A Most Miraculous Record

St Paul's gates

The rustic, wrought-iron gates open on a golden carpet of leaves fallen from the elms marking the boundary, their heavy boughs swaying above the charming, Gothic stone church at the heart of this postcard-worthy scene.

Dispelling the notion you might be visiting an English village called Dibley, beyond the post-and-rail aged timber fence enclosing this small oasis is an Australian vista of yellowed paddocks and spindly white gum trees.

Welcome to St Paul’s Anglican Church, Burra – the NSW rather than South Australian version of that locality – beyond the eastern border of Canberra.

Here it has stood in quiet service to its community for 150 years and in all that time it has, until now, never had bestowed the honour of consecration. Not that this has ever posed a problem for its congregation.

It was just a bit of a curiosity and people occasionally wondered what might have happened, but it wasn’t a big deal,” comments one-time Church Warden, David Gazard.

In preparations for our 150th anniversary it came up again and so we thought it would be as good a time as any to make it official.”

So what, pray tell, does a consecration actually involve? Burra paddocks

A certain set of prayers it seems, invoked by no less than a bishop. And never fear – it doesn’t mean that prior to such a thing occurring the baptised are unbaptised, the wedded unmarried and the deceased not really so.

To consecrate is to “set aside for sacred purposes” on a permanent basis, providing “protection against use in an unfitting way”. Therefore, a church may be dedicated, that is, designated for its intended role, but in the absence of consecration theoretically remains without “permanent” status – hence why a hall might be blessed for use as a place of public worship as an interim measure.

Or that’s what the experts say.

In the day-to-day operation of things, it doesn’t alter anything. Nonetheless, from an historic point of view, how St Paul’s went for a century-and-a-half without attaining the honorific is not nearly as simple as the church itself. And from initial investigations, it may also be unique to such a position considering the lengthy period it has done without.

The distinctive blue-pink granite of St Paul’s was hewn from the nearby paddocks and taken from the bed of “Church Creek” from early 1868.

Queanbeyan as the primary centre still involved “several hours of travel over roads that were little better than tracks”, and it was decided “a church was needed to keep worshippers together”. A donation of 210 acres (since reduced to around two acres) from community pillars, the Campbells of Duntroon, and the efforts of Diocesan Architect and local minister, the Reverend Alberto Dias Soares, saw the building rise up in a matter of months.

St Paul's Burra 3

When ready for the door of the “neat and extremely snug-looking little sanctuary” to be flung open to followers on a cold and squally May day, it appeared costs were not yet covered. Considered unedifying to employ in the “service of God a mortgage-burdened building”, Mesac Thomas, first Bishop of Goulburn (who’s nomination it turns out, had been opposed by Charles Campbell, although they would become great friends), declared that “formal consecration could not take place until the debt was paid off”, and instead, a dedication was accordingly imparted.

(Oddly, Bruce Moore in his Burra, County of Murray, 1981, and citing the original article in The Queanbeyan Age, claimed “the church, entirely free of debt, was opened and dedicated by Bishop Mesac Thomas on 18th May, 1868.)

St Paul's entry

During his speech at the gathering after, Mr Campbell also requested that parishioners give up a “nobbler a week” in aid of the Church Society. Not quite as serious as it sounds, he was talking about the price of a glass of spirits.

Apparently the dues on the Church, a total of 230 pounds with around 90 outstanding, were settled shortly after, however still it seems there came no formal recognition.

This may also account for another mystery associated with this rural bastion of faith – its lack of an attached graveyard, despite the fact land had been set aside to serve such a role.

Churchyard burials are common – think of St John’s at Reid – and yet Burra is an exception (so too, Queanbeyan and Bungendore). Its absence is more unusual given the distance of the next nearest cemeteries – Queanbeyan, 25kms away, and Michelago more than 30. As it is, there are at least three known grave sites close by, but who these belong to varies depending on the source.

According to local author, the late Graeme Barrow, one is marked by a headstone: that to John Irvine “Jock” Paterson, who died in 2007. In his book, God’s Architect, on the work of the Rev. Soares, Barrow states the other two belong to the Gibbs brothers, William, four, who passed away in 1868 and the year following, Henry, just three.

In The Essence of Burra, Chris Worth and Margaret Murray state the burials in the area are the twin sons of William and Mary Naylor who died at only a few days old in 1870, and that of “Black Paddy”, Patrick McNamara, a bullock driver much too partial to the drink who was found three weeks after hanging himself at the age of 44 (of course, suicides then could not be buried in consecrated ground anyway).

Perhaps though, there may be all of these and more except for St Paul’s next curiosity: most of its early records have disappeared.

During the world wars and in the grip of the Depression, the church fell into disuse, its only attendees, drifters passing through. As the stories go, they’re believed to be the culprits, having burned the books for warmth and using the remainder to roll their cigarettes. The carpet was re-purposed to re-sole their worn-out boots.

Even the church bell, formerly atop the shingled roof in a small spire, vanished, some suggesting it found its way out to Tharwa. Most likely it was removed to ensure it wasn’t misappropriated for a much-needed meal.

St Paul's old 2

Numerous other myths and tragedies are also associated with the building.

One involves a man rumoured to have been engaged in smuggling and harboured in Queanbeyan by the Rev. Soares. A former government employee, the smuggler had apparently been sacked for participating “in a conspiracy to defraud the treasury.” His name was Gualter Soares, brother of the good Reverend, who would himself go on to train as a minister, laying the foundation stone at St Paul’s on December 14, 1867.

An early Church Warden, John Feagan, was at that point also owner of “The Googongs”. Legend has it he paid for the property with saddlebags filled with gold from Araluen; he would later be killed when thrown from a horse.

In 1891, Mrs Rebecca Symonds, wife of the Rector, died at 40 years of age, leaving six children including a baby daughter. The east window of St Paul’s was provided by residents of the district as a memorial to her.

Stained glass burra

This echoed an exceptionally similar tragedy which occurred just five years later in Queanbeyan. Mrs Amy Steel, wife of the Reverend Robert Steel of the Presbyterian Church and mother of seven, passed away aged, as her coffin-plate specifically stated, aged 40 and three-quarters. There is also a large stained glass memorial provided by the church community of St Stephen’s in her honour.

And then on Easter Monday, 1941, popular 20-year-old Peggy Gibbs of Mt Campbell was riding a pony at the Tuggeranong Picnic Races when it stumbled and rolled on her. The resident brass altar cross and candlesticks of St Paul’s were given in her memory.

St Paul’s was fully returned to its community in 1951 and even though for almost another 70 years its legal “protection” remained elusive, it appeared it was being watched over: a bushfire roared towards it in 1952 before it “miraculously parted and passed each side of the church.”

It was also far from the only place consecration was not conferred – the 1837 Convict Church of Port Arthur, although no longer in use, never achieved the status, and St Bartholomew’s at Pyrmont (1850) also apparently remained unconsecrated as of at least 1932, demolished in 1970.

Furthermore, in 1884 “The Daily Telegraph” reported there were “about 24 churches, all of which have been licensed, in regular use, and which should properly be consecrated.”

Arising from the Anglican Synod of the time, the presiding Primate noted that “these churches are formally and solemnly dedicated – to all intents and purposes they are consecrated, whatever consecration may mean.”

While May 20, 2018 saw the local oversight finally remedied, 150 years of just getting on with the job without need for acknowledgement may not only be a record but one that might never be beaten.

Can I get an amen?

St Paul's bell.JPG


  • A new attendance service book has been kept from 1997, showing fluctuating numbers – on one occasion, just the single attendee along with the minister. In 1907 it was reported that the church had its “largest attendance ever” to mark the harvest thanksgiving service.
  • In 2012 a new bell was donated which, for a time, hung in the fork of one of St Paul’s elm trees.


The small vestry to the right of the nave was added almost 20 years after the construction of the church. Affecting the structural integrity of the building, in recent, extensive renovations, it had to be removed.. Its door was retained and set up along a path, perhaps as a reminder that “when God closes a door, somewhere he opens a window.”

St Paul's Burra external 2

St Paul's Burra door.jpg


The Canberra-Queanbeyan Conspiracy

Whitlam in Queanbeyan

Interesting times we may be living in, but even in the face of recent Australian political upheavals, one of the biggies remains the day a sacked Prime Minister stood on the steps of Parliament House and pronounced “nothing would save the governor-general” following Sir John Kerr’s dismissal of him as from the top job.

It was November 11, 1975, and the metaphorical shots that rang out that day reverberated long and loud. One of the most astonishing developments would be dragged out over another three years in, of all places, Queanbeyan.

In the Court of Petty Sessions of the NSW border-town, which had itself barely achieved city-status, charges of conspiracy to deceive brought against ex-PM Gough Whitlam, his once Treasurer, Dr Jim Cairns, and former Attorney-General and by then, High Court Justice, Lionel Murphy, were ultimately dismissed on Friday, February 16, 1979.

The “loans affair” as it became known, sensationally saw a criminal prosecution launched by an otherwise unheralded 31-year-old Sydney solicitor, Danny Sankey – essentially equating to a private citizen taking on political privilege – only a matter of weeks after the controversial sacking. Sankey alleged that an attempt to source US $4,000 million in overseas borrowings by senior Ministers in the Whitlam Government (originally also including Minister for Minerals and Energy, Rex Connor, who died in 1977) had involved the “deception” of Governor-General Kerr on the basis it was for “temporary purposes” rather than to fund large, permanent developments.

Sankey also claimed a breach of the Commonwealth Crimes Act, specifically, a contravention of an historic financial agreement between the Commonwealth and the states. This would be taken to, and eventually deemed invalid by, the High Court in 1978.

The rest of the drama though, would continue just over the state-territory line – and both the defence lawyers and the sitting Magistrate, Mr Darcy Leo, had already advanced the question of “why Queanbeyan?”. Proximity to Canberra was the answer, and hence the streets of the town came to be lined with more legal silk, politicos, and newshounds than seen in 140 years of law and order there.

Queanbeyan Court House 1870

Adding comic pathos, almost from the outset, the Queanbeyan Court House of 1861 was in its death throes, being torn down to make way for a new, more “brutalist” concrete one to be erected in its place. Proceedings – and furniture – had to be moved to make-shift digs in the nearby, similarly poorly provisioned old Methodist Hall one street removed from the main. It included, by needs, a much-extended bar table, cobbled together with a number of the old ones laid end-to-end, and according to the Gang-Gang column of the day, (yep, around even then), making it “longer than those found in the average public house”. The new set-up featured an innovation not previously made use of in Queanbeyan – for the first time, proceedings were “recorded on tape”.

Qbn court house internal 3

By this point, magistrate Leo, more accustomed to dealing with break-and-enters and perhaps the occasional case of fraud in his Queanbeyan role, may well have been concerned at the level of disruption to his court, coverage of suggestions the loan process had been “inappropriately” approved and in the face of the “disapproval” of the Department of Treasury, ongoing.

The allegation of a conspiracy inevitably generated enough counter-conspiracies to fill a season of “The X Files” (never mind almost as many appeals as days actually spent in court): some claimed the prosecution was a set-up by the NSW Liberal Party, and there was a right-wing “obsession” with the case, while the man who would become PM, Malcolm Fraser, was criticised that the timing conflicted with the impending, now necessary, election. On the outgoing government’s side, even though the initiative had been abandoned earlier in ’75, the fact that Cairns would be dismissed for a “related matter” and Connor for “misleading parliament” (further in-depth details can be found at naa.gov.au) only encouraged conjecture. Later speculation as to alleged interference by outside entities also meant disquiet was anything but quiet.

Allusions to this aspect were heightened when 13 months after being brought to court, in January 1977, Leo disqualified himself from hearing the matter. The reason cited was an associated defamation action against a newspaper however the magistrate also stated to the court “he had been advised it would be improper for him to continue to hear the case.”

Magistrate Darcy Leo

In his absence, no less than the NSW Chief Stipendiary Magistrate, Murray Farquhar, would take his place on the Queanbeyan bench, albeit, briefly. There was also an attempt to move the hearing to Sydney, but this was denied. This unexpected interlude would later require the NSW Premier of the time, Neville Wran, to deny that pressure had been placed on Darcy to step aside.

Numerous appeals eventually saw Leo resume his position, the court ruling that he should be released from other duties in order to hear the case continuously – clearly, the delays and perceived shenanigans were wearing thin.

It was far from over though: throughout the year there were yet more discussions and delays, a result of calls that the Federal Government intervene to end it as a private prosecution. This too, was eventually sidelined but still the rumblings continued.

Finally, after another year-and-a-half, the leviathan it had become ground to a stop, Leo finding there was no “overt act to deceive”, and with insufficient evidence to commit the defendants, all charges were dismissed.

Had the prosecution been successful, the ramifications were more far-reaching than media coverage of the time indicated. Essentially it may have amounted to Ministers being “at peril of being prosecuted, whether at Queanbeyan, the ACT, Alice Springs, Boggabri or anywhere” if legislation was able to be shown to be unconstitutional.

Sankey though would claim no regret and that his actions were neither spurious or vexatious, nor did he have links to any other party, political or otherwise: “I am in it on my own.”

According to his own defence team, who would be required to represent him in the matter of costs, the solicitor had “undertaken the prosecution from the highest motive” and his actions had ensured “the Australian people were now aware of the facts.”

It was Whitlam who stood on those different set of steps on that February day and his Queanbeyan pronouncement was as quotable as his Canberra one more than three years earlier:

“The comedy is over. The whole proceedings have been a farce, and a protracted one.”

And yet still the saga wasn’t done, pushing on for yet another year. Left was the question of who had to pay. While Cabinet had agreed the Commonwealth would cover the costs of the defendants (some $300k – equivalent to more than $1.2mill in 2018 terms) – and unusual in itself given it was normally the job of the Attorney-General to approve such things – Sankey was personally liable for a total of $75,497.66. He refused to pay, pledging to go to prison for 12 months on the basis of the inequality of the taxpayer footing the bill for the politicians while his request for remediation was declined.

In another bizarre twist, on December 2, 1980, an anonymous woman arrived at the court with a cheque for $75,000, while an unnamed doctor made a $10 contribution. Sankey declared no knowledge of his benefactors, but with the remaining $487 – not forgetting the 66 cents – still owing, and he sticking to his guns, the prospect of almost a month in jail was the outcome.

Following that inglorious conclusion, Sankey continued to practice in Sydney, moving to Queensland in 2006 but returning to the NSW capital eight years later. Then, three years after that, it all came tumbling from the shadows once again. After more than 30 years, confidential files from a Hawke Government-instigated 1986 inquiry were released and Sankey would publicly confirm that organised crime boss, Abe Saffron, otherwise known as “Mr Sin”, had twice attempted to coerce him into dropping the charges. Among the revealed allegations, no. 11 suggested Sankey was targeted in order to be “improperly and unlawfully intimidated into withdrawing these private prosecutions”, while another barrister purported to have been told “Sankey was a dead man”. A threat was also said to have been made against Sankey’s own Counsel, David Rofe QC.

Abe Saffron

Abe Saffron at one of his Sydney nightclubs in the 1950s. Image: The Australian

By Sankey’s admission, he stood his ground, declaring the only way he would consider ending the legal action would be an admission by the parties against he had levelled charges as to their wrong-doing. Even after the case was dismissed, costs awarded and the entire bizarre scenario relegated to Australian Politics 101 classes, Sankey would hold fast that his motivations were always a matter of principle and that his purpose had been to clarify “community confusion and uncertainty” surrounding the affair.

Today though, more than 40 years later, it seems most still scratch their heads as to just how – and why – a country was thrown into this political turmoil, a government could be brought down in this manner, and a small-time solicitor could generate such unrest for so long.











Mysterious Case of the Michelago Poisoner

An Historic Investigation

Qbn Court HouseQueanbeyan Court House, 1862

It was the depths of winter, 1929, and the frail woman garbed in black quivered visibly as she stood in the dock of the Queanbeyan Coroner’s Court.

At the reading of the charge, the crowded gallery craned forward as one, watching on as the prisoner swooned heavily to the floor.

The “physically delicate” 45-year-old Ada Bunfield, quickly removed to the nearby Queanbeyan Hospital under police guard, had recently lost her husband in a most harrowing manner. Now her own life was in peril, accused as she was of occasioning his death – through poisoning.

The sensational series of events, which saw an entire region gossiping, appeared in the headlines as the “Mystery of Michelago”.

After Sunday lunch on August 4, Alicki Bunfield, the school master in the NSW hamlet for almost a decade, was found in the throes of an agonising end, his eyes bulging unnaturally, his limbs spasming and his body convulsing wildly. His condition had progressively worsened over a period of four hours, until finally, according to the later Coroner’s report, “in the act of attempting to vomit, he appeared to cease breathing”.

Michelago School

Michelago School, est. 1868 (photo credit: Peter Engstrom)

Medical assistance had been summoned earlier, the 30-odd mile trip from Queanbeyan made by Dr Moya Blackall. Eldest daughter of the town’s long-serving physician, Dr Patrick Blackall, despite Emma Stone having been the first woman registered to practice medicine in Australia in 1890, the 25-year-old Dr Blackall junior was still a pioneer. And regardless of her personal proficiency – just the previous year having successfully revived a local worker after electrocution – Bunfield was well beyond the point of no return on her arrival at his bedside.



Dr Moya Blackall in 1962 (left) & her father

The funeral arrangements proceeded without delay and by the following afternoon, the teacher’s coffin was led on by most of his fellow residents, including his students, to what would prove not quite his final resting place, in the tiny cemetery just off the Cooma road.

At almost the same time, an inquiry into the unusual circumstances of the otherwise healthy 52-year-old’s sudden demise was opened, and before the day was through, the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) in Sydney would be called upon to delve further into the unfolding drama.

As Government Medical Officer (GMO), Dr Patrick Blackall had that very morning conducted the post-mortem, concurring with his daughter that death was a result of asphyxiation caused by convulsions. What had brought the fits on, remained unexplained. Witnesses to the ordeal suggested “ptomaine”, or food poisoning, following Bunfield’s midday consumption of some tinned peaches that he’d declared to have “a bitter taste”. However, both Ada and their 15-year-old son, Harry, had also eaten the fruit and avoided a similar fate. The potential of this as the cause was also rejected by Dr Blackall Jnr.

The arrival of two city detective-sergeants, Kennedy and James, hot-on-the-heels of working a recent Sydney murder involving poisoningii, led to the questioning of a number of locals and some suspicious discoveries, deepening the mystery further. Subsequently, at the end of the week, Bunfield was rudely disturbed from his eternal slumber, his body exhumed for an analysis of his organs.

The result? Traces of the highly toxic poison strychnine, normally used to kill vermin such as rats, enough that according to Dr Blackall Snr, conducting a second examination in the presence of two other doctors, “a large quantity of the drug must have been consumed”. And the finding would be verified by the Government Analyst in Sydney.



Strychnine in the 1920s, along with its use as a pesticide, was quite commonly known as mystery novelist Agatha Christie’s murder weapon of choice in her first whodunit, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Whether that was in the thoughts of any of the 13 witnesses called during the official inquest in Queanbeyan when it opened on Wednesday, August 28, before Presiding Magistrate, Mr J.W.T. Forrest, would not be explicitly addressed.

“An hysterical and neurotic person” was the manner in which Bunfield was said to have described his wife to one, grazier William Kelly. When the other man responded: “You don’t know what women like that might do”, Bunfield replied: “No, too right you don’t”, also noting that most of his money went to medical expenses for Ada’s ongoing, though undiagnosed, medical issues.

Perhaps due to her condition, or that she was acutely aware of the heightened attention, Ada had arrived at Court “in a motor car, with the side curtains up, but she did not venture from it.” Instead, her solicitor, Mr Felix Mitchell of Cooma, provided a doctor’s certificate alluding to her precarious health, a widely-known state of affairs which would be attested to by a number of parties.

This included the couple’s 18-year-old daughter, Mavis, who, in a tremulous voice, confirmed her mother regularly suffered “fits and seizures” and had herself been confined to bed on the same afternoon her father had fallen ill, Ada suggesting she felt “queer”. In fact, it was a result of this that Ada would not actually learn of her husband’s death until she had been widowed for almost 24 hours.

Mavis, herself heavily clothed in mourning attire, also revealed that on that fateful day she had thought Bunfield’s behaviour “strange” from as early as breakfast, when he refused food and a cup of tea, was “unusually quiet” and complained of a headache. The young woman further commented that he had been staying up much later than was his usual routine.

Close family friend, 24-year-old Tom O’Connor, a Queanbeyan carpenter and local sporting prodigy (boxing, tennis, rugby league, cricket and later, golf), agreed he’d also noticed a change in the normally circumspect man’s personality, but for at least the last week or so. Other statements similarly seemed to indicate changes in Bunfield’s appearance as much as a fortnight prior to his death.

The evidential weight seemingly continued to mount against the new widow and the Coroner brought a brief halt to proceedings, urging Mr Mitchell to have Ada attend. Finally, “in a weakened state”, she did.

Thereafter, it would come to light that while no poison had previously been kept within the household, Ada had not only received a package containing “an ounce of strychnine” – twice as much as required to kill a human – from the chemist in Cooma the day before her husband’s unfortunate demise, the preceding month she had taken receipt of another such delivery from Queanbeyaniii. She’d variously declared to the investigating detectives, and Tom O’Connor, who had collected the most recent parcel from the railway station on her behalf, that her husband had requested it, intending to use it to deal with rabbits, later changing that detail to mice.

On confirming these were the only instances of her ordering the poison, a letter from mid-July was produced indicating Ada had written to the Ladies College of Health in Sydney asking for a dose to be supplied to her. This organisation provided “treatments and remedies” for the improvement of women’s health, particularly ailments such as “anxiety”. Whether they had access to the drug or not, the College didn’t provide any to Ada , and a call was then said to have been made to another chemist who was unable to fulfil the order. At her failure to recollect these details, Ada justified it as a result of her fits, which she said impaired her memory.

Ladies College of Health.jpg

The testimony of local store-keeper, William Wyatt, was potentially even more damaging. He claimed that when that when he visited Bunfield, with whom he was “intimately acquainted”, on the Sunday afternoon, the dying man said to him, “I think I am poisoned, I think it might be strychnine”. Wyatt also suggested he had searched both the house and the school looking for the strychnine, but located nothing.

And yet, when station hand Timothy Ryan had, after lunch, asked him what was wrong, Bunfield answered that he didn’t know, instead stating “but I think there is a lot wrong”. He said again that the peaches had been “mighty bitter”. Ryan then questioned how something might have “got into the peaches”, to which Bunfield was said to have replied: “well it didn’t get there itself”.

Truth, 1929.jpg

Truth, Sydney, Sept 1, 1929


Born in Gunning, NSW in 1877, Alick was the second son of Henry Bunfield, a free English immigrant and Methodist minister (d.1923, somewhat coincidentally, from “blood-poisoning” following a knee injury), and his Yass-born wife, Phoebe (d. 1927, also on a Sunday afternoon as had her younger son). Alick and Ada Turner, a Cooma girl (born on October 31, Halloween, no less), had married 19 years earlier in her hometown. That the family was to all appearances a happy one, was agreed upon by all.

According to Mavis, the couple never quarrelled, and son, Harry, declared that his father was devoted to his mother, also at pains to point out that she always made the orders from the chemist. Even William Kelly would qualify his earlier statements that Bunfield’s comments to him about Ada’s health problems came from concern for her rather than anything untoward.

As to the likelihood of another party with malicious intent, Ada had informed the detectives that her husband “had no enemies and was well-liked by everyone”. She also confirmed that he “looked after us and treated us well”.

What then, as to the potential for suicide?

Everyone involved was similarly adamant that Bunfield had never talked of, nor intimated, an intention to take his own life. Given strychnine poisoning is a tortuous way to die – as the muscles become paralysed, suffocating the victim, they not only remain conscious, but perception is heightened, making them only too aware of their fate – one might think other methods might have been better employed if it was a case of self-administration. And yet, it most certainly wasn’t unheard of: in the UK, between 1949 and 1979, one death a year was attributed to the notorious substance, and in all but one of the 30, it was deliberately taken by the victim.i

The final blow would be dealt Ada on the revelation that police had located a discarded and empty tin of strychnine in the rubbish and which had the appearance of the label having been scratched off. It was said this had not been there when earlier searches were conducted, both by storekeeper Wyatt, and local Constable Francis Fyfe. Responsible for policing in the town for the last year, the Constable indicated he had earlier seen Harry loitering near where the tin was found, presumably suggesting a possibility the boy may have tried to get rid of the evidence.

The Constable also said he had never heard Bunfield talk of taking his own life, although described him as a “secretive man” who did not “discuss his affairs with anyone”.

The Coroner then called Ada forward, asking if she wished to testify. He also made it clear that she “need not give any evidence if it tended to incriminate her in any way”.

When the distressed woman declined, Mr Forrest delivered the damning verdict that the deceased had “come to his death by strychnine poisoning, wilfully administered by Ada Mary Bunfield”, committing her to trial at the Central Criminal Court in Sydney three months hence, with no opportunity for bail. Upon the news, Ada promptly collapsed.

The ruling on bail would be overturned the next day due to Ada’s failing health and the expressed concern that she could not be left alone (whether because of her physical or mental health is unclear). The 1,000 pound bond and surety – a huge amount for the time, equivalent to more than $76,000 in modern termsv – was stumped up by her two brothers, the accompanying conditions that she report to police and the GMO regularly.


Ada would have been duly traumatised for good reason. The middle-aged mother of two potentially faced a sentence of death. The last woman hanged in NSW, Louisa Collins, had been controversially subjected to the fate in 1889 when convicted of poisoning her second husband (suspected of having killed her first in the same manner). Much of the case against her was reliant on the testimony of her 10-year-old daughter.

Louisa Collins

Last woman hanged in NSW, Lousia Collins

Historically, poison is viewed as a “particularly female modus operandi”; it doesn’t require strength, and can be relatively easily obtained and concealed. Indeed, some of Australia’s most notorious female murderers did poison their victims. This included Caroline “Aunt Thally” Grills, who it was speculated killed, or attempted to kill, as many as eight of her extended family and friends by administering it in their tea and biscuitsvi. Women who committed such acts were also very poorly perceived by the public, as Louisa Collins was to tragically learn.

At the opening of Ada’s trial on November 26, with her again initially absent, an affidavit was delivered on her behalf declaring she was “innocent of the charge of having administered poison to her husband”.

Senior Prosecutor for the Crown, Mr L.J. McKean, KC, expounded it was “a case of murder, or nothing”.

At 44, McKean was a year younger than the accused. Six years later he would earn considerable attention with the now legendary “Shark Arm Case”, when a captured tiger shark disgorged a human arm and it was determined it had been swallowed after being hacked from a body. The amputation was eventually identified – employing cutting-edge forensics of the day – as belonging to a missing small-time Sydney criminal, Jim Smith, but it proved impossible to see anyone charged with the murdervii.

In relation to the death of Alick Bunfield, it was, apparently, a case of “nothing”. The trial would last less than the day. Justice Halse Rogers, promoted to the Supreme Court just the year before and known for his instinctive grasp of complex judicial matters, was perhaps loathe to see the situation of Collins repeated. He discharged the jury, citing that while cause of death was beyond doubt, as was evidence of opportunity for foul play, regardless of some suggestions Bunfield had been in “comfortable financial circumstances”, there was no motive. In his esteemed opinion, “it would be quite unsafe to convict on the evidence”, which, in his view, “was just as consistent with accident or suicide as it was with murder”. He also made clear to the 12 men selected to decide upon the matter his position that it was “more important that many people should go free rather than one innocent person should suffer”.

Justice Halse Rogers.jpg

Justice Halse Rogers (left) while Chancellor of the University of Sydney. Image courtesy State Library of NSW

Even the prosecution acknowledged they could not “assign any motive”, although Mr McKean went to lengths to point out, “it is not necessary to prove motive”.

In contrast to her original emotional response, on the positive outcome of Ada’s ordeal, some reports suggest the wife cleared of the murder of her husband remained “unmoved”. As with so many of the details surrounding the somewhat bizarre set of circumstances that had led to that juncture though, the various views seemed far from objective, with others suggesting she was “dabbing a hankerchief at her eyes” as she was assisted from the dock.

It would seem then, the situation was resolved?


No definitive explanation was ever provided as to how Bunfield ingested the poison which killed him.

The tin that was later discovered in the backyard was empty – so where did the crystalline powder go? It was also apparently not the supply that had been received the day before the tragedy, as Ada told Constable Fyfe that had been a jar, while the one prior to that had been “a blue packet”. Neither of these, it seems, were ever located. Had Bunfield been using it on the rabbits – or mice – and in doing so, somehow swallowed some? In another aside, Harry Bunfield also made the observation that a house cat had died suffering convulsions as much as a week before his father’s death.

Strychnine can be inhaled, enter the body through broken skin or even absorbed through the eyes or mouth. Naturally, smaller doses take longer to take full effect, when enough to be fatal, symptoms being displayed up to 24 hours before the onset of death. Yet the Coroner’s report revealed that almost “2 grains” were found in Bunfield’s stomach and organs (as little as a ¼ of a grain has been known to be lethal): too much to have been consumed in any way without it being noticed at the time, or could lesser amounts have entered his system over a lengthier period, eventually producing a cumulative effect?

While colourless and odourless, strychnine is also very bitter-tasting, and hence, when used as a plot device (also in Dumas’ The Count of Monte Cristo and Conan Doyle’s The Sign of Four, or for a more modern reference, by Norman Bates in Hitchcock’s Psycho), is usually consumed unintentionally or disguised in other strong-tasting concoctions.

It was the tinned peaches he ate at lunch that the dead man declared “bitter” to a number of people, but Bunfield also stated to one witness that his son, Harry, had eaten far more than he and told his father he had not noted anything out of the ordinary. Some of the court reporting however, declared the boy had been vomiting prior to the arrival of Dr Blackall Jnr, but she would note that he did not present to her as symptomatic. Ada too, had eaten the fruit and been taken to bed feeling unwell. Another account in the more local Braidwood Review & District Advocate had both Ada and Harry making themselves sick following Bunfield’s observations after the meal, in order to avoid “serious consequences”. But if they did, why would the teacher not have attempted the same remedy? (Modern treatment suggests vomiting should not be induced in such instances).

Daily Advertiser, Wagga, Aug 29, 1929

Daily Advertiser, Wagga, Aug 30, 1929

During the inquiry, Harry would also suggest he thought the culprit may instead have been a rice custard his mother had made, in which “she did not partake”. He made it clear though, that as he assisted prepare the food, he would have known if there were any unexplained additions to the recipe.

Then there’s the anomalies with the timeline of events. From the available information it’s possible to glean that it seems that neither of the Dr Blackalls considered strychnine poisoning an option at the point of Bunfield’s death, or else surely he would not have been permitted to be buried. This, as the cause, did not appear to be raised until after Ada had confirmed with Constable Fyfe on the Wednesday that she had taken delivery of the poison. Raising suspicions, she had also asked him if this information might lead to there being a court case.

Equally, it’s unclear if Timothy Ryan’s claim Bunfield stated it “might be strychnine” was revealed before or after it became more widely known that the substance had since been in the house.

And what of Ada? Despite her ongoing problems, her only diagnosis was one of “neurasthenia”, essentially a cover-all term for a variety of non-specific issues from fatigue to headaches, and primarily related to “emotional disturbance”.

Her symptoms however, were potentially similar to the effects of low-dose strychnine consumption – headaches, vomiting and fitting. Could she, too, have been ingesting the poison previously, either by accident, or even, knowingly? Or, was there a possibility someone had been administering it to her – she had, after all, claimed she’d obtained it on her husband’s request?

Potentially the most eyebrow-raising element was Ada’s ordering of the preparation. Firstly, there was the number of occasions she had purchased, or attempted to purchase strychnine – at least four, two of which she had somewhat mysteriously forgotten. Then there’s the question of why in each she’d attempted to source it from a different location, bearing in mind Michelago was much too small a place to support a chemist and so supplies would come from nearby Cooma or Queanbeyan. Finally though, why would Ada have approached, of all places, the Ladies College of Health in Sydney to buy it – or, does the answer to that lie therein?

It may have been that Ada was so tired of being ill she was looking for an end to it – but not necessarily in the negative way that might be perceived. It’s a little known fact that in the 19th and early 20th century, the poison was actually recommended in small doses as an “invigorator”, the “convulsant effect” believed to be beneficial, particularly as an “athletic performance enhancer”. Even as late as 2016, it was still being detected in sports doping scandalsviii. Might Ada have considered it a tonic for her ailments, but was not prepared to admit this to be the situation?

Of course, all of these questions may well have been answered by way of a thorough trial, but Justice Rogers appeared justified in his decision to dismiss given the circumstantial nature of the evidence.


In the end, it may be that the answer to the mystery of Alick Bunfield’s death lies in what seems to have been a single report contained in a newspaper far removed from the rural environs of Michelago. Despite the extensive coverage of the ongoing saga, it appears that only the Rockhampton Morning Bulletin (Qld), the day after the conclusion of the trial, made mention that “they ate tinned fish the night before and Mrs Bunfield also became sick” (not withstanding other details, including names and ages, were incorrect)ix.

As it transpires, it is possible for secondary poisonings to occur if a poisoned animal is consumedx. Similarly, there are most certainly instances of strychnine being found in fish (also cyanide), most likely due to human disposal in river systems. It’s no secret canned goods can also be problematic when it comes to the contamination of food, although usually presenting as a form of virulent food poisoning known as botulism (a 1978 outbreak in Canada courtesy of canned salmon)xi.

Presuming this news report was not another transcription error (and this seemingly wasn’t the case as it specifically referenced the activities of the previous evening), nowhere was it revealed if all family members partook in the meal, or if Bunfield had more than the others. If both Ada and Harry had a lesser portion, it could potentially account for their illness on the Sunday, and if they did enforce vomiting after lunch, perhaps they rid their systems of the toxin. It might also explain why Bunfield was sick from that morning. Mavis was at breakfast, so it can logically be presumed she was at dinner the night before, but it’s impossible to know if she, too, ate it, and the only confirmed point is that she seemed the only one to suffer no ill-effects.

Was the culprit then, the fish?

Confirmed answers it seems, would go to the grave with both the Bunfields. Ada died just 11 years later, exactly two months after her 56th birthday, on December 31, 1940xii. By then living in Queanbeyan, she was not buried alongside her husband back in Michelago, but instead is interred in the Queanbeyan Riverside Cemetery.

And so, for all eternity it seems, a Michelago mystery it remains.

michelago railway station3.jpg

Michelago Railway Station

  • The Michelago School will celebrate its 150th anniversary on March 24th this year.



It’s An Honour

T.J. Wills Aboriginal cricket team 1866

What, I hear you ask, could the man responsible for the creation of that most parochial of sports, Australian Rules Football, one of the most highly regarded writers this country has produced, and the only antipodean to don the tux of the world famous spy, 007, possibly have in common?

More than just being “Strayan”, more than being legends on the scale of undergarments worn on the outside of their clothes, Thomas Wentworth Wills, Miles Franklin, and George Lazenby are able to boast something of even greater import: each has an enduring connection with the City of Champions, Queanbeyan, NSW 2620, population 42,000. And for this they’ve earned a place on the recently instigated (and clearly, much-needed) Honour Walk.

To suggest the little-city-that-could, perched for posterity as it is at the point at which a state becomes a territory, has long punched above its weight in the turning out of stars of major proportions, is undisputed. In honour of this honour, in 2011, the idea of a Walk of Honour was advanced, with the First Eleven of our local celebrities set in stone (and bronze) in order that they might be passed over daily by an admiring public, in the revamped Crawford Street Lifestyle Precinct.

Formula One fantasmo, Mark Webber; the multi-talented squash-tennis-hockey-racquetball dynamo, Heather McKay; genius of the goose-step, David Campese – and now two more of the 12 locals to have represented Australia on the rugby field, Alan Morton AM (11 Tests), and Matt Giteau, who played in the green and gold 100 times – all feature.

Walk of Honnour

They join a bevy of seemingly boundless bounty in Stage II of the project, among them, a bloke who’s name is much less known than expected in a country peopled by the sports-mad.

Tom Wills was held to be “one of the most promising cricketers in the kingdom”, a celebrity sportsman well before Shane Warne gained that level of infamy, who dared take a dozen English wickets in his inaugural match at Lord’s, and even more historically significant, act as captain-coach of the First Aboriginal XI that would tour Britain. Cricket you say, guvernor? A powerhouse in rugby too, and it was his feeling that this code was “too English” (we requiring something more befitting our general “harshness”), that he went on in 1859 to make one up that he believed eminently more suitable.


And Queanbeyan’s claim (and it’s sticking to it) is that it was in these parts where it all started: Master Wills born on the Molonglo Plains in 1835, his early childhood spent here and, inevitably, where his talent began to bloom. So too, Miles Franklin, growing up at Brindabella when Queanbeyan was the epicentre of the surrounding region (1500-odd residents was virtually a metropolis). The young Stella would later write revealing how progressive the town was in the whimsically titled Old Blastus of Bandicoot: “everyone approached Queanbeyan hoping to see the new machine traversing the plains: to have seen it scattering the horses in Crawford or Monaro Streets … “ (ICYMI, it’s a car).


And then there’s our boy George, aka Mr Bond, a Queanbeyan High School graduate who scaled the glittery heights to earn more than Hugh Jackman for looking the goods and become the martini-drinking, Aston Martin-driving, womanising, least secret of agents (just the once mind you, that egregious decision making him almost as famous). While atop that totem pole, albeit, relatively briefly, the raffish sex symbol continued to visit his family living in Morton Street – and many locals still talk of the years his mum worked in the shoe department of JB Young’s. Although unable to attend the unveiling of his plaque, George sent his best wishes to “all in my old town”.

Lazenby at home

Of course, Goulburn likes to draw the battle lines over both Lazenby and Franklin, claiming the first because he was born there, moving to Queanbeyan when a young teenager, and the second because she moved to Goulburn from Queanbeyan-Brindabella when a teenager. I’m sure, however, we can both comfortably claim some of the glory.

Then there are those who while making their mark in more modest ways, have provided exemplary examples, including a regional version of Annie Oakley meets Calamity Jane.

The gun-toting, horse-breaking, more than six-foot tall Elizabeth McKeahnie was a true frontierswoman, owning and operating her own dairy and cattle property in the mid to late 1800s, and achieving 100% female participation rates by only employing women assistants. When women weren’t available, she’d hire men but make them dress in feminine garb!

A daughter of Scotland, her parents some of this region’s earliest settlers, arriving at the same time as the “town” (1850 – pop. 50), and along with being practical, the indomitable Elizabeth was not raised a yokel, also writing poetry. In fact, such an all-rounder was she, on her death in 1919, her glowing denouement revealed that “her conversational gifts were above the average, and, taken altogether, she was a woman as much higher in womanly qualities as she was in stature above the ordinary.”

Elizabeth McKeahnie

The Rev. Alberto Dias Soares too – son of a Portuguese knight, trained in Paris as an artist and engineer, and yet who fate somehow brought to Queanbeyan in 1857, and where he remained for more than 30 years. Over this time, he was responsible for some 30-odd churches throughout the region, both his on denomination, Anglican, and Presbyterian among them. One of the most charming (and well-positioned), is Christ Church in Queanbeyan, set overlooking the river that runs the course of the now city. Rev. Soares has also recently been honoured in an exhibition of items relating to his architectural work, gifted to the Canberra Museum and Gallery.


So, while you may or may not be a local who’ll be graced with the chance to find yourself a part of this avenue that honours those who have walked these streets before, do call by and make yourself better acquainted with just why Queanbeyan is, truly, a City of Champions.

And feel free to spread the good word.

Larrikin, Boxer, Soldier, Saviour

Ryrie and Plain Bill

Granville Ryrie on his trusty steed, Plain Bill, provided by the constituents of his Federal seat of North Sydney, and considered one of the finest horses in the regiment.

He was a simple farm boy from Michelago and yet it was the commanding persona – physical and otherwise – of the man he would become that saw Major-General the Hon. Sir Granville de Laune Ryrie KCMG, CB, VD, earn distinction as one of the nation’s most distinguished servicemen, politicians and diplomats.

Having just commemorated the centenary of a highly significant though somewhat under-rated WWI victory for the ANZAC forces, the battle for Beersheba on October 31st, 1917, at which then Brigadier General Ryrie led the 2nd Light Horse, his story more than warrants a telling for the generations for whom he remains the unknown soldier.

By the time the Australians stormed the Turkish trenches to secure the town of Beersheba in what has since become Israel, Ryrie was, incredibly, 52 years old. He’d already served with the 1st Light Horse in the Boer War of 1898 (later becoming Commanding Officer) during which he was seriously wounded, as well as Gallipolli – falling prey to shrapnel twice more.

More unusually, he remained the serving Federal Member for North Sydney for the duration, having first gone into politics on winning the seat of Queanbeyan in 1906 (resigning it in 1910, re-elected to the new seat the following year). Ryrie was one of 16 MP’s to do such a thing, from a total of 111 all male political representatives of the day – in his own words, “after thinking for 11 hours”, a duty he felt compelled to fulfill.

It was this pronounced commitment to “[taking] our own part in it” that engendered the devotion of those with whom he fought on the battlefield and the respect of his superiors and constituents back home. The Australian war correspondent, Sir Henry Gullett, would later officially note, “Such a man … could scarcely fail to be a hero to his men.”

For the many accomplishments and attainments though, it would seem Ryrie’s most winning attribute was his genuine, practical and gregarious nature: an Australian bushman to his bootstraps.

Granville Ryrie was the second son of a pioneering and well-connected local family who today retain possession of their 1854 holding on the Monaro (originally a substantial 35,000 acres), “Micalago Station”, and where he was born in 1865.

Ryrie and Family at Michelago 2.jpgGranville with wife Mary and daughters, Gwendoline and Marjorie.  Son, James, was born in 1911.

His grandfather, Stewart, a Scottish officer under the Duke of Wellington, emigrated in 1825. His father, Alexander, opted for the life of a grazier and also politician, first in the NSW Legislative Assembly as member for Braidwood, then the Legislative Council.

Mother, Charlotte, was of another prominent local family: her father, Captain Alured Tasker Faunce, Queanbeyan’s first Police Magistrate (1836).

Young Ryrie would later garner the nickname ‘Bull’, and for good reason; his was the build of a rugby player – tall, broad, somewhat heavyset – but he was nonetheless a highly accomplished horseman, a crack marksman and a successful amateur boxer.

The local knock-about lad also boasted a personality to match, a winsome spinner of yarns (including some excellent ones on the existence of the mythical Yowie within the wide borders of the Land District of Queanbeyan – see below), with natural leadership qualities that would see Prime Minister Billy Hughes (1915-1923) commend him as “a great General winning the hearts of his men by his unquenchable courage …”

Perhaps nowhere was this more on display than one hundred years ago as the Mounted Divisions undertook what’s considered the first true ANZAC victory, the capture of that Turkish-held, heavily fortified town and its critical water supply.

On the fateful day, Ryrie and his horsemen were given “the place of honour, that is in Advance.” Ordered to “dash with all speed across the plain … and cut the Hebron Road both from reinforcements and escapees”, their success held at bay additional forces that could have brought undone the unprecedented plan to attack the other, even more significant and entrenched position. A weary but triumphant Ryrie would write home to his wife, Mary, “the Turkish prisoners say they are all terrified of the Australian cavalry.”

Ryrie with Troops 1918

The Armistice would be enacted exactly one year on from the success of the Battle of Beersheba, and soon after, the CO of the 2nd Light Horse, mentioned in despatches five times, was promoted to Major General, placed in charge of the AIF in Egypt, and knighted.

On his return to Australia in 1919, Ryrie resumed his Parliamentary role, before heading to London in 1927 to take up the plum position of High Commissioner. He also represented his country at the Geneva League of Nations, though the life of a diplomat was apparently not entirely suited to his robust personality.

Five years on, he came home for the last time, retiring from public life. On his death in 1937, the much-decorated and feted former farmer, Granville Ryrie, was buried following a State funeral at his beloved Michelago, a most fitting epitath provided by author W. Davis Wright in his 1923 book Canberra:
“His genius as a soldier and leader on many battlefields is part of our history now.”

Older Ryrie

The Bushman and the Yowie

Sightings of the infamous ‘hairy man of the woods’, or Yowie, throughout the once huge rural hinterland that was the Land District of Queanbeyan (later to become Canberra), have been recorded over many years (and many others that also defy classification – http://citynews.com.au/2017/overall-beware-creepy-creatures/).

This includes from sources such as the man detailed above, grazier, politician and war hero, Granville Ryrie. In 1912, long-running local newspaper, The Queanbeyan Age, reported that “Ryrie of Michelago” had heard stories of the “creature” since he was a child. He was also of the inclination though, to suggest it was most likely an urban myth used to frighten locals.

Ryrie and the Yowie


Will you dare board the Ghost Train of the Limestone Plains?

Ghost Train sepia

The moon is almost full and the ghostly gums seem to shiver in the still chilly September breeze.

Not a sound can be heard as you stand on the deserted platform, the only illumination a dull glow from within the Station. But then, it flickers, and is extinguished completely.

Further along the tracks, obscured by the heavy mist, a silvery sphere dances towards you, seemingly suspended in mid-air. Just as quickly, it’s gone and you dismiss it as your imagination.

In the distance though, you’re sure you hear a piercing whistle.

The moon drifts behind a bank of clouds and then, looming out of the darkness, the unmistakeable sight of a huge, gleaming, black locomotive that almost silently glides alongside you.

Steam hisses and swirls and when it clears, the driver’s seat is empty and the compartment door is ajar, ominously beckoning you to step over the threshold.

Dare you board the Ghost Train of the Limestone Plains?