Safe As Houses: Little Conadilly Street, Gunnedah
Would a hammer blow end up exonerating a Gunnedah killer?
- WARNING: The following article contains descriptions of violent crimes that some may find disturbing.
It has to be rare for a person’s entire fate to hinge on the effects of a blow to the head with a hammer, but such was the case with Tom Hankinson. The question that would determine the course of the rest of his life was whether he could be bashed in the skull with a hammer and still maintain his senses enough to intentionally shoot his long-time lover.
Tom Hankinson doesn’t come across as a very sympathetic character. The 32-year-old from Gunnedah, NSW, had left his wife of many years and their children to take up with the unfortunate Eva Marion Marjorie Saunderson. Tom and Marjorie were together for some time, and two children were born from the union, although Tom remained married to his first wife.
When the relationship finally broke down, Marjorie fled Tom to go live with her aunt. Marjorie seems to have been trying to turn over a new leaf, leaving the old Marjorie Saunderson behind and changing her name to Madge Harland. But she still needed to provide for the couple’s two children, so she took Tom to court, where he was ordered to pay child support.
Little Conadilly St in 2010. Source: Google
It seems Tom wasn’t much on either marital or parental responsibility. He had abandoned his first family and now seemed set to abandon his second. News reports from the time say he was taken to gaol for missing his child support payments.
By February of 1936, it seems Tom was having second thoughts about skipping out on Marjorie and his children. He came round to the cottage where Marjorie was residing with her aunt at the corner of Little Conadilly Street and demanded to see his former lover.
Tom’s romantic overtures clearly did not impress Marjorie’s aunt. She refused to allow him to see Marjorie and ordered him to go back to his wife. But Tom refused to be deterred.
On February 11, 1936, Tom found Marjorie’s young cousin, Harold Morris mending his bicycle on the cottage’s verandah. He pulled out a gun and ordered Harold inside. Once Harold had fled, Tom stuck the gun through the window of Marjorie’s bedroom and began firing.
Tom’s entire defence hinged on what happened next. Marjorie and her aunt tried to wrench the gun away from Tom, and young Harold sprang into action. He grabbed a hammer and bashed Tom over the head. The struggle continued, the gun went off and Marjorie received a mortal wound in the stomach.
Tom was forthcoming about the whole matter on the way to the police station, telling the police, “I’ve shot Marjorie”. They warned him that his words would likely be used against him at his trial, but he simply repeated the phrase.
Perhaps the effects of his head wound were beginning to clear when he was later confronted with the statement Marjorie made just before she succumbed to her wounds. When his dying lover’s words were read to him, Tom flatly proclaimed, “It is a lie”, and then refused to answer any further questions.
Tom testified in his own defence and claimed that Harold’s hammer blow had rendered him insensible. He stated he didn’t know what he was doing and that the gun must have gone off accidentally. Moreover, in the hour-and-a-half that he regaled the court with his tale of woe, Tom painted himself as the hapless victim of Marjorie’s family and their repeated threats of violence.
According to Tom, from the time he first came to Gunnedah to try to woo Marjorie back, he faced immediate intimidation from his in-laws. He was told that if he didn’t leave, both he and his children would be shot dead. He was threatened to “get out of Gunnedah or be knocked out”. He painted Marjorie’s family as villains who were trying to keep him from his children, who he said were closer to him than to Marjorie. He had even gone so far as to seek police protection.
In Tom’s version of events, he came to see Marjorie on February 11 and was immediately attacked by Harold. In his struggle to avoid being hit again by Harold’s hammer, his gun must have gone off, firing through Marjorie’s window. In the ensuing struggle inside the house, Tom claimed it had accidentally gone off again, delivering the fatal shot.
The court didn’t buy Tom’s tale. After all, the idea of his gun’s accidental discharge lost a bit of weight when it was revealed he stopped to reload after the shot through Marjorie’s window. In the end, hammer blow or no, Tom would be sentenced to life in prison.
The cottage where Marjorie sought refuge from Tom, only to meet her death at his hands, is long gone. The whole area is now mostly a commercial area. The median house price in Gunnedah is $320,000, though the few houses left on Little Conadilly Street range in price from the mid $100,000s to the mid $200,000s.
Tom Hankinson tried to paint himself as a victim, but it would take more than a blow to the head to stop the hammer of justice.
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