Friday 11th November 1938. Brisbane, Queensland, Australia. Marjorie Norval, a thirty year old unattached female public servant and personal assistant to the then State Premier’s wife goes missing.
The press have a field day and conspiracy theories abounded.
As a result, a large otherwise undisturbed Establishment pillar, was reluctantly lifted, albeit partially, uncovering some inconvenient truths, and driving the public rumour mill culminating in a public coronial inquiry five years later.
This story hopes to provide an unbiased, apolitical, and as factual as possible log of the series of events leading up to Marjorie Norval’s disappearance in 1938 (the year before the official start of the Second World War 1939-1945) and the subsequent investigation culminating in an coronial inquest in 1943 in Brisbane, the first of its kind in Queensland to be conducted under amendments to the Coroner’s legislation that thereafter included missing person cases to be heard.
A MISSING PERSON
Many of the political figures of the day, prominent citizens, high profile police, doctors (some of dubious practice), and back street abortionists became very uncomfortable with the attention. Indeed one medico of the time complained that his practice suffered as a result of what he felt was unjustified police surveillance of his surgery.
Inferences of political and legal interference, a cover up, a doctor alleged to be a spy for the Japanese, the subsequent suicide of the Speaker of the Queensland parliament all came under the press microscope.
Whether it be a missing person or a murder investigation, locating the last person to have seen the victim alive, and the first person to find the victim (often sadly at that stage a dead one), is crucial to any investigation.
Indeed it is a fact that was highlighted in a comment made by the Brisbane City Coroner Mr. J. J. Leahy SM at Marjorie Norval’s subsequent coronial hearing in 1943. During his summing up at the end of the inquiry he stated inter alia:-
“The story is an improbable one (referring to aspects of alleged final moments of Marjorie being seen alive) but still it is the only evidence obtainable as to where she was last seen alive. She did not leave for Bundaberg that night. An important link in the chain of evidence which would have revealed her real destination that night is missing”.
Of course missing persons often become so for numerous reasons. Sadly some of these otherwise physically healthy law abiding citizens are located post suicide. Some may fake their own disappearance. Some are felons who disappear within the criminal world who become “missing” as an occupational hazard. Some just don’t want to be found. Some don’t realise through mental health issues for example that they are considered missing.
Many families have a skeleton in the cupboard. The Norval family were no different except Marjorie’s physical skeleton needed to be found and to this date never has.
Marjorie Rose Norval’s entry to this world was on the 30th day of March 1908 in Brisbane, Queensland Australia. The daughter of James Stewart NORVAL & Rose NORVAL (nee Keegan) the parents to not only Marjorie but to her siblings Gladys Mary NORVAL, Arthur Stewart NORVAL, Roy William NORVAL and Grace NORVAL (and a sixth child that died in infancy)
Sadly Marjorie was last seen alive on the 11th November 1938 at around 7 p.m. after having apparently being dropped off by car at Brisbane Central Railway Station by a long standing male friend.
She had made it known that her intention, whether truth or subterfuge, was in order to take a train journey to Bundaberg, Queensland where she had family connections. The male friend who dropped off Marjorie, a Mr James EAST was claimed to be the last person to see Marjorie alive.
Her last recorded words were said to have been “Don’t forget the tickets”, said to James East and was a reference to a planned future Brisbane theatre performance.
As much as it is possible to compile a personal and character profile of the real Marjorie there is only what is on record of her career within the Queensland public service, press articles, matters held on public record at the Queensland State Government Archives and some other credible inferences of her private life from close friends and relatives held on record.
Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that Marjorie was an intelligent and career minded individual who was well read, goal orientated with a vivacious character. Her career within the Queensland Public Service saw her rub shoulders with some of the political elite of the day.
Despite the imbalance in career opportunities within the genders during Marjorie’s era her achievement in the public service was recognised by being appointed to assist male members (albeit a comparatively supporting role) within the Loans Council of the State of Queensland which would say much for her ability during a time when male domination was the norm.
Marjorie was also well known amongst the social circle in the fledgling city of Brisbane and attended and often was involved in arranging numerous social and quasi-political functions.
Her duties allowed some access and freedoms to a varied social life that would be commensurate with her associated job as the personal assistant to Mrs Forgan-Smith, the wife of the then Premier of the State William Forgan-Smith.
By those inferences Marjorie’s lifestyle may have seemed to some at the time as somewhat unconventional and perhaps not was expected of a young unattached debutant of the day, for in that early part of the 20th century the still developing state had based many of its social etiquette and legal foundations on the laws and traditions of the Mother country.
Should Marjorie had been born thirty years ago as opposed to over one hundred, her lifestyle may well have been little different to any socially active present day younger person.
Oddly, at least for someone as well organised as Marjorie, she had never made a will, and in November 1940 an application was made to the Supreme Court in Brisbane to swear the death of Marjorie by her mother Rose, who subsequently was nominated to be the executrix of Marjorie’s estate.
In May 1941 it was reported that “Letters of administration in the estate of Marjorie Norval were granted today. Her estate consisted of £440 gross personally. Miss Norval’s disappearance on November ll. 1938 has never been solved. She left no will. The estate will go to her mother”
The amount of £440.00 would have been seen in 1941 as a substantial amount (Marjorie’s salary at the time was in the region of £200.00 pa). However when taking into consideration it was made up of a death component to government employee superannuation and life insurance, plus outstanding salary and personal savings it would perhaps put a better perspective on Marjorie’s wealth status.
No doubt the nett figure which could well have included legal costs and expenses would have left much less to be shared between Marjorie’s mother and her four siblings.
THE ‘FRANK BARNES’ BILL
Up until 1943 missing persons were considered just that, and did not generally if at all fall within the judicial Coronial Inquiry system, and so Marjorie’s demise was set to become one of the dormant missing person records but for, so they say, the agitation of an independent politician in the seat of Bundaberg who it could be claimed was a catalyst for the changes in legislation leading to a coronial hearing.
The disappearance of Marjorie Norval became subject of wide comment and conjecture both inside and outside of Parliament.
Mr. J. F. Barnes, M.L.A. for Bundaberg, was prominent in the discussions and in questions in Parliament concerning the case; so much so that when the Attorney-General Mr. Gledson when speaking on amendments to the Coroners Act in Parliament Mr. Barnes asked ‘Why not call it. Straight out ‘The Frank Barnes Bill?’ ‘
Mr. Gledson (in Hansard) retorted that he “did not know that it had anything to do with Frank Barnes or any other Barnes. It had to do with every person in the State”. Mr. Barnes told the House that he welcomed the Bill very much and that it would be well that the inquiry should be brought on quickly. He said he had done everything he could to get the Government to answer certain questions connected with the Marjorie Norval case, but he found it impossible to get answers.
The changes in the Queensland Coroners Act (and some might say as a result of constant badgering of the government of the day by independent MLA Frank Barnes of Bundaberg) allowed Marjorie’s story to be aired in the way of a public Coronial inquiry.
Of note, as previously mentioned is that fact that Marjorie’s subsequent Coronial hearing was one of the first, if indeed not the first to be heard at a Coroner’s Court engaged in the inquest of a missing person.
On the 29th April 1943 the press displayed the following story:-
“Order for Norval Inquiry. Acting on Crown instructions, the City Coroner (Mr. J. J. Leahy, S.M.) will hold an inquiry into the disappearance of Miss Marjorie Norval. Miss Norval, a State Public Servant, employed in Brisbane, disappeared more than four years ago. Mr. J. A. Sheehy (Crown Prosecutor) has been appointed to assist the Coroner. The hearing will not begin for at least two weeks. Mr. Leahy said last night that he was engaged in other important matters at the moment, and would fix the date of the hearing after consultation with Mr. Sheehy. Decision to order the holding of the inquiry follows the giving of the Royal Assent to the Coroners’ Act as amended by the State Parliament last session. The alterations include a provision for the holding of inquiries about people who have been missing for 12 months or more. The provision applies retrospectively. It stipulated that a Coroner may hold an inquiry at his own volition, at the direction of the Minister, or on the request of some other authorised person, including a relative or guardian of a missing person. Any witness at an inquiry who, without reasonable excuse, refuses to give evidence or who refuses to take an oath or be examined on oath or to produce books or documents when requested to do so may be committed to gaol by the Coroner until he consents to be examined or to produce the required books or documents.”
SEARCH PARTY TRAGEDY
Also featuring in this story was the sad loss of a search party involved in an air search for Ms Norval.
For on November 28, 1938, an R.A.A.F. Seagull amphibian engaged by the police, crashed at Alberton ferry, near Beenleigh. Air crew members — Flying Officer Max J. Wiber, A/C. Eric A. Everett, and A/C. Albert E. Milner— with Water Police Constable George Robert Young, were killed. A subsequent and separate Coronial Inquiry was held, and it was determined that the aircraft had accidentally collided with some overhead power lines, causing it to crash with the subsequent death of all crew members on board.
It is indicative of the mystery that the Coroner’s findings in the Norval case on Friday 4th June 1943 could only go as far as “the belief that when she disappeared on November 11 1938, the missing woman went to an abortionist, from whose place she never left alive”.
Despite the inquest Marjorie was never found alive or her body found, nor any culprit associated with her disappearance. No conclusive evidence of an unborn child relating to the event from that day forth has been proved.
It could be argued that from a criminal trial perspective there is very little conclusive evidence that shows “beyond reasonable doubt” (the standard of proof generally required in criminal trials) that Marjorie was definitely pregnant at the time of her disappearance.
Inferences, hearsay evidence and innuendo that would not stand the scrutiny of cross examination in a criminal trail where the substance of the evidence would have to be stronger and indeed in many cases in such a trial would not be admissible.
However generally speaking “evidence” given in a Coronial hearing can be adduced and accepted under different circumstances.
For example, “hearsay” evidence (i.e. statements made by people who do not have first-hand knowledge of an issue but simply repeat the information that they have heard from someone else and that they cannot vouch for the accuracy or credibility of such information) is often challenged or excluded in criminal trials, whereas in order to determine a finding a Coroner may lawfully allow such evidence to be given.
The testimony of the witnesses provided by the Crown and the circumstantial evidence put before the Court it is perhaps understandable that the Coroner came to his conclusion.
However this is not necessarily an adverse reflection on the investigation made by the Police or the subsequent Coronial Inquiry as such. These investigative bodies worked within the skills, technology and legal parameters available at the time, and it is perhaps understandable that the Coronial hearing came to the aforementioned verdict with the evidence put before it.
In that era there were many criminal charges brought under the Queensland Criminal Code Act involving cases of “unlawfully using force on a woman with intent to procure a miscarriage” prior to and after the Norval disappearance.
Suspected abortionists (in cases unrelated to the Norval matter) were brought before the likes of Mr Leahy SM and these cases were often sent for trail to the higher courts.
During his time as City Coroner Leahy also presided over several cases of death caused as a result of botched procedures performed not only by “back street” abortionists but also those suspected of being carried out by medical practitioners.
Mr. Leahy’s experiences of presiding over such cases could well have been a contributing consideration when deliberating on the demise of Marjorie.
Conspiracy theorists may well argue that the high profile investigation instigated by the government of the day may have been a whitewash and an attempt to quell public concern and may have well argued that the inquiry would have had a pre-determined politically acceptable outcome.
Marjorie’s professional and social connection with the political elite and the pressure and agitation from the MLA for Bundaberg at the time Frank Barnes (nicknamed “Bombshell Barnes” for his often wildly speculative varied allegations made both inside and outside of the protection of parliament) could not be discounted as factors for the matter to be brought to a seek a conclusion once and for all.
Unusually in the case of Marjorie’s disappearance the State Government offered a substantial reward of £500 for information leading to Marjorie’s discovery.
As far as records show no one was ever recorded as having attempted to make a claim.
That is not to say that numerous claims were made, most in good faith that sadly became red herrings of Marjorie’s demise including her body having been buried at sea, her body buried in the bush, that she had become a stowaway on a ship bound for Europe, that she was being harboured by a doctor (presumably after having had an abortion). In the case of one of Frank Barnes’ allegations was that that she had been “shanghaied” to the USA.
Startling evidence was given at the inquiry in 1943 by one of Marjorie’s male associates, a Mr John Gibbs that he had personally sighted her briefly in the Strand London in the UK in 1939 whilst he was on a business trip the year after she had been reported missing, albeit he was unable to convince the Coroner of his evidence and the Crown Prosecutor assisting the Coroner inferred ulterior motives of the witness and Gibbs’ testimony as considered fanciful and dismissed by Mr Leahy as a “mistaken impression”.
ABORTION IN THE 1930’s
Speculation as to Marjorie’s pregnancy or otherwise was either inferred or denied with the evidence produced to the Coronial hearing.
In Marjorie’s era legislative and social attitude changes with respect of such issues as women’s rights in for example medical care and support in pregnancy out of wedlock (or in some cases inside marriage) with its accompanying social stigma was slow in coming, and some may argue the issue of abortion has still not been legally (or morally) resolved.
Albeit there was information on birth control it was seen at the time as almost a black market commodity and was considered to border on illegality for its supply.
Ironically it would seem some members of parliament who were of the Catholic faith had undergone surgical contraceptive procedures and were keen not to let the fact be known.
There were also those in the macabre market place of abortion services who were prepared to exploit vulnerable women both married and single by clever advertising, promotion and sale of “confidential” literature and products that would assist in their predicament.
These unscrupulous merchants it seemed were also able to refer their customers to financially motivated, unethical and often well socially connected medically trained professionals who were discreet in their services provided to the upper end of society, or the same merchants had contacts with unqualified cheaper alternative practitioners in the case of the less well to do.
A name that became evident in the 1930’s was a medical practitioner Dr Arthur John ROSS. His name is mentioned in the testimony of a witness at the inquiry and also that of testimony provided by the infamous Detective Sergeant Frank Bischof (a freemason and later to become Commissioner of Police)*
ROSS’ exploits included his later trial in 1953 for procuring a woman to miscarriage. In that 1953 trial ROSS’ defence in part relied on the matter of R-v-Bourne in England in 1938 (in which Bourne’s matter set a legal precedent).
In brief the UK case involved a 14 year old girl was raped by five soldiers and became pregnant as a result. An eminent gynaecologist (Dr Bourne) performed a pro-bono abortion and was charged with the offence of conducting an illegal abortion. Dr Bourne was acquitted. Mr Justice Macnaghten in his summing up of the Bourne matter said in part:
“If the doctor is of the opinion, on reasonable grounds and with adequate knowledge, that the probable consequence of the continuance of the pregnancy will be to make the woman a physical or mental wreck, the jury are entitled to take the view that the doctor is operating for the purpose of preserving the life of the mother”
Historically some Queensland cases in Brisbane Queensland Australia as recent as R- v Bayliss & Cullen 1986 in Brisbane and R-v- Leach and Brennan in 2010. In the matter of R-v-Leach & Brennan where Mr Michael Byrne for the Crown told the jury it was not their job to decide the fairness of the law and not to be guided by their personal feelings on abortion. He went on to say: “You are sitting in a court of law, not a court of morals.”
Furthermore he remarked that if jurors wanted to see the law changed, the place to do it was at the ballot box, not the courtroom.
This story is not to pass any moral, ethical, religious or legal judgements. A caveat to that statement is that it would take extreme detachment not to feel some emotional bias for the often helpless victims whose plight was also highlighted as a result of the Police and Coroner’s investigations.
The “Who, What, Why and When” issues in Marjorie Norval’s case are intriguing. Time has given us the opportunity to re-examine those facts and researching the activities of some of the people involved ‘post Marjorie.’
The author of this story holds no particular religious or spiritual beliefs. It is hoped that should Marjorie have held any that they may have given some comfort for her and any unborn child she may have been carrying in their last moments on this planet.
Frank Church © 2014
*In May 1987 Acting Queensland Premier Bill Gunn ordered a commission of inquiry into possible police corruption involving illegal gambling and prostitution. Tony Fitzgerald QC was appointed to lead the “Commission of Inquiry into Possible Illegal Activities and Associated Police Misconduct”, known as the Fitzgerald Inquiry. Adverse findings were established against Frank Bischof, a freemason who had risen to the post of Commissioner of Police from January 1958 until his resignation, on the 13 February 1969, amidst allegations of corruption. As a Detective Sergeant he was one of the investigators in the Norval Inquiry. He died in 1979.
Note from the author:
The catalyst for this story was serendipitous. I am an ex law enforcement officer. I just happened to come across a bundle of old Australian newspapers and read the story of Marjorie Norval. For some strange reason her photo triggered my curiosity to set off on a research project to ask ‘what ever happened to Marjorie Norval?
My research involved amongst other things, obtaining transcripts, interviewing retired police, and from others wishing to remain anonymous.
My references included:
“The Most Dangerous Man in Australia” (Dr J Ross) by Barbara Winter with permission.
Glass House Books Brisbane. ISBN 9781921479847
The Queensland Government, State Archives Runcorn Brisbane Qld.
The Workshops Rail Museum, Ipswich Queensland.
Special thanks to:-
Rachel Anne Photography. Rachelannephotography.com.au
To those who have offered their recollections of some of the persons events and locations. Their wish to remain anonymous shall be respected.