Sunday, June 14, 2009

The Death of Dr. Claude Tozer

February 2009 marked the 100th anniversary of the marriage of Harold Sutcliffe Mort to Dorothy Woodruff that was held in Chatswood. The marriage would lead into one of the great tragedies of post World War One Sydney, involving both the Mort family and an eminent young Sydney doctor Claude John Tozer.

Just after the end of the First World War, Tozer was one of the best known and admired of all the young Sydney bachelors. He came from a prominent North Shore background having been educated at the Sydney Church of England Grammar School. He was also the maternal nephew of Dr. Percy Charlton, a test cricketer and later President of the St. Ives Cricket Club.

The A-Grade Premiership Side of the Hornsby District Cricket Association
1929-1930 - St. Ives. The President was Dr. Percy Charlton, on the left, in a suit. Photograph courtesy of the St. Ives Cricket Club.

(Click on image to enlarge)

Before the war Tozer had attended Sydney University and qualified as a Doctor of Medicine in 1914, at the age of 24. As well as being a notable student, he was, like his uncle, a fine athlete, and during this period he played first grade cricket for Sydney University and was a member of their 1913 - 1914 premiership side.

When war broke out in 1914, he enlisted and was immediately given the rank of Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corps. He served with gallantry as a battlefield doctor at Gallipoli, Egypt and on the Western Front, was badly wounded, promoted to Major and eventually awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO).

Claude Tozer, (second from left) as a battlefield doctor at Gallipoli. (Australian War Memorial photograph)

Arriving back in Australia, he quickly resumed his favourite sport – cricket, and played first grade for his new side, Gordon. His batting was so impressive that he was chosen as captain of NSW in 1920 and was fully expected to make the Australian Test side for the upcoming summer.

His business life was also thriving, after he established a successful medical practice as a GP servicing the North Shore area. At the time he was living in a house called “Shireen”, on Boundary Road in Roseville.

Only some three kilometres away, at "Inglebrae", a home in Howard Street, Lindfield, lived the Mort family – Harold Sutcliffe Mort, his wife Dorothy and two young children, Poppy (9 years) and Maurice (5 years). After marrying in Chatswood in 1909, Mort began raising his family in Lindfield where it was soon discovered that all was not well with Dorothy.

Soon after Maurice was born she began to suffer bouts of deep depression and it was suspected that she was suffering from hysteria and neurasthenia. She became so distressed that her husband decided to seek medical advice and secured the services of the local GP, Dr. Claude Tozer. This was the first link in a chain of tragedy that would end in disaster for all involved.

Dorothy Mort had become highly delusional and was totally infatuated with the dashing and handsome young doctor. She later recalled “ I loved him immediately I saw him. He was so handsome and big and splendid that I thought how wonderful a son would be of his”.

Without doubt she attempted to initiate an affair, and letters between the two later retrieved seemed to indicate that Tozer may have eventually participated. However there was also the suggestion that he went along with the idea, short of entering a physical relationship, to avoid plunging her into further depression.

The real truth may never be known but matters moved to a dark climax on the morning of December 21st 1920 when Dr. Tozer visited Mrs. Mort, telling her that he was now engaged to another woman. Mort produced a pistol and shot him three times as he sat on a couch in her living room, killing him instantly.

The police photograph of the crime scene can be viewed here
(Caution - this image may upset some people)

She then shot herself in the breast, and although severely wounded, was able to walk back to her bedroom where she took laudanum – a poison. Her housekeeper called the police soon after and the wounded Mrs. Mort was transferred to Royal North Shore Hospital.

Sydney was horrified as the news broke. Not only was one of the city’s favourite sons murdered, but in circumstances that suggested a major scandal. Dr. Claude Tozer was buried at Waverley Cemetery soon after, with flags at the SCG carried at half-mast, and several Australian test and Sheffield Shield cricketers attending the funeral.

An inquest into his death was convened and Dorothy Mort, recovering from her wound, was charged with murder. Her trial took place at the Criminal Court, Darlinghurst in April 1921, before the Chief Justice, Sir William Cullen, amidst packed auditoriums and massive newspaper interest.

Although having previously admitted her guilt to the police, she was found not guilty “by reasons of insanity” and was committed to an indefinite prison term at the State Reformatory for Women at Long Bay.

Her prison photograph taken soon after admission can be seen here.

A portrait of Dorothy Mort by Bridgette McNab

In 1927, after some 7 years in prison, a petition was presented to the Minister for Justice asking for her release. The Argus newspaper noted that

“The petition bears about 200 signatures, including that of the Dean of Sydney (Dean Talbot). It states, among other things, that Mrs. Mort is sane and that her husband is willing to take her back and give her a home with her children”.

She eventually served 9 years behind bars, with much of her time spent overseeing the prison library. She was finally released in October 1929, when “a number of medical authorities ………declared Mrs. Mort to be normal mentally”

This is the official prison photograph of Dorothy Mort taken just prior to her release.

A contemporary newspaper report of 18th October 1929 noted that

"Following on the decision of Cabinet earlier in the week, Mrs. Dorothy Mort was released from Long Bay Gaol last night. She was met by some friends, who, after congratulating her, took her to a waiting motor car, where she embraced her two children. It was a touching scene. Mrs. Mort, it is understood, will spend a few days in the country prior to leaving for a tour abroad."

Little is known of the lives of the principals after that. Harold Sutcliffe Mort died in 1950 at the age of 72 and Dorothy Mort lived on until 1966, dying at the age of 81.


  1. Had never heard the story of my Dad's mad aunt Dorothy before (my grandfather was Harold's brother) - an interesting read !

    1. Hi Anon;

      That's rather amazing that you have a direct connection with this tragic event that produced such a major reaction across Sydney at the time.

      Interestingly Dorothy Mort's house "Inglebrae" still exists as does "Shireen" where Claude Tozer lived at the time. However I dont publicly divulge the addresses as the present occupants may not know the background story.

  2. Very interesting story. Do you know if Thomas Sutcliffe Mort and Harold Sutcliffe Mort were related?

  3. Yes they were; T.S. Mort was the great uncle of H.S. Mort.

  4. Harold was my grandfather's brother. My father remembered him coming to dinner every Sunday evening. The murder was never discussed in the family and none of the nieces or nephews has any contact with Dorothy after she was released. I don't think she and uncle Harold remained together. My father said he thought she had a milinary shop (or worked in one) somewhere near Lindfield. Any information you could give on her life after relief would be appreciated. Belinda Mort,

    1. Hello Belinda;
      Certainly a tragic story and I dont know much about Dorothy's life after her release, apart from the fact that her death is registered in the District of St. Leonards in 1966. (Registration number 26410/1966 at the NSW Registry of Births, Deaths and marriages).

      She and Harold had two children - Poppy and Maurice who were only 8 and 5 respectively at the time of the murder.

      It seems that there were mental health issues on Dorothy's side of the family - her father tried to murder her mother and brother and then later committed suicide in New Zealand in 1919.

  5. My God, lol, in the 20's they just let convicted murderes free after 7 years?? Crazy!

  6. Just in case it's of interest: MRS MORT'S MADNESS by Suzanne Falkiner, Xoum books, available November 2014


    1. Thanks Anonymous - I'll certainly purchase a copy!

  7. Do you have a copy of Dorothy's death registration?

  8. This comment has been removed by the author.

    1. Thanks Shelley; Yes laudanum may well have contributed to the situation. This was alluded to in Suzanne Falkiners book "Mrs Morts Madness" - well worth a read if you haven't already done so.

  9. Even though you have not given the address of the Mort house it is now well known. It is currently for sale and under recent NSW law the history has to be disclosed to prospective buyers. It is complicated due to a change of street name since the tragic event.

    1. Thanks Mick; Yes that the reason I didn't want to publish the address - could affect the value. The same goes for "Shireen" where Tozer used to live. I know this address also but wont publicise it.