Sororicide on the Swan!
Charles Ernest King Solomon Chipper was born on 12 May 1879 at John Bull Inn (later the Criterion Hotel) in Howick (now Hay) Street, Perth. He was the fifth of seven children born to John Charles, a publican, and Amelia Chipper, nee Burgess, but only he and his older sister Gertie, born in 1874, survived. He was a small child, said to have been late to develop, both physically and mentally.
Amelia died in 1881 and John married again, to Grace Albert, in 1883. Of their five children, three survived: Flo, born in around 1883, Willie, born in 1884, and Hilda, in 1885.
Grace died in 1890 and in London, in 1891, John married for a third time to widow Elizabeth de Ritta*. One son was born in 1893 and Elizabeth was soon expecting another.
On 19 January 1894 Charlie (14) went crabbing on the jetty at the end of William Street with Willie (9), Hilda (8), and a friend, Henry Pearce (10).
It would have seemed quite a peaceful scene to observers. Hilda sat on the steps to the water and idly played with some jellyfish, as Charlie and Willie checked their crablines in the afternoon sun.
But Hilda had caught the jellyfish using Charlie’s net. Angry, he punched her in the eye, smacked her on the back and grabbed his net. Hilda, crying quietly, retreated a few steps away from her brother.
Henry went home and a little later, Hilda moved back down to the water. She was there, on the step below Charlie, as he brought his lines up again. A crab dangled near Hilda and she scrambled to catch it in her tiny hands, but it got away. Charlie, furious, hit her again, in the back, and she fell into the water.
“Help!”, she cried, before she sank.
Charlie moved to the head of the jetty and checked his crab lines. Willie reached, futilely, towards his sister with his net but otherwise, oddly, also stood by. Either could have called the two men asleep on the ‘flat’ (flat-bottomed boat) nearby to help, but neither did. Later, Willie would testify that Charlie threatened to drown him if he told anyone; but that threat had not yet been made.
And so in bizarre, seemingly companionable silence, the brothers continued crabbing while their sister drowned in one metre of water under the flat.
Half an hour later they headed home, past Henry Pearce’s house. Charlie asked if Henry had seen Hilda as, he lied, the last time he’d seen her she was going to Mr Randell’s water tank, nearby, for a drink, and he’d not seen her since.
He maintained that lie all night, as police and members of the Chipper family searched the town for the little girl, his worried father and pregnant stepmother anxiously awaiting news.
At 7 the next morning Willie** finally told his sister Flo (12) what Charlie had done. Down at the jetty, police pulled Hilda’s body from the water.
The Western Mail of 21 April 1894 reported John and Elizabeth were in their sitting room, with Charlie, as police broke the news. Suddenly Charlie burst out crying and admitted he’d pushed her into the water, knowing she couldn’t swim. Asked why he didn’t help her, he said “I didn't think I could swim with my clothes on. I felt frightened, and went to my lines at the head of the jetty."
At inquest Charlie swore to tell the truth and for the first time, mentioned Hilda had thrown a jellyfish at him, which had hit him in the face, angering him. It was a major factor in his ultimate fate, for while he was just a boy, he was to be tried as a man. The coroner directed the jury to consider Charlie had been provoked, and that his actions lacked both premeditation and malice.
It worked. The jury determined Charlie would be tried for manslaughter instead of murder, which could have been a death sentence.
At his April trial, in the Supreme Court by Chief Justice Alexander Onslow, Charlie pleaded not guilty. No one mentioned little Hilda ever threw a jellyfish at her brother. The Inquirer and Commercial News of 20 April 1894 notes the defence directed the jury to consider Charlie’s actions “should be judged as those of a child, and not of a person whose reasoning powers were matured.” After the day’s harrowing proceedings, the jury deliberated for just 15 minutes before returning with their finding: Guilty.
Charlie was sentenced to two years at the Rottnest Reformatory; a place for white boys charged with crimes that would ordinarily have seen them sent to Fremantle prison, but for their tender years.
“At the mention of Rottnest, the little boy who ... had betrayed no emotion, burst into tears.”
The West Australian, 16 April 1894
Heated debate ensued on whether incarcerating young Charlie with other criminals, under harsh conditions and away from his family, would rehabilitate or not.
Presumably, Charlie did his time.
On his release, he exiled himself to London where he boarded with Hannah Prosser, a widow, and her family. There, he worked as a labourer and later, as an assistant in the government stores. In October 1902 he married Hannah’s daughter, Christiana, in the Tower Hamlets. Their daughters Muriel and Christine*** were born in 1904 and 1909, respectively.
Charlie’s circumstances withered and he died in the infirmary of London’s Union Workhouse on 11 April 1917, aged 38. Christiana died in 1930.
* Charles’ father’s third marriage was an unhappy one and they divorced in 1905. She claimed persistent cruelty toward her and that he frequently beat her. He died the next year. Of his fourteen children, only six lived to adulthood. Having survived eight years, it’s highly likely Hilda would have, too.
** After Charlie’s trial, Willie was sent to Adelaide for schooling. In 1906, aged 22, he successfully sued his father’s executor for £200 plus interest, he was supposed to receive when he became of age. He never married and moved to Melbourne where he died, suddenly, in 1945, aged 60. There were never any consequences to William for standing by while his sister drowned that day, and he died before his niece, Christine, came from London after the war.
*** Charles and Christiana’s daughter, Christine, trained in all manner of nursing, including cancer, TB, midwifery and palliative care, and served in the centre of London during WWII’s infamous Blitz. She came to WA in 1951 aged 41 because, as the Western Mail of 21 October 1954 notes, she had relatives “everywhere”, here. She did indeed, and spent the next few months living with her aunt, her father’s older sister, Gertrude Norrish. Christine did not marry, and after a stellar nursing career, in which she spent the last decades as matron of Sunset Hospital in Dalkeith, she retired in the mid-1970s. She died in Duncraig on 18 March 1994, aged 86.