Haunting of the Chitibin

Thomas Dent was born in approximately 1826 in Baston, Lincolnshire, in England. The early years of his life are unknown, but as he grew older, he worked as a farm labourer. His troubles with the law began in his early 20s. On 20 December 1848, he was convicted of trespass and poaching. On 3 August 1849, he was convicted of assault. For both crimes, he served time at the House of Correction in Folkingham.

On 30 December 1850, Thomas, along with James Webber and John Dent, stole two gallons of rum and other articles from John Cole’s house in Baston. He was convicted of housebreaking and stealing and, due to his previous convictions, was sentenced to seven years’ transportation.

The order for transportation. Courtesy of the National Archives (UK).

That sentence never transpired, and he remained a prisoner at Millbank and then Portland Prison until discharged by license on 2 May 1854. In the following year, he returned to his old ways. Along with a man named George Johnson, he stole six silver teaspoons, two silver tablespoons, and various drapery from Frederick Johnson’s house in Baston.

He was arrested and pleaded guilty. On 8 March 1855, he was convicted of burglary and was again sentenced to transportation, but with the length of time increased to 15 years.

The Judge, in passing sentence, said the two men were found guilty of a serious burglary, and carrying off property of considerable value and bulk. No doubt the robbery had been well concerted, that plans had been laid to carry it off to a place for the receipt of stolen property, and to get it sold off gradually. It was clear that neither of the men would take warning from light punishment, and therefore the sentence of each would be fifteen years’ transportation.

Stamford Mercury; 16 March 1855; Page 7; Nisi Prius Court.

Unlike the first transportation sentence, there was no second chance. After spending time incarcerated at Lincoln Castle, Thomas was transferred to Millbank Prison and then Pentonville Prison. From Pentonville, he was removed to Portsmouth and, on 22 May 1856, he boarded the ship Runnymede. After a quick journey of 84 days, he arrived in Western Australia on 7 September 1856.

At the time of his arrival, Thomas was about 30 years old. He was a short man and stood at five foot three and three-quarter inches high. He had light brown hair, grey eyes, and a fresh complexion. He was described as having two identifying marks: a cut on the back of his left thumb and the initials ‘TD’ (presumably his own) tattooed on his left wrist.

Fremantle Prison in 1859 – Painted by Henry Wray. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

His arrival in Western Australia began with various health problems. He had bowel complications in October 1856 and neuralgia (a burning pain most likely due to an irritated or damaged nerve) in November. In the following year, in May 1857, he was admitted to hospital with ophthalmia – an inflammation of the eye often associated with conjunctivitis.

Despite these issues, he appears to have kept out of trouble, and in 1857, he worked at the Canning and Northam districts. After three years in Western Australia, on 8 March 1859, he was granted a Ticket of Leave, which allowed him to seek his own work. From that point on, he was mostly employed as a labourer in York, Toodyay, or Northam.

On 8 March 1859, he was paid £2 per acre to clear land at Northam for John Wallace. He worked for M. Foster of York on 28 April. By 19 October, he was back in Northam. A month later, on 22 November, William Chidlow paid him £2 per month for work as a labourer.

In late February 1860, Thomas’s health deteriorated. He was admitted to hospital at Fremantle Prison, suffering from an enlarged left testicle. It was noted as being hard and painful, but he was otherwise in good health. He remained in hospital throughout March and developed a cough and chest pain. Over time his condition slowly improved, and he was released on 6 April.

His employment continued throughout 1860 and 1861. In June 1860, he was employed by Alexander Fagan of Toodyay at £2 per month. On 2 October, he was engaged by brothers, Thomas and Joseph Lockyer of Northam. By 18 December, he returned to York. In the following year, on 13 March, he worked for Samuel Curry, who was a fellow convict. The last note of his employment record was dated 1 May 1861 and related to grubbing work in Northam.

On 7 September 1861, Thomas was granted a Conditional Pardon. It meant he was essentially free, as long as he stayed within the colony of Western Australia. The register no longer showed where he was working, but it’s likely he remained in the Northam district. Throughout the years, it appears he lived quietly. He was not in the news for poor behaviour, nor was he in the news for exemplary behaviour. Unfortunately, this means we don’t know what he was doing or where he was living. By September 1866, however, Thomas Dent had disappeared.

We have no evidence of the type of man Thomas was or whether he was a good employee. His unexplained disappearance was so concerning that William Chidlow (one of Thomas’s employers) paid for an advertisement to be placed in the newspaper. Considering Thomas had no next of kin in Western Australia, it is perhaps the tiniest of clues indicating that someone cared about his well-being.

It’s not known if anyone came forward with any information as to his whereabouts. He simply disappeared from the records. Rumours, however, persisted.

Many years later, in 1938, an ex-Northam resident using the pseudonym ‘Lithe Lianas’ wrote to the ‘Western Mail’ with a story about a man who disappeared. He was employed to thresh wheat and was last seen with his workmates at a farmhouse in the Northam district known as Chitibin House. His sudden disappearance resulted in speculation. Many settlers in the area believed he was murdered, but there was no evidence to prove it. According to the writer, one man (when drunk) claimed that he killed him and buried him under the floor of the house. When sober, he had no memory of what he said. Such was the concern, that in January 1874, Toodyay Police travelled to the Chitibin, and dug up the bedroom floor. They found nothing.

Those who lived in Chitibin House throughout the years believed it was haunted. At 11 pm each night, the doors would bang open, and they would hear the sound of someone walking around.

They would lock the doors and place a heavy chair behind each door and at 11 o’clock the chairs would go across the floor and the doors would bang open as if there were some heavy force against them.

Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954); 3 November 1938; Page 10; A Haunted House

People came and then left, refusing to live in a haunted house. Many years later, human bones were supposedly uncovered in a gravel pit nearby. No one could say for sure whether they were the bones of the man who disappeared. The writer did not comment as to the identity of the man. However, considering Thomas Dent was last seen alive near the same place, it seems likely that he was the murdered man, and perhaps it was his ghost said to be haunting the Chitibin.

Part of a map showing the roads from Northam and Newcastle (Toodyay). Chitibin is underlined. Courtesty of the State Library of Western Australia (Call number: 254C RARE (36/8)).

This story originally featured on ABC Mid West and Wheatbelt’s Saturday Breakfast with Nat on 11 July 2020. You can listen to that episode via the following link: https://ab.co/2C67gqO

Sources:

  • The National Archives; Pentonville Prison, Middlesex: Register of Prisoners; Series: PCOM2; Piece number: 66; Thomas Dent; 1855.
  • The National Archives; Millbank Prison Registers: Male Prisoners. Volume 5; Series: HO24; Piece number: 5; Thomas Dent; 1850.
  • The National Archives; Home Office: Convict Hulks, Convict Prisons And Criminal Lunatic Asylums: Quarterly Returns Of Prisoners; Series: HO8; Piece number: 120; Thomas Dent; Prisoner number: 2583; 1850.
  • The National Archives; Millbank Prison, Middlesex: Register of Prisoners; Series: PCOM2; Piece number: 31; Page number: 220; Bourn Sessions; Thomas Dent.
  • The National Archives; Portsmouth Prison, Hampshire: Registers Of Prisoners, Nos. 2901-4940; Series: PCOM2; Piece number: 107; Thos Dent; 1855.
  • The National Archives; Millbank Prison, Middlesex: Register Of Prisoners; Series: PCOM2; Piece number: 36; Lincoln Assizes; Thomas Dent.
  • The National Archives; Home Office And Prison Commission: Male Licences.; Series: PCOM3; Piece number: 8; Thomas Dent; 1850.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • Ancestry.com. Western Australia, Australia, Convict Records, 1846-1930 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2015. Original data: Convict Records. State Records Office of Western Australia, Perth, Western Australia, Australia.
  • 1866 ‘Classified Advertising’, The Perth Gazette and West Australian Times (WA : 1864 – 1874), 14 September, p. 2. , viewed 05 Jul 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article3753781
  • 1938 ‘A Haunted House.’, Western Mail (Perth, WA : 1885 – 1954), 3 November, p. 10. , viewed 05 Jul 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article37856609
  • 1923 ‘LITTLE OLD TOODYAY’, Toodyay Herald (WA : 1912 – 1954), 23 June, p. 6. , viewed 06 Jul 2020, http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article150427347
  • Wray, Henry & Henderson, E. Y. W. 1859, Convict prison, accommodation 870, Fremantle, W. Australia, designed and erected by Captains Henderson & Wray, R.E , viewed 9 July 2020 http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-135244233
  • Lincolnshire Chronicle; 3 January 1851; Page 3; Review of the Corn Trade. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive on Findmypast.
  • Lincolnshire Chronicle; 23 February 1855; Page 5; Siege of Sebastopol. Courtesy of the British Newspaper Archive on Findmypast.
  • Map showing roads from York, Northam & Newcastle to the Yilgarn Goldfields [cartographic material]/Surveyor General’s Office, Western Australia. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call number: 254C RARE (36/8)).

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