Royal Reels: Gambling


Three covers appeared on eBay in August 2003, two almost identical and addressed to Jeofry in 1931 to his home, and one addressed in 1930 to A.W. Courtney-Pratt (later proven to be his father) at his place of work in Hobart. Extensive research into these covers was prompted not only by the somewhat unusual surname but also by the purple exhibition vignette. The only difference in the 2 covers sent to Jeofry, was that one had the 2d pictorial, whereas the illustrated one had 2 stamps with a combined postage of 2d.

The cover sent to the 11 year old schoolboy was postmarked HOBART/ 29 AUG 31 3-AM/ TASMANIA with the slogan ADDRESS MAIL TO/ P.O. BOX NO/ IT EXPEDITES DELIVERY. The 2 stamps are the ½d green Lake Marion pictorial and the red 1½d KGV head. There are several points about the address, in that the surname is definitely not hyphenated in both letters sent to Jeofry, whereas the typed address to the father is, and this suggests to me that the father may not have sent the 2 covers to Jeofry. The address of “Athol” 37 Mount Stuart Road, Hobart exists until to-day.

The double circle purple vignette reads: ‘ THE ANTIQUE AND HISTORICAL EXHIBITION/ HOBART, 1931, and within the inner circle: POSTED AT THE EXHIBITION in the original bag in which the people of Hobart dispatched their letters in response to the ringing of a bell by a Postman on his rounds of the city in the fifties of the last century’. The covers do not have postmarks on the reverse (Figure 1).

This schoolboy grew into one of Tasmania’s most eminent applied physicists who is largely unsung in his native land. He was born in Hobart on 31 January 1920 the son of Alfred William Courtney-Pratt who was a founding member and a subsequent president of the Hobart Rotarians. As a schoolboy he was described by a family member as being “tall, thin, gangly, studious and insipid in appearance”. He graduated a bachelor of engineering (B.E.) in 1940 (his C. V and autobiography give a later date of 1941) from the University of Tasmania and by his own account he “won all scholarships and prizes available in the courses I was taking”.

His only work experience in Australia was between 1941 and 1944 when he worked at the C.S.I.R.O. in Melbourne at the Lubricants and Bearings Division, working on the lubrication of internal combustion engines, and he also developed equipment for the measurement of muzzle velocity of guns. He stated that “I was myself in 1939 an ardent pacifist and tried to get people to take an active part in the prevention of war or the restriction of its spreading”.

In 1944 the British Admiralty recognized the great potential of his work for the war effort and he was flown to England where he had a small mobile laboratory to make measurements of ships’ guns off the Scottish coast. What was to be a short stint of 6 months turned out to be many years of study and research in England. He married an English lass, gained his Ph.D. in 1949 and his D.Sc. in 1958 from the University of Cambridge, and he continued to make significant contributions in his previous fields of work.

He entered a new phase of interest in high-speed photography where he developed methods for recording fast transient phenomena; in 1954, he received a medal in Paris on the occasion of the 2nd International Conference on High Speed Photography as well as the Sir Charles Vernon Boys Prize for experimental physics awarded by the Institute of Physics, UK. He found research money in England “was a long story of heartbreak” and “I spent half my time doing ‘charity organizing’ trying to get money for research.”

This difficulty in funding was in spite of the high regard in which he was held by his colleagues, who acknowledged he was brilliantly inventive and that his productivity was phenomenal. However, they were sometimes amused by him and a colleague wrote: “Jeof was a bit eccentric… he was always cold in England and he often mooched about the laboratory in a long black overcoat. He preferred to work from about 4 p.m. to 4 a.m. ostensibly to be free from distractions but actually because he hated mornings. When he wanted a rigid optical bench for some experiment, he scrounged a steel I-beam 20 feet long and 3 feet in height, which weighed tons and was far too long to be brought into the laboratory by conventional means. So he knocked a large hole in the wall and had it brought in that way.”

He was inordinately proud of his English ancestry and the fine Courtney name, not to mention the hyphen. When he joined the Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge, he was summoned to the Master’s presence. The story goes: He knocked at the door, the Master called “Come in Mr. Pratt and take a chair”. Jeofrey stiffly said “The name is Courtney hyphen Pratt”. “Take two chairs” was the Master’s withering reply.

“In April 1958, I came to work for Bell Laboratories, Murray Hill, New Jersey, first as co-head and later as head of the Mechanics Research Department.” The research output of his Department was prodigious, but this is not the appropriate article to deal with all its content. From 1946 to 1975 he was author of some 70 articles and 150 other reports, he held 35 patents, was given more than a dozen additional awards, and belonged to a dozen professional societies. He probably retired completely from Bell Labs in 1983 and died in 1995 without issue, survived by his wife Gillian and a sister in Melbourne.

In his latest autobiography (1975) that I have seen, he listed himself as an Australian national, but he took out American citizenship in 1990, as a matter of expediency. He must have been proud when in 1975 he was asked to submit a summary of his career up to that point to the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C. His photo and letter sent at that time to Washington are seen in Figure 2.

I have found more than 20 Courtney-Pratts (with and without the hyphen) who have lived in Australia from the 1870’s until the present time, and all but one lived or live in Hobart. In spite of diligent research, I have not found when Pratt was hyphenated to the Courtney name, nor the identity of the first Courtney who migrated to Australia. It would have been interesting to know that Jeofry continued his interest in collecting Australian postal covers during his busy career, but his wife informed me she had been unaware of his childhood interest.

Addendum: Thanks to the diligent research of Alison (Courtney-Pratt) Grant of Hobart, the early Tasmanian family history has been unravelled. William Pratt (b. Devonshire 26 October 1799 – d. Hobart 1 July 1884), was transported from England for burglary and sent to VDL as a convict on the Medway, arrived on 14 December 1825. He married Ellen Gardener on 24 November 1829, the wedding being witnessed by 2 people, one of whom was James Courtney.

There were 8 children of this union, the oldest being Josiah Courtney Pratt (1830-87) and the Courtney-Pratt name became hyphenated thereafter. Josiah is the link to Jeofrey. William Pratt became a well respected printer, first at The Courier and later as a printer at the address of 67 Elizabeth Street, Hobart Town. His extensive obituary in the Mercury of 2 July 1884 gave no mention of his convict origin.

Whereas older living family members do not speak freely of their convict origin, it is of interest that William Pratt published the Tasmanian Literary Journal in April 1843 and the first article was entitled “The Convict Land, or Men, Manners, and Matters at the Antipodes”. It would appear that Jeofry was ignorant of, or in denial of his convict origins.

This paper was published in The Courier, June 2004 No. 37, pages 10-12

Categories: Science