Miss Jessie Pile was the youngest daughter of wealthy South Australian pastoralist James Pile. James had built a ten room mansion at Gawler called Oaklands, and when the rest of her immediate family passed away Miss Pile lived on at the property alone. She became increasingly eccentric, dressing in clothes from a bygone era and rarely emerging from the house, which was guarded by savage dogs. She died in June 1931, aged 85.
Miss Pile’s estate was valued at £101,000, but surprisingly she did not leave a will. It was a blow for the charities her family had always supported, as they had hoped for substantial bequests.
In October an auction was held to dispose of the house and its contents. Curious locals who took the opportunity to see inside were shocked. White ants had caused terrible damage, with beds falling through floors and fine furniture destroyed. One item that had survived was an old Victorian barouche, with glass doors, bright green blinds and velvet upholstery. On the front seat was the coachman’s black top hat. (source- Bunyip, October 23 1931)
It’s interesting to see the carriage wheel marks in the photo of Oaklands below.
Six month’s after Miss Pile died, the Public Trustee received an astonishing letter that changed everything. It was from Joseph Kelly, of South Gawler. He said that he had attended the estate auction at Oakland and bought one of the old armchairs. While he was restoring it he found a document concealed in the upholstery, which turned out to be a will. Kelly enclosed the recently written will in which Miss Pile had left her entire estate to her daughter-in-law Mrs John Pile (nee Smith) and her young grandson Rex, aged two.
The suggestion that Miss Pile would have had an illegitimate child was so shocking it was difficult to believe.
Investigations began and it emerged that the 23 year old beneficiary, known as Maisie, was living in the Adelaide suburb of Brighton with her young son Rex. She had previously resided in Gawler with her parents, Frank and Jeanette. The Smith family had been well known in Gawler. Maisie was a talented entertainer and growing up in the town she had performed in concerts and pantomimes. She had later toured the country with a dance company.
When the family were interviewed by the Public Trustee’s solicitor Mr. Brazel, Maisie said that yes, she had married John Pile, the father of her two year old son. She said the marriage took place in Sydney in 1928, but that Pile since left her and she didn’t know where he was. She expressed complete surprise over the will. Had her husband ever contacted Miss Pile? Well yes, Maisie said he had written to her on one occasion and had been invited to call at Oaklands. She also claimed to have have been visited by the old lady when she was living in Glenelg;
‘Maisie then told Mr Brazel that an old lady called at the house one day about a year ago and wanted to adopt her son. She described the lady as having a wig and being dressed in the old-fashioned way and wearing “a lot of old jewellery‘. (News, February 3 1932) The inference was that the caller was Miss Pile.
The story sounded highly improbable, especially as Kelly, the man said to have found the will in a chair, could not be located. It was at this stage that police became involved. Detectives Dayman and Grow accused the entire Smith family of fabricating the will and of inventing the marriage of Maisie and the man called John Pile for financial gain. Maisie’s mother Jeanette, aged 45, then confessed that she had written the will. However, she later retracted this, claiming that the detectives had bullied her into it with threats of detaining her husband and daughter and removing the young child from them.
Inquiries in Sydney revealed there was no trace of a marriage. Asked to provide written evidence, Maisie produced two letters purporting to be from her absent spouse.
The first was addressed from S.S. Royalite, Great Lakes, Canada on January 18, 1930. The letter, including the “signature”, was typed;
Dear Maisie -Just a few lines to let you know that I am sill in the land of the living. I have finished up at L’Annociation and have now got to go to the States, and if I get a chance will write you from there and give you the address. I want you to send me a photo of Rex, but not until you hear from me again, because I don’t want it to follow me around the world.
Well dear, I don’t know when I will be coming back to Australia. I am on a good thing at present, and intend to stick to it as long as I can, but keep your pecker up and be a good little girl, and when I return things will be a lot different. I think this is about all for now, not much of a letter from a loving husband to his wife, but you understand why it is not wise for me to write too much kiddo, so will close with much love to yourself and Rex; also regards to your parents, even if they don’t want them. Yours as ever, JACK
The second letter was dated July 7 1931. Jack was still in Canada and wrote;
I came on here from Montreal, and expect to be here for a while, then maybe back to New York. I hope you and little Rex are O.K. I suppose he is quite a big baby now. Things are pretty tight here, so hope I won’t have to stay too long……Dear, I am a bad letter writer or a bad typist. I don’t know which; think it must be the former, because if I didn’t have the machine you wouldn’t hear from me at all. I guess there are some people who wish you had never heard of me. Well dear, I’m feeling blue so will close now. Regards to the family and much love to yourself and the little chap. Yours as B4, JACK.
When the case eventually went to trial it was revealed that Maisie had written the letters from Canada herself. Young Rex was illegitimate, and Maisie claimed she invented the marriage simple to ‘stop people talking’ and that it had nothing to do with Miss Pile’s will.
But the court found that Jeanette Smith had forged the will, and that the story of Maisie marrying John Pile was all part of a conspiracy to defraud Miss Pile’s nieces and nephews. Frank Smith was cleared of any involvement. When a sentence of one year with hard labour was announced on both women Maisie Smith remained calm. However, her mother almost collapsed and had to be assisted from the courtroom.
Below is a portion of Oaklands, photographed in 2018. It has been divided into two homes and there is little left to show its former glory. The lovely grounds have completely vanished.
Jessie Pile was buried in the Pile family plot at Gawler’s Willaston cemetery. An arrow marks her inscription.