Safe as Houses: 66 Renwick Street, Redfern

Adam Smith 20 December 2016

safeashouses 66 Renwick st redfernChristmas revelry turns deadly for one Sydney family.

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

When family comes together for the holidays, it’s rare that tensions don’t erupt at some point. Something about the Christmas season seems to wear nerves and stretch patience to the breaking point. For most families, this tends to manifest itself on a sliding scale somewhere between exasperated eye-rolls and all-out shouting matches. For some, however, the silly season takes a decidedly tragic turn.

Such was the case for the family at 66 Renwick Street in Redfern on Christmas Eve of 1908. In those days, Renwick Street was known as Bullanaming Street, and the family who lived at number 66 was a close-knit one. Mary Paton and her husband John lived next door to Mary’s sister and brother-in-law, and Mary’s brother, Alfred Grounds, was close friends with her husband. It seemed the recipe for domestic bliss, especially around the holiday season.

Unfortunately, in addition to enjoying each other’s company, Alfred and John enjoyed having a drink together. And their drinking often turned to excess.

Alfred and John could be forgiven, of course, for their celebratory mood on Christmas Eve. The two men spent the day downing drinks at the Patons’ home at 66 Renwick Street, occasionally staggering off to a nearby pub together.

When they finally made their way home for the evening at about 11PM, John had become extremely drunk and belligerent. He fought with Mary, who thought it best to head next door to her sister’s and allow her husband and Alfred time to sober up.

Mary and John’s 11-year-old son, Harold, would later testify that he heard his uncle say, “How about a drink, Jack?” and saw his father head toward the kitchen. He heard a crash, and upon going to inspect saw his Uncle Alfred standing over his father’s prostrate body.

66 renwick st redfern

66 Renwick Street, Redfern. Source: Google Maps

When Mary tried to return home, Alfred stood in the doorway and barred her entry. Fearing the worst, she summoned her brother-in-law from next door. He managed to push his way into the house, and moments later returned to speak to Alfred.

“Go for the doctor,” he told Alfred. “You’ve done mischief here. Bring the police.”

The “mischief” Alfred had done, was to strike his brother-in-law a blow to the head with a hammer the two had been using earlier in the evening to crack nuts. When police did attend, the senior constable at the scene confronted Alfred about what he had done to his brother-in-law.

“I jobbed him,” Alfred replied.

“I have seen the man,” the senior constable told Alfred. “And I think it is a matter of something more than a job.”
Indeed, Alfred had managed to strike John with enough force to cause a fatal brain haemorrhage. At his trial, Alfred claimed his memory of the evening ended with the two having a drink at a hotel on the corner of Cleveland and Regent Streets, wishing one another a Merry Christmas. He had no recollection of the tragic fashion in which the pair’s Christmas celebration ended.

A jury found Alfred guilty of manslaughter, and he was sentenced to five years in prison. Perhaps the greater punishment was the knowledge that he had inadvertently killed his good friend and brother-in-law, taking a husband and father away from his family on Christmas.

Today, 66 Renwick Street is home to a dental surgery, that Christmas crime a century ago long forgotten. When last the property was sold in 1992, it brought a mere $172,000. CoreLogic has no valuation for the property, but its next-door neighbour, number 68, is valued at $1,086,319. That's a substantial hall to deck.

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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