Friday 8 March 2024

Remembering a Policeman and a Brave Engineer

Tomorrow will mark the 100th anniversary of a sad event in our area's history. On 9 March 1924, an arrested man shot and killed two men in a car that was transporting him from Cordeaux Dam to Campbelltown Police Station. Both brave men's lives were cut tragically short, and the perpetrator was ultimately hanged that same year.

The incident that lead to the double murder was a break and enter at the Metropolitan Water and Sewerage Board at the settlement at Cordeaux Dam by William George Gordon Simpson. Work on the now heritage-listed Cordeaux Dam began in 1918 and was completed in 1926. Simpson had stolen two revolvers. After his arrest, Simpson was conveyed to Campbelltown by Constable James Flynn and dam engineer Guy Chalmers Clift. Clift's car was used for the operation, and he was the driver. As the car was one mile (1.6kms) from Appin, Simpson drew his revolver, and shots were fired. Constable Flynn was shot through the stomach. Following the fatal shot, Clift immediately pulled the car up and sprang at Simpson. After a struggle, Clift was then shot in the groin. Despite this, he was able to wrench Simpson's revolver from his grasp. He then punched Simpson in the jaw, got him out of the car, and drove towards Appin for help, despite heavy bleeding. A man named Gibson who was on his way to work at the dam, came across the scene just after the shooting. Clift told him to ride back to Appin as fast as he could and tell the police and that he would attempt to follow him in the car. Clift got there first and pulled up at the Appin Police Station where the brave hero struggled up on the police veranda on hands and knees to get help, where he was eventually found by a Constable Porter. On hearing Clift's account, the constable then set out to reach the prisoner Simpson. Flynn and Clift were soon transported to hospital, where the Constable died soon after. Simpson had boarded a car from the scene of the shooting and was later located at the Appin Hotel by Constable Porter. He found him in the backyard and then overpowered him with the help of another man. He was then arrested and taken to Campbelltown where he was charged with murder and other charges the following Monday. Clift was conveyed to Camden Hospital where he succumbed to his injuries the following morning. He was buried in Camden General Cemetery.

The opening of Cordeaux Dam in 1926 (Wollongong City Library)

Constable James Flynn was unmarried. He was known as 'Porky', aged 23 and had been a policeman for two and a half years. He was from Lithgow and his body was transported back there for burial. He joined a long list of policemen that have died in the line of duty in Australia.

Guy Chalmers Clift's hometown was Maitland in the Hunter Valley. Aged 37 at the time of his death, he was described as having some grey hairs that made him look older. In his boyhood while at Maitland Public, he was remembered for creating some amazing inventions. This creativity passed on to his adult years and he became proficient and later qualified in engineering. He obtained his degree from the University of Sydney. He used this qualification soon after when he became employed at Cordeaux Dam. He lived in a cottage at the site with his wife Muriel and his four children. Guy was described as quiet, retiring and competent. He would later have bravery added to these qualities.

Guy Clift's grave in Camden General Cemetery

William George Gordon Simpson was a motor mechanic and aged 37. When younger he was noted as a good footballer and first-class boxer. But it appears that there were deep underlying issues with William Simpson. He was reported as being kicked in the head by a horse as a child and thrown off a tram and fell on his head. These injuries were thought to have contributed to his personality. This claim was provided by his family to the Executive Council in an attempt to save his life.

It was claimed by Simpson's defence that he was drunk on the day of the murders. One witness described him as drunk from whiskey. It therefore appears as though alcohol was a contributing factor however, comments made by Simpson after the murders provide an insight into his mental state and probably therefore make a stronger argument for poor mental health as the cause of his actions. On hearing of Clift's death, Simpson said "This is terrible. I must have gone mad. I don't know what made me do it." He claimed that Clift and Flynn were his best friends and the last men in the world he would injure. He also stated that they were killed because they were preventing him from committing suicide. His father had committed suicide 16 years previously and he had tried twice. At his trial Simpson claimed that he took his revolver out to shoot himself.

William Simpson's 1924 Long Bay Gaol photograph

It was thought by a number of people that the real reason Simpson had acquired a revolver was to rob the Cordeaux Dam pay car. The car was supposed to have carried an enormous amount of money and would have been an easy target on the area's quiet roads. Simpson had previously driven the car. Cars were an unusual site around Appin and the dam. A 14-year-old Syd Percival wrote later in life that he remembered seeing Clift's car pass while picking pears at Cordeaux on his brother-in-law's farm. 

William Simpson's trial was on 6 June 1924 at the Criminal Court. He pleaded not guilty. Simpson was found guilty by the jury and Justice Ferguson passed a sentence of death. An appeal was lodged on the ground that the murdered man's dying depositions were wrongly admitted in evidence. The appeal was upheld, and a new trial ordered on September 2. The jury had to consider whether there had been deliberate murder. After only 45 minutes, the jury again found Simpson guilty. The media reported that Simpson had made an outburst of obscene language against the judges while he was being removed to the cells. He later made an appeal to the High Court that was refused. A letter written to the Minister for Justice by Simpson was never made public. 

On the morning of December 10, after he slept well through the night, William George Gordon Simpson ate a hearty breakfast and smoked a last cigarette. At 9am he was led to the scaffold. When asked if he has any last words, he did not reply. Death was instantaneous. 

I was initially intrigued over why Simpson was allowed to carry a revolver with him in the car. After further reading it was revealed that Constable Flynn did not regard him as dangerous but also that Flynn had searched Simpson, but the revolver was hidden in his sock and on the side of the boot.

A plaque dedicated to the memory of Guy Chalmers Clift on the Cordeaux Dam wall.


I have received feedback from Deidre D'arcy about this story. Deidre wrote that her father Norman Percival heard the shots and that it all played out on Wilton Road, across the paddock from Northampton Dale (outside the entrance to what is now the turkey farm). She explained that Ellen D'arcy was driving her sulky into town from her family farm when Simpson tried to jump into the sulky. She "took off at the gallop towards the police station in Appin".

Written by Andrew Allen


Whitaker, Anne-Maree 2005

Appin: The Story of a Macquarie Town

Adelaide Chronicle 15 March 1924, The Sun 11 March 1924, The Herald (Melbourne) 27 November 1924, Evening News (Sydney) 11 March 1924

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