WA History

I – The Death of Claude Cotton

At 7:30 am, while lumpers loaded wheat onto the ss Millpool, Captain Arthur Eves gazed out across Champion Bay. As he looked down, he noticed something floating in the water. Unable to see what it was, he descended from the bridge to the forecastle. Using binoculars, he realised that what he was looking at was the body of a man. He sent a boat to retrieve it and subsequently identified it as Claude Cotton, a member of his crew.

The ss Millpool (left) at Geraldton circa 1922. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (Call Number: 028995PD).

On Saturday, 18 February 1922, Coroner Raymond Gee was notified of the death and opened an inquest. Members of the jury included: Patrick Stone, Reuben Edwards, and Herbert Fay. They heard some evidence relating to identification and adjourned until Monday. That afternoon Claude was buried in the Anglican denomination of Geraldton Cemetery. The Captain, officers of the ship, the crew, and some lumpers attended the service.

Evidence was heard from witnesses when the inquest resumed on 20 February. Thomas Goode was first in the stand. He, too, was a sailor on the ss Millpool and had identified Claude’s body in the morgue. He went on to give evidence relating to Claude’s movements on the night of his death.

At 6:45 pm on Friday, 17 February, Thomas and Claude left the ship to go drinking in Geraldton. They started at the Railway Hotel, where they had two pints of beer. Afterwards, they moved on to the Commonwealth Hotel, where they had three pints and then three glasses in the saloon bar. From there, they went to the Queen’s Hotel, where they had a drink with two other crew members named Welsh and Moore. When the hotel closed at 9 pm, they stood outside on the corner and talked.

The Commonwealth Hotel circa 1910.

Across the road was a horse tied to a tree, and Claude remarked, “There is a bronco.” Sensing an opportunity, Thomas climbed up on the horse’s back and rode it for thirty yards. He returned the horse to the tree, however one man (described by Thomas as a ‘big fellow’) was unimpressed. He lashed out, saying, “Come off that you pommy b___.” The man went to grab Thomas, but Moore stepped between them, stating, “The man does not mean anything. It is only fun.” At that, Thomas decided to return to the ship, and Claude joined him.

They walked down the street towards the jetty and were surprised by a drunk young man. The man pulled Thomas’s coat and shoved him, and they ended up on the floor fighting. Two policemen approached, questioning what was going on. Thomas responded, “Just a bit of a squabble.” One policeman advised him to get aboard and gave him a push. He left and walked to the jetty on his own.

At the jetty, between 10:30 and 11:00 pm, Thomas again met up with Claude. Claude urged, “Come on for ___ sake let’s go aboard,” and suggested, “We will go for a drink in the morning.” They reached the pile driver when a man hit Thomas in the face. He fell, and the man kicked him in the ribs. When he got up, he saw Claude on the ground. There were three men versus two, and, when Thomas felt someone’s hands around him, he ran for the ship. He was followed on foot by a young man who did not reach him.

During the inquest, the Coroner asked Thomas if he recognised the men. He caught a glimpse of the man who punched him and did not know who hit Claude. He was unable to say if the man on the jetty was the same man who approached him outside the Queen’s Hotel. When questioned about his intoxication, he stated he was not drunk or sober; he was, “Between and betwixt.

The Coroner also wanted to know if Claude could swim. Thomas confirmed that he could and stated that Claude had told him he was in the Navy for twelve years. Thomas admitted that, when approached by the men on the jetty, he felt he had to leave Claude and run for it. It was the last time he saw him.

Geraldton Jetty circa 1910. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (006086PD).

Dr Lancelot Hungerford was the Acting District Medical Officer at Geraldton. He had examined Claude’s body but decided not to conduct a post mortem. There was an abrasion (four or five inches long and one inch wide) on the right side of his head and a bruise on the right side of his chin. In his opinion, Claude fell off the jetty, hit something on the way down, and drowned. There was no evidence to show that Claude was punched or kicked.

Constable Henry Bell was off duty when he heard swearing at the Queen’s Hotel. At 9 pm, outside the hotel, he witnessed a man riding a horse and questioned whether it belonged to him. Upon hearing that it did not, he informed them that he was a policeman. The group then mobbed him, and one man (he thought it was Thomas) punched him in the face. Constable Bell retaliated and punched a man wearing khaki.

The men ran away, and Constable Bell enlisted the help of John Cody, who was nearby. They went to the circus and afterwards walked down Durlacher Street. Hearing fighting and swearing on the jetty, they decided to investigate. They found Thomas and Claude. Thomas had blood on his face and shirt, and when he recognised Constable Bell said, “This is the big b___.” Constable Bell warned them to get on board and threatened them with arrest. When Thomas “showed fight,” he shoved him, and Thomas ran towards the boat. The other man refused to obey, so he shoved him too, and the man fell. Before he left, Constable Bell instructed John to make sure they both got on board. He did not know if any of the men he saw that night was Claude.

Captain Eves was sworn in and provided evidence as to the finding and retrieval of Claude’s body. He noticed a mark on the right temple down to the jaw and observed blood and bruising on his mouth. Clasped in Claude’s hand was a box of matches. He described Claude as “a very well conducted man.

John Shipley was an able-bodied seaman and went aboard the ship at midnight. Thomas (who was already aboard) spoke to him and asked if he had seen Claude. John responded that he hadn’t. Thomas was riled up and wanted to go back ashore to look for him, but John wouldn’t let him. Instead, John went ashore himself and visited the police station to find out if Claude was there. He wasn’t, so John continued searching for several hours.

I searched for Cotton on the beach and under the piles of the end of the jetty, but could not find him. Returned to the ship about 2:45 a.m. Next morning saw his body when it was picked up.

The Geraldton Express (WA : 1906 – 1928); 20 February 1922; Page 3; A Sailor Drowned

Daniel McAuley was a donkeyman on the ss Millpool. At 11:30 pm, he was standing with John Wayland on the corner opposite the Freemason’s Hotel when Constable Bell approached them. According to Daniel, Constable Bell had blood on his right hand and said he knocked out six pommies off the ship. After he left, John Cody came along and told them that Constable Bell had asked him to go to the jetty to beat some men. He had said no and explained that he had gone as far as the ship, spoke to someone on board, and received abuse from another man (thought to be Thomas) who called him an “Australian b___.

Marine Terrace in Geraldton with the Freemasons Hotel on the left circa 1920s. Courtesy of the State Library of Western Australia (109569PD).

John Cody was the final witness. He confirmed most of Constable Bell’s story. After they went to the circus, they heard swearing and went to the jetty where they found Thomas and Claude. Both men fell over after being shoved. John attempted to help one man (Thomas) who shrugged him off and ran for the ship, calling out that he was an “Australian b___.” John ran after him but couldn’t catch up. He waited for ten minutes then walked off the jetty, seeing no one on his way back. When he reached Marine Terrace, he thought he saw a man resembling Claude’s description, exiting a fish shop. When questioned by the jury, he stated there was no blood on Constable Bell’s hands.

The Coroner summed up and advised the jury that there did not seem to be enough evidence to explain how Claude ended up in the water. If Claude was unconscious when he fell, he would inhale the water and would drown before he gained consciousness. He did not think the fight on the jetty had any connection with his death. After a short deliberation the jury declared, “That deceased came by his death by drowning in the Geraldton harbour on the 17th-18th, inst.

At 6 am on 23 February, the ss Millpool departed Geraldton. Half an hour before it left, most of the crew paid their respects at Claude’s grave. When the ship left, residents awoke to the continual roaring of its whistles. While some thought it was a fond farewell, others thought differently.

Despite the verdict, Geraldton residents were dissatisfied. There was a sense that witnesses’ evidence did not match and that there was a missing link somewhere in the stories. There were also questions about Constable Bell’s involvement. He was at the Queen’s Hotel, he was at the jetty at 10:30 pm, and he was seen with blood on his hand at 11:30 pm. He had told John to make sure both men got on the ship, but John testified to only chasing one. With such discrepancies, ‘The Geraldton Guardian’ urged anyone with more information to come forward, stating, “It does not follow that because the inquest is over, the door is closed to a fresh inquiry.

Some Geraldton residents opted to express their disapproval by writing letters to the newspaper. Arthur Macey wrote a letter describing his experience with burying bodies at sea. In his opinion, “a drowned person sinks to the bottom,” while a person who was dead when they entered the water would float. With regards to the medical examination he stated, “The fact of finding a body in the water is no conclusive evidence the man was drowned.

One writer using the pseudonym ‘Groper’ questioned, “Why did Constable Bell follow the men from the Queen’s Hotel right down on to the jetty?” ‘Another Groper’ followed a similar line of thought in their letter: “…why was it necessary for P.C. Bell to solicit the aid of a young civilian to chase these sailors up along the jetty?” They also focused on the fact that Constable Bell was wearing plain clothes and was not on duty that night. “Why not call upon the uniformed constables on duty?”

For the honor of this peaceful and crimeless little town, the matter should be thoroughly sifted to the bottom.

The Geraldton Express (WA : 1906 – 1928); 27 February 1922; Page 2; Correspondence

In early March, Detective Sergeant Michael O’Brien was sent from Perth to Geraldton to investigate. He stayed for five days, and witnesses were encouraged to contact him. Despite a proactive response from the C.I.B., Geraldton residents were impatient. They were aware that, as each day passed, and the longer Claude’s remains lay in the ground, the less useful a post mortem would be. They were also suspicious of the police. The interaction with the deceased before his death by one of their constables raised concerns that they were ‘dragging their feet’ on purpose.

Detective Sergeant O’Brien completed his report and submitted it to the Commissioner of Police, Robert Connell. By mid-March, the Commissioner sent it to the Crown Law Department. On 22 March 1922, the Crown Solicitor applied to the Supreme Court, and the Chief Justice ordered a fresh inquest into the death of Claude Cotton.

Click the link below to read Part II – The Second Inquest


3 thoughts on “I – The Death of Claude Cotton”

  1. Superbly well-written, as always. Really brought the actual historical evidence to life. Life was tough at sea, back then. They and their ship sound like they were part of the lower end of the shipping spectrum back then, but what a way to go. Set upon by possibly three men and drown in the harbour, while his loyal friend and shipmate legged it. It was interesting to read of the Aussie-pommy baastard dynamic, I had never read of it so early. I too have been called a pommy baastard, but not since the 70’s, nor drowned in a harbour, yet, lol

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Matt! It’s an interesting story. Certainly a lot of unexplained questions surrounding his death. I never realised pommy was around so early either. Thanks for reading. Glad you enjoyed the story. Part II is coming soon. 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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