Frederick Lewington: stabbing at Coogee, 1898

Frederick Lewington, whose mother Ellen was an Aboriginal woman born at York, was granted a block of land on the shores of Thomson’s Lake in 1894 as part of an agreement between the Colonial Secretary’s Office and his mother.

Little is recorded of the next five years, but presumably Frederick and his parents lived happily on their block during that time. The next time Frederick appears in any records is at Christmas 1898, when he was involved in a serious assault on a labourer at the home of an old Coogee convict.

Frederick Lewington and Harriet Johnson

Frederick - about 23 years old at the time - had been having an affair with Harriet, the wife of Alexander Johnson for about two years. Johnson was a labourer who spent much of his time away from home. 

Johnson and Frederick  had known each other since childhood, and had always been friendly. Johnson, by his own admission, had known about their affair ‘all the time’, and hadn’t lived with his wife since she went away from him the first time. Knowing about it had never prevented him from asking Frederick to shout him drinks, which he still did regularly when at home.  

Walter Spiller’s house

On Christmas Day 1898, the three of them gathered at the house of Walter Spiller, an ex-convict who had been transported to Western Australia in 1856. The community at Coogee was small, and probably even smaller for socially excluded people like ex-convicts and Aboriginal men. It isn’t surprising that they knew one another.

The fight on Christmas Day

Spiller’s small stone house on the south shore of Lake Coogee became the site of a violent dispute, when Johnson accused Frederick of ‘going after’ his wife, and told him they should settle the matter with a fight.

Johnson took his coat off and began to threaten Frederick, who charged at him with a knife and stabbed him between the ribs, puncturing his lung. The knife, it was later stated, was an old possession that Frederick used daily to cut his tobacco.

Police response

Johnson was in hospital for 36 days, and at the inquest in February was still in a very weakened state. When the crime was first reported, the police were told Johnson had been ‘stabbed to death’, and it took them some hours to get out to Coogee with help.  

Though the fight had happened at about 7pm Sunday night, Johnson did not arrive at Fremantle hospital until early Monday morning. Turn-of-the-century Coogee was an isolated district.

Frederick’s remorse

Harriet Johnson gave evidence that as soon as he had done it, Frederick was remorseful. He ‘walked up to where they had carried her husband and said: “I am sorry for what I have done, and if it had not been for my temper and the grog, I would not have done it.”’

The grog is probably what did for both of them: although newspaper accounts take care to describe Johnson as only having one glass of wine, it seems fairly obvious that this situation, which had not been an issue for nearly two years, was brought to a head by some liberal Christmas imbibing.

Trial and sentencing

The judge in Frederick’s case took hardly any time to come to a conclusion: although Frederick had been challenged to a fight, it was a ‘cowardly act’ to attack someone with a concealed weapon. If it were not for the circumstances surrounding the case, he said, he would have ‘felt it his duty to have sent him to penal servitude’.

Once the jury had found Frederick guilty, the judge sentenced him to 12 months hard labour. What ‘the circumstances’ are, we can only guess. Did the judge mean that Frederick had been provoked into action? Or was he referring to Lewington’s Aboriginal heritage?

Reporting on the case

During the case, Frederick had been described as ‘a medium-sized half caste’ by the press, and during the initial inquest it was reported that ‘the accused’s mother, a Western Australian aboriginal, was present in court, and watched the proceedings with considerable interest’.

Though cases of lurid or shocking crimes were often picked up by newspapers nationwide and reported on, the angle of an Aboriginal man stabbing a white man was not lost on the papers of the young nation. Papers in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania and New South Wales all repeated the news during the early months of 1899, all using the term ‘half-caste’.

Outcome of criminal charges and later life

Though it is not recorded, it seems likely that Frederick’s crime and subsequent prison sentence were the reasons behind his land grant being cancelled. It was recorded in 1905, when the Chief Protector of Aborigines was notified that Frederick’s mother was ‘wandering about uncared for by her son’, that Frederick’s right to the reserve had been cancelled. 

Frederick may have gone to live with his father on Fawcett Road, beside Lake Coogee, when his land was taken away from him. It is definite that he got married in 1909, to a Margaret Elizabeth Thompson of Fremantle, and inherited his father’s Coogee property when Robert died in 1921.

In later life, Frederick went on to become a fisherman along the Cockburn coast. When he died in 1928, he was 52, and his funeral was paid for by the government.

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