No. 97 - Cleveland Union Chapel - A Grave Murder

Buried in the cemetery at Cleveland Chapel lies a victim of a notorious murder which shocked the colony and attracted attention across Australia. The rustic setting of this chapel conceals the violence of life which resonates with our own times.

Cleveland was once a convict road station which had been established in 1839 with the purpose of repairing and maintaining roads on the route between Launceston and Hobart. The chapel was built in 1855, originally serving as a Presbyterian church and later used by Anglicans.  In 1974 the chapel was taken over by the National Trust. 

Its cemetery once had a fine specimen of a yew tree, which gave it the appearance of an English churchyard. The wood of the yew was traditionally used for the making of bows for archers. They were planted in churchyards, which were out of reach of grazing animals that could be poisoned by its foliage. The yew is also a symbol of death and life. 

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

The chapel’s cemetery contains many interesting headstones, typically tragically early deaths and families devastated by multiple losses of infants and young children. But there is one stone that reveals a shocking story and which gives an insight into life in the Campbell Town region in the latter half of the 19th century. This is the gravestone of William Wilson who was murdered in 1883 by two youths, James Ogden and James Sutherland. The murder investigation and trial received sensational treatment in the local and national press in a style typical of a Victorian ‘penny dreadful’. The lurid details in the newspapers seem almost voyeuristic by todays’ standards*. The fascination with the crimes arose partly out of the young age of the murderers (18 and 20) but also due their absolute lack of remorse and the brutality of the killings.

On the 14th April 1883, The Tasmanian reported on a murder at Epping Forest in sensationalist terms:

“Tidings of one of the most diabolical and cold-blooded murders it has ever been the lot of a newspaper to chronicle came to hand from Epping on Tuesday morning. … At first but scant particulars were obtainable, and, of course, gossips drew largely upon their imaginations for descriptions of the outrage, but the wildest tale invented by these news hunters scarcely came up to what was subsequently revealed as the bare truth. The Campbell Town District is rapidly becoming notorious for deeds of violence…”

The death of William Wilson was the final act ending a week of criminal acts by the two youths in which two murders and an attempted murder were committed. James Ogden and James Sutherland had called at the Launceston watch house on 7th April to report that a girl named Bourke had robbed Ogden of 12 shillings in a brothel. The following day they called at the Woolpack Inn, 11km from Launceston saying they were going to Campbell Town to look for dogs and a trap they had lost. They were next seen near a hut a Symond’s Plains, which was robbed of a gun.

Their first victim was a forty-year old man, Alfred Holman, a driver of a 'lemonade cart'.  His murder was reported vividly in the Gippsland Times:

“One of the ruffians is surmised to have fired at Holman as he was driving the cart along the main road. The shot is supposed not to have killed him, for from the appearance of the ground in the vicinity where the deed was perpetrated it is evident that a determined struggle took place. Holman after receiving the shot, probably fell from the cart, but rose to his foot and faced his antagonists. Being partially stunned he was at a disadvantage, and his two cowardly assailants must have beaten him about the head with the stock of a gun or pistol, and then dragged the body along the road…. they endeavoured to conceal the marks of blood by scattering white sand over it, but with out avail, for the blood oozed through in many places. (Gippsland Times 18 April 1883)

The second victim was William Wilson who lived with his wife and 4 children near Cleveland. This was reported in the Tasmanian:

“He [Wilson] was awakened by stones being thrown on his roof. He went outside, found nothing, so went back to bed. When another stone hit the roof he again went out. His wife heard a strange voice then a shot, so she too jumped out of bed and ran outside. Her husband staggered past her saying that he had been shot. He collapsed outside and she ran inside and locked the door. More stones hit the roof, then a voice outside said to set fire to the hut. Soon smoke and flames came into the hut and another shot was fired, forcing the family outside. Mrs Wilson saw a man she later identified as Sutherland, with a gun in his hands. She also recognised Ogden. The two men dragged off one of Wilson’s girls but she later ran away”.

Mrs Wilson also received gunshot wounds but survived. Following a manhunt, Sutherland and Ogden were arrested and taken to Campbell Town where they claimed that it was all only meant as a joke.

Justice was swift in 19th century Tasmania and the trial of Southerland and Ogden had been concluded and the sentence meted out by June 1883, barely two months after the murders. The Launceston Examiner reported on the fate of the two men:

“The prisoners James Sutherland and James Ogden, convicted of the murder of William Wilson and Alfred Holman at Epping Forest in April last, were executed this morning in the Campbell Street Gaol…. Neither of the prisoners had slept during the night, saying that they would see as much as they could of the world that was so soon to be left, and both softened in their demeanour during the night. This morning Sutherland requested that Mr Mace [the chaplain] to send to Mrs Wilson and Mrs Holman and ask them to forgive him, and he spoke bitterly of the treatment he received during his lifetime, saying the world had not been a pleasant one to him, that he had no parents to look after him…”

The execution can only be described as wretched. The Examiner reported on the final scene with some pathos:

“At 8.05 a.m. they left their cells, after having been pinioned by Solomon Blay, the hangman; and preceded by the Rev. Mr Shoobridge, reading a portion of the Church of England burial service, both men walked calmly along the bridge leading to the scaffold, Sutherland's step being as firm as ordinarily, while Ogden, who carried in his right hand a bunch of flowers sent to him through the Rev. Mr Shoobridge by a little girl attending Trinity Church Sunday-school, trembled violently, but otherwise made no sign. When the hangman placed the noose round Sutherland's neck he pulled himself together, never flinching, Ogden also keeping firm, and the muscles of neither of their faces moved as the fatal cap was drawn over their heads. The bolt was drawn at 8.10 a.m., and side-by-side the unfortunate lads were launched into eternity. Standing on the scaffold they looked more boyish than ever, making it difficult to believe them the perpetrators of the deeds for which they justly suffered death. Mrs Ogden states that it was reading the history of the Kelly gang caused the boys to commit these crimes. After hanging an hour the bodies were out down, the little bouquet sent to Ogden being found tightly clenched in his hand, and Dr Graham certified that both were dead. Casts of their heads were then taken…and at 12.30 p.m. the bodies were placed in a hearse [and] conveyed to the Cornelian Bay Cemetery, where they were interred by the gaol officials without any religious ceremony. The execution of these two prisoners makes over a hundred persons executed by Solomon Blay” **.

Like all cemeteries, the gravestones at the Cleveland Union Chapel reflect the full gamut of the human tragedy of existence. The pastoral setting of the Cleveland Chapel, lends itself to sentimentalism. But the story behind the headstone of William Wilson reminds us that human beings have never really changed. There are those who are ensnared by the arbitrariness of life and those who are indifferent to the worthiness and dignity of human life. Paradoxically William Wilson will not be remembered for his ordinariness and gentleness. But he should.


* The press reports are really quite confronting and have more than a hint of schadenfreude to them. The extracts used in this blog entry are rather mild examples of graphic accounts of the murders and the trial. The links below are indicative of some of colourful reporting:

The Tasmanian
Devon Herald - Latrobe
The Ballarat Star
Launceston Examiner
Port Adelaide News
The Age Melbourne

** Solomon Blay (20 January 1816 – 20 August 1897) was an English convict transported to Van Diemen's Land. Once his sentence was served, he gained notoriety as a hangman in Hobart, and is believed to have hanged over 200 people in the course of a long career spanning from 1840 to 1891. This made him the longest serving hangman in the British Empire.

William Wilson's headstone - Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

The chapel before restoration showing the old yew tree. Source: National Trust ehive  TSO00018439

James Ogden and James Sutherland. Source: National library of Australia Gunson Collection file 203/7/54.

Photographs of other headstones of interest in the Cleveland cemetery:

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018

Photograph: Duncan Grant 2018
A link to all the gravestones at the Cleveland Chapel cemetery can be found at this link: HERE


Tasmanian, Saturday 21 April 1883, page 10.
Tasmanian, Saturday 14 April, 1883.
Tasmanian Saturday 28 April, 1883.
Examiner, Tuesday 5 June 1883, page 3.
Gippsland Times, Wednesday 18 April 1883, page 1.


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