Prince of Clever Rascals
A couple of years ago, amusing myself by typing the word ‘conman’ into Australian newspaper archives circa 1890, I stumbled across a flurry of articles featuring a character by the name of Reuben Keirl. He had been found guilty of forging the signature of Sir Archibald Michie (a distinguished Victorian Q.C.) on a cheque for £2600. When asked if he had anything to say before sentencing, he vehemently protested his innocence, claiming ‘he was not a criminal – far from it.’ In fact, Reuben was variously described in the newspapers as a ‘preacher, masher, land agent, newspaper proprietor, racehorse owner and parson’; ‘a man about town of the first water’; ‘the prince of clever rascals’ and‘so obviously untruthful that he generally gave himself away before he had talked to anyone five minutes.’
The magistrate gave him four years of hard labour.
The newspapers seized this opportunity to come forth with highly entertaining accounts of Reuben’s life up till that point. Born to respectable parents at Sebastopol, near Ballarat, he had started as a teacher at the local State School, but ‘being endowed by nature with the gift of the gab… and a great natural facility for shedding tears’, he gravitated to the pulpit, working as a lay missionary in the midland districts. ‘Difficulties however soon arose. It was hinted that in his desire to be conversationally entertaining, he was not as regardful of the truth as his profession demanded.’(Argus 11/3/1890) In his next incarnation, he appeared as a medical student or, at times, a fully-qualified doctor: ‘He presented himself at Lady Hopetoun’s reception last December with a card bearing the name “Dr. James Keir” – a name which, it is almost unnecessary to say, does not appear in the Medical Directory.’ (Table Talk 14/3/1890.)
It was in the guise of “medical student” that Reuben had become involved in the case of Laura Swain, a tragic tale which had gripped Melbourne in the latter months of 1887. A young woman named Laura Swain had mysteriously fallen to her death from the Victoria St. Bridge. It was suspected that she had been the victim of foul play; her sweetheart, a hard-drinking sea-captain of uncertain temper, was the main suspect. Reuben Keirl seems to have inserted himself into the drama by claiming to have spoken to her on the bridge the day before the tragedy, on which occasion she had confided in him that she was deeply unhappy. He had given her an encouraging talk: “You are an accomplished, fine woman, and if you take care of yourself, the chances are you will do well in life.’ He also hinted to the court that he may have previously rescued her from the sea captain’s clutches at the Victoria Coffee Palace, but when pressed upon this, admitted that it had not been Miss Swain but some other luckless maiden. Although he assured the court that he had not been intimate with her, Reuben nonetheless boasted to the press that he had been present in the capacity of medical student at Miss Swain’s post-mortem, where he stated that the attendant doctor, Dr. Neild, had declared her ‘the most perfectly proportioned woman he ever saw.’ Dr. Neild was so annoyed about this that he had Reuben hauled up to the inquest, where Reuben was forced to admit that not only had he not heard Dr. Neild make this pronouncement, but in fact Reuben had never attended the post-mortem in the first place. (Truth 18/5/1918).
Enthralled by this colourful history, I looked up Reuben’s gaol record in the Public Records Office of Victoria and gazed upon his 1890 mugshot for the Sir Archibald Mickie case. He has a nice face; there is something sanguine and hopeful in his expression. His eyes are described as ‘hazel’; he is single; his trade is listed as ‘medical student.’ His date of birth had been written originally as ‘1865’, but this has been crossed out at some later date and replaced with ‘1861’; obviously Reuben had been misrepresenting his age.
“By the arrest of Reuben Keirl,’ intoned Table Talk sadly, ‘has been cut short one of the most promising careers of imposition and adventure yet known in Australian history.’
Ha! Little did they know. Reuben was just getting started.
And so was I, for I was experiencing the first glimmerings of an obsession. I needed to know more, much more about this indomitable ne’er-do-well. I began to comb through Trove exhaustively, often experimenting with various inventive spellings of his surname, and for this, I was richly rewarded. Between 1880 and 1923, there were 815 articles featuring the name ‘Reuben Keirl’; 148 entries under ‘Reuben Kyrle’, and 95 starring ‘Reuben Kerle’ – all of them the same man. This is not to mention his various other nom de plumes: Dr James Keir, Charles Gill, Dr Westlake, George Gould and - perhaps most infamously – Captain Charles Westlake Kyle. Before he disappears from view in the early 1920’s, Reuben’s career proved to be as outrageous and colourful and headline-grabbing as his early days had promised. For a period of thirty years, occasionally broken up by spells in gaol, he proved to be a recidivist of the first order, a man perpetually bouncing back from ignominy and failure with some new, preposterous, hare-brained scheme. As one of his victims wearily expressed it in court, Reuben was someone who, ‘after he had been chucked out the back door, would come in again at the front door.’ (Age 11/2/1894).
Here then, for your reading pleasure, is an abridged anthology of some of Reuben’s exploits.
1896: THE SEASICKNESS CURE, AND HENRY SCHULZE.
Out of gaol in 1896, he is back in the newspapers again. ‘That dapper little man, Reuben Keirl, has been floating about Melbourne in a buggy drawn by a fine pair of ponies, and otherwise cutting a dash,’ reports the Weekly Times.(1/2/1896). It seems that, since leaving gaol, Reuben had been busying himself developing a cure for seasickness and had been pressing this remedy upon stricken passengers on steamer voyages back and forth between Sydney and Melbourne. Masquerading as “Dr. Westlake,” Reuben would then encourage the unwary to buy shares in the business. In court, Reuben claimed to have found the cure in a medical book and added some other medicine to it. “It was a genuine cure. I am prepared to write the formula now and submit it to anyone.” (Argus 28/2/1896.)
As the story unfolded, it became clear that Reuben’s dabbles in pharmacology had been largely funded by the hapless Henry Schulze, variously described as a gardener, farmer and pork dealer, of South Preston. In the three years of their acquaintance, Keirl had obtained £389 from Schulze under various pretexts, including, unsurprisingly, flogging him shares in ‘Dr Westlake’s Marvellous Sea-sickness Preventive’
Finally, Schulze had enough and went to the police, whereupon Reuben found himself up on numerous charges of false pretences. Much commented upon in the newspapers was the strange effect Reuben had upon Schulze when he sighted him in the corridors of the courthouse:
‘(Schulze) commenced to cry and tremble violently, and he became so weak in the legs that he could not stand and had to be supported. Later when giving his evidence in court, he had the same symptoms of weakness and distress when looked at by the prisoner. Indeed, so great was his nervous agitation that the detectives had finally to ask that the prisoner should be compelled to stand at the rear of the court, where the witness could not see him at all.’ (Argus 11/2/1896.)
This worked well enough until Reuben shuffled around to a position where he was again in the witness’ line of sight – another nervous collapse ensued. In the end, his efforts at hypnotising the witness notwithstanding, Reuben was sentenced to five years hard labour.
“After the court yesterday, he smilingly referred to his power over Schulze… and said, “As soon as I come out of gaol, the first thing I’ll do will be to borrow £10 from him.” (Argus 11/2/1896)
A CASE OF FICTITIOUS HEROSHIP.
Again, a stint in gaol seems to have had a sobering effect upon the man; after his release in 1900, Reuben keeps a low profile for a while – in fact, it requires a little lateral thinking to keep track of him at all. Listed as Reuben Kerle in 1900 electoral rolls, I discover that his wife is trying to divorce him on the grounds of desertion. In 1903, I find him reincarnated as Charles Westleigh Kyle, traveller, living with his wife Linda Kyle in Carlton; in 1904, he is at the same address as Charles Kyrle.
At last, in June, 1904, he makes a brief but memorable appearance in the Horsham Times. Touring as a member of the London Crystal Palace and Glee Club, Reuben had visited Mount Gambier, where the company had performed at the local hospital. One of the patients was a little orphan girl who had suffered severe burns when her clothing caught fire – the doctor was calling for volunteer donors so that a skin graft might be performed.
‘Mr Kyrle…seeing the dreadful plight of the little sufferer, volunteered to allow the doctor to cut several pieces of flesh from his arm… the size of the part affected being two square inches. Mr Kyrle stated that 15 residents of Mount Gambier had volunteered to go to the hospital the morning he went, and not one fulfilled his or her promise. When asked if he was chloroformed, he replied, “No. but I fainted at the tenth cut.” It is a very noble act of Mr Kyrle, and certainly one worthy of admiration by all lovers of true chivalry.’(Horsham Times 10/6/1904.)
Or it would have been worthy of admiration, had it been true. However (bear with me now, for we are leaping forward in our story to 1911), Reuben - now secretary of the North Brunswick Progress Association - appears to be recycling the same story afresh, with additional embellishments. This time around, he has lost four square inches of flesh to the little orphan girl. Also, he claimed to have been awarded a medal, inscribed on which were the words: ‘presented to Reuben Kyrle, in token of a brave action, by the citizens of Mount Gambier.’ Reuben also boasted that he was to receive the Carnegie Hero Fund Medal for 1911. (The Carnegie Hero Fund was set up by Scottish-American industrialist Andrew Carnegie to celebrate acts of extraordinary heroism and provided financial assistance for those disabled in their attempts to save the lives of others.) A disgruntled fellow member of the North Brunswick Progress Association, harbouring suspicions about Reuben’s heroism, wrote to the Mayor of Mount Gambier, asking for verification of the story. It was soon revealed that – although no such event had occurred in 1911 – an orphan girl had suffered burns in 1904, whereupon many stout-hearted citizens of Mount Gambier had come forward to volunteer for skin grafts. It was not known whether Reuben had been one of them, but it was considered unlikely by the South Eastern Times, who declared the whole thing ‘an extraordinary case of fictitious heroship.’ (14/3/1911.)
We cut next to a meeting of the North Brunswick Progress Association shortly thereafter. The principal business was the resignation of the Association secretary, Mr R. Kyrle. A fellow member rose to pay tribute to Mr Kyrle, mentioning not only the medal for the act of heroism, but also that Reuben would shortly be recognised by the “Carnegie Hero Fund” of London.
‘He was interrupted by Mr. H. Sherratt Senr., who, rising to his feet, declared that it was not true that Mr Kyrle had obtained a medal for heroism, and if he had one it was a fraud and he could prove it.
Mr Kyrle rose excitedly and, addressing Mr Sherratt, called him a liar.
Mr Sherratt returned the compliment.
Mr Kyrle then rushed around the table towards Mr Sherratt, characterising him as a d---- liar.
A scene followed during which blows were exchanged.’
(Coburg Leader 7/4/1911)
I wonder if meetings of the North Brunswick Progress Association – if it still exists - are even half as lively these days.
Three years later, in a very long letter to John Norton, the publisher of Truth, in which he accounts for various misdeeds of which he has been accused, Reuben offers his own version of events:
‘Another matter mentioned was that I had posed as a lifesaver, had had a medal struck and presented to myself, whereas it was only a fake. Now, Sir, in the year 1903, … I visited the Mt.Gambier Hospital, and Dr. Johnson, the resident medical officer, in showing me over the hospital, brought me to the apparently dying form of a little orphan Catholic girl. Years have passed away since then, but well do I recollect the kindly doctor saying to me: “Here is a sad case of a burning accident. The child is burnt from the armpit to the ankle on one side, but if I could get 200 people to allow me to graft pieces of flesh from their bodies, I could save the child. And what is more,” said the doctor, “I have called for volunteers and no one responded.” … Sir, on the spot I volunteered, and Dr. Johnson cut with surgical scissors and forceps ten pieces of flesh from the front of my right upper arm. I refused chloroform and fainted at the tenth cut…
The incident was published in the Melbourne “Age” subsequently. I heard nothing about it for several years, when one day I received a letter to call on a jeweller in Melbourne, and when I called the jeweller informed me that a gentleman had paid him for a medal to be given to me, and he asked me if there were any design I would like...the medal was given to me, and some time after I met Dr.Maloney in Melbourne, and he asked me to show him my arm. When the doctor saw the scars, which I may say, I still wear, and will carry them to my grave, he said, “You are a hero to have done this, and all for the sake of a friendless stranger, a dying orphan child.”’ (Truth 25/4/1914).
REUBEN THE MASHER:
In April, 1912, Reuben is listed in the Police Gazette as having once again deserted his wife. Here is how the description, for purposes of identification:
‘Canvasser, 50 years, 5 ft 6 or 7, medium build, dark complexion, dark hair turning grey, cut short, dark moustache, wore a navy sac suit, light coloured soft felt hat or straw hat. Generally carries a brief bag.’ (Victorian Police Gazette 11/4/1912.)
Hardly the description of a heartbreaker, and yet Reuben’s romantic misadventures were about to become big news. The first inkling we have of trouble brewing is when his long-suffering wife, Linda Elizabeth takes the stand, when Reuben is charged with desertion:
‘Mr McInerney – Your husband has accused you of improper relations with Mr James?
Witness – It is an old game of his. I deny it. He was away living with Miss Tregardh in the country.
Mr James’s clothes were hanging on your bed. Will you deny that? –
I was putting them away.
Mr Corr – Has Mr James been employed by your brothers to trace defendant and serve him with divorce papers?
Witness – Yes. I had no one else to do it for me. Mr James simply took off his best suit to help me remove the furniture. Mr Tregardh and his eldest son were waiting for Keirl to kill him on account of their daughter. Mr Tregardh came over and said, “You have Keirl there. Bring him out.” When he found it was Mr James, he shook hands with him.
Mr McInerney – Did Mr James severely beat Mr Keirl and break his nose?
Witness – Yes, because he broke into his house.
Did you rush out and say, “Kill the brute, murder him?” – I said, “Give it to him, James. He deserves it.”
Mr Corr- He had also been beaten by the girl’s brother?
Witness – Yes.’ (Ballarat Star 18/4/1912.)
Reuben away living with Miss Tregardh in the country? Mr Tregardh and son waiting to kill Reuben on account of their daughter? Reuben beaten up by the girl’s brother? What the hell is going on, and who is this Miss Tregardh? Hurrying back to the electoral rolls, I pick up a clue: the Tregardhs lived at 2 Holmes St Brunswick, while the Keirls (before the desertion at least) lived at 1 Holmes St.
Three weeks later, a story in the Age under the headline “The Wrong Man’ tells the story of how George Downe, an accountant, was set upon at Flinders St station by Robert Tregardh, uncle of the young lady in question.
‘Defendant said he (thought plaintiff) was Reuben Keirl, and although plaintiff offered to produce letters to show that he was not, his disclaimer was not accepted. As a result of the assault his face was cut, and he bled freely from wounds on his cheek and in the mouth, a suit of clothes being completely ruined.
Defendant (to plaintiff): Are you satisfied that there was no malice in the attack?
Witness: I only know that if I had been Reuben Keirl, I would have been dead.
And don’t you think you would have deserved it if you were? – I don’t know what Reuben Keirl deserved, I know I did not. (Laughter.)
…You were aware that Reuben Keirl was on the platform at the time? – I have heard since that that was the case. I have no proof of it.
Defendant, in giving evidence on his own behalf, said he was on the Brighton platform on the day in question. He was suffering under a sense of great injustice because Reuben Keirl had abducted his niece.
A Tregardh has beaten up Reuben in April, and now in May, another Tregardh has beaten up someone who had the misfortune to be on the same railway platform as Reuben! Then, in December, the story erupts. A young woman, Olive Tregardh, 21, is charged with throwing a bottle of vitriol at Reuben Keirl with intent to do him grievous bodily harm. In turn, the young woman, “well known in local church circles,” charged Reuben with having used insulting language and having threatened to take her life.
‘Olive Tregardh said that … she was walking along Albion Street. She noticed Keirl peeping around a corner. She crossed over to avoid him. He however came over with an apple in his hand and said, “Here you are, Ollie!” She picked up a piece of blue metal and threw it at him. He then said, “You dirty ---, I lived with you for six weeks,” and used the most shocking words.
Mr McInerney: Did you live with him for six weeks? – Not quite six weeks.
Mr Hickford asked witness in what circumstances she first met Keirl.
Witness said that about two years ago, she was going to Sunday school, when Keirl drove up in a big motor car. He asked her to jump up, saying that he would drive her to the Sunday school. He drove to the Sunday school and past it and said he would drive her to Mr Clarke’s at Sunbury. He introduced her to Mr Clarke as his wife. He then threatened to tell her father that she had allowed him to introduce her as his wife if she did not comply with his wishes. Keirl was then collecting for the Raggedy Boys Home…
Keirl, who described himself as a land salesman…said that Olive Tregardh had stated that he was a scoundrel, and he then replied, “You say that after living with me for six weeks.
Mr Hickford: Did you take the name of George Gould, a millionaire? – I assumed that title.
In reply to a further question, witness acknowledged having written to the girl’s father under date 16th August, 1911, the following letter:-
I beg to acknowledge the receipt of your letter, which arrived today with your papers. I will answer straightforwardly. My intentions are honourable in the extreme to your daughter. I have never given any other course a moment’s consideration. I met Miss Olive at Daylesford early this year, and from the acquaintance a friendship has been formed, which has ripened into true, deep affection. To me Olly is all the world can give… It is only natural that you should be solicitous of her welfare. I felt somewhat ashamed that I did not write to you and ask permission to correspond with her, but really it did not cross my mind to do so. I hope to be in Melbourne Cup week, and will certainly avail myself of your kind invitation to visit your home. I wish to send Olly a ring on her birthday, of course subject to your approval. Now relative to myself, I am 24 years of age, an Englishman by birth, a Protestant, a master mason, a Presbyterian by religion, a younger son of two brothers. My father is dead, my brother is an assayer.. By profession, I am a master of civil engineering and a B.A. of London. I matriculated when I was fourteen years old. I will be in Australia until 1913, when I return to London to participate in my father’s estate. My sister will then be 25 years old and the estate will be divided. I trust I am honourable, I am a total abstainer, a non-smoker and a non-gambler. I hope to prove worthy of the love of your daughter. She is worthy of it. I may be going to Sydney before Cup week. I have some electrical work to do there….I thank you very much for your kind letter, and can assure both your wife, self and members of the family that everything is straight and above board as far as I am concerned, and equally so, I am sure, so far as your daughter’s future rests. – Kind regards and best wishes, George Gould.’ (The Age 19/12/1912.)
Let us pause here a moment to collect our thoughts.
George Gould was a prominent U.S. railway magnate and millionaire, recently in the newspapers owing to his daughter’s extravagant wedding. What on earth was Reuben thinking by taking on his name? Was he genuinely trying to convince the Tregardhs that Olive had run off with a middle-aged millionaire, as opposed to shady, married middle-aged Reuben who lived in the same street as them? Surely the Tregardhs were well aware of the true identity of their daughter’s paramour – they were forever attempting to beat him up, after all. “I trust I am honourable…” Could RK possibly have had any honourable intentions with “Olly” if he was masquerading as a famous millionaire? Was the ring hinting at a forthcoming proposal perhaps?
“In reply to further questions, Keirl said he had assumed the name of George Gould because Miss Tregardh had made the acquaintance of George Gould Fraser at Daylesford, and became attached to him. She said her family relations were not the best, and she was a white slave. Her father could give her a college education, but she was kept a slave. She told him she would clear out if he would take her…..
Keirl said he made a demand for jewellery and money, to the value of £25, to accused on 29th November..He was on Tuesday 3rd December at the corner of Holmes St and Mitchell St, and saw accused who beckoned to him. When she approached, she said, “I got your postcard yesterday; you are back with your wife.” He said, “I am not back with my wife, but I don’t want anything more to do with you.” She said, “I will get even with you yet. You cast me overboard.” I said, “It is about time when your family is seeking my blood and you have been betraying me.” She then made a hit at him with her umbrella and knocked his hat off. On the following day, he saw accused at the corner of Bannon and Albion streets. She said, “Come here, I want to speak to you.” He crossed the road to get out of the way, and said, “I told you yesterday I did not want to speak to you. Mrs Keirl is behind, Look out!” (Laughter.) He then walked into Isaac street. She followed and presently he saw the flash of a bottle in her hand. He saw her draw the cork, and he turned his head quickly. He then felt the skin down his back burning. She said, “Thank God I blinded you. I will take good care no other girl will have you now.” He took his coat and vest off his back to relieve the burning. She sang out, “You are a gaol bird!” (Age 19/12/1912.)
The case resumed the next day, with Olive Tregardh taking the stand:
“Yes. I threw some acid over him. He has ruined my life, and he has determined to annoy me in every way he can. When I go out into the street, he follows me and asks me to come back to him. I refuse to speak to him, and he then insults me. He calls out so that people can hear, “You were not so flash when you lived with me for six weeks” and other similar remarks. … He has nearly driven me mad and has forced me to throw the stuff over him to protect myself. On some occasions he has stopped and molested me. I would have shot him if I had a revolver.”
Mr Lord, J.P. (to Keirl): Don’t fix your eyes on the witness like that. We have had to remove you before for trying to hypnotise a witness. (Age 20/12/1912.)
Once again Reuben is trying to hypnotise the witness! Perhaps he would have been better off trying to hypnotise Mr Lord, for the case against Olive Tregardh was summarily discharged.
‘The announcement was greeted with a remarkable outburst on the part of the audience. Cheers were given despite the efforts of the officers to curb the outburst. In the midst of the din, Mrs Tregardh, mother of the accused girl, fainted and was carried from the court. Upon leaving the court, Olive Tregardh was again cheered. Some fears existed among the authorities for the safety of Keirl as the attitude of the crowd was distinctly hostile. As he came out with his solicitor, he was greeted with groans and hisses. ‘Reuben, you scoundrel!” “You rotter, Keirl!” “Give him a roll!” were some of the epithets hurled at him. The presence of the police however prevented any attack being made. As he went to jump on the tram, the crowd shouted to the gripman, “Don’t let him on your tram,” and followed it up with hooting until the tram started.” (Age 20/12/1912.)
What a vivid picture that conjures up, the crowd milling around the cable tram, throwing insults. When the tram pulled away, what happened then? How did Reuben comport himself? Did he shrug it off, make a joke of it with the conductor? Or did he sit in a corner, cheeks burning in humiliation, his love affair with the girl next door come to this. Again, let us turn to Reuben for his version of events, in the letter to Truth of 1914:
‘I now come to the most serious part of your article, wherein the name of Ollie Tregardh is mentioned in connection with her figuring in divorce proceedings. I regret that her name has been brought into my affairs at all, as I believe she is truly repentant for the part she played in this matter. I will give briefly a few facts in connection with this painful subject.
On February 4th, 1912, I received a letter from Miss Tregardh, informing me she had left home and requesting me to interview her at Essendon Railway station, Melbourne. I met the girl and she informed me that she had left home and would not return. She asked me to take her under my protection. I did so for a period of six weeks, promising her I would play the man and not ruin her. A promise, sir, I have faithfully kept. Miss Tregardh returned to her home as pure a girl as she left it. We are both branded in the eyes of the world as a pair of adulterers, and will carry the stigma to the grave. When Miss Tregardh stood her trial for throwing a pint of that deadly fluid, vitriol, over me, I swore on oath that no improper relationship had taken place. The Judge, Sir John Madden, said it was almost incredible and wondered if I were a St. Anthony; but in order to clear the matter up, Dr Edith Barrett, of Collins Street, and Dr. Hodgson, of Fitzroy, both gave certificates of her purity…
Certificates of her purity! That was certainly never mentioned in the court case…
‘The conversation of this young man was most entertaining, from the number of romantic adventures which were always happening to him. Now it was a young lady who wrote to him proposing that he should be her beau (this happened about every other day, according to Keirl)… Again it would be a young lady met at the staircase of a coffee palace, half drugged by some scoundrel, who being conveniently out of the way at the moment, after the manner of scoundrels, allowed her to save herself by clutching at Keirl’s coat collar as the anchor of salvation’ (Table Talk 14/3/1890).
‘In conclusion,’ continues Reuben, ‘I want fair play. For 18 years, I have lived an honourable life in Melbourne, and would have been there today if I had not listened to the story of a foolish girl. I court no man’s favour and care for no man’s frown. I will fight my way in the world, and get the pedestal to which I am aiming – Yours, etc, REUBEN KYRLE.’ (Truth 25/4/1914.)
Olive Tregardh ended up marrying a grocer .William Macauley in 1925. They seemed to be living apart by1949, She died in Mont Park Psychiatric house of bacillary dysentery (check)
A SHORT DIVERSION WITH THE REVEREND CHARLES JONES.
After the ignominy of the Tregardh affair, Reuben pulls his head in for a while. In August, 1913, he is giving a picture entertainment in aid of Kyneton Hospital, for which he had personally canvassed the town selling tickets to the event. The committee of Kyneton Hospital let it be known that he had no authority to do so, and Reuben is charged with having “no lawful means of support.” He fails to turn up to court however, and instead local police receive a postcard of the steamer, Niagara.
“I am 2000 miles away: goodbye forever,” signed Reuben Keirl.
In fact, Reuben turns up in Sydney in 1914, where he is sharing a house in Liverpool Street with the Reverend Charles Jones, undertaker/marriage celebrant and driving instructor. Charles Jones deserves his own short detour, for he is every bit as entertaining as Reuben. For a start, he is the son of ‘Mint Sauce’ Jones, ‘so-named because, when Commissioner for Railways in Victoria, he asked for a bribe in a letter in which he said that “the paschal lamb was ready for the sacrifice, all that was wanting was the mint sauce.”’ (Truth 18/4/1914.)
But we are more interested in his son, the Reverend Charles Jones: ‘This enterprising gentleman used to run a coffin-shop in Fitzroy…and as he conceived it would be cheaper to read the service at funerals himself than to hire a parson, he formed himself into a church and had himself registered as a minister of that church.’ (Truth 18/4/1914.)
Ever versatile, Rev. Jones also did weddings, and with the advent of the motor car, took to offering driving lessons as well. In fact, his ingenious method of combining the driving school with the marriage bureau brought him to the attention of Fitzroy Court, with a couple of disgruntled young plaintiffs:
‘William McMahon deposed:
The defendant said he would teach me in the art of motorcar driving and gear-changing for £3 4s. I asked him when I could commence and he said as soon as the money was paid….I came to him on the Monday and he said that the instructor had not arrived and that I could go to the garage in Napier St and wait till the instructor came. (Laughter.) I did that for a few days and getting tired of it, I asked the defendant to return my money. He said, “I can’t do that, the money’s gone in rent. I’ll tell you what I’ll do, I’ll marry you for 10/6, and find a bride for you..
Arthur Redot stated: On June 27th, I paid the defendant £4 4s to teach me to drive a motorcar. He said the motorcar and the instructor were in a garage in Napier Street…I went to the so-called garage, and saw there what looked like the remains of a motorcar (laughter) but no instructor. Getting tired of going to the garage and finding no instructor, I spoke to the defendant. He said to call again the next day. I did so and found a man at the garage who said he would take me for a drive. He brought out the car, and when we reached the Heidleberg road, the motorcar stopped and the man could not get it to move any way. Realising the position of affairs, I telephoned to the defendant, and told him I must have my money back. Jones replied, “Look here, you young fellows, why don’t you get married? I’ll marry you and find the bride.” I haven’t got my money back up to the present.’
The defendant elected to give evidence on his own behalf…
Mr Sonenberg- You appear to be conducting a number of different companies?
- Yes, about a dozen. Some of them are merely for advertising.
- You also run the “Victorian Motorist News”?
- I did but have ceased to do so.
- You likewise run a matrimonial bureau?
- No, a matrimonial club.
- I see by your circular that you also undertake to teach aviation
Yes, the theory of it.
- Have you ever in your life been in a flying machine?
- No. (Loud laughter.)
- You also state that you are an undertaker.
- I have given that up…
- Have you a licence to marry people?
- I did, but it was taken from me. (Laughter)…
- Will your books show who your instructors were in July?
- I don’t keep any books.
- What? No records of the wages you pay, and the fees you receive?
- I have a wages book, and a receipt book for the fees I receive from students…
- Have you got those books here?
- As the defendant’s place is close to the Court, I ask your Worship to order him to go and bring the books.
- The Mayor to the defendant – Go and bring your books. Constable Garrott will accompany you.
- I beg of you not to subject me to the indignity of walking with a constable. (Laughter.)
Instructed by the Mayor that he could walk either behind or in front of the constable, Jones left and returned with his books. They were of little help to him however, and he was fined £10 or 2 months imprisonment. (Fitzroy City Press 4/8/1911.)
REUBEN AND THE FRENCH AVIATOR.
But back to Reuben. In May 1914, he turns up as Mr A,Kyrle, advance manager for M.Guillaux, an esteemed French aviator who was touring the Riverina. A picture show is held at the Masonic Hall in Wagga, where 8000 feet of “living Sydney pictures” are shown, taken by Mr Kyrle himself. The Mayoress of Wagga hosts a grand reception for M. Guillaux and his team, and presents them with generous gifts (Reuben receives a fine travelling rug.) Mr A. Kyle returned thanks on behalf of the French men of the party, who apparently do not speak English.
In an interview with the Henty Observer and Culcairn Shire Register (10/6/1914), Reuben, the advance manager, speaks glowingly of the great aviator:
‘To know him is to love and respect him, and I feel proud of the fact that it has come my way to be closely identified with him. He is the conqueror of the air, and a French gentleman in every sense of the word, so humble, so unassuming. You will generally find that the greatest men are the humblest. I think it was Browning who wrote:- In silence many deeds are wrought/Silently moulded thought on thought….’
“Yes, Mr Editor, as you say, he has a lot of admirers…. and the ladies besiege him. I have received 20 to 30 autograph albums for him to write in. One lady came in a motor car at Newcastle and said she had travelled 65 miles to get him to write something in her album. He was out when she came in, and I left her album on his bedroom table. He returned at 1 o’clock in the morning, and sat down and wrote these words:- Boys fly kites like white winged birds/ You can’t do that if you are flying words/To be careful with fire is good advice, I know/ To be careful with words is ten times doubly so/ Words unexpressed sometimes bring back the dead/ But God himself can’t call back a word once it is said.’
This from a man who apparently could not even say “thank you” in English.
At last, I thought, Reuben has a decent job. He is using his talents, his ‘gift o’ the gab’, as a promotions man, and making an honest living out of it. And yet why was I not completely surprised then when I stumbled across the following:
‘Mr Le Maistre, manager for M. Guillaux, the aviator, has had his attention directed to a handbill circulated in country towns, announcing that pictures will be shown “under the direction of Mr Kyrle, manager for Monsieur Guillaux, the great French aviator.” It was also announced that there would be shown “thousands of feet of moving pictures taken by Mr Kyrle from the aeroplane.” Mr LeMaistre, who is in Melbourne, states that Kyrle is not and never has been manager for M.Guillaux.’ (Bendigo Independent 14/7/1914.)
And that is the last we hear of Reuben and the great French aviator.
REUBEN, THE HERO OF THE DARDANELLES.
1915. The Great War is on in earnest. In January, Reuben, keen to join in proceedings bu too old and with a track record of criminal offences, is arrested for “appearing in a military uniform, he not being a member of the Commonwealth military forces.” (Daily News 4/1/1915)
In 1916, he is again charged with “wearing a uniform so closely resembling that of a naval officer as to be calculated to deceive.” The Police Magistrate described it thus: “It was a most gorgeous affair. Solomon in all his glory wasn’t in it with him. He looked like some high dignitary of the sea.”His charge does not stop him from giving his memorable lectures however. As Mr A, Kyrle, he is giving talks at the Mechanics Hall in Launceston, showing “a series of views of the Emden smash, and also a number of slides depicting the German atrocities. An illustrated lecture was given on “A Week at Sea on a Burning Steamer.” The Emden views were obtained at Cocos Island by Mr. Kyrle while en route to Egypt on a troop ship.” (Examiner 8/9/1915.)
“Captain Kyrle, late canteen officer on the troopship A41 which passed the ill-fated Emden on returning to Australia, preached in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches yesterday. His discourse … on episodes of the great war, which he had witnessed, was very moving and there were few in the congregation who were not affected.”
Reuben Keirl: “I have been four times through the Mediterranean on three troopships. And my character and conduct were described as exemplary. I was canteen officer’s steward on one ship, captain’s steward on another, and under the patrol officer on the third. I have been as close to submarines as to your worships. We had to have our life belts on.”
The story breaks big in Truth:
“REUBEN KEIRL AGAIN
NOTORIOUS RASCAL IN A NEW ROLE,
“A Hero from the Dardanelles.”
Lecturing from his War Experiences
Church and College Officials Duped 11 September,1915
“The most impudent of the many impudent things done by the notorious Reuben Keirl, ex-convict, swindler and adventurer happened last week, when he imposed on the elders of St.George’s Presbyterian Church, St.Kilda, so successfully that they welcomed him as a hero from the battlefields of Gallipoli and allowed him to deliver an address in the church about his deeds of derring-do in the Dardenelles. Reuben, who it is scarcely necessary to say, was unknown to the good elders of the kirk, posed as ‘Canteen Officer Kyrle and received all the honors due to conquering hero. But Reuben was not content with posing in the limelight before the good people of St. Georges, he wanted boodle as well…”
The war had given Reuben a whole new way of making boodle: by pretending to be Canteen Officer Kyrle, and recounting his experiences at the front – without actually having any experiences at the front, but by simply wearing a smart uniform and giving a lecture, complete with lantern views on “The Smashing of the Emden and other war experiences. The wealthy churchgoers of Caulfield and Geelong were taken in: “the students were much impressed by the dapper little man who spoke so authoratively of the battle he had never seen.
“REUBEN KEIRL VISITS STATE SCHOOLS. (30 November, 1915 Daily Telegraph.
Annoyance has been caused to some teachers in the metropolitan area of Victoria by visits from Reuben Keirl… Keirl has provided himself with a number of picture postcards of the Emden and other warships. Head teachers have been invited by him to sell these cards, and they have been promised that if a certain number is sold enlarged pictures of warshiips will be presented to the schools. The Director of Education states that no authority has been given to visit the schools…”
When his ruse was exposed, his guise as a troopship captain revealed, he would simply move on to the next town, armed with his cards of warships and his tales of derring-do.
After a few years of immersing myself in Reuben Keirl exploits on Trove., I began to wonder if anyone else knew of this scoundrel. Or was he my ne’er do well alone? So I put out a call on the internet and soon I was in regular correspondence with Edith Fry, Australiana Research Librarian at Ballarat Library.
Edith had been preparing for the WW1 anniversary exhibition at the library. They were very excited to have been sent, I think anonymously, The Diary of Charles W Kyle, written between 28 December 1915 and 1 October 1918,
HRT BORDA A39
HMT ANGELO EGYPTIAN A23
Hmt DEMOSTHENES A64
A local man’s war diary! What a wonderful addition to the exhibition! And yet, when Edith did her due diligence and checked Kyle’s war record via the AIF archives, there was no record of him at all.
So apparently Keirl had gpne to the extreme lengths of writing this account of his war service without having any actual war service at all. Was writing an exhaustive yet entirely fictional diary a way of somehow adding veracity to his accounts of his supposed war experiences?
In 1917, according to his diary which is clearly not to be relied upon, he travels to London as a steward on a troopship. At the request of the Masonic Brethren on board, ‘ he writes, “ I gave a lecture to six hundred entitled “Lands I have been, people I have met and sights I have seen.” “A collection is taken up and five pounds raised for the Edith Cavell Memorial Home.
Ahem. Did they ever receive it, one wonders.
Upon arriving in Glasgow, again according to his diary, two officers board the troopship and ask for his passport and birth certificate, without which he cannot land. He is then asked if he knows anyone in Scotland or England who can identify him. Reuben promptly writes to the King reminding him that when as Prince of Wales he visited Ballarat, two thousand children sang to him. One little boy sang solo “God Bless the Prince of Wales” whereupon the Prince of Wales patted the young singer on the head and said “Yes, and God Bless you. I was the boy who sang…”
Within the week the King replies, stating that he “remembered the incident at Ballarat and that I must have been there and a British subject I must be.”
(From his diary) “On arrival at Plymouth, was given over to the Alien officials who extended to me the greatest kindness…in searching my luggage they desired to retain the foregoing diaries of all my travels. I duly received these diaries from them with a letter stating that they were absolutely of the most interesting, educating, and intelligent kind.”
Reuben visits Spurgeoa’s Tabernacle where he is asked to read the lesson, and then gives a lecture on the subject ‘Australia, God’s own Country, the Land of all Lands.” He is shown over Buckingham Palace by the Lords in Waiting. He is shortly arrested (The Examiner, Launceston) and given three months hard labour.
“In a rambling statement, Reuben Keirl admitted he was not present at the Emden fight. He bought a photo of the incident at Cocos Island.”
After this episode, Reuben largely disappears from view, except for the odd episode (trying to flog off Kitchener’s autograph, for example, in 1922.) When I say he disappeared from view, he no longer appears in the newspapers under the various nom de plumes that I have come to know him by. I can only keep track of him by the electoral rolls, where it is revealed that he is living with his widowed sister Susan Samson in Brunswick There no longer appear to be any scatty hare-brained schemes that see him appear in the newspapers on such a regular basis.
He died at Royal Park of cardiovascular degeneration in 1937, aged 76.
Looking back at Reuben’s record now, I wonder that I became so enthralled by him. He seems thoroughly despicable, as my mother pointed out initially when I embarked upon this project. She was no fan, but I derived a great deal of enjoyment from discovering, via Trove, yet another “Keirl Kaper.” Truth newspaper, for which Reuben provided a great deal of amusing material, was a great fan of Reuben’s and their headlines often provided some alliterative play on his name and latest exploit.
I suppose he interests me because he is a man intent on somehow making “boodle” by whatever unlikely means are available to him, and if the means are not available, then he will dream something up. “Oh Reuben!” I would often find myself exclaiming as I read about his latest exploits. “Don’t do it!”
Do characters like him still exist, or was he very much a product of his times? Will anyone else be interested in his story, I wondered. Possibly not, and yet somehow I felt compelled to leave some record of his “kapers” for posterity. And here it is.