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Colonial Cases

R. v. Woods [1849]


Quarter Sessions, Western Australia

W.H. Mackie, 1849

Source: Perth Gazette and Independent Journal of Politics and News, 7 April 1849

[2] Quarter Sessions.

Before W. H. MACKIE, ESQ., Chairman and a Bench of Magistrates. ...

Joseph Woods, charged with setting fire to a dwelling-house at Marline, in the York district, the property of Stephen Parker.

Stephen Parker; I recollect that on Saturday the 27th January last, the prisoner who had been sent by me to stay with, my son at Marline, returned to my residence at York; I asked him why he had returned? he said he did not like to stay there on account of the shepherd there; I said he must go where I liked, not where he chose, and that if he had any complaints against the shepherd, he could make it in my presence. The next morning I ordered him back to Marline, and he left my place about 9 a.m. About 2 o'clock in the afternoon of the same day, the prisoner came running back to my house at York and whispered to me that the house at 
Marline was burning; I asked him how the fire was caused? he said he knew that the house was burning some time before the fire burst out, and that he had told my son so, but that my son continued to say it was only thunder. I went over to Marline and found every thing burnt; the plan of the burnt house now produced to me is correct; the chimney of the kitchen represented in the plan is built of stone and clay mortar. The prisoner did not give me any reason for wishing to keep the fire a secret from my family by whispering it to me. I recollect seeing the chimney in the course of building, and my son who was building it said he was determined to make it so strong that no fire should go through it.

John W. Parker, son of the last witness. I lived at Marline which is my father's property. I recollect Sunday, the 28th of January, between the hours of 12 and 1 o'clock in the afternoon, as I was passing through the house to feed my horses, I heard a kind of roaring, and being uncertain whether it was fire or thunder, I went I went [sic] into the kitchen and examined the chimney, and did the same as I returned from my horses, and found the chimney quite clear and only a few embers of fire on the hearth; as I went out of the kitchen, the prisoner who was cooking there, said he had seen something like a red and white rag go up the chimney. I was satisfied that nothing could go up the chimney to do any harm and went and lay down on 
my bed; about 10 or 15 minutes after I had lain down, prisoner came running to me and said the house was on fire in the kitchen; I ran there and saw some fire, about the size of the small cover on the court table, on one side of the chimney jamb, outside the chimney but inside the 
kitchen and under the roof, just where the rafter met the jamb. I ran out for a blanket but before I returned the whole roof was in flames. There is a V hut near the house, and while the house was on fire I saw marks on the thatch of that hut in two places as if a lighted match had been held to the thatch, and as if the match had gone out before the thatch had caught fire; the hut was about 8 or 9 yards from the house and if it had taken fire it must have also set fire to the house and other buildings. The marks on the thatch of the hut appeared to have been very recently done; I had occasion to go into it that morning to get some barley out for my horses, and I must have noticed the marks if |they had been there then; the marks were on the upright thatch of the hut on one side of the door and about 2½ inches in length by 1 inch in breadth. I had swept the kitchen chimney not long before the day of the fire and it was perfectly clean. The burnt house lay east and west, and the chimney of the kitchen is at the east end; a westerly gale was blowing at the time of the fire. In the night of the same day I over-heard the prisoner ask another boy (while they were laying on some straw in a shed) how long it would take for a match to burn out. From about sunrise on the day of the fire, there was no one on my premises but myself and wife and the prisoner.

Cross-examined. The prisoner never said anything to me about his being afraid that the house was on fire. A "Jam" tree to which the hut is fastened had its upper part all scorched: I do not think the marks on the hut could have been [3] occasioned by sparks from the dwelling-house because I saw them at an early period of the fire, and there were scarcely any sparks from the house until after the roof had fallen in. I am perfectly satisfied that the roaring I heard was thunder for I went out of the house and distinctly heard it thunder. From the hearth to where I first saw the fire is about 5 feet 6 inches high; the side wall of the chimney is quite distinct from the wall of the house which is of mud, and was built about a week after the latter and has no crack in it even now after the fire.

Elizabeth Parker. - I am wife of the last witness and was at Marline at the time of the fire. About noon of that day I heard a roaring noise which made me go and examine the kitchen chimney, where I found very little fire; I asked the prisoner if he had heard the thunder, he said no, but that he had seen something go up the chimney; less than half-an-hour afterwards I went to the kitchen and told the prisoner to put the kettle on; he then appeared very much 
flurried, and said he did not fear thunder but was very much afraid of fire; I asked him what was to cause the house to catch fire? he jumped on a stool near and under the window, put his hand to the inner surface of the thatch of the roof over the window, and said that it felt very hot; the part of the thatch he touched was only a short distance from where the fire burst out; prisoner then asked me whether the thunder would set a house on fire; when I asked him whether he was afraid of the thunder, he said, I am afraid the house will be on fire and he then appeared agitated; before I left the kitchen I was quite satisfied that there was no fear of fire, as there was not enough on the hearth then to boil the kettle; about 20 minutes afterwards he came running in to me to say the house was on fire. If there had been any fire in the chimney jamb, where it afterwards broke out, when I was in the kitchen I must have seen it.

Cross-examined. When I first heard the roaring noise the day was so clear that I thought it must have been caused by fire, but after examining the fireplace I was quite convinced it was thunder. Three or four days before the fire the prisoner told me he would not stay at Marline while the shepherd staid there; he had behaved pretty well and I had no reason to think he owed any grudge to myself or my husband. The morning of the day of the fire when the prisoner returned from York I reprimanded him for having left Marline without leave, and that seemed to annoy him, and he declared he would not stay there. I have sometimes put rags on the fire but none on that day; I smelt the smell of rag in the kitchen while I was at dinner about 1 o'clock, and saw a piece of rag smouldering on the embers in the kitchen when I told him to put the kettle on, and that was the last I saw of the fire on the hearth. I recollect telling the prisoner before dinner to go and bathe. I am not aware that any rags were ever placed in the recess over the jamb where the fire broke out.

John Ward. The night after the fire happened, I and prisoner slept together at Northbourne, Mr. Stephen Parker's place; he said he thought some evil had been done during the day, and that they would have no furniture to put in the house at Marline, and he supposed he would not be sent there again for 2 or 3 years, and he would see whether he was to have 3 or 4 masters or only one to serve.

William Cornwall. I lived as shepherd at Marline at the time of the fire. On the day before the fire I told the prisoner to make a bush fold for some sheep by the Monday, he said he should not be there by the next Monday for he was determined to do something to get away from the place. On the Friday I told him to light a fire, he asked how he was to do it, and I gave him a match from a box on a shelf in the kitchen; prisoner saw me take it and went to the box to look into it, but I told him he need not look into it for he could take a match whenever he wanted one.

William Burges deposed to having examined the premises after the fire, particularly the inside and outside of the chimney, where he found not the slightest crack or flaw, he felt perfectly satisfied that no fire could possibly have spread from the fireplace to the spot where the fire originated, and that the fire must have commenced in the latter spot.

Joseph McKnoe, fully corroborated the evidence of the last witness.

The prisoner in defence merely gave a general denial, and the jury finding a verdict of guilty, he was sentenced to 15 years transportation.

Published by Centre for Comparative Law, History and Governance at Macquarie Law School