On the afternoon of August 18 1937, Mrs Dorothy Bunyan of Lithgow attended a funeral. It was a particularly sad occasion; the child of Mr Brown, of one of the local school teachers, had died. She hurried home because her nine year old son Donald was due home from primary school. Later she would remember how profoundly the funeral service had affected her;
‘As I came along our street I was thinking of that sad, small coffin, and it brought back memories of my own little daughter’s death – she was only 18 months old when she died. It made me realize how precious too, were my own living children, Don, and his little brother, who is now six. I unlocked my house, for whenever I come out I lock up. I have always had a terror of the children getting in and setting themselves alight with matches. ‘ (Women’s Weekly Sept. 11 1937)
The Bunyan’s weatherboard house was located on the corner of Esk and Bent Streets. Mrs Bunyan arrived home at about 3.50pm and went through to the backyard to adjust a quilt on the clothes line. When she heard a couple of faint groans from the garage, she assumed it was young Don playing a joke on her. The garage was virtually the boy’s playhouse, especially in cold weather. She went in and saw him lying partly underneath the running board of the family’s Dodge touring car. Still thinking he was joking she gently pulled him out. He was ashen faced and limp. Mrs Bunyan ran for help and the boy was rushed to Lithgow Hospital.
The child died only minutes after arrival, without uttering a word. His grieving mother was supported by her sister, who lived nearby. On the day of the tragedy Mr Bunyan, an engine driver, was recuperating from a long illness in Bathurst.
There was extreme shock when doctors discovered a bullet hole in the boy’s left breast. As news spread, families became afraid for their own children, fearing an armed robber or a maniac was at large. Police were inclined to discount this. There had been quite few people about at the time and it seemed unlikely that a man with a rifle could have fled the scene without being noticed.
The case became more complicated when a thorough search of the garage was carried out by police.
Bullets were found in the door pocket of the family car and there was an empty shell under the front seat. Astonishingly, a miniature pistol was found hidden in the flue vent of a disused stove. Police now found themselves dealing with a jigsaw puzzle, but one where the pieces seemed to have no hope of fitting. Was it possible that Donald had shot himself while playing with the gun? If he did, how did it end up in the stove?
Mrs Bunyan had no knowledge of the pistol at all, but what an alluring object for a little boy. Donald loved to dress up as a cowboy and the pistol was scarcely bigger than his cap gun….but shot a single, real bullet.
Tests showed that the gun was very difficult to cock, but easy to fire. The theory was that, using a screwdriver or a chisel, Donald had been trying to force a shell into the pistol with the barrel pressed against his chest. When the shell exploded, the casing flew into the car. Another problem with this scenario, was that the only such tools in the garage were not beside the boy or the stove, but on a bench.
Could a playmate have accidentally shot the boy? His friends were all questioned, but their whereabouts at the time were satisfactorily accounted for.
Meanwhile, the boy’s maternal grandfather Mr Whalan was horrified to realize that the pistol belonged to him.
‘ I believe it is a pistol that I bought about 30 years ago….I kept the pistol in a blacksmith’s shop, which I had at Capertee, and the last time I remember seeing it would be from 10 to 15 years ago. I moved my gear from the blacksmith’s shop to my present home about 11 years ago, and it is quite possible that the pistol might have been in one of the boxes of bolts which I put in an old shed in my backyard. While Donald my grandson was visiting me he had the run of the house with the rest of my family. He was playing in that shed and it is possible that he found the pistol among some junk there and took it away.
The bullets in the car had been placed there by Donald’s father. He would sometimes go shooting when driving out in the bush. His rifle was always stored safely in the house. The poor man never dreamed that the bullets represented a threat.
Four doctors agreed it was possible for someone to move about after being shot in the heart. It was presumed that Donald had been in the habit of playing with the pistol and replacing it in the stove. Doing so even after the accident could have been a reflex action. Remembering my own childhood, I can imagine Donald experiencing a surge of adrenaline from the fear of his mother discovering the gun. His instinct would be to hide it and hope, albeit irrationally, that nobody would know what he had done. Mind you, he would also have had to put the screwdriver or chisel back on the bench. It hardly seemed possible, but police could find no other explanation for the tragedy.
According to ballistic experts the hidden gun had recently been fired, and scratches on the hammer were consistent with a bullet being fired from the empty shell, found embedded in the front car seat.
The Sydney Sun reported that Dorothy Bunyan continued to believe her son had been shot after interrupting an intruder. Her theory was that when she carried Donald out, the murderer remained hidden under the family car. She told police that she had been so shocked and distressed at finding him that she had not even looked around the garage.
The article revealed that local people were not convinced either. It caused bitterness towards the police and at the Coronial Inquiry the following exchange took place;
The Coroner; Local citizens think the investigations have not gone far enough and should be continued.
Sergeant McRae: If the public is not satisfied that everything has been done to clear up the shooting of the boy, and if you think so too, then the case should be reopened. The police are only the servants of the people.
The Coroner: It is an extraordinary case; but I think that the police have established beyond any reasonable doubt that Donald Bunyan died from a bullet wound accidentally inflicted by himself. This is the only possible explanation.
On August 20th, Donald’s funeral service was held in Lithgow at St Paul’s Anglican Church. The little boy’s class teacher, his headmaster, and 35 members of his class, 4B, were among the huge crowd. Dorothy Bunyan had been vice-president of the town’s Boys’ Welfare Club, and a member of the school’s Mothers’ Club. A party of Donald’s schoolmates placed wreathes on his coffin before the cortege drove to Sydney. He was buried in Rookwood Cemetery.
A few weeks later Mrs Bunyan was interviewed by the Australian Women’s Weekly. By now she had fully accepted that her son’s death was an accident and that he had been alone in the garage. She said she was grateful no other mother had to grieve due to their child being involved.
She was haunted by the fact that if she had arrived home just a few minutes earlier, Don would have come running from the garage to greet her. On the matter of the miniature pistol she said;
‘It was the first thing he had ever kept back from me. He never told me about the gun. He had always told me things. Whenever he was punished at school or whenever he got into some sort of trouble he came to me….He was such a happy boy. He had everything he wanted except for a bicycle. He asked me for one, but seemed to understand when I told him he might hurt himself. I suppose that is why he didn’t tell me about the gun.’
‘I can never live in that Lithgow home again. I wish that someone would pack all our things, and those things that were his and are still where he left them, so I need never go back.’
The family moved to Sydney.
For decades both the Bunyan and Whalan families placed memorial notices in the papers on the anniversary of Donald’s death. It is difficult to imagine how much his loss and the trauma of the lengthy Coronial Inquiry must have affected them, and the community of Lithgow.
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