A number of reminiscences of early Brisbane make references to a Count Von Attems and “Hamlet’s Ghost”. Intrigued, I found that the story had been retold in newspaper articles on and off from 1868 until the 1950s. After further research, I uncovered other facets to the story which is really about a ship, its reincarnation and the people whose lives she touched.
The “Prince of Denmark”
Kirkcudbright is a town on the southwest coast of Scotland with a long history of shipbuilding. In 1789, the “Prince of Denmark” was built there, probably to serve as a revenue cutter. These armed vessels were built to be fast and maneuverable enough to be able to intercept smugglers in similar speedy vessels. After almost 30 years service, she was sold to a private owner and refitted.
After further repairs and copper sheathing, she began making voyages to the South Seas and the 1820s saw her engaged in sealing. By 1825, she was regularly mentioned in Sydney newspapers arriving and departing on trading voyages to New Zealand. As well as carrying passengers, her cargo typically included seal skins, flax, timber and supplies for missionaries.
The Prince of Denmark passed through various hands, however, her small size was making it increasingly difficult to operate at a profit. In 1858, she was sold for just £50.
In 1863, her new owner, Captain John Charles Bennett, decided to return to whaling and made a voyage to the remote Chesterfield Islands which lie roughly midway between New Caledonia and the Australian coast. A fierce storm drove the schooner onto the reef destroying the vessel. Bennett and his crew were stranded with little hope of returning to Australia for an extended period.
The schooner carried a load of timber that was to be used to construct a small building on one of the atolls. Bennett and his crew used this together with some salvaged timbers from the wreck of the Prince of Denmark to construct a new small vessel. Displaying literary wit, Bennett referenced Shakespeare naming the new vessel “Hamlet’s Ghost”.
She departed from the Chesterfield Islands on June 17th. Encountering heavy weather, Captain Bennett decided to make for Brisbane, rather than continue on to his original intended destination of Sydney, and arrived in Moreton Bay after 10 days sailing. By early July, he had sold what was then described as a ketch to George Harris for £100.
George Harris emigrated from London to Sydney with his family as a two year old in 1831. His elder brother John moved to
Brisbane in 1842 to establish a mercantile and shipping agency. John eventually moved to London and George became his Brisbane business partner.
By the time he purchased “Hamlet’s Ghost”, George had expanded the business to include coastal shipping, the manufacture of boots and harnesses and cotton processing, becoming quite wealthy.
Harris had purchased the schooner to serve as a lighter in Moreton Bay but soon found that it was too small for that purpose. After trying to sell her in mid 1865, Harris had a change of heart and decided to use the “Ghost”. as she was commonly called, as a pleasure yacht for entertaining. He was said to have spent some £20,000 a year on entertaining at his home Newstead House, where he welcomed up to 200 guests at a time.
The Ghost, however, had started to leak badly and was understandably roughly finished. Harris turned to a talented shipwright Elijah Monk, who he had employed after Monk’s arrival in Brisbane and who had recently gone into business for himself.
Elijah Monk and Emily Medland were both born in the maritime city of Plymouth, Devon. They married in 1862 and emigrated to Brisbane in 1864. Elijah had trained as a shipwright and had no difficulty in immediately finding employment with Harris and Company. By 1865, he was working for himself at a shipyard located in South Brisbane near the end of Tribune Street.
Elijah’s work was in demand and he employed up to 20 men at his boatyard. Early in 1865, George Harris asked him to perform some repairs and modifications to the Ghost. As is so often the case, the lack of a written contract, fixed scope of work and quoted cost led to problems. It appears that Harris thought of new ideas, vaguely described, as the work progressed and the price was not discussed. For example, the stern was converted from a pointed to an elliptical shape, a skylight fitted, the hull sheeted with cedar and a copper lining fitted. Also, the rough manner in which she had been constructed necessitated major repairs. A new keel was fitted.
When the work was completed, Monk presented Harris with a bill for £1,035, a colossal sum for a schooner worth perhaps £400, and that amount was all Harris was prepared to pay. Elijah took Harris to court in May of 1866. After hearing the testimony of numerous experts regarding the amount and quality of work done, Elijah was awarded just £147 extra, leaving him well out of pocket.
Elijah continued to gain important contracts and on a July evening of 1866, Emily christened what was at that time the largest vessel to be built in Queensland. The “Lilly”, which was also designed by Elijah, was a lightship to be stationed in Keppel Bay to assist the growing maritime traffic to Rockhampton. She was described as being 70 feet (21 metres) long, with a beam of 18 feet 6 inches ( 5.6 metres) and displaced 103 tons. The keel was made from a single solid piece of timber some 70 feet (21 metres) long.
However in September of 1866, Elijah was declared insolvent and no doubt his losses working on the Ghost contributed to this sad result. He failed to appear at several public insolvency sittings and the bailiff was called in to confiscate his property. An investigation revealed that early in the month, Emily had left home and not returned. In the following days, Elijah had sold most of the household chattels. At a different bank to the one where he owed money on promissory notes and had a mortgage, he cashed a cheque for £440 in gold sovereigns and also left. He had not been seen since.
There was little left to pay his debts of around £600 and the Commercial Bank sold the Monk’s small mortgaged residential block on Vulture Street for £50. Emily and Elijah probably started life in another Australian colony under assumed names.
Hamlet’s Ghost’s Brisbane years
The Ghost appears from time to time in newspaper reports and competed in several regattas. The year 1866 saw a near tragic event. She was being towed down river by the steamer “Settler” with Harris and a group of friends on board, including Robert Herbert, the colony’s first Premier. She was towed too close to an anchored ship and its mainyard tore down all the yacht’s masts and spars, which crashed onto the deck. Luckily Harris and his guests were downstairs having lunch and the steersman managed to dive for cover.
“Hamlet’s Ghost” was usually moored near Newstead, Harris’ home on the river, and was decorated for important events. In January of 1868, the Bowen family departed Brisbane after 8 years as the first occupants of Government House. She was handsomely decorated to farewell the Bowens as they made their way down river.
Just a month later, Brisbane had its first royal visit with the arrival of Prince Albert, Duke of Edinburgh and the second son of Queen Victoria. The Duke was a Captain in the Royal Navy and his command, HMS Galatea, was on a world cruise. A banner with the message “Welcome to the Sailor Prince” worked in flowers was mounted on the Ghost. She had been fitted with 4 miniature cannons which were fired in a salute as the Prince passed.
But by now her time in Brisbane was coming to an end.
Count Von Attems
Brisbane society must have thought it was finally becoming part of the wider world when not 4 months after the royal visit, another aristocratic visitor arrived. This was the young, dashing and fabulously wealthy Count Von Attems who was reputedly a relative of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor, Franz Josef I.
He had arrived from London via Sydney, where he was widely feted by society. His generosity with tips was astounding, he showered lady friends with gifts and made a large donation to the building fund for St. Mary’s Catholic Cathedral. The original church had burnt down three years earlier.
He was also the recipient of enthusiastic hospitality in Brisbane. Typical was a champagne lunch at Montpelier House attended by many of the local elite, where squatter and Minister for Public Works Arthur Hodgson, made a gushing speech praising the Count.
Von Attems took a liking to the Ghost, probably after being a guest onboard, and had the idea of taking a cruise up the coast as far as Cleveland Bay, where the settlement that would become Townsville had recently been founded. Harris agreed to sell him the yacht for £500.
The young aristocrat set about recruiting a crew to accompany him on his cruise, including a captain, four sailors, cook and steward, as well as his personal valet. Shortly after, he and his new crew took the yacht out for a day trip in Moreton Bay. The wind was fitful, but the Government steamer “Kate” gave them a tow downstream. The Count sent several bottles of champagne to the captain in thanks.
Von Attems was keen to try out the miniature cannons, but through mishandling he managed to receive burns to the face. Back at his his rooms at the Queen’s Hotel, a bevy of doctors determined that his injuries weren’t serious.
The count’s cruise
A few days later, the Count was ready to leave, having hosted a sumptuous dinner for a group of local dignitaries in thanks for their hospitality. He had some disagreements with several of the crew he had hired after suggesting that he might extend his cruise to New Caledonia or Fiji. They believed that the small yacht was unsuitable for ocean voyages. Having replaced them, he departed from Brisbane on July 7th, 1868. After a number of stops, they reached Somerset at the tip of Cape York.
Captain William Howes, who commanded the Ghost, had become very suspicious of the Count. He behaved in a strange manner, threatening the crew with flogging and unconvincingly talked of an Austrian man-of-war which was to pick him up at an unspecified location. Howes overheard a conversation between Von Attems and his valet in French in which he thought they discussed killing him and throwing his body overboard.
Below : Captain William Howes and John Jardine.
The police magistrate at Somerset was John Jardine. When Howes told him of his suspicions and suggested that Jardine arrest the Count and his valet, he was almost arrested himself. Von Attems ordered the crew to put the Captain in irons and they refused, provoking a crisis on board with revolvers drawn. After Jardine’s intervention, Howes and the steward left the yacht and the cruise continued north to what was then the Dutch East Indies.
Things fall apart
On the 14th of August, Queensland’s second governor Samuel Blackall and his family arrived from their previous posting at Sierra Leone in Africa. The story retold over the years is that when it was mentioned to Blackall that he had just missed meeting his friend the Count Von Attems, who had also spent time in Sierra Leone, it came as quite a surprise to Blackall as he had attended the funeral of the Count. On being shown a photographic visiting card of the “Count”, he recognised him as his deceased friend’s valet.
There is no contemporary account that I could find of this tale, and the news of a fraudulent count reached Sydney via the mail from London the week before. In one of a series of eloquently written letters published in the Straits Times, whilst admitting to being a fraudster, the fake count denies that he was the valet of the real Von Attems and that he had stolen anything from him. “Von Attems” further mentions how in Queensland he was in constant dread of detection, fearing that the mail would arrive from Europe, revealing his identity.
The swindler, whose real name was Kurt Oswald Schmalz, had either stolen Von Attems’ books, private papers and family photographs after his death in Sierra Leone or made convincing forgeries of the papers. Having convinced the Austrian consul in Sydney of his bona-fides, he was readily advanced substantial amounts of money by various parties in return for worthless forged bills of exchange drawn on the Anglo-Australian Bank.
Many trusting souls were left well out of pocket. The Ghost’s crew received no pay, causing much distress to them and their families. One crew member, Bill Henry, managed to get back to Brisbane from Java after months of difficulty, arriving penniless and in rags. George Harris had insisted on being paid in cash for “Hamlet’s Ghost” and so was one of the few beneficiaries of the events.
In Brisbane, the Prussian consul, in the spirit of German reunification, offered to manage the fake Count’s Brisbane debts which according to one source amounted to some £2,000. This turned out to be a very embarrassing decision as the debtors remained unpaid.
A warrant was issued for Schmalz’s arrest. The steamer “Captain Cook”, with police on board, arrived from Townsville just 2 days too late at Somerset.
Von Attems unmasked
In August, Hamlet’s Ghost arrived at Surabaya in Java. Schmalz was soon in trouble. He convinced local businessmen to exchange cash for his forged bank bills. When they were sent to the Rotterdam Bank office in Batavia (now Jakarta), they were identified as being similar to ones fraudulently tendered in Amsterdam by a Count Von Schonborn, another of his aliases, earlier that year. Schmalz soon was forced to admit his real identity and gave a full confession to the Dutch authorities.
Hamlet’s Ghost was impounded and reportedly sold at public auction for 2,500 guilders. By 1870 she was owned by Mr Loeteliep, the Resident at Pekalognan who used her as a pleasure boat.
Kurt Oswald Schmalz was born in Pirna, Saxony and after a commercial education began work in Trieste, then a major Austro-Hungarian port. After incurring large debts, he left for the USA where he claimed to have served as a Captain in the Massachusetts 2nd Cavalry in the Civil War. There is indeed a record of a Curt Schmalz serving in this regiment, but as a private.
Then followed a period of increasing deception as he travelled around South America, the USA , Europe and Africa using at least 10 pseudonyms, largely posing as a German or Austrian nobleman. In London he acquired equipment that enabled him to forge more convincing bank bills and from there he travelled to Australia.
After Schmalz had been in prison in Surabaya awaiting trial for 12 months, he escaped when spending time in hospital. He managed to reach Pamekasan on the island of Madura, posing as an American naval officer, before he was recaptured. A correspondent to the Straits Times later reported that as a result, he was being subjected to “preventative imprisonment” and that he had only one set of clothing which he washed himself once a week although he was given no soap. He was sharing a small hot cell with two others and had no shoes, bed or bed clothes.
His trial was finally held in October of 1870 and he was sentenced to six and a half years. The High Court on appeal by the prosecution increased the sentence to ten and a half years. Schmalz was by that stage 27 years old, having commenced his career as a con man at around 20 years of age. After his sentencing, his conditions seems to have improved.
In 1869, Schmalz wrote a booklet describing his escape from prison and recapture, and the following year published another about his exploits in Australia, along with a fanciful account of the origins of Hamlet’s Ghost. It’s impossible now to separate fact from fiction but whilst not denying his fraudulent activities, in Schmalz’s letters to the Straits Times he claims that these were balanced by useful activity such as exploring the Ucalyi River in Peru as the “Count Von Auersperg” using, of course, fraudulently obtained funds.
The “Count” made the news back in Australia briefly in 1872 when he sent pairs of shoes he had made in prison to members of the Australian Club in Sydney. Schmaltz was released penniless from jail early in 1879, but by 1880 was running a successful refreshment house in Samarang, which was a major port in the colonial era. The “Count” possibly lived out much or all of his life on Java, as elsewhere he was still wanted for his multifarious swindling activities.
The story gradually faded from memory over the years but from the 1930s, regular newspaper articles bought Hamlet’s Ghost back from the dead until the 1950s. Recently an excellent book on the “Prince of Denmark” was written by David Collin that includes the story of the “Hamlet’s Ghost”.
“Kirkcudbright’s Prince of Denmark and her voyages in the South Seas” David R. Collins 2013