The Adventures and Misadventures
of Aub Smithson
It can be surmised that Harold Aubrey Smithson hankered for adventure. Harold Aubrey, or Aub as he was called, was the third son of Sydney Smithson and a grandson of Thomas Smithson, who had brought his Smithson family from Leeds to New South Wales, Australia, in 1852. Aub was born on 8 June 1880 at Newtown, NSW, and grew up in a family very familiar with horses. His grandfather, Thomas Smithson, was a dedicated organiser of horse racing. His father, Sydney, owned a horse-drawn van and initially operated a carrying business with his brother, John George Smithson, at Newtown and Marrickville. In 1903, Sydney became a partner in the Cooperative Carrying Company. For his part, Aub was working as a country product storekeeper when adventure on horseback beckoned.
Aub and the Boer War
In October 1899, the Dutch-South African (Boer) republics: the South African Republic and the Orange Free State, declared war on Britain. It was the culmination of decades of manoeuvring by the Boers to maintain their independence and the British to gain control of resource-rich Boer lands. The Australian colonies were ready to support Britain militarily even before the outbreak of war and the first contingents arrived in South Africa shortly after the British suffered a series of defeats at the hands of the Boers in 1899. Despite these early victories, the Boers soon lost ground to reinforced British conventional forces. Although the Boers were proclaimed to have been defeated in 1900, the Boer forces remained intact and adopted guerrilla tactics. The British responded by prosecuting a ruthless strategy of ‘scorched earth’ and civilian internment in concentration camps to cut the Boer commandos off from supplies and support. The organisation of the Australian commitment to the war also changed. In January 1901, the Australian colonies federated to form the Commonwealth of Australia, and the new nation began to send a series of Australian Commonwealth Horse contingents to South Africa. Australian mounted units were particularly useful in responding to the threat posed by Boer mounted commandos.
In April 1902, Aub Smithson joined the 20,000 other Australians who enlisted to fight the Boers and was assigned to A Squadron of the 5th Battalion, Australian Commonwealth Horse. Aub’s ability to work with horses was quickly recognised. He was among 25 soldiers who were given the task of loading 147 horses aboard the steamer Menelaus in Sydney. The Australian Town and Country Journal carried photographs of the loading process and of the troops involved.1 Under the command of Lieutenant J. D. Bathgate, Aub’s detachment and horses sailed from Millers Point, Sydney, on 10 May 1902 to Melbourne, where additional men and horses were loaded. They sailed on to Durban, Natal, South Africa.2 The rest of the battalion, under the command of James William Macarthur-Onslow, sailed on 23 May 1902 aboard the Colombian.3
The Menelaus arrived in Durban on 13 June – a fortnight after the war had ended. The balance of the Battalion arrived on 18 June. Having missed the war, the 5th Battalion re-embarked at Durban on 1 July and returned to Australia. The unit was disbanded in August. But Aub Smithson was not among them.
Trooper Aub Smithson
Aub was one of a number of Australians who remained in South Africa at the end of the war.4 One can imagine that, after travelling all the way to South Africa, Aub would be reluctant to return to the routine of his previous life having seen nothing of adventure or this new country. As a demobilised Australian mounted infantryman, Aub found service with the South African Constabulary on 17 July 1902 (his attestation was dated 21 July).
The South African Constabulary (SAC) had been formed by the British government in September 1900 to provide a mounted police force for the Transvaal after the end of hostilities. Its first Inspector-General was Major-General Robert Baden-Powell, later the founder of the worldwide Scout Movement. The SAC drew recruits primarily from Canada, Australia and Britain. However, expectations of peace were not realised when the Boers turned from a conventional military strategy to guerrilla warfare. As a result, the SAC performed military duties until the end of the war in 1902. At the signing of the peace on 31 May 1902, the SAC moved quickly to provide a police force over the former Boer territories.5
Aub was assigned according to his expertise and he found himself working as a 3/C trooper storeman in B Division, SAC. By December 1902, Aub left the stores. It appears that he served as a trooper in No.2 Troop in the sub-district of Waterburg in the far north-east of South Africa. Aub resigned from the SAC in March 1903 and later informed the SAC that he needed to take up a promised civil position as soon as possible. Despite this, he was transferred to No.3 Mobile Troop at Pretoria and it took some time to leave the SAC. His service record indicates that he was reassigned as a storeman on 9 July 1903 and was discharged on 28 July.6
The Shadowy Years
Mystery surrounds much of Aub’s life in South Africa from 1903 to 1920. What is known is that he married Elizabeth May Treharne in Witbank, Transvaal, in August 1913. Witbank, now renamed eMalahleni, was developing as a coal-mining centre after the Boer War and it is probable that Aub had been offered employment in the town in 1903.7 Unfortunately, Aub’s marriage did not last. He left in 1914 and they divorced sometime around 1918, leaving two children in the care of Elizabeth.8
Aub left Witbank after the breakup of his marriage and relocated to Durban in Natal Province, although he spent some time in Portuguese Mozambique. He married Idaho Delaware Hamilton on 19 January 1920 in Durban. Details of this relationship were publicly revealed by Aub in March 1920. It was largely a fabrication designed to protect his new family. In a police interview, Aub stated that Idaho (or Ida, as she came to be known in Australia) had been previously married and had brought a young son to their marriage. Ida had not, in fact, been previously married. She had been baptised in the Orange Free State as Delaware Idaho Hamilton in 1895 and Aub was the father of Ida’s child, born in 1915, while he was still married to Elizabeth.
At the time of his remarriage, Aub was working as a coaling foreman on the Durban docks. It probably was in keeping with his work experience at Witbank. It also placed him in a good position to engage in activities that could earn him some extra money. Instead, these would bring his residence in South Africa to a sudden end.
Aub the Smuggler
Aub Smithson resurfaces in historical documents in 1920 in spectacular fashion. On 27 March 1920, Aub, Ida and their young son arrived in Adelaide, South Australia, aboard the steamer Anchises. Police boarded the Anchises and promptly arrested Aub. He was charged with ‘having stolen from South Africa, a quantity of gold coin and thus committed a felony, punishable by imprisonment for 12 months’.9
From 29 March, Aub was the subject of a series of sensational reports published in national and international newspapers.10 Initially, he was identified as Henry Smithson and newspapers only corrected this mistake some ten days later (some took even longer). Some reports valued the gold allegedly stolen at £14,000, others at £60,000; and one newspaper confused the details of the story so thoroughly that it substantially undervalued a South African sovereign at 15 Indian rupees.11 According to some newspapers, Aub had the gold in Durban, while others had him taking the gold aboard the Anchises.12 Aub was characterised as a South African, a visitor from South Africa, a thief, a swindler, a confidence-trickster, a dock worker and, according to early reports reaching the South African authorities, a corrupt customs officer.13 However, some papers resisted the wave of sensationalism and began to paint a far clearer picture of what had actually happened to Aub and what he had done, particularly so once Aub’s trial began.
Aub had become involved in gold smuggling. The smuggling of gold from South Africa had reached alarming proportions during 1920. South Africa’s currency was linked to the value of gold, yet the value of its paper currency had depreciated internationally. As a result, gold bought in South Africa with South African paper currency could be sold at a substantial profit outside of South Africa, but only if it were smuggled out of the country.14 The export of more than £5 worth of gold from South Africa was illegal. In these circumstances, smuggling flourished, corruption spread and Aub allowed himself to be caught up in it.
Aub’s role in a smuggling operation would begin after Indian smuggling syndicates had purchased South African gold sovereigns inside South Africa. Because Indians were commonly involved in gold smuggling, Aub, being a European, was subject to less suspicion. As a coaling foreman on the docks, he would have access to ships and restricted areas. Aub was employed to convey the gold coins to Indian travellers on board ships, with the connivance of a corrupt customs officer named Boyd. The Indians would smuggle the coins into India and make about 75% profit for the smuggling syndicates. As his payment, Aub received treasury notes to the value of 15 rupees per gold sovereign.
This racket went terribly wrong in 1920. In his last transaction, Aub took possession of £14,000 worth of gold to pass on to four different Indian men. He also had receipts made up for about £8,500 worth of the gold to be signed once it had been delivered; receipts had not been made out for another £6,000 worth of gold. At some point, Aub left his room and someone ‘got in and stole the lot’.
When Aub returned to his room and found that the gold had been stolen, he immediately recognised that he and his family were in danger from the smuggling syndicate. Aub gathered up his wife and child and fled the country for Australia. Aub’s fears were not unfounded. A year earlier, newspapers had reported that the body of a Russian jeweller and illicit gold dealer had been found. He had been robbed and murdered by a group of fellow illicit gold dealers. These reports also reflected on the fact that there had been several other murders of Europeans in Capetown that remained unsolved.15
As Aub and his family were en route to Australia aboard the Anchises, the South African authorities were informed of ‘a European who … gained the confidence of a number of Indians who … entrusted him with gold to the value of £60,000 for transmission to India’.16 The authorities sent a provisional warrant by cable to the police at Adelaide, the Anchises’ next port of call, for Aub’s arrest for theft.
Aub under Arrest
Upon his arrival at Adelaide, the police boarded the steamer and informed Aub of the charge against him, then cautioned and questioned him. Aub was free with his answers, providing a false story about his and Ida’s past, but admitting to having engaged in smuggling and explaining the loss of the gold and his flight. When informed that his cabin was to be searched, Aub was unconcerned and declared the money and documents that were in his possession: £700 bank draft in his name; £1000 in his wife’s name, as well as £200 in notes in her possession; and the unsigned receipts for the gold to be delivered to the Indians. Although the amount of money in Ida’s possession is suspicious, Ida was adamant some years later that the money was hers and not Aub’s.
Aub appeared in court on 29 March 1920 and was described as ‘a man of alert demeanour’.17 At the end of the hearing, he was remanded for four days to allow the police to communicate with the South African authorities, who were later reported as organising a police escort to bring Aub back to South Africa were he to be remanded to that country.18 The Smithsons’ money was held by the police and Aub was refused bail.
Communicating with the South African authorities proved extremely difficult. It would appear that the South Africans were busy coming to grips with what exactly had happened and began to shift their investigation from what seemed a case of theft to one of smuggling. It can also be assumed that when the police investigation began to uncover the wider conspiracy involved, the smugglers faced prosecution themselves and pulled back from pressing charges against their go-between, Aub. The scale of Aub’s involvement in gold smuggling became plain on the 17 April 1920, when the Secretary of the Government of India informed the Office of the Governor-General of South Africa that
customs officers, Bombay, have evidence that the greater part of the gold brought on board at Durban to be smuggled into India is handled by two customs officers, Boyd and Smithson, latter of whom has absconded, it is understood, to Australia.19
On the 7 May, the South African government requested that the evidence possessed by the Bombay customs officers be forwarded to them. Boyd became the South African authorities’ prime target once they became aware that Aub Smithson was not a customs officer.20
Meanwhile, back in South Australia at Aub’s next hearing on 1 April 1920, no evidence had been received from South Africa. Aub’s legal representative questioned the legality of Aub’s arrest and the withholding of his money. Aub was successful in obtaining bail of £1000, but was unable to find two persons in Adelaide able to provide sureties of £500. On his next appearance in court, on 7 April, Aub was granted bail of £1000 with a single surety of £1000, but still no evidence had been received from South Africa.21 Nor had word been received from South Africa at Aub’s next hearing on 14 April. The magistrate was becoming impatient, remarking that ‘This man can’t be held week after week’; and Aub’s legal representative pressed the point:
My client’s wife and her child are in Sydney. Smithson has been held here by the Court, and is unable to get any work. He is just hanging around, and wasting time doing nothing. The prosecution have had time to communicate with South Africa by cable. I think that if something definite is going to be done or not my friend [E. M. Millhouse, of the Crown Law Office] should intimate so to the court.22
By this time, Aub’s case had achieved notoriety across Australia as the ‘South African Gold Case’. At Aub’s next hearing on 21 April 1920, the prosecution reported that the South African authorities ‘had communicated with Sydney and Melbourne, and the answers were that the prosecution had no evidence to offer’.23 The magistrate accordingly dismissed the case and discharged Aub.
Aub has done with Adventure
After being discharged, Aub finally reached Sydney. His lifestyle provided proof that he obtained no benefit from the missing £14,000 worth of gold. By 1922, Aub and his family took up residence at a modest suburban address in Lakemba. By 1930, during the Great Depression, Aub and Ida had moved to Mangerton, Wollongong, where Aub found work as a labourer. In 1933, the electoral roll recorded only Ida living at Wollongong – Aub may have moved for work. By the late 1930s, Aub and Ida had moved to Clyde, Sydney. Aub returned to the country produce industry and worked for the Australian Fertilizer Company at Rydalmere as a works manager. Aub maintained his interest in horses and horse racing. Family tradition has it that Aub owned a stable of trotting horses.
In January 1939, a pile of sacks containing bone dust fell on Aub, breaking his leg and causing internal injuries. Aub was taken to nearby Auburn hospital where he died on 7 January.24