Morawa Explosion

Anticipating the arrival of a farmer to pay them for their clearing job, a group of Italian men camped in the shelter shed adjoining the Morawa Railway Station. Just after dark, on 26 October 1927, they went out into the bush to cook their dinner. They returned to the shed at 8:30 pm, unrolled their blankets on the floor, and got ready for bed.

Fifteen minutes later, an explosion ripped through the town. Shocked residents ran out of their homes to see smoke billowing from the destroyed shelter shed and other parts of the railway buildings. Led by Dr. John Hough, Morawa residents sprang into action. They rushed across to the station, prevented a fire from taking hold, and cleared the debris to rescue the trapped men.

While they were doing this, they could hear groans and shrieks of pain from under the wreckage and, working strenuously, they were, in a short time, able to drag from underneath a number of dazed and semi-conscious Italians.

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 27 October 1927; Page 17; Explosion at Morawa

Five men were seriously injured. Giuseppe Vitale had a broken leg and severe head injuries. Giuseppe Celisano had a compound fracture of the leg. Eniglio Climeri had a compound fracture of the left leg and broken ribs. Pietro Sgambelluri had a broken foot and head injuries, and Antonio Franco had a broken ankle and abrasions.

Giuseppe Celisano

Despite repeated requests to the Government, Morawa had no hospital in town. The licensee of the Morawa Hotel, Alfred Baty, made rooms available, and the men were moved there for treatment.

‘The West Australian’ stated that the force of the explosion (felt up to three kilometres away) was tremendous. It completely destroyed the shelter shed. The main railway station building, the station master’s office, the ladies’ waiting room, and part of the ticket office were damaged. Furthermore, the railway signal and telephone wires were broken, which meant communication with Perth via the railway was unavailable.

The aftermath of the explosion. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (029536PD).

People, naturally, began asking questions. What was the cause of the explosion? Were the Italian men specifically targeted? Everyone initially assumed it was an accident. Opinion quickly turned. It was more likely that someone had attempted to murder them.

News reached Geraldton Police Inspector, Louis Simpson, that night. As Morawa did not have a police station, he requested that Constable George Warner of Mullewa attend the scene. Constable Warner arrived that night and began making inquiries. An early arrest was anticipated, pending the arrival of Detective Sergeant John Doyle from Perth.

Dr John Hough

At 8 am on 27 October, Detective Sergeant Doyle left Perth by train with an interpreter, Emilio Orsatti, bound for Geraldton. From Geraldton, they drove to Mingenew and then Morawa. They arrived a little after midnight.

The prompt action by Dr. Hough and the residents saved the men’s lives. A nurse from a neighbouring town arrived to help, and the men were made as comfortable as possible in the hotel. Despite the prompt attention they received, each man required hospital treatment. That evening, on 27 October, they were transported via train from Morawa to Perth. They arrived at 8 am on the following morning and were taken to Perth Hospital.

The scene at Perth Train Station as the men were carried on stretchers to an ambulance waiting to take them to Perth Hospital.
One of the men transferred into a waiting ambulance.

Police continued with their investigations. Constable Warner looked carefully over the ruins of the shed and observed that there was a large hole in the centre of the floor. Among the debris, he found a piece of fuse, two inches long. Coupled with the fact that the injuries had occurred to the lower parts of the men’s bodies, he concluded that the explosive material was most likely deliberately placed under the floorboards.

Rumours also began circulating throughout the town. One of the men, Angelo Tarisi, who escaped injury, spoke to a reporter. He recalled that in the days before the explosion, a man had asked some of the Italian men for money for beer. They told him they had none. On the day of the explosion, he again asked for money. After being told there was none, the man responded, “You ____ ____, I’ll blow you up.

Late in the afternoon on Friday, 28 October, police arrested George Hearn (52), a well-sinker in the district. He had made an “important statement” during an interview with Detective Sergeant Doyle. From Morawa, he was taken to Mingenew, where he was charged with “causing an explosion likely to endanger life.” He was brought before the Mingenew Police Court on Saturday morning and remanded for eight days. The crime faced a maximum punishment of life imprisonment.

Initially, there was some uncertainty regarding the location of the hearing. Morawa or Perenjori were possibilities, but, in the end, authorities decided to hold it in Perth. On 2 November, Hearn was brought to Perth and held in custody at the Roe Street lock-up. Two days later, he appeared before Acting Police Magistrate, Alfred Kidson, and Justice of the Peace, James Mather. Once again, he was remanded for eight days.

In the meantime, the newspaper ‘Truth’ published a feature article about the explosion. They barely showed any sympathy towards the Italian men. They claimed that the act was “a violent echo of the antagonism between the freedom-loving Australian bush worker and his European brother who laughs less, spends less, and is favored by the pioneer farmers of W.A. because he works with less notions of independence.

They described the Italian workers as hard-working and adept at finishing their contracts on time. Those qualities were in contrast to Australian men who (according to ‘Truth’) would leave their jobs and go into town because “It is the free Australian’s way.” They found the Italians’ work ethic confusing. The writer mused: “What the Italian lives for puzzles many Australians.

‘Truth’ painted a picture of the lone Australian bushman, filled with resentment at not being able to obtain work on farms. The hatred grew and spilled over with the consumption of alcohol. It was (supposedly) those factors that led to Hearn’s decision to plant gelignite beneath the floorboards of the shelter shed. On another page, ‘Truth’ printed a smaller article headlined “Racial Hates.” They cruelly stated that if racial tensions had played a part in the explosion at Morawa, then it was the responsibility of the immigrants to be “better friends of Australia.

The hearing of the charge against Hearn took place at the Perth Police Court on 15 November. Hearn was unrepresented and reserved his defense. He sat in the court indifferently and “did not seem to be perturbed by the seriousness of the charge made against him.

Giuseppe Vitale was the first to give evidence. He was a middle-aged father of six children and had only been in Western Australia for seven months. On crutches and in pain, he carefully hobbled into the witness box and sat down. Using an interpreter, he recounted that on the night of the explosion, he was in the shed for about five minutes when he “heard a shot” and was propelled through the air. He had no clear recollection of the events afterwards.

Giuseppe Vitale

He confirmed that he had spoken to Hearn in the days preceding the explosion. Hearn had offered him a contract for clearing work on several hundred acres, in return for 10% commission. Having heard that statement, Hearn was said to have smiled.

Pietro Sgambelluri was next and was also in pain. He had only been in Western Australia for two months and arrived in Morawa on the morning of the explosion. He, too, was in the shed and heard the sound of the explosion originating from beneath the floor. The force lifted him out of the building and on to the railway lines.

John Brown

John Brown was a clearer at Koolanooka and was sitting in front of the Morawa Hotel at about 5 pm when Hearn walked by. According to John, Hearn said, “You’re a Britisher; don’t you camp at the station to-night; I’m going to blow those _____ _____ of Dagoes up.” John assumed Hearn had been drinking and was joking. Ignoring the warning, he planned to camp there anyway and was crossing the road when the explosion occurred.

The whole lot went up in the air. I thought I was back in France again. It was like a shell bursting. I didn’t go any farther; it satisfied me. I’d had enough. [John Brown]

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 15 November 1927; Page 2; Morowa Explosion

The stationmaster, William Davidson, lived about 150 yards away and was standing outside his front gate when he noticed a strange flash of light near the station. He watched as the light illuminated the back of the building, then, realising what it meant, he ran towards it. He hadn’t gone very far when the explosion occurred. He continued running as parts of the building fell around him. When he arrived, he heard the groans of the men and observed pieces of bagging on fire and clothing attached to the wreckage.

Francis Apping was a salesman at the Co-operative Stores at Morawa. He confirmed that Hearn had visited the store, at closing time, on the night of the explosion. He tried to convince Hearn to come back the next day, but Hearn (who he believed was sober) insisted that he stay open. What he needed was urgent; Hearn bought a box containing 50 plugs of gelignite.

Raymond Eddington, a barman at the Morawa Hotel, heard the explosion and was knocked backwards from the force. Afterwards, he saw Hearn and another unknown man enter through the front door. He thought Hearn was sober but described him as looking “pale and agitated.” When commenting to Hearn that he looked shocked, Hearn agreed that he was. To illustrate it, he took Raymond’s hand and placed it on his chest to feel how fast his heart was beating.

The most significant evidence at the hearing was Detective Sergeant Doyle’s. On 28 October, he was in Morawa and was measuring the distance the debris had travelled from the shed. Hearn approached him and confessed, “I caused it. Come with me and I will tell you all about it.” They went into Hearn’s room at the Morawa Hotel, and Hearn continued to talk.

Good God! I must have gone mad. It is a wonder someone did not see me. I did not realise the seriousness of what I did till I saw the wounded being taken to the hotel. [George Hearn]

The West Australian (Perth, WA : 1879 – 1954); 16 November 1927; Page 15; Morawa Explosion

Hearn confirmed that he bought the gelignite from Francis’s store. However, he claimed that before he went to drink at the hotel, he hid the explosives under the floor of the shelter shed. He later returned when it was dark to get them, but could not see what he was doing. He struck a match, fumbled to get the gelignite, and accidentally lit it. As it caught fire, he saw the danger and ran away.

That story changed when Hearn faced the Criminal Court on 21 December 1927. Rather than continuing with the accident claim, he stated that he had acted while under the influence of alcohol. Every day, for three weeks preceding the explosion, Hearn was drunk in Morawa. His solicitor, Mervyn McKnight, described his mind as “unhinged by liquor” and that when he planted the gelignite under the floor, he had no intention of killing the men; he only wanted to frighten them.

Hearn had been in posession of enough gelignite to blow the whole of Morowa into eternity.

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 21 December 1927; Page 6; Morowa Explosion

Hearn pleaded guilty. When it came to sentencing, Mr. McKnight requested that Justice Northmore show mercy. He explained that Hearn had not realised the extent of what he had done until he saw the injured men. He was so distraught by his actions that he attempted to drown himself in the Morawa dam. He had no prior convictions and was known to have a good character. To prove that, Mr. McKnight called William Marshall, MLA for the Murchison, to testify. Justice Northmore refused to take it into account and stated, “Testimony as to the good character of a man guilty of a crime of violence such as this carries no weight.

In summing up, Justice Northmore determined that the act of placing the explosives under the shelter shed was deliberate, that the men could have been killed, and that the act, in his opinion, “was intended to cause the death of innocent persons.” He sentenced Hearn to imprisonment for life.

I have found it difficult to locate a worse case than this one. The Criminal Code provides for a penalty of imprisonment with hard labor for life and you will therefore be sentenced in those terms. [Justice Northmore]

The Daily News (Perth, WA : 1882 – 1950); 21 December 1927; Page 6; Morowa Explosion

Hearn was led downstairs and transported to Fremantle Prison to serve his sentence. Unlike their previous stories, ‘Truth’ only provided a brief article detailing the verdict and Hearn’s surprised reaction at the end of the proceedings. They predicted that (should Hearn live) he would be an old man when released in the future.

Despite receiving life imprisonment, Hearn had his sentence remitted. He was released, seven years later, on 25 August 1934. The news was unexpected and caused major newspapers to recount the crime he committed at Morawa in 1927. Reporters asked Minister for Justice John Willcock if there was a reason for the release. He refused to comment.

It’s not known if the Italian men knew of Hearn’s early release. For them, however, 1927 was an inauspicious start to their lives in Australia. Using immigration records held at the National Archives of Australia, identities of four of the five men have been confirmed. All of them arrived in the country in the same year they were treated with inexcusable violence – the very thing they had escaped from in Italy. Giuseppe Vitale and Antonio Franco arrived in March. Giuseppe Celisano arrived in April. Pietro Sgambelluri arrived in September and, in the worse luck, arrived in Morawa on the day of the explosion.

They had every reason to walk away. Perhaps, despite everything that had happened, they couldn’t. Nevertheless, three men are known to have stayed. Antonio Franco went back to the Morawa district and farmed at Pintharuka. Giuseppe Celisano lived in Harvey and worked as a labourer. Pietro Sgambelluri, likewise, moved to Harvey and established himself as a farmer. All of them worked hard. All of them strived to improve their lives and the lives of their families. In doing so, all of them became valued members of Western Australian communities.

Sources:

4 thoughts on “Morawa Explosion

  1. What a terribly sad story. I hope the victims were supported by the community until they recovered.

    An interesting reflection on sentencing today with the Judge’s comment “Testimony as to the good character of a man guilty of a crime of violence such as this carries no weight.“

    Like

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