Old Sins Cast Long Shadows…… Fourth and final part of the Blue Mountains murder story.
In 1927 Sydney born William Higgs (26) and his brother Hubert (30) stood trial over the murder of a wealthy grazier, Ronald Leslie, found in his abandoned car at Blaxland in the Blue Mountains with three gunshot wounds in his back. William had been charged with murder and his brothers Herbert and Bruce (21) for being accessories after the fact. All three were acquitted. The evidence, though strong, was largely circumstantial.
The men left the criminal court at Darlinghurst to the cheers of the enormous crowd. Although evidence produced at the trial showed them as having lied and acted dishonestly, they had been embraced by the general public.
However, once the excitement of the court proceedings died down there was a distinct change of heart. Their cause was not helped by the cockiness of Bruce, who boasted that he had asked mates to lay bets for him on a not guilty verdict. No other suspects in the case were identified, and perhaps people began to wonder whether the young men had been more lucky than innocent.
William, a refrigerator salesman, and Hubert, a picture show proprietor in Brookvale, soon found business drying up. They were both married with responsibilities. William and his wife Helena had a little girl and Hubert and his wife two young sons; a toddler and a baby.
In November 1929 Hubert was declared bankrupt. He declared that his liabilities totaled £1,308 and his assets – NIL. He had sold his interest in the picture show business for £1,000, but it had all gone. What he did not reveal to the bankruptcy court was that £600 of the sale price had to be repaid to the purchaser. He had deliberately misrepresented the weekly revenue of the theatre and was successfully sued for damages.
From the time Hubert was charged over Leslie’s murder on October 13, the stress on his marriage was intense. In 1923 Constance Louise Rose had married a respectable young man who had served his country proudly in WWI and been recommended for the Military Medal. But revelations at the Coronial Inquiry and trial did not show her husband in a good light.
Constance left, taking the children with her. At the end of February 1928 Hubert called at the cottage she was living in, asking to take the older child for a walk. Constance refused, saying it was about to rain. A struggle ensued. Some reports stated that Hubert struck her. She fell, badly cutting her head when she hit the marble doorstep. The police were called and Hubert was charged with assault. When the matter went to court, Constance withdrew the charge, but the marriage was over. In May 1931 a divorce was granted to Hubert on the grounds of desertion.
In December 1928, after the sale of the picture theatre business, Hubert invested £200 in a small yacht, the Almira, (sometimes written as Almaira) which he purchased in Hobart. His brother Bruce joined him in Tasmania and they enjoyed many weeks exploring the coastline and fishing in spots such as beautiful Wineglass Bay. In March, Bruce suddenly had to return to Sydney, but Hubert decided to sail the Almira back to NSW with a Tasmanian crewman, Trevor Curran. Unfortunately they ran ground at Gabo Island when the anchor rope rubbed against old wreckage and broke. The damaged vessel had to undergo running repairs with the help of the lighthouse keeper. A hole in the hull was repaired with a patch cut from a kerosene tin, and the broken rudder with driftwood. Meanwhile the boat was feared lost and a search instigated. Once again Albert Higgs would experience sleepless nights over his eldest son.
The voyage got underway again, but horrendous weather was encountered off Eden and the yacht suffered more damage. They were pushed up the NSW coast well beyond Sydney to Forster, where they were spotted and towed to shore by a fisherman.
By now Hubert had lost his taste for the sea, and sold the vessel back in Sydney at a loss. However, the memory of the Gabo Island lighthouse keeper may have remained with him. Several months after being declared bankrupt he applied to join the New South Wales Lighthouse Service. He was a man with a damaged reputation due to the trial; estranged from his wife and children and in dire financial circumstances. It’s easy to see why such a job had appeal. Whether he was successful or not is unknown.
WILLIAM GUY HIGGS
Domestic and financial troubles would also follow the younger Higgs brother as he stepped from the courthouse acquitted of murder.
MORE TRIALS TO COME
In November 1930 William moved to the small town of Ultima in Victoria, hoping for fresh start. He found work as a car salesman, a sensible option for someone who had once owned a garage. However, his wife Helena insisted the location was too isolated to permit a proper education for their delicate young daughter, Sylvia. She refused to go, and instead went to live with her parents at Glebe Point.
Sadly, during their first year of separation Sylvia died from juvenile diabetes. Helen did not let her estranged husband know until after the funeral, although he insisted she knew his address. Significantly, the death notice in the Sydney Morning Herald made no mention of him.
Like his brother Hubert, William would face bankruptcy. Facing the court in 1931 he declared debts of £844, However, this did not include the £2,000 he still owed his father, for the costs of the murder charge defence . He had borrowed a further £250 from his mother Margaret, to cover the cost of his divorce. He stated that he was currently working as a casual musician. In later life he made a living as a piano tuner in Penrith. The Higgs family were all musically inclined. William’s sister was formally trained in piano, Bruce loved to play the ukulele and another brother, Wally, had a dance band. Oddly enough, the only (remote) connection between the Higgs family and the murder victim Ronald Leslie ever uncovered was that Wally’s band had played at a ball in Forbes attended by Leslie and his family.
William remarried in 1939 to Winifed Zena Airs, but this marriage also ended in divorce in 1954. He died in 1960. Helena Higgs remarried and had two more children (my thanks to Larraine Home for this information).
And there I leave the sad tale of the Blue Mountains murder and its consequences. The cold blooded 1927 killing remains an unsolved mystery, although an incident at the end of January 1928 created much interest and concern.
POSTSCRIPT – One interesting question is whether the troubles the Higgs trio faced in the years after the trial were a result of their unfair ordeal in the courtroom, or whether it indicated character flaws so serious that the police were correct to have charged them. What do you think?