Royal Reels: Gambling


More than one year ago the first cover was seen addressed to B.H. Alston in Melbourne, and this was followed in short order by an interesting letter which Alston wrote to Dr. Max Nordau, totally irrelevant to this cover, dated 30 years later.   Then further research was quite unrewarding and my occasional return to researching Alston produced no more information.  The cover was put on the ‘back burner’ and a proposed paper was destined to be discarded when I came across a second cover, which piqued my interest again.

The first cover originated in England and it had 2 copies of the 1d brick red QV and the 6d grey QV postmarked with the duplex MIDDLEBOROUGH/ C/ NO 19/ 78 with the ‘946′ barred numeral obliterator.  It was addressed to B.H. Alston, 25 Bourke Street West, Melbourne, Victoria (at top left), Australia.  The cover was taxed with an unusually figured handstamp: DEFICIENT POSTAGE 8d)/ FINE______6d/ ½, as well as an oval ½/ MORE TO PAY handstamp .  The reverse of the cover was not seen (Figure 1).

A copy of a letter with a heading B.H. Altson, Tobacconist, Importer of High Class Havana Cigars, & Egyptian Cigarettes, Corner of Collins & Elizabeth St., TEL. 2076, Melbourne, June 17 1908, was the next item to be found.   It was addressed to Dr. Max Nordau, 8 Rue Léonie Paris.   Alston introduced himself as Vice President of the Zionist Society in Melbourne and stated that he will be stepping up to the Presidency.  He made the request that Nordau should write a message that could be read at meetings to Jews in Australian cities, in order to stimulate their waning interest in Zionism.  Alston’s name had a typographical error as D.H. Altson.  The full text of Alston’s request is found in Figure 2.

Max Nordau was born in Pest, Hungary, the son of a Rabbi in 1849.  He was educated in the   Jewish tradition, but he drifted away from the Jewish community.  He worked as a journalist, but he decided to study medicine and in 1880 he practiced in Paris.  However it was in the literary field that he made a name for himself.  Nordau’s conversion to Zionism was due to the rising tide of anti-Semitism and a meeting with Theodor Herzl, who convinced him of the Jewish State idea.  At the first Zionist Congress, Nordau gave the opening speech which became a tradition at later Congresses.  Following Herzl’s death he was offered the presidency of the World Zionist Organization, which he declined.  Later he distanced himself from the Zionist movement, and he died in 1923 in Paris.

The finding of the second cover dated 37 years later than the first, was the impetus to research Altson again.  It was a registered cover with a red Rabaul/ Deutsch-Neuguinea label with a block of four blue 2½d N. W./ PACIFIC/ ISLANDS overprint on the ‘Roo’ stamps, and they were postmarked RABAUL/ 16 NO 15.  There was a faint blue straight-line ‘PASSED-BY-CENSOR handstamp diagonally at lower right.   It was addressed to Mr. B.H. Altson, Collins Street, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia.   The reverse had an illegible date in a REGISTERED/ SYDNEY N.S.W postmark (Figure 3).

I can’t say that the information highway opened up with a profusion of data on Altson, but ‘flesh was placed on the bare bones’.  The first surprise was the finding of another copy of the very same June 17 1908 letter, but this copy had the blue insignia of Australia’s first Governor-General, with the following underneath:   B.H. ALTSON TOBACCONIST/ MELBOURNE/ BY SPECIAL APPOINTMENT/ TO HIS EXCELLENCY THE/ RIGHT HONOURABLE / THE EARL OF HOPETOUN P.C., K.T. G.C.M.G./ GOVERNOR GENERAL.  This was followed by advertising information:   Sole agent for T.C. Williams & Co’s Richmond VA White Rose Aromatic Tobacco (&) “Gourdoulis” Egyptian Cigarettes (Figure 4).

A view of the B.H. Altson Tobacconist company, corner of Collins and Elizabeth  Streets, Melbourne in the 1890s was found with a short description:   This was the original building that housed B.H. Altson’s tobacco business, and according to the family, ‘(it) was the first brick building in Melbourne.  It was replaced by a new building in 1903′.   There was a B.H. Altson’s Tobacconists on this site for about 86 years.   The owner Barnett Hyman Alston passed the business on to his son, Charles Alston.  A picture of this store on the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets is seen in Figure 5.

The National Library of Australia’s scans of Australian colonial newspapers (by googling NLA Beta) produced a clue as to the origins of B.H. Altson, as in the Argus, Melbourne, Monday 22 May 1916:   “The death of Mr. Isaac Altson….of Fitzroy (Melbourne) removes from Australian Jewry one of the most honoured members.  Mr. Altson was born in Russia, settled in Yorkshire England and left for Australia in 1888…. Deeply versed in Hebrew and Talmudic learning, intensely patriotic …. a truly pious Jew, won the respect and esteem of all who knew him.  He was formally president of the East Melbourne Hebrew Congregation and a member of the … Jewish Philanthropic Society.  Mr Altson leaves a widow (Esther) and nine children including Mr. B.H. Altson of Collins St. Melbourne and Messrs. (?) and Meyer Altson, both of whom won scholarships at the Melbourne National Art Gallery, and are now in London.  Mr. David Alston , formerly of Bourke street is the surviving brother.”  The 2 artist brothers of B.H. Alston have been identified as Abbey and Daniel Meyer Alston, both born in Middlesborough, England, and both migrated to Melbourne the same year as B.H. Alston, in 1888.

The Argus (Melbourne) on 21 February 1945 had a death notice for Barnett Hyman Alston, at his residence of ‘Apsley’, 17 Robe St., St. Kilda (Melbourne), beloved husband of Rose, and father of seven children (one deceased) and Charles was listed last and presumably was the youngest, who succeeded his father in the family business.   Barnett Hyman Alston died at the age of 85 years.  Additional information about Alston was that he was a Justice of the Peace, a Returning Officer for the East Melbourne election and one could buy tickets for various sorting events at his tobacconist store.  There is a long history of the block of land where the store was located, prior to Alston’s acquisition of the lease in 1876.  B. H. Alston was a former president of the Retail Tobacconists’ Association and was at the forefront of ‘waging war’ on illicit price cutting firms selling cheap tobacco.  An example of one of his advertisements with this theme is seen in the Argus Melbourne of 25 August 1932 (Figure 6). 

Addendum (October 2010):  The original paper was written in June 2009, and more than a year later I have learnt that he was a philatelist.  In retrospect the cover from North West Pacific Islands seen in Figure 3 should have alerted me to this possibility.  He joined the Philatelic Society of Victoria in 1913, and he held several positions in the Society , including Vice-President in 1918, President in 1918-1919 and was a Committee member up to at least 1922-23.                   

Addendum (December 2010):  I was surprised that I found an entry in one of my own books “The Land Boomers” by Michael Cannon, a wonderful resource on the Boom Period in the Colony of Victoria, about B.H. Altson on page 254, which gave information that had not been hinted at elsewhere.  This information was as follows:

“…two boom companies…lost large amounts for the partnership: The La Rose Land Co. Ltd and the Heart of Preston Land Co. Ltd…..La Rose was incorporated in 1888 with capital of £64,000, to buy from Barnett Hyman Altson, the well-known city tobacconist, 135 acres of land in the Parish of Jika Jika.  Altson’s title to the land was converted into 16,000 £1 shares in the company.  After its liquidation in 1892, Altson got back precisely £18. 13s. 8d. as his first and final dividend, equivalent to approximately 2s. 9d. per acre.”  Other investors in the company did not suffer as much…”(Altson went bankrupt in 1896 with £9,000 deficiency in his estate.  In his schedule he disclosed that he had lost £13,000 in share deals connected with the Real Estate Bank, Northern Railway Co., etc. as well as the disastrous La Rose episode)”.