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The Hangman of Ben Buckler
“Nosey Bob” was born Robert Rice Howard in Norwich, England in 1832 and migrated to Australia in 1861. He worked as a cabman in Sydney and was very successful; owning his own hansom cab, having built a profitable clientele among the wealthy residents of Darling Point. His good looks and height (the Mudgee Guardian once described him as someone who "passed for an Adonis amongst the horsey crowd”) undoubtedly aided his popularity.
But tragedy struck during the height of his popularity. He was kicked in the face by a young horse at a stable in Bligh Street and his nose was irreparably smashed, creating the impression that he had no nose at all. In keeping with the cruelty of those times, he was given the ironic nickname Nosey Bob.
Following his accident, Robert’s old clientele began avoiding him and his business soon began to fall apart. With his career in pieces, he was forced to look elsewhere for work. However, because of his startling appearance, finding work was not easy. Unemployed, shunned by society and out of options, Robert decided to accept the unwanted post of New South Wales State hangman.
Robert hanged felons across New South Wales, but almost half of his work was completed at the imposing Darlinghurst Gaol where he hanged some of the most famous criminals of colonial Sydney, including Louisa Collins, the "Borgia of Botany", the last woman to be hanged in the State of New South Wales. As a hangman, Robert performed 66 executions at Darlinghurst Jail, 7 at Old Dubbo Jail and acted as “guest hangman” in other states and even in New Zealand.
Despite his “success” as a hangman, Howard continued to struggle socially. He not only faced abuse and insult due to his disfigurement, he was now also loathed as a hangman, due both to changing societal attitudes AND the fact that he tended to botch them from time to time, causing either unnecessarily prolonged deaths or near decapitations. (It all comes down to body weight and the length of the drop.)
He retired from his hangman career of 30 years in 1904, died in 1906 and is buried in Waverley Cemetery.
Robert lived in a tiny timber cottage located at 103 Brighton Boulevard. It was one of the first cottages built at Bondi Beach, on (then lonely) Ben Buckler Point. Today there’s a small block of flats on that site … pictured above.
Robert's hobby was shark hunting. He would set bait, and then use his horse to assist him in pulling the shark out of the water (Truth, 15 January 1899). He had a large collection of shark jaws to show for this.
Robert also liked a drink, but due to his disfigurement, didn’t like to go out in public or visit pubs. He famously trained a horse to carry a billy and make the return trip from his home to a local establishment across the bay, Dunlop’s Cliff Hotel House on the site of the present Astra Hotel. The billy carried a sixpence there and beer on the way back. Larrikins would sometimes try to intercept the money, sometimes the beer; but the horse was trained to resist those scoundrels.
The story of Nosey Bob (told with flair and forensic detail in a 2022 book by State Librarian Rachel Franks) is useful to understanding changing attitudes towards capital punishment in Australia, and how generally enthusiastic spectators at early executions were overtaken by campaigners for the abolition of the death penalty toward the end of his career.
An Uncommon Hangman: The life and deaths of Robert 'Nosey Bob’ Howard
by Rachel Franks, UNSW Press, May 2022
Table Talk, 20 August 1897, p2
1."Nosey Bob"Robert Rice Howard, 1832 to 1906
2 & 3. From The Bulletin, 31 January 1880, Source: National Library of Australia
4. Nosey Bob's North Bondi Cottage | Source: Melbourne: State Library of Victoria
5. North Bondi Location Today
6. An Uncommon Hangman: The life and deaths of Robert 'Nosey Bob’ Howard
Rachel Franks, UNSW Press, May 2022
7. Louisa Collins, the last woman hanged in NSW, State Archives & Records New South Wales
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