The is the most remarkable example of the Wartime Courtroom Love Story genre of all-time in which the anti-hero comes to a sticky end – and it’s all true! I told a version of this story live on West Bremer Radio.
In March 1943, an Australian soldier walked into the police’s Brisbane Criminal Investigation Branch and said, “I want to report that I have been married twice, and I want to have the matter cleared up while I’m on leave.”
The soldier’s name was Private Harold Robert Collins, or Bobbie to his mates. In August 1940 at St. Andrew’s Church, Lutwyche, Brisbane, Private Collins married Gladys Clarke (pictured above) who was a young woman described by one source as “an attractive, plump, brown-eyed brunette.”
Then just nine weeks later, at St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Church at Ipswich, Collins married Sylvia Skellern from Ross Street in local suburb of Ebbw Vale.
Collins was charged in the Ipswich Court with bigamy and found guilty. Eight weeks later, he and his legal wife Gladys were divorced.
But the public tragedy that had befallen poor Gladys didn’t end there. To support the war effort, Gladys was working in the case section of the munitions factory at Rocklea in Brisbane. Just six months after her humiliating divorce, she was involved in a fatal accident. An American army truck collided with an Australian bus that was transporting workers from Archerfield including Gladys. She survived the crash, but three others were killed, including Gladys’s best friend Doreen.
Meanwhile, Gladys’s ex-husband Collins had been discharged from the army as medically unfit, married Sylvia, and together lived out the rest of the war in wedded bliss.
But there’s more to this story.
Back in 1940, Private Collins had enlisted in Special Force and he knew he was about to be shipped off to war, so he married Gladys. But just one week before his ship departed, he discovered that Sylvia was in a “certain condition”, and that he was responsible, so he honorably married her too. Collins arranged for his army pay to go to both his legal wife Gladys and his impending child.
After fighting the Germans and Italians for two years in Libya, Private Collins returned to Australia and that’s when he marched into the Brisbane CIB and confessed.
At his 1943 trial, Collins pleaded guilty and represented himself. While cross-examining Sylvia, he actually took the unprecedented step of asking her to marry him. Sylvia didn’t hesitate and said yes in what must be one of the most remarkable romantic courtroom romantic scenes in history.
Upon sentencing Collins, the chief justice Sir William Webb complained that there was too much bigamy going on. In fact, this was his seventh case in eight weeks. The chief justice sentenced Collins to nine months hard labour, but surprisingly this was fully suspended with a twelve-month £50 good behaviour bond. He was free to return to the army and then be discharged.
Collins and Sylvia legally married shortly after the trial and went onto to have four children together, and in the post-war building boom Collins worked as a railway bridge carpenter.
But then something happened to end this unusual love story.
In 1950 while Collins was working on a bridge outside of Mackay, a girder suddenly rolled down and crushed his head, killing this story’s anti-hero.
And so the father of four, once husband of two, was dead, and one of the great wartime courtroom love stories was finished.
CLICK HERE TO LISTEN TO A VERSION OF THIS STORY TOLD LIVE ON RADIO.
Harold Collins and Gladys Clarke – Truth, Brisbane, 4th April 1943, page 19.
Harold Robert Collins, 1940 enlistment photos – National Archives of Australia.
Munitions factory Rocklea Brisbane, 1941 – State Library of Queensland.
Chief justice Sir William Webb, 1940 – State Library of Queensland.