JUST A FEW BARS – THE GOULBURN GAOL ORCHESTRA

In September  1948, within the space of a few days, two seventeen year old youths committed murder in New South Wales.  Stranger still, they had been good friends before their otherwise unrelated crimes. They had played ice hockey together, and were both snappy dressers who enjoyed  the popular dance craze of jitterbugging.

CHARLES

 

William Harvey-Bugg

BENNIE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Charles repeatedly stabbed his wealthy,  philandering father in Crows Nest.  Bennie’s victims were also wealthy; his kindly, middle aged employers. He shot them one Sunday afternoon in rural NSW  in a  seemingly motiveless attack.  A number of crime novels were found in his room, one open at a  page describing a double shooting eerily similar to the one  he carried out.

Was something  rotten in post war  Australian society that such things could happen? Many people feared there was.

Of Bennie, a Brisbane padre said;  I think the earliest thing which gripped my attention was the extraordinary way in which he dressed. Police described his coat as multi-coloured, his shirt as canary-coloured, his socks as green. He was obviously as ‘flash as paint’  – the personification of that phrase, ‘mug lair’. (Truth, Brisbane, December 19 1948) 

The funeral of the Bartons  was attended by over 1,000 people.  A former rector of the village and close family friend commented,  ‘ The crime is symbolic of the present empty churches and full gaols and such deeds of horror as we have today. The murderer is a product of a Godless society.’

When sentencing Charles the judge told him;

I believe you visited your father with malice in your heart because of his matrimonial offences. Without wishing to condone his infidelity I don’t think he deserved to be killed. I don’t think your conduct can be justified or excused.

The judge said that Sydney seemed to be besieged by juvenile criminals who must be deterred from killing people.

An editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald attributed some of the problems to the stress of the recent war and of young offenders having been raised during the Great Depression. However, it was stated  that this ‘lapse of youth into heinous crime’ must also be due to the modern decay of home life, the loosening of parental control, the new latitude of leisure,  begrudgment of honest work and service, and the glorification of the cheap and nasty.

Due to their age, the young men escaped the death penalty and instead were sentenced to life imprisonment. They entered Goulburn Gaol together. What would become of them?

 

Entrance to Goulburn Gaol

It so happened that four years earlier a 20 man orchestra had been formed in the goal’s training centre. The Superintendent, Mr H. J. O’Kelly, was the driving force behind the initiative. Inmates saved up and purchased instruments. Others were donated by the Prisoners Aid Society or were made in the prison workshops. Uniforms of white jackets and slacks, grey shirts  and green ties, were produced by inmates in the tailoring section. Members practiced 1½ hours without a single warder present, willingly making up time lost from regular prison work.

Charles and Bennie showed immediate interest  in the orchestra.   Neither had any musical training prior to their  convictions, but oddly enough they displayed great ability.  Just twelve months into their sentences  both  took part in a programme aired on Sydney’s Radio 2SM.  It was one of many  broadcasts  by the orchestra on 2SM  and  local Goulburn  radio 2GN, which were  very popular  with the public.

Two pieces the inmates enjoyed playing were,  Beyond the Blue Horizon and   Time On My Hands. Clearly prison had not quashed their sense of humour

Charles played both the clarinet and the trumpet.  Bennie was considered ‘almost a musical genius’.  Before long  he was arranging  all the scores and orchestrations as well as playing the saxophone.

 

Goulburn Gaol orchestra

Tuning up.

There was great personal tragedy for Mr O’Kelly (now Governor) in January 1951 when his 13 year old daughter drowned while on holiday with friends. However, his commitment to the  orchestra continued.  In early  March he  compered a broadcast which included a script he had written.

Recordings of the radio performances were made at Columbia Studios in Homebush and exchanged with an orchestra at the Texas State Penitentiary in the US.

In October 1952 the orchestra was filmed. The 16mm movie would be shown in capital cities around the world. One stipulation was that the musicians’ faces were deliberately thrown into shade by lighting, to avoid them being recognizable.

One of the most touching occasions for the prison orchestra took place in 1956, when Mr O’Kelly left  Goulburn Gaol to become Governor of  Long Bay, in Sydney;

The leader mentioned in the piece was almost certainly Bennie. Charles is likely to have been the second  soloist.  I can’t help thinking that Bennie, who showed so little feeling for his victims, had learned a great deal about humanity from  the wonderful Mr O’Kelly. No doubt the fellowship of their fellow musicians also had a positive effect on both young men.

Charles served less than twelve years and was just 31 when he  left gaol in 1960.  As well as playing in the orchestra he had taken advantage of formal educational  opportunities, and matriculated. The future looked bright. His mother had been the sole beneficiary in her murdered husband’s estate. She swore that her son would be financially independent when he was free.

Bennie was released in 1967. It is believed that he joined the BBC Symphony Orchestra.

Goulburn Gaol played an important role in  rehabilitating  those serving a first sentence, however serious the offence may have been.  The following is from Wikipedia;

NB – BENNIE  HAD BEEN CONVICTED OVER A DOUBLE SHOOTING AT WALLERAWANG

 

 

 

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