Robert Howard aka ‘Nosey Bob’
One of Bondi’s most infamous residents in the late 19th century was Robert Howard, better known as ‘Nosey Bob’. Born in Norwich, England in 1832, he migrated to Australia in 1861. He was a handsome, tall, blue-eyed young man, who worked for many years as a 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. Acquiring the nickname of ‘Nosey Bob’, the society ladies who had previously hired Howard’s cab began avoiding him and business fell away 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, Howard finally accepted the unwanted post of the State’s first salaried hangman. His wages were £150 annually, although 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 Howard also hanged seven men at Old Dubbo Gaol.
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 decorum, causing 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 Gaol 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. Howard miscalculated the drop necessary to hang the prisoners, and while one died instantly, the others struggled for several minutes.
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, 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.
Howard lived in one of the first tiny timber cottages built at Bondi Beach on Ben Buckler Point. 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 collected the 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.
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.
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 in section 2, with his wife Jane.