Friday, 19 December 2014

Arson at Warrimoo? The Christmas night Fire

Arson in Warrimoo? The Christmas night Fire

On Christmas night, 1919, the new 'shop building' at Warrimoo burst into flame so that by the early hours of the following morning it was 'too far gone to be saved'.

This is the somewhat tragic story of Henry Varlow[1], one of the original white settlers (1919) of the new Warrimoo Estate--returned serviceman, family man and alleged arsonist. He was the first occupant of the double-storeyed ‘shop’ on the Highway opposite Warrimoo Railway Station, and his stay in the infant community was a rocky one, indeed.

 Originally Henry Varlow was from Leura, further up the ‘Mountains. He was a ‘plumber’ there, and had settled at Mount Street with his wife, Ella Irene Varlow and their two children, when war was declared in August 1914.

 Varlow volunteered to fight overseas on 3rd of September of the same year. In other words, he was one of the ‘first wave’ of enthusiastic patriots destined to fight in the Middle East against the Turks, for the greater good of Empire.

Volunteers line up to join the AIF, September 1914. Henry Varlow, after already serving in the Light Horse for the Boer War, was one of them...

Why a man of 38 years would want to leave his wife and children to go and fight in climes as far away as Europe and Egypt is worth pondering. Was he bored with work and life in Leura? Was he inspired by the tide of patriotism that swept the country in the wake of Germany’s invasion of Belgium and France? Or was it rather, having been born in Stepney, London, Henry felt an overwhelming loyalty to his Mother Country, coupled with a yearning to see it again?

 At 38, he was no spring chicken. He had already served in the Imperial Light Horse at the “cessation of hostilities” of the Boer War fourteen years previous. When he signed up for his physical he was described as 5 foot 7 inches tall, 10 stone in weight, fair complexioned with grey eyes. He was to be paid 9 shillings a day.

 ‘Light Horse glamour’ was not to be his calling this time, however. He was to be a member of the 4th Infantry Brigade in the 7th Company of the Army Services Corps. The range of jobs in the Services Corps could be anything from stable-hand, to cook, to transport provision and construction. This may have been a disappointment to him.

 Whatever the circumstances, Henry Varlow’s service record grew steadily more miserable.  It began with minor misdemeanours such as ‘untidy quarters’ but then a series of complaints about his ‘sciatica’ had Henry in and out of hospital as an increasingly disgruntled soldier. Was he a ‘slacker’? The AIF reports are careful to avoid the charge, but ultimately the Army could bear it no longer—Henry Varlow was discharged due to ‘medical unfitness’.

 Warrimoo must have offered Henry and his family an opportunity to put the war behind them and start afresh: to build a new and successful life. A sympathetic landlord in the form of the Rickard Company, a double storeyed dwelling leased to him at discounted rates, and the chance to build a shop’s clientele within a growing community. It required patience and dedication…

The Varlows may well have thought Warrimoo would grow more rapidly and become a modern cosmopolitan centre for tourists--maybe it was all too slow.

 Christmas Day 1919, however, did not bring the cheer the Varlows may have wished for. On that night a fellow ex-serviceman, Henry Todd of Florabella Street, noticed a major blaze in the direction of the shop and sounded the alarm. The fire burned so fiercely that by 3.00am the shop was “too far gone for anything to be saved…”.

 The Blue Mountains Echo of 2nd January 1920[2], takes up the story, under the heading ‘BIG BLAZE AT WARRIMOO’…

…Varlow, who is an ex-Leuraite, was charged as the perpetrator of the blaze. The investigation was held before the District Coroner Arthur Judges on Monday last. Varlow’s statement was to the effect that he went away with his wife and family on the 24th and was away till the afternoon of the 26th ultimo. The fire, which took place on the evening of the 25th, was an enigma to him. He was partly insured (for contents--WH) for 150 pounds and Rickard and Co. had the house insured for 1,203 pounds. Varlow said he was drawing 7 pounds 7 shillings per fortnight from the Repatriation…

In short, Henry Varlow’s alibi was that he wasn’t there. He wasn’t rich, but he wasn’t poor. At this stage, the level of business at the store was slight, but there was a good chance the settlement would grow and that Highway traffic too, would increase.

Varlow's alibi was that he was elsewhere on the night of the fire. Surely a cursory check of his whereabouts on Christmas night would have established its truth or otherwise...
But suspicion fell upon Varlow for two main reasons. One, the Coroner was convinced that the fire was deliberately lit, and two, a witness said he saw a man whom he ‘thought and believed’ to be Varlow at Blaxland station on the night of the 25th

 Night officer Hartigan said on the night of the 25th, he let a man whom he thought and believed to be Varlow out at Blaxland, one and a half miles from Warrimoo. Witness said he had never been introduced to Varlow, but he knew him by his prominent teeth and his voice.

Guard John Lysaught testified to setting a man down on the night of the 25th and collecting his ticket. He could not identify the man, as he did not take much interest.

Station Master J.T. Neale,* relieving officer, said he received one ticket (produced) on the night of the 25th[3]

One fact stands out in this evidence: clearly it was unusual for travellers to use the train on Christmas night. Much moreso than today, Christmas was the opportunity for families to attend church in the morning, stay at home for Dinner and remain together for one of the few special days available throughout the year. An individual travelling on such a night would have stood out quite noticeably. Was it impossible for police to clearly identify this man?

 Apparently so, since after an adjournment of a week, the prosecution could come up with no further concrete evidence to fit Varlow to the fire. As to motive, there appeared to be none. While a piano had been removed from the property some weeks beforehand, Mrs. Varlow testified that the couple had lost 105 pounds on furnishings and equipment in their lodgings. The central claimant for insurance damages had been A. Rickard and Co., for the destruction of the building. This was for the amount of 1,203 pounds.

Accordingly the Coroner reluctantly declared an ‘open verdict’—the fire had been deliberately lit, but by ‘persons unknown’. Varlow was discharged.

 For Henry Varlow, however, this was the end of Warrimoo for him and his family. He could no longer live in a community where he was ‘under a cloud’. He left and returned to Leura.

 William Way speaks of another shop operating on the corner of The Boulevarde and the Highway while he grew up in the early 1920’s. The renewed shop opposite the station was not rebuilt from insurance funds till 1926, when it was taken over by ‘the Breakspears’[4]. William Way’s dad was able to use the bricks available at the ‘corner store’—presumably these were the rubble from a fire—to build their own dwelling in Albert Street. There was always a shortage of building materials, which didn’t ease until the 1960’s.

[1] Information on the biography of Henry Varlow comes from a variety of sources, but the overwhelming effort of drawing them together was carried out by: RICHARDSON, E., and MATTHEW, K Warrimoo History Project, Library Records
[2] TROVE, Blue Mountains Echo, 2nd January 1920
* Could this be the same ‘Mr. Neil’ who attended a meeting in Glenbrook, representing Warrimoo Progress Association, and who later appears as the Secretary of the Association in the 1930’s?
[3] Ibid
[4] Op. Cit. My Story, p.14