The Mystery of a Hansom Cab

by Kate C
Publish date
23 October 2012
Comments (2)

Four men in 19th century costume Four characters from the new production of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab that will screen on ABC on 28 October. Left to right: Charlie Cousins as Roger Moreland, Oliver Ackland as Brian Fitzgerald, Marco Chiappi as Duncan Carlton and Felix Williamson as Detective Kilsip.
Image: Stills photography by Bill Bachman and Arsineh Houspian
Source: Burberry Entertainment / ABC

"Whereas, on Friday, the 27th day of July, the body of a man, name unknown, was found in a hansom cab. AND WHEREAS, at an inquest held at St. Kilda, on the 30th day of July, a verdict of wilful murder, against some person unknown, was brought in by the jury. The deceased is of medium height, with a dark complexion, dark hair, clean shaved, has a mole on the left temple, and was dressed in evening dress. Notice is hereby given that a reward of 100 pounds will be paid by the Government for such information as will lead to the conviction of the murderer, who is presumed to be a man who entered the hansom cab with the deceased at the corner of Collins and Russell Streets, on the morning of the 27th day of July."

So begins Chapter III of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab, a very early detective novel set in Melbourne. Written by English-born and NZ-raised Fergus Hume, this 1886 tale of mystery and murder in the young colonial city became an unexpected international smash. On Sunday 28 October at 8:30 PM, a telemovie based on the novel will screen on ABC TV.

Three characters from Mystery of a Hansom Cab A scene from the new telemovie of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Left to right: Marco Chiappi as Duncan Carlton, Jessica De Gouw as Madge Frettlby and Felix Williamson as Detective Kilsip
Image: Stills photography by Bill Bachman and Arsineh Houspian
Source: Burberry Entertainment / ABC

Filmed on location around the city, and steered carefully by the production designer Otello Stolfo, 1880s 'Marvellous Melbourne' has been meticulously recreated by a talented team of researchers, builders and other craftspeople. The props and the costumes were made and sourced with a keen eye to authentic period detail. The cream of the Australian acting community, including John Waters, Marco Chiappi, Shane Jacobson, Jessica De Gouw, Oliver Ackland, Chelsie Preston, Felix Williamson and Helen Morse, bring the story to life, through the faithful script adaptation by Glen Dolman, directed by Shawn Seet, produced by Margot McDonald and executive producer Ewan Burnett. The Mystery of a Hansom Cab was developed and produced with the assistance of Film Victoria.

Costumes, jewellery, costume drawings and other documentation from this telemovie have just been acquired by the museum from the production company, Burberry Entertainment. Curator Michael Reason explains the significance of the costumes: "This acquisition represents television production in Melbourne, particularly how the city’s history has been presented, and it's also a way for us to record literary Melbourne. The costumes were all locally made so they represent bespoke tailoring in the city and even the Phillips Shirts factory which has operated for 60 years. It is an honour to preserve these wonderful costumes, created by costume designer Wendy Cork and costume supervisor Christiana Plitzo, as very few items of Australian film and television wardrobe have survived, particularly in museums." 

Two female characters from Mystery of a Hansom Cab Costumes acquired by Museum Victoria from the production of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Left: Jessica De Gouw as Madge Frettlby. Right: Chelsie Preston Crayford as Sal Rawlins.
Source: Burberry Entertainment / ABC

Two male characters from Mystery of a Hansom Cab Costumes acquired by Museum Victoria from the production of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab. Left: Felix Williamson as Detective Kilsip. Right:Shane Jacobson as Samuel Gorby.
Source: Burberry Entertainment / ABC

The Mystery of a Hansom Cab predates Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes, who first appeared in print in 1887. Part of its appeal in the US and UK was its location in a faraway and mysterious location: a developing Melbourne that was only five decades old. "The book was true to the city and includes places like the Melbourne Club, St Kilda and Little Bourke St," says Michael. "It's an intriguing story of people reinventing themselves by coming to Melbourne and leaving behind their past." The characters of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab cover the class spectrum of Melbourne colonial society, from the well-to-do to residents of the young city's notorious slums.

Hansom cab Hansom cab made by Simmons & Sons, South Yarra, 1880s. Hansom cabs were horse-drawn vehicles for hire, like a Victorian-era taxi. They were fast, light and agile. The driver sat at the rear and could control the doors to prevent passengers from fleeing without paying their fare. (ST 029057)
Source: Museum Victoria

As for its author Hume, sadly he never achieved his lifelong dream of becoming a playwright. Having sold the rights to The Mystery of a Hansom Cab for 50 pounds, he never profited from its phenomenal success, and his subsequent 100+ novels and short stories were never particularly popular and he died in relative obscurity in England in 1932.


Burberry Entertainment

Costumes on Collections Online

Scan of rare first edition of The Mystery of a Hansom Cab (McLaren Collection, University of Melbourne)

Radio National Book Club episode discussing the book


Comments (2)

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Dr. Donald Richards 29 October, 2012 11:04
I enjoyed it tremendously, so well presented in so many respects. I kept getting flashes in my mind that I had seen it before, but perhaps I had read the story years ago and forgotten. Well done and excellent TV...
home builders victoria 5 April, 2013 12:54
Thanks for sharing such great and useful information! I really needed this! Thanks a lot
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