For over a century, chocolate has been a desirable commodity that attracted organised crime. The Queensland city of Ipswich had its Great Chocolate Robbery of 1929. I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
The modern history of chocolate isn’t all that old. The first milk chocolate was invented in Switzerland in 1876. It was in the twentieth century that the world became obsessed with chocolate when soldiers from various countries were given chocolate rations during the world wars. That spread its popularity around the world, drove up its value, and made it a target for criminals.
During the Second World War, rationing in Australia meant chocolate was even more desirable. At the Ipswich Railway Workshops, every month a limited quantity of chocolate was made available in the staff canteen. As many as three hundred men queued up during lunch just to get their quota. In 1945, a half-a-ton of chocolate was delivered to the workshops in one day. That was actually three months’ supply and about the weight of a large horse. Employees lined up around the block despite each being allowed to buy just 1 shilling 9 pence worth.
But organised crime was already involved and chocolate theft was a serious problem.
In 1938 a gang of chocolate thieves was rounded-up after extensive investigations by the Ipswich Police. The eighteen-year-old milk hand Maurice Roache was the ringleader. One of the charges was that he stole condensed milk and chocolates valued at £4 from a shop in Bell Street owned by Arthur Johnson. Arthur’s brother was William Johnson who was the founder of the radio station 4IP in Ipswich. Roache was fined a total of £10 10 shillings or in default several months imprisonment.
In 1935 police investigated a robbery at Charlie Leigh’s general store at Newtown in which a number of items including chocolates valued at over £14 were stolen. No arrests were made and the case remains unsolved to this day.
Ipswich’s Great Chocolate Robbery occurred on Wednesday the 3rd of July 1929 just before the onset of the Depression. It was investigated by a large number of police led by plain clothes constable Alfred Mairs. Mairs had earlier investigated a high-profile murder at Harlin, and following his good work in this chocolate heist, would be promoted to the Criminal Investigation Bureau in Brisbane.
Constable Mairs arrested the twenty-seven-year-old jockey Tom Murphy after a number of policemen pounced on him in the streets of Ipswich and led him off in handcuffs. Based on the number of police involved, this was one of the city’s crimes of the year.
Murphy pleaded not guilty to the charge that he stole a glass jar of chocolates, valued at a seemingly paltry amount of 10 shillings, from Londy’s Café (pictured at the top of the page) on Brisbane Street. The shop’s owner Harry Londy – his real name was Haralambas Leondarakis – identified the jar of chocolates. Murphy was convicted and fined £5 or a month’s imprisonment.
One of the witnesses was Doug Boatwright from West Ipswich. Boatwright’s first wife shot-through after they spent just one weekend together, and then his nineteen-year-old second wife ran-off with an eighty-year-old. Perhaps Doug’s life was ruined by chocolate because he just wasn’t able to keep up the supply at home.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO
Londy’s Cafe, Brisbane Street, Ipswich – Picture Ipswich.
Police Te Be Congratulated On Clearing Up This Gang – Telegraph, Brisbane, Saturday 30th July, 1938, page 8.
Constable Alfred Mairs -Truth, Brisbane, 26th August 1934, page 15.