The alderman who faked death

One hundred and forty-seven years ago, a Brisbane alderman went to Ipswich in Queensland to fake his own death. It didn’t work, so he embellished the story. I told a version of this tale live on West Bremer Radio.

On the morning of Tuesday the 20th of April 1875, two men, one by the name of Watson and the other Harley, went for a swim in the Bremer River at Basin Pocket in Ipswich.

Harley jumped in first and swam to the other side. Watson tried to follow him but was overwhelmed by cramp. Harley went to his rescue and being a good swimmer, was able to stay afloat for some time with Watson struggling in his arms.

But the people on shore couldn’t help because none of them could swim. Tragically both Watson and Harley drowned. Their bodies were retrieved and held for an inquest.

This made headlines in the two biggest newspapers in the colony, the Brisbane Courier and the Queensland Times.

It was reported that Watson was clerk to the Ipswich solicitor Charles Chubb. And Harley was the assistant station master at Ipswich, after having a printing business and been an alderman on Brisbane’s municipal council. 

Harley’s son called into the Brisbane Courier’s office to get more details of his father’s death, and two friends went to Ipswich to take charge of the body.

But the problem was, very little of it all was true.

The source of the story was a letter from Thomas Tomlinson, but no such person existed.

The Ipswich solicitor Charles Chubb was real – he was an Ipswich alderman and later the mayor, and his son would become the Queensland attorney general and a supreme court judge. But Chubb didn’t have a clerk named Watson.

Charles Chubb

And what’s more, that man Harley had frequently been seen in Ipswich very much alive after his reported drowning.

The story was unravelling.

That’s when Harley himself came back from the grave to put the story straight. He said that had indeed saved a youth from drowning at Basin Pocket, but there were no witnesses. The youth’s name was Wilson, not Watson, and he was clerk to a Dalby law firm.

But again, there was a problem.  The Ipswich police knew nothing about any drowning, and this time there was no such person as Wilson in Dalby. The only person who actually existed was Harley himself.

His full name was Henry Richard Harley who had immigrated from the Isle of Wight. He had indeed owned a printing business Rogers & Harley in Elizabeth Street in Brisbane, and he had been an alderman on the Brisbane council.

Henry Richard Harley

However, he was once referred to the city solicitor when he owed money to the council, and he had been sacked as a volunteer from the City Volunteer Fire Brigade. Harley sold his printing business to Robert Hews who rebranded it as what would become the long-standing R.S. Hews & Co.

(Hews’s daughter was later the central figure in an unexplained death and assault after her husband, a prominent Brisbane solicitor, disappeared with their domestic servant. You can read about this in my book Dovercourt.)

H.R. Harley printing office

Harley was declared insolvent shortly after selling his business. Not long after that, he was falsely reported drowned in the Bremer River having heroically tried to save a life.

When Harley went to the papers, he claimed that had in fact saved not just one life, but six lives since he’d been in Ipswich. As evidence he sent to the Queensland Times a medal that was inscribed, “Presented to H. R. Harley by the Humane Society of Queensland, on the recommendation of his friend, W. H. Norris, as a token of esteem.”

Strangely though, the medal was made of leather, and the so-called friend William Henry Norris was of very dubious repute. Norris was the first station master at the Queensland Railway’s first station Bigge’s Camp in 1865, but that’s when his good news stopped. Norris was later charged with rape but the prime witness disappeared. He was later stabbed and threatened with a nulla nulla after a dispute over another man’s wife. Norris had been known to sign petitions both supporting and opposing the same new hotel. The medal was probably fake.

It therefore seems certain that in 1875 the Brisbane alderman Harley went to Ipswich to fake his own death, but when that didn’t work out, he tried to cast himself as a hero.

It must be said that though Harley’s reputation was utterly in tatters, through it all he managed to maintain a sense of humour

After Harley’s bungled and continuous attempt at fraud in Queensland, he disappeared and resurfaced in Adelaide in South Australia. That’s where he was the founding manager of a drama society.

Ironically, his opening night comedy was called, “Flying from Justice”.


Photo credits:
Punt on the Bremer River at Basin Pocket, 1920s – Picture Ipswich (colorized)
Mayor Charles Frederick Chubb, 1877 – Ipswich Libraries
Alderman H R Harley, 1870 – Brisbane City Council
HR Harley printing office, Elizabeth Street, Brisbane, 1867 – Queenslander, Brisbane, 21st July 1932, page 22

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