Her birth name was Florence Elizabeth Ethel Swindells – and how ironic its letters can be rearranged to represent what she did through life, swindle – but it was just the first of the forty-odd names she gained or assumed through life.
The light, bright and thoroughly entertaining book The Amazing Mrs Livesey by Australian author Freda Marnie Nicholls tells how Ethel was born into a respectable family, made some bad decisions and ran away from what she saw as an unnecessary complication. From that moment on, she established for herself a life that became a succession of runs and complications.
Over the years, we have come to know the stories of many Australian imposters, cheats, swindlers and con artists. Some of the better known from earlier times are Murray Beresford Roberts and Barbara Turner Taylor. In more recent years, we’ve heard the escapades of the likes of Peter Foster and Jody Harris. I doubt, though, any would hold a candle to the remarkable Mrs Livesey – about whom I had no previous knowledge – especially had she the benefit of the electronic aids available now to the modern manipulator. Then again, better modern means of communication may have acted to her detriment. Perhaps…
Ethel falsified records to marry Alec Carter in her hometown, Manchester, three months short of her 18th birthday. Alec went off to fight on the Western Front in 1916, leaving Ethel, four months pregnant, with his family. She lived well on her dependent payment of better than £6 a week. Later, on return to her own family, this liberal amount was eked out even further by her generous father. Ethel’s money all went on clothes, shoes and trips to the movies. In fact, Ethel likened herself to at least one actress.
Ethel’s world came apart with receipt of a letter advising that Alec was missing in action, presumed dead. She had visions of his body lying in the fields of battle and stopped eating. For the sake of the baby, she was coaxed to take some amount of sustenance; she gave birth shortly after. Unable to face the baby, she packed a few belongings and walked away from her parents’ home. This was the start of a multiplicious life that brought both gain and pain, that took her to many different countries, predominantly Australia, and ensured she would enter the annals of crime as a superstar among cheats and frauds.
One of the most amazing episodes in her amazing life had to do with her Sydney society ‘Wedding of the Century,’ an event that never took place. Her lies and deceit caught up with her, the groom calling off the ceremony at the last minute. The lavish reception at the Australia Hotel still went ahead, with invited guests and others having a wonderful time.
I am not going to tell you a lot about Ethel Swindells and all the other people she became because I think you should pop out to your local Dymocks and get a copy of the book to read. That is not a ‘cop out’ so much as a belief that The Amazing Mrs Livesey, although the story of an actual charlatan perhaps already known to many (if not me), is interesting enough to be treated as a crime thriller.
This is a carefully researched treatise that records details of her lying; of the gullible people she sucked in and whose money she divested; her traipsing back and forth between England and Australia and through the Australian states; and not least the children she bore and deserted. It was a comfortable two-night read and kept me thoroughly entertained. Ethel was a woman of incredible moral turpitude or, as my dear old Mum would have said, a real tart, a trollop.
None of which explains the name used in the book’s title. Well, let me just say she became Mrs Livesey by deed poll. Oh, and when a death notice was published for a Mrs Florence Ethel Livesey in Clare in 1953, was it really her…?
Dymocks await your visit.
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