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Tuesday, 7 June 2016

Lilly Godfrey: More Sinned Against than Sinning

This cartoon, showing a man playing a typewriter as if it was a musical instrument, appeared in the Mirror in Perth, Western Australia, after the Parisian Folies Bergère Revue had played at His Majesty's Theatre, Perth, on July 6, 1954. It appeared immediately above a typically sordid report of Lilly Godfrey's divorce case. The headline, below, refers to Lilly's husband being caught by Lilly and her private detectives having an affair with a woman called Voilet Smith.
Like many others who commented on my post about the TV series Secret City and the "Marmalade Files", here and on Facebook, I was most intrigued by the story about Australian woman Lilly Godfrey and her rampaging, alcohol-fuelled trip to Sumatra in Indonesia in June 1958. The tales of Lilly's ability to get up the noses of the pukka stiffshirts in the Medan Club and unsettle the bores at the Hotel De Boer made for some delightful reading.
Hotel De Boer in the 1950s
Lilly's never-to-be-forgotten exploits were recounted in a letter, typed on an Olivetti and sent from Medan by a British consul, J.A. McKay, to the British Embassy in Jakarta. A copy soon fell into the hands of the Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade here in Canberra, and the ribald contents amply qualified it to be included in DFAT's "Marmalade Files", now in the National Archives here.
I published scans of McKay's typed letter in my Secret City post, but it can be read below as reproduced digitally by a "Rachel Squirrel", an "An Australian who loves cargo bikes [and is] living in Scotland" on her blog in March 2014. Zoe D'Arcy at the National Archives also wrote about Lilly in an article titled "The Other Diamond Lil': A Kalgoorlie Hell-Raiser's Foreign Affairs", which appeared in the first edition of The Forgotten Times: Bringing Australian History to Life in December 2012.
Based on McKay's opening description of Lilly as a "Mae West type of bold-eyed beauty", D'Arcy choose to align Lilly with Mae West's 1928 stage play Diamond Lil, about "a racy woman from the 1890s". The play "earned [West] an eight-day jail sentence for 'corrupting the morals of youth', from which she emerged a national figure."

My own research, however, reveals Lilly to have been more sinned against than a sinner. Much of what McKay wrote about her was inaccurate - either because of his own lurid imagination, or because Lilly, in her alcoholic haze in Medan, embroidered the truth, tried to create a false persona or deliberately set out to deceive McKay. Or, more likely, a combination of all of the above.
Mrs Gregory was born Dulcie Lillian Thorn in Coolgardie in 1921. Far from being a "Swedish foundling", she was born into a well-established if not exactly affluent family on the West Australian Goldfields. Her father, a sometimes dishonest dairyman called Charles Francis Thorn (1879-1962) came from Wallaroo, a port town on the western side of the Yorke Peninsula in South Australia, 100 miles north-northwest of Adelaide. Lilly's mother, Maud Sylvia Stewart (1886-1938), came from the "Salt Lake" area (Lake Eyre) in South Australia.
Lilly was a member of a large family, with five brothers - Walter, Frank, Alex, Leslie (who died aged four) and John - and two sisters, Stella and Olive. The children were far from privileged, but didn't miss out on much. Lilly (she was called Dulcie back then) and Olive regularly attended Mrs Richards' Old Time Dances at The Embassy in Perth in the immediate pre-war years, and as youngsters they competed against each other in Highland Fling events on the Eastern Goldfields in Kalgoorlie. Lilly's fondness for dancing in Medan in 1958 had some background.
There is no record of Lilly ever being a barmaid in Kalgoorlie. She variously worked as a storekeeper in Boulder City, shop assistant in Karrinyup and ledgerkeeper in South Perth. In the 1980s she was living in Doubleview. She was married in Kalgoorlie, aged 18, in 1940, moved to Perth in 1952 and was divorced from her unfaithful, wife-beating husband on the grounds of adultery in 1954. 
As for the lying, cowardly Johnny Banting, almost nothing is known, but this is where he was in 1958:
I have the honour to make an unusual report.
An Australian National, a Mrs. D.L. Godfrey, Australian Passport No. E125187 dated unknown issued at Perth arrived in Medan on June 14, 1958. She is a Mae West type of bold eyed beauty, at an age when she has begun to worry about her face and figure. An Amazon with a great thirst and an eye for very young males. A forceful go ahead character who takes what she wants and the devil take the hindmost. Perhaps a wee bitty round the bend but by no stretch of the imagination one who is unable to look after herself.
Mrs. Godfrey left the Airport and made her way to the Hotel de Boer where she settled down to some serious drinking. When the hotel proprietor asked for payment it was found that she possessed no local money. She then took a taxi to the house of my Vice Consul who settled her bills amounting to Indonesian Rupiahs 400 for which he has received no recompense.
On arrival at his house she helped herself to his drinks and informed him she was staying the night. At his protest that he had no spare room and only one double bed she said that this presented no problem as he could sleep on one side, his wife in the middle and she on the other side. “I have often done so before; it’s quite easy” she informed him.
I returned from tour late the same evening and was informed of the situation. I drove over and invited the lady to stay the night at the Consulate where there were spare rooms available. She refused to leave and produced a “niblick” presumably in case I endeavoured to move her by force. She stayed the night on the Vice Consul’s sofa.
The next morning, Sunday, found the Vice Consul’s young wife in hysterics and on the promise of a party at the Club, the lady left the Vice Consul’s house and took up residence at the Consulate. I suppose one of us is born every day!!
At the Club, a tennis lunch party was in progress, at which trophies were being distributed to the various winners of the Club tennis tournament. I myself, thanks to an extremely good partner was to receive a cup for the men’s doubles. “Lilly” as the lady informed all she liked to be called, playfully moved up to the trophy table and helped herself to one of the prizes – a bottle of whisky and a small silver cup. The former she proceeded to consume, the latter she crushed into an unrecognisable mass and threw away. Presumably she found whiskey tasted better out of glass than silver or maybe the cup was too small.
Another highlight was her dancing the old fashioned waltz with an old acquaintance of mine, a brawny Cornish Sea Captain, an experienced fighter in the lesser known ports. In the middle of the dance, she stopped, accused him of making her giddy and landed a right-hook which split his lip, in spite of the fact as the Captain explained to me later, that he rolled with the punch.
Finally, perhaps inadvertently, she overturned a table full of drinks and I returned her to the Consulate. There she opened a bottle of my best champagne and eventually taking her glass and the bottle she retired, at last, to bed. But, it did not end there, for when I retired, I found her asleep on my bed. To give her due I do not believe she did this on purpose but merely mistook her room. To avoid a perhaps fatal shock to my aged servant I eventually managed to persuade her to move to her own room carefully covering the more exposed portions of her anatomy with her discarded dress.
Meanwhile I had discovered that she was looking for a young Australian by the name of J.F.Banting, a Caltex employee in the Pakenbaru area of Central Sumatra, whom she hoped to marry, that she had a return ticket to Australia from Singapore, that she had traveller’s cheques which presumably she could cash at the Bank and a 5 day visa to Indonesia.
On Monday June 16, she visited the Bank, Garuda Air Lines and the Immigration authorities. She returned with sufficient money to cover a return flight to Pakenbaru, a reservation on the flight due to leave Medan for Pakenbaru at 6am the following morning but no extension to her visa.
At that time I was under the impression that she was a divorced woman and would be welcomed by Banting who would arrange an extension to her visa on her arrival at Pakenbaru. Both the Immigration authorities and the Bank Manager informed me that in their opinion she was not absolutely normal. On the other hand, even during her long periods of inebriation, I found she was quite capable of looking after both herself and her money. She left the Consulate in the afternoon to “enjoy myself at the local bar and spend some of this money I have, after all I am on holiday”.
Next I heard of Lilly from a Dutchman speaking on the telephone from the Medan Club. He Informed me that a girl whom he understood was living at the Consulate was “causing much troubles and nuisances at the Club”. I asked how she had managed to get there. He informed me that one of his countrymen had brought her in for food from the Hotel de Boer where he had met her. I replied that the girl was foot loose, fancy free, well over twenty one and no ward or mine, that whoever had brought her to the Club was, as a member responsible both for her behaviour and departure. There were three more similar phone calls, culminating in a personal visit from the distracted Netherlander responsible for taking her to the Club.
I left a report I was endeavouring to write and drove to the Club. Lilly, with half a glass of beer on the piano top was treating a spell bound Club to some discordant notes from an opera which she had obviously only just composed. I strode to the platform and said “It’s time to go”. At my words she jumped up and cowered against the wall with abject terror in her eyes – “Not the whip, not the whip” she implored. Somewhat shaken, but a diplomat to my finger tips, I replied “Not if you come along now”. She straightened up shrugged, gave the piano a decisive thump and with the remark “It’s a rotten bar anyway” sauntered behind towards the exit. Twice she paused on her way out, once to finish the beer, half of which found her gullet the other her well developed and very feminine chest; and once to take leave formally from the gathered company, who were watching her departure in hushed and apprehensive silence, “Good bye all of you” she said with a wave of her formidable arm “may be we will meet again sometime in my travels” and blissfully unaware as the implication sank in of the dawning horror on the white faces of the silent members tripped heavily after me to my car. It had taken me less than 30 seconds to remove her – of such are reputations made.
Once home, she helped herself to a bottle of beer, and ordering me into my “Freeze room” as she called my air conditioned study, stated that she wished to consume her beer alone in the dining room. Nothing loth I retired to my study and tried to concentrate once more on my report – how optimistic can one get!? Less than ten minutes later she opened my door (knocking is not one of her vices being one of those absurd courtesies which only wastes time) and asked “Do you mind if I tell you what I think of you?” “No” I replied. “It will have a lot of bad language” me “carry on”. She did! The language was bad!!
In the midst of her tirade, the telephone rang. It stopped her dead. Again I was subject to the same show of abject terror – “I didn’t mean it, I didn’t meat it” she sobbed. I answered the phone, it was to say that the Garuda plane on which she hoped to travel had developed engine trouble and would not depart scheduled at 6am but perhaps later in the afternoon or early the next morning. I informed her.
By this time she seemed to have recovered from her fright. She said “I must go tomorrow or I’ll blow my top and then you’ll see something” and picking up my tennis racquet proceeded to bend it in her agitation. I begged her not to break it and to distract her attention asked her why she had brought two golf clubs with her. “They are presents to me from my Johnny, this time I’m getting hitched up to him properly for ever and ever and ever – and, if he does not, I’ll bust his head open and strew his b—-y guts all over the road”. She was waving my racquet about violently to emphasise her point and at this moment it slipped out of her hand, landing with a great clatter but little damage against my bookcase. Once more she cowered against the wall and staring with terror at the telephone again pleaded that she didn’t mean it. I assured her that it was most unlikely that the phone would ring again, she replied “No, it won’t ring again because I didn’t really mean it”.
Lilly then said she was going to bed and left the room. Hardly had I picked up my pen and collected my thoughts when there was a dreadful crash upstairs. I moved quickly to find out what had happened and called, “Are you all right?” She replied “Yes, I’ve dropped my earring”. I fear I was left speechless. On arrival I found she had knocked down a large screen and the “lost” earring was clipped to the neck of her dress. As I left and turned out the passage light she said flatly “Leave the light on, leave all the lights on I wish to sleep alone tonight”. I left in some haste.
On Tuesday June 17, Lilly had lunch with me at the Consulate. She was in a sober mood and though not by any means repentant, seemed somewhat subdued. Our conversation was almost normal and I gleaned something of her past life. She explained that she had been a spoilt child; that she usually got what she wanted by creating hell all round; that she came from Calgoorly of the Golden Mile; that her parents had told her she was a Swedish foundling which she refused to believe since her brother had the same coloured eyes as she; that she had married and had a child; that her husband was a cruel bastard who beat her unmercifully with a stock whip (hence her fear of the whip); that she had worked as a bar maid for some three years; that she was sick of men of which she had seen too much except for Johnny; that she was not divorced.
At this point I asked how she expected to marry Johnny if she was already married – I said “In any case suppose he does not wish to see you or is not in Pakenbaru which may well be as he is not registered at the Consulate”. She replied that failing a definite invitation from Johnny, with only one day left of her 5 day visa, and with the Immigration authority not willing to extend it, she should return to Singapore, but by then she had ceased to pay much attention to what I was saying and more frustrating still I was unable to find out exactly why she feared the ringing of a bell. She left for the “bar” (Hotel de Boer) after lunch.
I had to attend to various cocktail parties that night and heard no more of Lilly except that my servants informed me that she had returned from the “bar” around 9pm and had gone early to bed, apparently in tears. She left for Pakenbaru the next morning at 6am.
Although I did not see Lilly at Pakenbaru, I did visit the place two days later. She had created considerable havock and Caltex who have their headquarters across the river at Rumbai were at their wits-end. Banting (Johnny) would have nothing to do with her, had taken to the jungle and refused to come out until she left the area. She had shocked the RC Father who had taken her in, by both her drunkenness and immodest undress. She had refused to leave the Caltex Club where she was drinking other peoples’ drinks (she had no money on her at this time) and only consented to do so after the police had been called to evict her. She had of course by then also overstayed her visit permit. Although Caltex had arranged to feed her free she flatly refused to cooperate in any way.
In the circumstances I was forced to agree that she should be lodged in the Priest’s house under police supervision until the next plane arrived for Medan, and that she should be dined well not wined.
The RC Father, Caltex and the Indonesian authorities were splendid. No charges are to be levied and her visa was extended up to Monday June 23, the day the plane was due to leave Pakenbaru.
Lilly arrived back in Medan apparently in a more reasonable state of mind. Since then she has lodged herself at a hotel in Medan, received an advance from the Chartered Bank, bought a ticket to Singapore and refused to visit the British Consulate. Meanwhile I have spoken to the Immigration people who have extended her visa until Thursday June 26 when the Malayan Airways plane leaves Medan for Singapore. Here again the Indonesian authorities are prepared to cooperate to the full.
This has been a long report but I assure you by no means comprehensive. For instance I have made no mention of the occasion when Lilly advised an embarrassed American Colleague who had consumed more liquid than he could comfortably contain to “do it on the lawn it’s much more convenient, I always do”. Nor of an equally embarrassed clerk from our own offices who on seeing Lilly dressed in very short shorts and a transparent blouse informed her that he could not possibly escort her to the Post Office dressed as she was without being arrested. Nor of the occasion when she changed in my front porch from shorts into a dress, discretely putting the dress on first before descended the shorts; nor of the occasion in the Rumbai Club when she was found drinking Club beer with her police escort, at least half an hour after they were supposed to have taken her back to Pakenbaru. Nor of the many other stories, for which I am unable to vouch, of her magnificent unconventionality both in Medan and Pakenbaru.
In many ways Lilly, the fabulous bar main from Calgoorly (is it really the toughest mining town in the world?) has been a great tonic for this rather conventional and war weary countryside – long may she rampage and ravage around the universe like an atomic squib but not in my area again, not unless there is an Australian Consul around. Personally I am rather sorry she did not meet up with her youthful Johnny in the end – surely no one, not even Ulysses, could have done or dared more in his quest. her saga will be remembered and retold for centuries to come in the islands of Sumatra.
I have copied this letter to the Commissioner General at Singapore: both you and he may wish to notify your Australian Colleagues of this visitation.
I have the honour to be,
Your obedient Servant.
British Embassy

1 comment:

Pam said...

Hi Robert,

I came across the Marmalade File just today and fell in love with "Lilly". Wanting to see if I could find out more about her, I came across your blog - great post! Thanks to your research I've found out more than I expected to and tracked down newspaper articles about her marriage and divorce. Just wish I knew how she met her "Johnny" and what happened to her after he chickened out.

All my best wishes for your blog,