From the time of his 1905 arrival in Ferntree Gully, George Lovell impressed the locals with his community spirit. But what happened in early 20th century Australia when a selfless model citizen was exposed as homosexual?
The accepted narrative of early 20th century attitudes tells us that the general public held gays in utter contempt. The despised minority cowered from public view, stealing illicit pleasures and shunning overt manifestations of their authentic sexuality. But what of those men whose sexuality became a matter of public record — those convicted of male on male sex and thereby exposed as homosexual? Did they forsake their homes, friends and families and skulk away to distant towns to start afresh? Or did they hunker down to run a daily gauntlet of vilification and potential violence?
Many small towns enjoy the presence of a public-spirited individual devoted to community causes. The sort of person always willing to help anyone and eager to assist with any civic endeavour. In the early 1900s, the Ferntree Gully Shire was home to such a person. George Lovell arrived in the small farming community nestled in the foothills of the Dandenong Ranges in about 1905. After initially coming to Australia to visit his sister and nephew, the Englishman decided to stay.
In 1910, the Ferntree Gully locals threw the popular newcomer a surprise 42nd birthday party. Proposing a toast, a shire councillor eulogised George.
The guest of honour, he said, “never spared himself night or day, early or late, to do anything that would add to their pleasure and comfort.
“I do not think that Mr Lovell knows what it means to bear malice; nor does he mind who it is or where he lives, he will walk miles to try and do him a good turn.”
George worked as a reporter for a local paper before taking a job at the council as the rates collector. He became a familiar sight, riding from farm to farm on a small pony.
In the absence of a local doctor or ambulance, locals turned to George Lovell for first aid in medical emergencies. On one occasion, a visiting Englishman dislocated his shoulder. George massaged the shoulder for hours until it painlessly slipped back into place. He also volunteered as a midwife, delivering babies in local homes.
However, it was his efforts on behalf of local community organisations that created the greatest impression. He was an active member of the football and cricket clubs, the Mechanics Institute, the amateur theatrical group, the horticultural and the ratepayer’s associations, and more.
Sorry he’s not a married man
In 1912, the Ferntree Gully football team won the district premiership. At a banquet to celebrate, the local MLA presented George with a medal in recognition of his ‘sterling service’ as club secretary.
“I have known Mr Lovell as a hard-working, energetic secretary and a thorough and determined grafter in every movement which he took up.
“I am sorry Mr Lovell is not a married man; why some of the good-looking girls in the room have not ‘got’ him before now, I do not know.”
The room erupted into laughter.
In 1916, George enlisted to fight in World War I. At 47, he was actually too old, but he lied to recruiters, telling them he was 44. He said he felt compelled to enlist to save the lives of younger men.
“I do not approve of boys of 18 and 19 years of age enlisting as I do not think these young chaps have seen enough of life.”
George returned to Ferntree Gully following the war and, in addition to resuming his other interests, became a driving force in the local RSL.
Local newspapers documented his relentless volunteering, barely a week passing without mention of one good deed or another.
Exposed as homosexual
However, one person obviously disapproved of George Lovell. A neighbour dobbed him in for homosexual activity at the small two-room house where he lived on the main road into town.
In June 1933, 65-year-old George Lovell appeared in the Melbourne Criminal Court charged with six counts of gross indecency. Along with 29-year-old Percy Draeger, he faced another two counts of being party to the commission of gross indecencies. The charges appear to relate to oral sex. Anal sex would have been charged as buggery. Until 1949, the penalty for buggery in Victoria ranged from 14 years to a possible death sentence.
Percy was a local labourer, married for three years, but with no kids as yet.
The two men pleaded guilty to all charges.
Ferntree Gully’s Anglican minister and a member of the Victorian Upper House both appeared in court to testify to George’s good character. Grumpy old Justice Wasley remained unimpressed.
“You suggest that in spite of what he has done, he should be released?”
Go away and sin no more
“It is an unpleasant duty for a judge to have to punish men who are respected by everyone. Men who apparently possess all the traits of good citizens, when they lapse into crime, shock all who knew them. It would be pleasing to be able to say, ‘Go away and sin no more’, but judges have a duty to the community. Punishment must be considered as a deterrent. To do otherwise with the crime as prevalent as it is, would be an inducement instead of a deterrent.”
The judge complained that Melbourne courts tried two similar cases in the past week.
“Should these men, when they come here, simply be released and told not to come back again?”
Wasley did offer some leniency for Draeger. He described the 29-year-old as the victim of a corrupting older man.
“It looks as if he has been led astray.”
He released Draeger on a three-year good behaviour bond.
George Lovell copped six months in Pentridge on each charge. However, Wasley made the sentences concurrent.
Return to Ferntree Gully
Percy returned to his wife in Ferntree Gully, and within 12 months, she gave birth to their first child. Sadly, the little boy died a year later. The pair eventually divorced.
Upon his release from Pentridge, George also returned to Ferntree Gully. It seems the community welcomed him back with open arms, even if he took a much lower profile than previously. The local papers avoided reporting on his trial or conviction. That did not mean the residents of Ferntree Gully were unaware of the occurrence. The Melbourne papers and Bush Telegraph more than made up the parochial reticence of the Fern Tree Gully News.
A letter George wrote to another local paper in 1953 suggests Ferntree Gully never forgot his contribution. The community never allowed his conviction or sexuality to affect their gratitude and affection for him.
“May I tender my sincere thanks to all those kind and generous friends who have been so lavish in their good things for my comfort and happiness, not only for Xmas but for the whole year.
“Especially those kind souls of the Sporting Club and the Council and C.R.B. men who never seem to tire of lending me a helping hand.
“There are others who think kindly of me whose names I do not know nor am I permitted to know.”
Even if sometimes anonymously, the locals wanted to look after George.
RSL Life membership
Later that year, the Ferntree Gully RSL honoured George Lovell by bestowing him with only its second-ever life membership. The president paid tribute to him as the club’s founding secretary and the driving force behind the local memorial hall.
George mentioned, perhaps wryly, that it was 21 years to that day since he last attended a meeting of the sub-branch. That would place his last attendance not long before his conviction.
George Lovell died in January 1954, aged 85.
A large crowd turned out for the funeral. The local paper published a glowing tribute, including a biography of George Lovell’s life in the district, omitting his unavoidable temporary absence for the last six months of 1933.
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