Early on the morning of Tuesday, October 1st 1957 at about 2.30am a fire engulfed the interior of the Watchtower at La Perouse. At the time Mrs. Mary Agnes Donnelly was alone in the building. She was the wife of Henry Harold Donnelly, the then caretaker of the building (Sydney Morning Herald Oct. 4 1957) who was at work at the Captain Cook Landing Trust, Kurnell. Tragically, Mrs. Donnelly perished in the fire, her charred body being found under a brick staircase in the kitchen of the building.
Mr. Donnelly indicated that he had been living at the premises for eight months but had a job at Kurnell where he spent the working week and returned to the Watchtower at weekends. Hence he was away at the time.
The fire was believed to have been initiated by an exploding kerosene lamp in the kitchen area while Mrs. Donnelly was in the stairs bedroom. Her apparent attempts to escape were thwarted when she became trapped on the staircase leading from the kitchen area. (Daily Mirror, October 1 1957). The coronial inquest into the cause of the fire and Mrs. Donnelly's death was held on Friday, November 22, 1957. The cause of death was stated as "effects of burns accidentally received at the place on that day when those premises caught fire, she at the time being much affected by alcohol". It was further stated that "the premises were damaged and portion thereof destroyed, and the contents of same were destroyed by a fire which occurred accidentally on those premises". Sergeant Albert Raymond Hitchings of the Malabar Police Station arrived on the scene of the fire at about 3.30am on October 1st.
A fireman was already in attendance and also present was Mr. White, a fire officer from the Maroubra station who believed that Mrs. Donnelly was dead and drew the Sergeant's attention to her body which he (Mr White) had removed from the burning building. Sergeant Hitchings then had the body transferred to St. Vincentís Hospital where Mrs. Donnelly was pronounced dead and identified by her husband. It was noted that there was no electricity connected to the building but the cause of the fire was not known.
In his statement to the enquiry Mr. White, the fire officer who was on the scene with firemen soon after 2 am and found the building alight, stated that through a window he saw Mrs. Donnelly lying on the floor near a wooden stairway and believed she was dead. Her body was then removed. Mr White was unable to state the cause of the fire. The building was alight from one end to the other and the outbuildings were burnt out.
Mr. Donnelly, in his statement, indicated that the electricity had been disconnected and that the couple had two candles, lamps, a primus and a fuel stove, the stoves being primarily used by Mrs. Donnelly. He stated that his wife drank rather heavily at times. Sergeant Hitchings, in his statement to the inquiry indicated that Mrs Donnelly was known to him and he was aware that she was "addicted to drink". It was noted that the building was very old with boards inside and a timber roof.
In the doctor's report (Dr. John Laing) Mrs Donnelly's death was ascribed to "bums". Mrs. Donnelly's blood was analysed by Mr. Thomas McDonald, a senior analyst in the Government Analyst's laboratories and was found to contain 0.3% alcohol and a significant level of carbon monoxide.
In his report, the Coroner found that Mrs. Donnelly had died from the effects of bums accidentally received on the day of the fire, she at the time being much affected by alcohol.
It must have been a rather lonely existence for her at La Perouse, particularly in the evenings during the week, and it seems that she may have taken some solace in alcohol, as is indicated by the evidence in at the .coronial enquiry. The living conditions within the Watchtower before the fire of 1st October were exacerbated by the termination of the electricity connection (the reason for this is not clear, but it would seem likely that it was based on financial considerations). This necessitated the use of candles and lamps for illumination and a primus and fuel stove for cooking. These would not only have made living conditions somewhat difficult but would also have introduced new fire hazards.
The one positive outcome of the fire was that it probably provided the catalyst for the restoration of the tower and the preservation of its structural integrity without the unsympathetic accoutrements that been added over the years.
Mary Donnelly was buried in Plot 600, Section 29B of the Catholic part of Botany Cemetery. Her grave does not have a headstone.