One of Bondi’s best known residents in the late 19th century was Robert Howard who was born in Norwich, England in 1832 and migrated to Australia in 1861. He was a handsome six foot (about 180 cm), blue eyed young man. For many years he was a hard working and successful cabman in Sydney. He owned his own hansom and built a profitable clientele among the wealthy residents of Darling Point.
Disaster struck when one of his horses kicked Howard in the face, completely smashing his nose and disfiguring him for life. This is how he acquired his nickname of “Nosey Bob”. The society ladies who had previously hired Howard’s cab began avoiding him and business fell a way so drastically that he had to sell out and look for another job.
His disfigurement caused people to shun him and job offers were not forthcoming. Unemployed, “Nosey Bob” finally accepted the unwanted post of the State’s first salaried hangman. His wages were 170 pounds annually (Bulletin, April 24,1893). Previously the hangman had been paid a fee for each execution. In his new career Howard carried out 66 executions at Darlinghurst Gaol, even acting as ‘guest’ hangman in other states and in New Zealand. As NSW State hangman “Nosey Bob” also hanged seven men at Old Dubbo Gaol and their stories are included in the Hangman’s Room at the Gaol, which also houses a holographic display telling the story of Robert Howard.
Socially he was a very caring individual and was said to assist any deserving case, including discharged prisoners or the families of those imprisoned or executed. This earned him another nickname, “the Gentleman Hangman”. He used to boast that every one of his executions over a 29 year career was carried out with utmost dispatch and decorum, without the least brutality or pain to the subject.
However, it was widely believed that in fact he often bungled an execution, strangling the victim in a badly tied noose. The matter was taken up by Truth, a contemporary publication, which ran a series on Howard’s botched executions. One particular incident was the hanging of four youths at Darlinghurst Jail on the morning of January 7, 1877. They had been sentenced to death for their part in the gang rape of a 16 year old girl at Mt Rennie. There was a miscalculation of the drop necessary to hang the youths. One died instantly, leaving the others struggling for several minutes. These facts were certified at the coroner’s inquest by the medical officers who attended the execution. It was a horrible end to a grim episode in the history of law and order in New South Wales.
Despite his professional success, “Nosey Bob” was not a happy man. He suffered acutely from the bitter abuse and loathing invariably meted out to executioners by the public. When he was first appointed, thrifty “Nosey Bob” Howard tried to augment his hangman’s salary by working on the side in the household of the NSW Sheriff, William Cowper. He soon relinquished the job after a dinner party given by Mrs Cowper was ruined when guests learned that the cutlery they were using had been polished by the same fingers that adjusted the noose around local murderers’ throats.
“Nosey Bob” liked his glass of beer, but as the public hangman he rarely had the courage to enter a hotel bar. When he did so the publican on his departure ceremoniously smashed any glasses that he had used. “It would do my business no good if I gave men glasses into which Nosey Bob had dipped his nose- if he had one,” a hotel keeper once explained. When he called at a hotel in Taylor Square the publican set aside a special glass for him.
Howard lived in one of the first tiny timber cottages built at Bondi Beach on lonely Ben Buckler Point. Of his home life very little is known, but he did spend his spare time gardening, and raising pigs. Even his pigs had to be sold cheaper than the going rate because of his social stigma. Another of his hobbies was shark-hunting. He would set bait, and when the shark was hooked, he would wade in, grab it by the tail, fasten a rope to his old horse, and drag it out of the water (Truth, January 15, 1899). Bob had a large collection of shark jaws around his property, and at least one MP took a sample of Bob’s sharks to England.
He had a horse which he trained to walk by itself around the beach to Dunlop’s Cliff Hotel House on the site of the present Astra Hotel. When the horse arrived the publican went out for a sealed pannikin strapped to the saddle. This was filled with beer and sent back to Nosey Bob the same way it came. The horse trotted over to the hotel, but on the way back he walked sedately being mindful of the beer.
Only a year or two after he accepted the hangman’s post, he lost his wife, Jane, who was said to have died of a broken heart at the taunts and insults her husband was forced to endure. Similarly, his three beautiful daughters were condemned to lives of lonely spinsterhood because, as the story goes, no suitor was willing to suffer the ignominy of having a hangman as father-in-law.
“Nosey Bob” Howard retired on a pension in May 1904. By this time houses were springing up everywhere on what had once been called O’Brien’s Bush. He died two years later on February 3, 1906 and is buried in Waverley Cemetery, Grave 82/83, Church of England Ordinary, Section 2, with his wife Jane.
In a contemporary publication, Truth, the following poem appeared after “Nosey Bob’s” death:
Last updated 25-May-2008