The Picaresque Life of John Leslie Dracup

Every family tree contains broken links – people who aren’t yet reliably connected to any particular branch – and the Dracup family tree is no exception.

This may often be because a child was born out of wedlock, or simply because records are missing, or as yet unpublished.

I find the records pertaining to Dracups resident in Australia particularly patchy, which is why I haven’t yet ventured into that territory.

There are also ‘black sheep’ in every family – and the Dracup family definitely has its fair share of them.

But often their crimes and misdemeanours can be traced back to some cause or other – typically childhood poverty or neglect – for most rogues are made not born.

It can be instructive to investigate their bad behaviour, setting it in the context of their life stories, to try to understand why they acted as they did.

This family history post deals with one such character – John Leslie Dracup.

His birth is a mystery, and probably something of an embarrassment, because he was shipped off, alone, to Australia while little more than a baby.

His early life there is also shrouded in mystery but, after a dozen years or so, in the mid-1930s, he emerged into adulthood with a burgeoning criminal record and a bewildering assortment of aliases.

These were, of course, intended to obscure his nefarious activities, but they also complicate efforts to trace his personal narrative.

We know he enlisted in the early days of the Second World War, serving for a while in the Middle East.

But he was often ill or in trouble, eventually court martialed and invalided back into civilian life. One suspects that military discipline was anathema to John!

During the 1940s he was twice married – and deserted both wives.

He had an itinerant lifestyle, never staying too long in one job or one place. He features only inconsistently in the published electoral rolls.

In the 1950s he had a third partner, but their child died as a baby. And then he faded into obscurity.

It may be that someone reading this has clues that would help fill the many gaps in his story, particularly in those early days. If so, please do get in touch, because John’s life was fascinating – and even rogues deserve to be remembered!

SS Bendigo

John’s uncertain origins

The S.S. Bendigo, under the command of Captain G.H.S. Furlong, left the Port of London on 24 January 1924, destined initially for Cape Town, South Africa, followed by stops at the Australian ports of Freemantle, Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney.

The Bendigo was a twin screw steamer, 536 feet in length with a displacement of 21,890 tons and a speed of 14½ knots. She had cost just below one million pounds when launched in 1922. She was operated by the P&O Company and used extensively to carry emigrants to Australia.

Just eight days prior to this journey, she had collided with a collier ‘Corcrag’ in the Thames off Erith, but escaped with only slight damage.

The Museums Victoria Collections include two photographs taken on board the Bendigo during this trip, both of 28 year-old Gladys Leichti, one of 180 passengers who were travelling out to Australia with support from the Salvation Army.

Gladys Leichti

The Collections also hold a few pages from a souvenir programme of the voyage, describing the membership of various committees responsible for organising the on-board entertainments.

John Dracup was amongst the passengers on that journey, aged 4 and apparently travelling alone. He was scheduled to land at Melbourne and his last address in the UK was given as ‘c/o Meadow Cottage, Sonning Common, Nr. Reading’.

He wasn’t the only small boy travelling independently. Amongst others heading to Melbourne that day were John Long, aged 4, from Lowestoft, Suffolk, and Arthur Stanley Cooke, aged 3, from Dursley, Gloucestershire.

These very young children were unlikely to have had Salvation Army sponsorship. They tended to support older boys and young women destined for domestic service. A Sydney newspaper carried these pictures of those who arrived in that City on this very voyage.

It is most likely that John’s passage was privately arranged with the assistance of friends or relatives already in Australia. But we have no clue as to their identity.

The only birth record for a John Dracup of the correct age is for a boy born in Croydon, England, in the second quarter of 1919. The mother’s maiden name was also recorded as Dracup so, in all likelihood, he was born out of wedlock, conceived in the latter days of the First World War.

Much later, in his application for military service, John claimed that he had been born on 12 August 1916 in Birmingham, England, but that seems unlikely, unless the birth was registered elsewhere and under a different name.

No child with the surname Dracup and no child whose mother’s maiden name was Dracup had their birth registered in Birmingham between 1912 and 1922.

Initially this military service form recorded his next of kin as one ‘Charles Ritchie Dracup, his brother, living at Meadow Cottage, Reading, England’. (After his marriage, John substituted his first wife as next of kin.)

I cannot find a Meadow Cottage in Sonning Common listed in the 1911 UK Census, but there is one in the 1939 Register, located at number 58 Wood Lane. It is inhabited by Lizzie Brewer, a widow born in 1875.

Meadow Cottage

I can trace her name back to the 1911 Census, when she was already living in Sonning Common. She was then a 35 year-old widow who earned her living from boarding children.

At that point she had resident with her three sons of her own, three female children registered as boarders and a fourth registered as a visitor. The three boarders were all attending school nearby.

It may be that Lizzie Brewer was paid to provide short term foster care to children with difficult home circumstances, and continued in that line until Charles Ritchie Dracup – and possibly John too – lived there in 1924.

But there is no birth record for a Charles Dracup in England between 1904 and 1924 which fits the bill.

A Charles Edward Dracup had been born in February 1917 in Sheffield, to Herbert Dracup and Lottie, nee Dakin. Herbert died of wounds in November 1918, but it is possible that Lottie then had another child by a different man.

Lottie also had a sister Beatrice, who migrated to Australia, but she didn’t arrive there until 1926. And of course Lottie’s maiden name wasn’t Dracup and there is nothing connecting her or her son to Birmingham, Reading or Sonning Common.

Indeed I have been unable to tie any Dracups to Sonning Common, though there could conceivably be a link to the family of Ernest Dracup located nearby in Reading.

Charles Ritchie Dracup may simply be a figment of John’s imagination, but it seems likely that John did have some connection with Lizzie Brewer’s house. If there were two siblings, Charles Ritchie most likely became known by a different name.

What is clear is that John’s mother wished to sever all ties, or was persuaded to do so, otherwise she would have identified herself as next of kin.

It is hard to envisage this experience being anything other than traumatic for a four-year-old, so this alone goes a long way towards explaining John’s future conduct.

Early life in Australia

The remainder of John’s childhood is equally veiled in mystery.

The only indisputable fact I have established is that John Leslie Dracup arrived in Melbourne at the beginning of March 1924.

A press report of a trial held in January 1939 incorporates John’s version of his childhood, given when he addressed the court.

He was being prosecuted under an alias:

‘In a brief outline of his life, Johnston said that he had been sent from England when he was five years of age. He had been placed with friends or relatives and had been sent to college where he had obtained an excellent education. Since that time he had again been thrown out on the world and had found life very hard.’

This would suggest that John had been ‘boarded out’ into foster care rather than  placed in a children’s home or orphanage. Such arrangements were often made by individuals or through charitable organisations. Records are scant if they ever existed.

He may have attended Melbourne Technical College, which evolved out of the Working Men’s College and the West Melbourne Technical School, opening in 1934. It later became RMIT.

Melbourne Technical College 1935

As an adult, John used several different identities. He may not have felt much affinity with the Dracups, because I cannot reliably link him to any other Dracup resident in Australia at that time.

South Australia police records refer to him as:

‘LESLIE JOHN JOHNSTON alias FRANK JAMES, alias JOHN DRACUP, alias GEORGE BETTS, alias J W RICHARDS’

Because he seemed particularly partial to ‘Johnston’ it is possible that this was the surname of a Melbourne family that took him in at some point between 1924 and 1936.

Early criminal career in Victoria

John’s criminal record for the State of Victoria is available online, under the name Leslie Johnston (though ‘John L Dracup’ is inserted directly underneath).

He was first convicted on 1 September 1936, when just 17 years old. He was sentenced at Prahran Magistrate’s Court on three counts of larceny, receiving one month’s imprisonment on each count, to be served concurrently.

Prahran is a south-eastern suburb of Melbourne, just north of St Kilda. The record of this crime seems to have been cut from an earlier, different page and stuck on to a new record sheet prepared in the autumn of 1937.

John is described (incorrectly) as born in 1920. He was 5 feet 10 inches tall, of medium build with a fresh complexion, fair hair and blue eyes. He was a labourer by trade, his religion was Church of England and he was literate.

There are three photographs appended: face, profile and full-length, which are headed ‘Leslie Johnston, Dec. 1937, born Mar. 1919.’ This is probably his correct date of birth.

They would have been taken following his second conviction, on 1 November 1937, when he was sentenced to be ‘Committed to a Refmy [Reformatory] Prison during the Governor’s Pleasure’ for the offence of housebreaking and stealing.

The record shows that he was committed to Pentridge Reformatory two weeks before his trial, returning there after sentencing. Pentridge Prison was opened in 1851 and housed reformatories for both boys and girls.

But, on 22 December 1937, John was transferred to Castlemaine Prison, which operated as a reformatory school for boys and young men aged 16-25 between 1909 and 1951.

He was not paroled until October 1938.

Castlemaine Prison

Early criminal career in South Australia

Less than three months later John was back in trouble, this time in South Australia.

He was picked up by the police in Mount Gambier, a small city midway between Melbourne and Adelaide, close to the border with Victoria.

He was operating under the alias Leslie Johnston and was in the company of another young man, 18 year-old Harold Ethelbert James Skinner. Both were charged with having insufficient lawful means of support.

John had stayed at Marks Palace Hotel for a few days under another alias – J. W. Richards – having already used a similar ploy at the Somerset Hotel at Millicent, slightly to the north.

He had also booked an additional room at Mark’s Palace – allegedly for his parents –  and had suggested stealing a car to return to Melbourne.

The police argued that he was leading the more inexperienced Skinner astray, the constable in court reportedly saying:

‘Your worships, I honestly believe that this young man is so crooked that he could not lay straight in his bed.’

Harold Skinner

John argued that he didn’t intend to defraud Marks Palace: he had been led to believe that work was available in another hotel nearby, so had stayed at the Palace, intending to pay his bill once he had employment. But, when the job fell through, he had to leave because he had no money.

This doesn’t sound quite convincing, though clearly the Mount Gambier magistrates were unused to such an articulate defence:

‘The Court pointed out that it was very difficult to know how to deal with the defendant. He was a smart youth, well-dressed and particularly well-spoken, and appeared to have had a particularly good college education. It was a pity that some scheme had not been formulated whereby he could be sent to some place where he could be given a chance. Gaol appeared too hard for a young man like the defendant, but the Court unfortunately had no alternative other than to send him to prison. In the case of the second lad there would be a conviction without a penalty, but Johnston would have to spend 14 days in gaol.’

While he was in prison though, the police took the opportunity to conducted further enquiries and, on his release, charged him with breaking and entering the house of Arthur Donald McNicol, a school teacher, at Nangula, a suburb of Millicent, with intent to commit a felony.

He was tried at Adelaide Supreme Court and, on 14 March, was sentenced to another nine months in prison.

The South Australia Police Gazette adds that John and his accomplice, Skinner, broke into the residence by breaking the glass in a window. The house, which was attached to the Nangula School, was unoccupied over the Christmas holidays.

Nangula Springs School in 1927

It also says John had five previous convictions by this point – in Victoria and South Australia – for housebreaking, larceny and being idle and disorderly.

I have not established at which prison he served this latest sentence, but he was discharged on 16 September 1939, just as the Second World War was getting under way in Europe.

One verbal description of John in the South Australia Police Gazette is particularly arresting:

‘LESLIE JOHN JOHNSTON, otherwise LESLIE JOHN JOHNSON, native of England, clerk, born 1919, 5ft. 11½in. high, thin build, fair complexion, fair way [sic] hair, light blue eyes, injured nose, ordinary mouth, square chin, moles on neck, right breast, under right armpit, chicken pox scars face, neck and body, scars inside both knees, bullet wound both shins.’

It is noteworthy that he was now described as a clerk rather than a labourer. Perhaps he had made some effort to ‘go straight’ but had been tempted back by the attractions of a criminal career.

The broken nose might have been expected and the scars inside both knees may not have been violently inflicted (though they could have been razor cuts inflicted as a gangland punishment).

However, the bullet wounds in both shins are unmistakably the mark of gangland retribution. They suggest that John had been active within Melbourne’s criminal fraternity, participating in organised crime rather than simply stealing on his own account.

Perhaps he wasn’t quite as respectable as he seemed…

First year of war service

John’s war record survives and is available online. The narrative below relies primarily on that, supplemented by contemporary press reports.

He enlisted on 14 June 1940 in Adelaide, suggesting that he had based himself there since his release from prison some nine months earlier.

On his attestation form he gave his date of birth as 12 August 1916, claiming to be 23 years and 10 months old. He was in fact only 20. He said he was employed as a wood merchant and that his permanent address was 3 John Street, Goodwood Park.

The physical description says he had light brown hair and blue eyes. There are two distinguishing marks: a scar on the front of his chest and another on the inner side of his left knee. The gunshot wounds to his shins are ignored.

He passed his medical examination, was given service number SX5227 and posted as a Private to the 2/27th Battalion of the 2nd AIF. The 2/27th Infantry Battalion was part of 7th Division, assigned to the 21st Brigade of the Australian Army.

Following a period of initial training it deployed to the Middle East in November 1940 and, by early 1941, was sent to the Western Desert. It saw combat against Vichy French forces in Syria in June and July of 1941 before returning to Australia early in 1942. In the summer of that year it was posted to Papua New Guinea to combat the Japanese threat there.

After his own initial training John was officially taken on the strength of the 2/27th, but was soon in trouble.

He first went AWOL overnight on 21 July 1940, for which he was ‘admonished’ and fined. Then, granted six days pre-embarkation leave at the end of September 1940, he extended it by taking two further days AWOL, for which he was fined again.

Shortly afterwards, he departed on the RMS Mauretania for Bombay before heading on to Egypt. But he was admitted to the ship’s hospital on the day it sailed, complaining of influenza. He stayed four days before being discharged to duty.

RMS Mauretania in 1942

The Battalion reached Egypt on 24 November, transferring to Palestine for further training. In February 1941, in Gaza, John went AWOL for six days and, on 13 February, at Tel Aviv, he was charged with ‘conduct to the prejudice of good order and military discipline’, presumably because he had resisted arrest. He was detained for two weeks and lost three weeks’ pay.

But, instead of serving this penalty, he was admitted to military hospital suffering from gonorrhea. He spent 40 days in hospital, no doubt undergoing the daily treatment required before the advent of penicillin. He attended the 8th Australian Special Hospital, at Kilo Camp, Gaza Ridge, which was the principal VD treatment centre for Australian forces in the Middle East.

8th Special VD Hospital

The VD infection rate amongst Australian forces in this theatre was high, at 48 cases per thousand troops. Between 1940 and 1942, at any one time, the infection rate in the Australian Army in the Middle East sidelined some 4-5% of its strength.

The Army introduced several controlled brothels to try to bring the rate down, even posting military policemen on the front desk to help keep the peace!

John wasn’t back with his unit for long: late in May he was admitted to hospital again, this time with a fractured metatarsal. That seemed to keep him in and out of hospital throughout June and early July, exactly when his Battalion was fighting the Vichy French forces in Syria.

His behaviour and condition deteriorate

Early in August 1941, John was again AWOL for 24 hours, fined and lost two days’ pay. Three days later he went AWOL once again, but this time for more than seven weeks, from 8 August to 28 September.

On this occasion he was sentenced to 28 days’ detention and forfeited 79 days’ pay. He was admitted to the Second Australian Detention Barracks on 31 October but, having been discharged four days early, returned to camp on 22 November 1941.

But then, on New Year’s Day 1942, he was evacuated to a casualty clearing station and, two weeks later to the 7th Australian General Hospital at Kafr Balu in Palestine. On 31 January he was moved from there to the 1st Australian Convalescent Depot.

The Convalescent Depot

By 22 February he was assessed by a medical board as ‘fit for duties other than active service with field formations’. The notes suggest he had been suffering from anorexia nervosa.

He was allocated to a Brigade Retraining Company but went AWOL twice, for a day on each occasion, before he could reach it.

Then on 30 April 1942 there is an extended entry from the Retraining Company headed: ‘Illegal Absentee: Court of Inquiry’. The inquiry had been held a few weeks earlier, on 10 April.

The entry reads:

‘The Court declares that SX5227 PRIVATE DRACUP J.L. illegally absented himself without leave from Aust. Inf. Comp. Tng. Bns. on 2.3.42 and that he is still so absent and that on 2.3.42 he was deficient of the following articles and he is still deficient of the following articles…’

There follow a list of all the articles of his army kit.

He was finally apprehended on 29 April at 03:30, having been AWOL for more than eight weeks.

On 22 May at Nuseirat he was court-martialed, found guilty and sentenced to 150 days’ detention. But this sentence, having been confirmed, was almost immediately suspended.

On 9 June a Medical Board judged him ‘temporarily unfit for service for a period greater than six months.’ On 1 July he was discharged for return to Australia. The entry in his record is annotated ‘severe anxiety state’.

He embarked on 3 July arriving back in Australia on 30 July. He was apparently sent to a General Details Depot in Victoria. But he soon went AWOL again for an extended period, this time from 08:00 on 5 September 1942 to 09:20 on 12 October.

One month of this period, from 12 September to 13 October, was spent in a Melbourne prison, serving a sentence for the illegal use of a car.

The case had been heard in the Melbourne City Court. On 11 August 1942, another soldier, one Wilfred Cazna Holland Lane, aged 23, was on duty at the docks where he was a driver, responsible for unloading army vehicles and driving them to Fishermen’s Bend.

He unloaded a Chevrolet Sedan which he decided to purloin for his own personal use. He put about 500 miles on the clock before handing it over to John, who wanted to use it at his wedding.

1940 Special Chevrolet Delux Sedan (courtesy of Sicnag)

John admitted altering the number plates before he and Lane drove another 1,000 miles in the car. When Lane was transferred he invited John to keep it.

The barrister defending John pleaded that he had served two-and-a-half years in the Middle East and was suffering from shell-shock. The former is definitely untrue; the latter almost certainly untrue.

John asked to be released on a bond, but this was denied because of his previous convictions. He is said to have responded:

‘I thought that when I fought for my country my prior convictions would be forgotten’

On release he was moved to a holding camp at Caulfield and fully discharged from the army on 17 December 1942.

His discharge document has, written in red pencil at the bottom:

‘Psychoneurotic type with Hystria [sic] symptoms’

After the War, one report, compiled by a Board of Inquiry formed to investigate the trial and punishment of offences against military law, concluded that:

‘The presence in the Army of persons who have been described as ‘criminals’ accounted to some extent for the high rate of delinquency,…and otherwise created many difficulties that would not have arisen if these men had been excluded from the Military Forces.’

It found that 977 men had been discharged from Australian forces up to May 1944, of which 34.7% had prior civil convictions. Many of these, like John, were returned to Australia, their services no longer required.

Was John really mentally ill, or was he a highly intelligent man, unable to stomach army discipline, who understood that the army needed a valid excuse to dispense with his services?

I could find no information about John’s subsequent mental health.

His first marriage

The news reports of the escapade with the car confirm that John’s first marriage took place in August/September 1942, a few months before he was discharged from the army.

He married Margaret Maud Sidwell Fischer (otherwise known as Peggy), the 21 year-old daughter of Otto Carl Fischer and Emily Sidwell Riverina Bates.

Otto and Emily had five children altogether. Otto, a watchmaker, was serving with the Australian Army Medical Corps, but was discharged in April 1944 with an undisclosed illness, and was to die in January 1945 aged 55.

The 1943 electoral rolls show that John moved into the Fischer’s family home at 7, St Leonard’s Avenue, St Kilda. Adult sisters Gwynne and Victoria Fischer were also living there with their mother, Gwynne working as a machinist; Vicky in sales. Both John and Peggy were unemployed.

The marriage may have been in trouble quickly, since the name ‘Dracup’ is included in a list of cases before the Melbourne Divorce Court in November 1943. I have found no further details.

John and Margaret both appear at the same address in the 1946 electoral roll, still with Emily, Gwynne and Vicky in attendance. No employment is listed for either.

In July 1947, Peggy placed an advertisement in The Argus newspaper:

‘REFINED YOUNG LADY wishes position as Secretary: references presented upon request’

But this was replaced in September 1947 by a notice of a different kind:

‘WILL JOHN LESLIE DRACUP, formerly of 407 Malvern Road Hawksburn in the State of Victoria but now of parts unknown, or anyone knowing his whereabouts communicate with JOAN ROSANOVE, solicitor…’

Then, on 13 November 1947, a fresh notice appeared:

‘TO JOHN LESLIE DRACUP, formerly of 2 Dixon Street, Prahran and “Mountain Grand” Guest House, Warburton in the State of Victoria, but now of parts unknown – Take notice that your wife MARGARET MAUDE SIDWELL DRACUP has instituted proceedings for a Divorce on the grounds of desertion. Unless you enter an appearance in the Office of the Prothonotary of the Supreme Court of Victoria at Melbourne on or before the twenty-second day of December, one thousand nine hundred and forty-seven, the case may proceed in your absence. If you intend to defend the suit you must also file an answer in the said office on or before the fifth day of January, one thousand nine hundred and forty-eight. And further take notice that the sealed copy Petition and copy Citation in the suit may be inspected at the office of Petitioner’s Solicitor, JOAN ROSANOSE [sic]…’

Evidently John had moved out of the family house, most probably in search of employment, though Hawksburn and Prahran are Melbourne suburbs, within easy reach of St Kilda.

Warburton is a small town some 70 kilometres away. It was a timber industry centre, so perhaps John had returned to that field. It must have been difficult for him to find work, given his criminal and war records.

Clearly he eventually gave up telling Peggy where he was, or sending money home. The divorce was granted in the Supreme Court on Thursday 18 March 1948.

That same year, Peggy remarried, to Leslie Gladstone White. By 1949 they were both living at 7, St Leonard’s Avenue, Peggy working as a typist, Leslie as an assembler. But they too remained together only a few years.

Peggy went on to marry a third time, to John Ernest Brown, dying in 1971. The death notices in the local press include one from a daughter, Fiona. It is unclear whether she was fathered by John or Leslie daughter. Certainly, had Peggy charge of a small child in 1947, John’s desertion would have been all the more heinous.

Peggy in later life

His second marriage

On 7 January 1949, the local paper for Victor Harbour, a small coastal town south of Adelaide, ran a story about a chef called Johann Dracup.

This must be John.

He appeared before the magistrates:

‘…on two charges: disorderly behaviour and resisting arrest. He pleaded not guilty to each charge, but was found guilty, and fined £1 with 7/6 costs on the first count, and fined £2 for resisting arrest. He was allowed seven days in which to pay, in default seven days’ imprisonment, Sgt. A G Neave (prosecuting) said that at 10.30pm on December 31, he saw defendant with several other persons opposite Grosvenor Buildings. Dracup and a woman were staggering about and calling very loudly, and at that time a man on a balcony was singing. One of the men in the party with defendant said to him, “Keep quiet, the sergeant of police at Victor Harbour is behind us.” Defendant said “That mug.” Sgt. Neave then said that he arrested him and endeavoured to get him off the footpath; Dracup struggled with me until Constable Galloway came to my assistance. Defendant was then escorted to the police station, where he was placed in the cells, and released on bail in the early hours of the morning. “Defendant appeared to have been drinking but could not be arrested for drunkenness”, Sgt Neave concluded.

Giving evidence, Dracup said, “I heard a fellow on the balcony singing and I passed a remark to the effect of ‘Listen to that mug’ or something like that. I am not sure what was said. I had no intentions of passing a remark that would prove detrimental to the police or the Police Force. I had been drinking heavily for New Year’s Eve; I was celebrating.”

It’s not clear why John has decided to call himself Johann, unless he thought it made  him appear more chef-like. The woman with him was perhaps his second wife-to-be.

Jean Pomeroy Macpherson was born in Ballarat, Victoria in 1922. She had enlisted in August 1943, becoming an Aircraftwoman at the 1st Wireless and Air Gunnery School (WAGS), which was located in Ballarat, remaining there until February 1946.

By 1949 she was living at Cape Clear, Corangamite, Victoria, about 50Km to the west of Melbourne, employed in sales. Their marriage took place that year in Victoria. But John is nowhere to be found in the electoral rolls: was he continuing to operate under his alias ‘Johnston’?

In 1954, the electoral rolls still place Jean in Cape Clear, but there is, once again, no sign of John. Jean has given up her employment and is dedicated to ‘home duties’.

To all intents and purposes, John had once more disappeared but, in April 1957, he once more came to the notice of the police. He gave his correct name, but said his age was 43, rather than 38. His address was Biala Street, Gunning, some miles to the north of Canberra.

He appeared in the Canberra Court, charged with the unlawful possession of a shirt, allegedly stolen from a clothes line at the Hotel Kurrajong in that City.

Hotel Kurrajong, courtesy of Bidgee

He was seen stealing the shirt at around 08:30 in the morning. Afterwards he sat on a seat in front of the Hotel, accompanied by a woman, and the hotel manageress called the police.

A policeman arrived on the scene and asked John if he had been in the Hotel’s back yard.

John replied that he worked at Gunning managing a café, working 18 hours a day for little money. He and his companion had hitch-hiked to Canberra looking for different work. John felt dirty so had gone into the back yard and washed himself under a tap, using a spare singlet he had in his bag as a towel. This he had hung on the clothes line to dry.

The case was dismissed.

There is a letter from John in his service record in which he claims that his Returned from Active Service Badge and other property was lost in a fire at a sheep station where he was employed in Carrathool, NSW in September or October 1957.

It is clear that while John was itinerant, Jean wasn’t with him. In 1958, she appears in the electoral roll for Homebush, Sydney, where she was living at 48 Bates Street and working as an assembler.

And, in September 1958, history repeated itself. The Melbourne papers carried a notice:

‘TO JOHN LESLIE DRACUP also known as JOHNSTON formerly of Melbourne in the State of Victoria, now of parts unknown, TAKE NOTICE that your wife, JEAN POMEROY DRACUP, has instituted proceedings against you for divorce on the grounds of desertion. Unless you enter an appearance in the Office of the Deputy Prothonotary of the Supreme Court at Ballarat on or before the 17th day of October 1958 and on or before the day of 27th October 1958, file an answer in the said Office the case may proceed in your absence and you may be ordered to pay costs…’

By 1963, Jean was back in Cape Clear, resident at the Royal Hotel, where she seems to have stayed for the rest of her life, using the surname Dracup. She died in 1981 and was buried in the Cape Clear Cemetery.

Cape Clear Hotel

A third marriage?

The woman with John at the time of the Hotal Kurrajong incident may have been Mary Jean Williams.

We know that she gave birth to a daughter, Lesley Cherry (or Sherry) Dracup around March 1958.

She died at 16 weeks and is buried in Brighton General Cemetery, Caulfield South, Glen Eira City, in the suburbs of Melbourne.

Mary Jean may have lived close by, in the Glen Iris area. There is a Mary Jean Williams living at 67 Glen Iris Road in 1949 and she is back there in 1963.

But in 1958, the electoral rolls include a John and Mary Dracup living together on Lot 16, Purr Purr Avenue, Kiama, Macarthur in the Lake Illawarra area, just south of Wollongong, NSW.

This might have been Purry Burry Avenue, on the eastern shore of Lake Illawarra. John was employed as an ironworker.

It is evident that, pending John’s divorce, this was an adulterous relationship, possibly even a bigamous relationship. I could not discover how long they remained together, or whether they married.

After that John’s story simply peters out. Papers in the service record show that, in November 1969, his address was 1/93 Cavendish Street, Stanmore NSW and, in February 1971, it was 19 Ormond Street, Paddington, NSW. Both are Sydney suburbs.

Last words

I don’t want to make out that John was any kind of anti-hero.

He was a petty criminal with a poor war record who deserted two wives. He may have suffered from poor mental health, but that was no excuse for his behaviour.

But perhaps he never quite recovered from such a dismal start in life, abandoned by his mother and sent to the other side of the world while little more than a toddler. Was he loved and cared for as an adopted child in Australia, or was he neglected? By his teenage years he seems to have been cast adrift.

When once he had turned to crime, he was destined for recidivism, and his criminal record destined him for the dreary life of an itinerant worker, drifting from town to town, moving on whenever his past caught up with him. It is no great surprise that he found it hard to settle down, or to sustain relationships.

A so-called ‘good war’ could have broken this cycle, but John couldn’t stomach military discipline and he quickly became a liability. His service record shows that, in later years, he was desperate to hold on to his medals, as if they would somehow guarantee him the honour and respect that he had forfeited.

Maybe he found some peace and stability in his final years, but perhaps he died before he found it. Some stories don’t have happy endings.

.

TD

November 2021

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