Wentworth Street in the Blue Mountains village of Blackheath is filled with tourists during April and May, when the deciduous trees put on a spectacular display of autumn colour. I live just around the corner and it’s always a pleasure to walk along the street on my way to the village.
But in 1918, long before the trees had been planted, Wentworth Street was the location for a tragedy that destroyed two families and left local residents shocked and grief stricken.
30 year old Linda Loosley lived at a house called Athol, with her elderly father William and her sister Ruby, who was 34. Their brother was a school teacher near Wagga. Sadly, Mrs Loosley had died from pneumonia on June 14 1914, aged only 53. Mr Loosley was a pioneer of Blackheath and a successful orchardist. The family was highly respected in the village.
Linda’s social position meant that she did not have to earn her own living. However, like most young ladies she was very involved in community affairs. She carried on her late mother’s volunteer work, helping on produce stalls at Church of England fairs and other fundraising events. With World War I still raging, one of her passions was encouraging local men to sign up.
A FATAL ATTRACTION
Early in 1917 Linda became infatuated with a local boot maker by the name of James Collins, who lived in Chelmsford Avenue. It was a most unlikely (and illicit) affair. The man was 54, old enough to be her father, and married with a family. Collins was also well known in Blackheath as a member and past secretary of the Labour League. Linda’s father, then 76 and in ill health, was almost certainly unaware of the situation. However, her sister Ruby found out, and was horrified. She tried unsuccessfully to persuade Linda to end what soon developed into a sexual relationship. Apparently Linda would visit Collins at his shop, at the corner of Wentworth Street and Govett’s leap Road. Naturally this created trouble with the man’s wife, Matilda. Mrs Collins threatened to leave her husband, but the liaison continued.
In December that year the inevitable happened and Linda realized she was pregnant. She informed Collins, who simply dismissed it, claiming he ‘hardly believed it’. Of course it was all too true. From then on the poor young woman became increasingly desperate. What on earth could someone in her situation do? As the pregnancy became obvious she could no longer even leave the house. She considered running away somewhere, but her love for her sick father was so strong that she felt she would rather die than live without seeing him. She spoke to her sister of wanting to shoot herself, or to take poison. It’s unknown whether Ruby tried to help in any way. It is likely that she was as stricken and helpless as Linda. They were both very naïve and unsophisticated. When Linda could no longer be seen in public, her lover visited her weekly in Wentworth Street, but offered no help or advice whatsoever.
At some point Linda procured a revolver. Her sister would later say that by the end of May, Linda had begun to act very strangely. On Friday June 1 1918 she shot the family dog, in what appears to have been a ghastly rehearsal for what was to follow. Why her sister Ruby did not intervene at this point is a mystery. That same day Linda arranged for £50 to be transferred from her own bank account to Ruby’s.
At 2.30am on Sunday morning Ruby was awoken by two gunshots. Realizing that something terrible had happened she rushed next door and asked the neighbor to call the police. Constable Coleman arrived and broke into the room. He found Linda Loosley dying from a gunshot wound to the forehead. James Collins was staggering at the foot of the bed with a wound behind his ear. There was a half empy bottle of whisky on the dressing table.
A doctor was summoned from Katoomba, but it was too late to save Linda. Collins was taken to Lithgow Hospital, about sixteen miles to the west.
By morning, word had spread throughout the village. The rumour was that Collins had been critically injured, though in reality he had suffered barely more than a flesh wound. He was discharged from hospital within a few days.
The tragedy was reported in the newspapers around the country under salacious headlines;
Considering Collins was only wearing a shirt, the final sentence of the article was completely disingenuous;
Collins’ presence in the bedroom is a complete mystery, as his home is some distance away.
Linda had written letters to various people. To her sister she confessed; ‘I hope when you are reading this I shall be out of this world. I know it is a cowardly way, but I am broken hearted and sick, and life is a burden to me.’
A post mortem revealed what Dr Allan described as, ‘a tumour which conformed in all respects to a pregnancy of between five and six months.’ It’s shocking to think that the pregnancy is likely to have been even further advanced.
A coronial inquiry was held in Lithgow. James Collins was forced to reveal the sordid details of the affair, and his utter selfishness in relation to Linda Loosley’s pregnancy. In his evidence he said that Linda had urged him to drink a large quantity of whiskey on the night of the tragedy. This was no doubt to ensure he would sleep heavily, so that his lover’s terrible solution to her situation could be carried out.
One of the letters found in Linda’s bedroom expressed her feelings of being unworthy to be buried beside her mother. She requested a quiet funeral, with a plain coffin and no flowers. The Church of England minister was a close family friend and to spare his feelings she asked that the Baptist minister conduct her funeral service. She mentioned her beloved father, pleading that he be comforted and supported after her death. I was interested to discover that in 1903, William Loosley was advertising a holiday cottage in Blackheath called ‘Linda’, no doubt named for his daughter.
Summing up, the coroner was scathing in his remarks about Collins. Acts of brutality by Germany were being regularly reported in the newspapers, and the coroner remarked that the man’s conduct had been ‘…even more reprehensible than that of the Germans and Huns’. He stated that Collins had been responsible for the ruin of two families and the death of a young woman. He said he could hardly find words adequate to express his feelings, but hoped Collins would find it impossible to remain in Blackheath.
Linda’s death notice appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald. It was cold and brief. Even though she had clearly worshipped her father, there were no words of love or loss in the announcement, and no mention of her siblings;
LOOSLEY.- June 2, 1918, at Athol, Wentworth-street, Blackheath, Linda, daughter of William Loosley, aged 30 years.
She was buried in the Independent section of the Blackheath cemetery. I was touched to read that a large number of friends and residents attended the funeral. Their grief and sympathy simply outweighed any feelings of judgment. There is no headstone for Plot 8, Row 2; nothing to show Linda is buried there other than the council records and a blue outline on an on-line cemetery map. When I visited the cemetery I was able to count along the row of headstones , and find the exact spot.
I wished I’d brought along some flowers. I will go back on the anniversary of her death this year and take a little posy from my garden.
The saddest thing is that not far away, her mother Elizabeth lies alone in a double plot in the Church of England section. The headstone reads, ÍN MEMORY OF MY DEAR WIFE, ELIZABETH LOOSLEY, NEARER MY GOD TO THEE. Clearly had William intended being buried beside her, but Linda’s tragic death forced him to leave the Mountains. I really wished that Linda’s bones could be dug up and reinterred with her mother.
After Linda’s death Ruby and her father left the Blue Mountains for Sydney. In 1920 William, perhaps because Ruby was unwell, went to live with his married son at Forest Hill. He died there six months later. Ruby lived on at Summer Hill in Sydney but died on Christmas Eve, 1922 at a private hospital, aged 38.
WHAT BECAME OF THE COLLINS FAMILY?
On August 30 1918 an advertisement appeared in the Blue Mountains Echo for an auction to be held on September 4 on behalf of Mrs Collins, late of Chelmsford Avenue, Blackheath. The entire contents of the house were to be sold; furniture, pictures, crockery, cutlery, garden tools etc. Matilda Collins moved to Sydney’s inner western suburbs and died at Ashfield in 1924. James Collins remarried in 1926.
The boot shop continued after the tragedy, at least for a while. It appears that one of Collins’ adult sons took over. In January 1920 an advertisement appeared in Sydney’s Catholic Press. It seems slightly odd to target the tourist market, but perhaps locals were still a bit uncomfortable about shopping there.
Blackheath is one of the most popular of mountain resorts. Visitors are crowding to it every week, and those who are not very familiar with its business capabilities are surprised when they find that Arch. E. Collins, Govett’s Leap Road, offers them quite as good value in footwear as any they can procure in the city. He is one that goes in for the hand-sewn article, so the most desirable boot or shoe is therefore guaranteed. Repairs are neatly done, and at moderate process. Give him a trial.
A cross is being made for Linda’s grave. We will hold a little service on the 100th anniversary of her death in 2018.
UPDATE – 2018
FOOTNOTE – There are far more upbeat stories about Blackheath, including this one involving Don Bradman.
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