tales from urban dilettantia

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Of Maps and Murder

Once upon a time, this particular time being the night of 26th of June 1936, or perhaps the early morning of the 27th, Henry William Griffiths of Maylands kills his family one by one, with fishing line and an axe. Then he half fills the bath and locked the bathroom door. Finally, he tidily sits down in the water still wearing his pants, shoes and socks, and cuts his own throat.

The newspapers of the day provide detailed coverage,  both in the aftermath of the discovery, and following the inquest.  The journalists at The Mirror supply a wealth of particularly heart-wrenching details, publishing photographs of boggle-eyed children staring at the Griffiths house (‘kiddies gaze at house of awful tragedy’), the Griffiths’ toddler (‘bonny kiddie murdered today’), and the family dog (‘the only one left’).  (I am later unsurprised to see the long-defunct Mirror described as ‘the “scandal sheet” of its day, dealing with “juicy” divorce cases and the like.‘)

34 Wellington Street, 1936

Various acquaintances assure the press that Henry and Kathleen were a happy couple, adored their children, gave no clue at all that anything was wrong. (People tell the right lies after a death, and apparently even more of the right lies after four.) But of course, it all comes out at the inquest. Henry had spent time in Heathcote Mental Hospital. He was reportedly convinced the CIB and Taxation Department were recording his conversations, that the Government thought he was an international spy, and that his wife (who tactfully told people he was ‘worried about business matters’) had been conspiring against him.

The family publish death notices in the papers . Many of the notices are loving, even of Henry. They bury Henry and Kathleen side by side in Karrakatta Cemetery, one of their sons with each of them.

It is June 2012. I am at the cemetery. It is a damp, grey day and the section numbering on the map isn’t matching the numbering in my notes. I wander around lost for an hour and a half before I find them.  I’ve brought flowers with me, and I stay to weed the plot.  Afterwards, I travel the two suburbs north to see the house, and return to take a photograph on a bright sunny afternoon some months later.

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I first come across this story while idly browsing Trove, and nearly pass on by, but for a peculiar inconsistency. The papers give the address as Wellington Street in Maylands, and one goes so far as to give the house number, 34. Curious to see whether the house has been swallowed up in the suburb’s inexorable gentrification, I pull up the address on Google Maps’ Street View.

Or rather, I try. There’s no such street. I poke around the obvious places first – councils, government, the old Road Board – but there’s nothing online indicating the street ever existed, no record of it being renamed.  Suddenly, I’m interested enough not to let this one go.

To trace this story back to its beginning, I need a different approach; to go back to someone, something, a source that that recognises the address. I need to find something capable of pulling up memories of web of streets eighty years gone.  The answer, it seems, is in the very place I found the story. The newspapers of the time hold knowledge; each birth and death, each celebration and each crime, each council decision, each wedding, each story worth a scattering of words. And, because Trove – by its nature – knows everything the newspapers know, I go foraging amongst its memories.

Slowly, from advertisments, stories and random fragments, the area around Wellington Street begins to resolve. Wellington Street near Beaufort Street. Wellington Street intersecting with York Street. Wellington Street on the route of the long-gone #18 tram. Trams.  I visit the State Library at lunch to check some books on history of Perth’s tramways, quite certain at this point that at least one of them will have a useful map. No luck. Tram enthusiasts and local history websites likewise yield nothing. One last roll; Google’s Image Search. And there, a photograph of a heritage map displayed in the East Perth Train Station – a map showing the tramlines. It’s too small to make out the street names and I’m ready to make the trip over to East Perth to look for myself, but I don’t need to – a little more digging, and I’m looking at a high resolution version on Flickr. Formerly Wellington Street. Now the last block of Stuart Street in Bayswater.

Much closer, I track up and down the block in Street View. I think I’ve found the house a couple of times, and then wonder if it was demolished to make the small park nearby. I don’t realise yet that I’m largely focusing on the wrong side of the road. This isn’t going to work; finding a house that looks a little like the right house isn’t enough.  One workers’ cottage looks rather too like another workers’ cottage.

Helpful as the internet has been, this is something more specialised. This is the State Library’s moment. I search the catalogue and find that the library holds a collection of aperture cards showing local real estate developers’ promotional plans from around 1890 to 1940. At this point, I don’t even know what an apeture card is. I ask at the desk and the woman looks surprised and takes out a shoebox-sized container  from underneath the desk.  In the shoebox is their entire collection.

The aperture cards are frustrating. Well actually, they’re fascinating, but none of them quite hit the geographic area I’m chasing. I check and double-check all of the cards for Maylands, Mount Lawley, Falkirk, Inglewood and Bayswater. Just before closing time, I zoom in a little harder on a particularly detailed image I’d bypassed the first time around, and there it is. Wellington Street. Numbered lots, even. Numbered lots with boundaries matching those I can see on Google Maps.

So it is that I learn Wellington Street has become the western extension of Stuart Street, and that number 34 has become number 108. I compare the photographs from 1936 to the image from Street View. There have been some changes over time, but it’s the house.

 

formerly 34 Wellington Street

This is how I come to be lost and then found in the cemetery on a damp, grey day. This is how I come to be sitting in a small park in the rain, near an innocuous cottage not unlike every other cottage in the street.  This is how I come to be wandering along a laneway in the bright winter sun, on my way to see a house that – in all honesty – is merely a house for all that has happened there. And this is how I come to be writing a story of maps and mysteries, while quietly wondering at the story of a bad death.

 

Griffiths Plot, Karrakatta Cemetery

 In Loving Memory of Harry and Kathleen who departed this life suddenly, June 27th 1936.  Aged 34 years and 4 months & 32 years and 11 months.  Darling son and daughter-in-law of Ada M. Mulligan.  “So deeply mourned, so sadly missed.”

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See A House on Highgate Hill for more local history from Perth’s inner-north.