In the 1870s, Benalla’s two medical men, Dr Nicholson and Dr Henry, took leave at different times, so as not to leave the town without a doctor.
However, it sometimes happened that one or indeed both would be called away to attend an emergency.
If that happened, anyone dying in circumstances that, by law, required an autopsy or a coroner’s inquest had to be kept unburied to await Dr Henry’s return.
Appointed in October 1870, Dr Henry was the Benalla’s Deputy Coroner. The Coroner previously appointed had resigned almost immediately when he learnt that he would not be reimbursed for his expenses.
Before refrigeration, bodies were stored somewhere cool to await Dr Henry’s return.
During that time only persons authorised by the Coroner or the Deputy Coroner were permitted access to the body.
Perhaps the coolest place in Benalla was not the cellar of the Commercial Hotel.
However, George Sharpe, Justice of the Peace and Shire President, presided over coronial inquiries. He also owned the Commercial Hotel.
So it was in the cellar of his hotel that all bodies awaiting autopsy were stored.
However, Dr Henry had not authorised anyone to have access to bodies stored there. This meant that no-one could enter the cellar to change a keg when one ran out.
This led to bitter complaints in letters to the editors of local newspapers during one hot summer Dr Henry was away. There were three bodies in the cellar of the Commercial Hotel awaiting his return. No-one could buy beer in the hotel. The kegs had run out. No-one could enter the cellar to change the lines until Dr Henry conducted his three autopsies.
Although we have no records now to prove it, we can presume that George Sharpe arranged for a cellarman to be authorised by Dr Henry to enter the cellar and change keg lines for all future occasions.
That way, Sharpe’s customers could continue to drink beer at his hotel and he could continue to be paid for body storage. George Sharpe was a shrewd businessman.
This was not the only time the issue arose.
In 1881, James Dick was critically injured at Chiltern when a brake handle of a train being shunted hit him in the belly. He was returned to his Benalla home. Dr Nicholson attended. Dick died the next morning. Although a doctor had examined him, the Coroner refused to allow his body to be buried or moved until an inquest had been conducted. This was as the law required.
It was February, but Magistrate Wyatt, acting as Coroner, saw no urgency. He held the inquest eight days later. By that time, those living in the street where the body was kept had all moved out.
To Dr Nicholson’s fury, the town blamed the smell on him for not issuing a death certificate.
No doubt eager to encourage business for his cellar, George Sharpe railed in local newspapers about storage of Dick’s body in a domestic residence.
— John Barry, ANZAC Commemorative Working Party, Coo-ee — Honouring our WWI heroes