The Curse. Chapter Four: Dalham Affleck


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John Wilson

The hidden camera extortion racket uncovered at New Farm’s trendy Avalon Flats shocked pre-war Brisbane. The victim — John Wilson, by all accounts, a remarkably devout English lad. The villains — Fred and Dalham Affleck, the sons of Sir Frederick Danby James Affleck, 8th Baronet of Dalham Hall, a Buderim orchardist.

Read Chapter 1: The Hidden Camera

Chapter 2: Sir Frederick Affleck & Sons

Chapter 3: Fred Affleck, a modern Raffles

The Supreme Court heard allegations of all-male orgies. Lawyers waved photos of homosexual sex acts. But the jury never heard from John Wilson. Justice Macrossan ruled they could rely on his previous testimony after he shot himself on the eve of the trial. Another victim perhaps of what Lady Lily Affleck described as the curse of the house of Affleck. However, despite the conviction of her sons, the trial never came close to the truth. A web of lies surrounded the entire case. Everyone lied, including John Wilson. So, what was the truth and who was John Wilson really? In truth, everyone was cursed because, for most people in the 1930s, survival required endless deceit.

Dalham Affleck

Despite listing the family farm for sale numerous times during the 1920s, the Afflecks found no takers. By 1926 when Sir Frederick turned 70, he was completely blind and no longer able to work the property. He transferred the unbountiful Eden into Dalham Affleck’s name. Years later, tears spilled from Lady Affleck’s eyes as she recalled the late Baronet.

“It is no exaggeration to say that my whole life revolved around Sir. To have known him was a privilege; to have been his wife, a profound honour.”

Such beautiful words; her ladyship so faithful to the sacred vows of Holy Matrimony.

“For better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, until death do us part.”

Except in 1927, when she dumped the poor, sick, blind, elderly Baronet at the Dunwich Benevolent Asylum for the aged, infirm, and destitute, and took up with another man.

The Queensland Government situated their poorhouse on Stradbroke Island, out of sight and out of mind. Society’s embarrassing cast-offs, the people no one wanted, remained secluded from the public gaze. The old fellow would find it difficult to find his way back to the mainland, forsaken, friendless, and separated from his loved ones by shark-infested waters. A decade would pass before he returned to the bosom of his family.

dalham affleck
Dunwich Benevolent Asylum. Image: State Library of Queensland

At 21, Dalham married 17-year-old Mary Reeding. Later that year, he injured his right eye while clearing undergrowth. His mother claimed his father’s blindness resulted from a similar accident. She attributed blame for the mishap to an ancient curse on the House of Affleck.

“There does seem to be a curse on the descendants of Dalham Hall. There was Sir’s tragic misfortune — that dreadful accident when sap from a falling tree spurted into his eyes and rendered him blind.”

A Brisbane specialist saved Dalham’s eye. However, although young, fit, and hardworking, he still could not make the farm pay. Was his father’s life to be his own? Would he also slog for decades only to end up blind and poor?

In 1929, Dalham and Mary gave up the farm, humped their swag and hit the road in a horse-drawn cart.

The young couple lived for a while in South Brisbane and Dalham found casual work. But the pair went bush after short-term employment onboard a steamer ended badly. The owners of the Dilga hired non-union labour to work aboard the ship during a nationwide waterside dispute. Dalham took a job as a cook. Disgruntled wharfies sometimes lay in wait to attack the ‘scabs’ as they left the ship. Chased by an angry mob, Dalham and two workmates jumped into a cab near Customs House, across the road from the National Hotel, owned by Sir Frederick until about the time of Dalham’s birth. One of the attackers threw a brick that smashed the car window and hit Dalham in the ribs. Rescued from the rioting mob by the police, Dalham took his wife and headed for the non-unionised bush.

He initially took work on farms in the Beaudesert area, on Brisbane’s outskirts, before heading further afield.

By 1931, with Australia in the grip of the Great Depression, Dalham and Mary lived rough in a tent outside Goondiwindi. He worked trapping rabbits. Scrubbing his clothes, Mary stumbled across a letter from another woman. Three years they’d been married and still no kids. Yet he was running around with someone else. Mary was furious. But the bush Casanova only scoffed. Another woman? Just one? According to Dalham, a horde of women wanted to jump his bones. He had his little joke and then punched his young bride to the ground. He was, after all, a man. Dalham abandoned Mary in the isolated camp, advising her to walk the 200 miles back to Brisbane,

The faithless husband disclosed his intended destination to only one person, his best mate, a young bloke named James Gannon. But James also liked Mary. He ratted on Dalham, and when Mary decided to pursue her spouse, James gave her a lift. They tracked the wayward husband down at Glen Innes, across the border in NSW. However, Dalham wouldn’t be going anywhere for a while. He was in jail. During the Depression, the government issued food rations to the unemployed. Dalham obtained extra rations through a false declaration and went to prison for fraud.

James obtained work and accommodation and Mary moved in with him. She wrote to Lady Affleck to complain her husband’s imprisonment left her destitute. Lily posted back a parcel of clothes. Soon after, police turned up wanting to search the house and confiscated all of Lady Affleck’s gifts. Stolen property. The Afflecks might descend from noble lineage, but they were trouble. Mary and James found work out of town as husband and wife and absconded before Dalham’s release. After three barren years with Dalham, Mary suddenly started popping out babies. Two in the following three years, both fathered by her husband’s best mate.

Despite the tyranny of distance, Dalham, Fred and Lady Affleck remained in contact via the post. When Dalham left prison, he knew Fred was back inside. Dalham himself only narrowly escaped another conviction when his new best mate stole a farmer’s fence to feed their campfire. Life on the road was not working out. Dalham turned his horse towards Brisbane. Time to make something of himself.

Only an idiot fails to learn from experience. That was generally the older brother. Dalham arrived back in the town of his birth armed with a swindle pioneered by Fred in Sydney. Along with Reg Worters and Albert Gibbs, Fred touted for work as a casual gardener. The trio specialised in exceptionally rigorous pruning, denuding their unwitting client’s gardens of the best blooms and then selling them. But that was only the beginning of their little racket. As they gardened, and in the course of flower deliveries, Fred and his mates cased their client’s houses and later robbed them.

And there are hints of yet another element to this grand larceny. It seems the flower deliveries were not what we might term ‘quickies’ — not straight in-and-out. Investigators concluded in 1929 that Fred already knew his way around the houses he robbed.

“It always appeared to the investigating police that the thief knew just where to go to pick up the valuable loot once he gained entrance.”

However, every one of Fred’s male victims denied knowledge of him, despite his intimate familiarity with their homes.

The scheme landed Fred in prison, but for Dalham, everything came up roses. His clients saw something special in him, and whatever that was, they wanted to tap it. Several socially prominent citizens engaged him as a landscape gardener. Among them, barrister George Lukin, a confirmed bachelor who regularly squired widowed society dames to fancy soirées. Somewhat like Prince del Drago whose house Fred robbed in Sydney, Lukin was also a trusted stand-in for husbands uninterested in partnering their wives at bridge parties. Dalham joined Brisbane’s ‘arty’ set. While most people struggled to eke out a living during the Great Depression, Dalham Affleck prospered.

Then, in 1935, he abruptly quit horticulture for a radically different discipline. Overnight, Dalham reinvented himself as a thespian, morphing into a leading man and theatrical producer. The Sunday-Mail rated the wife-beater turned gentleman heartthrob among the best-dressed men on Queen Street.

The sudden transformation might seem strange. But many a theatrical career was born either of the casting couch or a personal connection.

At the very least, Dalham possessed a personal connection.

Englishman Leonard Parish blew into the Affleck’s part of the world around the same time 16-year-old Dalham returned from Kingaroy to the Sunshine Coast. A published poet and former Shakespearian actor, the popular English bachelor became the leading light of the local cultural scene. The recitals and amateur theatricals orchestrated by the bard of the Bald Knob and Landsborough Memorial Halls provided the locals with some respite from the everyday drudgery of farm life.

Young Leonard Parish during his English acting career.

Leonard married the same year as Dalham, the 39-year-old plighting his troth to the 20-year-old daughter of a prominent local family. He acquired a farm from her relatives soon after. But during the Great Depression, Leonard Parish also struggled. With the Agricultural Bank threatening to foreclose, he and his wife headed into Brisbane.

In 1934, Parish launched the derivatively titled Academy of Motion Picture Arts. With little else to sell, he would sell dreams.

“Motion picture players earn big money. Australian producers are searching the Commonwealth for film types; you may be a type. Call and see Leonard Parish, Academy of Motion Picture Arts (Reg’d).”

In a press release, he alluded to potential stars just needing their innate talent honed.

“Who knows? Bundaberg or Toowoomba may yet produce a Joan Crawford or a Clark Gable. The ability is certainly present and has only to be brought out.”

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts could bring out that ability — for a price!

But what of cinematic aspirants stuck out bush at Bumfucknowhere? No problem! A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step — or stamp. Bushies could reach for the stars via correspondence. Leonard’s ‘new direct mail course’ would do the trick.

Want your kid to become the next Shirley Temple? Just two shillings, sixpence per lesson for class tuition. Priceless individual instruction? Leonard put a price on that.

Sadly, none of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts students ever achieved Hollywood stardom. Not so much as a Vegemite commercial. But the business prospered. It might have for years to come. Except that Leonard Parish allied himself with a shyster whose monumental Brisbane scam came undone. Roy G. Nelson convinced investors to partner in a proposed Motion Picture Colony, supposedly a ‘milestone in Queensland’s Industrial History’.

Nelson billed himself as a big-time movie producer. However, it seems the main thing he had in common with the legendary movie producers of the Golden Age of Hollywood was a propensity for bedding buxom blondes.

To promote the unlikely scheme, Nelson and Parish faked a location shoot in a Camp Hill paddock. They shot a handful of scenes for The Man from Wondonga featuring the ‘Hollywood-ready talent’ of the Parish Academy.

“Two dozen men engaged in a fight, tender loves scenes and a riotous welcome home to a returning son.”

A clumsily worded sentence, and misleading. But be in no doubt, although unmentioned, women undoubtedly joined the men for the love scenes. That was a given. This was not 2010 Prague. It was 1934 Camp Hill, and Camp Hill was not that camp. The fisticuffs did not presage a 24-man orgy.

Camp Hill, the Hollywood of the Southern Hemisphere, not.

Tall, lean and fit from years of sport and backbreaking farm labour, not to mention a ridgy-didge lifesaver, Dalham Affleck represented the ideal Aussie male sought by Parish and Nelson for film roles. Nelson singled out surf-lifesavers for their muscular outdoorsy machismo.

“Queensland is renowned for its manly types. Who has not noted the splendid types doing duty as lifesavers at Southport and other beaches?”

But Parish clearly favoured a different protégé.

J. Ross Skerman grew up in the Sunshine Coast hinterland within a few miles of the Parish and Affleck farms. A violinist and amateur actor, he also performed at the Bald Knob and Landsborough Memorial Halls. Parish singled out the 22-year-old in publicity for the film shoot and advertising for the Academy.

“Mr J. Ross Skerman. Typical juvenile lead. A player of distinct possibilities.”

dalham affleck

Distinct possibilities indeed! Though perhaps Leonard was the real player. At the company Christmas party, he gifted Ross an antique cigarette box. Dalham got nothing. But whatever his failings, Dalham Affleck was not a shirker. He kept going. Head down, bum up.

His speaking voice proved his best asset, enabling Parish to find him roles in radio plays. Australian radio generally preferred posh, upper-class accents — for posh — read English. Dalham could affect a plummy BBC cadence. His upbringing was exceedingly English. The Clergy Orphan Corporation gifted Sir Frederick a fine English education. In the words of his wife, a scholar and a gentleman. The refined and cultured Lady Affleck, ‘herself a direct descendant of the aristocracy’, also spoke faultless English.

Newspaper articles eventually exposed Nelson as a shonk. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts was collateral damage, its empty promise laid bare.

Sniffing the wind, Leonard quietly closed up shop. He then formed the Leonard Parish Shakespearian Company.

“The material I have is not brilliant,” he said of the actors in his upcoming production of Julius Caesar. He did credit the cast for ‘enthusiasm’, though notably, did not consider any graduates of the Academy for roles. Parish boasted of his historical integrity in placing Shakespeare on a bare stage but then confessed the truth. He couldn’t afford a set. Unfortunately, the writer sent by Brisbane Truth to preview the play came to bury Caesar, not to praise him. His shovel struck gold when the producer divulged that the troupe would cobble together their own costumes. In his write-up, the scurrilous journo harked back to an earlier production wherein the lead actor tumbled from his litter and lost his toga.

“The happening revealed Caesar as a stout youth with red hair wearing football shorts and lying on a stretcher bearing the inscription Queensland Ambulance Transport Brigade.”

Et tu, Brute?

Lacklustre ticket sales left Parish short of money. Dalham Affleck and a few others helped raise funds by holding dances and staging variety shows. But Leonard Parish was over it. He gave up and moved on in search of a real job.

The D. R. Affleck Dramatic Company rose like a phoenix from the ashes of the Parish ensemble. But no ponderous Shakespearian tragedies for Dalham. Instead, he chose a popular farce for his theatrical debut, Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.

Although short of money to promote his show, Dalham knew someone who could help.

Born into a wealthy English family, Nigel Bonsey apparently lived off an inheritance. He dabbled as a writer and critic, mainly for the Catholic Advocate. Intensely devout, he possessed all the crusading zeal of a convert which, in fact, he was. His family were Church of England and many of the men took Holy Orders, including his father and two older brothers. But they were High Church Anglicans, devoted to ritual and sacrament — the Catholic you have when you’re not having a Catholic. Nigel transitioned easily and people forgot he’d ever identified differently.

Nigel Bonsey also penned political diatribes best summed up as ‘everything was better in the good old days but went to shit following the separation of church and state’.

“Our economic and social systems… can only be rectified by a return to the fundamental principles of Catholicism, upon which the great civilisation of the Middle Ages was built.”

Yeah. Bring back the Inquisition!

Nigel yearned for a better world, something he thought might be helped by concealing priestly misconduct.

“Details should be suppressed in the interest of public morality… The publication of unsavoury happenings, especially when ministers of religion have the misfortune to fall, give habitually immoral and ignorant people excuse for further misconduct.”

Readers might picture Bonsey as an 80-something hermit monk, a quill clutched in his gnarled hand to scrawl his scolding encyclicals. No. Holier-than-thou Nigel was only 30. And bizarrely, something of a party animal. But not a ‘let’s get shit-faced and wake up naked in a pool of our own vomit in the New Farm Park rose gardens’ type merrymaker. More ‘ooh, I do enjoy a good Devonshire Tea’.

‘My most sincere compliments on the hostess’s sponge cake. You really must give me the recipe. I so enjoyed Archbishop Duhig’s homily on Sunday. Gosh, I’m glad I came today. This is so much fun. I’m having fun. Are you having fun? I’m sure we’re all having fun.’

Nigel Bonsey, centre, enlisted in WWII but wasn’t sent overseas. Here, he and two friends are greeted by the sisters of the young soldier on the right when they return home on leave.

A friend once defended Nigel in a Letter to the Editor as ‘a gay and laughter-loving Christian gentleman’.

Christian, yes. Gentleman, maybe. The rest, nah! Although the guy probably nailed the gay bit, he did so unknowingly. The word already enjoyed currency in certain circles but not amongst staid defenders of the conservative status quo.

Nigel Bonsey swooned over goddesses of the silver screen and tirelessly flitted between the theatre, opera and ballet.

But nothing queer about that. Nigel Bonsey was English. What Aussies judged as effete in their own, they thought perfectly normal in an Englishman. Aussie men were a bit rough around the edges. The English, on the other hand, were refined and cultured gents who often engaged in impractical and unproductive pursuits.

In the weekly Sunday-Mail humour column, Mrs Mangles chuckled as the old girl next door mocked Pommy men as toffs who promenaded alongside lazy, mournful-looking dogs while waving unneeded walking sticks.

Perhaps she’d met Nigel. Meanwhile, he bemoaned the vulgar lack of manners common among Australian pagans. (For pagan, read protestant.)

“Amongst a certain class of person, to display ignorance seems fashionable nowadays.”

Yes, Granny.

“Once upon a time, people hid their ignorance, but today so-called men punctuate their language with expressions not tolerated in self-respecting pigsties.”

Hey Nige, ever heard the expression Nigel No Friends?

“The yarns exchanged by certain members of the community are notable chiefly for an abundance of filth.”

FFS, Nanna.

By his own admission, Nigel Bonsey spent much of his spare time between opening nights and book launches on his knees…

In prayer… tormented by temptations of the flesh.

“Even with the safeguards of religion to assist, a man finds it difficult to prevent his physical side getting the better of his reason.”

True that. In his enthusiasm for Dalham Affleck, Nigel tossed reason to the gutter, and penned an uncharacteristically giddy review for The Importance of Being Earnest.

“Get out the glad rags and look up the girlfriend’s telephone number. There’s going to be a hot time in the old town shortly.”

Regular readers must have checked and rechecked the byline in wonderment.

Where is Nigel, and what have you done with his halo?

A hot time in the old town? Really? Wilde’s polite comedy of manners? Did cucumber sandwiches give Bonsey a boner?

I doubt Nigel is reading this. He is, after all, long dead. But just in case. Nigel, my good man. When a man needs to look up a woman’s four-digit phone number to ask her to the theatre, she is called a beard, not a girlfriend.

Following the premiere, Nigel saw his beard home to her father’s threshold at a respectable hour. He then motored to his Spring Hill abode and conjured up a headline that encapsulated his unbounded exuberance for Dalham’s grand opening.

“D. R. Affleck scores.”

No doubt!

Bonsey also slipped in a plug for his hero’s planned follow-up, Charley’s Aunt. Both The Importance of Being Earnest and Charley’s Aunt held particular appeal for people generally denied representation on the public stage. Wilde’s play contained numerous coded gay references, and Charley’s Aunt was a popular farce about a man in drag.

Back in the days of the love that dared not speak its name, queer people took visibility where they found it. Even late in the twentieth century, they embraced films featuring transvestite characters like Tootsie and Mrs Doubtfire despite the heterosexual premise behind the cinematic cross-dressing.

However, insufficient theatregoers shared Nigel Bonsey’s high regard for Dalham’s efforts. The box-office takings from Earnest would not sustain the D. R. Affleck Dramatic Company. Dalham slammed the closet door on Charley’s Aunt and gave up the stage. He invested his last £50 into a South Brisbane garage conditional on the business employing him. But the garage went broke within weeks, losing him both his job and the investment.

Chapter 1, Chapter 2, Chapter 3 <— The Curse —> Read Chapter 5: Long Bay Gaol from Sunday, April 3.

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