4/ Percy Le Vaux – the victim’s ‘most intimate friend’

percy le vaux peter ;umberg

Percy Le Vaux moved to Cairns intent on achieving wealth and power. It never quite worked out.

The story of a Cairns murder, the attempted framing of an innocent First Nations man, the sexual assault on a young constable by one of Queensland’s most senior cops and a suicide. The Queensland Police hushed up this story. It stayed hidden for over a century before this writer found the documentation that shows these crimes were the tip of a torrid, tropical iceberg. The story of taboo sex, blackmail, a serial killer and the police and government corruption that enabled the cover-up.

At the time of Percy’s birth, his father worked as headmaster of a small school on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls. But when Percy was five, George Victor Le Vaux uprooted his young family and moved them to Australia. He never explained why.

For good reason.

It’s unlikely he would have found work teaching in Australia if authorities knew the Canadians dismissed him from his previous position for an unmentioned but obviously serious transgression.

Le Vaux taught in Sydney for a short while before successfully applying for the job of headmaster at Roma in country Queensland. In later years, he claimed he moved to Queensland at the invitation of Premier Sir Thomas McIlwraith. Notably, he only mentioned that once McIlwraith was dead and unable to disagree. But if the Premier knew Le Vaux and thought so highly of his teaching, why bring him to Queensland only to dump him in the outback?

In fact, newspaper articles indicate a vacancy arose for a principal at Roma. Le Vaux applied, and the local school board selected him for the job as per standard practice.

The new Roma headmaster was a fantasist who dreamed as a child of greatness. He believed “a grand name would advance him in the world.” So young George Vaugh became Mr George Victor Le Vaux. The ambitious lad abandoned England in his late teens. In a family tree he drew up in his later years, Le Vaux claimed that, at 18, he “served in the 5th Cazadons Garabaldine 1860. Present at LaScala, Palermo, Volturno Oct. 3rd 1860.” A condensed version of the same biography claiming service with Garibaldi in the Italian Wars of Unification is inscribed on his tombstone in a Toowoomba cemetery.

A curiously inaccurate curriculum vitae for a man of learning.

During the Wars of Unification, Garibaldi created 5 regiments of mainly Sicilian volunteers, known as the Cacciatori delle Alpi (Hunters of the Alps). Le Vaux’s ‘cazodons’ is probably a garbled version of cazadors, the Spanish word for hunters.

Garibaldi fought no battles at La Scala. It was an opera house, not a battlefield. And the battle of Volturno was well and truly over on October 3rd 1860, having taken place on the 1st. The fat lady had already sung.

Who knows if 18-year-old George Victor Le Vaux ever visited Italy? His biography seems the result of someone unfamiliar with the country, language, and war attempting to cobble together a story from bits and pieces they’d picked up here and there.

Military imposters are not uncommon. Military service impresses. It can improve a person’s social standing and enhance employment prospects. It certainly worked for Thomas Seaton, Inspector of Nuisances for the Municipality of Cairns.

After his future prospects plummeted to the bottom of Niagara Falls, George Victor Le Vaux resurrected his social standing in outback Queensland.

Then, after a decade in Roma, Le Vaux senior achieved a promotion. He was appointed the foundation principal of Indooroopilly State School in Brisbane, with young Percy as the new school’s first registered pupil. Le Vaux instituted a Cadet Corps in both schools, similar to the Church Lad’s Brigade in Cairns. Teenage boys underwent basic military training, practising shooting at a rifle range and drilling with short muzzle-loading firearms fitted with bayonet blades.

Percy was his father’s star recruit.

After leaving school, Percy Le Vaux initially worked as a clerk in Brisbane but then articled for his solicitor brother George in Cairns for two years. After a further three years with a Brisbane law firm,  he was admitted as a solicitor in 1902. He returned to Cairns to open his first legal practice. His brother had by then moved south.

percy le vaux
Percy Le Vaux

A few months later, Percy took vows of Holy Matrimony.

“Buggies and cabs crowded round the gate of St John’s Church. The first flutter of excitement caused by the arrival of a principal in the important event shortly to happen — the marriage of Miss Blanche Severin, third daughter of our esteemed townsman, Mr Louis Severin, to Mr Percy Le Vaux, solicitor, and a recent arrival in our town.”

A marriage of convenience for both.

Percy was almost 30. Louis Severin was a successful businessman and politician — and much-liked. His daughters were celebrated local beauties and leading lights of the Cairns social scene. Marrying Blanche was a no-brainer for a man who craved business and political success in the town.

And Blanche had few other options. Beautiful, yes. Also intelligent, an elegant dresser, and an in-demand guest at the better social occasions. But Blanche had little education and no work experience. The Severin girls were raised to make desirable wives for men of means — and little else. At 26, if Blanche did not take this opportunity, another might not come along.

Besides, she wanted out of her father’s house. Both Louis Severin’s wives died young, probably worn out by frequent childbirth. Blanche’s older sister took on the maternal role in the family and the pair did not get on. Blanche might barely know Percy Le Vaux, but she wanted a home of her own. It wasn’t as though he was an axe murderer or something! 🤔

After the church ceremony, guests adjourned to the Severin residence for the wedding breakfast. Brabazon Stafford, the local Police Magistrate, gave a speech congratulating the couple and wishing them a life of conjugal bliss. After the wedding feast, guests accompanied the newlyweds down the street to the railway station, where they caught the train to nearby Kuranda for their honeymoon.

But the honeymoon did not last. At least, not the honeymoon between Percy Le Vaux and Police Magistrate Brabazon Stafford. Stafford was a former Sub-Inspector of the Native Police, the near-autonomous Queensland militia charged with policing Aboriginals.

Officially, the force ‘dispersed’ First Nations people suspected of murder, killing stock, thieving or posing any perceived threat to those who now occupied their traditional lands. But ‘dispersed’ was a euphemism. Even newspapers of the day printed the word inside quotation marks. As a correspondent to the Cooktown Courier noted, the orthodox method of dispersal occurred via ‘swift, leaden messengers’ — bullets. Likewise, the Morning Post advised, “the word ‘dispersed’ as applied in some quarters to the blacks, does not convey altogether the same meaning as gathered from Webster’s dictionary.”

The murderous militia conducted widespread, indiscriminate, extrajudicial killings of First Nations people. Crimes, which even Queensland parliamentarians admitted would see other perpetrators hanged. Tens of thousands of First Nations people died during Queensland’s frontier wars.

Stafford and other officers of the Native Police found employment as Police Magistrates upon their retirement. With no legal training and a work history littered with extra-judicial killings, they became heads of the local judiciary in towns across Queensland.

Percy Le Vaux had arrived in Cairns with great expectations. Like his father, he thought very highly of himself and expected the northern town to reward his very presence. His older brother had moved to the town, become a respected lawyer with a thriving practice and been elected to the Cairns Municipal Council.

However, Percy did not feel the love. The citizens of Cairns failed to recognise how lucky they were that he deigned to live among them. The young lawyer came to the northern frontier expecting wealth and position to shower down upon him. Instead, he struggled to afford drinking money. And Percy liked a drink!

He blamed a clique of locals for keeping all the prized positions to themselves. He was not entirely wrong. His own father-in-law spent years on council and served three terms as mayor.  A J Draper scored 5 terms as mayor of Cairns, was secretary of the neighbouring Barron Divisional Board, on the Stock Exchange, the hospital board and much more. Lawyer A J P MacDonnell had all the best clients tied up.

Frustrated by his lack of early advancement in the northern town, Percy Le Vaux began to identify the powers-that-be who he believed held him back. Among them, Brabazon Stafford, who frequently found against Percy’s clients. Of course, most of his clients were no-hopers, crims and drunks, but what did that matter?

Peter Lumberg was one of them—for a time, a notorious drunk and no stranger to the lock-up. On one occasion, Percy represented Peter in an action against Constable Baulch, whom Peter accused of stealing his gold watch and chain while Peter was in the cells. They lost the case. However, soon after Baulch was convicted of corrupt activity and dismissed from the force.

That was the problem with Cairns. Nothing was black and white. Well, other than the colour of your skin.

By September 1902, Percy Le Vaux realised he was unlikely to achieve his ambitions in Cairns by playing nice.

He began his campaign against the ruling clique in the police court, sparring with Brabazon Stafford, a pompous and thin-skinned man, unable to let any perceived slight pass him by.

“Is it not a fact that you told people in the town that you would bring the case before Mr Stafford because he would not find against Mr MacDonnell?” Le Vaux asked a witness.

“What’s that?” asked Stafford from the bench, “I want an apology for that at once.”

“I apologise,” muttered Le Vaux.

“I will hear this case no further until I have a proper apology,” said Stafford. “This is altogether too much.”

After an adjournment for lunch, Stafford addressed the Court.

“Mr Le Vaux, I have given your remarks serious consideration and have come to the conclusion that I am not prepared to accept the cursory and half-hearted apology you tendered for the insult you have levelled at this Court. I shall require a more abject apology and a statement from you withdrawing unreservedly the insinuations contained in your remarks before I am prepared to hear from you any further.”

“I made no insinuations,” said Le Vaux, “the witness herself made the statement to me, and I simply asked her the question here.”

On and on, they went — back and forth — in this case and in many others.

Eventually, Le Vaux’s constant niggling reduced Stafford to petty bitching.

“You can always rely upon getting fair play from this Court, Mr Le Vaux; but the Court cannot give you brains.”

A letter writer to the Brisbane Truth shared Le Vaux’s disdain for the magistrate.

“Brabazon Stafford sits on our judicial bench administering justice in a way that would make your blood turn cold. He is very friendly with a local legal practitioner. During the course of a case, this legal light can do no wrong, and he wins most of his cases.

“Lately, however, the beak has had two or three set backs. Le Vaux, a rising young solicitor, only admitted a few months ago, has been taking him by the wool, and the higher court has twice upset the beak’s decision recently.

“It is high time the Queensland Government sacked some of these old fossils who now sit as judges of law. Magistrate Stafford has been here too long. He wants shifting.”

The Brisbane Truth itself then mounted a campaign against Stafford, eventually exposing the indiscretion that dislodged Brabazon Stafford from his prized sinecure in Cairns.

“He is living apart from his family as a bachelor, occupying rooms in the courthouse — one as a sitting room and another as a bedroom. It is extraordinary that a courthouse should be used for such a purpose. The public, having any business with the court, is greatly inconvenienced by Stafford occupying these rooms, and witnesses have to wait in the yard under the boiling sun or tropical rains without any protection whatsoever.

“There is no doubt that there are some queer people in Cairns, and some of them have most dreadful pedigrees.”

Stafford found himself compelled to apply for a transfer. No one cared much that the Police Magistrate made improper use of the government building. What public official didn’t have their snout in the government trough?

But Stafford had lost control of his home to the extent that when his marriage broke down, he moved out of the house, not his wife. Who could trust the magisterial decisions of a man who didn’t even wear the pants in his own home?

The local correspondent for the Brisbane Truth threw his voice behind Le Vaux.

“The clique will endeavour, we suppose, to get rid of young Le Vaux, a lawyer who gives them a terrible lot of annoyance, but we are afraid Le Vaux is too clever for them.

“He is a young man with plenty of ambition, knowledge, and perseverance, which makes it hard for the audacious clique to down him.”

The history of Cairns is white and male. White men made up only a fraction of the town’s population. However, they occupied the government jobs and civic positions. They owned the newspapers. The stories of other races and white women only mattered when they touched on those of white men.

That suited Percy. He was white, and he hated anyone who was not. He raged against any court which found in favour of a coloured man to the detriment of a white. According to Percy, the White Australia policy meant non-whites were always the guilty party — regardless of such petty concerns as sworn evidence.

Again, the Cairns correspondent of the Brisbane Truth found himself in complete agreement with lawyer Le Vaux.

“Cairns is a prosperous, thriving little town, of about 3,500 inhabitants, of whom only about 700 are whites. The remainder are made up of representatives of NEARLY EVERY NATIONALITY under the sun.

“Kanakas, of course, abound, but they form only a portion of the copper-coloured colonists of Cairns. Hindoos, Syrians, Javanese, Eurasians, Afghans, Greeks, Dagoes, Cainese, Phillipinoe, Manilla men, Turks, Chinese, and Japanese swarm in such numbers that their dirty faces and vile-smelling bodies almost darken the landscape and blot out the brightness of the magnificent tropical sun which shines over them.

“The Chinese and the Japanese fairly run the town. The Chows have most of the business places in their hands, and control the bulk of the trade, both internal and external. The Japs are laundrymen and cooks. But there are many Japs who toil not, neither do they spin. To them is reserved the degrading occupation of trafficking and trading in women, by means of which they pander to the lust and vice of the alien and low white population.”

When one of Percy’s clients (white, naturally) lost a case against coloured man, the Brisbane Truth ranted against the decision.

“Shame on such and shame on a State which keeps in its employ magistrates who so far forget the dignity of office as to turn dog on the white population at every opportunity.”

In 1904, Percy Le Vaux tried again to profit from his move north. He stood in the state election as the Labor candidate for Cook, the electorate north of Cairns.

Peter Lumberg no longer drank heavily. He gave his lawyer and drinking buddy’s campaign both moral and financial support.

A popular figure among the pioneer miners of Cook, Peter helped round up considerable votes for Percy. The ever-faithful Brisbane Truth also backed him for the seat.

Not that anyone thought he needed help. The Labor candidate was a shoo-in. Cook electors would vote for no other candidate.

But… they did vote for a non-Labor candidate.

Trying to foist a stranger from Cairns onto the electorate proved a fatal error for Labor. Percy lost the election by two votes. With his subsequent actions, it’s frightening to think that only two votes came between Le Vaux and a seat in the Queensland Parliament.

But something else happened in 1904, something that explained why the Brisbane Truth unfailingly supported Percy Le Vaux and automatically echoed his thoughts.

The Cairns correspondent of the Brisbane Truth, the writer who praised Percy Le Vaux for his “ambition, knowledge and perseverance” and championed the lawyer at every turn, was…

drum roll, please…

Percy Le Vaux!

As 1905 rolled around, Percy le Vaux needed to try something new. He hit the local pubs most nights with his drinking mates, including his ‘most intimate friend’, Peter Lumberg.

They made an odd couple, the unkempt old prospector and the urbane young lawyer.

But things would get odder still…

Hubert Durham, gay policeman and the great police cover-up:

The gay scandal QLD Police hushed up for over a century.

1/ The murder

2/ Sandy Gallop

3/ The Essence of the Dear Departed

4/ Percy Le Vaux – the victim’s ‘most intimate friend’.

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Destiny Rogers

Destiny Rogers embarked on her career in the media industry immediately after high school, initially joining Mirror News, which later evolved into News Ltd. She fondly recalls editing Ian Byford's 'Passing Glances: A History of Gay Cairns' as one of her most fulfilling projects. Additionally, Destiny co-researched and co-wrote 'The Queen's Ball', chronicling the history of the world's longest-running continuous queer event. Her investigative work on the history of Australia's COON Cheese and Edward Coon culminated in the publication 'COON: More Holes than Swiss Cheese', a collaborative effort with Dr. Stephen Hagan. Destiny's journey at QNews began as a feature writer, and she was subsequently elevated to the role of Managing Editor of QNews Magazine in 2018. However, in July 2022, she decided to resign from this role to refocus on research and feature writing. For contact, please reach out at destinyr@qnews.com.au.

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