Mystery of 19th century chemist William Lale

Some people just attract disaster and mystery. The Ipswich chemist William Lale from Southsea in England was one such person. Back then chemists not only made and sold drugs, but they also extracted teeth. What could go wrong? I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.

He first set-up shop in Bowen in north Queensland. In 1880 he married Eliza Richmond who was the niece of a successful pioneer Thorpe Riding at Bulimba in Brisbane.

Then the tragedies began.

In 1882 his son William died aged four months. In 1883 his son Albert died aged two months. In 1884 his chemist shop in Bowen was totally wrecked by a cyclone. One month later his daughter Maud died aged five months. In 1885 his wife Eliza died and William inherited her Bowen property. In 1886 Lale made a trip to Sydney aboard the ship Orizaba. At 486 feet she later became one of the largest ships ever to be wrecked in Australian waters.

Orizaba – sunk

Lale then went to Ipswich.

In 1887 he married Elizabeth Knowles who was the daughter of the Chief Fruit Inspector of Queensland’s Department of Agriculture. In 1888 Elizabeth died in Ipswich. A month later their only child Lizzie died at less than two months old. In 1890 – having lost 4 children 2 wives and 1 shop in just 10 years – Lale decided to throw in the towel and return to England.

He booked to travel from Sydney to London aboard the ship Oruba. This was the same ship that in the First World War was at first disguised as a battleship to fool the Germans, and then scuttled as a breakwater at Lemnos Island during the Gallipoli campaign.

Oruba – scuttled

He arrived in Sydney and on the 29th of August 1890 and inexplicably began working as a labourer aboard the coal ship Coromandel that was moored at Circular Quay. This was a very strange thing to do for a man of independent means. He was seen leaving the ship at the end of his shift.

The next morning the ship’s officers found Lale’s portmanteau which is a large leather travelling bag that opens into two equal parts. There was also his gold watch and chain, a bank draft for £290, and a bank passbook showing the significant amount of around £1,400 – all of this Lale had left in the ladies bathroom.

But Lale was never seen again. It was a mystery that generated speculation around Australia as to why a gentleman of independent means had simply disappeared never to be seen again.

Coromandel – disappeared

When Lale went to Sydney in 1890, the national Maritime Strike was in full swing.  

This was industrial action of epic proportions. The strike began in Adelaide and rapidly spilled over into all the other colonies and spread to seamen, wharf labourers, then gas stockers. Coal miners from Newcastle, Broken Hill, and even New Zealand were locked out after refusing to dig coal for non-union operated vessels. The battle was particularly bitter in Victoria and New South Wales where armed troops were used to support the police for the first time. Violence escalated against non-union labour and against the property of companies operating shipping, the mines, the wharves and ports. The equally epic Shearers’ Strike was only months away.

It was known that Lale’s sympathies were with the steamship owners, and when he got to Sydney, he volunteered to work for free on the ship the Coromandel.

It was eight years later in 1898, when his sister Annie in Bowen applied to have him declared dead, that a judge decided that he’d probably been “knocked on the head and the body disposed of”. 

Interestingly, the lawyer representing Lale’s sister was Walter Frederick Wilson – he himself had recently bought a house that was owned by a man who had also mysteriously disappeared.

Lale’s chemist shop in Ipswich kept trading under his name for a number of years. The site was a chemist for over 70 years after it was taken over and run as a chemist by the Ipswich mayor James Minnis until the mid-1950s.

The site at 137 Brisbane Street is opposite the old Ipswich post office. There’s history out there everywhere you go.


Photo credits:
Brisbane Street looking east from the Ipswich Town Hall c1899 – Picture Ipswich, Ipswich City Council
Oroya – Allan Green Collection, Victoria, Australia
Oruba – Slate Library of Victoria
Coromandel – Rabson & O’Donoghue


  1. Another interesting episode, thanks for that.Sent from the Samsung tablet lovingly given by Harold, Jacqueline, Harold, and Murray


  2. The chemist in Sandgate fared a lot better than your fascinating individual. He used to put a chair on the footpath outside his shop and charge two shillings to pull a tooth. He later became mayor of the town.

    Liked by 1 person

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