The Missing Reverend

While trawling through a rather long Trove search result list for things to do with the Wesley Church in Albany (for work), I kept seeing references to The Rev. T. A. James. There were some odd headlines: ‘Supposed Drowning Case’, ‘Mysterious Disappearance’, ‘Sydney Detectives Make Discoveries’, ‘James Masquerading as ‘Mr. Lee”, ‘Church Funds Intact’, ‘James Guilty of Immoral Conduct’ and others. I didn’t have time to read them – I was on the clock! – but I printed everything I came across and have now managed to find time to discover what happened.

It seems that a Rev. Thomas Albert James had been a respected member of the executive council of the Methodist Church in Perth who was, with great fanfare, appointed to the circuit of Albany in 1903. Rev. James was about 47 and had been born in Birmingham, arriving in Victoria then joining the Methodist ministry in 1881 and moving to South Australia and then onto Western Australia.[1] On his much lamented departure for Albany he received a number of gifts from groups he had worked with including a gold sovereign case, a silver-mounted umbrella, a silver-mounted brush and a ‘handsome’ gold watch with a personal inscription. He and his wife, expressing their love for all those they had been associated with and “earnestly urg[ing] the people to be loyal to the church and its work”[2] bade their farewells and made the trip to Albany.

Presumably James and his wife went about their church business in Albany for the next three years with little to bring either of them to the notice of the newspapers in Perth (I haven’t looked at The Albany Advertiser yet). But all that changed on 3 May 1906 when a telegram was received by Mrs James informing her of the sad drowning of her husband during a holiday in Sydney. His body had not been recovered and further information would be provided in a letter following. The news article finished with “[t]he statement contained in the telegram has been questioned”,[3] although why and how is not explained.

A few days later there was more for The West Australian to breathlessly report – enough to fill almost a half a page. According to the paper, James travelled to Melbourne to visit his mother and then to Ballarat to see other relatives. He sent a letter to his wife soon after his arrival in Sydney and described meeting a Mr Hunter on the train who was “suffering from writer’s cramp in the right hand”[4] and was travelling for his health (yes, seriously). James told his wife that after he couldn’t find accommodation in Sydney, Mr Hunter offered to share his lodgings.

The telegram to Mrs James from Mr Hunter announcing Rev. James’ drowning was the next she heard about or from her husband. The Albany church’s stalwart, Mr Robinson asked the church in Sydney to check the authenticity of the message and was told that it was sent from Suva with the (slower) letter and that it was “evidently that of an illiterate person. The affair is shrouded in mystery.”[5] The letter arrived a few days later and told the sad story of a leisurely sail on the harbour that supposedly ended in the accidental drowning of Rev. James. ‘Mr Hunter’ readers now discovered was not his real name and the reason he didn’t go to the police about the James’ drowning was because he had “excellent reasons for not being brought into prominence just now”.[6] The letter was considered to have been written “with a disguised hand…[or] might have been written with the left hand”.[7] Investigations in Sydney established that ‘Mr Hunter’ and James were the same person, that he had shaved his whiskers and that the “writer’s cramp story does not look genuine”.[8] The newspaper also noted that the police in Sydney had “been informed that James was in low water in Western Australia.”[9] I’d love to know exactly what that ‘low water’ was!

Evidently the police in Sydney solved the mystery quickly as just four days later the matter was all out in the open. The West Australian again devoted almost half a page to every detail of the ‘scandal’. James had left Sydney a month earlier on the steamer Maheno for Vancouver. He was calling himself ‘Mr Lee’ and was travelling with ‘Mrs Lee’; a woman who seemed to be at least twenty years younger than him. They went first class – costing a whopping £92, although the church funds in Albany had been examined and found to be intact.[10]

This brief flurry of scandal was quickly over. The West managed to squeeze out one little article the next day about apparent inquires James had made in Fremantle of passage fares to Canada almost six months previously and while the company in question duly sent the information on, “no reply was received”.[11] Meanwhile, frustratingly for the paper, the details from the meeting of the Methodist leaders to discuss James’ absconding were not released to the press. Perth had to wait more than a month to find out that James would be expelled from the church and his ‘crimes’, a photo and details were to be circulated to every Bishop in Canada, British Colombia and the United States. He was found to have “deserted his wife and family, forsaken his work, and brought disgrace to the Church by his immoral conduct”.[12]

There is mention in this last newspaper report that there are further details, not released to the press and not able to be ferreted out by journalists. I bet they are in the church archives. I’d love to see them!

I did a quick BDM search for children of a Thomas Albert James in the right time period and found that there were two children born before 1900 to a Thomas Albert James and Mary Rogers Champion. I could confirm this is the correct family as their daughter (Olive Lucie (Lucy) Olga) died in 1902 and her funeral was described in detail in the papers. There could have been earlier children born in other States too.

So, what became of ‘Mr & Mrs Lee’ in Canada? What became of Mrs James in Albany and their surviving son Egbert Astley (and perhaps others unknown)? Who was ‘Mrs Lee’, how did she get involved with the very Reverend James? The women are so invisible in this series of newspaper articles. I think that is what drew me to them. I kept wondering about these two women and never found out.

Strange and fascinating things found in historical indexes!

The image is the manse where the James family lived while in Albany – actually, they were the first to live there after its construction in 1903, replacing the earlier, plainer accommodations.

[1] The only source I have for these biographical details are The West Australian, 11 May 1906, p. 5. I haven’t done any other searching for his details.

[2] The West Australian, 8 April 1903, p. 5.

[3] The West Australian, 7 May 1906, p. 7.

[4] The West Australian, 11 May 1906, p. 5.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] See The West Australian, 15 May 1906, p. 5.

[11] The West Australian, 16 May 1906, p. 8.

[12] The West Australian, 29 June 1906, p. 7.



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