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Thursday 30 November 2017

The Mystery of Sam Mitchell’s forged Victoria Cross

One of the Victoria Crosses awarded to Sam Mitchell for gallantry in the Tauranga Campaign of New Zealand's Māori Wars is in the West Coast Historical Museum in Hokitika; the other was last known to be in the hands of an Auckland collector. But this is no VC and Bar story. Sam Mitchell was awarded one VC (the first ever presented in Australia, the 300th awarded anywhere), for his actions in the British humiliation at the Battle of Gate Pā on April 29, 1864. So one of the two VCs in existence is a forgery, and although the one in Hokitika seems most likely to be the Real McCoy, there can be no absolute certainty on this matter.
A painting of Sam Mitchell wearing his New Zealand Medal.
The confidence West Coasters may feel about the Mitchell VC in Hokitika being the genuine article is perhaps in large part based on a letter Sam Mitchell’s daughter, Edith Mitchell, received in Mikonui, south of Hokitika, in 1957, from Captain Peter Wyatt, commanding officer of the Royal Navy’s School of Aircraft Direction and Meteorology at Kete in Pembrokeshire. This school was the latter-day HMS Harrier, bearing the same name as the sloop-of-war upon which Sam Mitchell had served in New Zealand in 1864.
Soon after taking up his position at Kete, Wyatt (left) had been approached by the Canadian family of a 12-year-old boy, Wayne Burton, who had found the second Mitchell VC buried in sand and driftwood under a wharf at Kitsilano Beach in Vancouver, British Columbia, in August 1956. The family had sent Wyatt photographs of this Mitchell VC, hoping to get it authenticated. Wyatt, in turn, had immediately offered to buy this second Mitchell VC from the Burtons.
Before the transaction took place, however, Wyatt also received a letter from Edith Mitchell, who had read Canadian Press stories about the Burton find. Edith also sent Wyatt photographs of the Hokitika VC. Wyatt took both sets of photos to a Mr Dawes at Hancocks of London, casters of the VC (“probably the most knowledgeable man on the subject alive today”). The two VCs are identically inscribed, but based on photographic evidence alone, Dawes told Wyatt the Hokitika VC was the “true one” and the Canadian VC was a counterfeit. The two VCs have never been compared in reality, but the Canadian version has been described as more worn.
Could it be that the original VC finished up in Vancouver BC, where the man who bought it at auction in 1909 had his will resealed in 1938? Or that the VC sold to Mitchell's daughter in 1928 by this owner's son was a forgery? We shall never know.
Both VCs were eventually recovered from overseas and reached New Zealand - the one in Hokitika was bought by Edith Mitchell for £70 from British diplomat Alvary Trench-Gascoigne, the son of a wealthy English collector who had bought it at auction in London in 1909, the other in 1995 by the Auckland collector, who had bought the Canadian VC at auction in London.
A drawing of Mitchell as a young man.
Mitchell, born at Apsley Guise, Woburn in Bedfordshire on September 8, 1841, drowned in the Mikonui River, close to his farm south of Ross, on March 16, 1894, aged 52, still wondering what had happened to his original VC. He had returned to Sydney from England in 1865 and left the VC with other belongings at a boarding house in Sydney, when he went on to New Zealand in late 1868 to decide whether to settle there. Mitchell did opt to spend the rest of his life on the West Coast, and sent word to a couple believed to be called Goodman, owners of the boarding house, asking them to send his sea chest, including the VC, to New Zealand. He heard nothing back, and contacted police. He was told the Goodmans had returned to England. The prevailing presumption is that they took Mitchell’s VC with them, and sold it to a collector.
Agnes Mitchell
Mitchell's VC was next heard of in early January 1909, when New Zealand newspapers reported that it had been sold at auction for £50 by Glendining’s Galleries in London. Sam's widow, Agnes, contacted Walter Dinnie, the then Commissioner of Police in Wellington, who advised that the VC had been sold to colliery owner Colonel Frederick Trench-Gascoigne DSO of Lotherton Hall, Aberford, just east of Leeds, Yorkshire. Glendining’s had got it from the executors of the estate of a collector in Bradford.
 Frederick Trench-Gascoigne, above, and Lotherton Hall below.
Agnes maintained her efforts to have the VC returned, and after she died in 1918 her daughter Edith took up the cause. Between them they wrote to MPs, Government Ministers, Governors-General, High Commissioners, Returned Servicemen’s Associations, the British Empire Service League in London and British Freemasons. All to no avail, until on March 11, 1927, when the Duke of York (the future King George VI) visited the West Coast and Westland MP Tom Seddon (with whom the duke stayed in Greymouth) pressed the royal to intercede on the Mitchell family’s behalf.
Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne at Lotherton Hall.
Duly, in June 1928, Edith Mitchell wrote to Colonel Trench-Gascoigne, who said he had sold the Mitchell VC to his son, Alvary (later Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne), a diplomat who lived in Barkston Ash, West Yorkshire. Through public subscription, Edith raised the asking price of £70, forwarded it to the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir James Parr, and in August 1928 the VC finally reached Mikonui. When Edith died in 1963, the VC was gifted in trust to the Hokitika Museum.
The Trench-Gascoignes hardly needed Hokitika's £70 - when Frederick died in June 1937, he left £688,976 12 shillings and 2 pence to Alvary and his widow. Intriguingly, his will was resealed in Vancouver, British Columbia, in April 1938. We know not why. But does that explain how the other Mitchell VC turned up in Vancouver, one must wonder?
Wayne Burton in 1992
The existence of the second Mitchell VC came to light while Edith was still alive, in August 1956. Canadian Press reported that 12-year-old Wayne Burton, of Nanaimo, had found it while hiding from friends under a wharf at Kitsilano Beach. The second of two Canadian Press stories on the find, in March 1957, mentioned Captain Wyatt and his offer to buy this VC, presumably for HMS Harrier. Edith wrote to Wyatt about this story, and in a reply in October 1957 was told “Mr Dawes [stated] with more decision than I expected from such wary people that yours was the true one, and that found in Vancouver a certain counterfeit.”
Nanaimo Daily News, British Columbia, August 30, 1956, and March 15, 1957.
The story can’t end there, of course. Dawes’ certainty was formed from viewing photographs, nothing more. The more than 40-year gap between the discovery of the loss of the VC in Sydney in 1868 to its auction in London in 1909 leaves far too many unanswerable questions – not to mention the gap from 1868 to 1956! The unsealing of Frederick Trench-Gascoigne's will in Vancouver in 1938 adds yet another twist. No information about the Goodmans and their movements can be found. Perhaps it’s time to bring the Hokitika and Auckland Mitchell VCs together, in an effort to ascertain some absolute truth in the matter. But the mystery of the Mitchell VC found in Vancouver in 1956 will no doubt tantalise military historians forever.

Monday 27 November 2017

As Time Goes By: Casablanca's 75th Anniversary and Screenwriter Howard E.Koch

Yesterday marked the 75th anniversary of the release of what is unquestionably the greatest movie ever made, Casablanca.

It's therefore opportune to look at one of the film's scriptwriters, Howard Everard Koch, seen above at his typewriter. Koch not alone worked on the Casablanca script with the Epstein brothers, Julius and Philip (for which they shared an Oscar), but while working for the CBS Mercury Theatre of the Air he wrote the script for Orson Welles' famous October 30, 1938, radio version of H.G.Wells' The War of the WorldsKoch later wrote a play about the panic caused by the Welles broadcast, Invasion From Mars, which was adapted into the 1975 TV movie, The Night That Panicked America, in which actor Joshua Bryant plays Koch.
Koch was born in Kingston, Ulster, New York, on December 12, 1901. He was a graduate of St Stephen's College (later renamed Bard College) and Columbia Law School. While practising law in Hartsdale, New York, he began to write plays and moved on to the Hollywood studios. 
A year after his work on Casablanca, in 1943, Koch was asked by Jack L. Warner, of Warner Brothers, to write the screenplay for Mission to Moscow. The movie became controversial because of its positive portrayal of Joseph Stalin and the Soviet Union and Koch was fired by Warner. He was denounced as a Communist and criticised by the House Un-American Activities Committee for his outspoken leftist political views. Koch was blacklisted by Hollywood in 1951.
Koch moved Britain, where he wrote under the pseudonym Peter Howard.  He returned to the US in 1956 and settled in Woodstock, New York, where he continued to write plays and books while remaining actively committed to progressive political and social justice causes. Koch died in Kingston, New York, on August 19, 1995, aged 93.
Casablanca was based on Murray Burnett and Joan Alison's unproduced stage play Everybody Comes to Rick's. The movie was rushed into release to take advantage of publicity from the Allied invasion of North Africa a few weeks earlier. It had its premiere on November 26, 1942, in New York City and was released nationally a month later. It went on to win three Academy Awards.

Thursday 16 November 2017

Born on the Fourth of July: The Hunt for E.J.Brady's Typewriter

For five months now I have been on the hunt for the typewriter once owned by the great Australian writer and poet Edwin James Brady. Imagine my delight when, early yesterday morning in Mallacoota in East Gippsland, Victoria, I managed to track down Brady's only surviving child, his youngest daughter, Edna June Brady. Yes, her father did use a typewriter, Edna told me, although it was her artist mother Flo who did most of the typing. And yes, as far as she knew the typewriter was still in existence, in the possession of a woman, a history researcher who also lived in Mallacoota.
Before I left to continue my search, Edna went to her bookshelves and handed me a copy of her book Mallacoota: A Love Affair in Poetry and Prose.  In it I came across this photo taken in 1951 of Edna, aged five, with her parents. Edna was born in Bega on the Fourth of July 1946, when her father was a month shy of 77 and her mother, Florence Jane (née Bourke) 41. Edna was an only child of this marriage, but Edwin had six children from a previous relationship, one of whom, a daughter called Norma Moya Brady (later Mrs 'Tuppy' Luckins), earned a living as a typiste.
The relevance of Edna being born on the Fourth of July, and being called Edna June, was explained by renowned columnist Gilbert Mant in the Sydney Sun in September-October 1946:
Edwin Brady had first become of interest to me back in June this year when, learning I was about to visit Mallacoota for the first time, a friend told me the story about how the great Henry Lawson had gone to Mallacoota to meet Brady in 1910. The photo of this momentous occasion, below, was taken by fellow journalist and historian Thomas Davies Mutch (1885-1958), who accompanied Lawson from Sydney to Mallacoota. Mutch's photo later became the basis of a mural at the fishing boat ramp on the foreshore at Mallacoota, an artwork which includes Brady's young son Hugh, who was aged seven at the time of the Lawson meeting.
Edwin Brady
Above, the headstone on Brady's grave in the Mallacoota cemetery and below, a marker at the spot on the headland at Mallacoota where Lawson and Brady met:
Below is the view today from the marker, and the writers' camp, and a 1951 painting by Flo Brady of the view from the Brady home across to the Mallacoota bar, which Lawson had so famously written about:
As for Brady's typewriter ... well, sad to say it has gone missing. I did make contact with the woman Edna entrusted it to, but she had given it to a nephew and there is now no trace of it. I shudder to think where it might have finished up! It's certainly not the one used below for an image to promote the annual E.J. Brady writing competition. Still, it would be wonderful to be able to find Brady's actual typewriter, especially since he gave the great New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield her first break, he befriended the Australian writer Katharine Susannah Prichard (she also visited Brady in Mallacoota) and he inspired the great Australian writer Miles Franklin.
The reason being, we know where the typewriters used by Mansfield, Prichard and Franklin are - Mansfield's Corona is in a museum in Wellington, New Zealand, Prichard's Remington, restored by me, is at a writers' centre in Western Australia, and Franklin's Corona is with me:

Saturday 11 November 2017

My Cousin Fred Messenger, the Californian Remington Typewriter Agent

San Bernardino County Sun, August 9, 1947
About the time Doug Nichol's much-acclaimed documentary California Typewriter was premiering, in August this year, I was astonished to be told that my late cousin, Fred Messenger, had been a California typewriter agent. Fred, who died 70 years ago, was Remington Rand's man in Los Angeles at a time when the typewriter company was in the grip of an extremely bitter industrial dispute.
The Santa Rosa Post Democrat, July 17, 1947
The discovery of my close relationship with Californian typewriters helped ease the pain, by then becoming increasingly acute, that in Doug's change of direction and editing of his film, I had landed up on the cutting room floor. I was there when Doug started his typewriter movie project, at Herman Price's gathering at the Chestnut Ridge Typewriter Museum in West Virginia in October 2013. I was interviewed by Doug at the museum, and was there when Doug interviewed Richard Polt in his typewriter-laden office at Xavier University in Cincinnati. Later, Richard and I were filmed together at WordPlay (see my image of Doug filming Richard below):
I feel sure that if he knew Californian typewriters were in my blood, Doug might have kept in me in his doco. But, hey, I don't have the audience drawing power of Tom Hanks or the late Sam Shepard. Nor do I have the charm of a Richard Polt or Martin Howard. But I did have a cousin who was right there in the thick of the trade when the typewriter business in California was at its peak.
Los Angeles Times, January 12, 1947
I wasn't able to tell Doug that because I only found out myself last August. My cousin Noeleen Mulholland, a brilliant genealogist, messaged me saying, "According to my family tree you and Frederick are second cousins - once removed. So you aren't the only Messenger with a connection to typewriters."
Frederick was born in Port Washington, Long Island, New York, on January 2, 1908, the son of Albert Ayers Messenger and Elizabeth Morris (Bessie) Marston. Messenger Lane in Port Washington is named in Albert's honour, as he was one of the early property owners in Sands Point.
Frederick grew up in North Hempstead, Nassau County, where he started work as a bank clerk. Albert Ayers Messenger was born in New York on February 4, 1859, the son of Harry Messenger, a half-brother of my great-grandfather, William MessengerAlbert and my grandfather Robert Messenger were first cousins.
Frederick's nephew Albert Clay (Al) Messenger (1927-2003) had two great-grandfathers who fought for the Confederacy, one with the Army of Northern Virginia. Al had a passion for auto racing and established "Corner of Racing Memories" in his basement. He annually attended the Indy 500 and was honoured with a special award by the Race Car Fan Club of America for his attendance and contribution to auto racing. He was also a life member of the US Auto Racing, the Old Timers Racing Club of Lattimore Valley, Pennsylvania, and the Sons of Confederate Veterans.   
 Los Angeles Times, July 10, 1947
Hastening Fred's premature death? San Bernardino County Sun, July 24, 1947