Royal Reels: Gambling


The front of this unpretentious cover has nothing to do with the story that will unfold. It was sent from the G.P.O. Adelaide on November 18, 1896 with two South Australia stamps, the orange 2d and the ½d brown, a Mr. Kenton in Brooklyn New York (Fig 1).

It was the flap on the reverse that caught my attention, for it had a printed ‘John James Virgo, Gen. Sec., Young Men’s Christian Association, of Adelaide Incorporated, plus a Brooklyn reception postmark dated Dec 24/ 4 30 AM/ 96 (Figure 2).

‘Jack’ Virgo was born on 22 April 1865 at Glenelg, Adelaide, eldest of eight children of Caleb Virgo, carpenter, and his wife Mary, née Swan. Leaving Glenelg Grammar School, Jack worked as a clerk and joined the South Australian Literary Societies’ Union. On 7 November 1886 in Adelaide he married Lucy Stapleton Crabb (d.1915) and they had a daughter and three sons. He became acting secretary of the Adelaide Young Men’s Christian Association and following the secretary’s conviction for embezzling association funds, Virgo was confirmed in the position in 1887. Membership and activities increased, and he established the Our Boys’ Institute as a separate branch and developed educational and sporting programs with Christian emphases. He also began the famous Sunday-night Theatre Royal evangelical services which attracted between one and two thousand people. Virgo conducted the choir and led the singing in a fine baritone voice, and as a practiced elocutionist, he delivered a spiritual message as the evening’s climax.

His muscular Christianity suited the Y.M.C.A., and he had a gregarious nature and a gentle tolerance. In 1894 he attended the jubilee international Y.M.C.A. conference in London and in 1900 became secretary of the Australasian Union of Y.M.C.A.s. In 1903 he was appointed secretary of the Y.M.C.A., Sydney. Its new premises were extensive, with a large gymnasium (‘build the man’ was one of his mottoes), concert hall, accommodation, library and clubrooms. Virgo soon raised £15,000 to repay the association’s debt. He promoted a fourfold program involving physical, social, educational and spiritual activities, instituted Sunday night evangelical meetings and took part in Christian crusades.

Virgo became general secretary of the London Central Y.M.C.A. in 1911. As national field secretary during World War I, he raised massive funds for the war effort and addressed a total of some two million soldiers on the Western Front. Two of his sons had enlisted, and 1918 he was appointed a C.B.E., and the next year he became the English representative on the World’s Alliance of Y.M.C.A.s., from which he retired in 1925.

On 12 October 1920 in the parish church of St Michael, Handsworth, Virgo married Emmeline Dorothy Aston, a clergyman’s daughter. They lived in the country where he wrote his memoirs, 50 Years of Fishing for Men (1930). He became a corporator of the International Young Men’s Christian Association College at Springfield, Massachusetts, U.S.A. Wearing a homburg, Jack traveled widely, often revisiting Australia; at 70, on his tenth world tour, he delivered 101 speeches in 80 days. In Melbourne he declared: ‘There is not enough of real Christianity ..there is too much of the mushy type. Too much flowery beds of ease and singing oneself away to everlasting bliss, and too little laying hold on life”. Survived by his wife, Virgo died on 2 August 1956 at Parkstone, Dorset. His estate was sworn for probate at £9016.

This paper was totally derived from the on-line Australian Dictionary of Biography.