The Ipswich solicitor James Francis Hayes in 1917 was charged with defrauding his business partner and clients in what remains Ipswich’s biggest ever embezzlement. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
He was found guilty of misappropriations totalling £26,000 which in today’s money based on average weekly earnings is over $15 million. That’s Hayes pictured above.
His partner Jacob Born had suffered a paralytic stroke in 1911 and was described by his wife as “practically an imbecile” ever since. That’s why Hayes was brought in as a partner and he started ripping off the business pretty well straight away.
Hayes acquired a house in Murphy Street in Ipswich, farming properties at Stanthorpe, various insurance policies, and allotments all over town. He also ran up huge gambling debts including one that was alleged in court that he’d just settled with a bookmaker for £2,000.
The most despicable act he did was when he posed as a lawyer with the War Council. This was during the First World War and he targeted a widow Mrs Nellie Montgomery of Martin Street in Ipswich. He convinced Mrs Montgomery that if she had money in the bank, her only son would not be able to claim exemption from military service as her sole support. Hayes then stole £360 off her and left her with just £32 in the account.
Hayes was subsequently declared insolvent, struck off as a solicitor, and sentenced to ten years’ imprisonment on St Helena Island. His partner Jacob Born was declared insane.
But it didn’t have to be that way. You see, Hayes came from a reasonably decent family. His father was famous as the first altar boy for the first bishop of Brisbane, and Hayes’s brother was a catholic priest Father Owen Hayes.
While Hayes was still in prison, his father died and so he and his brother Father Owen became owners of a number of Brisbane city properties. This included a Turkish bathhouse on Albert Street opposite Burnett Lane. The properties were sold for £17,000 but of course Hayes’s share went to his creditors.
When Hayes did get out of prison, it wasn’t long before he was up to his old tricks. In 1931 he was back in court where he made a long speech in the dock, accused his family of hounding him, and then pleaded guilty to having defrauded this time just £200.
Hayes was sentenced by the Chief Justice Sir James Blair who co-incidentally had actually defended him in his original embezzlement trial in 1917. Blair sentenced Hayes to another two-and-a-half years in prison and this time with hard labour.
(Shortly after the trial but totally unconnected, his brother Father Owen Hayes and other priests were defrauded by a fake encyclopaedia salesman.)
While Hayes was in prison this time, his bachelor uncle John Hayes died. Uncle John had twice been mayor of Sandgate. From a huge estate of £93,000 the uncle left £1,000 to his housekeeper, and a good portion of the rest he left to Hayes’s brother the Father Owen Hayes.
The criminal Hayes, meanwhile, was not even mentioned. He had missed out on an honest fortune for a second time.
So the lesson here is even over a hundred years ago, Ipswich’s biggest embezzlement does not pay – especially when it involves a priest and a Turkish bath.
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James Hayes Solicitor Who Squandered 50,000 – Truth, Brisbane, Sunday, 22 February 1931, page 13
Mrs Montgomery’s house at 2 Martin Street, Woodend, Ipswich c1970 – State Library of Queensland
Sir James William Blair – State Library of Queensland