The Bungendore Bones

From the October 1950 issue of the APJ

Police investigate a suspicious death in remote NSW during the Great Depression, with inquiries extending overseas.

Few cases in police history have provided a more interesting study in investigation methods than the inquiries nineteen years ago into the few charred remains that became known at the time as the ''Bungendore bones.'' 

On the afternoon of 19th November, 1931, a Bungendore grazier named Bernard Cunningham was mustering sheep on his property when he noticed a number of crows rise from a gully in one of his paddocks about seven miles from Bungendore. Investigating, he found the remains of what had no doubt been a large fire, and on searching in the ashes for the attraction for the crows he saw some bones and the barrel of a rifle. 

Cunningham advised Bungendore police of his discovery and the following morning a sergeant of police and one of the local doctors went to the scene where the latter pronounced the bones to be human remains. Sydney was informed and two detectives immediately left for Bungendore to take over the inquiry. 

It was found that the fire had apparently been formed as a funeral pyre. On one side it had been built against a fallen tree running east-west; then south, east, and west foundations had been formed by rolling logs into position to form a rectangular frame 10 feet long and eight feet wide. On this framework dry wood had been stacked. Exposed earth patches about the fire, and the amount of ashes remaining showed that a large quantity of wood had been burnt in the fire. The bones and rifle barrel were in the centre of the fire's boundaries.

Thorough search of the ashes revealed:-

  1. (a) Sacrum; (b) pelvis; (c) lumbar vertebrae; (d) head of a femur; (e) scapula, with head of humerus; (f) pieces of broken skull; (g) twenty-one teeth; (h) other small pieces of charred bone.
  2. The barrel of a 'Maine' J .22 calibre, single shot rifle containing a discharged case in the breech.
  3. A man's gold wristlet watch.
  4. A ‘Vaun’ key.
  5. A nail file.
  6. A nickel cigarette case.
  7. A belt buckle.
  8. Two trousers clips.
  9. A bottle opener.
  10. The fastener buttons of a wallet.
  11. 10s. 5d. in copper and silver money.

It seemed that the main fire had been started in three places, at the north, south, and east edges. Experienced bushmen who were brought to examine the remains of the fire on 20th November, agreed that the fire was probably a month old.

Some of the metal articles found in the ashes. 1. Bottle opener; 2. Tie-pin; 3. Key; 4. Watch; 5. Nail file; 6. Pieces from trousers; 7. Cigarette case; 8. Buckle.

A resident of the district named Hugh Harriott reported having seen the smoke from what seemed to be a large fire on either the 26th or 27th October. 

No sign of nearby camp, foot or hoof tracks, or vehicle marks, was found in a close search of the surrounding country within a radius of four miles, save those recently made by Cunningham and the police party. The only article indicating the presence of anyone in the vicinity was a weatherbeaten empty cigarette packet near the fire. No strangers had been seen in the locality during the weeks preceding the discovery of the fire, which was not strange since the fire had occurred on a lonely piece of country some miles from the nearest house and over three miles from a road.

The human remains were submitted to the Senior Government Medical Officer, the late Dr. A. A. Palmer, who consulted Professor Birkett of the Sydney University School of Anatomy. Professor Birkett subsequently reported that they were the remains of one person, a European male between 20 and 26 years, tall, and powerfully built.

Photographs and descriptions of the key and watch were published in Sydney newspapers, but with no useful result. Details of the key, including its number, were cabled to Scotland Yard for inquiries of the Yale and Town Company in Staffordshire for the name and address of the person or firm to whom the lock (and keys) bearing the number quoted had been sent. The reply showed that this was one of a consignment out in February, 1929, to the firm of Wormald Brothers in Waterloo (Sydney), well-known steel locker manufacturers.

Wormald Brothers supplied the detectives with the names of all places where steel lockers had been installed after the arrival in Sydney of the shipment containing this key. The process of elimination led police to the Y.M.C.A. in Pitt-street, Sydney, where it was found that the locker to which this key belonged was installed, and had been used since being received by a young man named Scott [name changed], a member of the association, who was the only person entitled to have possession of the key. 

Whilst the initial inquiries had been proceeding at Bungendore, before this information was received from England, it was learnt that Scott's relatives had reported him missing since 6th October, 1931. The detectives on the investigation interviewed a brother of the missing man who failed to mention the locker at the Y.M.C.A., or to identify, the watch, although it later transpired that this brother had purchased the watch some seven years before and given it to the missing youth in 1928. 

The watch was submitted to examination by a metallurgist who treated the melted metal with acids, revealing four figures of its number, and after the missing man, Scott, had been connected with the Y.M.C.A. locker, the brother was again seen by police and he then informed them that if it was his brother's watch it was purchased from a man named Barber at Bondi. Barber remembered having received the watch he had sold to Scott on two occasions subsequent to the sale for repairs, and he identified the number restored in the watch case as part of the number of that watch, which was recorded in his books. Scott's description, as given by his family, corresponded with that given by Professor Birkett of the man whose remains had been found. He was 21 years of age when he disappeared on the 6th October. The relatives were shown the remaining metal pieces from the fire and stated that they could have belonged to the missing man, being similar to articles he had owned. 

Extensive inquiries to trace the rifle barrel resulted in Scott being identified as its purchaser from Mick Simmons Ltd., Sydney, on 9th October, 1931. 

Statements from the missing man's relatives showed that he had been depressed for two months prior to his leaving home at Bondi (Sydney) on 19th October. He had been employed as a lift driver by a city firm, and during the week of his disappearance had been laid off as a result of the rationing of work in operation in that depression period. For some reason he had decided to stay with his brother at Lakemba during this week, and on the 6th of the month he left his brother's home at 10 a.m., signifying an intention of visiting his brother's place of employment at Alexandria. He did not arrive there, but at 8.30 that night he telephoned a sister at Bondi and informed her that he had rung to say goodbye. Upon his sister suggesting that he should come to her home and say goodbye properly he said, ''Don't argue with me, I’m going.'' This was the last heard of Scott by any of his relatives or friends. 

The sister later told police that some weeks before this telephone conversation the missing youth had said to her, “I am getting on to 21; I am not manly enough. I would not care if I died tomorrow.” When asked for an explanation he said, “You don't understand.” 

The missing youth's father stated that about two months before the 6th October his son had said to him, “You know I want to be a man and you to be proud of me. You are not proud of me, are you?” About this time the father sought medical advice on his son's mental condition and the youth informed the doctor that he had lost interest in things and had “lost his personality.” The doctor's opinion was that his patient had developed an inferiority complex, that he had a gloomy outlook on life, and could possibly develop suicidal tendencies. 

Also about this time the father, one morning, discovered his rifle under the son's mattress and on inquiring the reason was told that it was “for burglars, I suppose.” When the youth disappeared his father made a search of his son's belongings and found a savings bank withdrawal form, signed and made out for the total amount in the passbook, some thirty-odd pounds, but undated.

At this stage of the investigation it was considered that there was ample evidence that the remains found in the ashes were those of Scott and efforts were then made to trace this person's movements after the 6th October.  A circular including Scott’s description and photograph was sent to every police station in south-eastern New South Wales for inquiries to be made with this aim in mind. As a result, it was found that Scott was in Tarago, 20 miles from Bungendore, on the 20th October, at which place and time he was in the company of two men in a car. About this date he was also seen at Brook's Creek Bridge in that locality, and on the 24th October he was seen walking alone towards Brook's Creek on the Federal Highway near Bywong, three miles from the spot where his remains were found. Those were the only movements of Scott which could be traced. 

The investigating police were, at this stage, satisfied that they had ample evidence that Scott, as a result of a deranged mental condition, had premeditated suicide for some weeks, at least, before his disappearance, and had, on the 26th or 27th October, after wandering about the country for nearly three weeks, built himself a funeral pyre in a lonely part of the bush and, after setting it alight in three places, had climbed on top and shot himself with the rifle he had bought on the 9th October for this purpose.

Share this article:

Become an APJ subscriber now

Want to read more posts like this one and stay up to date with the latest in Australian policing news? Subscribe to the Australian Police Journal.

What are you looking for?

Browse by Topic


Not a subscriber?


Some articles and images within the Australian Police Journal are extremely detailed and graphic, and may be distressing to some readers. By ticking the below box you are confirming that you acknowledge this warning, are over 18, and will not allow children who are under 18 to access the publication.