One of the more enigmatic tales associated with the history of bushranging is that of the so-called “Leabrook Bushrangers”. While most cases of bushranging are fairly clear cut, this 1909 cold case sees the definition of what can fall under the banner of bushranging stretched to its outer limits.
We begin our story in Adelaide Hospital, South Australia. Medical staff are doing all they can for a policeman who has been brought in with a terrible wound in his jaw. An article in the Clarence and Richmond Examiner gives some of the details:
While in the execution of his duty in Eastry-street. Knightsbridge. (S.A.). Constable William Hyde was shot in the jaw, and now lies in the Adelaide Hospital in a precarious condition. It appears that Constable Hyde had arrested one of three suspicious characters who were lurking in the neighbourhood, and while taking the man to the lockup companions of the prisoner sought to effect his release. After some scuffling one of the men produced a revolver, and fired five shots at the constable, one of which lodged in the officer’s jaw. They then made off in the darkness, and the constable was found by a passer-by. Bleeding profusely, and in a semi-conscious condition. An alarm was given, and the wounded constable taken to the hospital. A diligent search for the assailants was made with the aid of black trackers, but no arrests have yet been reported. Hyde is 35 years of age. and a popular member of the force. The doctors hold out no hope of his recovery.Clarence and Richmond Examiner (Grafton, NSW : 1889 – 1915), Saturday 9 January 1909, page 5
Constable William Hyde had been shot on 2 January and succumbed to his injuries two days later. It would emerge that the desperate robbers had been cornered in an alleyway while trying to escape after being busted in the act of initiating a robbery at the tramway office. Seeing no escape, they fired at Hyde who was grappling one of them. The shot hit him in the face and smashed his jaw.
Even in 1909, with the use of telegraphs being commonplace and allowing for faster transmission of information than ever before in history, the news of the horrific crime didn’t reach New South Wales until several days after the worst fears of the doctors were realised. Though this was a vast improvement over the speed of information in the early days of bushranging, it meant that locating the fugitives, if they had ventured into New South Wales, would be nigh on impossible.
Adelaide, Thursday. — The remains of Constable William Hyde, the victim of the Knight’s bridge outrage, whose tragic death aroused so much sympathy, were buried yesterday in the West Terrace Cemetery. Amongst those in attendance were the premier (Mr. Price), the Chief Secretary (Mr. Kirkpatrick), the Minister for Education (Mr. Coneybeere), and the Commissioner of Police. All branches of the police force were represented. A company of 123 police, including 13 members of the mounted force, marched in front of the horses. The lines of sympathetic onlookers were unbroken, and probably over 10,000 paid their last respects to the dead officer, while it is estimated that 6000 were present at the graveside.Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1883 – 1930), Friday 8 January 1909, page 5
Public sentiment at the time was seemingly one of outrage, as is to be expected. A reward of £250 for the capture of the suspected bushrangers was offered, though without descriptions or names it was not going to be easy to prove that anyone brought in was guilty. The reward was raised in February, with predictable results.
The Government have decided to increase from £250 to £500 the reward offered for information leading to the conviction of the murderer of the late Constable Hyde at Knightsbridge on the night of January 2.Advertiser (Adelaide, SA : 1889 – 1931), Tuesday 2 February 1909, page 6
Police in South Australia and New South Wales kept in communication to try and identify leads. It was generally believed that the guilty men had headed into New South Wales, rather than Victoria, Western Australia, or the Northern Territory. In late February, police in Sydney seemed to pick up a lead that they felt had strong potential:
The Sydney police have sent word to Adelaide that they have reason to believe that two men whom they have in custody were implicated in the shooting of Constable Hyde at Kensington. Their names are given as Percy McKay and William Roberts and they have been committed for trial in Sydney on a charge of having stolen jewellery.Mount Barker Courier and Onkaparinga and Gumeracha Advertiser (SA : 1880 – 1954), Friday 26 February 1909, page 2
No doubt this would have caused considerable consternation among the communities back in South Australia. Now it has become a waiting game as the two men were put on trial. Had the Sydney Police really found the killers?
Percy McKay and William Robertson, two young men, were committed for trial at the Sydney Police Court on Monday for stealing jewellery from a dwelling, and the Sub-Inspector of police objected to bail being granted because they were good grounds for believing that the accused were implicated in the shooting of a police-constable in Adelaide recently. The magistrate thereupon refused bail. The policeman referred to was Constable Hyde, who was shot on January 2 last, and who died shortly afterwards.Narracoorte Herald (SA : 1875 – 1954), Friday 26 February 1909, page 3
Despite the confidence from the Sydney Police, it would soon transpire that these men were not the shooters at all, and thus the supposed “good grounds” for believing it was McKay and Robertson were fairly dubious. The police were back to square one with no new leads.
As the hope around the case faded to despair, locals decided that the least they could do was to arrange some form of memorial to the slain officer. More than half a year later, with no new developments, plans were put in motion:
Seven months have elapsed since Constable William Hyde was murdered at Knightsbridge and, unfortunately, his murderers are still at large. Some time ago a committee of local residents was formed for the purpose of perpetuating the memory of the constable, and it was decided to plant an oak tree, to be surrounded by an ornamental tree-guard, on the spot where he was shot, at Eastry-street, Knightsbridge, near the Marryatville school. The ceremony of planting the tree will take place tomorrow at 3.30 p.m. Mr. Peter Wood, acting chairman of the Burnside District Council, will plant the tree, in the presence of members, of the Kensington and Norwood District Council, and the children attending the Marryatville school.Express and Telegraph (Adelaide, SA : 1867 – 1922), Tuesday 3 August 1909, page 4
The memorial tree was eventually replaced with a plaque that was installed at the fence of the house that was subsequently built on the site, then later affixed to the shop that replaced the demolished house. A memorial garden was opened in 1981, and in 2021 a new sculpture was unveiled there depicting Hyde’s uniform and a newspaper reporting on the incident that took his life.
The culprits were never identified and therefore the case went cold with nobody ever held to account for the murder that shocked the Knightsbridge community. To this day it is referred to by some as a bushranging case, but it lacks the hallmarks of bushranging — specifically, the crime took place in a town and there was no evidence that the criminals resided in the bush. We will likely never find out who did the crime, but as the criminals have disappeared into the fog of time and become forgotten, Constable Hyde is remembered for his bravery and dedication to his duty.
You can read more about this case here:
Click to access An-Unsolved-Crime.pdf