Dr Claude Tozer lies dead on the sofa after being shot by Mrs Dorothy Mort. Photo Courtesy New South Wales Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.
Dr Claude Tozer lies dead on the sofa after being shot by Mrs Dorothy Mort. Photo Courtesy New South Wales Police Forensic Photography Archive, Justice and Police Museum, Historic Houses Trust of New South Wales.

On December 21, 1920, Dr Claude Tozer, a promising New South Wales batsman and a decorated War hero, was shot dead by his patient Mrs Dorothy Mort. Arunabha Sengupta looks back at the tragic incident at Sydney.

Charles Kelleway and Warwick Armstrong were about to set off on a huge 187-run partnership against a hapless England attack still struggling from the after-effects of the First World War. And not too far away from the Sydney Cricket Ground, a general physician who was also a quality opening batsman, set out towards Lindfield to visit a patient.

Dr Claude Tozer was not playing in the Test, but he was knocking on the doors of national selection. His career had been curtailed by the Great War, like those of so many of his generation. Yet, he was just 30, still plenty of years of cricket left in him — or so it seemed. Medical duties had reduced his availability after the War, but the few opportunities he had got of playing cricket had been converted into statements of immense promise.

Against Queensland at Brisbane, he had opened the batting and hit 51 and 103, the latter innings a fluent and dazzling affair of just 146 minutes. The national selectors had taken note, and he had been selected to play for an Australian XI against the visiting MCC side led by Johnny Douglas. Tozer had opened the batting with Herbie Collins in the first innings and hit 51 as the more accomplished batsman had fallen for 3. In the second knock, he had walked out with stumper Hanson Carter and had thrilled the crowd with a strokeful innings of 53 before Wilfred Rhodes had bowled him. The Australian Test side was choc-a-bloc with incredible talent, the opening partnership settled in the able hands of Warren Bardsley and Herbie Collins. But the two Tozer hands had given rise to hopes of Test selection.

Besides, there were more opportunities to prove himself. On New Year’s Day, just 10 days away, he was scheduled to lead New South Wales against Queensland.

Nephew of another doctor-cricketer, the medium- pacer Percy Charlton who played twice for Australia in 1890, Tozer was a young man who had everything to live for. Born in affluence, he had learnt the game in the green ovals of Sydney’s North Shore. Joining the Shore club as a precocious 15-year-old he had played alongside Roy Minnett and Jack Massie. He had hit 261 against St Kilda when just 17.  The next season, he had scored 140 against Sydney Grammar, and had fielded long thereafter as the opponents had piled up 916. Eric Barbour, who had scored 356 in that Sydney Grammar effort, had joined Tozer as another young man who played cricket while studying medicine at the Sydney University.

Tozer had made runs galore in Sydney Grade cricket in the years leading up to the War, and had slammed three hundreds in 1913-14 when University had won the pennant. And in the Greater Game, he had enlisted in the Australian Army Medical Corps, serving in Dardanelles and northern France, once even being mistakenly reported dead in Lone Pine. He had been stricken with typhoid in Egypt in early 1916, blown up at Pozieres some months later and riddled with shrapnel. Yet, he had survived, and earned the Distinguished Service Order for continuing to dress the wounded and organising ambulance bearers while under heavy fire at Hooge Tunnel near Ypres.

After discharge in 1919, he had come roaring back to cricket, making 110, 211 and 131 against Gordon amidst the First-Class success outlined before. Frank Iredale had summed up in the Sun: “I don’t suppose that at the moment there is a sounder player in the state.” Besides, Tozer was planning to get married. Yes, he had everything to live for.

Hell hath no fury…

But was there a spring in his step as he went up to the front door of Ingelbrae and knocked on it? Perhaps not. When Florence Fizelle let him in, there was perhaps a distracted air that struck the paid companion and housekeeper. At around 9:00 AM in the morning, Harold Sutcliffe Mort had telephoned the doctor to ask him to come and attend his wife Dorothy that morning. Mrs Dorothy Mort had been sick. She was, according to contemporary reports, suffering from neurasthenia.

Tozer met Mrs Mort in the drawing room as Miss Fizelle left them. The two Mort children Poppy and Pat, on holiday from school, played in the backyard. Mr Mort had already left for the city by train.

Dr Tozer had been treating Dorothy Mort for about six months now. And through the visits had been born an easy intimacy, perhaps more. The lady had fallen instantly for the young, strapping, handsome doctor and cricketer, a War-hero and a famous sportsman. Dorothy was not without her charms as well. A beautiful woman when she got married, she was still attractive at 35. Besides, she planned to audition for one of the new motion pictures being made locally — a pursuit which made her perhaps enigmatic and interesting to the young man. “I loved him the moment I met him,” Mrs Mort would say about Tozer later. For the doctor it was perhaps not as deep and emotional, but admiration was certainly stirred.

That had led to encouragement, a welcome lingering around the intimacy shared by virtue of his profession; there had been four letters from the doctor that bordered dangerously on dalliance. There had been feelings, perhaps stronger from the lady but not altogether absent on the part of the cricketer. It had not proceeded beyond that, to sexual relations, but for a woman suffering from a condition of nerves that was perhaps the gleam of new hope, a hope that would be cruel to be flashed in her face and taken away.

Now, Tozer was on the verge of getting married. He was there on this day, intent on using the opportunity to say all and end all. Mrs Mort did not quite know how to come to terms with that. “If I cannot have him, no other woman shall,” did she really say that? She is supposed to have done so later.

Outside, in the house, Miss Fizzle heard shots. Multiple shots. She hastened to the closed door and knocked, and was assured by her mistress that everything was fine. There followed even more shots a few minutes later. This time Miss Fizzle saw Mrs Mort walking to her bedroom and locking the door.

With time, the housekeeper grew more and more suspicious. She gathered the nerve to break down the bedroom door. Mrs Mort lay there, a dose of laudanum balancing the act of life, death and pain that a self-inflicted gunshot wound to her breast had kicked off. In the drawing room, Tozer lay on the sofa, legs outstretched, his hands resting on his trouser thighs, fingers curled. Bullets had torn through his chest, head and temple. The picture is grotesque, vivid, and infamous.

The pistol; a small, smooth, squat appliance of creamy blue-grey metal and surprisingly heavy; had been acquired by the lady from William Cowles, the gunsmith on King Street. She had claimed to be purchasing it as a gift for her husband.

Tozer never managed to captain New South Wales. He never managed to make it to the Test team. He never managed to make it out of the Mort residence.

The Test at the Sydney Cricket Ground ended in a humongous 377- run victory for Australia on December 22. The following day, the flags at the ground were lowered to half-mast. When the New South Wales side met Victoria at Adelaide the day after, on Christmas Eve, it was Herbie Collins, returning from his Test duties, who led the side. The entire team wore black armbands.

And on January 1, 1921, the match against Queensland in which Tozer was supposed to have led the state side, Warden Prentice was chosen skipper. It was his second and last First-Class match, and he did not manage to score his first run in top- grade cricket.

Tozer was buried in Waverley, with most of the Sydney cricketers present to pay their last respects.

Scandal and sensation were splashed across the newspapers of the day. Plenty of aspersions were cast on the nature of the relationship between the doctor and the patient. The court trial that followed was given plenty of coverage in the press. Mrs Dorothy Mort was found not guilty on grounds of insanity. She as imprisoned in Long Bay Gaol at the Governor’s pleasure. She was released in October 1929.

In 2014, Sydney- based writer Suzanne Falkiner wrote a non-fiction book based on the incident of Tozer’s murder titled Mrs Mort’s Madness. It contains a foreword by Gideon Haigh.

(Arunabha Sengupta is a cricket historian and Chief Cricket Writer at CricketCountry. He writes about the history and the romance of the game, punctuated often by opinions about modern day cricket, while his post-graduate degree in statistics peeps through in occasional analytical pieces. The author of three novels, he can be followed on Twitter at http://twitter.com/senantix)