Fire, sabotage, and death at the turn-of-the-century. Robb’s Jetty Explosives Magazine.

At 7pm on the night of Wednesday, 15th July 1903, a terrible explosion ripped through the beachside industrial area at Robb’s Jetty (current day North Coogee). Close beside the abattoirs and cattleyards, and just a few metres from the shore, a privately owned explosives magazine had been blown to pieces – with nightwatchman Thomas Whelan inside.

Site of the Robb Jetty Magazine explosion, July 1903

 

The magazines, privately leased from the Government, held dynamite and detonators bound for minesites on the Goldfields. At first the explosion was thought to be an accident or a robbery gone wrong, but as more evidence was uncovered, police began to suspect sabotage: the 10ft square building housed hundreds of boxes of detonators, carefully stored in double-boxed, woodshaving-packed crates, and with every precaution taken to avoid sparks in the vicinity. Two witnesses to the explosion claimed they had seen a light inside the building before Thomas Whelan tried to enter, giving rise to a theory of a fire being set deliberately within.

Sabotaging the magazine would have discredited the head caretaker, Mr Robert Carrick, who was not well-liked by his employees or the companies who stored their explosives at the magazine. He was an ex-Navy officer who enforced strict discipline and placed men under arrest for minor infringements of the rules. He tried to stir trouble between the other watchmen, sometimes resorting to violence and threats to get his points across. The theory went that Whelan had wanted to cause the kind of trouble that would have gotten Carrick fired, but accidentally killed himself in the process.

Studio portrait of Thomas Whelan, 1903

But as the investigation proceeded, suspicions began to fall on Carrick himself. During the police investigation, Carrick had told an Inspector that he believed one of the other watchmen had sabotaged the magazine, and gave a very detailed explanation of how it would have been done. He later denied this conversation ever took place.

The material point in the case was a set of keys that had apparently been stolen from Carrick’s office earlier in the day: the theory was that whoever had stolen the keys had the best opportunity to get into the magazine and set a fire, and it was the primary reason for Whelan being suspected first. The keys, however, had not been found on Whelan’s body or anywhere at the explosion site, despite days of intense police searches.

“This raised more than one eyebrow…”

Four days later, poking around the dunes with a police Inspector, Carrick gave a loud cry and bent over, picking up a set of keys and exclaiming that they must have been Whelan’s, lying there the whole time. This raised more than one eyebrow within the police force and in the press, where every new development in the exciting case was feverishly reported. The tide began to turn firmly against Carrick.

There was intense public interest in the case

During the inquest, where it was scientifically proven that the keys had not laid out in the dunes for four days, Carrick behaved abominably. He incriminated himself with a sullen, argumentative testimony under questioning lasting three days, denying all accusations against him and implying that everyone involved was lying about him. This deep persecution complex was a thread running through the story of Robert Carrick: misunderstood wherever he went, destined to be surrounded by those who wished him ill, his life was not an easy one.

The inquest concluded that the explosion had been deliberately caused, and the coroner’s jury heavily implied that Carrick was guilty, though without any evidence they could not name him as a suspect. Carrick was dismissed from his position at the magazine soon after, causing trouble even on his way out the door: he announced to the papers that his superiors in the Department of Mines were conducting their own inquiry, when in fact he had already been sacked when the news was printed. He left Fremantle soon after and moved to South Australia, and his story ends on a sadder note. His body was found floating in a canal near Goolwa, South Australia, in late 1909. He was on a pleasure cruise from his home in Semaphore, and his death was presumed a boating accident.

Nobody was ever charged for the explosion or the death of Thomas Whelan, and the magazines were soon afterwards moved south to Woodman Point for public safety.

Another view of the Robb’s Jetty Magazine explosion, July 1903

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