Australia’s greatest lover isn’t the person you would expect. His career included that of a radiologist. He was the son of a surveyor and engineer with the New South Wales Department of Public Works. His name was George Downey and he was born in Balmain in Sydney in 1893. I told a version of this story on West Bremer Radio.
In 1922 Downey worked at the Ipswich General Hospital in Queensland where he met the fellow hospital employee Miss Christina Lawrie. She was the daughter of Alexander Lawrie who was the manager of the nearby Blackheath coal mine. The family lived in Queen Street at Newtown in Ipswich where the street remains a quiet, residential one today.
Downey was thirty-years-old and Christina was just nineteen when they fell madly in love, and the couple eloped and got married at All Saints Church in Brisbane in 1923.
The problem was that Christina was under twenty-one years of age and did not have her father’s permission, so Downey was arrested for marrying a minor.
But then the bigger truth came out – Downey had been married before. In fact, he was still married. And so began the bigamist career of the man who was to be described as Australia’s greatest lover.
Downey was twenty-years-old when he first married eighteen-year-old Linda Thompson in 1913 in Campsie, New South Wales.
Downey was a university lecturer when he enlisted for the First World War and embarked aboard the HMAT Ballarat in 1917. He survived the sinking of the ship by a German submarine in the English Channel. (Coincidentally, my great-grandfather was on the same ship.) Downey served with the Australian Medical Corps and returned to Australia to live a seemingly normal life as a husband and father.
But perhaps his experience at war amid the bloody carnage of clearing stations and hospitals altered him, because Downey entered the strange world of fraud and bigamy.
You see, after his legal marriage to Linda Thompson in 1913, his return from war, and his illegal second marriage to Christina Lawrie in 1923, he continued down that murky path in 1925 in Melbourne when he married Nora Williams.
In 1926 again in Melbourne, he married Vevina Ward.
Ten weeks later, he married Mary Raeymaecker in Port Morseby, Papua New Guinea.
After a nine-year break raising a number of children, Downey was back in Melbourne and in 1937 he married Iris Johnston.
Later that same year in Brighton, still in Victoria, he married Ona King.
Downey already had convictions for bigamy, marrying a minor, forgery, uttering false pretenses, and larceny. This time he had a longer spell than usual in prison, but that didn’t stop him, because in 1952 in Paddington in Sydney he married Thelma Snape.
So all up, Downey got married at least eight times. This included one marital rampage in which he was the groom three times in eleven months.
He got away with it by going by at least nine different names, including George Walter Downey, Herbert Eric McCulloch, Eric Douglas McDonald Stewart, Eric Maxwell Thompson, George Wallace Elliott, Norman Stewart Barrett, C. P. Moody, A. Wild and Alexander Frederick Flood.
He also pursued at least six different careers including as a university lecturer, radiologist, pathologist, veterinary surgeon, science teacher, and possibly four years as a medical student.
George Downey was Australia’s greatest and best-educated lover.
However, the tragedy of the story shouldn’t be lost by forgetting the young women like Ipswich’s nineteen-year-old Christina Lawrie. Christina had a child by Downey but never married again.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THE STORY TOLD ON WEST BREMER RADIO.
Herbert Eric McCulloch – Truth Brisbane, Sunday 12 December 1937, page 25
Lawrie Family – Ancesttry uploaded by mf 2012
George Walter Downey – NSW State Archives via Ancestry uploaded by bastew3 2019
Australia’s Greatest Lover – Truth Brisbane, Sunday 20 March 1938, page 25