Six Keys: the 1932 Cloncurry bank robberies

The Bank of New South Wales in Cloncurry 1932. Illustration from the book Six Keys.

The Daily Mercury of Wednesday June 15, 1932 reported a daring robbery in Cloncurry the weekend before. Around £14,000 had been stolen from two banks, so much cash that it made it “extremely difficult to carry on ordinary business” in the town. On state election night in 1932, thieves breached the strong room of the National Bank and made off with £11,000. Much to their surprise, the burglars also found the keys to the nearby Bank of NSW, where they helped themselves to another £3000. The culprits were never caught, despite a £500 reward.

The double robbery was the talk of the town and despite their confidence police ran into a wall of silence and could finger no-one despite strong suspicions, suspicions that last to this day. In 2010 Author John Joseph Williamson put together his version of events in 6 Keys: The Cloncurry Bank Robberies. Williamson says his account was a fictional account of proceedings. Luckily for him, he could accuse at will without risk of defamation: all the characters involved are now dead. As well as hearing about it from Roy Martell of Cloncurry, Williamson accessed the archives of the Queensland National Bank (now NAB) and Bank of New South Wales (now Westpac).

While he also sourced newspaper articles most of what he wrote was hearsay and a compilation of “apocryphal stories and anecdotes”. Yet Williamson does not apologise for naming the robbers in his account, which he said were common knowledge in Cloncurry and their exploits were “already folklore”. He said recording the names was in the interest of Cloncurry and Queensland.

The year 1932 was the middle of the depression and Cloncurry was not spared, with many local mines closed down. It was a small town where everyone knew everyone and people were kept informed by the Cloncurry Advocate which came out every Saturday. The QN and the Wales were the only two bank branches in town. The QN’s branch manager was Lewis Holland. Holland and his wife lived in the bank’s residence on the corner of Ramsay and Sheaffe St until she was disillusioned with remote living and left. Holland invited teller Stanley Spilsbury to move in. Spilsbury was fond of gambling and had a financial relationship with local identity and gambler Cyril Chaplain who gave him racing information and also probably, racing debts.

To make life easier at the bank they employed a full-time live in housekeeper and widow Folly Faithful who liked and looked after them both. Faithful was good looking and attracted the attentions of Eric Guerin, owner of His Majesty’s Hotel in Scarr St and occasionally accompanying violinist to the silent movies that played in the Bio Talkies local cinema. Guerin and Faithful struck up a relationship and after taking in a movie, they would go back to the bank for a pot of tea where she introduced him Holland and Spilsbury.

While in their company Guerin became aware they were careless about the custody of their bank keys which they would leave lying around. After reading in the North Queensland Register about a robbery in Townsville done with duplicate keys made from impressions while the holders were at the town baths, Guerin began to think of something similar. He began to study the bank employees’ habits and noted they both went out every Saturday night. From Faithful he found out the money was kept in a strongroom which needed two keys to open, one held by Holland, the other by accountant Justin Cosgrove. There were also two keys to the treasury safe itself, held by Holland and Cosgrove. Inside the safe were two locked drawers which held the money. Holland had the key to one of the drawers, Spilsbury had the other. So to extract the money there were six keys in all, held by three different men.

Guerin also found out the best time to rob the bank was Saturday night, not only because the employees were out drinking but because that was when the safe was most full with money for the week ahead that came out on the train from Townsville. Guerin believed it would be easy to get hold of the four keys held by Holland and Spilsbury though Cosgrove would be more difficult. He started paying attention to Cosgrove’s movements but noted he never strayed far from his keys. He would have to be lured away somehow. Guerin also considered the issue of how to make duplicates of the keys so needing allies he decided to take Tom Anderson into his confidence.

Anderson was the owner of the Bio and a dodgy friend, well known in Cloncurry as a cattle thief. Anderson thought Guerin was pulling his leg when he mentioned his plan and pointed out problems like where to get the keys copied and who exactly would carry out the robbery. It was risky but Anderson was excited and they decided to talk to George Duffy the key cutter who worked for the railways. Anderson pointed out that Duffy was Cyril Chaplain’s man. They decided to go direct to Chaplain to discuss the plan.

Cyril Chaplain was called the Little King in Cloncurry. He grew up on a cattle property and he eventually managed the property. By 1932 the Chaplains owned two stations and the town slaughterhouse and stockyards as well as the iceworks and a butchers shop. They also owned the Big House the grandest house in Cloncurry on the corner of McIlwraith and Seymour Sts. He also trained racehorses which his brother Boomarra Chaplain would ride and kept good relations with local police who turned a blind eye to his illegal betting activities.

Guerin and Anderson arranged to meet Chaplain and told them their plans. As well as getting his opinion on Duffy, they asked him to carry out the actual robbery. Chaplain considered it and said he would need to bring his brother Boomarra on board as well as Duffy. They agreed to split the takings, half to Guerin and Anderson, the other half to the Chaplain gang.

Boomarra and Duffy had been best mates though lately Duffy had been distracted by his affair with Peach O’Callaghan, the wife of the new shire clerk recently arrived from Townsville. Duffy was doing odd jobs at the house when the pair became infatuated while the husband was away.

Meanwhile the five would-be robbers got together to work out a plan. Duffy would arrange for overtime work to make impressions of the keys while they worked out a plan to get Cosgrove’s two keys. The plan was to convince him to go bathing at the Two Mile waterhole where they could take impressions while he swam. After they got the six impressions it would then simply be a matter of waiting for the best time to do the robbery.

The Two Mile was the most popular waterhole on the Cloncurry River with plenty of gullies where there was privacy to dress and undress. The plan involved Chaplain inviting Holland for a swim ostensibly to discuss a cattle deal. He also invited Cosgrove who was standing nearby. Chaplain and Duffy collected the bank men and drove them to the waterhole. While out swimming Duffy checked Cosgrove’s pants to ensure the keys were there but they would need a second outing to steal them to make the impressions. On that occasion Duffy invited Peach and her girlfriends to make the trip more appealing to the bankers. Peach was reluctant but Duffy said it would be worth her while which piqued her curiosity as to what was happening.

Duffy carried beeswax blocks to the river which he had to put in a case to be careful not to melt. Peach wanted to know what the beeswax in the case was for but Duffy claimed it was polish for the car. On the day of the outing Duffy claimed to have a migraine so remained in the car while the others went swimming. Duffy grabbed Cosgrove’s seven keys and had to make impressions of them all, not knowing which ones were for the bank. When the job was done he returned Cosgrove’s keys to his pocket.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is six-keys.jpg

The next task was to remove Holland and Spilsbury’s keys on a Saturday night. Guerin did this after the men had returned from their drinking and slept on the verandah. However Faithful discovered him in Spilsbury’s room and he gave her the excuse he was putting the keys back. He took them to the waiting Duffy who made copies and he told him Faithful had caught him in the act. Chaplain was furious when he found out. Guerin assured him Faithful would not spill the beans. Chaplain decided Guerin would have to give her a job to get her away from the bank.

After getting the impressions Duffy now had to make the duplicates. He chose seven keys as two looked similar and then made an eighth key for the front door. Chaplain worked on alibis for Duffy and Boomarra who would carry out the robbery. He wanted them to get into a routine at the Prince of Wales pub and park their car in the same visible spot. On a Saturday night they would invade the bank to see if the keys work, but not actually rob it. Duffy did the break-in using Guerin’s plan of the house with Boomarra on lookout. Inside Duffy had trouble with the strongroom key and played with it for over an hour, filing the web until it finally worked. He had the same problem with the second key.

Outside Boomarra was holed up by a friend who started chatting. Boomarra was concerned but eventually Duffy arrived on the scene and they went to the pub. There Duffy told him he had successfully worked two keys. But because of the noise Boomarra’s friend was making Duffy had no time to do the rest. They would have to repeat the test three weeks later to try the other four keys. The second time they got them all to work and found a surprise inside the safe – duplicate keys for the nearby bank of NSW.

When the gang next met they quickly decided to do both banks and decided to take a bag of silver coins that were also in the safe, which they would bury in a gully near the slaughterhouse. They set a date for the robbery of the following Saturday after finding out the bank manager of the Wales would be away that weekend.

That Saturday, June 11 was the day of the Queensland state election and there was an election night party at the Katter house which the conspirators would use as an alibi. By law the pubs were supposed to close on election day but police usually turned a blind eye. It would be a busy day in town with people expected to throng from the stations. On the night, Boomarra was assigned “cockatoo” (watch) while Chaplain and Duffy went to the banks first to the National where they emptied the safe and took the Wales key. They were done in 20 minutes but when they went out they found two drunks at Boomarra’s ute. Eventually they left and the robbers loaded the ute before the trio drove to the Wales. Again Duffy and Chaplain went in by forcing a latch. They quickly opened the safe and took the notes and silver in six heavy calico bags.

Duffy then met Folly and they went to the Katter party while Boomarra and Chaplain drove the ute to their house where they transferred the notes to another car before driving the ute back to town. At 3am Boomarra and Duffy drove to the slaughterhouse to bury the barrels containing the coins. Their car light was spotted by a slaughterhouse worker who resolved to investigate in daylight. Meanwhile Chaplain took the other car to an unoccupied outstation two hours away where he hid a metal trunk containing the money. The following morning slaughterhouse worker George Park found the site of the first overnight dig and uncovered six drums which contained the silver coins. He stole two of the drums and buried them elsewhere. He never reported his find to police and eventually claimed £500 from all six drums when the robbers failed to return.

No other suspicions were aroused until Monday when the Wales manager opened the safe to discover it was empty. Wondering where the thieves got the keys he rang the QN where Cosgrove had made a similar discovery. When he remarked on the fact that Holland had shown the strongroom to Cyril Chaplain earlier on the Saturday, Spilsbury told him to be quiet about it, making Cosgrove suspect it might have been an inside job.

Police had similar suspicions when they were alerted especially when they realised the six keys were involved. Police also found a tyre imprint outside the bank, a Goodyear which the local tyre reckoned he sold to around six people. A similar tyre mark was found outside the Wales. Boomarra’s ute was one of the few that fit the description.

Meanwhile Duffy discovered two coin barrels were missing and blamed Anderson, whom he felt didn’t do anything to deserve getting any of the takings. He punched Anderson who had no idea why he was attacked. Cyril told him it wasn’t Anderson as the silver he took to the bank on Monday was takings from the Bio on the weekend.

Most townspeople were in awe of the robbery and unwilling to communicate much to police frustration. Criminal Investigation Branch assigned sub-inspector Alfred Jesson to the case who found out local police suspected Boomarra’s ute was involved and therefore Cyril Chaplain’s gang. But tyre shop owner Barney Long’s premises were soon torched and it had the desired effect, Long would be no longer sure whose tyre tracks were involved in the robbery.

Police believed the robbery needed some inside bank knowledge and concentrated on Spilsbury who bet on the horses and owed money to Chaplain. Spilsbury denied all knowledge under hostile questioning, as did Holland. Both suffered with the bank for their cavalier attitude in leaving keys lying around. Police also interviewed Boomarra who said he was at the pub. Meanwhile Faithful vouched for Duffy who was at the party. Finally they spoke to Chaplain who also provided alibis for him at the pub. Convinced the money was still in Cloncurry police kept up road blocks for two weeks. But investigations came to nothing and bank rewards went unclaimed.

Chaplain paid off the others who were impatient to get money immediately. Then he bided his time and laundered the money through Townsville Brisbane bookmakers at a 50percent discount. Though Guerin took no part in the robbery, Chaplain remained grateful to him for the “fantastic idea”. Williamson in his book said Guerin later told Roy Martell the truth, saying “if you tell anyone, I’ll deny it”. Martell died around the time of publication. All the other participants were long dead. The Cloncurry robbery had descended into myth.

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