EXCLUSIVE: At the time of his death almost 100 years ago, in 1923, artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert was lauded as “one of the best known painters of Australian birds.” Yet his whimsical but realistic depictions of this nation’s birdlife hid a much darker, tormented soul and criminal life. That ended with a supposed late-night fall in a busy Adelaide hotel while he likely happened to be travelling with a much younger but equally-as-tormented “artist” and convicted felon.
This major historical investigation into sex abuse, fraud, murder, suicide, art and identity is presented by historian Therese Taylor and investigative journalist Serkan Ozturk.
Artistry and Fraud From an Early Life
Herbert Hepburn Calvert was an artist who worked in Australia from the 1900s to 1920s. Upon his sudden mysterious death late one night in 1923 in an Adelaide hotel at the age of 52, his fame was such that the Sydney Morning Herald noted in its obituary that “he was well known throughout the eastern states, and South Australia, in which he had extensively travelled.”
Calvert’s work is in the present day represented in the collections of the Mitchell Library at the State Library of New South Wales as well as at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. When contacted, curators at the Art Gallery of NSW said they weren’t in a position to assist True Crime News Weekly “due to their limited knowledge of the artist.”
Calvert was born in London on December 30, 1870 and before his 18th birthday his family had emigrated to Sydney in 1887. He was the first son of journalist, Thomas Calvert, and his wife, Grace (née Hepburn). Not long after the family’s arrival in the Australian colonies, the marriage between Calvert’s parents seems to have hit some trouble. Soon after they came to Sydney, it appears his father left the family and then moved to Melbourne.
Appearing in Melbourne’s County Court in late November 1892 and charged with fraud for having not paid an earlier court order of £5 and eight shillings along with costs of £4 and 17 shillings, Thomas Calvert is described by local newspapers as a “canvasser for the Prahran Telegraph.”
Thomas Calvert tells the court he hasn’t paid the money he owes as he can’t afford to. He says he has been earning just 27 shillings per week from his job. Unfortunately, pay rates in the local media haven’t much improved since then. Moreover, Thomas Calvert admitted to the judge he was now “living alone”, that his “wife was in Sydney” and “he had not seen her for two years.”
Thomas Calvert had scored the job with the Prahran Telegraph only six months before his court appearance for fraud.
“We have pleasure in introducing to our patrons Mr. Thomas Calvert, whose services have been secured by the proprietors of this journal as a special advertising agent and canvasser for job printing,” the local Melbourne newspaper gushed and crowed on 14 May, 1892 upon his employment.
“Mr. Calvert has been engaged in a similar capacity in this district for several years past; so that his business abilities and integrity will not need mention.”
The article about Thomas Calvert’s appointment with the Prahran Telegraph somewhat ironically appeared above a short news report in the newspaper about matters from the local court house that week, where “several debt cases had been settled.”
Hearing Thomas Calvert’s case later that year, Judge Worthington eventually orders the wayward journalist to pay his victim of fraud – a Mr Drakard – £1 per month beginning from January 1, 1893 until the debt is paid off in full.
Just over five years later, Thomas Calvert’s budding artist son would find himself in similar yet even more serious trouble with the law in Melbourne. An interest in fraudulent pursuits may have run in the family.
Before those criminal travails, meanwhile, Herbert Hepburn Calvert would first begin to paint in a meticulous, accurate style – mostly birds and landscapes – and in time become a watercolourist of some wide renown. This was a lucrative field of work. Such pictures were favoured as household ornaments in the interwar era, and even now retain their appeal. Calvert’s name still comes up regularly in auction catalogues where he is better known as ‘H. H. Calvert’ – the initials signed on his many artworks.
Individual artworks painted by Calvert now regularly fetch in the region between $500-$1,500 per piece, with some larger pieces selling for $2,000 and more.
Calvert could also make whimsical illustrations: “Many will remember his original painting of the English and Australian cricket elevens of 1910, which were cleverly represented by the native birds of each country,” The Sun newspaper remarked upon his death in 1923.
The newspaper further positively stated in its obituary that Calvert’s paintings of birds had been “pleasing, and touched the popular fancy.”
This blend of art and illustration has a touch of Norman Lindsay. There were many opportunities for artists of this type in the early 20th century, when photographic illustrations were rare. During Calvert’s lifetime, his style of art was becoming old-fashioned, and was soon to be swept aside by modernism. But there is no indication that he wished to take up the newer styles.
A selection of watercolour paintings of Australian birdlife by artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert, better known as H. H. Calvert
As a life-long resident of Sydney following his family’s emigration, Calvert lived in Balmain, Leichhardt and then Roseville. In 1895, Calvert described himself in official records as a “canvasser”, just like his father before him. He also seems to have had work, later, as a contractor organising the decoration of houses around the time of his marriage to Mary Elsie O’Brien, in 1904. But he always continued to work as an artist. With his wife, he had two sons, one of whom, Harold Calvert, also became an artist.
This respectable picture of a productive, middle-class life however is contradicted by records of court appearances by Herbert Hepburn Calvert and the circumstances of his own death. A few years before his marriage, during a visit to Melbourne, when he was 29-years-old, he was accused of being engaged in serious criminal activities, including fraud and the sexual assault of underage girls.
During the last part of his life, in the early 1920s, he often went interstate: “Of late years he had travelled extensively throughout the eastern states and Tasmania, and there are many examples of his work from Rockhampton, in the north, to Hobart,” The Sun reported upon Calvert’s death.
There is no mention of him ever returning to Melbourne. He apparently “extensively travelled” in South Australia, where he died suddenly in an “accident”, in February 1923.
New documents and information unearthed for the first time by True Crime News Weekly show that before Calvert’s untimely death in an Adelaide hotel, the last person believed to have seen him alive and in full health was a young convicted felon – 30 years the junior of the artist and well-known to police in the rough-and-tumble Balmain area – who had travelled with Calvert from Sydney and spent the final two weeks of his life with.
Just two years later, in 1925, around the second anniversary of Calvert’s death, this same convicted criminal would attempt to murder his own wife and their young baby before turning that rage and homicidal desire unto himself.
A Scam and An Assault
Before he was married, Calvert went to Melbourne in early 1900, while working as a “ship artist” on a steamer. Artists on board provided travellers with sketches and mementoes of sights seen on a voyage. Steamers were a quality form of travel for Australians visiting capital cities.
Upon his arrival in the city, on April 2, Calvert visited a house at 28 Curzon Street, North Melbourne, where a 15-year-old Annie Williams lived with her older sister, Margaret. Calvert was almost twice Annie’s age, and just months shy of 30. Annie had no employment, and said that her father, a miner who lived in Tasmania, sent money to keep them. Calvert told the young ladies that he knew of them because they had friends in common. He claimed to own a mine in Western Australia (then, as now, a profitable business) and seems to have said nothing about his real life as an artist in Sydney.
The older sister was invited by Calvert to go to a concert. She declined, and Annie took her place. They went to the centre of town, where Calvert told Annie an elaborate story. The idea was to induce Annie Williams to impersonate his (non-existent) cousin, Ethel Reid, in a marriage. This would enable him to inherit a fortune, which had been willed to him by his uncle, on the stipulation that this marriage take place.
Herbert Hepburn Calvert: Painter of birds and accused of sexually assaulting and trying to scam a 15-year old girl in 1900 when he was almost 30-years-old (Image: Sabamist / Supplied)
The story of the will and the marriage greatly resembles the internet scams which circulate till our own day, enticing people to undertake some action in order to be receive a huge sum of money which just needs to be transferred. Annie Williams claimed that she asked Calvert: “Will I get into trouble?” This childish question indicates her youth, as a girl barely in her teens. On being assured not, she was willing to agree. Calvert had found his mark.
They went to a jewellers in Bourke Street, where William Dunckley, the proprietor, later questioned by police, confirmed Annie Williams’ story that Calvert had brought her there to be measured for a ring. He also said that Calvert appeared to have been drinking and was “strongly under the influence of liquor.” Upon his death just over two decades later, in the official police report handed to the coroner it would be claimed by the man who last saw the artist healthy and alive that Calvert was a man supposedly of “very sober habits.”
This is the oddest part of the evidence. Annie Williams claimed that Calvert had raised the possibility of tattooing her. He denied this. Both agreed that he had drawn a design on her arm. The gesture of breathing on the drawing of a snake makes it seem almost like an esoteric ritual. However, he was probably making spots with the ink pencils favoured by artists. If exposed to moisture, such pencil marks became indelible. Presumably, that was the effect he sought.
The “tattooing” also has eerie links to the present-day criminal case of famous hipster and Sydney artist, Anthony Lister. The 41-year-old “street artist” is currently facing multiple sexual abuse charges involving at least five young women, said to be budding artists and admirers of his art, at least one of whom he had also allegedly tattooed without their consent.
In Calvert’s case heard over a century ago, the drawings and rolled up sleeves were the presage to aggressive behaviour: “He then assaulted her. She was too frightened to cry out or resist,” The Age reported on April 21, 1900.
After the tattooing, Calvert is alleged to have acted in a “most ruffianly way” and sexually assaulted the 15-year-old Annie who later told the court “she was afraid he would shoot her.”
The exact nature of the assault was not specified in the reported evidence. The early committal hearing was behind closed doors, and the details of the “outrages” reported by Annie Williams were not repeated in public. Calvert was charged with attempting an assault on an underage girl, rather than rape. This may be because he was limited in his degree of contact with her body, or it may be because police decided only to charge him with ‘attempted’ assault, because it was an easier allegation to establish. One newspaper – The Age – did report that Calvert had been charged with “attempted unlawful intimacy” with Annie Williams.
After this episode in the Exhibition Gardens, Calvert arranged a further meeting with Annie Williams for the following Saturday night. Before leaving, he also tried to “give her a cheque for £25, to encourage her” but Annie declined the offer. “Frightened to offend him, she allowed him to accompany her half-way home” before Calvert finally left her to return home alone at about 10.30pm. Annie’s older sister later said she was “crying, and appeared terribly upset.”
It is likely that, in this further planned meeting, Annie Williams would have been asked to provide money, or some other service, for the efforts needed to gain the inheritance. That is how such scams work – the victim is asked to pay expenses in the expectation of a future reward. Or, Calvert may have had other plans for her, of a most unpleasant type. He was making suggestions that they would have to find a child, as part of the inheritance scheme. But, as it turned out, he was in no position to do anything. Annie had reported Calvert to the “Detective Office” soon after returning home that night.
The next weekend, police detectives were waiting for Calvert at the place of the rendezvous and pounced when he showed up. He was arrested and charged before being “lodged in the City Watchhouse.”
Before the Courts: “An extraordinary case”
The talk of impersonations, heirs, wills and inheritances, and then tattoos, drawings on a girl’s arm, and assault in the Fitzroy Gardens, made for a strange, almost-fantastical tale.
It is clear that the events of that evening had not simply been an impulse by Calvert. Whatever he thought he was doing, it was part of an ongoing plan. At the time of his arrest, two documents were found in his possession – a fake will, described as “a piece of paper besmudged with sealing wax and bound up with red tape” and also a blue foolscap sheet “intended to pass as a lawyer’s letter, and appeared to be signed by a firm of solicitor carrying on business in London.”
Apparently, the second meeting with Annie Williams was to organise obtaining a young child, because Ethel Reid was supposed to have had a baby, “and an infant would have to be found as part of the dummying business” as a journalist reporting on the case for The Age explained.
Evidence was given in favour of Calvert by neighbours of Annie Williams. A 12-year-old girl, Eliza Perkis, said that Annie Williams frequently used “bad words”, and that she had heard Annie Williams say, about the events that night, that Calvert was not the one who had harmed her, but that she was going to make him pay.
Mrs Emily Perkis, the young Eliza’s mother, confirmed this and added details. She stated that she had seen men going to their house in the early hours of the morning: “Witness had a lively time with the goings on at the house, and complained to the agent. They had no peace night or day.” She also confirmed that Annie Williams said: “He is not the ____ fellow who did it, but I’ll make him pay for his _____ meanness.”
Melbourne’s Exhibition Gardens, now better known as Carlton Gardens, where artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert is alleged to have sexually assaulted a 15-year-old girl in 1900 after first tattooing her (Images: Wiki Commons)
This evidence is telling, but is open to question. If the two households were on such bad terms, it is unlikely that Annie Williams announced – in either Emily or Eliza Perkis’ presence – that the charges she was raising against Calvert were false, and motivated by the wish to get money from him. This was exactly his line of defence, and the hearsay evidence from the neighbours has the distinct tone of a ‘bought witness’. A statement from the agent, that complaints had been made against the Williams household would have more weight, but was not proffered.
This evidence, and other aspects of the trial, suggested that the Williams sisters were common prostitutes, and so their evidence should not be believed. Whether they were or not, did not make Calvert innocent or guilty, but the suggestion would certainly have influenced the jury.
In the newspapers, Calvert was described as “a gentlemanly-looking young fellow” and “a tall neatly-dressed young man” and “flashly dressed”, while Annie Williams was someone “who looked a big girl for her age, said she was fifteen years old.”
She did not live with her parents, and had no employment.
In order to affirm that she had been assaulted, Annie Williams had to deny that she had ever “walked out with black man in her life” and also that she and her sister had not been seen “with men tucked under their arms at 3am.”
Medical evidence, at that time, set a stringent standard of proof for sexual assault. The evidence of Dr C E Wilson of Melbourne Hospital showed that she had “suffered acts of violence, but they were not of such a character that a criminal assault had been committed.”
Calvert denied assaulting Annie Williams, and suggested that any injuries she may have had, would not be due to him. He did not deny that he had tried to persuade Annie Williams to play a role, so that he could get an inheritance. His defence was that in suggesting this imposture he had “only been perpetrating a joke.” Calvert “explained in connection with the will that a friend of his in Sydney had a habit of boasting that was coming into property. The idea was to write a sham letter purporting to be from a firm of solicitors in England.”
The target of this ‘joke’ is not named, and was said to be “a shipmate of his in Sydney.”
In court, Calvert claimed on “the night that he made her acquaintance he had just arrived from Western Australia, and had gone to see the Williams family at the request of a half-caste named Pigeon.” Clem was apparently the first name of the said Mr Pigeon.
The ‘explanation’ given by Calvert does not give, or leave, a good impression. The joke does not sound funny. It sounds, rather, like the work of a well-experienced confidence trickster. It also does not account for his actions, as described in the evidence. But Calvert would not have been closely cross-examined on much of this, as he was not on trial for fraud or deception.
“Alleged new confidence trick” and “arrest on a serious charge”: The Age reports on the criminal trial of artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert on 9 April, 1900 (Image: Trove / Supplied)
Hearing the assault case, Mr Justice Hood instructed the jury in terms favourable to Calvert, the accused. He reminded the jury that it was one person’s word against another’s – “either the girl’s story or the man’s” – and further claimed “the burden of proof lay with the former.”
“Either the accused was simply trying to make friends and had dropped into a viper’s nest, or he was trying to make a victim of the girl,” Justice Hood further elaborated.
Such cases tended to turn on the reputation of the girl or woman assaulted. Annie Williams had no credible background, and her willingness to go along with a scam mock-marriage would have given her a dissolute image. The jury acquitted Calvert.
Police Work Was Meticulous Even By Today’s Standards
One reason to give credence to the charges against Calvert is the attitude of the Victorian Police. A sexual assault allegation, by a girl not living in a family home, was usually met with scepticism. Few charges were brought in such circumstances.
But in this case police followed up the investigation with energy. Instead of simply taking a statement, then contacting Calvert and questioning him about his version of events, they organised surveillance and sent detectives to await Calvert and arrest him. Considering that police in Melbourne were occupied with numerous incidents, this is a significant effort. They found and interviewed witnesses who saw Annie Williams with Calvert, so that the case did not rely on her sole testimony.
Further resources were allocated as a barrister, Mr Finlayson QC – rather than a police prosecutor – was funded to open the case. It was made known, at the start of the court case that Annie Williams was “given a good character by police.” They thus tried to bolster her witness statement.
The reason why the police were so active is indicated clearly in one newspaper report: “The detectives allege that this is a new kind of confidence trick”.
The police had concerns about Calvert’s schemes, and the assault charge was a good chance to be rid of him.
Two years after the criminal case against Calvert ended, it was reported that an Annie Williams – this time described as “a well-dressed young woman” – had “recently got married” to an 84-year-old man. The news of the marriage came out during a court case in May 1902, where Annie was appearing over an alleged charge of “offensive behaviour in a public place” after waking up the reverend of St Luke’s Church in Melbourne’s south “at 10 o’clock on Sunday night” and telling him “she desired to go to church.”
The court was told: “She had been nursing her husband … for three successive nights, and had no rest whatsoever”.
Annie pleaded “guilty to a certain extent” and was discharged with the court expressing “regret” over her appearance.
“Depraved, Fraudulent, and Dishonest”: A Defamation Case a Decade Later
It is not surprising that Calvert was acquitted of assaulting Annie Williams, but his actions do not look innocent.
A person who commits these type of offences is likely to go on doing so. Despite Calvert’s outward appearance as a respectable artist, he seems to have had the capacity to engage in criminal behaviour, especially during a foray away from his Sydney home.
There are indications that his activities led some people to regard him with suspicion.
In 1908, Calvert, describing himself as a contractor, and a resident of Leichhardt, took out a libel suit against a builder – John Harrison “the younger” – for slander. Calvert sued for £400 in damages – a considerable sum of money.
Harrison is said to have used words to the effect that Calvert’s “proper place was in gaol.”
He and Harrison had a business relationship, and had argued about a lease which Harrison held in connection to a building that housed the Union Bank and chambers at the corner of Hunter and Pitt streets in central Sydney, which had been sublet to Calvert.
After hearing the case, the jury found against Calvert and the libel suit was dismissed.
The 1908 libel case launched against builder John Harrison “the younger” over claims he suggested artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert “was a depraved, fraudulent, and dishonest person, and had committed a crime, for which he was liable to be prosecuted.” Calvert lost the case. (Image: Trove / Supplied)
The specific terms of this alleged libel – “depraved, fraudulent, and dishonest” – recall the events in Melbourne eight years earlier. But a Sydney builder would have been unlikely to know of them. The trial was mostly only reported in Victoria, and the Australian states were still very separate. There is only one very brief mention of Calvert’s criminal assault case in the Sydney papers of the time, and that appeared on page seven in the Daily Telegraph on 22 May, 1900 upon his acquittal.
Harrison was probably referring to more recent rumours or unpaid debts following Calvert’s name in Sydney. Considering, also, that fraud and sexual assault are crimes which often go unreported, and which are perpetrated by repeat offenders, this “libel” may be a reference to other incidents which mirrored the Annie Williams affair. Or, somehow, Harrison had come into knowledge of Calvert’s alleged criminal past in Melbourne from almost a decade ago, and now had reason to air the artist’s dirty laundry.
At the Melbourne assault trial Calvert was shown to be, even by his own evidence, a person who was capable of planned deceptions and elaborate ruses. If he continued to act this way, he was at risk of seriously annoying other people.
The ‘Fall’ and Death of H. H. Calvert
At the age of 52, Calvert died suddenly. He was visiting Adelaide, and staying at the Prince Alfred Hotel. He was found unconscious at the foot of a staircase, at 2am, on 16 February, 1923. He supposedly died 24 hours later, in a private hospital. “It is surmised that Mr Calvert fell down the stairs,” was the official conclusion.
Calvert’s demise was originally reported on in the Adelaide press as “Sydney Visitor’s Death” and in some interstate papers as “Elderly Man’s Death”. But quickly enough, the headlines soon became: “An Artist’s Death”. By 19 February, 1923 news of Calvert’s death had filtered back to Sydney, with Adelaide’s The Register and The Journal newspapers also confirming “Calvert was an artist.”
Sudden deaths, and visitors to Adelaide, were both staples of interest in the newspapers, but the journalists seem to have few details about what happened to Calvert, and nothing at all about his activities in Adelaide.
The police report to the coroner explains that Calvert was found at the landing on the first floor by the hotel licensee, Thomas Deagon Howard, at around 2am of 16 February. Mr Howard came out of his room, because he heard Calvert groaning – he apparently did not hear any fall, but Calvert said that he had fallen on the stairs. Mr Howard stated that Calvert did not explain to him why he had come out of his room. Calvert was helped to his bed, but was still ill at 8am the next morning, when Dr Pellew was called.
The official police report handed to the coroner about the death of artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert in Adelaide in February 1923 (Image: State Archives of South Australia, Report to the Watchhouse, 19 Feb 1923 / Supplied)
Dr Pellew instructed that Calvert be moved to Miss Haigh’s Private Hospital, at Hutt Street Adelaide. The well-known society doctor observed that the patient had broken ribs. According to the police report, Calvert died around 11.15pm on 17 February. There is no mention of any statement or last words from the deceased. Dr Pellew performed an autopsy, and observed that as well as four broken ribs on the left side, the deceased had a ruptured spleen, haemorrhage and shock. These injuries were listed as the cause of death.
The story of Calvert’s death has several elements which are puzzling, to say the least.
In Adelaide: Hotels, Alcohol and Art
The Prince Alfred Hotel was in a grand Victorian building in the centre of town. Located at King William Street, the dining room was booked for important functions. It was a respectable establishment, suited to visitors who did not mind the noise of the traffic of Adelaide’s largest streets. It was established in 1869 and operated until its close in 1953. On its last day after more than 80 years as a licensed premises, only the hotel’s saloon remained opened. Its “licensee, Mr Eric Fletcher, farewelled his customers with free drinks.” The premises were then transformed into offices for City Council staff and would become part of Adelaide’s Town Hall complex.
Back in the early 1920s, the licensee of the Prince Alfred Hotel had been fined for selling alcohol on a Sunday, and some clients had been fined for unlawful betting on the premises. These were fairly common incidents for a city hotel in that era.
Calvert had apparently been staying at the hotel for two weeks. In the police report to the coroner, one learns that he had a companion, who is not mentioned in any media article. David Gilford Bell, who gives his profession as artist, said that he knew Calvert for the “past 22 years.” He stated that they had arrived in Adelaide together on 2 February, 1923. The fact that two artists were travelling together suggests that this trip may have been related to creating or selling their artworks. But this is not stated in any of the documents. It is surprising that the police did not ask why Calvert and Bell had come to Adelaide.
David Bell was with Calvert on the evening of his fatal accident. His statement indicates that he visited him in his hotel bedroom, and left at 1am, when he believed that Calvert was going to bed. Only one hour later, Calvert was found severely injured on the landing of the stairway by the hotel’s licensee, Mr Howard. By his own account, Bell was the last person to see Calvert in full health.
The ruptured spleen was the most serious of Calvert’s injuries and is sufficient to explain his death. It is usually caused by a collision on a sport’s field, or a car accident. It is not a common consequence of falling down stairs, especially interior stairs. Outdoor concrete or stone stairs are far more risky. Note that there are no other accounts of such accidents at the Prince Alfred Hotel, which would have had a well-built staircase, with bannisters, and a mellow incline. This was standard for an impressive Victorian era building, and especially important for a hotel, that would have had many inebriated guests negotiating the stairs.
The Prince Alfred Hotel was a busy hotel in Adelaide’s town centre. Here it is seen in a photograph from 1920 (Image: State Library of South Australia / Supplied)
Stairs at the lobby of the Adelaide Town Hall. The former Prince Alfred Hotel building is now part of the Town Hall complex, and was built in the same style (Image: State Library of South Australia / Supplied)
The severe injuries to the left side of Calvert’s body – broken ribs and ruptured spleen – are typical of an assault, especially if a person is knocked to the ground and kicked. If Calvert had left the hotel in the early hours of the morning, and if he had been in an altercation with someone, he might have returned, collapsed while trying to go up the stairs and then begun groaning. This would explain why his landlord, the licensee of the hotel, Mr Howard, did not hear the crash of him falling.
For reasons of his own, Calvert might have kept the incident to himself, and waited to recover. When seen by Mr Howard, the hotel licensee later told police the artist “did not tell me why he came out of his bedroom on to the landing of the stairs.”
It is also possible that Calvert was assaulted in his room, perhaps by his companion, David Bell. The possibility of a drunken clash is ever present. The statement by the licensee that Calvert was “perfectly sober” need not be taken too seriously. The hotel proprietor would not want to be charged (again!) with providing alcohol after hours.
During Calvert’s criminal assault trial of Annie Williams more than 20 years before his death, it was stated in court by witnesses that they believed him to be under the influence of alcohol and “drunk” when they saw him in the presence of the teenage girl on that fateful night. Calvert’s travelling partner upon his death, David Bell, meanwhile was at great pains to tell police that Calvert was of “very sober habits and always enjoyed good health.” However, new information discovered by True Crime News Weekly and detailed below suggests Bell too was a “heavy drinker.”
The police report gives precise details of Calvert’s room – no 10 – and it is stated that it was “a single room.” David Bell’s room is not specified, and he appears not to have heard anything.
One would also like to know how Calvert was dressed. Bell said he last saw him at 1am, and Calvert was wearing pyjamas. The licensee, Mr Howard, however does not mention how Calvert was dressed when he first came across him groaning on the stairs an hour later, at 2am. Knowing this would be key to knowing if Calvert had happened to the leave the premises for one reason or another late at night.
A Medical Opinion: Dr Pellew and the age-old question of Public vs Private
The doctor who saw Calvert, and performed the autopsy, was one of the most eminent in South Australia. Dr Leonard Pellew was 43 years old, and was a distinguished surgeon, who played a lively role in Adelaide society. His father, James Pellew, was a “successful horticulturalist” who became famous in his retirement after he “devoted himself to literature and became possessed of a remarkable knowledge of Shakespeare.” Another newspaper duly noted: “His knowledge of Shakespeare was astonishing, and to the end he had an excellent memory and could recite classical English at great length”.
Other members of the Pellew family were famous cricketers, well known of in Adelaide and beyond; the most famous of which was Clarence Everard Pellew. Better known as ‘Nip’, Clarence Everard Pellew would represent Australia and play in 10 Test matches between 1920-21. His Wisden obituary remarks: “Credited with being able to run the 100 yards in 10.2 seconds and to throw a cricket ball over 100 yards, he might well, after sprinting 40 yards round the boundary, save not one run but two or three, so swiftly did he get rid of the ball. In any discussion of the world’s greatest outfields, he must be a candidate for a place”.
Dr Pellew came from a famous cricketing family: Clarence Everard Pellew, better known as ‘Nip’, played 10 Tests for Australia between 1920-21 and is still regarded as one of the best outfielders to have played the game (Image: Wiki Commons / Supplied)
Dr Pellew’s comings and goings were noted in the gossip columns, and he had served in important posts in health administration. He appears to have been linked to both legal and military circles. After enlisting in 1915, he served as a Captain with the Royal Army Medical Corps in World War One.
“His flair for diagnosis and his surgical acumen earned him a Mention in Despatches for his work in the field of war,” one biography notes.
Whilst still a medical student at Adelaide University, in 1904, a young Pellew was fined five shillings along with a fellow student for “disturbing the peace” outside the home of a state politician in relation to a so-called faith healer and cult leader, the popular John Alexander Dowie, otherwise known as Dr Dowie or the “Australian Modern Elijah.” It’s likely the scientifically-minded Pellew took the Bible-spouting spiritualist to be a charlatan. Pellew and his friend were referred to by the press as “riotous varsity students.”
Having returned to Australia from the United States after first establishing in 1900 the settlement known as ‘Zion City’, 65 kilometres from Chicago, Dr Dowie was a controversial figure. At lectures across Australia, every appearance by Dr Dowie “was marked by near riots stimulated partly by his blue, white, yellow and purple surplice and partly by the overbearing conduct of his train of Zion City guards.” One could make the point that modern notions of “cancelling” or “no-platforming” have a much more nuanced and rich history than what is regularly discussed in today’s media debates.
“Will go to gaol”: Towards the end of his medical career, in 1948, Dr Leonard Pellew was once again making headlines, this time over his refusal to pay a £1 parking fine (Image: Trove / Supplied)
Soon after, in 1911, Dr Pellew, then aged 31, went on a two-month return trip to China, acting as a ship’s doctor aboard a steamer. Dr Pellew’s observations of his journey to China – apparently “made mainly for health purposes” – were reported upon in some detail following his return to Australia . It included his views on the Philippines and Hong Kong as well as his belief that Darwin “was wretched” and “not a country for white men.” Moreover, Dr Pellew believed “the Japanese were an over-estimated race” and thought “there is more to be feared from the Chinese than the Japanese.”
In 1920, Dr Pellew was then sent on a tour of Asia, as an Honorary Commissioner of the South Australian Government.
Towards the end of his medical career and soon after World War Two against the Japanese had ended, in September 1948, a 69-year-old Dr Pellew was once again in the news headlines. This time, it was over his refusal to pay a small fine. The ageing doctor let it be known “he would go to gaol rather than pay a £1 fine for a City Council parking offence.”
A few days later, an “unknown man” paid Dr Pellew’s parking fine. Newspaper reports claimed the man was “a member of the Adelaide City Council.”
Dr Pellew was not the type of doctor usually called upon by a hotel who had an injured guest, such as the predicament Calvert happened to be in. The only other time where Dr Pellew reported publicly on a death in Adelaide, was in 1919, with the tragic demise of a young woman. Euphemia Collins, 22, collapsed and an empty bottle was found. “There was a strong smell of Lysol,” a report stated. Her husband summoned Dr Pellew to their family home in Hanson Street, Adelaide. The doctor used a stomach pump, but was unable to save her life. Dr Pellew’s testimony was unquestionable. “The coroner decided that an inquest was unnecessary” to determine how or why Ms Collins died.
One wonders if Dr Pellew came to the Prince Alfred Hotel because he was requested by Calvert himself. It is possible that they were acquainted in some way. Dr Pellew had an interest in the arts. In November 1934, he opened an exhibition of watercolours by English artist Minnie Baynes, at the Argonaut Galleries. This art gallery was on North Terrace Adelaide, and near where Calvert had stayed. The pair also both had a shared connection to Test cricket.
The old Royal Adelaide Hospital at Frome St, North Terrace where Herbert Hepburn Calvert should have been taken but wasn’t (Image: Wiki Commons)
A death notice states artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert died at “Nurse Haigh’s Private Hospital” located on Hutt St, Adelaide. Originally called Miss Hand’s Private Hospital, it was South Australia’s first “purpose built private hospital” and sometimes collected injuries which were reported to the city watchhouse (Image: Health Museum of South Australia / Supplied)
It is specifically stated that Calvert was “ordered to the hospital by Dr Pellew.” By sending Calvert to a private hospital, Dr Pellew kept his case under his individual care. A death notice for Calvert in Adelaide’s The Journal newspaper states he died on February 16 at Nurse Haigh’s Private Hospital as the result of an “accident.”
It is unexpected that the patient was not sent to the public ward of Royal Adelaide Hospital, which received most victims of accidents in the city, and was (at that time), nearby on Frome Street, North Terrace. It would have had much better facilities for emergency surgery, such as removal of the ruptured spleen. However, that was not to be, and in the seclusion of a private hospital, Calvert quietly slipped away into death.
It wouldn’t be the last time though that Dr Pellew would use his expert knowledge to possibly help try close down an investigation into serious criminal matters involving high-profile individuals and misadventures with alcohol.
In late 1937, Dr Pellew would testify in a drink-driving case involving John Cecil Gunner Cooper – a member of South Australia’s famous Cooper family of beer brewers – that a man “could stagger in his gait because of over indulgence of alcohol, but could still control a motor car.”
A few months later, in December 1937, Dr Pellew admitted in court he did not bother asking a man he claimed to have medically examined about whether he had been drinking when he was involved in an incident in which “a woman had sustained a broken leg when she was knocked down by a car.”
In 1948, Dr Pellew would also come to the defence of Dr Lewis Wibner Jeffries – South Australia’s then Director-General of Medical Services and a friend of his “for 47 years” – over similar drink-driving charges.
“Defendant’s mumbling method of speech, and repetition of sentences might be mistaken by a stranger for effects of alcoholism,” Dr Pellew wisely offered to the court in that case involving his longtime friend, almost 25 years after tending to Calvert and his injuries.
Dr Pellew died in November 1957 with little fanfare, in contrast to much of the rest of his life.
Just before his own death, Dr Pellew had been “made a Commander in the Order of the British Empire in the 1957 Birthday Honours.” The award, widely known as the CBE, was in recognition of his “public service.” It is the highest ranking award that is given, excluding a knighthood or damehood.
Considering his background, connection to the elite, journeys to the East and other foreign forays, service in the military, post-retirement career of foreign culture and policy church lecturer, and near-knighthood just preceding his death, there is a good chance Dr Pellew may have been a spy or associated with Australia’s secret services during parts of his lifetime.
For such a life led as a prominent society figure, it’s odd that not a single obituary or accompanying photograph of the well-travelled doctor from the well-heeled and prominent Pellew family was ever published by major newspapers in Adelaide or elsewhere around the country upon his death. At least Calvert had the small benefit of that.
Calvert’s Bell: The Missing Companion Who Was Never Mentioned
Who was David Gilford Bell, the companion of the dead man who had travelled with Calvert to Adelaide? We do not know, and no trace of a person, during that era, with that exact name, can be found in other records or official documents from the time. It may very well have be an alias.
It is possible that Calvert had been engaged in shady activity while in Adelaide. If that were the case, his companion would be motivated to give a false name, or an altered version of the name he was already using. This was easy during that era, when photo ids were unknown.
If he really was an artist working and travelling with Calvert, David Gilford Bell would have been motivated to make statements to the public. The obituaries and media coverage would be an ideal chance for Bell to say something about Calvert, and mention the importance of his own work. But he stayed out of sight. His total absence from any records, other than the police report to the coroner, is a puzzle.
David Gilford Bell would have been motivated to stay quiet if he had been in a fight with Calvert, and he might have been feeling guilty after his sudden death. Or, Bell may have been afraid. They could have been working together on a swindle, and got in deeper than they anticipated.
There was an artist known as DG Bell who is sometimes listed as producing work in Australia in the 1920s. Also credited as D. George Bell, almost next to nothing is known about his life in biographies on various art websites. There is also no mention of DG Bell’s artworks in local newspapers or magazines of the time in the early 20th century.
This painter does have the same initials as the otherwise unknown David Gilford Bell, the self-proclaimed artist, who was with Calvert just prior to his death in 1923. But there is nothing otherwise to link him to the events in Adelaide. The highest price DG Bell’s paintings have fetched when sold at auction is just over $2,500.
But he is otherwise in the present day identified as a late-colonial landscape artist, who may have also been active or alive in Tasmania from around “the 1890s” with his ouevre predominantly being produced in the 1920s.
However, it seems even the limited biographies on DG Bell, the artist, are wrong and the result of error and mistaken identity. It seems art auction houses have mistaken the mysterious DG Bell for a press photographer – George Bell – who was active in Sydney from 1887-1920.
‘Dorset Ruins’ attributed to DG Bell. This artwork was sold at Christie’s art auction house in Melbourne
‘Ship In Stormy Seas’ attributed to DG Bell
‘Tasmanian Landscape’ attributed to DG Bell
‘Horses in an Australian River Landscape’ attributed to DG Bell
‘Naval Encounter’ attributed to DG Bell
A selection of artworks attributed to the elusive and little-known artist DG Bell, also known as D. George Bell, who is claimed to have been “working” in Australia in the 1920s (Supplied)
Some of the artworks that are said to be painted by the elusive DG Bell do provide some coincidental links to Calvert however. Ships as well as landscapes of Tasmania, where Calvert was a regular visitor, make some notable appearances. As mysteriously as DG Bell apparently arrived on the Australian art scene, his landscape works on oil and watercolour then came to a sudden stop in the 1920s.
There was however also a younger man, David George Bell. A convicted criminal with a lengthy rap sheet, he died tragically as a suicide, in Sydney, just two years after Calvert’s demise.
Newly unearthed information and never-before-seen documents suggest he could have been the elusive David Gilford Bell, who was listed as Calvert’s travelling companion and the last man to see the artist alive and in good health before his strange, untimely death.
The Bell Tolls In Balmain
On Saturday, 21 February 1925, David George Bell was found lying in a laneway, behind a house in Perrett Street, Rozelle. He had been visiting his estranged wife, and was disputing a maintenance payment. The couple had been married for just over 12 months. His wife explained that he was a heavy drinker, and that they had separated after Bell had just a month earlier tried to choke her, and their baby daughter. Bell had previously threatened suicide, if she left him, and was found to have ingested poison.
David George Bell can be shown to have a habit of altering his name, by changing his second name, when under official scrutiny.
On 1 February 1925, just three weeks before his suicide, a ‘David James Bell’ had appeared before the Balmain magistrate. His wife, Jane Bell, who stated that she had a baby and had been married for a year, had laid a complaint of assault over his attempts to choke her and their young daughter on the evening of 14 January, 1925.
Covering the story, The Truth newspaper said Mrs Bell “looked careworn and ill” and coined the moniker of “Brutal Bell” when relaying details of the attempted killings. Bell, who was said to be “contrite”, was bound over to be of good behaviour for six months. This is certainly the same person who died only three weeks later. The address given for his wife’s home – Perrett Street, Rozelle – is identical.
Why would Bell use an altered name, when hailed before the bench by his wife in 1925? Possibly, because in December 1919 a David George Bell had been sentenced to 18 months “with hard labour” in Bathurst jail, for the crime of larceny. If these two are the same person, then Bell had every reason to alter his name, and avoid scrutiny as someone with a lengthy criminal record.
Official police documents unearthed by True Crime News Weekly show Bell had been charged over offences for stealing and break and enter going back to when he was only 13-years-old. Born in 1901, police records from 1918 and 1919 also note that Bell – who stood at less than 5 ft 6 inches tall, and weighed under 60 kilograms – was already fond of using aliases, usually variations of his name such as ‘George Bell’.
David George Bell, aged 18-years-old in this police photo (Image: Supplied)
The official police files and photos for convicted criminal, David George Bell, now believed to have been the last person to see artist, Herbert Hepburn Calvert, alive and well (Images: Supplied)
It is notable that David George Bell had potential and realistic links with Calvert. He was a ship’s fireman, and Calvert, who travelled by ship regularly and had first gained notoriety as a “ship’s artist”, seems to have known other marine workers. After separating from his wife, Bell lived at Macquarie Terrace, Balmain which is only a short distance from Birch Grove Road, Balmain listed by Calvert as his place of residence, at the time of his own wedding in 1904.
That was almost twenty years previously, but Calvert likely may have continued to have friends and connections in the suburb. Police records also show that Bell, who was born on 21 June, 1901, was considered to be a “native” of Balmain, with his first offences in the suburb having taken place in 1914.
There is even a high likelihood Calvert had come up with a near-ingenious art scam where he was passing off his own works as belonging to a young and highly talented art prodigy, played by our youthful convicted ruffian, David George Bell.
The David George Bell who died at Balmain Hospital was found, by the coroner, to have been a victim of: “Lysol poisoning artfully administered by himself”.
When found laying in the backyard of his estranged wife’s home, it is claimed Bell’s last words were: “There it is,” before he threw a small bottle of poison onto the ground.
“Lysol poisoning artfully administered by himself”: The death of David George Bell as reported to the NSW Coroner (Image: (Coroner’s Court Register, 1925 / Supplied)
The View From A Century Away
The artworks of Herbert Hepburn Calvert retain an appeal in their faithful, yet creative, images of nature. The careful realism of his work put it out of fashion in the twentieth century, when paintings became expressive of ideas and culture, rather than reflected images. But fashions in art always alter, and he may yet return to public appreciation.
By contrast with his art, Calvert’s life is ambiguous and has left disparate impressions among scattered records. His life, in fact, has some of the qualities of the expressionist art which was in the avant-garde in the 1920s. It is a disturbing picture, which gives fragments of understanding, and many contradictions.
If the last person to see him in good health was indeed David George Bell – the young convicted criminal who would just 24 months later, near the second anniversary of Calvert’s death, kill himself after first trying to murder his wife and baby – there is more than a reasonable chance the artist never fell down the stairs in an “accident” at the Royal Prince Alfred Hotel in Adelaide that February night in 1923.
He may have been killed by Bell following a drunken argument, likely over a share of the money from the scams – artistic and otherwise – both men were involved in. In his statement to police, the esoteric David Gilford Bell claimed to have known Calvert for the “past 22 years.” At the time of Calvert’s death, David George Bell was just a few months shy of turning 22.
Field of Mars Cemetery in the Sydney suburb of Ryde where artist Herbert Hepburn Calvert was buried after his death in Adelaide (Image: Northern Cemeteries / Supplied)
Had Bell known Calvert all his life? If that were true, could he have been an illegitimate child, or perhaps another relative? Or was it just another one of Bell’s many lies? But what were the two men up to in Adelaide? And why was Bell so adamant to mention to police that Calvert had been staying in a “single room” when the older artist died? Yet made no mention of where his own room may have been in the hotel?
Had they some kind of relationship that was more than just business? Something much more personal?
We may never know all the details.
But we do know this.
It was a swindle involving a younger person that led to Calvert’s disgrace and downfall in Melbourne at the turn of the 20th century and a criminal trial he was lucky to be acquitted in. And it is likely that another swindle involving a younger person now holds the key to his eventual “accident” in that Adelaide hotel on 16 February, 1923.
Following his death, Calvert’s body was returned to Sydney where he was buried and laid to rest at the Field of Mars Cemetery in Ryde. There he, and the altogether more wicked, sinister and strange details of his life, have remained largely unknown and then ultimately forgotten.
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