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Deaths at Josephine's Gasworks Hotel
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This is the story of Josephine. From 1863 to 1874 she was the publican at the Gasworks Hotel in Brompton, an inner suburb of Adelaide, South Australia. Four men died there in that time – two of them were husbands.

This is an untold story that plugs gaps in several family histories – a gap of a forgotten brother, a gap of a headstone’s missing name.

A suspicious death, a coroner’s inquest, a Supreme Court verdict of fraud and a family cut out of a last minute will. Did Josephine kill this man and three others?

This is a story evocative of the times – the language; the social norms. It is mostly a story about ordinary people, although some of the characters rose to great heights in South Australia as premier, police commissioner and city coroner. But the conclusion is anything but ordinary.

Includes companion website and readers’ guide for book groups.

"The research is incredible. It gives great insight into ... Adelaide at that time... like ‘The Mayne Inheritance’ did for Brisbane."
"A great read, drew me in. Very well written and researched."

Published: David Coombe on
ISBN: 9781301824977
List price: $2.99
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Deaths at Josephine's Gasworks Hotel - David Coombe

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Last drinks had been called. It was now ten o’clock. Although the night was hot, Elisha Rundle closed the hotel doors as the law required. In a while he would see out the remaining customers, but not before the daily ritual of the verbal tug of war.

Although she was better at that tug of war, Josephine left her young husband to do the closing. On this night she had something far more pressing. She went out behind the bar, through the kitchen, and across the courtyard to the lodger’s room.

The man was in bed, dying but conscious. A local nurse had been with him since the morning. It was the first and only time the nurse had been called in, and Josephine now sent her home. She was alone with the dying man and would be for some time.

Hardly more than a week earlier the dying man had changed his will. He had left everything to the publican couple; nothing to his adult children. The return would more than compensate Josephine for her trouble.

She reached for the brandy bottle and a glass and poured another nobbler. She held it to his lips and he drank slowly.

The remaining customers also drank slowly as they stretched thinly the pleasure from their last drinks. Elisha imagined each drinker as a moth straining nectar through its narrow proboscis. He extinguished three inside lamps and hoped the moths would be lured to the gas lamps outside. He urged them all to fly to their homes in straight lines. The drinkers, ever resigned to losing the argument, finished and left. He locked the doors behind them and went to see his wife Josephine and the dying man.

The man was faring badly. Josephine said they should fetch Elisha’s mother. Mary Rundle had seen many a birth and death. She had the caring manner that, in the absence of the dying man’s own children, would ease his final moments. The couple’s ten year old daughter would normally have been sent on an errand such as the few blocks to Elisha’s parents’ house. But it was too late for a young girl. Elisha went to get his mother and left his wife alone with the dying man.

It was nearly midnight by the time they returned.

The dying man grew agitated. Mary Rundle tried to comfort him. He tried to look up, but couldn’t open his eyes. He died in the morning hours at a quarter to two.

It was summer – January 1874 – at the Gasworks Hotel.

* * * *


If you are interested in your family stories …

what is most marked is what is missing …

gaps, gaps, are always with us.

Junot Diaz, 2013.

From 1863 to 1874, Josephine was the publican of the Gasworks Hotel in Brompton, an inner suburb of Adelaide, South Australia. In that time the hotel’s licence or ownership was either in her own name or in that of one of her husbands. She had three husbands and three married names: Ingham, Coombe and Rundle. For readability, she will be simply referred to as Josephine. And in that time, four men died there. Two were husbands of Josephine, one was an interim publican and one was a boarder.

This book presents this true story for the first time. [1] In doing so, this book fills gaps in several family histories – a gap of a forgotten brother, a gap of a headstone’s missing name.

Gaps are always present in family stories. Some are gaps of neglect or forgetfulness, but some gaps are mindfully intended. This book uncovers some gaps of intent.

This is mostly a story about ordinary people, although some of the minor characters rose to great heights in South Australia as premier, police commissioner and city coroner. It is a story in which a few notorious events colour how one views the many otherwise ordinary events – events as common as deaths and marriages. It is only when all are brought together that the events combine to tell an extraordinary story.

The story pivots on the eleven years that Josephine was publican at the Gasworks Hotel.

The hotel was, and still is, in Chief Street, Brompton. Built in 1850, it is functional, not glamorous. It is not one of those often imagined Victorian hotels: an attractive two storey building with wide upper storey verandah and ornate ironwork. Instead it is a modest single storey with cut bluestone façade and brick rear walls … [decorated with] a moulded parapet, balustrade and architraves. [2] In fact, it is of very similar appearance to one of the industrial gasworks buildings down the same street.

Brompton was a working-class suburban village – part of the Hindmarsh area of Adelaide. Blocks of land were advertised in volume in 1849 and the licence for the hotel was first granted on 13 March 1851. [3] The hotel was originally known as the Brickmakers’ Arms, acknowledging the large number of that occupation who lived and worked in the area. Then in 1863 the Australian Gas Company built an imposing gasworks in Brompton. That provided the inspiration for a change of name to the New Gasworks Hotel.

Other local hotels also reflected local occupations. Adjacent Bowden had both the Tanners’ Arms and the Joiners’ Arms. It was developed before Brompton and had a reputation of having a more religious and small business character. Bowden was home to residents such as butcher John Robins Rundle and brickmaker Samuel Coombe – father and brother respectively of two of Josephine’s husbands. Rundle and Coombe, together with Peter Pomeroy Dungey, were the lay founders of the Bowden Bible Christian (Methodist) Church. The first humble services of that church were held in Rundle’s butcher shop.

In her Hindmarsh history [4], Susan Marsden named Rundle as one of several who formed a land owning establishment class in Bowden and Brompton. Samuel Coombe should be included in this group also. [4a] It was these early occupiers

who came to dominate the economic, civic and social affairs of Hindmarsh, and who profited further from the development of the area by purchasing and subdividing allotments and building cottages for rental by labourers, semi-skilled tradesmen and the simply poor who sought refuge in Bowden and Brompton.

Of the two suburbs, Brompton was more a place of industry – a place of gasworks, brick works and rope works. Local builders used the ready supply of materials and carters transported products to the port or city. Fires burnt night and day at gasworks, soap works and brick kilns. Chimney stacks of all sorts were prominent on the skyline. As well as the dynamic sights, there were also offensive smells from the candle works, soap works and tanneries. Brompton was a place of sights, sounds and smells. Periodic flooding just carried in greater variety.

Marsden well captured the atmosphere of the area:

The workplaces dominated the entire lives of the residents far more than is now realised. The employees worked long hours, walking from home which was close by, sharing their leisure time, worshipping and drinking and visiting together. Their work associations underpinned strong local identifications as generation after generation followed in the same occupations run by the familiar family firms. The link between local work and close-knit local community is revealed graphically in the phrase, ‘You can’t throw a brick in Hindmarsh without hitting a relative’. By 1874 this close-knit, inter-related and self-distinct working community was quite evident.

Competing with the culture of hotels and drinking was the temperance movement of which Coombe, Rundle and their families were a significant part. The Advertiser newspaper reported on the first annual festival of the Hindmarsh, Bowden and Brompton Total Abstinence Society in 1861:

The Band of Hope assembled at their usual place of meeting, and under the direction of Messrs. Gould, Rundle, and Coombe, were led in procession, with banners flying, through the three townships, headed by their drum and fife band. Arriving at the Hindmarsh District Hall, they were addressed by the Rev. W. Wilson, and afterwards regaled with a plentiful supply of buns, cake, and tea. Their walk appeared to have sharpened their appetites, and we never saw children more orderly in a procession or to behave with greater decorum at a feast. They appeared to have been under very good training. About 150 of the parents and friends sat down to tea after the youngsters had been regaled, and a public meeting followed, at which spirited appeals were made by the Rev. Mr. Sleigh, and Messrs. Williams, Cole, Barlow, Crabb, Rundle, Kiel, Lewis, and the Chairman, Mr. J. Pickering. Several temperance songs and recitations were given by the juveniles, and melodies played by the band between the speeches. Votes of thanks were given to the ladies, the Chairman, the friends who had sustained the meeting, and to Messrs. Gould and Lawton, for their services rendered to the Band of Hope. The meeting terminated by singing the Doxology. Several signatures to the pledge were taken.

A nine year old Elisha, son of John Rundle, later husband of Josephine, would have been in that well behaved but exuberant procession. He would have sung the temperance songs with the other children, including at least a couple of his brothers and his sister, Alice. His mother Mary may also have joined in, bringing eight month old Alfred. They would have listened to John Rundle’s spirited appeal.

This was the close-knit local community of Bowden and Brompton.

It was in this community that four men died – all closely connected to Josephine and her Gasworks Hotel. The four deaths are suspicious to varying degrees – from very suspicious to slightly suspicious. But taken together, a pattern emerges that draws more suspicion than do the individual deaths.

Josephine was never tried for murder. Suspicions were hinted at some 150 years ago, but they have eroded like verses on a sandstone headstone.

But one modern tool has made those verses of suspicion more decipherable – the digitisation of historic newspapers. This tool is a database of many events: court cases, insolvencies, births, marriages, deaths, incidents, accidents, news, advertisements and travel. With this resource and access to several death certificates and wills, this book compiles Josephine’s story for the first time, together with the many suspicious circumstances surrounding her life.

One possible explanation for those circumstances is that Josephine was a serial murderer. If she was, she came closest to detection in 1874. That was the year she was exposed as having a major role in the death of Josiah Marsson, a boarder at the Gasworks Hotel run by Josephine and her then husband, Elisha Rundle. The couple’s roles in were revealed in both a coroner’s inquest and a Supreme Court case over a contested will.

The coroner’s inquest concluded that Marsson died of natural causes; so there was no call for a murder trial. But newspaper reports of the inquest publicly raised the dust of Adelaide suspicion. Perhaps the dust could have settled after the inquest, were it not for Marsson’s will and Josephine’s propensity for litigation. In the will, Marsson had left his entire estate to the Rundles, and nothing to his three adult children. Not accepting the will, the Marsson children obstructed the Rundles’ access to their late father’s assets. So, two months after Marsson’s death, the Rundles resorted to law.

The South Australian Supreme Court sought to determine the validity of the will. Five days of court sittings further exposed the Rundles, their intrigue, greed and manipulation. The case was extensively reported in about 35,000 words over three days in the South Australian Register and Advertiser newspapers. The case would have been the talk of Adelaide.

It resulted in loss of reputation for the Rundles and loss of patronage at the hotel, forcing the Rundles out.

But before exploring the case and its