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Murder in the workshop

Tailors workshop
In the tailors workshop all seemed quiet enough that February afternoon in 1898…

In 1897, William Archer, ‘a prisoner suffering from consumption’, was sent to St Helena to serve out a severe sentence of ten years for stealing a quantity of cloth valued at £35.

He was put to work in the prison tailor’s workshop but, arguing that the indoor work did not agree with his delicate disposition, he sought permission from the Superintendent to be given outdoor work. This privilege, which he requested more than once, was refused.

On 18 February 1898, as a last resort. Archer asked the Visiting Surgeon to recommend work in the open air, adding that, unless he was granted this request, he could end up injuring someone in a fit of passion. Again his request was refused.

That same afternoon in the cutting room of the tailor’s workshop, warder Henry Dodd was on duty. He was on guard or ‘shopwalking’ as a favour to warder William Downie who, on that fateful afternoon, was visiting the toilet.

While Downie was absent from the workshop, Archer walked up to an unsuspecting Dodd at the door and savagely drove a knife into the man’s stomach. Dodd slumped to the floor. The frenzied prisoner turned and shouted to the trade instructor at the other end of the room, ‘I’m taking myself out of your blasted shop now, you b------ thing!’

As Archer reached the barred gate separating the workshops from the main building, still carrying the blood-stained knife in his hand, a returning warder Downie confronted him.

‘Downie!’ exclaimed the surprised prisoner. ‘It’s you! You’re the b------ that I should have got!’ And he put his arm through the bars and threw the knife at the approaching warder. He then ran to a saddler’s bench where he grabbed another knife to throw at Downie. It hit the grated partition and fell to the floor.

Archer ran back into the tailor’s workshop with the warder in pursuit. Prisoners dived for cover.

He picked up a pair of large scissors and yelled at Downie, ‘It’s you I wanted!’ and, holding the scissors above his head with both hands, he approached the warder.

When about two metres from Downie, Archer threw the scissors. The officer dodged by ducking down behind a table. He then jumped on the table in the direction of the prisoner who hurled a galvanised pot at him. Downie warded off the projectile with his arm and, leaping from the table, he crash-tackled Archer.

The screaming prisoner was carried through the workshop, struggling violently, and, with the assistance of other warders arriving on the scene, Downie took him off to the cells.

Warder Dodd was taken by the Visiting Surgeon to Brisbane Hospital where an emergency operation failed to save his life. On the day of the funeral, as many warders as could be spared journeyed up to Brisbane to pay tribute to their late colleague who was laid to rest at Toowong Cemetery in heavy rain.

Archer was taken to Brisbane Gaol and brought before the criminal sittings of the Supreme Court.

But the case was adjourned on medical grounds after three days for Archer was now at the mercy of frightful coughing fits which forced him to cling on numerous occasions to the dock for support. He was returned to Brisbane Gaol to recover but at 6.30 a.m. on 8 May 1898 was found dead in his bed, thereby escaping the full penalty of the law, which, in those days, meant the hangman’s rope.

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