Bert Edwards: Adelaide’s gay working-class hero

bert edwards working class hero february 4
Main Image: State Library of SA.

Bert Edwards appeared in the Adelaide Supreme Court on February 4 1931, on trial for an unnatural offence and an act of gross indecency. Many believe he was framed by the establishment. To less affluent Adelaideans, he was a working-class hero, celebrated for his political and philanthropic efforts for the poor.

In his early twenties, Bert converted an old bakery into the Bert Edwards’ Tea Rooms. But not, as we might imagine, a genteel establishment where Alexander Downer’s aristocratic female forebears exchanged pleasantries over cups of Darjeeling.

No. More a place where footballers went for a piss-up after a match. Bert reportedly sold grog without a licence and tolerated underage drinking, the drinking age being 21 at the time.

He was elected first to the city council in 1914 and three years later to state parliament.

Bert Edwards fought for the underdog, concerned with wages, housing and prison reform. The working-class hero made numerous enemies in politics. Firstly for his relentless championing of the underprivileged, not always a popular cause among establishment politicians. Secondly, as also a ruthless political operative, Bert never cared who he upset, including the bosses of his own Labor Party.

In 1930, he attacked a decision by the Attorney-General not to prosecute a plainclothes police constable who shot dead a 21-year-old suspect.

Constable Delderfield

Constable William Delderfield only recently transferred to Adelaide. He joined the SA police after emigrating from England and worked in Mount Gambier until 1930. His arrests seem to focus on poor people and particularly kids. Also, far too many prisoners suffered injuries while in his custody.

In July 1930, Delderfield took part in a shoot-out between four escaped prisoners and about twenty cops. Two of the escapees died.

Then in November, Delderfield accompanied two detectives wanting to question a 21-year-old cabinetmaker suspected of involvement in a robbery. When the suspect ran out of a house and jumped a fence, Delderfield fired a shot intending, he claimed, to ‘frighten’ the young man. The bullet penetrated the fence and killed the suspect. The coroner later committed Delderfield for trial on a charge of murder. However, Attorney-General Bill Denny, better known as ‘Walking Willie’, dropped the charge.

An outraged Bert Edwards attacked Denny in parliament over the issue. All of this occurred against the backdrop of acrimonious rifts between Labor factions which saw Bert and Walking Willie on two bitterly opposed sides.

On 13 December 1930, just days after Edward’s parliamentary tirade against Denny, senior police charged Bert with sexual offences.

Unnatural offences

Edwards had employed 16-year-old John Gault Mundy at one of his hotels earlier in the year. Mundy was later charged with molesting a younger boy and sent to a reformatory. But when arrested, the lad claimed he only knew about sodomy because Bert showed him ‘the ropes’.

However, in court, John Mundy accused the cops of verballing him, claiming they inserted passages into his police statement without his knowledge. He also admitted he made the allegation in the hope of shortening his own sentence.

Bert Edwards admitted other male friends sometimes stayed in his room when they visited. But he strenuously denied that John Mundy ever stayed in his room or that he had sex with him.

Prior to the trial, police arrested one of their witnesses when she refused to give evidence in support of their case. They imprisoned her for perjury in the lead up to the trial. Constable Cocks, the state’s first policewoman, appeared to have ‘assisted’ the young woman compose her original statement.

According to the defence, the prosecution suppressed other evidence discovered by Miss Cocks that favoured Bert. The policewoman claimed ‘privilege’ and refused to answer questions about some of her witness interviews.

Sir George Murray

Sadly, Bert Edwards could not expect a fair hearing from Chief Justice Sir George Murray. Even his entry in the fusty and often over-laudatory Australian Dictionary of Biography describes Murray as  ‘the embodiment of traditional, conservative and often localized values and as a focal point for helping to preserve those from untoward influences’.

Untoward influences!

Murray wielded his power to ‘preserve the character of community values as [he] conceived them’, while Bert Edwards was an enthusiastic political reformer. No love lost there.

Bert’s lawyer argued convincingly — and probably correctly — that the establishment had framed his client. Nevertheless, the jury convicted him on the charge of an unnatural offence but acquitted him of gross indecency. Murray sentenced him to 5 years.

Bert Edwards promised revenge from the dock.

“My enemies have succeeded, but they have done so with loaded dice. I do not pretend to forgive them. Someday they will receive the punishment they richly deserve.”

Working-class hero

Released in 1933, Bert became a publican again, and although no longer in parliament, continued his commitment to the poor and disadvantaged. In 1942, the cops apparently tried a rerun of 1930. They charged him with gross indecency with two brothers, one a soldier and the other a labourer. However, during the committal hearing, the brothers refused to answer questions. The soldier claimed a police officer gave him the third degree and ‘forced’ him to make the allegations against Bert. The charges were dropped.

Bert’s philanthropy included funding a men’s refuge and a rehabilitation centre for prisoners. He also supported a meal service run by the Daughters of Charity of Saint Vincent de Paul.

On his death, he bequeathed his entire estate to provide “happiness, education and opportunity of advancement in life to children who have been in an orphanage or public institute for delinquent children.”

His funeral was said to be one of the largest ever held in Adelaide.

Read also: Lindsay Kemble: from Adelaide’s ‘gay deceiver’ to war hero.

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