Murder on the Bridge:
Rough Justice for Flagellator George Grover
by Peter MacFie
Journal 1, 1999, pp. 18-21
Some people have claimed that a ghost haunts the bridge. For many years, a legend has existed that a ‘cruel overseer’ was thrown over the bridge parapet to his death. Recent research has proved the story to be true.
A version of the story was recorded by Karl von Stieglitz in his history of Richmond, first published in 1953 (1). Mixing fact and fantasy, he writes about a ‘cruel and vindictive’ flagellator called Simeon Groover [sic]. He continues: “Most of the stone [for the bridge] was pulled in little carts from the quarry at Lowlands by … men – two pulling, while one pushed the heavy load over the track to the bridge (2)”.
Groover, ‘a very heavy man’, supposedly sat on the loads to make the prisoners’ life a misery, whipping them like horses:
“They in turn feared him and hated him with a cold deadly hatred. Then one morning, when the bridge was almost finished, a fog came drifting in from the sea and lay in the valley. This was the opportunity the prisoners were waiting for and they crept upon their tormentor as he was walking across the bridge and with their manacles beat him senseless. They then threw his broken body on to the rocks below (3).”
Truth is often more interesting than fiction. Such is the case of the murder on the bridge. The murder of George Grover occurred several years after the work on the bridge started in 1823, although repairs to the bridge continued for some time after it was completed in 1825.
The Real Story
In March 1832, an inquest was held at Richmond into the death of George Grover who met his death by having been thrown over the Richmond Bridge, a descent of nearly 30 feet. It was less than ten years since the work on the bridge started and only three since two of its piers were rebuilt. As part of the reconstruction, the floor of the Coal River above and under the bridge had been paved with heavy stone to prevent floodwaters undermining the piers again (4).
A panel of jurors, made up of prominent landowners, assembled to hear the case. They were led by jury foreman, G W Gunning, then living at Nugent. Others were J Butcher (of Lowlands); Lt Barrow (probably from the military detachment); J Brown; W Buscombe; J Burn (of Roslyn); W Guillois; J Jarritt; W Kenney (perhaps Kearney of Laburnum Park); J Lloyd; J Peevor; W Thompson and W Wise.
The victim, George Grover, had arrived in Van Diemen’s Land on the Earl St Vincent in 1825. Tried at Winchester, he was a ploughman from Chittingford, sentenced to transportation for fourteen years for housebreaking (5). He was first assigned to Dr Espie at Bagdad, and over the next eighteen months received two lots of twenty-five lashes, including one for aiding two others in ‘fighting in the Barracks’.
By October 1829, Grover was at Richmond, employed in the most despised profession – government flagellator or flogger. He was charged by Magistrate Thomas Lascelles with: “insulting T Roper Esq., Police Magistrate, in the execution of his duty with refusing to give up papers in his possession, and which were eventually taken away from him by force, and with running away from persons in whose charge he was placed” (6). Grover was given twenty-five lashes for this offence. In October 1830, he was charged with aiding Joshua Threader in ‘carnally knowing Anne Haines’ (7).
At the time of his death in 1832, Grover had visited the servants of Gilbert Robertson, farmer, and Richmond’s Chief Constable. Robertson’s early land grand was Woodburn, which in 1836 became the site of St John’s Catholic Church. Witnesses stated that Grover had left his hut on Robertson’s farm in a ‘state of intoxication’, joining in the free alcohol traditionally allowed by owners to servants after harvest (8). Arthur reported that ‘most disgraceful scenes of riot and insubordination ensued’ (9). Grover had had harsh words with Robertson’s men ‘who were all more or less intoxicated, and some of whom expressed themselves very hostilely towards him’. On his way home from Woodburn Farm, Grover rested on the bridge and fell asleep. From here, he was thrown over the parapet.
At the inquest held at the Richmond Court House, witnesses revealed that Grover was alive after being thrown off the bridge, and he accused four men of committing the act. They included James Coleman, a shoemaker and servant of Chief Constable Robertson (10).
Grover was found by a constable at 2 am ‘almost crushed to death with the fall under the bridge on the broken rocky ground’ (11). As the incident occurred in March, when the river is normally low, the area under the bridge that had been paved with sandstone was probably exposed.
The Tasmanian, a local newspaper of 1832, refers to Grover’s dying words which described how ‘four men who came upon him “in a bustle and threw him over, although he – “. Here the man’s dying words, which Mr Lascelles, JP, was receiving, was interrupted by a person saying “it is a lie”‘. Grover then stated that he wanted to ‘die in peace’, and did not give other names.
The verdict was ‘wilful murder committed by James Coleman and other persons unknown’. From Westmeath, Ireland, the accused James Coleman was transported first to NSW on the Bencoolen, arriving in August 1819, then to Hobart a month later on the Admiral Cockburn (12). He was a dealer aged twenty-seven. James Coleman had relatively few offences (13). In 1821, Rev Knopwood as magistrate sentenced him to twenty-five lashes for neglect of duty. Four years later, he was free by servitude and reprimanded for being out after hours, and then in 1829 he was working at New Norfolk, when he was accused of ‘putting Anthony Taylor “in fear of his life”’(14). How he came to be working for Robertson is uncertain.
As a result of the drunken scenes and death of Grover, Lt Governor Arthur threatened the withdrawal of Robertson’s assigned servants, a method Arthur used to force obedience from settlers. The decision to be lenient may have been influenced by the end of the harvest ‘booze-up’ being an old English tradition (15). Later, Robertson and Arthur were to become bitter enemies.
By the end of 1835, the height of the Bridge’s parapets had been raised ‘to ensure the safety of the public’ due to the dangers of ‘dark nights’ and the ‘approach of winter’ (16).
Perhaps the ghost is George Grover the despised flagellator. The parapets are a reminder of the dangers as well as the advantages of the bridge – and bush justice.
(1) Von Stieglitz, Karl. Richmond: The Story of its People and Places. Launceston, 1953.
(2) Ibid, p 16.
(4) Although still evident, the stone is obscured by water now permanently under the bridge which is formed as a lake behind the 1930s dam.
(5) AOT MM 31/1
(7) AOT CON 31/1 George Grover Earl St Vincent 1825
(8) Lloyd Robson, Leslie. A History of Tasmania vol. 1, 1983, p. 295ff.
(9) Lennox, Geoff. Richmond Gaol and Richmond Police District. Dormaslen, 1993, p. 24
(10) The Tasmanian, 17 March, 1832, p. 36
(12) AOT CON 13/1 p. 320 James Coleman Bencoolen and Admiral Cockburn
(13) AOT CON 31/6 p. 62; Bateson p. 342; M Nichols (ed) Knopwood Journal, p. 313
(14) CON 31/6, p. 62.
(15) Shaw, A. G. L. George Arthur. Melbourne University Press, 1980, p. 24.
(16) Jones, Elizabeth. Richmond: A Crossing Place. Hobart, 1979, p. 24.