Safe as Houses: 140 Union Street, Erskineville

Adam Smith 15 November 2016

Safe as houses 140 Union Street Erskineville title card

A purloined love letter turns an Inner West terrace into the scene of a brutal killing.

  • WARNING: The following articles contain descriptions of violent crimes some may find disturbing

Catherine Sims had already escaped an unhappy marriage when she met Alfred Ball, and she wasn’t in a rush to enter into another. She lived an independent life in her home at 140 Union Street in Erskineville, just a few doors down from her niece, Mary Thomas.

Sims had met Ball at Bakewell’s brickyards, where they both worked. He’d quickly become enamoured of her, and made his intentions clear in no uncertain terms. In spite of his tenacity, Sims repeatedly spurned his advances. But when Sims’ sister died, she found comfort in Ball’s company in the throes of her grief. She begrudgingly allowed their friendship to blossom into romance, and he moved into the two-bedroom terrace on Union Street.

Their relationship limped along for 11 years, but when Sims took a holiday to Cardiff, things changed. Sometime during the fortnight she was abroad, Sims met someone who awakened in her feelings that Ball never could. For perhaps the first time in her 52 years, she had fallen in love.
140 Union St Erskineville 1932

140 Union Street in 1932. Pictures: Trove

Though Sims returned to Australia, she planned to quit the country again for Cardiff as soon as possible. She returned to her home at 140 Union Street, settling back in with Ball, but didn’t tell him of her intentions. For the time being, she and her new beau would have to content themselves with letters. It was one of these letters that would prove to be her undoing.

On the morning of 16 March, 1932, Sims’ niece dropped round to the house to find Ball covered in blood.

“Hello, Bally. What’s all the blood on you?” she asked, according to her later testimony.

“I been killin’ some fowls,” Ball answered, before pushing past her out the door. It was then that she found her aunt lying on the floor, covered in blood. Contemporary newspaper accounts relay the savagery of the scene.

“She was breathing faintly, and blood was welling from fearful wounds in her chest and back. It appeared that the murderer, with fiendish cruelty, had tried to cut her heart out.”

Sims succumbed to her wounds on the way to hospital. Ball, meanwhile, had beat a hasty retreat and, in the confusion, managed to evade police. He would remain on the run for seven weeks. A statewide manhunt finally found Ball at the Kensington Golf Links. He told police he had spent the past two months sleeping in railway carriages, parks and abandoned buildings in order to elude capture.Safe as houses 140 Union Street Erskineville

Union Street, Erskineville today. Source: Google Maps.

At his trial, Ball told of how he had found a letter from Sims’ Cardiff lover, and reading the man’s intentions had flown into a rage. He claimed to remember nothing of the killing, and a psychologist corroborated his plea of temporary insanity. Reading the letter had sent him into a fugue during which he could not be held accountable for his actions, his defense said. A jury agreed.
There was one problem with Ball’s account the jury seems to have overlooked: According to his family members, Alfred Ball couldn’t read.

Newspaper headline from 140 Union Street Erskineville

Newspaper clipping from the time. Pictures: Trove

As for the house where Catherine Sims met her end, it last sold in 1996 for a mere $254,000. The past two decades have seen property values in Sydney’s Inner West skyrocket, and CoreLogic now puts its value at $1,179,554. The humble terrace’s history is a tragic one of dreams unrealised and a love that was never to be.

Each week, Safe as Houses looks at some of Australia's most notorious murders, and the effect those killings had on real estate values.

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