Petty, arrived at 8.15 p.m., by which time Sangster had been seated in a patrol car outside the house. While his colleagues went inside, where the body was unmoved and photographs yet to be taken,[lxx] Shiels spoke with Sangster, who was more forthcoming with him than he had been with others, earlier. But Shiels knew Sangster already.
On 10 January 1946, in the Box Hill court, ‘John Grant Sangster, 17, of Glenburnie Avenue [sic], Vermont…pleaded guilty to three charges of having ignited inflammable materials and thereby endangered property.’ [lxxi] It was W. B. Shiels to whom Sangster had ‘admitted having splashed kerosene over a tea-tree hedge and a fence post and then setting fire to them. He had also set fire to a telephone directory. He did not know why he had done so and bore no one any grudge.’ He ‘also pleaded guilty to two charges of wilful damage [and] was convicted and released on a bond.’[lxxii] The report in the Melbourne Herald stated that ‘At the time of the offences his father was away in New Guinea and his mother in hospital.’ Leniency was urged as the accused was ‘at a critical age…[he] had been getting up at 5am to sell papers before attending school.’ This conviction occurred just under one month after his father’s disembarkation from New Guinea.
Shiels testifies that, having met Sangster in the patrol car,
‘I said to him “Goodnight, John, what is the trouble here?” He said, “My mother has been killed.” I said “what happened?” He said “I went out about 5 o’clock today. I came back about half-past five and found her killed. Everybody thinks I did it.” I said “Did you do it?” He said “Yes, I did.” I said “How did you do it?” He said “I killed her with an axe.” I said “why did you do it?” He said “We had been quarrelling all day.”’[lxxiii]
Shiels later says that Sangster ‘broke down’ when he saw him, and ‘told [him] immediately that he had done it.’[lxxiv] Shiels related Sangster’s admissions to his colleagues before the questioning at Russell Street took place.[lxxv] Mooney states that no conversation about the matter took place with Sangster on the way from Vermont to the city, [lxxvi] and that when the car arrived at Russell Street he had no expectation of what Sangster might say about what had happened.[lxxvii] Whereas Sangster had been ‘crying in the car’ when Shiels had spoken with him in Vermont, ‘He was reasonably well composed at Russell Street.’[lxxviii]
Melbourne’s Truth newspaper, described by Graeme Blundell as the city’s ‘omnipresent sleazy grey conscience’,[lxxix] published a front-page article on 2 November 1946, reporting the coronial inquest and Sangster’s having been committed for trial on the charge of murder. ‘His alleged statement’ to police is quoted extensively.[lxxx]
Bail was refused,[lxxxi] and Sid Bridle recalls that Sangster
mentioned a couple of times things that had happened when he was on remand, in jail. There was one bloke – – there was a West Indian was in there apparently and he used to beat out these rhythms which, you know, intrigued Sangster quite a lot, he used to talk about that. And the way this bloke used to sing, and all that sort of stuff, when he was on remand.[lxxxii]
Another document in the brief shows that Sangster had been admitted to Pentridge on 23 September 1946, where his mental health was assessed the following day by the Government Medical Officer, C. Tennyson Allan. Another assessment was made on 27 November 1946. As a result of these examinations it was found that ‘Sangster was sane in the legal sense at the time of the crime of murder…he is sane at present [and] fit to plead.’ [lxxxiii]
His trial took place on 9 and 10 December 1946, before Mr Justice O’Bryan and a jury of twelve. Mr Sproule, K. C., appeared on behalf of the Crown and Mr Monahan and Mr Sweeney appeared on behalf of the accused.[lxxxiv] Mr Sproule was heard to address the jury,[lxxxv] before the plans of the Sangsters’ house were presented by Henry Nicholas O’Shea, a surveyor attached to the Office of Titles. The remaining witnesses had all testified at the inquest: Guy, Sangster, Tovey, Bowden, Banks, Mooney, Shiels and Taylor. Much of the material covered at the inquest was re-presented at the trial, but paths followed at the trial were necessarily different from those explored at the inquest. Grant Sangster was questioned neither at the inquest nor at the trial. He did however make a final unsworn statement to the jury that by definition could not be subjected to cross-examination, and that is detailed below. Mr Monahan had told the jury at some point on the first day ‘that the defence to the charge would be “accidental death.”’[lxxxvi] The version of events given in Sangster’s own final statement from the dock was anticipated in his remarks, which while unrecorded were summarized in The Sun.
John Grant Sangster killed his mother with an axe. He admitted to doing it shortly after it happened, the police obtained a signed statement from him telling the story at length, and he was sent to trial on the charge of murder. During the 1940s a conviction for murder carried a mandatory death sentence. Fortunately he was acquitted by the jury of murder but also, rather amazingly, of the lesser charge of manslaughter, after five hours’ deliberation.[lxxxvii] He had spent over two months in prison, but now he was free. The end of December 1946 saw the first Australian Jazz Convention, and it looks as though he was there to hear the music, if not yet to play any of it.
The unsworn statement Sangster made to the jury at the conclusion of the hearing was said to have been delivered ‘with extraordinary coolness and self-control’,[lxxxviii] and the text went as follows:
STATEMENT OF ACCUSED, FROM DOCK
Gentlemen of the Jury,
Everything my counsel has told you has been the truth. Ever since I can remember, things have not been happy for me at home. It would take me too long to tell you the whole of it, but I would like to say about what happened Saturday 14th September, a week before my Mother’s death. Before he left home that morning my Father gave me permission to go to a Youth Club dance at North Melbourne that night, and he gave me 4/– for my expenses. Mum never did approve of me going out anywhere, and when Dad had gone she told me I would not be allowed to go until I had done certain jobs, chopped the wood, emptied the lavatory, cleaned out the fowl pens. I did those jobs, but when I was getting ready to go out my Mother told me I would not be allowed to go as I had not brought in any kindling wood. I told her I had not been asked to do it, but anyway I would do it then. Mum said “Nevertheless, whether I did it or not I would not be allowed to go.” I asked her if I could not go out, could I play the wireless, but Mum said No. She took my little radio, locked it up, took the socket in the plug away from the big one so I could not play that. I was learning to play the trombone as I am very very keen on music. I asked if I could practise that, my Mother said No, I could not, so I just went to bed about 8 o’clock, there was nothing else to do. Later on I told Dad what had happened, as many times before my Mother had stopped me from going out, and the reason she usually gave was I had not done some job or other which actually I had never been asked to do. Dad told me she had been wrong in refusing to let me go out. Mum seemed to resent Dad sticking up for me; during the next week she kept my radio locked up. On the following Saturday, that is the 21st September Dad again gave me permission to go to the dance that night and he gave me 4/– again to go with. I felt sure I would be allowed to go this time because Dad had had a talk to Mum about it. Late that morning I was out in the sleepout practicing the trombone, my Mother came out with a length of electric light flex in her hand. She had often taken it when Dad had been out, and when I saw her I put it down. Mum shouted “here is something for you to go on with”. She hit me on the head with the flex, and the end hit me on the cheek under the eye. Mum said “You’re no good, just like your father.” She said she wished I had never been born. Later on when I went to get ready to go out I could not find my clothes, so I went and asked my Mother where they were. Mum said “They are locked up and if you think you are going out anywhere tonight, you are wrong.” I could see she was pretty worked up about it, so I just went out to the sleepout again, hoping she would change her mind; in a little while I started to practise the trombone again. All of a sudden Mum came out with the hair broom in her hand, raised it in the air and said “If you don’t stop playing that thing I’ll smash it and you with it.” I put it down. I asked if I was not to go out what was I to do. She said “I wish that thing had never been bought for you”, meaning the trombone. She went back into the kitchen. I went in after her and asked her again could I go out as Dad had said I could. Mum said “Your clothes are locked up and that is the end of it.” I asked her could I go in the clothes I had on, she said “If you set foot outside this house you will never come inside it again.” I went to the lounge door, shook it, tried to open it, it was locked, so I went outside to the wood heap to get the axe to break open the lounge door to get my clothes out so I could go out. As I went outside the back door my mother slammed it after me and the Yale lock on it closed it. I broke the glass in the door with the axe, opened the door and went in. Mum was standing at the kitchen door, she seemed terribly wild because I had broken the glass, and I asked her again could I have my clothes. Again she refused. I told her I would break open the lounge door and get them out for myself. [As?] I went into the kitchen my mother grabbed the hair broom and swung it at me. I moved my head and it caught me on the shoulder. I caught a glimpse of my Mother right behind me; she was swinging the broom down to my head. I warded off the blow, I half turned around, swung my arms up with the axe in it to knock the broom away. The axe caught my mother in the head and the blood came. I have no recollection of what happened after that. I remember the axe handle breaking, it never had been too strong. I remember running out of the house, getting the bike, I did not know where I was going, I was in a kind of daze, it seemed as though my mind just stopped working. I went back, looked in the back door, saw my Mother lying there, blood around her. I knew I had killed my Mother, but when the police asked me what had happened I was ashamed to let my Father know I had done it, so I denied knowing anything about it; when the police questioned me, I was so shocked and sick and upset, I did not know what I was saying; I did not think it made any difference to what would happen to me, to the outcome, what I told them, what [I?] signed, so I signed the statement they made out. I really don’t know what I did tell the police, but the truth is what I have told you now, gentlemen.
Details of this are quite conspicuously at variance with what had been offered to the police in the original statement.[lxxxix] Most obviously, ‘I have no recollection of what happened after that’ contradicts the passage given to police, ‘Whilst she was on the floor I hit her three or four times on the head with the blade of the Axe. When I hit her the last time the handle of the Axe broke. I saw blood coming from her head. I then dropped the Axe near the back door as far as I can remember.’ The autopsy apparently demonstrates with what force Isabella was hit and gives a minimum number of strikes, and the breakage of the axe handle would seem to suggest an especial force was used. The unsworn statement transforms the act of violence at the volition of the offender to a matter almost of accident, of self-defence, and this is how Mr Monahan argues the defence in his final remarks to the jury: ‘There was no intention to kill, Mr Monahan said. From the corner of his eye the boy caught a glimpse of his mother rushing to attack him with a broom, and he raised the axe to ward off the blow.’[xc] The veracity of self-defence however rests on the allegation that Grant’s mother was swinging the broom at him for the second time, and these two broom attacks are new. Initially to police he had stated that ‘She did not hit me with the broom today or try to hit me with it’, despite her having made threats in the morning, and having ‘given [him] a tap occasionally’ with it. Even at the trial the matter of her having hit him (in the morning) with the electric cord, specified in the police statement, had the appearance of an isolated incident since the prosecution established that neither had Isabella been seen ever to hit Grant, nor had he complained about being hit on any occasion.[xci] Because these claims had not been made in evidence, they were not examined, and now in the context of the unsworn statement, they were unable to be.
The unsworn statement is given credibility furthermore by allegations explored during the trial, and is continuous if one is given to accepting the picture of Isabella Sangster painted by the defence counsel. For in seeking to establish Grant Sangster’s innocence Mr Monahan has gone in for some of what today we would probably call ‘victim blaming’. In Monahan’s cross-examination of John Sangster, the harshness with which Isabella treated Grant, even without physical violence, is made a focus, and she is portrayed as ‘a rigid disciplinarian’.[xcii] Nor was her judgement infallible: on 14 September, when Grant was planning to attend the Eureka Hall he was prevented when his mother accused him of polishing his shoes with a clean shirt on. When his father arrived home from work he investigated and it was found that Grant had not been wearing his clean shirt when polishing his shoes at all: his mother was mistaken. By this time it was too late for him to go out.[xciii] The effect of a ‘very severe operation’[xciv] on her temperament is a focus of speculation, and she is said since this experience to have become ‘much more irritable…and much more inclined to find fault’.[xcv] There was ‘no apparent affection’ demonstrated by Isabella towards her son. It could not be recalled that she had ever kissed him.[xcvi] And Grant’s disinclination to take issue with her for her demands, and his cooperative disposition – ‘If he was told to do a job, there was no hesitation, the job was done’[xcvii] – are established as if to consolidate the impression of his mother’s unreasonableness.
In his evidence at both the coronial inquest and the trial, Grant’s father appears to be sympathetic to Grant’s situation, and receptive to the voicing of his concerns. In relation to the feelings between his wife and their son, he says that ‘Prior to my going away everything was more or less going all well, and for the first three months after I came home, that is, before I commenced work, things still seemed to be all well, but immediately I commenced work difficulties seemed to arise.’[xcviii] Because Isabella has taken to sleeping alone, and locking the room in which she sleeps, Grant and John are both sleeping on the back verandah, otherwise known as the sleep-out.[xcix] Whether this experience has made them closer one can only speculate, but at the inquest John says that ‘The boy and I have always got on very well together.’[c]
Through the discussion of the events of 10 and 14 September, something of a pattern of dispute is established: Isabella didn’t want Grant going out and would use any pretext, no matter how trivial or even lacking in verisimilitude, to prevent him from doing so.[ci] His enjoyment of music, in which he was developing a serious interest, had been curtailed by her unwillingness to endure his instrumental practice or by her confiscation of his radio. John Sangster has previously approved plans for Grant to go out in the evening, and given him money to facilitate his doing so. A story recounted in Seeing the rafters has Grant and his father travelling to the Box Hill Presbyterian Church on Sunday evenings, before parting company at the railway station so Grant can go to the Uptown Club with Sid Bridle, having changed his clothes.[cii] After John’s return from army service, the family would go out together in the evenings, before Isabella withdrew and Grant and John went with each other. Subsequent to this both would go out, but separately.[ciii]
The first occasion on which John Sangster became aware of the extent of the difficulties between his son and his wife was 10 September, his birthday, when, he says,
The boy approached me…I saw that he had trouble and I brought it up and I asked what the trouble was all about, and we discussed it after tea at some length and I thought I had straightened it up. The boy explained to me in front of his mother that all his musical instruments had been taken from him, the washhouse locked against him where he could not practice [sic]. He asked if I could do something to get those things returned to him.[civ]
It seems unlikely this was related to Grant’s going out, since the 10th was a Tuesday. In any case, disputes arose again on the following Saturday, 14 September, and of course on 21 September. In each instance John Sangster appears to take his son’s side; diplomatic and conciliatory in his own telling, he seeks to solve the problems. On 21 September he believes all is in order as he departs for work, and in regard to Grant’s trip to Eureka Hall, ‘I was all for him going out…he was only going to listen to the music of a band he was interested in.’[cv]
The only witness who comes close to giving Isabella a voice on 21 September is the neighbour, Albert Tovey. His testimony corroborates the chronology suggested by Sangster’s statement to police, and he is able to place events fairly precisely in time, narrating them as he heard them unfold from his position approximately 100 yards away. Tovey had been listening to the races on the radio, and the last was run at 4.40 p.m. After listening to the dividends that followed, he went out to the toilet where he recalls spending three or four minutes, during which he heard ’a rush up the ramp at the back of the Sangsters [sic] house’ followed by ‘two terribly hard bangs on two doors.’ Following this there was an audible disturbance, during which Grant’s mother spoke with him ‘in a very calm and ordinary way…that calm that I could not get a word of it.’ The disturbance, ‘like the rumble of furniture…like a rumbling and jumbling about inside the house’, went on for fifteen or twenty minutes – ‘Time went on and the actual noise absolutely ended.’ Five minutes after this Sangster left on his bike, and roughly ten minutes later he returned. Ten minutes after this he left again, and ‘not more than about 15 minutes after the boy went out’ the police patrol arrived.[cvi]
Tovey stresses that Isabella Sangster did not raise her voice, returning to this assertion later in his testimony: ‘She was arguing the point in a natural sort of a manner, not shouting or screaming and she was not wild, and I stopped and listened, but I could not get a word of what she was saying. I did not hear any other voice. I did not hear the boy’s voice…In my opinion [Mrs Sangster’s] voice was not raised unduly but was speaking in a normal way.’[cvii]
It seems a worrying aspect of the trial that so much space seems to have been left wide open for allegations about Isabella’s character and her treatment of Grant, and it is plausible enough to imagine a jury that consisted, as was the practice in Victoria until 1957, entirely of men concluding fairly quickly that a woman who was said to have become more irritable following surgery and who having kicked her husband out of the marital bed recently kept a room of her own locked, was a bit unhinged. At the same time, John Sangster says that he had never seen Isabella hit Grant, and Grant had never complained of having been hit when his father was not around. Despite ‘very harsh’[cviii] treatment, he ‘never complained – never once.’[cix] Although ‘provocation’ is never explicitly mentioned, a scene is set in which it can be sensed. Grant finally describes his mother as ‘terribly wild’ and she looks close to the edge of control, telling him that he is ‘no good, just like your father’ and that ‘she wished [he] had never been born.’[cx] Tovey however emphasized repeatedly that in the disturbance he heard on 21 September, Isabella had not seemed to raise her voice at all. But even if she had, and even if she were as bad as Mr Monahan wishes to have the jury believe she was, it seems difficult to imagine this constituted any justification for her being killed.
One is disposed to recall also that Grant had received a suspended jail sentence already. At the coronial inquest Sangster refers to ‘certain previous trouble’ that had caused his wife to become ‘frightened’ that her son might get himself into further problems. Here he says that she ‘did not wish him to be mixed up with practically anyone’.[cxi] Since Grant’s incendiary work seems to have been undertaken alone, it’s curious that his mother worried for his becoming associated with other people. It’s arguable that company might have been helpful in such a situation. Still, her fears are articulated here and under the circumstances one is able to sympathise.[cxii] During the trial however the basis for Isabella’s reservations is not mentioned, presumably since prior convictions are not admissible, but instead the counsel for the defence takes the opportunity to portray her as rancorous and intractable.
And the technique is apparently quite successful. Two hours into its discussions
the jury returned for guidance concerning the position of an accused person guilty of a crime under provocation. The foreman announced:
“We have come to a conclusion that it is not murder, but the accused was in the vilest temper.”
After the legal position had been stated by his Honor (Mr Justice O’Bryan), the jury again retired at 3.5 p.m.[cxiii]
‘Provocation’ was not, as noted above, a word used at all in the trial, but the point had evidently been made that Sangster’s actions were somehow not entirely autonomous. It must be said that any line that may exist between the sense of an impending blow with a broom, and a pattern of ‘very harsh treatment’, is not clearly drawn, and whether the sense of an impending attack with a broom can even constitute anything as dramatic as provocation seems doubtful. But the foreman declared Sangster ‘Not guilty at all,’[cxiv] and shortly thereafter he was discharged by Mr Justice O’Bryan.
Ultimately, of course, no-one can know exactly how or why it happened; everyone involved is now dead, and Grant left no further clues. This massive and catastrophic event so early in his life has been effectively suppressed ever since, and still there are people who would happily see it stay concealed. But happen it did, and it exists on the public record. It would be tasteless to meditate now on the dimensions of his artistic contribution in connection with his having been given a second chance; to trade the tasteless for the tediously obvious however, he is inordinately fortunate that he was.
I owe a debt of thanks to Sangster’s cousin, the late Robin Briggs (1938-2010), who when this research began furnished me with information regarding his and Sangster’s family, and a perspective on it, that was probably otherwise inaccessible. Graeme Bell (1914-2012) was always very generous with his time and very supportive of my research, and I enjoyed his company. His recollections allowed me to trace the date of the incident, guiding me to important press reports that he remembered seeing at the time of their publication, and I thank him most warmly. Bruce Johnson has shown great receptivity towards and encouragement of this research and I thank him sincerely. I am respectfully grateful to interviewees named in the text and listed in the notes for the time they spent with me and for the sharing of their reflections. I wish to thank Phillip Raimondo, Denise Thomas, Bruce Gardner and Brett Sonnet at the Office of Public Prosecutions, and staff at the Public Records Office Victoria, for their assistance with making the brief available. Also from the OPP I should like to thank Roopinder Dhillon, who was very helpful with approving the contents of this paper once it had been completed. For the discussion of legal matters I humbly thank Michael Kane, Rachel Ellyard and David Brustman SC.
[iii] Elizabeth (b. 1894), Andrew (b. 1897), Janet (Jen) (b. 1899), Agnes (Billie) (b. 1901), Alexander (b. 1905) and Johanna (b. 1907). (Nicknames from Robin Briggs, email correspondence, 2 April 2002.)
[iv] Details of both ships are drawn from the Public Records Office Victoria (PROV) index to Unassisted Inward Passenger Lists for British, Foreign and New Zealand Ports 1852-1923, searchable at http://prov.vic.gov.au/index_search?searchid=23. The precise dates of arrival come from The Argus 28 June 1920: 9 and 19 May 1922: 9. There is probably no way of tracing whether or not this John Sangster is the same man Isabella later married; if not, it is at the very least quite a coincidence. His age as well as his name match. If indeed he is the same, perhaps the pair met aboard the ship, perhaps they had known each other previously. It’s probably impossible now to know.
[v] Presbyterian Church records at the Uniting Church Archives, Elsternwick, show that the Pringles were admitted with certificates from the United Free Church in Perth, Scotland, as communicant members of the Brunswick Presbyterian Church on 31 August 1922. The same records show them living at 212 Nicholson St, with Isabella’s family. They were admitted as communicants to the Sandringham Presbyterian Church, with certificates from Brunswick, on 3 July 1924, and their address given then as 3 Victory St, Sandringham. Information from communicant roll books from the respective parishes: Uniting Church in Australia, Synod of Victoria and Tasmania, Synod Archives and Historical Society, Elsternwick.
[vi] Death certificate accessed via Births Deaths Marriages Victoria website, https://online.justice.vic.gov.au/bdm/home. There is no death notice in the newspapers but funeral notices appear in The Herald (19 August 1927): 23, The Age (20 August 1927): 8 and The Argus (20 August 1927): 17. All subsequent Melbourne marriages and deaths sourced at BDM Victoria.
[vii] Listed at 59 Virginia St., Aberdeen, are Mary Roll (head), married, 29, dressmaker; Henry Roll (son of head), unmarried, 1, dressmaker’s son; and two male lodgers, James Milne (18) and Alexander Gore (26). I have not been able to trace a death record for William Roll either.
[viii] I have not been able to find any contemporaneous record of their marriage.
[ix] From the first Harry (b. 1880), Mary (b. 1881), Alexander (b. 1883) and Catherine (b. 1885); from the second Gertrude (b. 1893), William (b. 1894), John, Alice (b. 1899), Ethel (b. 1902) and Herbert (b. 1904). Catherine Sangster was 39 when Herbert was born, so conceivably she may have been able to produce a couple more. Searching for them is difficult as the 1921 census is not yet available.
[x] Birth notice in both The Age and The Argus, both 24 November 1928: 13.
[xi] Correspondence from Bettie Campbell, Secretary, Church Council, Sandringham Uniting Church, 20 February 2008.
[xii] Probably in 1931 they moved to 42 Bamfield St., and probably in 1933 to 14 Susan St. From Sands & McDougall’s Directory of Victoria (microform) at State Library of Victoria.
[xiii] Email correspondence from Linda Kennedy, Sandringham Primary School, 4 December 2007.
[xiv] The house is named as Craigie Neuk in electoral rolls from the 1940s. In her history of Glenburnie Road, Jenny Brash tells a tale of the property’s acquisition: ‘Another early house in the street was number 69. Mr John Sangster was walking past in 1936 when the cottage was being constructed. The builders were arguing heatedly and John offered them 100 Pounds there and then and bought the property.’ Glenburnie among the trees (Vermont, 1997: Jenny Brash): 14.
[xv] There appears to be no record of this at the school, although the fact emerges later (Transcript of criminal trial: 15).
[xvi] Ringwood: Penguin, 1988.
[xvii] Seeing the rafters: 1-3.
[xviii] The group also included Gordon Walker (washboard), Tom O’Brien (drums) and Brian Sheridan (piano). Sid Bridle, personal interview 22 June 2001. See also Seeing the rafters: 12-13.
[xix] Information from Student Administration at RMIT University states that Sangster ‘attended 2nd and 3rd terms for  only’ (personal correspondence, 2 January 2008).
[xx] Graeme Bell, Graeme Bell, Australian jazzman: His autobiography (Frenchs Forest: Child & Associates, 1988): 56.
[xxi] It is credited by Sid Bridle, personal interview 22 June 2001.
[xxii] John Clare writes, at the personal level, ‘I found him pretentions and manipulative…[after his death] I learned that he…had a terrible, almost homicidal temper! He was famous for it, and I was the only person who did not know!’ Clare, Why Wangaratta? The phenomenon of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz (Wangaratta: Wangaratta Festival of Jazz, Inc., 1999): 149. Bruce Johnson puts it more poetically: ‘The demonic spirit ran deeply, and often dangerously in him.’ ‘Obituary: John Sangster 1928-1995,’ Jazzchord 27 (Oct/Nov 1995): 3. See also Johnson’s review of the reissue of the Lord of the Rings albums, in Music forum 12/3 (May-July 2006): 72-4.
[xxiii] The Argus, 24 September 1946: 14.
[xxiv] Although the death notice gives the spelling as Isobel, and there are other such examples besides, Isabella is given in this paper’s title and throughout since that is the name on her birth certificate and the certificate of her marriage to John Sangster. Her certificate of marriage to James Pringle gives ‘Isa. D. Davidson’.
[xxv] Furthermore, given the way he is described by those I have met who knew him, what Sangster writes about his father seems far from plausible. He was thirteen years dead by the time Seeing the rafters was published; nor is it known for certain whether there was any contact between father and son after 1946. See also n. xxxiv.
[xxvi] Bryony Cosgrove, personal interview 24 August 2009.
[xxvii] Rev. ed. Sydney: ABC Enterprises, 1987. Originally published 1979.
[xxviii] Interview between Andrew Bisset and John Sangster, Sydney, 27 August 1977. National Film and Sound Archive.
[xxix] Doug Livermore, telephone conversation 3 October 2007.
[xxx] Telephone conversation, 7 March 2008.
[xxxi] This probably relates to the years following his wife’s death. Telephone conversation, 25 January 2010.
[xxxii] Personal interview, 22 June 2001.
[xxxiii] Email correspondence from Linda Kennedy at Sandringham Primary School, 4 December 2007.
[xxxiv] Census records located via http://www.scotlandspeople.gov.uk. Sangster’s claim that his father was an ‘ex-sailor forty years before the mast man and buoy’ (Seeing the rafters: 3) seems spurious initially, but on closer examination is obviously nonsense. In 1946 Grant Sangster’s father turned 50, and he had been in Australia for 24 years, so it’s clear he could not have spent forty years doing anything.
[xxxv] Military record of John Sangster, VX127820, accessible at the National Archives of Australia. His date of discharge is given as 28 May 1946. He had embarked at Townsville for service in New Guinea on 8 June 1944, and disembarked from New Guinea on 13 December 1945, having completed his army service on 1 October.
[xxxvi] Military record, p. 4.
[xxxvii] The Attestation Form in his military record gives both Clerk and Stock-keeper.
[xxxviii] By Fraser Clarke. Personal interview with Margaret and Fraser Clarke, 4 December 2007. This is corroborated by Dr Keith Bowden in the criminal trial: asked by the prosecutor, Mr Sproule, KC, ‘What build of woman was she?’ he replies, ‘A well-built woman.’ ‘A big woman, would you say?’ ‘Yes.’ Trial: 20.
[xxxix] By Margaret Clarke. Personal interview with Margaret and Fraser Clarke, 4 December 2007.
[xl] Telephone conversation, 25 January 2010.
[xli] Personal interview, 22 June 2001.
[xlii] Email correspondence, 2 April 2002.
[xliii] ‘Belle was spoken of as being ‘musical’ and, as a young child, had formal music lessons. This doesn’t sound to be a big deal these days, but when you consider that the family was operating with little income (stonemasons were always poorly paid and worked very hard for what they got…Belle must have displayed some talent to have been thought worth teaching the piano… Perhaps Grant inherited this musical ability?’ Email correspondence from Robin Briggs, 2 April 2002.
[xliv] Email correspondence, 2 April 2002.
[xlv] Telephone conversation with Fay Shearer, 7 March 2008.
[xlvi] Telephone conversation with Fay Shearer, 7 March 2008.
[xlvii] Telephone conversation with Fay Shearer, 25 January 2010.
[xlviii] Telephone conversation with Fay Shearer, 7 March 2008.
[xlix] Old Cheltenham Cemetery, Victoria [microform] : headstone inscriptions 1865-1998, compiled by Travis Sellers and volunteers. Housed at the State Library of Victoria.
[l] Later, her second husband – John Sangster – and his second wife donated their bodies to the anatomy department at the University of Melbourne.
[li] Transcript of criminal trial (hereafter Trial): 20.
[lii] Transcript of coronial inquest (hereafter Inquest): 1. Trial: 5.
[liii] ‘Woman killed with axe at Vermont: Murder charge against son’, The Argus 23 September 1946: 1.
[liv] ‘Son charged with murder: Mother beaten to death,’ The Age (23 September 1946): 3; ‘Woman battered to death: Son held,’ The Sun (23 September 1946): 3.
[lv] The eventual 1946 premiers, Essendon 10.16 (76) d. Collingwood 8.9 (57) at the MCG.
[lvi] ‘Murder charge remand for youth, 17’, The Herald (23 September 1946): 1.
[lvii] ‘Youth charged with matricide’, The Age (24 September 1946): 3.
[lviii] On her death certificate the informant’s name is signed J. J. Ogden, followed by the typed words ‘Present at Inquest, Melbourne.’
[lix] Trial: 21-2.
[lx] Inquest: 16, 24; Trial: 29/30. In both instances Mooney makes clear that a carbon was taken and that he and Sangster both held a copy while it was read.
[lxi] At both the inquest and the trial a lengthy statement appears from Mooney, telling the story of having met Sangster at Glenburnie road and travelled with him to Russell Street, before questioning him and taking his statement. Mooney’s words are duplicated very closely between the inquest and the trial, as though he were reading them to the court from detailed notes.
[lxii] Trial: 32-4.
[lxiii] Inquest: 14.
[lxiv] Inquest: 18.
[lxv] Shiels: Inquest: 28-9. Mooney: Inquest: 18-19.
[lxvi] W. W. W. Mooney, Inquest: 25.
[lxvii] Inquest: 8-9. Banks makes fairly clear his doubts about Sangster’s story, without going into great detail.
[lxviii] Constable William Ephraim Banks and Sergeant Benjamin Harald Walker were on duty with the wireless patrol and met Sangster. Banks says that Sangster ‘accompanied [them] in the patrol car’ although it’s most likely he had his bike with him too. Inquest: 8.
[lxix] Inquest: 14.
[lxx] Trial: 32. The photographer arrived at about 9 p.m. (Trial: 5).
[lxxi] This and the following from ‘Boy convicted on fire charges,’ The Herald (10 January 1946): 6.
[lxxii] A loose sheet in the brief, detailing Sangster’s previous conviction, states that following his having been found guilty on three charges of incendiarism he ‘was sentenced to be imprisoned for three months[,] such sentence being suspended on entering into a bond of £25 to be of good behaviour for 12 months.’ This is signed by W. S. Sproule, Prosecutor for the King.
[lxxiii] Inquest: 26. In fuller detail Shiels says that when Sangster said ‘everybody thinks I did it’ he replied, ‘Well, you do not know the other police. They have a job to do and we want to find the truth.’ (Inquest: 28). Later at the trial Shiels omits this remark and has to be prompted by the defence lawyer, Mr Monahan.
[lxxiv] Inquest: 28.
[lxxv] Inquest: 28.
[lxxvi] This was in the company of Mooney, Shiels and Donelly. It is not clear what became of Detective Petty, who had arrived with the other three at Glenburnie Rd.
[lxxvii] Inquest: 17.
[lxxviii] Trial: 37.
[lxxix] Blundell, Graeme. King: The life and comedy of Graham Kennedy (Sydney: Macmillan, 2003): 207. There was also a Sydney Truth, that was not the same paper.
[lxxx] ‘Tragedy ends mother-son quarrels,’ Truth (2 November 1946): 1.
[lxxxi] ‘Mother dies after blows with axe,’ The Herald (31 October 1946): 3, and ‘Tragedy ends mother-son quarrels,’ Truth (2 November 1946): 1.
[lxxxii] Personal interview, 22 June 2001.
[lxxxiii] Letter from the Government Medical Officer to the Crown Solicitor, dated 2 December 1946.
[lxxxiv] Newspaper reports indicate that they were instructed by Mr Cahir, who had represented Sangster at the coronial inquest. ‘Son acquitted of murder,’ The Age (11 December 1946): 5, and ‘Jury acquits youth on murder charge,’ The Argus (11 December 1946): 6.
[lxxxv] Trial: 1. What he said is not recorded.
[lxxxvi] ‘“Accident” plea for youth on matricide charge,’ The Sun (10 December 1946): 22. I say ‘at some point’ because there seems to be no indication in the transcript of his making such an address. Similarly, the luncheon adjournment on the first day is noted, with the resumption of proceedings at 2.15 p.m. But where the first day finished and the second began, is not clear.
[lxxxvii] ‘Youth who killed his mother acquitted,’ The Sun (11 December 1946): 3; ‘Son acquitted of murder,’ The Age (11 December 1946): 5; ‘Jury acquits youth on murder charge,’ The Argus (11 December 1946): 6; ‘Boy goes free: Mother treated murder-accued son very harshly, father tells jury,’ Truth (14 December 1946): 3.
[lxxxviii] ‘Boy goes free: Mother treated murder-accused son very harshly, father tells jury,’ Truth (14 December 1946): 3.
[lxxxix] The lengthy article in Truth (above, n. lxxxvii) makes no bones about its reservations concerning these changes.
[xc] ‘Boy goes free: Mother treated murder-accused son very harshly, father tells jury,’ Truth (14 December 1946): 3.
[xci] Trial: 15. This is a subtle switch in emphasis on the matter of Grant’s complaining; previously the defence is keen to feature the lack of complaint as a mark of his strength in adversity.
[xcii] Trial: 13. The words are used in a question from the defence counsel, but Sangster’s reply is that she was ‘Very very rigid indeed.’ The words are repeated subsequently by the prosecuting counsel, but it is in the context of whether or not Isabella was ever seen to beat Grant. It is said here that she was not (15).
[xciii] Trial: 12.
[xciv] Trial: 10.
[xcv] Trial: 11. These words are the lawyer’s, but John Sangster agrees with them: ‘She seemed to me continually finding fault.’
[xcvi] Both Trial: 13.
[xcvii] Trial: 11.
[xcviii] Trial: 6. He even goes so far as to describe the period following his return as ‘very, very happy indeed’ (Trial: 12).
[xcix] Trial: 9. John Sangster says he had not entered this room of his wife’s since returning home. Trial: 7.
[c] Inquest: 3.
[ci] The statement to police reads, ‘When I wanted to go out as a rule Mum stopped me’, and the statement from the dock says ‘many times before my Mother had stopped me from going out’. The matter of just how many is not specifically addressed.
[cii] Seeing the rafters: 5. I mention it here only as further evidence that John Sangster did not obstruct his son’s efforts to hear live music; the story is also corroborated by Sid Bridle (at least as far as the changing of clothes at the railway station). Personal interview, 22 June 2001. Obviously Isabella is not mentioned, although it is not absolutely inconceivable that she went too. Bridle recalls the Uptown Club operating on Saturdays, not Sundays, and I have found no traces of the Sangsters at the Box Hill Presbyterian Church. (Presbyterian communion services were offered four times a year, and members were sent communion cards to submit when they attended. Records were kept of attendance. Isabella and James Pringle appeared fairly regularly at the Sandringham parish services, but after his death and her remarriage she was present at only one more, in November 1933. This does not mean she didn’t go to church at all, but the communion services were held to be significant as a measure of the member’s commitment. John Sangster does not appear at all in the Sandringham parish records, either.)
[ciii] Trial: 12-13.
[civ] Trial: 7-8.
[cv] Trial: 9.
[cvi] All from A. E. Tovey’s testimony, Inquest: 11.
[cvii] Inquest: 12. The point is a feature of his testimony at the trial also: ‘She was not shouting; she was in a normal sort of voice’ (Trial: 18).
[cviii] Trial: 14.
[cix] Trial: 13.
[cx] Statement of accused, from dock.
[cxi] Inquest: 2.
[cxii] Specifics of the ‘previous trouble’ are not given, and obviously I am inferring that the suspended jail term imposed as a consequence of the incendiarism is the business to which Sangster is referring. It does seem a pretty safe bet though.
[cxiii] ‘Youth’s story of mother’s death,’ The Herald (10 December 1946): 3.
[cxiv] ‘Boy goes free: Mother treated murder-accused son very harshly, father tells jury,’ Truth (14 December 1946): 3.