On September 9 1922, twenty one year old William Guy Higgs married Helena Potter in a society wedding at Hunters Hill. The couple honeymooned in the beautiful Blue mountains. The groom was the fourth born of seven sons, and chose his older brother Hubert as best man. The pair were particularly close.
William was something of a spoiled larrikin, raised in comfortable circumstances at Rose Bay, in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs. His father, Mr Albert Higgs, owned a successful shoe store in Darlinghurst. His uncle and namesake was the federal politician William Guy Higgs, who had served as Treasurer in the wartime cabinet of Billy Hughes.
Like many well-to-do families, the Higgs clan liked to escape Sydney’s summer heat in the Blue Mountains. While living at Lawson, William had helped build a shack for his father in South Hazelbrook. The Higgs boys got up to all sorts of high jinx at the shack; drinking and shooting at tins and trees. They even dressed as cowboys, photographing themselves with revolvers in rather juvenile ‘stick-em-up’ games.
In 1925 William had established a garage on the Bathurst Road at Lawson. An earlier farming venture at Bingara ended in a financial loss, but with the rapid increase in car ownership the new business promised to do well. The following advertisement appeared in The Blue Mountains Echo;
Motorists! Don’t halt elsewhere: come right on to your best friend – Higgs of Lawson. He has all you want: his attention is the best and his prices are right.
Disaster struck in August 1926 when there was a fire at the garage. The fire crew had a problem with the water supply and the leased premises and virtually all the stock were destroyed. Both William and his young wife Helena were absent in Sydney at the time. Higgs received a substantial insurance pay-out of £1,000 pounds but most of it went to pay trading debts. The re-opened garage was not a success.
Back in Sydney, Higgs found employment selling Kelvinator refrigerators on commission. It was not particularly lucrative, but his wife had a private income and she had been covering the rent on their Vaucluse flat.
Because of his association with the Mountains, it was arranged that young Higgs should make a trip up to Katoomba, attempting to sell refrigerators to hotels and boarding houses along the way. He leased a car and invited Hubert and their younger brother Bruce to accompany him. They pair were more than happy to go. Hubert operated the Brookvale picture theatre and was his own boss. Bruce was unemployed, living off money doled out by his mother.
They set out on Tuesday, October 11th. However, Bruce had celebrated his 21st birthday at a family party the previous day, and they were all feeling tired and hung-over. After a few drinks at The Kings Cross Hotel and various other places along the route they finally arrived at Penrith, where they made what was to be a fateful decision. Since they had wasted an awful lot of time they agreed to abandon the idea of business and simply have a ‘boys’ day out’. There was a stop at the Hawkesbury Lookout before they finished up at Wentworth Falls for more drinks and afternoon tea. The trio then drove back to Sydney.
The lease on the car was extended and the men left again on Wednesday morning. They visited the family shack at South Hazelbrook then drove on, with William and Hubert checking out prospective customers. The Alexander Hotel and the Ritz California at Leura, and the Carrington and San Souci boarding houses at Katoomba were among those called on. On this trip they also had a fair bit to drink.
Realizing that the second trip to the Mountains would exceed the allowable mileage on the car, they disconnected the speedometer. It was around 7.00pm when they got back to Sydney. William and Hubert went home to their wives, but Bruce, who was single, went out on the town.
At 2.45am he put the car on the punt across the harbour to Manly and went on a joyride with a friend and a girl he had picked up. It was a misty night and while careering along Condamine Street he swerved to avoid hitting a telegraph pole and rolled the car. Miraculously, all three escaped virtually uninjured, but the vehicle was badly smashed up. According to the young woman, Bruce was unperturbed. She said he sat on side of the road playing his Ukulele and singing Ain’t she sweet? before going home. William was unimpressed when he heard the news, mainly because Bruce had been too dazed and tipsy to reconnect the speedometer cable. He sent him straight back to fix it before it was towed away.
It was all a bit of a mess, but any trouble they may have anticipated from the garage owner was nothing compared to the real trouble they were in.
A MYSTERIOUS MURDER
News had appeared in the Thursday morning papers about a brutal killing in the lower Blue Mountains. On Wednesday afternoon a 48 year old, recently retired grazier from Sydney, Ronald Lachlan Leslie, was found dead in his abandoned Buick at Blaxland. Three bullets had been fired into his back at close range. Leslie was wealthy, but he led a quiet family life and had no known enemies. Robbery was ruled out, as the money he had taken with him was untouched.
Nearby, a bloodstained coat was found, only partly concealed in a hollow log. A commercial laundry mark and a boot rag labelled Higgs Shoe Store quickly identified the garment as belonging to William Higgs. There was also a set of keys which Higgs admitted were his. One was the key to his parents’ home. He said he used it to, ‘get into my father’s whisky.’
Bullets found at the Hazelbrook shack and in the boys’ homes were the same calibre as those used to kill Ronald Leslie. The young men admitted they would have been at Valley Heights, where the murder was committed, at around the time it took place. (about 10.00am) Witnesses saw them about 8½ miles higher up the mountains in Hazelbrook at around 11.00am. However they insisted they were innocent and no connection to Leslie.
William Higgs claimed his incriminating coat had been stolen on Tuesday. He was backed up by his wife, who testified that he had told her about the loss that evening. Nevertheless he was charged with murder, and his brothers Hubert and Bruce as having aided and abetted him.
An interesting piece appeared in the Forbes Advocate on October 18, soon after the men were arrested;
With a knowledge of the Higgs family, and of two of the men concerned, Hubert and ‘Bill’, the writer can state definitely that these men have a clean record. ‘Bill’ is an open-air man, young, with all the irresponsibility of youth, despite his marriage. Together with his brother Walter, he built a boat, and between them, by sheer muscular effort, the craft was carried from Evan’s Lookout, Blackheath, down to the Grose River, some two thousand feet below. Their intention was to pilot the craft downstream to a spot nearest Springwood or Glenbrook.
Early on the second day of their journey, the craft was irreparably smashed on a snag, and undeterred by this disaster, the young men carried on by boot, carrying out their original intention and finishing up at Springwood. During their trip they probably traversed country previously unexplored by white men. This is the type of men now charged with one of the most brutal murders known in the annals of New South Wales crime.
A Coronial Inquest held at Penrith found all three had a case to answer.
Bail was refused and the brothers spent three months in Long Bay Gaol until the trial began. It was be one of the most sensational Sydney had seen in many years.
It was presided over by Chief Justice Philip Street. A recently qualified Clive Evatt (the future politician) was a member of the defence team.
The highly respected Alfred Higgs found himself at Sydney’s Central Criminal Court in Darlinghurst, supporting his three sons.
In a trial that lasted only eight days the seedy saga of the two trips to the Blue Mountains came out. The jury heard of excessive drinking, tampering with a speedometer and the fact that William and Hubert had lied to their wives about making the jaunt to Wentworth Falls on October 11th. They had also been dishonest about owning revolvers.
Significantly, evidence relating to previous bad behavior by the accused men was ruled inadmissible.
Bruce Higgs came under intense scrutiny due to his trip across the harbour in the early hours of October 13. Witnesses saw him throwing a parcel overboard. Thinking it may have been the murder weapon, the harbour was dragged for several days. The only parcel recovered contained two shirts. Bizarrely, there was a Blue Mountains link. Laundry marks identified the shirts as belonging to the owner of the famous Paragon Café in Katoomba. Nothing to do with case though. And what did Bruce Higgs say was in the parcel? He said he thought it might have been a bag of frankfurters!
However, the evidence against them was circumstantial and there was no motive. Could the brothers, irresponsible as they were, have committed such a horrific crime then calmly gone about their business? Apparently the jury members found this scenario impossible to believe, After deliberating for just two hours they returned a verdict of not guilty. The tabloid newspaper Truth reported on the outcome and the scene outside the courtroom. It’s worth noting that the brothers were often referred as youths, even though Hubert was 30 and William 26.
The Daily Telegraph Pictorial published a full page feature;
The brothers and their father were mobbed, and treated like heroes by the waiting crowds. There were cries of ‘Dear old Dad Higgs!’ Girls wept hysterically and hugged and kissed the young men (Bruce in particular). Nobody seemed to be thinking of the blameless victim, Ronald Leslie and his bereaved family. This is hard to understand, but the country was I the grip of the Great Depression, and public sympathy appeared to be with three young knockabouts rather than a wealthy member of the ‘Squattocracy’.
Albert Higgs told reporters he had always believed in the innocence of his boys. The trial had cost him £2,000 pounds, but he declared he did not begrudge a penny of it.
NOTE – In the years following the trial the behavior of Hubert, William and Bruce must surely have caused Albert Higgs and his wife Margaret a great deal of shame ad distress. I found the repercussions utterly fascinating and will continue the story in a third episode.
OK…the next episode follows Bruce Higgs after the trial. Click HERE.