Brief Lives


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It was a bizarre chain of events ranging from Jack The Ripper, to secrets in the Royal family and sectarian cover-ups that led Alfred Rawlins in to the uniform of the first AIF.

The notorious Ripper murders coupled with the profound anti-Catholic sentiment in England during the late 1800s caused a malaise of anxiety and suspicion to settle over the country before Rawlins’ moved to Australia.

The Rawlins were Royal intimates: Alfred’s father and older brother, Edwin, followed a five century-long family tradition of serving as Royal house guards. Edwin was also gatekeeper of the Royal Mews. It was commonplace for Alfred’s seven older siblings to play hide-and-seek about the palace with Queen Victoria’s grandchildren and Edwin had been a childhood friend of the Duke of York, who later became King George V.

But proximity to power brought the Rawlins closer to the maelstrom of suspicion and the conspiracies that eddied around the Royals and the gruesome unsolved Jack The Ripper murders.

Misgivings about the Royals was only heightened when Queen Victoria’s grandson, Prince Albert Victor – the second in line to the British throne – secretly married a Roman Catholic, Hélène, when anti-Catholic feeling in England was at its most virulent. Rawlins family lore has it that the controversial marriage provoked a series of violent cover-ups among the Prince’s loyalists.

Alfred’s grandson, David, suspects the Rawlins’ sudden move to Australia was instigated by a fear of being too closely associated with the Royals in light of the controversies, and they promptly fled to Australia.

So on August 4, 1914, Alfred Rawlins did not feel that it was some distant monarchy declaring war on Germany, but rather a movement led by a close family friend; this was a personal request from George in England’s hour of need. And after being brought up in a large, well-connected English family, Alfred Rawlins had a distinctive British accent amid the broader Australian strine of his army colleagues.

Rawlins left Melbourne with the 5th Infantry Battalion on October 21, 1914. He was 27 and described himself as a bicycle builder and cigar leaf cutter. But his initial service was cut short by a hernia and he was discharged in January 1916. Not dismayed, he re-enlisted a month later and he joined the 4th Division Motor Transport Company as a motor mechanic that May.

Rawlins rose to sergeant before he was struck by cerebrospinal meningitis in 1916. He recovered sufficiently to serve in France from early 1917 until being admitted to hospital in England to recover from influenza in February 1919.

He returned to Australia after the war and was discharged in July. While Rawlins often drank to forget the trenches, he dutifully signed up once again for army service when World War II broke out.

Widowed after the loss of his first wife, Rawlins had a 15-year second marriage after falling in love with a woman he met on a Melbourne tram. His marriage to Leah Cohen, a Jewish woman, was frowned upon in 1935 by his devout Anglican family, who immediately cut him off. Rawlins had two sons; Gabriel (who died a cot death in 1937), Adrian and Barry, David’s father. Alfred died in 1953, aged 66.


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Amid the excitement of the Great War breaking out, Joseph (Joe) Nott faced an awful ultimatum.

His girlfriend, May, told him to make a decision – to stay with her or enlist, with the very real possibility of never returning. Nott, just 22, was a greengrocer from Rutherglen. He took a risk on his sweetheart staying true and promptly enlisted as the first member of the 4th Light Horse Regiment.

Nott left Melbourne on October 19, 1914, the same day as his older brother Herbert Charles, a Northcote silk merchant, left with the 6th Battalion. Both brothers served at Gallipoli and returned to Melbourne after the war. Herbert married and later became a horse-drawn cab driver.

Joe Nott and the 4th Light Horse were deployed without their horses to reinforce the infantry on the peninsula. He suffered significant injuries, having been shot in the leg and jaw, and his shrapnel wounds compromised the use of his right hand. Nott was part of the last great cavalry charge in history at Beersheba. His bravery and initiative earned him much respect and he went on to become the most highly decorated Light Horseman on the Western Front.

In August 1918, he was awarded the Military Cross for obtaining valuable information as to the location of Allied and enemy troops along the infantry line, and successfully reporting back to divisional headquarters. Nott was later presented with a bar to the Military Cross for conspicuous gallantry while leading a mounted action at the Western Front on September 10, 1918.

Nott’s luck had held. Although he had seen action in three fronts across the War, he was still in reasonable form upon returning home and keen to resume his life with his sweetheart. But in the four years since Nott had left, the love of his life had married a Jack Lee and started a new life. As May was Catholic, divorce was not an option for her even though her heart remained committed to her first love.

Since May was the only woman he truly loved, Nott vowed to never marry. When he died at age 86 in 1978, he was buried at Footscray cemetery to rest eternally where his beloved too lies.

Nott maintained his military connections and served as a militia of the 8th Light Horse, a unit of similar function to the Citizens Military Force, quickly rising from a sergeant to a major during World War II.

Joe’s great nephew, John, described him as a quiet man and an absolute gentleman. In later life, Nott became a dairyman in Dandenong but his injuries eventually prevented him from farming as he was unable to cope physically, his mobility limited due to a hip wound. He went on to hold the position as president of the 4th Light Horse Memorial Association.



Appearances were important to the tall, blue-eyed Humphrey Wyatt Holdgate, with his raffish English accent and ramrod-straight bearing. But he wasn’t everything he was cracked up to be. A former bankrupt, Holdgate enlisted in Melbourne in August 1914, disguising a lifetime of deceptions that included not mentioning that he had a wife and two children in England.

Holdgate enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) as a 34-year-old single man on August 15 shortly after his arrival in Melbourne. His tendency for tall stories and tricks dogged his military career but it didn’t take long for some of his army mates to blow the whistle, including one who advised his sister to steer clear of Holdgate. The Englishman’s charm was well-known. Distant relatives Guy Holdgate and his partner Gail Morgan from West Brunswick have undertaken extensive research into Humphrey’s life and found that he had a powerful effect on many young women.

But the lies were common. He posed as a major but never rose higher than a lieutenant. And after the war, Holdgate married an Australian woman. The partnership was eventually annulled when the truth of his first marriage surfaced.

Four years of experience in the 2nd Middlesex Royal Field Artillery and two years at the London Brigade Royal Field Artillery ensured Holdgate was speedily promoted to a ranking of sergeant in the AIF.

He left Melbourne on October 20, 1914 as part of the 2nd Field Artillery, spending some months in Egypt before serving on the first day of the Gallipoli landings. He manned one of four field guns used by Australians near Anzac beach, creating his own locality – “Holgates” – along Shrapnel Valley where his keen judgment of the Howitzers’ trajectory was a vital skill.

In July, 1915, he was wounded in the leg and taken to Cairo for treatment. But he was back manning the heavy battery guns a month later. He was one of the last to evacuate Anzac beach in December of 1915.

Holdgate returned to Australia in April 1916 and was soon delisted. While official records suggest he was repatriated because of wounds, a senior colleague had a different story to tell.

Major Fred Leslie Biddle wrote to his mother that his sister, Isabel, mentioned having met Lieutenant Holdgate. Major Biddle made it clear that his sister “needn’t bother to know him”, and added that Holdgate was sent home “in disgrace”. Major Biddle was disgusted Holdgate was appointed to a “cushy” position in the army back home in Australia.

Perhaps Holdgate was pining for the soldier’s life and he re-enrolled in October 1917, joining the 12th Australian Army Brigade as a lieutenant at Rouelles, France. He served with the 45th Battery until the end of the war and returned to Australia in September 1919.

Primarily stationed in Melbourne, Holdgate also split his time between Sydney and Brisbane. Working as an enterprising salesman and stockbroker among a host of occupations, he left a long trail of criminal records behind him in each city.

He relied on lending money, often taking advantage of girls for loans that he failed to repay. He also narrowly dodged a jail term in Queensland after being fortunate enough to receive a suspended sentence “in view of his war history”.

Among Holdgate’s countless misdemeanours was a sequence of drink driving road accidents in St Kilda, 1930, which involved three collisions within the space of just 50 yards. After a few drinks, he crashed into two cars before travelling in front of a tram. He then turned in a semi-circular path only to collide with the rear end of that same tram.

When Holdgate died of war wound related injuries in 1936, a woman he had grown close to in the latter part of his life, a Miss Lingrea, paid for his funeral and burial plot. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Sydney.

Originally published at Herald Sun.


About Alana Mitchelson

Alana Mitchelson is a journalist based in Melbourne, Australia. Follow her on Twitter at @AlanaMitchelson.

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