John Nevin at inquest for James Thornton 1889

JAMES THORNTON’s stabbing of son-in-law THOMAS WEBSTER
JOHN NEVIN witness at inquest of JAMES THORNTON

Constable John (William John aka Jack) Nevin, ca.1880 photographed by his brother Thomas J. Nevin.
Copyright © KLW NFC Private Collection 2009 ARR. Watermarked.

Photographer Thomas J. Nevin’s younger brother Constable John (William John aka Jack) Nevin (1852-1891) was a wardsman at the Hobart Gaol when James Thornton was imprisoned on 23 July 1889 to serve a sentence of twelve months for “unlawfully wounding” his son-in-law Thomas Webster. Thornton died at the gaol a few months into his sentence, on 4th December 1889. John Nevin gave evidence at the inquest into the prisoner’s death, caused by “exhaustion consequent upon cancer of the mouth”, according to the coroner. The prisoner James Thornton was 79 years old, born in Ireland, a hair-dresser of Liverpool Street, Hobart. His daughter Amy Amilda Thornton married Thomas Webster in 1886, and gave birth to a son, also called Thomas William Webster (b. 9 June 1886) who would become, as a 3 yr old toddler, the flashpoint which triggered Thornton’s stabbing assault on his son-in-law Thomas Webster in 1889.

1880-1913: Webster’s Coach Services

Source: Archives Office of Tasmania
Item Number: PH10/1/2
Start Date: 01 Jan 1900 -31 Dec 1900
Series: Album of Photographs – Anson Brothers (PH10)

This advertisement was sponsored by the Australian Mutual Provident Society, informing potential travellers with Webster’s of the large numbers of their policies sold in the previous year, with capital totalling three and half million pounds – £3,693,324 (!) The photograph of travellers – all men – was taken by the Anson Brothers of Elizabeth St. Hobart. The cartoons decorating the borders of the advertisement would have reflected tastes in humour of the day. Targets and stereotypes in each little vignette include these: the devil pouring drink into an obese man flat on his back; frogs and insects and rats churned through a mincer making sausages (next to the name of the hotel from where the coaches departed daily); a Chinese with a plaited queue holding a dead cat, pointing over a bellhop with a bruised eye to a drunken tramp; a group climbing a greasy pole, a white woman dousing an African man, a servant in tails, and the white men above him, one a messenger; a bootleg distiller making “Bird’s Eye” with sugar; skinny boarding house residents; hypocritical priests buying alcohol during Prohibition; and baffled police searching every nook and cranny of a house. Some targets would have been topical and local; others are familiar stereotypes of the ages.


[Left column]: Leave British Hotel, Liverpool St, Hobart at 9. a.m. Every Morning for Fern Tree, Mountain Road, Half-way House, Victoria, Franklin, Shipwrights’ Point, and Geeves Town. Franklin and Geeves Town.
[Centre column]: sepia photograph Mail Coach on Huon Road, Walter Webster Proprietor
[Right column]: Visitors may travel 35 miles through the Grandest Scenery in the Island and Return same day.

The Webster family of coach proprietors included Thomas William Webster, married to Amy Amilda Thornton in 1886; his brother John Webster; John Webster’s wife Frances Webster nee Stevenson, registered as owner in her name; John and Frances Webster’s son Walter Roy Webster (b. 1890); and John and Frances Webster’s daughter Kathleen Leonora Webster, (b. 1893), also registered in her own name and advertised as “K. L. Webster, Proprietress”. Their horse coach business began in 1880 and lasted until 1913.

Webster Hobart Town/Huon mail coach 1880
Webster, W. & F. Hobart/Sorell special – races 1881
Webster Hobart/Franklin/Honeywood Huon, mail coach 1891
Webster, K.L. Huon Coaches K.L. Webster and Co 1893
Webster, Rometch & Co Huon Webster, Rometch & Co 1911
Webster, Rometch & Duncan Huon Webster, Rometch & Duncan, mail coach 1912
Webster, Rometch & Duncan Hobart/Huon last horse coach on route 1913

Steven Walker, Doctor of Philosophy in Humanities, School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania, January 2016

1881: Thomas Webster and the Catholics
Thomas William Webster was listed as a victualler when his son Thomas was born to his wife Amy, daughter of James Thornton, in 1886. He was also proprietor with John Webster of the Royal Mail Line of coaches to the Huon. His religion was Catholicism, and his chosen church for worship was St. Mary’s Cathedral, Harrington St. Hobart until its closure in 1876 when the lantern tower was demolished and substantial renovations were undertaken. It was the church where he would marry James Thornton’s daughter Amy Amilda Thornton in 1886. In anticipation of the re-opening of St. Mary’s Cathedral in January 1881, Thomas and John Webster provided extra coach services to those from rural and regional areas wishing to take part in the ceremonies:

As the new building approached completion invitations were sent out by the Bishop of the diocese to the prelates and other distinguished persons in the neighbouring colonies, inviting their attendance at the dedication ceremony, and in response there was a large and influential attendance from the other side of the Straits, and the services were consequently very imposing. The attendance was very large. The day was a bright one, and the convenience afforded by the Main Line Railway manager and Mr. Webster, proprietor of the Huon coaches, enabled large numbers of Catholics in the Midland districts and the South to attend the ceremonies. The cathedral being kept empty until it had been blessed, the grounds around it became soon after 10 o’clock the scene of activity and gathering from all points of the compass.

Thomas Webster at the re-opening of St. Mary’s.
Source: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas) Mon 24 Jan 1881 Page 3 RE-OPENING OF ST. MARY’S CATHEDRAL.RE-OPENING OF ST. MARY’S CATHEDRAL.

1886: Marriage to Amy Thornton

James Thornton’s daughter Amy Amilda Thornton married coach proprietor Thomas William Webster on the 7th January 1886 at St. Mary’s Cathedral, Hobart.

Thornton, Amy
Record Type: Marriages
Gender: Female
Spouse: Webster, Thomas William
Gender: Male
Age: 24
Date of marriage: 07 Jan 1886
Registered: Hobart
Registration year:1886
Record ID:NAME_INDEXES:899418
Resource:RGD37/1/45 no 296
Archives Office Tasmania

On June 9th, 1886, six months after her wedding, Amy Amilda Webster, James Thornton’s daughter, gave birth to a son registered with the same name as her husband’s, Thomas William Webster. Her address on the day of registration was Longley, Huon Road.

1889: James Thornton’s stabbing of Thomas Webster
Three years later, on Wednesday, 29th May 1889, James Thornton, hair-dresser of Liverpool Street, Hobart, had travelled south to the Huon, perhaps only intending to see Amy and her child, his grandson. At the Alabama Hotel, Shipwright’s Point he saw his daughter’s husband Thomas Webster arrive back from his coach run to Hobart and settle into a card game with friends in the bar parlour. Thornton’s grandson was there too at his father’s feet wanting to be picked up. Watching on, James Thornton called out to the child to approach him, but the child refused. James Thornton reacted in anger – ” You are like the rest of your crowd – no good” – he told Thomas Webster. More must have been said to infuriate Webster. He physically collared Thornton, whereby Thornton stabbed him in the groin. Who the no-good crowd Thornton had in mind was not publicly revealed, although John Nevin may have learned the reason for Thornton’s estrangement from his daughter’s family while watching over him as wardsman at the Hobart Gaol. The crowd Thornton so roundly despised might have been the Webster family, as John Webster was also present at the incident and gave witness later. Or it might have been sectarian hatred for Webster’s affiliations with the Catholics, or even the social class from which he felt excluded as both an ex-convict and lowly barber. The fact that Thornton had taken pains to be present at the hotel when Thomas Webster was due back from Hobart, indicates premeditation, and the fact that Thornton stabbed him in the groin suggests an attack on Webster’s sexuality, implying adultery perhaps on Webster’s part, the father thereby acting out revenge on behalf of his daughter. The press did not go so far as to speculate the reasons for this incident of domestic violence, and none was given at trial. Thomas Webster survived the stabbing without damage to his potential for fathering more children with Amy, six more births ensuing over the next decade (viz. Alice, b. 1887; Amy, b. 1891; Esther, b. 1892; Unnamed, b. 1894; Mona, b. 1896; and Eileen, b. 1899).

1889: Newspaper reports
The following accounts give details of the event as witnessed by patrons of the Alabama Hotel at Shipwright’s Point where Thomas Webster had just returned from a coach trip to Hobart.

The Hobart Mercury noted that A. H. Boyd was the sitting magistrate who heard witnesses’ accounts at the local Police Court in the district of Franklin where the incident occurred, and who committed James Thornton to trial at the next sitting of the Supreme Court in Hobart. This was the same A. H. Boyd who was dismissed from the position of Superintendent at the Orphan School in 1864, and again from the position of Commandant of the Port Arthur prison in December 1873. Compensation for his forced resignation from Port Arthur was a minor magistracy such as this one at Franklin. He is also the same A. H. Boyd whose apologists and descendants since 1995 have fabricated a story that he was THE photographer – rather than contractor Thomas J. Nevin with his brother Constable John Nevin – of the 300 extant Tasmanian prisoner mugshots taken in the 1870s. A. H. Boyd did not personally photograph prisoners himself at any period in a career noted for bullying and corruption. He certainly left no photographic evidence of his encounter with James Thornton in 1889. In fact, none seems to have been taken when Thornton was imprisoned at the Hobart Gaol in June, contrary to prison regulations which in this case were most likely waived as Thornton was terminally ill and expected to die before release. The few mugshots to survive on prisoners’ rap sheets that were taken around the same time at the Hobart Gaol evince commercial portraiture aspects typical of Thomas Nevin’s production of carte-de-visite mugshots from the very first of his government contracts in 1872.

This was the first newspaper report, published 7 June 1889.

At the Franklin Police Court, before Mr. A. H. Boyd, S.M., on the 5th inst, James Thornton was charged by Superintendent Ruddock, that he did, on Wednesday, 29th May, 1889, stab Thomas Webster in the groin with a knife.

Thomas Webster sworn, said that on the day named he drove the Huon coach from Hobart to Shipwright’s Point, where he was relieved by another driver. He was afterwards in the bar parlour of the Alabama Hotel, having a friendly game of cards with a few friends. The defendant was present. A little boy, a son of complainant, and about 3 years old, was requesting him to take him up, when the old man called the child, who would not go to him. He then said -” You are like the rest of your crowd – no good.” Thereupon witness caught Thornton by the collar, and, told him he would have none of that talk. After a few minutes he found himself stabbed, and some of his friends took him into the bedroom. The accused (Thornton) is his father-in-law. He had no ill will towards him. On a former occasion the accused had attempted to stab him. He was once up for stabbing his wife, and he (Webster) was his bondsman for that time. The knife produced was the one he was stabbed with. The trousers produced were those worn by him on the occasion, and the hole in these garments was caused by the knife.

Frederick John McKeon also gave evidence as to the stabbing. Witness was present and took the knife from Thornton. He also assisted Webster to a bedroom. Webster fainted on the way. Witness examined the wound, it was over half an inch long and about a quarter of an inch deep. Witness had no doubt that Thornton was the man who stabbed Webster.

John Bowes, a farmer at Franklin, also gave evidence in support of the charge. When first he went into the bar parlour on the date named he saw there John Webster, James Dance, William Mulcahy, Frederick Keon and Thomas Webster, and from what he saw he had no doubt that the prisoner stabbed Webster.

Sub-inspector Beamish, sworn, said that about 8 p.m. on the 29th May Thomas Webster reported to him that he had been stabbed by James Thornton in the groin at the Alabama Hotel, Shipwright’s Point, at about 6 p.m. that evening. Witness examined the wound. It was fully half an inch long, by an eighth of an inch deep. Blood was coming from the cut. Witness took possession of the knife and trousers produced. The prisoner was brought up by summons.
Mr. Boyd, S.M., fully committed Thornton for trial at the next sitting of the Supreme Court, Hobart.

Source: Mercury (Hobart, Tas. : 1860 – 1954), Friday 7 June 1889, page 3

This was the second report, published 15 June 1889:

Source: Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas. : 1881 – 1895), Saturday 15 June 1889, page 23


At the Franklin Police Court (Huon), on Wednesday June 5, James Thornton, a well-known hair-dresser, of Liverpool-street, Hobart, and who is stated to have a violent temper when excited, was charged with having stabbed Thomas Webster in the groin with a knife. Thomas Webster deposed that on May 29 he drove the Huon coach from Hobart to Shipwrights’ Point, where he was relieved by another driver; he was afterwards in the bar parlour of the Alabama Hotel, having a friendly game of cards with a few friends; the defendant was present; a little boy, a son of the complainant, and about three years old, was requesting him to take him up, when the old man called the child, who would not go to him; he then said — ‘You are like the rest of your crowd — no good;” thereupon witness caught Thornton by the collar, and told him he would have none of that talk; after a few minutes he found himself stabbed, and some of his friends took him into the bedroom; the accused (Thornton) was his father-in-law; he had no ill will towards him; on a former occasion the accused had attempted to stab him; he was once up for stabbing his wife, and he (Webster) was his bondsman for that time : the knife, produced was the one he was stabbed with. Frederick John McKeon deposed to having taken Webster to a bed-room, where he fainted. John Bowes, a farmer at Franklin, gave evidence in support of the charge. Sub-Inspector Beamish deposed to having examined Webster, who had a wound in the groin fully half an inch long by an eighth of an inch deep; blood was coming from the cut. Thornton was then committed for trial at the next sitting of the Hobart Supreme Court.

Source: Tasmanian (Launceston, Tas. : 1881 – 1895), Saturday 15 June 1889, page 23

Source: The Mercury (Hobart, Tas.) Wed 24 Jul 1889 Page 2

The press recorded James Thornton’s age here as 70 yrs old, not 79 yrs. He was sentenced on 23 July 1889 to 12 months’ imprisonment for unlawfully wounding his son-in-law Thomas Webster.

1889: Court Records

Trial of Thornton, James July 1889
Archives Office Tasmania
Record ID: SC32-1-15P040

Thornton, James
Record Type: Court
Status: Free by servitude
Trial date: 23 Jul 1889
Place of trial: Hobart
Offense: Unlawfully wounding
Verdict: Guilty
Prosecutions Project ID: 31111
Archives Office Tasmania
Record ID: NAME_INDEXES:1589182

1889: Inquest into James Thornton’s death
John Nevin was resident on salary at the Hobart Gaol by 1884. As wardsman of sick prisoners, he would have attended a number of deaths and testified regularly at inquests.


The Sudden Death in the Gaol.
A CORONIAL enquiry, for the purpose of ascertaining how and by what means one James Thornton, who died in H.M. Gaol this morning, came by his death, was held in the gaol yesterday afternoon, before Mr Coroner Mitchell, and a jury composed of Edward Mulcahy (foreman), Thomas Carter, Jno. Shirley, A. McVilly, David King, Henry Jones, and Albert Ray. The first witness examined was Dr. Payne, who stated that since July last deceased had been under his care in the gaol, suffering from cancer in the mouth, and witness had been treating him for that disease. Active surgical treatment was no use, and as palliative was merely resorted to. Witness saw deceased yesterday morning, and then he was rapidly sicking. Has opinion was that death resulted from exhaustion produced by the disease. Charles Campbell, a prisoner under sentence, and John Nevin, a warder in the gaol, also gave evidence. Thomas Oldham, dispenser in the gaol, testified that deceased was very feeble when he was admitted to the gaol, and had been gradually growing worse since his admission. The Coroner then summed up, and the jury returned a verdict in accordance with the medical evidence.

Source: Tasmanian News (Hobart, Tas. : 1883 – 1911), Thursday 5 December 1889, page 3

James Thornton, 79 yrs old, died at H. M. Gaol, Hobart of “exhaustion consequent upon cancer of the mouth”
Thornton, James
Record Type: Deaths
Gender: Male
Age: 79
Date of death: 04 Dec 1889
Registered: Hobart
Registration year: 1889
Record ID: NAME_INDEXES:1235283

Addenda: the coaches and the prison
These photographs of Webster’s coaches are available at the Archives Office of Tasmania

The Hobart Gaol ca. 1900

Photograph – Hobart, Old Trinity & Penitentiary – Hobart Gaol from the Domain
Item Number: NS1013/1/509
Start Date: 01 Jan 1900
Pretyman Family (NG1012) 17 Aug 1892
Series: Photographs and Glass Plate Negatives collected by E R Pretyman (NS1013) 01 Jan 1870 – 31 Dec 1930
View online: NS1013-1-509

RELATED POSTS main weblog