Stella and Reginald Harrison were married at Hawthorn, Victoria in May 1934. However, married life for the couple began in Sydney, where Reginald had been appointed Manager of the Mansion House Private Hotel in Elizabeth Street.
The only shadow on their happiness was that in July Stella, aged 35, experienced what her husband would later describe as ‘a little turn‘. However, Stella’s perception of the incident was very different. She became highly anxious about her health. In what seems a disproportionate response, she rang her solicitor, Mr H. E. Hoare, on August 4 and made arrangements for him to prepare her will. Hoare called at the Mansion House Hotel the same day and found his client in bed. She explained that she had experienced ‘a bad heart attack’ and said, ‘I have been rather worried about it in case I die suddenly. My father died from heart trouble very suddenly, and I have a brother who also died the same way.‘ Mr and Mrs Harrison had both been married previously. Stella had a considerable personal estate being part owner of several station properties in the Bourke area. She made provision in the will for the couple’s respective children and her new husband.
On Saturday morning, August 18, Stella, now recovered, was out and about. She and her husband walked down to the new Pitt Street entrance of Anthony Hordern’s famous New Palace Emporium. It contained fifty acres of retail space over six floors. The Harrisons parted there, arranging to meet later. Stella went up to the millinery department on the second floor, where she chose a new hat.
This of course was in an era when no respectable woman (or man for that matter) ventured into society bare-headed. The biggest selection of hats in Sydney was at Anthony Hordern’s.
After making her selection Stella discovered she had left home without sufficient cash. She paid a deposit and said she would return later. Mr and Mrs Harrison met as planned at about 12.15, then parted again. It was nearly 12.30 and close to closing time when Stella Harrison re-entered the store. Anthony Hordern’s had recently installed new hydraulic lifts, separated from a surrounding stairway by steel fire doors. However, Stella chose to take the stairs to collect her purchase, no doubt thinking it would be quicker than waiting for the lift.
WHERE IS STELLA HARRISON?
When his wife did not return home that day, a worried Reg Harrison reported her missing. Enquiries and searches over the weekend proved fruitless and no word was received from Mrs Harrison. Her disappearance was totally out of character, and a complete mystery.
On Monday morning a cleaning woman at Anthony Hordern’s was shocked to discover a woman’s body at the base of the internal stairs. There were extensive head and neck injuries. When police arrived, identification was almost immediate as there was a marriage certificate in the dead woman’s handbag. It was Stella Harrison.
It was a confronting scene for the woman who found Mrs Harrison, and also for the detectives who recorded the image below to assist in their investigations. My thanks to researcher John Ruffels, who sent me the link to the photograph. I did wonder whether I should include it, and hope it is not too upsetting.
Stella had been climbing the stairs when the connecting doors into the store closed, leaving her trapped in the stairwell. She made increasingly frantic attempts to attract attention, or to release the doors on the store’s six floors.
From The Herald (Melbourne) Monday, August 20 – ‘…Her body was found badly injured at the foot of the basement stairs early today by a cleaner. On all floors the enclosing steel doors were dented and scratched and in one corner the wall plaster was torn away. In her terror at her imprisonment, the loneliness and darkness, she had apparently battered at the doors and wall with a small, steel ladder…..Her predicament was aggravated by the fact that shortly before the store was closed the electric lighting service in the stairway was switched off. ‘
When Stella gave up on attempts to breach the doors she repeatedly threw the steel ladder down the stairs, hoping the noise would be heard outside the store.
The terrible irony of this story is that Mrs Harrison was actually very close to rescue. The fire doors were not locked and had a recessed ‘handle’. Opening a door even less than an inch would have triggered the store’s fire alarm.
Also, at worst she would have been released early on Monday morning, when staff arrived. But for a person with a nervous disposition, facing imprisonment in total darkness was just too much to bear. Her attempts to attract attention proved fatal when she fell about fifty feet to the basement, perhaps while hurling the ladder down.
An inquest returned an open verdict. Yes, it was possible that a full blown panic attack had led Stella Harrison to end her life, but an accidental fall was by far the most likely scenario. Despite testifying that they had searched the store (including the stairwells) thoroughly before closing, staff at Anthony Hordern’s were heavily censored for failing to ensure that all customers had left.
FOR THE HISTORY OF ANTHONY HORDERN’S & SONS, CLICK HERE.
AND HERE IS A STRANGE STORY CONCERNING ANOTHER FAMOUS EMPORIUM, THIS TIME RIDLEYS IN NEW YORK