The Bridge Street Affray
In the early hours of 2 February 1894, the Police Station's charge room and cells echoed with the voices of Charles Montgomery and Thomas Williams. Charged with Malicious Wounding with Intent to Murder and other felonies, their violent actions that morning led directly to their executions and to all Metropolitan police being permanently issued with firearms.
Disturbed by police while trying to break open a safe in the Union Steamship Company Office in Bridge Street, Montgomery and Williams and a third unidentified man tried to escape on foot. As they ran, a number of police attempted to intercept them but were attacked by the offenders with long iron bars. At the intersection of Bridge and Phillip Streets, the three men split up. One man continued east along Bridge Street and was never found, while Montgomery and Williams decided to run down Phillip Street towards the harbour. Being strangers to Sydney, they did not realise that they were running towards the Water Police Station.
Several police in the street attempted to apprehend them but were beaten to the ground with savage blows. More police poured out of the station and after a violent struggle, Montgomery and Williams were finally overpowered and taken to the Water Police Station, now part of the Justice and Police Museum. After several appearances in court, the first of which was conducted in the Water Police Court in front of a large crowd, the pair was found guilty of Maliciously Wounding with Intent to Murder and sentenced to death.
Many people were concerned at the passing of the death sentence. Within the three months between the event and the hanging, there was a series of deputations to the Premier pleading for the commutation of the sentences to life imprisonment. Questions were raised about the acceptability of the death penalty and the justice of the hearing. Petitions came from all around the country; public meetings were held, one at the Sydney Town Hall; and a Ministers' Association and the Salvation Army were involved. They argued that there was no evidence to suggest that Montgomery and Williams had willfully intended to murder any of the police officers as the charge stated. Further, although one of the men held a revolver and harassed the constable with it he did not actually fire it. They argued that the crime, apart from the burglary, was that of assault with intent to resist arrest for which the law awards penal servitude for life. The basis of this was a widely held view that because no life was taken it was not necessary to take life.
So rigorous was the appeal that the cabinet, although claiming to have considered the matter fully, consented to hold a special meeting to consider the several pleas. However, as there was no further evidence and no new facts to support these claims the Government decided in favor of the death penalty. They argued that the men had been tried for wounding with intent to murder which was a capital offence and for which the jury had returned the verdict of guilty. The Government sided with the Law and found no grounds to challenge or change the verdict.
Montgomery and Williams were executed shortly after 9am on May 31st at Darlinghurst Prison.
The incident received wide publicity and generated much sympathy for the injured police. Within 24 hours the Premier of NSW announced that all police would wear firearms at all times while on duty to prevent the escape of felons and to place them on an equal footing with armed criminals and malefactors. Previously only police in rural districts had been permitted to carry firearms. The Inspector-General of Police, Edmund Fosbery, had felt that the NSW Police force should be modelled on the London civil police force rather than on a military style force and had initially opposed arming the force.