Wealthy Queensland grazier Alfred Hill and his beautiful wife Edith were among the first to purchase a flat in The Astor, Sydney’s first ‘skyscraper’ residential block at 123 Macquarie Street. Built in the 1920s, it offered expansive harbour views, a maid service, staffed lifts and an internal telephone system. The individual flats were fitted with every convenience imaginable.
Mr and Mrs Hill travelled often and widely, but Sydney remained their base. It was an idyllic lifestyle.
When Alfred died in 1945, his widow stayed on at The Astor. Her daughter, Sibella Booker, had recently returned from a lengthy stay in London, and lived in a flat at prestigious Byron Hall, Potts Point. Son Douglas and family were in the Southern Highlands, at Bowral.
Edith still loved to travel, but otherwise lived a relatively quiet life; socializing with family, playing bridge with close friends, and devoting one day a week to working at a Sydney charity.
She was always elegantly dressed. One thing she was known for was her fabulous collection of jewellery, especially diamonds and pearls. She refused to hide them away in a bank, preferring to enjoy them, and to be able to select which pieces to wear on various occasions. High-end city jewellers dubbed her ‘The Collector’. They were even known to ask Mrs Hill for advice on special pieces, as she was a true connoisseur.
At around 5.00pm on December 14 1950, Sibella Booker called at The Astor and took the lift to her mother’s flat on the 9th floor. As she stepped inside she noticed a small table has been overturned. To her horror she found her mother lying on the blood soaked living room carpet; alive, but with terrible head injuries and unable to speak. There were several Macquarie Street specialists living in the building and Sibella ran to one for help. Unfortunately it was too late, and her mother died shortly afterwards.
Detectives established that Mrs Hill had most likely been bashed with a rifle butt. A blood covered fragment from a gun sight was found on the floor and there was a bullet hole in a wall. There was no doubt about the killer’s motive; robbery. Jewellery worth £15,000 had been stolen, although the killer missed an estimated £25,000 more (plus a lot of cash) secreted around the flat. There was no evidence of forced entry.
Members of Sydney’s underworld were questioned, but there was no evidence linking the killing to any of the city’s known criminals. Nor were any members of staff at The Astor implicated. It was difficult to know how the case could be solved unless the perpetrator tried to dispose of the stolen jewels. Descriptions of the distinctive pieces were circulated around the country. Among them was a four strand pearl necklace with a diamond studded clasp, valued at £9,000, and a wrist watch with a band of rose diamonds.
A NARROW ESCAPE
On December 17, Constable Reg Lowe was on traffic duty when he spotted a taxi about five miles outside Bathurst. He noticed it had a Sydney number plate, and that there was no passenger. Suspicious, he stopped the vehicle for a roadside check. As he approached, the driver aimed a rifle at him. Next moment the gun fired and a bullet whizzed past his head. The constable managed to take cover behind a tree, but was unable to fire back as his pistol malfunctioned . By the time he freed a jammed cartridge the taxi had sped off. Lowe pursued it on his motorcycle, but had no hope of keeping up. Instead, he rode back to the station to alert his colleagues.
Shortly afterwards dairy farmer Ken Wardell and truck driver Ron Miller saw the speeding taxi hit a dip in the road and roll multiple times. Miraculously, the driver crawled out of the wreck uninjured. Another person lay motionless on the back seat, Miller would later testify; ‘I said, ‘Your mate, he’s dead‘. The driver’s response was, ‘Dead! Well, I’ll be B…….’ or words to that effect.’ (the Sun January 8 1951) To Wardell and Miller’s shock he then retrieved a sawn-off rifle from the taxi and started running. The local men caught up with him and managed to wrench the gun away, but he then broke away and took off towards the Macquarie River.
By now police were on the scene. The man had swum the river and was finally located in the undergrowth. He was arrested, initially for the attempted murder of Constable Lowe. It was subsequently discovered that the body in the wreck was that of taxi driver Norman Dickson, from Rockdale. He had been shot three times in the head. The thirty six year old left a wife and five young children, the oldest only twelve.
The suspected killer was identified as Ronald Newman Cribben, a twenty one year old shearer. He was from the Melbourne suburb of Hawthorn.
A link was soon made between the sawn-off rifle and the broken piece of gun sight found in Edith Hill’s flat. Confronted with this evidence at Bathurst police station, Cribben said he hadn’t noticed the damage, but did think there was something ‘different’ about the gun. Perhaps it explains why he missed hitting the police constable. He confessed to both murders.
The terrible events had their beginnings in Melbourne, where the young man already had a record for holding up taxi drivers. He said he had heard associates talking about the wealthy residents of The Astor as plumb targets for robbery. At the time the Victorian police were involved in a crack-down on crime and some said Sydney was viewed by crooks as a soft option. Others claimed that when the rich pickings surrounding Melbourne’s annual spring racing carnival dried up, career criminals would regularly move to Sydney, enjoying the harbour city’s beaches and nightlife when they weren’t ‘working’.
Cribben travelled to Sydney and booked into the Y.M.C.A. in Pitt street, under the alias of Langtree.
A report of his statement published in The Sun was chilling;
Cribben continued that he had broken into a shop in Hay Street and stolen a rifle. Cribben’s alleged statement continued: “At 9 o’clock next morning, I went to Macquarie Street, and from the park I noticed that the blinds had been drawn. [In Edith Hill’s flat] I thought the people might be away, so I went up, but the door was closed. I went back to the flat at 1 o’clock. The door was open then. I stopped in the passageway for awhile, and then a woman came out and closed the door on to a brass Buddha. She left it open about four inches. I waited for ten minutes, then crept in and Mrs Hill was asleep on the bed. I searched the flat. I got some jewellery from the dressing table in the front bedroom.’
After spending a full two hours in the premises he was about to leave when Mrs Hill woke and entered the sitting room, where the fatal attack took place. The 70 year old bravely tried to fight him off and the gun discharged as she was being beaten.
Next morning Cribben mailed the stolen jewels to the Adelaide post office under a false name, intending to collect them at a future date. He laid low for while, but two days later he hailed a cab at Strathfield. Again, the following is taken from his statement;
‘Last night I slept in a yard at Strathfield and, needing money, I decided to hold up a taxi driver. At 9.30 I asked a taxi driver to drive me to Penrith. He said it was OK. It would cost 37/6. When we started off I was in the front seat with the driver. After going over the bridge at Penrith I told him to stop and I got in the back seat to hold him up. I produced a gun and said “This is a stick-up”. The driver turned and knocked the gun. It went off. I jumped over into the front seat and he started kicking me, and I shot him in the head.’ [The Sun, January 8]
He then put the body on the back seat and continued driving west, calmly stopping for a restaurant meal in the Blue Mountains village of Blackheath. The bill was paid for from the taxi takings.
While Cribben was being transported back to Sydney he directed police to St Benedict’s Church on Broadway. He showed the officers an alcove in the church where he had sawn off the barrel and stock of the stolen rifle with a hacksaw blade. The next stop was at the Technical College at Ultimo, where Cribben said he had disposed of the stock and barrel. A search located both items.
JUSTICE FOR MRS HILL
Ronald Cribben showed no remorse whatsoever for his crimes. His defence lawyers argued that he was not guilty owing to insanity. However, the Crown contended that he was responsible for his actions and mentally fit to stand trial. It was stated during proceedings that psychiatry is not a precise science, ‘You cannot x-ray a brain and find a black spot of madness’. However, the murder had been premeditated. Cribben carefully planned the robbery, stole and modified a weapon, and deliberately targeted Edith Hill when he saw her closed curtains. He had sense enough to post the stolen jewellery to Adelaide.
It took the jury just fifteen minutes to find him guilty. He was sentenced to death, later commuted to life imprisonment.
Following the guilty verdict the Crown chose not to proceed with other charges, including the attempted murder of Constable Lowe and the killing of taxi driver Norman Dickson.
Immediately after Dickson’s death funds were set up by both the police and city taxi drivers to assist his family. There was immense sympathy and support from the public. Initially the money raised was to help provide food and presents for the children over Christmas, but the ultimate aim was to purchase a taxi licence for Alice, his widow. Edith Hill’s son and daughter were among the contributors. The chairman of the Taronga Park Zoo Trust donated £500.
When the final cheque was presented to Mrs Dickson she was completely overcome. She said she would buy a home, and a taxi which would be driven by her late husband’s brother.
For Sibella Booker, the horror of seeing her beloved mother die before her eyes in the luxury flat meant that she could never contemplate living at The Astor, or even retaining ownership. The property was sold as quickly as possible. Sibella inherited Edith’s entire estate of £64,743. She died in 1983 at her home in Monte Carlo.
NOTE – THIS STORY IS FOLLOWS ON FROM AN EARLIER STORY ON THE ASTOR. CLICK HERE TO READ IT.