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Death casts a shadow

One of the foundational events, if not the foundational event, of European history in the Inner West is surely a murder.

Dr. Robert Wardell was murdered by three bushranging convicts on Sunday 7 September 1834. He was a leading barrister and businessman in Sydney, and together with good friend, William Wentworth, had established ‘The Australian’ newspaper (not the same as ‘The Australian’ of today). 

Wardell was also a major landowner. His estate of about 2000 acres spread from Parramatta Road in the north, Cooks River in the south, Canterbury Road in the west and Sydenham in the east. If he had not been killed who knows how this part of Sydney would have developed?

As it was, the estate was broken up and sold to many different people, including Thomas Chalder. No murder could well have meant no town called Marrickville (see Marrickville’s first hipster).

The men tried and convicted were John Jenkins and Thomas Tattersdale. Both had been transported to NSW on the ‘Asia’ arriving in Sydney in 1833. The third, Emanuel Brace, turned King’s Evidence and was spared.

Jenkins was a sailor from London but was tried in Newcastle-upon-Tyne for theft and got 7 years. He had run away from the Georges River Government Iron Gang.

Tattersdale was a chimney-sweep from Yorkshire, sentenced to 14 years for house-breaking. He was assigned as a servant to Edward Turner, a publican at Blackwattle Swamp off the Parramatta Road, but had run away to join Jenkins.

John Jenkins must have been a hard man. Convicts who had committed crimes after arriving in NSW could be assigned to iron gangs as a punishment. These men often suffered under brutal conditions working to clear land and make roads while chained at the ankles.

Government Iron Gang also known as a chain or road gang.
Hobart Town Chain Gang/etched by G. Bruce (c. 1831)
State Library of NSW FL3336501

Jenkins was portrayed as some sort of demon in the press at the time of the trial and a very large crowd gathered to watch him hang. On the gallows, he confessed to a number of crimes but claimed he killed Wardell because he was a tyrant. He urged other convicts who might take to the bush to also shoot tyrants and noted there were several present at the hanging.

This enflamed the press further and he was described as ‘ferocious’, ‘blasphemous’, and a ‘most desperate villain.’

A few days after the executions it was reported that “a gentleman” had made a cast of Jenkins head which was to be exhibited for public viewing. It was noted that Jenkins skeleton was to be “preserved as a memento.” Just for good measure a cast of Wardell’s face was made to forward to his friends in England. This cast may have been the model for the memorial tablet hung in St James church, Sydney. (See The Hanging of the Bushrangers who Murdered Dr. Wardell ).

John Jenkins Death Mask and Portrait drawn by John Gardiner Austin
Photo: Australian Museum and Drawing at http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135229302/view

Casting or the creating of ‘death masks’ was a common practice in the 19thcentury, often made for public titillation. Paying a small fee, people were able to get up close to notorious individuals or look at people they had only heard about.

On the more scientific, or pseudo-scientific, side casts were made for research into phrenology. Phrenologists believed that by measuring the contours of the skull and studying its lumps and bumps we could know the intelligence and character of a person. 

Criminals were of particular interest and no doubt someone as ‘ferocious’ and ‘villainous’ as Jenkins would have been fascinating.    

We don’t know where Jenkins’ skeleton ended up, but his head cast was lodged with the Australian Museum, along with a number of others, until 1893. That year the casts were sent to the University of Sydney’s Medical School and since that time they have disappeared.

An article in the Daily Telegraph asks “What happened to these 19 Australian Death Masks.”

There is also an ABC item on youtube about the collection at ‘Death Masks of Hanged Criminals – Phrenology”

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