Mount Rennie rape case

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The Mount Rennie rape case is the only gang rape in Sydney during the 1880s that led to a full conviction[1] of the participants involved in the crime—young larrikins of the "Waterloo Push". The attack is sometimes referred to as the "Mount Rennie Outrage" or the "Waterloo Outrage". The crime was a pivotal point in New South Wales history, coming after a history of failure of other gang-rape trials in that time period.

The crime[edit]

The gang rape occurred on 9 September 1886. Sixteen-year-old Mary Jane Hicks had been educated at the Bathurst convent school, then worked as a domestic servant at Katoomba, and at a hotel and private houses in Sydney.[2] While walking to a city employment registry, she was offered a lift by Charles Sweetman, the driver of a hansom cab, who instead drove her in his cab to what is now the Moore Park area, then an isolated piece of bushland in the suburb of Waterloo and called Mount Rennie. He attempted to molest her in the cab but she screamed for help. Two young men approached and took her out of the cab, purporting to save her from disgrace.[3] At this point, Sweetman departed with his cab.

The young men walked her to a different isolated location where they were joined by several others, some of whom began to take turns in raping her. The girl's screaming was heard by a passer-by, William Stanley, who attempted to rescue her but was driven off by the gang with bricks, stones and bottles.[2] Stanley ran to distant Redfern police station, where he reported the crime at about 4 p.m. When the police arrived on the scene at 5 p.m., they interrupted the crime which was still in progress, but were unable to apprehend any of the fleeing offenders.[4] Following inquiries, twelve men were identified and eventually arrested, including Charles Sweetman, the cabman.[2] At least one reporter formed the view that Sweetman had deliberately planned to deliver a girl to the push members who were assembled and waiting for the purpose.[5]

The victim, Mary Jane Hicks, testified that she had fallen into and out of consciousness during the ordeal, but gave evidence that at least eight men held her down and took turns to rape her, and that many others were present, including some who had not been apprehended.

Public reaction[edit]

The rape caused a "frenzy" of outrage and sensation in Sydney. The Sydney press focused on the brutal nature of the perpetrators. The Sydney Daily Telegraph newspaper described the crime as one "which no parallel can be found in the crimes of civilized life or in the savageries of barbarism".[citation needed] The Sydney Bulletin newspaper instead argued that Hicks was an "unfortunate", or in other words, a prostitute. It focused on her lack of virginity. Crucially, though, it ignored Hicks's claim that she had been raped at the age of fourteen by a married man.[citation needed] Geoffrey Partington notes that the Bulletin likened the incident to British oppression of the Irish.[6] He notes that the Bulletin accused the then Governor of New South Wales, Lord Carrington, as "dragging from the grave the skeletons of the poor wretched ignorant boys whom he sent to the gallows in deference to the laws of a convict colony that has not even yet emerged from beneath the shadow of the gaol wall".[6] However, in an editorial leader, The Sydney Morning Herald maintained that the youths had received a fair trial, and that the death penalty for rape had been confirmed by legislation only three years earlier. Therefore, the sentences should be carried out unless there were legitimate grounds for reprieve in any individual case.[7]


The trial of the accused youths was conducted over six consecutive days, 22–27 November inclusive. Detailed reports were printed in the Herald and are available online.[8]

William Hill, George Duffy, William Newman, Michael Donnellan, Joseph Martin, William Boyce, Hugh Miller, George Keegan, Robert Read, Thomas Oscroft and Michael Mangan were tried for the crime.[9] Justice Windeyer declared the crime as a "most atrocious crime, a crime so horrible that every lover of his country must feel that it is a disgrace to our civilization". The first nine men were convicted and sentenced to death; the last two were acquitted. All but one were reportedly under 20 years of age.[10]

After a separate trial, Charles Sweetman received fourteen years' prison for his part, plus 50 lashes, to be handed out on two separate occasions.[9][11]

Appeals for clemency[edit]

A public campaign was waged, advocating that the death penalty was too harsh for the nine condemned youths. Before the end of the year, the state's Executive Council reviewed all the sentences and commuted three to life imprisonment on the grounds of "mitigating circumstances".[7][10]

A public meeting was convened at the Sydney Town Hall on 29 December with the purpose of petitioning the Governor to exercise his power to reprieve all the condemned youths. A deputation of 150 citizens attended the Governor in support of the hanging. They succeeded in having two more of the sentences commuted to life imprisonment, though their first three years were to be served in fetters. The remaining four—Read, Duffy, Martin and Boyce—were to be hanged on 7 January 1887.


Some two thousand people were estimated to have massed outside the prison on the day, but only persons with reputable credentials were admitted to witness the executions.[5] The executioner, Robert Howard, botched the hangings when he miscalculated the drop necessary for the youths. One died instantly but the remaining three struggled for several minutes.[12]


The trial was dramatised in a 2012 ABC docudrama, the first of a three-part series entitled Australia on Trial.[13] Presented by historian Michael Cathcart, the script was based on official court transcripts of the trial.