Henry Howard’s journey – from Mornington to Frankston to the gallows

Main Street Frankston in 1875.

By Peter McCullough

I come from a race, Mr. Ritchie, who take no insults from any man, even if they should come to the gallows for it,” was the response Henry Howard gave to Thomas Ritchie, storekeeper, after the latter had commented “I hope you have not done anything that you will be sorry for.” Ritchie was one of those nearby businessmen who had been summoned to the Frankston Hotel on the evening of the 14 August, 1875 when Henry Howard stabbed Elizabeth Wright, the licensee, to death in the hotel dining room. For good measure, he also stabbed the barman, Thomas Harman. By the time Ritchie arrived at the hotel, Harman was lying dead on the pavement. Howard’s comment proved prophetic: for his actions he went to the gallows.

While the Tanti was the first licensed hotel in the township of Mornington, being shown on a map prepared in 1854, the “Schnapper Point Hotel”on the Esplanade and the “Mornington Hotel”on the corner of Avenue Road (now Wilsons Road) and Brewery Road (now Nunns Road) were the next premises in Mornington to be licensed. Both hotels appear on a map dated November, 1858.

On 29 April, 1857 Henry Howard was awarded the licence to the Schnapper Point Hotel, but patronage dropped off when he installed a mistress (Mrs. Wright) while his wife and children were still in residence. This resulted in the licence passing to T. Rennison in 1860, and the hotel was referred to as “Rennisons” before it became the “Royal Hotel” in 1876.

The Royal Hotel, Mornington, built as the Schnapper Point Hotel by Henry Howard in 1857.

The original licensee of the Mornington Hotel was Harley Goodall who had built a brewery beside his establishment. On 17 March, 1858 The Argus advertised first class accommodation at Mornington House with Harley Goodall as proprietor. Taking advantage of the newly-built pier, the advertisement referred to the availability of a steamer from Melbourne once a week. Goodall soon became licensee and the title of hotel was adopted.

In 1865 Harley Goodall, who had been experiencing ill health, travelled to England with his wife and family where he died aged 46.

Mornington Hotel, Mornington, built by Harley Goodall (above). The building subsequently became a private residence and was given the name “Wolfdene”.

However Goodall’s departure provided Henry Howard with the opportunity to resume his role as a publican as the Rates Book of 1865 records a Mr. Howard as ratee for a hotel and 18 acres, and in 1866-67 a 12 room house which would correspond to the specifications of the original Goodall property.

During February, 1865, Henry Howard advertised in The Argus first class accommodation for families and gentlemen at the Mornington Hotel at Schnapper Point. A fishing boat was available for the use of visitors and advertisements referred to both steamer and coach access from Melbourne. While Howard had become the licensee, Mrs Goodall, who had returned to Australia with the children, apparently lived on the property and participated in the day-to-day running of the hotel. Meanwhile Howard found that public pressure was sufficient to move Mrs Wright to Frankston where, in 1866, he installed her as licensee of the Frankston Hotel. It goes without saying that a certain amount of pressure would also have been exerted by the unbelievably tolerant Mrs. Howard!

In December, 1867 Henry Howard applied to transfer the name and licence of the Mornington Hotel to a new location in Main Street: “I, HENRY HOWARD, the holder of a publican’s licence for the house and premises known as the Mornington Hotel, situated at Mornington, do hereby give notice that it is my intention to APPLY to the justices, sitting at the Petty Sessions to be holden at Mornington on Saturday, December 21, to REMOVE the LICENCE and SIGN to a house now rented by me, containing two sitting rooms and two bedrooms, lately occupied by Mr. Cahill, bootmaker, and situated in Main Street, Mornington.” (The Argus, 11 December, 1867.)

In 1868 the licence of the Mornington Hotel was transferred to the new premises in Main Street. The original Mornington Hotel, established by Harley Goodall, was advertised for sale in The Argus and in May 1868 it was purchased by distinguished academic Professor William Parkinson Wilson who renamed the property “Wolfdene”.Since then it has been a private residence except for a short period (1877-1881) when the Backhouse brothers conducted the Mornington Grammar School on the site.

By 1877 the licensee of the Mornington Hotel was Cornelius Crowley who changed the name to the “Cricketers Arms”; the name “Mornington Hotel” lapsed. In 1889 Crowley commissioned prominent architect William Pitt to build the “Grand Coffee Palace” next door. In 1892 he transferred the licence from the Cricketers Arms to what became the “Grand Hotel”.

The Grand Hotel in Mornington, built as the Grand Coffee Palace in 1889, next door to the Cricketers Arms.
The Frankston Hotel

Accordingly, in 1866 Mrs Wright became the licensee of the Frankston Hotel, a role that she would fill until her death nine years later. She was described as a widow and was accompanied by her three year old son, Frank, a consequence of her association with Howard. Liquor licensing records show that, while the previous licensee, Henry Simpson, had transferred the licence to the Frankston Hotel to Mrs. Wright in 1866, he subsequently transferred the licence for the hotel on the other side of the street, also known as the Frankston Hotel, to Henry Howard. While his wife retained the licence for the hotel in Mornington, where she lived with their four children, within a short time Howard had moved into his Frankston establishment; although records are hazy, it would seem that, instead of trading as competitors, Mrs. Wright and he formed a business partnership and by 1875 they co-owned the two Frankston Hotels.

By 1875, however, the partnership was under stress, apparently due to the fact that Mrs. Wright was drinking to excess. This perception would appear to be supported by Dr. Dimock’s witness statement at the subsequent trial when he stated “…the deceased had been a very heavy drinker, and had suffered from delirium tremens.” (The Argus, 21 September, 1875. Page 7.)

The death certificate of Elizabeth Wright.

After repeated disagreements, Howard offered Mrs. Wright 100 pounds to give up her share in the business so that it could be sold. She refused the offer and Howard continued with his plans to sell. Fearful, Mrs Wright engaged Thomas Harman to mind the bar, but also protect her and look after her interests until the property was sold. Howard disapproved of this situation, even believing that Mrs. Wright and Thomas Harman were in some sort of relationship. A week before the murder Howard said to Mrs. Wright that he would hang for her; that it would be “ war to the knife, and the knife to the hilt.”

Doctor Jame Neild, medical practitioner, who gave evidence at the inquest.

The sale took place on Friday 13 August, 1875 to Mark Young, a publican from Emerald Hill. Mrs. Wright, Howard and Harman remained in the hotel although the greater portion of the furniture and effects had been cleared out by the purchaser. On the Saturday evening, after dinner, an agitated Howard stabbed Mrs. Wright in the presence of their 12 year old son. Hearing screams, Harman, who was serving in the bar, rushed to the dining room where he confronted Howard. He, too, was stabbed whereupon he staggered back through the bar and collapsed on the pavement.

The Inquest
Payment of funeral costs for Elizabeth Wright.

This was conducted on Tuesday 17 August and, as the reporter for The Argus stated “As all parties are well known for miles around, there was a great deal of interest taken in the proceedings…which lasted from 10 in the morning to half past 9 o’clock at night.

First to appear was Jane Harman, widow of Thomas, who told of the mounting tension between Mrs. Wright and Henry Howard. Mrs Harman was followed by a number of other witnesses including 12 year old Frank Wright; Frederick William Storer who was delightfully described as the hotel’s “generally useful man”; William Davey, the publican at the nearby Bayview Hotel; Thomas Ritchie, storekeeper; Richard Boyle, senior police constable from Mornington; and James Neild and George Dimock, medical practitioners.

At the conclusion the jury foreman announced the verdict: “…pre-meditated murder on the part of the prisoner.” The prisoner was then formally committed by the Coroner for trial.

The Trial

This took place before Mr. Justice Molesworth at the Central Criminal Court on Monday 20 September, 1875. Henry Howard “…was indicted for having wilfully and deliberately and with malice aforethought murdered one Elizabeth Wright at the Frankston Hotel, Frankston, on the night of 14 August last.” Howard pleaded not guilty. The various witnesses who had appeared at the inquest were required to repeat their testimony.

While the Crown expressed the opinion that the evidence was sufficient to conclude that the prisoner was guilty as charged, the counsel for Henry Howard urged the jury to find him guilty of the lesser charge of manslaughter, “…in which case he could get as high a sentence as 15 years penal servitude. He pointed out that the prisoner must have been sincerely and devotedly attached to Mrs Wright, when he had deserted his own wife and family to live with her. It had also been proved that he treated her with kindness, and showed the utmost solicitude for her when ill.” (The Argus, Tuesday 21 September, 1875. Page 7.)

The plea by the counsel for the defence notwithstanding, the jury returned after 10 minutes of deliberation with the verdict: “Guilty of wilful murder.”

Mr Justice Molesworth then completed proceedings with his summary: “Prisoner at the bar, you seem in several ways to have lived a very bad life, both as regards your relation to this unfortunate woman whilst you had a wife and children living, and then on the termination of that intercourse by your being the cause of her sudden and violent death. At the same time you caused the sudden and violent death of a man whom you had associated in some way or another with her. In the eyes of any rational man there does not appear to be any ground for such suspicions as you probably entertained; but whether you were right or wrong, nothing of that kind could form the slightest excuse for the terrible crime you have committed. You seem to have performed this crime in a fearless and dauntless manner, plainly accepting the consequence. No doubt you could have found some more secret way of carrying out your intention, but you acted openly in defiance of the laws of God and man. I hope the spirit you have shown up to this time , the language of pride rising above all fear of consequences, will not continue, for your fate in this world is, I must tell you, hopeless. I trust sincerely between this and the time of your death you will be enabled to make your peace with God, and be brought to view your conduct in a proper light, to feel it must bring down upon you the universal condemnation of your fellow creatures and probably the condemnation of your God if you do not sincerely repent.” His Honour then passed the sentence according to the usual formula. (The Argus, Tuesday 21 September, 1875. Page 7.)

Being convicted, the second charge against Henry Howard of murdering Thomas Harman, was not proceeded with.

The Execution
Reverend Lorenzo Moore, chaplain at Melbourne Gaol.

The Leader carried a detailed and graphic description of the execution of Henry Howard which took place at the Melbourne Gaol on Monday 4 October, 1875. Readers were informed that: “The Rev. Lorenzo Moore, whose endeavours, since the passing of sentence, to bring the prisoner to a sense of guilt, have been attended with very satisfactory results, was engaged with Howard in prayer from nine o’clock up till the time of execution.”

At the scaffold the governor of the gaol, Mr. Castieau reminded Howard that the time had arrived for him to make any confession which he might have in contemplation. “ ‘All I wish to say,’ he said, ‘is that I am guilty of the murder of the woman Wright.’ After a slight pause, he proceeded to say he had wished to plead guilty to the murder, but his friends had persuaded him not to do so. …He was quite satisfied with the trial and the sentence, he said, and desired to thank the gaol officials for the kind treatment he had received at their hands since his confinement. As regarded Harman, he felt convinced that he never intended to kill him. ‘I shall die a repenting Christian,” he continued, and raising his head to permit the executioner to bare his neck, he ceased speaking. Gateley (the hangman) performed the remainder of his task with great alacrity…” (The Leader, Saturday 9 October, 1875. Page 12.)

John Buckley Castieau, Governor of the Gaol (left). Michael Gately, hangman (right).


The Argus. Monday 16 August, 1875 (News of the murders);Wednesday 18 August (Inquest); Tuesday 21 September, 1875 (Trial).

The Leader. Saturday 9 October, 1875 (Execution).

Cullen, Joy. “The Wolfdene Story.” Mornington & District Historical Society, 2016.

Moorhead, Leslie. “Mornington-In the Wake of Flinders.” Stockland Press, 1971.

Wright, Clare. “Beyond the Ladies Lounge-Australia’s Female Publicans.” Text Publishing, 2003.


For assistance in searching out old photographs my thanks to Val Wilson and Joy Cullen from the Mornington and District Historical Society and Val Latimer from the Mornington Peninsula Family History Society.

The Key Participants

Henry Howard

Howard was born in Woolwich, England in 1823 and by the 1850’s he was an active citizen of Schnapper Point, as Mornington was then called. In her history of the town Leslie Moorhead related how in the mid 1850’s public meetings were held as residents began to clamour for port facilities. Listed amongst prominent spokesmen of the Schnapper Point community at that time was “…Henry Howard, storekeeper and dealer, who was already planning the building of the Schnapper Point Hotel on his land adjacent to where the approaches to the jetty would be employing many men…” (“Mornington-In the Wake of Flinders”. Page 71.)

After Howard’s execution at Melbourne Gaol on 4 October, 1875, Mr. Kreitmayer, an artist in wax and keeper of a wax works exhibition, applied to the sheriff for permission to take a cast of the criminal’s head but, in compliance with an instruction from the relations of the deceased, the request was not granted.

Accordingly we have no portrait of Howard and have to rely on the description by the reporter from The Argus who was present at the inquest: “To look at him…he would seem to be a bad tempered, sensual man. He is rather under the middle height, with a low receding forehead, and massive jaws, fringed with a grizzly black beard…. About an hour or so after the inquiry had been commenced he took no further notice of the proceedings, and amused himself by looking out of the window.”

The marriage certificate of Elizabeth Wright.
Elizabeth Wright

The same reporter described Mrs. Wright as “…a woman much below the middle height, with rather pleasing features, dark hair and eyes, and is said to have been well educated and able to speak four languages. She was married and had one child by her husband. He had, however, left many years ago, and when last heard of was in San Francisco. She became acquainted with the prisoner Howard, and for some time lived in his house at Schnapper Point, where he had an hotel, called the Mornington Hotel. Some improper intimacy is said to have taken place there, and the consequence was that some years ago the deceased woman had a son by the prisoner-an intelligent lad, who gave evidence in a very straightforward way at the inquest.” (Note that some of this information differs from the first account of the murders which appeared in The Argus on 16 August where it was stated that Mrs. Wright’s husband had died two years before. To further complicate matters, the cost of her burial was paid by Mr George Wright!)

Thomas Harman
Thomas Harman, the barman stabbed to death by Henry Howard.

“The deceased man Harman was originally a member of the London police force and came out here several years ago. Since then he has been engaged in taking up small road contracts…Prior to that he has settled his wife and family at Frankston, and failing in his attempt to obtain a small contract, he returned home a few weeks ago. Having known Mrs. Wright (the murdered woman) years ago, when she was in better circumstances, she applied to him to watch over her interests until the hotel was sold. This he agreed to do, and while he was carrying this out he met his death. He is spoken of as a good and kind husband, a steady man, and a good workman. He was devoted to his wife and children, and it is not believed by those who knew him that there is the slightest foundation for the rumour that he was improperly intimate with the deceased woman. He leaves a wife and four children who are utterly destitute. The eldest child is only 10 years of age.” (The Argus, Wednesday 18 August, 1875, Page 16.) The people of Frankston disbelieved the rumours regarding Thomas Harman and quickly started a public subscription for the benefit of his family.

Three of the key witnesses

Thomas Ritchie’s General Store

The list of witnesses at the inquest and trial includes three names that have been of significance in the history of Frankston:

Thomas Ritchie
Thomas Ritchie (circled in red) as a member of the Frankston Fish Company.

Ritchie, who was born on the Isle of Man, came to Australia in 1852 at the age of 18 on the “Isabella Watson” which was wrecked on the Corsair Rock at the Heads. He clung to a spar and was fortunate to survive. Thomas Ritchie married Margaret Kennedy and settled in Frankston in 1854. He established a bakery in that year on what is now the Nepean Highway. Ritchie was a man of great enterprise and matching energy. Amongst his enterprises were the making and maintenance of roads, cutting and supplying wood, and he was a member of a consortium of local business men which founded the Frankston Fish Company in 1867 to transport the catches of the fishermen to the fish markets in the city. In 1870 Ritchie established his first general store on what is now the south-west corner of Playne Street and the Nepean Highway. Ritchies Stores is now the largest independent grocery chain in Australia.

The lives of Thomas and Margaret Ritchie were however burdened by a terrible tragedy; one morning in 1863 Margaret had left their home on Olivers Hill to look for a stray cow when a fire broke out. Four of their five children were burned to death; only the baby girl survived. However a further six children were added to the family, including a son, Thomas Junior.

William Davey Junior

On 15 November, 1873 Davey applied for a licence to establish the Bay View Hotel on the north-east corner of Davey Street and the Nepean Highway, the present site of the Grand Hotel. It was constructed with a guesthouse which Davey has shipped from Jersey in the Channel Isles. Another early settler in Frankston was Amis Renouf who came from Jersey; he was astonished when he first arrived in the little village to see the old Jersey Island guest house standing in the main street! Davey was the grandson of James Davey who arrived in the Frankston area in 1840 and gained a pre-emptive right-to-land licence of 640 acres which extended from Olivers Hill to Daveys Bay. James’ father, William, built a wattle-and-daub hut on the top of what was then known as “Old Man Davey’s Hill”from where he could spot fish; his son was to build a more substantial residence in 1851, “Marysville”, overlooking Daveys Bay.

Bay View Hotel, built by William Davey Junior.
James Henry McComb
Thomas and Grace McComb, early pioneers of Frankston, parents of James Henry McComb.

McComb, a labourer from Frankston, was a patron of the hotel when the murders took place. He was one of eleven children of Thomas and Grace McComb who arrived in the Frankston area from Tasmania in 1852. Thomas assisted in the development of the local fishing industry, purchased a lot of land where the Frankston CBD is now located, and was instrumental in the construction of the Frankston pier in 1857. Grace also made a substantial contribution to early Frankston and a plaque at the cemetery states “This entrance was erected in August, 1926, by grateful friends, to the memory of the late Mrs. Grace McComb for her goodness.” She was a maternity nurse, the only “doctor” in the Frankston district for 40 years, and described in the local paper as “Frankston’s Florence Nightingale.” Grace McComb also headed a petition by local residents in 1873 which led to the establishment of the first school in Davey Street in the following year.

Unusual, if not unique

The trial of Henry Howard was conducted before Mr. Justice Robert Molesworth. What is hard to grasp is that the counsel for the defence was Hickman Molesworth, the son of the judge. Later Hickman also became a judge and, to avoid confusion, the father was referred to as “Old Judge Molesworth.” While the situation could have led to the accusation that the son had received favourable treatment from his father, the outcome of Henry Howard’s trial suggests that “Old Judge Molesworth” may have been stricter with his son than with other counsel.

Mr Justice Robert Molesworth (left) and his son, Hickman Molesworth, counsel for the defence.