2016 Selden Society lecture – the Hon Richard Chesterman AO RDF QC on the Supreme Court Fire of 1968

2016 Selden Society lecture – the Hon Richard Chesterman AO RDF QC on the Supreme Court Fire of 1968


Welcome everybody to the Selden Society Australian
Chapter lecture on the Supreme Court fire of 1968. Chief Justice, judicial colleagues
and distinguished guest, all. I also welcome those that are virtually present in the Courthouses
in Townsville and Rockhampton. I also welcome Mr Joshua Tate who is the Selden Society US
treasurer here tonight and of course a particular welcome to our distinguished speaker, the
Honourable Richard Chesterman AO RFD QC. Richard graduate with a Bachelor of Arts in
1965 and Bachelor of Laws in 1968 from the University of Queensland. He served as the associate
to the Honourable Justice Wanstall from 1966 to 1968. He came to the Bar in 1968 but commenced
practice in 1970, taking silk fairly shortly there afterwards in 1983.
He was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court in 1998. And if I may say so to my own particular
pleasure was appointed a Judge of appeal on 11 December 2008.
Justice Chesterman was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in 2011. To
our disappointment he left us that is to say he left judicial office in 2012 and you would have
read that since then, he has, hear an inquiry for the Queensland Crime and Misconduct Commission.
Today it’s a particular relevance that at the time of the Supreme Court fire Richard
was a final year law student and associate to then Justice Wanstall. He is therefore
able to bring his personal reminiscences to this lecture. Could you please welcome our
speaker. [APPLAUSE] Thank you. At ten to four on the morning of Sunday 1 September 1968, the night clerk in
Lennon’s Hotel was “told something” by a man who dashed into the lobby. The
clerk went outside to see for himself. Looking across George street he saw smoke and the
reflection of flames in the upper windows of the Supreme Court. A minute later four
fire trucks from the Kemp Place Depot were on their way, First Officer Christsen in charge.
He took two engines into the court yard and sent two into Ann Street. The Ann and George
street wings of the building were burning fiercely. Christen went to the front doors which were of thick
glass set in a timber frame. Through the glass he saw a nightwatchman approaching from the
end of the corridor. Expecting the doors to be locked he waited to be let him in. In fact
the doors were unlocked. Showing commendable courage Christen set out
to determine the limits of the fire. Finding his way by torchlight, he climbed the stairs
to the first floor gallery and turned towards the criminal court. He was stopped by an intense
fire, flames were “going out through the roof”. Let me show you what he did. That’s
George Street. This is the front door. Can you hear me? That’s the corridor and this
is the central hall. The stairs are here going up to the landing half way up and then the
first floor where there were corridors going to the criminal court, to the civil court
and along here. Christsen returned to his men and repositioned
the fire engines in Ann street. He was concerned to stop the fire spreading to the Adelaide
Street wing so he re-entered the building to more precisely locate the fire. This time
he kept to the ground floor, turning right from the central hall, along the judges’
corridor to the staircase used to access the criminal court, which, at the time, was ablaze. So that’s the corridor, there were stairs about here. Going up to a room, behind the criminal
court. He climbed the stairs and heard the sounds of conflagration in the courtroom.
Having ascertained that the fire was confined to the upper levels of the building, he left
to direct operations and move some of his men. There was a disused chimney at the end
of the building nearest Ann Street. Its timber supports had been burned and it appeared to
the first officer dangerous to have men anywhere near it. A little later it collapsed.
There was a second fire that morning. A little before 4.00 am, the driver of a taxi going
along North Quay near the court, noticed “a glow coming from the O’Connor Boathouse”.
He radioed his base and fire brigades were called, arriving at 4.01. That fire was quickly
extinguished. The other took longer but by about 6.00, it too was out, though parts of
the court still smoked and smouldered. Before going further, we should look at the
building to see what was lost. That’s looking across from George Street where the
Lennon’s Hotel was built later. That’s of course is looking across the river from West
End. Now, that is not as the building was in 1968 that photograph must have been taken
a couple of years earlier. I’ve included it to show that, that’s the excavation for
what became the District Court building. In 1968 that building was well advanced and the
concrete skeleton went at least as high as the old court. My point is that, the access
to this verandas, top and bottom, had been sealed off during the construction so that
the doors and windows were sealed. I’ve taken the following description of
the Court from John McKenna’s Concise History of the Court.
The building was opened in 1879. It had been designed by Mr F.D.G. Stanley as a “T-Shaped
building with three arcaded wings radiating from a central tower”. The design was intended
to maximise natural light and ventilation in the days before electric lighting and air
conditioning. The original concept called for a stone building, but for reasons of economy
it was constructed of concrete rendered over common bricks.
“The gable tower contained the building’s internal focal point, the “Judges’ Hall”
with a ceiling 17 meters above ground level and a principal staircase giving access to
the upper levels of the building. Corridors radiated from the central hall to each of
the three wings. That wing towards Anne Street was occupied by four sets of Judges’
chambers. That wing, the Registrar’s officers and the Chief Justice’s chambers. On the
floor above a jury room and the criminal court. There, the Bar robing room and the large civil
court which was used by the full court and the High Court when it was in Brisbane. Looking at that, there was a court room there and behind that a library. If I go back to the
plan. The library was there, that was the court near George Street and the dress rooms
there. Note, there and there, there were staircase which gave access for the public to get to the
public gallery that over looked the three court rooms on the first floor. That staircase there, had been boarded up because of the construction work. As I mentioned the corridor running from the Judges Hall towards the Ann street end contained four
sets of judges’ chambers. At the end of the corridor was the staircase which Christen
climbed. It gave access to an anteroom behind the bench in the Criminal Court. At the time
of the fire the four chambers in that wing were occupied by Justices Hanger, W.B.
Campbell, Stable and at the end, under the criminal court, Justice Wanstall. The
associates’ rooms adjoined their judges’ rooms. Mine was at the end of the corridor.
It was very spacious with views onto Ann street and over North Quay to the river.
There were two other sets of judges’ chambers, in the ground floor of the George Street wing.
Justices JA Douglas and Sheehy had their rooms there.
There were several people in the Court building on the night 31 August – 1 September. Bert
Cowell was a watchman employed by the Department of Works. He was responsible for the safety
of the Supreme Court from 7.00 am to 8.00 pm on the Saturday. He was relieved at 8 by Norman Tesch, known to us all as “Monty”. The only thing to note about Cowell’s presence
is that he took his lunch to work in a plastic box which he left in a refrigerator in a room
near the Registry. In the box was a small fruit knife. When he dutifully reported for
work on the Sunday morning he noticed that his lunch had been taken out but left on top
of the box. The knife was missing. Monty was portly. He had an artificial leg
and walked with difficulty. He was agreeable and cheerful, but somnolent. He was usually
asleep by 10.00 or 11.00, sometimes in the watchman’s room and sometimes on a judge’s
sofa. Monty’s duties included making an inspection
of the adjacent Magistrates’ Court every two hours, at 10.00, 12.00 and 2.00 am. Unusually
Monty would lock the front door when he was in the building but leave it unlocked when
he left to patrol the other courts. He said he’d been instructed by departmental superiors
to do this. His patrol took between half an hour and three quarters of an hour, but no
longer. Also in the building was Angus Innes, associate
to Justice Campbell and final year law student. He, as did the other associates who were students,
used his office and his judge’s library for study. Angus was at the court all day
from 10.00 on the Saturday morning. He was joined after lunch by Charles Brabazon, later
Judge Brabazon QC who in 1968 was a clerk employed in Crown Law to assist the Chief
Crown Prosecutor. Charles left the building about 5.00 and did not return. Angus left
about 6.00 to have dinner but returned about 8.00 to resume study.
Charles is probably the last lawful entrant in the Criminal Court. He went by way of the
judges’ staircase in search of a text book, at about 4.30. The courtroom showed no signs
of anyone having entered it since the previous Friday afternoon.
Ian Hanger, now Ian Hanger AM QC, was associate to his father and a final year law student.
He was studying in his room with a friend whose name no-one now remembers. They left
about 10.00 when a woman, whom Monty thought was Mrs Hanger, Ian’s mother, drove to the
Court and took them away. I suspect it’s a case of mistaken identity, I am confident
the driver was a younger woman. Angus left the building shortly after 1.00
on the Sunday morning. He turned off the lights in the judges’ corridor and looked for Monty
to tell him he was leaving, but couldn’t find him. Angus had to unlock the front door
to let himself out. He had no means of locking the door from the outside.
In 1968 David Bertram Brooks was a 30 year old shiftless alcoholic. He had some drinking
friends, but no fixed abode and no regular employment. He had been arrested 18 times
for public drunkenness but had no criminal convictions. Constable Rockley of the City
Police Station found him, fast asleep, sitting on a pedestal in the public toilets in George
Street opposite the Transcontinental Hotel at “just a bit after” 3 am. Rockley
woke him and took him outside. Brooks said that he had been at the Nite Owl Café and
“just came down here and went to sleep”. He had been drinking for hours before he went
to the café. He claimed that he lived with his mother in a caravan at Holland Park. Constable
Rockley told him to go there and watched him “walk off along George Street … going
towards the city …” He thought Brooks was “ steady on his feet” and was “quite
sober … and capable of making his own way home”. A serious fire in the Supreme Court was obviously an occurrence of some moment. The police must
have been notified of the event almost as soon as the Fire Brigade. An officer rang
the Chief Justice, Sir William Mack, and he in turn rang some, but not all, of the other
judges. He certainly contacted Justice Campbell and probably Justices Douglas and Hanger.
Francis Douglas, who was then his father’s associate, recalls him receiving early notice,
they went immediately to the Court. Justice Campbell called Angus and they, too, rushed
to the court. It was then obvious that the worst affected part was the end of the Ann
Street wing, under the criminal court, occupied by Justice Wanstall. Justice Campbell ascertained
that he had not been told of the fire. He instructed Angus to ring me. I found my judge
and his wife at church on the Sunday morning. I broke the news and drove quickly to the
court where I parked in the courtyard which was empty save for a firetruck. Photograph which I think you have all seen before, the car on the right is mine, the fire truck belongs
to others. If you look behind the damaged George Street wind of the court you can see
a concrete structure, that’s part of the District Court building which is then under
construction. You can see the damage to the roof at the tower to the left. I went in through the front doors, saw no-one and walked to the central hall. The floor
was covered by burnt timber beams, broken bricks and sheets of roofing iron. That’s part of the gallery, it ran around the four walls of the hall but you can see
there, that that’s part collapsed. That’s looking out toward North Quay. I entered the
judge’s corridor and I saw that it was partly blocked and at the far end the door to my
room was completely blocked by fallen debris some of which was still burning. I thought
it might be possible to get into Wanstall’s chambers but as I went cautiously forward
some more burning debris fell into the corridor ahead of me. I retreated and went out onto
the lawn adjacent to North Quay where I saw the Chief Justice, Justice Campbell and some
others. I stood on the outskirts of the group. As we were standing, a sheet of corrugated
iron fell from the roof, swaying as it dropped and it landed heavily nearby.
The senior Fire Officer asked us to move further away, which we quickly did. He then had a
fire hose play on the remaining iron and masonry at the top of the tower to dislodge any remaining
loose material. Francis Douglas had the recollection that his
father and Justice Campbell tried to inspect the latter’s chambers by way of the Judges’
Hall and the corridor. There were firemen present in the building but they allowed the
two judges to go in. Not long after they emerged from the corridor and crossed the hall to
go outside, the gallery which I pointed out before collapsed. Of the four sets of chambers in the wing only
Justice Wanstall’s were destroyed. The fire had been fiercest in the Criminal Court above.
The burning dock, bar table, witness box and the Associate’s bench had fallen into his
room, and partly into mine. This was obvious when Justice Wanstall arrived with Mrs Wanstall.
When she learned that the Chief Justice had neglected to inform them of the fire, she
was visibly angry. The Chief Justice left soon after. There is George Healy the Chief of the Fire Brigade, Sir William Mack and that’s David
Longland who was then Under Secretary of the Department of Works. That is Angus Innes,
that is Justice Campbell and the handsome man stepping carefully over the fire hose
is me. Wallace Campbell, Mrs Wanstall, Justice Wanstall and I can not identify the other
two in the photograph. You can see the damage, you can see, tower’s been cleared of loose
material, the roof of course is gone. That was the criminal court. That was my room and
those windows were into Justice Wanstall’s chambers. Brooks had not gone straight home. He walked along George Street until he came to the Supreme
Court which, it seems, he looked at resentfully. Brooks approached the front doors. They were
unlocked, so he went in. The corridor behind was lit but deserted. That’s, that one. The night watchman’s room is around about there. The bailiff’s
office was around about there. There’s the stairs of course. That’s the central hall,
that’s the registry wing, that’s the judges corridor and the staircase to the civil court
was around about there. There’s the Chief Justice’s chambers. He walked into the hall and then left along the Registry wing where he found the alcove
at the base of the staircase to civil court above. He also found the refrigerator where Bert
Cowell kept his lunch and took the knife from the box. He climbed the stairs and entered
the Court through which he walked, picking up a Bible on the way. He left the court from
the public entrance at the back, walking into the corridor leading to the gallery around
the central hall, and then into the corridor leading to the criminal court. This is the upper level, there’s the civil court, he came from here, walked through
that corridor, around the gallery one way or the other, along that corridor to the criminal
court. He went in and he gathered some typing paper
from the court reporters’ desk, and went back along the corridor to where there was
a cupboard which the cleaners stored their equipment. It was near the disused stairwell
I pointed out before and was where First Officer Christsen noticed the fire to be most ferocious.
Brooks put the typing paper in the cupboard, lit a match and put it to the paper. He returned
to civil court where he noticed the pens and inkwells on the Associate’s desk. That’s
the old courtroom, there’s the associate’s desk, there’s the bench, the staircase ended about
there. I don’t know when this photography was taken in relation to the fire. But that’s
how the court looked at the time. He left the courtroom as he had come, by the
Judges’ stairs, and retraced his steps to the front door. He went around to the back,
climbed over the fence to North Quay and walked towards Grey Street Bridge. On his way he
passed O’Connor’s Boathouse where most of Brisbane’s youth learned to dance on
Saturday mornings in the 1950s and 1960s. He climbed a drainpipe to the veranda of the
upper level, broke in and set a fire in the kitchen. He then continued to walk along
North Quay until he came to the Christian Science Church near Upper Roma Street. He
sat on the porch, which was lit, and read the Bible which he’d stolen from the Court.
He left it there, walked across Grey Street Bridge to South Brisbane where he hailed a
taxi to take him to his parents’ caravan at Holland Park. By this time the Court was
visibly ablaze and he asked the taxi driver to detour past so he could get a good look
at his handiwork. To return the account to the Sunday morning,
the fire trucks left, except for a watching crew. Most of the judges went home. People
came and went. One of those who came was Ken Mackenzie then a Crown Prosecutor later Mr
Justice Mackenzie who got access to the site by attaching himself to the Attorney General’s
private secretary who was making an inspection of the damage. Ken was an accomplished photographer
and the photos he took that morning have become iconic. The one of the fire brigade and my
car is one of Ken’s and the second photography of the people outside was also one of Ken’s,
as are these three. Note the portraits, they now hang outside,
that’s Lilley, that’s Griffith, they get a mention later on, that’s of course the
central hall, that’s the gallery on one side, library was through there. You see them
better on the side screen than here, the colour is washed out, but as you can see they’re very good photographs. And there’s a fireman playing a hose on some burning debris in the hall. That’s the corridor to the criminal court, that’s where the gallery fell not long after Justices Douglas and Campbell came out. There was although a general air of bemusement. Suddenly news spread rapidly that something
of significance had been found in the Civil Court. A number of people climbed the judges’
staircase to what had just become a crime scene. No-one stopped us. My recollection
is that both firemen and policemen were present. On the Associate’s desk we saw a large sheet
of framed blotting paper over which some ink had been spilt and on which had been printed,
using a steel nibbed dip pen, “Judge not lest you be judged sinner”. The blotting pad had been skewered to the
desk by Bert Cowell’s knife. A few burnt matches lay on the floor. It was at once obvious that the fire was arson, the Supreme Court had been deliberately set
alight. Brooks had written the message as he walked
through No. 1 Court, the civil court on his way out of the building. The matches were
not another attempt to start a fire. He’d lit them so he could see to write.
Monday was a day of chaos and farce. The Supreme Court’s four principal courtrooms, including
its only Criminal Court, were unusable. Now, that is Justice Wanstall’s room, what’s
left of it. That’s the photograph I’m sure taken from the top of the partly built
District Court, where I showed you the site. Victoria Bridge. Note the clean top to the
tower. That was the wing leading to the criminal court, that was the criminal court. That was
the top of the disused stairwell and this was the beginning of the George Street wing. That’s
looking towards the river of course over North Quay, that’s where the criminal court was. The only parts of the building untouched by the fire and capable of occupation were the registry,
registrars’ offices and Chief Justice’s chambers. No-one seemed to know what to do.
People milled around aimlessly. The situation called for firm sensible leadership from someone
in authority. It did not come from the Chief Justice. He took over the Chamber list and
sat, as was then the norm, in his own chambers to hear applications. It gave an appearance
of “business as usual” but things were not usual and he should have been supporting the efforts to remove the judges’ property that had been damaged or was in danger of being damaged. No-one took control
of the situation. The Department of Works had sent a number
of its labourers to the court early on the Monday morning with equipment for carrying
books. Apart from the Chief Justice all the judges whose chambers were in the main building
wished to have their libraries and possessions removed and taken to a place of safety as
quickly as possible. The need was particularly pressing for the four judges whose chambers
were in the worst affected wing. Access to those rooms was possible but difficult. There
was still some residual danger of falling debris. The only way of getting into Justice
Wanstall’s chambers was through a window the sill of which was about 5 feet above the ground.
The associates looked around to see how their judges’ books could be got out. We pressed
the Works Department employees into service. We arranged them in gangs to come with us
into the building to begin the task of removing books. They were quite willing, as they
might be, having been supplied with hard hats. We had not been engaged long in the task when
word came from a supervisor that the site was considered dangerous and the workmen had
to get out. Annoyed but undaunted the associates remained behind and passed books out to the
workmen. We asked if we could wear their hats for protection. They agreed and we put them on. Working in this way was obviously slow and inefficient but we did
what we could. We suffered another set-back when the same supervisor informed us that
the hats had been issued to his men and they had to wear them even though they were outside.
We therefore had to give back the protection and work on bare-headed. Ian Hanger remembers that when we were taking books from his father’s chambers he got
a phone call from David Longland the Under Secretary of the Department of Works who ordered
us to get out of the building. He may have been concerned for our safety, or his liability
if someone were hurt. Ian told him that we wouldn’t need to be in the building if his
workmen weren’t timid and inept and or words to that effect. Longland made a formal complaint
to the Chief Justice about our disrespect, the judges’ response was to pass a resolution
thanking the associates for their efforts. In the process of trying to organise the workmen
and to arrange for the carriage and transport of the books a degree of foot traffic passed
by the Chief Justice’s chambers. Irritated by the noise and the motion he issued a command
that if the activity did not cease he would have the actors committed for contempt. The
Works Department men went back to their depot. The slow progress of removing books ceased
altogether. The situation was saved by the fire brigade,
a firm of insurance loss assessors and, particularly, by a small band of friends. The fire officers
were well led, disciplined and efficient men. They removed the rubble blocking entrance
to the rooms from which books had to be taken, and ascertained that there was no immediate
likelihood of anything falling from the upper floor. They brought, and left at the site,
two portable floodlights. The loss assessors represented the insurers
who had covered the judges’ property. They arranged for a number of trucks and labourers
to carry the books to an unused warehouse at the end of Upper Roma Street, about where
Police Headquarters is now. The real difficulty remained in physically
removing books and other effects from the building to where the workmen could place
them in boxes and carry them to their trucks. This was not a proper task for the fire officers.
The Public Works personnel would not do it. The contractors had been engaged by the insurer
only to carry the books from the outside of the court to the warehouse.
The only other available workforce consisted of the associates, Anges Innes, Ian Hanger
and me. Justice Stable’s associate was an elderly man who could not sensibly have been asked
to assist. Elizabeth Nosworthy at the time was associate to Justice Matthews who had
chambers in the adjoining complex. She came over when court adjourned and joined us in the work. There was no point in removing anything from
Justice Wanstall’s chambers apart from his books. Everything else had been destroyed. The other
judges were more fortunate. Their rooms had not been touched by the fire but had suffered
smoke and water damage. Those rooms had to be emptied of robes, personal effects, personal
papers, official papers and personal items as well as books. If the contents of each
room had to be emptied by one associate only, the task would have been immense. I was helped
to remove books from Justice Wanstall’s room by two bailiffs and by my father.
The work started midafternoon and continued into the night. We used the floodlights, one
set up on the lawn and the other positioned so that it shone into the building.
My father and the bailiffs left when the books had been taken from Justice Wanstall’s room.
I stayed to help the others. Late in the evening Justice Campbell arrived with pizzas and cold
beer. In the days following the fire the Supreme
Court library collection was removed by Public Works personnel. These books were also taken
to an empty warehouse in the same location. As far as I recall none of the books had been
burnt but many were damaged by smoke and/or water. They were removed in haste and laid
out to dry on trestle tables in random order. Members of the Bar as well as law students
from the University of Queensland gave their time to sort the books into their proper series and sequence.
Now that I’m sure closest to the camera is Paul Finn, later Professor Finn and Justice
Finn of the Federal Court. I don’t recognise the woman. She would I assume would have been a
student at the University. But that’s how the books were laid out to dry. Six Judges were dispossessed as a result of the fire. One of them, Justice Hanger, was
President of the Industrial Court and he’d removed his library and effects to his chambers attached
to that court where he sat. The building at 370 George Street, near the corner with Turbot
Street, had just been built. The Government leased two floors and fitted out two sets
of chambers on each floor. Justices Wanstall, Stable, Douglas and Campbell went there and
conducted trials from their chambers. As related earlier, Brooks caught a taxi to
his parent’s caravan. Contrary to what he told Constable Rockley, Brooks did not live
there. His parents had not seen him for weeks. Despite the hour his mother gave him some
food and put him to bed. His father was less sympathetic. He was a stern Presbyterian who
disapproved of his son’s slothful life and constant inebriation. Brooks slept until about
10.00 when he left. At 5.30 on Wednesday morning, 4 September,
Brooks visited a sister, Mrs Kimber. He was very drunk. He asked his sister if she’d
read the papers. Mrs Kimber had no time to read newspapers, and said so. Brooks said
to her. “The courthouse fire, I lit it”. Mrs Kimber did not believe him. She said “David,
you’re drunk”. Brooks’ next reply was odd. He said, “I didn’t do it”…Gilbert
did it. He was alongside me and he lit it up”. Gilbert was their brother who’d been
burnt to death exactly six years earlier. Brooks was with him when he died.
Later that morning Mrs Kimber drove Brooks to the Valley where he planned to meet some
friends and, she thought, continue drinking. Her suspicion was right, Brooks was arrested
for public drunkenness that afternoon. He was a rancourous drunk who struggled against
being put in a cell. “I got square with you blokes” he said, “I burnt the Supreme
Court down and I will burn this f-ing joint down”. The watch house keeper, Senior Sergeant
Chippindall, was sceptical, Brooks was drunk, dishevelled, dirty and looked unwell, so his
statement, though repeated, was not taken seriously. However the officers investigating
the arson were informed. Detective Sergeant Mahoney went to the watch house at 7.15 pm.
He spoke to Brooks who was impatient to confess. He said “I wish you fellows would believe
me. I have been telling everyone and no-one will believe me. I set fire to the (Court)
alright”. He was given the usual warning but he wouldn’t stop,
“Yes, I know but I know I lit the fire. It is a very serious matter and I want to
tell you the truth about it. I have always believed in the truth”. Mahoney was still doubtful and said that he
wanted to be “quite satisfied that (Brooks) was the person responsible for the fire”.
To help dispel his doubts, Books said “Well you know about the blotting pad and what I’d
printed on it?” Mahoney said he had seen a blotting pad with “a certain scripture”
and Brooks again volunteered “I printed ‘Judge not lest you be judged sinner’.
He explained that he “knew about the Bible”. To provide further proof of his guilt he asked
“Did you see the knife that I’d stuck in the middle of the blotter?” Mahoney said
he’d seen it. Brooks went on “It is my work I done it. Give me a bit of paper and
I will show you what I did”. Mahoney now seems to have begun to believe that Brooks
may indeed have been the arsonist, so he gave another caution which Brooks also disregarded.
He was given some pieces of ruled foolscap and a biro and he printed several times the
words he had left on the blotter. Brooks then gave a detailed account of his movements starting
with being “chased out of the toilets in Roma Street”. His account of the fire itself
was that, “I put this (typing) paper in the cupboard,
lit a match and set the paper alight in the cupboard and away she went. I put some more
paper on the flames, and I noticed in the light from the fire that there was some newspapers
inside the cupboard. She didn’t take long to get a go on. I threw some more paper in
the fire and I made sure it was going properly and I went back to the court I first went
into and I struck some matches and I saw the wooden pen and inkwell and I printed words
from the Bible onto the blotting pad … in the middle of the table”. Even after that statement Brooks doubted that
he would be taken for a serious criminal. He said to Mahoney “You still don’t believe
it was me do you?” Mahoney asked him to go on what is now called a walkthrough. Brooks
agreed. In the ruined central hall he said, with evident pride, “she’s a mess isn’t
she?” He showed them the fridge from which he had taken the knife, the Associate’s
bench where he had written on the blotter and indicated the stairs he had used. He pointed to where he got the paper and the cupboard where he had started the blaze. He led them from
the Court along North Quay past O’Connor’s Boathouse to the Christian Science Building
and to the porch where he had left the Bible. The group then went to the Criminal Investigation
Branch where the questioning continued, after further cautions. Brooks was asked to print
the words he had left in the court on blotting paper using a steel nibbed pen, to reveal
what resemblance there might be between that document and the blotter in the Court. Biro on foolscap
was thought to be too dissimilar a medium for comparison. Brooks agreed readily and
even noted that the pen he had been given by the police was a new one whereas the one
in the Court was old. The police had located the taxi driver who
took Brooks to his parent’s caravan and he was asked if he was prepared to be identified
in a line up. He declined the offer saying “No he will know me”. The meeting was
arranged, the taxi driver was brought in and Brooks all but accused him of neglecting his
duty as a citizen by not reporting him to the police when he must have suspected that
he, Brooks, had started the fire. Brooks said “I was waiting for them to pick me up. Nobody
came so I gave myself up”. Mahoney was still being caution. He asked
whether Brooks had “Deliberately set fire to the Supreme Court on 1 September 1968”.
The reply was, “Yes. You must be convinced by now. … I
did it on my own. I went there on my own, and no-one else”.
He was asked why and explained, “I am a sinner and I am sour on the world.
I’ve got to be punished. I wanted to do something big and wrong and after getting
chased out of the toilet I saw the Supreme Court and I decided it was a big enough place
to burn down. I went inside … and you know what I did.”
To leave no shadow of doubt as to his guilt he then wrote out a confession in his own
hand. During his interview, Brooks had told the
investigators that he had been at his sister’s house earlier that morning and had told her
that he had started the fire. Mrs Kimber was brought to the CI Branch at about 11.00pm
where she saw her brother. She was, of course, upset for him and said “David, you couldn’t
have done it”. He replied “I did. I did. I have been here for hours telling everyone
but they would not believe me”. He was right, the police remained sceptical
that the Supreme Court, an institution of State power and symbol of authority, could
have been casually destroyed by one of life’s obvious zeroes, an idle disgruntled drunk
“sour on the world”, whose account was that he stumbled through the front doors,
rambled unremarked through the building, unhurriedly collected kindling materials and wantonly
put a match to the edifice of justice. Admissions to Detective Sergeant Second
Class were deemed insufficient. It was thought that the confessions would have more authenticity if made to someone of greater distinction. A detective inspector was found in the person of Donald Buchanan.
Mahoney briefed him on what had happened and Inspector Buchanan renewed the questioning.
He asked Brooks if his admissions to Mahoney were correct. Buchanan was apparently concerned
that Brooks may have learnt sufficient details of the arson from newspaper reports to give
an air of verisimilitude to his confessions. He told Brooks so. The response was “yes,
I burnt it. How would I know about the words printed on the blotting paper and about the
knife if I didn’t do it? … Yes, I saw it in the paper, and I printed more for the
detective. The handwriting people should know that I wrote the one in the Court and what’s
more I will swear on the Bible that I did it”. Buchanan asked if anyone had given Brooks the information which he had used in his admissions.
He denied the possibility. “Look” he said “I did it. What have I got to do to convince
you blokes?” He had in fact done enough. He was arrested.
The charge was, “That on the first day of September 1968
at Brisbane in the State of Queensland you wilfully and unlawfully set fire to a building
namely the Supreme Court …” Surprisingly in view of his ardent desire
to be caught and his acknowledgment that he should be punished, he pleaded not guilty. The trial was heard before Mr Justice Hoare and
a jury over three days commencing 25 November 1968. Justice Hoare was, of course, one of
the judges unaffected personally by the fire. James Gibney, later Judge Gibney, prosecuted
and Alan Demack later Mr Justice Demack defended. Despite old Mr Brooks’ disapproval of his
son, he retained a fatherly concern for him. He approached his solicitors, Roberts & Kane,
to inquire about representation. Myles Kane kindly directed him to the Public Defender.
The charge was limited to setting fire to the Court so the arson of O’Connor’s Boathouse
was largely irrelevant. Evidence of it was led however to negate the defence of accident
or lack of intent. A drunk might stumble into one building and inadvertently set it alight,
but two fires started by the same man minutes apart in buildings separated by only about
200 meters could not sensibly be regarded as accidental. For that reason Brooks’ admissions
of having burnt down the Boathouse were put to the jury. His motive for the second fire was
that some years earlier he had gotten into “a blue with a mug” during a dance there,
had been thrown out and told never to come back. Brooks was unable to give coherent instructions. Given that fact and the plethora of confessions,
all the defence could do was put the Crown to proof. There were two possibilities for
raising doubt. Brooks’ drunkenness may have affected the formation of the deliberation
necessary to prove arson and may also have affected the reliability of his admissions.
He was certainly very drunk when arrested in the afternoon of 4 September. At the time
of the police interviews he was tired, unwell and had not eaten. The defence argued that
his incriminating answers might have been the result of confusion and exhaustion.
The prosecution was very thorough, although Jim Gibney was always scrupulously fair. He
called the Assistant Under Secretary of the Department of Works to prove that the Supreme
Court was built on a Crown Reserve set aside for “Departmental and Official Purposes”.
He was asked whether he’d given permission for anyone to set fire to the Supreme Court
and he replied emphatically that he had not. The defence had probably its only fun of the
trial. The Secretary was asked “What authority would you have to give permission to set fire
to the Supreme Court?” He answered lamely, “As far as I know I wouldn’t have any”.
Evidence was led of the numerous admissions made to the Watch House Senior Sergeant, the
Detective Sergeant and the Detective Inspector. Brooks’ movements on the early hours of
1 September were proved by the Constable who evicted him from the toilets and by his family,
the taxi driver and the caretaker of the Christian Science buildings who found the Bible. A fire
investigating officer testified that the fire started where Brooks had said he lit it, and
that an adjacent disused stairwell had provided the ventilation for the fire to take hold
quickly and to burn furiously. A handwriting expert opined that the arsonist’s printing
on the Associate’s blotter was in the same hand as the samples Brooks gave of his printing
to Detective Mahoney. The expert was briskly cross examined about the difficulty of comparing
printing as opposed to cursive handwriting and conceded some differences between the
samples and the incriminating note, but by and large he stuck to his opinion.
None of the accused’s fingerprints was found in the Court despite him having, on his account,
handled a drinking glass, a plastic lunchbox, a refrigerator door and gone through glass
and polished timber doors. There was proof that O’Connor’s Boathouse had burnt down
and that Brooks admitted to being the culprit. The fire officers who found the annotated
blotter were called, as were other officers who had fought and extinguished the fire.
Bert Cowell was called to prove he owned the knife which stabbed the blotter to the Associate’s
desk and Monty was called to describe his movements during his watch.
He said he let Ian Hanger and his friend out at 10 pm and locked the door. He carried out
his inspections of the adjoining courts at midnight and again at about 2.00 am. He returned
“about” 3.00 but said he was certain it was not later than 3.00 am. To the “best of
his knowledge” he locked the door and went to the watchman’s rest room. About half
an hour later he heard a “heavy thud” and went to the main hall. He saw nothing
and returned to his room. Ten minutes later he heard a “very heavy thud”. This time
when he went to the hall he saw smoke in the Ann street wing. He tried to telephone the
fire brigade from the Bailiffs’ office but the line was dead. He tried the phone in Justice Sheehy’s chambers but it too was dead. As he left the chambers he saw Christen at the front door. Now I have a firm view that judges should not
be criticised but I am bound to say that Justice Hoare appears to have been naïve in accepting
Monty’s account. His Honour was particularly annoyed by the evidence that, on instructions,
when the watchmen left the Supreme Court to patrol the adjacent Courts the front door
was to be left unlocked. He took up the point at the end of the Assistant Under Secretary’s
testimony. “We have heard from a witness” the judge said “that it was the practice
of the caretakers to leave the front door unlocked when they went on a tour …of the
Magistrates’ court. I do not know who is responsible in the Works Department for giving
instructions….but it was obviously a very stupid instruction. You might see that someone
in the Department takes more interest in the security of the building…”
Justice Hoare appears to have thought that Brooks entered the building when Monty was
out on his inspection. The evidence disproves that possibility. Monty should have left,
and he said he did, to inspect the other courts at about 2.00, perhaps as late as ten past.
Inspection took half an hour, never more than three quarters. He would have been back, and
should have locked the door, by 2.30 am, by 2.55 at the very latest. Brooks was moved
on from the toilets a little after 3.00 am. Even if Brooks had entered during Monty’s
absence, Monty should have been locked the door when he returned but it was unlocked when
Christsen arrived at 4.00. Angus Innis had unlocked it when he left at 1.00. Monty
did not say he found the door unlocked when he went out at 2. Brooks did not say he
had to unlock the door to get out. I have no doubt that Monty was asleep when
Angus left, and when Brooks entered and left, and that the door remained unlocked after
Angus left. The suggested instruction was so clearly silly
that the evidence about it should have been doubted. The watchmen had keys and could easily
have locked the doors when they went outside on their rounds. It makes no sense that they
should be instructed to lock the door when they were in the building but to leave it
unlocked when they were absent. The evidence about the claimed instruction diverted attention
from the fact that the door was unlocked after Monty said he returned.
The attack on the admissions came to nothing. The two detectives who were the principal
recipients of the confessions said that Brooks, though showing signs of having been drunk
earlier, was sober and spoke coherently. A spirited criticism of the detectives for not
writing up their notes of the lengthy conversations for some hours, and then doing so together,
possibly affecting the accuracy of the record, faltered because the defence was unable to
suggest that Brooks had not said what was attributed to him.
“Judge not lest you be judged” is an unusual rendition of the biblical passage
which appears in the gospels of Saint Matthew and Saint Luke. In both, according to the
King James’ translation the passage has a double negative, “Judge not and you shall
not be judged.” Brooks’ early religious instruction had used the King James’ bible.
Overwhelmingly translations used in all churches employ the double negative. Alan Demack raised these facts in cross examination and pointed
out that it was improbability that an unlettered man like Brooks would know any rare or uncommon
version of the gospel passages. The implicit suggestion was that some other hand wrote
on the blotter. In response the prosecution called Rolland Busch, the Presbyterian Professor
of New Testament Studies at the University of Queensland. The point lost all its impact for
the defence when it was realised that an editor of Penguin Publications had written his own
translations, widely available in Penguin Books, which had used the same expression as Brooks. Dr Wilson, the Government Medical Officer, examined Brooks on the day after his arrest.
He noticed burnt hairs and reddened skin on the backs of both hands, fingers, writs and
the left forearm. Brooks had told Inspector Buchanan that he scorched his hands when putting
paper on the fire. The Sherriff of Queensland was called to prove
ownership of the Bible. The Chief Justice’s tipstaff gave evidence that the Associate’s
desk in Court No. 1 the civil court was neat and clean at close of business on Friday 30
August. The cleaners gave evidence of what they kept in their cupboard.
The Crown case closed at 11.45 am on Wednesday 27 November. Mr Gibney addressed for half
an hour, Mr Demack for an hour. The Judge summed up for 45 minutes. The jury took the
same time to convict. Brooks was sentenced the next day to six years’ imprisonment.
The Judge recommended that he receive appropriate psychiatric treatment while in jail, remarking
that it would be in Brooks’ own interests to be kept in prison for a period long enough
to recover from his addiction to alcohol. As to the circumstances of the offence, the
Judge said only that Brooks’ “irresponsible actions” had caused “enormous destruction”,
and that “society regards offences of this nature as very reprehensible”. The remarks
were surely an understatement, and in one respect a misstatement. Indeed, the sentence
appears, to me at least, an anticlimax, an inadequate response to the offence. The Supreme
Court, as a building, was effectively destroyed. One wing containing the Registry and one Court
room could be used temporarily on a makeshift basis. Many important historical records were
lost forever. The essential work of the Court was severely disrupted for a substantial time.
Despite Brooks being a nonentity his crime was motivated by malevolence towards society
and the desire to strike at authority. The crime was not less serious because Brooks was a
nobody. He was boastful in his disdain for what the court represented. The sentence does
not appear adequately to reflect these considerations. Three factors might explain it. One is that
Justice Hoare was moderate in all his sentences. The second is that he characterised Brooks’
actions as irresponsible when clearly, they were malicious. The third is that he was very
annoyed by the evidence that the building was left unlocked on departmental instructions.
Blame shifted from Brooks to bureaucrats. Alan Demack observed that Brooks experienced a sense of exhilaration from his crime. Certainly one can detect in his assertions to the police
that he was the arsonist, a degree of boastfulness and an anxiety that he would not be given
the credit for the crime. This misplaced swagger persisted. In 1971
Peter Nolan was a clerk employed by the Public Defender. His work took him frequently to
the remand prisons where he was well known by sight. On one of his visits, he was approached
by a nondescript prisoner who said “Mr Nolan, I want you to know that I’m the man who
burnt down the Supreme Court”. John Hutton, now a magistrate, was in the
late 1970s a solicitor employed by Elliott & Co. He was once consulted about a minor
criminal charge and asked the client if he had any previous convictions. The reply was
“yes, I am the man who burnt down the Supreme Court”. John asked Brooks why he had done
it. The answer was that when he entered the hall he saw the portraits in the gallery lit
by moonlight. The judges appeared to be looking down at him, disapproving. He became disconcerted,
and angry. He said to himself, “How many men have you lot sent to jail”, and responded by decided to burn down the court and the portraits with it. What I find most striking about the Supreme
Court fire of is the incongruity between the destruction of such an important building,
symbol and seat of State judicial power, and the pettiness of the person and motive
of the arsonist. He acted out of a ridiculous and unwarranted sense of self-rightness. Brooks had no reason to feel
aggrieved with the law. He had only ever been arrested for public drunkenness, kept in the
Watch House for his own protection and let go. There was at the time a widespread, profound disappointment that the destruction should have been the work of a man who was no more than a mean and spiteful drunk. History has many ironies. The fire I think is one of them. [APPLAUSE] Well it’s my privilege to move the vote of thanks to Richard. The lecture we’ve
just heard if I may say so exhibited features of Richard’s work with which many of us are
very familiar. The clarity and precision of the language, the attention to the structure
of the speech which was complete and he treated the topic with the seriousness it deserved.
A seriousness which was emphasised by what we’re all so use to hearing from Richard, which
is an appropriate dash of humour on the way through. But perhaps more importantly for this task
the time and effort that Richard has devoted to preparing his paper and to selecting and
collecting his slides is something which we all should be grateful for. So may I ask
you once again please to thank Richard in the usual way. [APPLAUSE] And may I also present
to Richard as a token of our gratitude the usual paltry gift. [APPLAUSE] Now I have some very brief announcements to make. First I’m instructed to say that all Selden
Society lectures are filmed and available on the Supreme Court Library’s YouTube channel.
So Richard now, perhaps not for the first time will be a star of the screen. Secondly,
two matters concerning the Library. The Queensland Legal Yearbook 2015 is now available and also
the Library is conducting a very short online survey of users in order to improve its services
by feedback. There are Library staff here, you will see them in the foyer, if you are
interested in either, please don’t hesitate to approach them. And finally and most importantly
you are all invited to enjoy refreshments in the foyer now. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]

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