Royal Reels: Gambling


This registered cover shows the full set of the Duke and Duchess of Gloucester stamps which were issued on 19 Feb 1945. It was postmarked G.P.O. SYDNEY/ R.C.S./ 5-P 20 FE 45/ 1/ N.S.W. AUST. There is no registration label, but the blue crossed lines front and reverse clearly show it was registered.. The cover is addressed to Lt: T.B. Harrop./ R.N.V.R./ R.N.O.Q. (Petty’s Hotel)/ York Street. Sydney./ N.S.W. Australia (Fig. 1).

The reverse is interesting as it has a Shield with CANADIAN PACIFIC/ STEAMSHIP/ LINE and in the small circle, the words WORLDS/ GREATEST/ TRAVEL/ SYSTEM in print requiring a magnifying glass to read. In the lower left corner is a ‘PRINTED IN ENGLAND’ and there is an ‘IF UNDELIVERED PLEASE RETURN TO’ filled in with the same LT. T.B. HARROP RNVR/ R.N.O.Q. (PETTY’S HOTEL)/ SYDNEY (Figure 2).

Some additional information about three of the abbreviations is in order. The R.C.S./ 1 denotes the Receiving Section of the General Post Office. This postmark is known used from 17 June 1940 to 13 August 1963. The explanation given for its use was: “This section used its datestamp on such items as underpaid mail or other mail needing special attention. In later periods the (date)stamps were used to correct date errors on franked mail”.

The two abbreviations in the address showed that Harrop was a member of the Royal Navy Volunteer Reserve, and he was quartered at Petty’s Hotel which was being used as the Royal Navy Officers’ Quarters. Although other Commonwealth members served in the RNVR during WW II, it is a safer bet to suggest that he was an Englishman on account of his over-addressed envelope that was published in England, and that his cover was one day late as a first day cover.

I bought this cover specifically with the intent of learning something about the address, rather than the addressee, who has not been identified. I lived in Sydney in 1945, yet I could not recall Petty’s Hotel, either pre- or post-war, yet I subsequently learnt that I knew the historic building at a somewhat later time, when it was under a different name, as well as being acquainted professionally with one of its famous occupants.

The first mention of this building site was found in an obituary of Dr. Robert J. Walsh (a future player in this story). “1 York Street originally the home of Dr. Dunmore Lang and then for over a century Petty’s Hotel”. This statement was confirmed by ‘The Sydney Morning Herald’ of 12 July 1950 which stated that “the hotel was originally the home of John Dunmore Lang, Sydney’s most famous Presbyterian minister in colonial days, who supervised the building of Scots Church nearby. He sold his house for £1,350 in 1832 to a hotel-keeper (William) Cummings. The hotel was bought 4 years later by Thomas Petty, who formerly had been a valet”. Lang (1799-1878) was a remarkable Scotsman who had a glorious career in Australia after first arriving in 1831 , and the least of his accomplishments was in a parliamentary career spanning 1843-1869. In a few words he was a “Preacher, politician, patriot” (Figure 3).

Petty’s Hotel in York Street was always spoken of in glowing terms. It was “acknowledged in the late nineteenth century to hold the premier position as the aristocratic hotel and select resort in Sydney”. An awed writer in Cosmos said: “At Petty’s the old and the new are locked in close embrace. Solid and massive in structure, with a constant regard to convenience and comfort, it is also the home of all that is modern in art, marvelous in science, and magnificent in upholstery.” The building was large, fronting York, Clarence and Jamieson streets (Figure 4).

Coming to the time of WW II and the present cover, things changed dramatically in regards to its usual patronage of rich squatters and their families. The same ‘SMH’ article previously quoted stated: “In 1944 it was taken over for five months as a rehabilitation centre by the U.S. Navy Air Arm; later it was used as officers’ quarters by the Royal Navy”.

After more than a century of operation, “prospective buyers failed to reach the vendor’s reserve when (it) was put up for sale at public auction yesterday. The highest bid was £120,000. The reserve price was not disclosed. (‘SMH’ 4 May 1950)”. However on 11 July 1950, the ‘SMH’ headlined “PETTY’S SOLD/ RED CROSS PURCHASE. The N.S.W. Division of the Red Cross has bought Petty’s Hotel for use as blood transfusion service headquarters and laboratories…..and has agreed to pay £180,000”.

The surprising thing about the ‘SMH’ article is that they never mentioned the name of Dr. Robert John Walsh (1917-1983), the guiding force as the first Director of the Red Cross Transfusion Service in Sydney (1946-66). He was equally famous in the medical and scientific professions as Lang was in his professional fields. Born in Brisbane, his entire medical life was spent in Sydney and at the early age of 24 he became the medical officer to the Red Cross Society. (Doctor Major) “Bob” Walsh was largely responsible for the transfusion services in Australia during WW II and he was active in getting supplies of blood products to allied forces in the Pacific region. In March of 1973 he became Dean of Medicine at the new medical school at the University of N.S.W., a position he held until his retirement in January 1982 (Figure 5).

Thus my initial curiosity about a fairly ordinary second day cover led to the finding of two great Australians and one remarkable building. What a pity I could not obtain information about the sender-recipient of the cover.

I am indebted to Julie Wood, e-Librarian at the State Library of N.S.W. for the quantity and quality of information that she was able to provide on Petty’s Hotel.