York Street runs parallel to George Street in the centre of Sydney. Just after World War II it was the scene of a brutal murder.
The victim, Jeanette Wicks.
In 1935, Jeanette Wicks divorced her husband of seven years on the grounds of desertion. She subsequently supported herself by operating a tiny kiosk located at the entrance to a four storey building at 97 York Street, central Sydney. Tobacco products and lottery tickets were her main stock-in-trade.
Sentry box cigarette stall
When tobacco rationing was introduced during WWII, the profits of the kiosk plummeted. In order to maintain her income, Mrs Wicks became involved in SP bookmaking and dabbled in the black market sale of linen and (it was rumored) alcohol.
She was a cheerful, vibrant woman who looked younger than her 48 years. She lived alone in a flat at 18 Macleay Street, Potts Point, next door to her mother and unmarried brother at No. 16. She was close to her family, and ate her meals at No. 16. There were a couple of ‘gentlemen friends’ in her life, including married man Major Richard Gadd, from Katoomba in the Blue Mountains. Gadd had known Mrs Wicks from the time she was married to Katoomba accountant Alan Wicks.
Mrs Wicks lived in the block on the right, her mother and brother next door on the left.
Among Mrs Wicks’ SP betting clients was 26 year old Douglas Ronald Morris, a journalist with The Mirror newspaper. His mother, Mrs Williams, was very well off. Douglas was her only child, from a previous marriage. He too was financially secure. He was a snappy dresser, drove a sports car and enjoyed a bet. Morris was married, with two young children. He lived in a property at Towns Road , Rose Bay, owned by his mother. Jeanette Wicks was Mrs William’s tenant, and a family friend.
After Christmas 1945, Morris spent a few days camping at a site his mother owned at Palm Beach. On the afternoon of January 2 he was asked to drive into Sydney to collect his little daughter from her great-grandmother’s home. He would later say that he did some shopping, then called at the cigarette kiosk in York Street between 3.30 and 4pm, intending to pay 40 pounds off his account. The serving hatch was closed, but the door was ajar. He found Mrs Wicks lying in a pool of blood and thought she may have fainted. However, when he knelt beside her he saw there was a ligature around her neck and that she was dead. There were also severe head injuries, but the cause of death was strangulation.
Morris owed Mrs Wicks £108 and said he feared he would be suspected of the woman’s death. Panic stricken, he made a brief search for his betting tickets, but quickly gave up and fled the scene. Adding to his horror, there were bloodstains on his clothes. He went home, changed, and hid the clothing in the ceiling. He then collected his daughter and returned to Palm Beach.
Mrs Wicks’ body was found later that day by her brother, after she failed to return home for dinner.
Initially, the men linked to her romantically were suspects. Major Gadd in particular found himself in serious trouble. He had a key to the Potts Point flat and had let himself in on the night of the murder. Assuming his lover was visiting family members, he took a couple of cigars, left the money for them with a scribbled message and went home to Katoomba. After hearing the shocking news of the murder he and his wife (who was blissfully ignorant of the long term affair) sent a wreath.
When interviewed by a detective the Major foolishly lied about visiting the flat, to avoid the embarrassment of his affair being revealed. Aside from being a married man he was a prominent figure in the Blue Mountains. He had recently been appointed publicity officer for the council. Unfortunately, any publicity was about to be centred on him.
Inevitably, police found Morris’ name among several others on betting slips at the kiosk. His name and work telephone number were also pencilled on a telephone book. Subsequently, a search of his Sydney home was carried out, and the bloodstained clothing was discovered. Not surprisingly he became the chief suspect.
A relieved Major Gadd was off the hook, at least as far as murder was concerned. He would hardly have advertised the visit to his lover’s flat with a written note if he had brutally murdered her a few hours earlier.
Douglas Morris was arrested on January 10. By this time he and his family had moved from the campsite at Palm Beach to Kurrajong, for their annual summer holidays.
During the coronial inquest Major Gadd was required to give evidence, which must have been dreadful; not only for him, but for his wife and family.
At the end of proceeding Douglas Morris was ordered to stand trial.
Kurrajong Heights Hotel, where Morris was arrested.
It was always going to be difficult to convict Morris. The murder had clearly been premeditated. Presumably the killer had arrived in York Street armed with a rope and probably a hammer or pistol. However, as the defence pointed out, Morris had only driven to the city after a request to collect his daughter. Despite his debt to Mrs Wicks it was difficult to believe someone so comfortably off would murder a family friend over a relatively small sum. Further, there was nothing in his background or character to suggest he was capable of such a violent crime.
Three young women working in the building behind the kiosk testified to hearing screams and the voices of what sounded like two women and a man coming from the kiosk at 3.28 pm. However, a last minute witness, Miss Sylvia Cantrell, swore she saw the accused (an acquaintance) leaving a café in King Street at 3.30. This meant he could not have been at the murder scene until at least 10 minutes later.
The glamorous Miss Cantrell was sacked from her position in a beauty salon after taking time off to attend court, but as soon as this appeared in the papers she was offered numerous other jobs.
It was likely that robbery was the sole motive in the case. Takings from the Randwick races were missing from Mrs Wicks’ rifled handbag,
The prosecution countered the defence by arguing that if the accused was innocent, surely his instinct as a journalist should have been to call the police…. and his newspaper. There was a phone in the kiosk and it would have been a major story for The Mirror. But people do not always act rationally when they find themselves in a situation such as that faced by the young man.
Morris impressed everyone by voluntarily taking the stand and allowing himself to be cross-examined.
The jury deliberated for less than an hour before pronouncing Douglas Morris not guilty. He left the court with his wife and mother, a sadder and hopefully wiser young man. The judge had some stern words for him;
Morris with his wife (left) and mother after his acquittal.
The case had created enormous interest in Sydney, with the public vying for seats in the courtroom. Even the York Street cigarette kiosk became a macabre tourist attraction. Following the trial a number of lottery tickets sold there won prizes. It was hyped up in the press as a lucky place to purchase tickets.
Jeanette Wicks was buried in the Jewish section of Rookwood Cemetery. Her killer was never found
Major Gadd continued in public life at Katoomba. Whether his wife forgave his infidelity is another question.
A grieving Kate Britton, Mrs Wicks’ elderly mother, had to face the fact that her beloved only daughter had been living what amounted to a double life. Mrs Britton had no inkling of the SP bookmaking and black market activities being operated from the York Street kiosk. Asked to comment on the acquittal she said it made little difference to her heartbreaking loss
In 1956 Donald Morris was reported as having died suddenly while cleaning his car. The cause of death was not given. He was only 36.
Today, 97 York Street is the home of The York Club. I can’t help thinking of Jeanette whenever I walk past.
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