Perth, Western Australia | 1939
Tom Letts saw himself as the Robin Hood of his extended family, scattered as they were across the vast Australian landscape. When they struggled, he was moved to help. When they needed money, he found it. If this meant taking from the rich to give to the poor, he was up for the task.
Letts was uniquely positioned to provide sustenance and succour to his grateful kin. For one thing, he had a job – no mean accomplishment during the Great Depression. Better still, and more to the point, his working days were spent surrounded by an abundance of gold.
Beautiful, gleaming, valuable gold.
Surely no-one would miss just a little bit? After all, gold miners were rich and he had hungry mouths to feed. So, like all too many of the young, gormless and greedy, he identified theft as a smart career choice. More precisely, he stole gold from that august symbol of Western Australia’s mining wealth, the Perth Mint.
It was all too easy, really. During his day job as a labourer in the Mint’s mill room, he noticed tiny bits of the precious metal scattering on the floor during milling. One day late in 1938, presumably after the beseeching notes from his cash-strapped family became too much to bear, and after a quick glance around to make sure he wasn’t spotted, he bent down and picked up a handful.
The luminous little lumps slid easily and naturally into his trouser pocket…
And just like that, Tom Letts found a new direction in life!
Over the next six months, he exchanged an estimated 15 ounces of stolen gold “beads” for about £5 per ounce with a shady character he met in downtown Perth. In all, Tom Letts pocketed (or, if his protestations in court the following year are to be believed, sent to his struggling flesh and blood interstate) the purchasing power of more than $8000 in today’s terms.
Considering the gold price at the time was $US34 per ounce, Letts was short-changing both himself and his impoverished relatives. Perhaps he convinced himself he wasn’t stealing quite so much by accepting a lower price – or perhaps he was just dumb as they come.
Still, he was saving up to get married and a bloke had a duty to provide for his bride. That imperative, plus the warm glow of giving to those less fortunate than himself, drove Letts – a pocketful of gold at a time – into the fateful year 1939.
Two notable events occurred that year: Thomas Charles Letts, aged 27 years and recently wed, was sent to jail; and Germany invaded Poland, setting off the powder keg that morphed into the horrors of the Second World War.
Letts got in first, although while he was scooping up gold fragments from the floor of the Perth Mint, German tanks and army divisions were massing at the Polish border, proving they thought of it first.
The Perth Mint in 1939. (Courtesy State Library of Western Australia)
Arrested after the Mint’s accountant noticed gold had been going missing, Letts fronted Perth Police Court on 6 May. The subsequent report on the front page of the Daily News did not reveal why Letts became a suspect, but did quote the police prosecutor, who “… had known Letts and his parents for years, and had always found him honest”.
The defence lawyer explained that his client’s stealing spree started due to “financial trouble in the family”, but stopped short at the altar (whether at the insistence of his new wife was not made clear). He fought a desperate rear-guard action to keep Letts out of prison, promising his client could make restitution “in about a month, from the relatives he had sent it to in another State”.
The Magistrate refrained from asking how, if the Letts clan was in such financial trouble that the Perth Mint had to be robbed to help them out, they now had the means to refund the ill-gotten proceeds. He pointed out, caustically, that it would hardly be in society’s best interests if all thieves were able to escape prison merely by returning the stolen goods.
Perhaps it was the police prosecutor’s unexpected character reference, or maybe the Magistrate felt sorry for the pretty young bride, but in any case he sentenced Letts to only two months in jail. “I am sorry to give you such a bad start in married life, but I shall give you a sentence which might be considered very light,” he told Letts from the bench.
After serving his term, Letts left prison wondering how he was going to find a job to support his wife. He didn’t have to wonder for long – a few short weeks later and 13,000 kilometres away, Hitler’s blitzkrieg invaded Poland. Two days later, the Australian Government declared war on Germany and, soon afterwards, accepted Letts into the ranks of the army.
Tom Letts worked as a commercial traveller after the war and appears to have lived out the remainder of his days without again colliding with the law. Or perhaps he never again arrived at the juncture of stupidity, opportunity and lack of integrity that had characterised his youth.
How his beleaguered relatives survived without his largesse is unknown.
Sources: Daily News, 6 May 1939 (p. 1); National Archives of Australia; ancestry.com.au
This story was researched and written by Anne Skinner, a freelance writer based in Queensland. Anne is forever fascinated by the amazing stories and often unbelievable characters that run through the history of the mining industry. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org