In August 1945 Manchester born Mrs Ethel Livesey arrived in Sydney’s wealthy Eastern Suburbs. She was a larger than life character, who enjoyed the good things in life and delighted in entertaining.
The Sun newspaper published a piece on her hospitality towards Australian and American servicemen while she was living in Britain;
HOSTESS TO AUSSIES AT MANX HOME
Former globe trotter Mrs Ethel Livesey, has started her travels again and has arrived in Australia. She has come to see her sons, Lieut. Frank Livesey, RN, and Squadron Leader Basil Livesey, RAF, now in Adelaide, and to meet the families of hundreds of servicemen she entertained at her homes in the Isle of Man and in Wales.
Mrs Livesey will stay here for six months, then hopes to fly home via America, where she has invitations from the families of US servicemen she entertained during the war to visit every part of the country. (The Sun, Sept.30 1945)
The Hotel Australia was one of her favourite venues;
Tables massed with red roses decorated the ballroom of the Hotel Australia last night when Mrs E. Livesey of Edgecliff gave a dance there. Among her guests were Sir Frederick and Lady French, Dr and Mrs Geoffrey Maitland, Mr G. Fletcher. Mr and Mrs Roger Hardwick, Flight-Lieut. and Mrs Sharpe, Dr and Mrs Cunningham, Mrs Alfred White, of Adelaide and many Royal Naval officers. (The Sun, Oct 23 1945)
Ethel settled herself into a flat at Cumberland Court, Edgecliff. Word went around that she was a cotton manufacturing heiress. Within a few months she was well and truly part of the Sydney social scene, and had become acquainted with everyone of note in the city. She told her new friends that her husband had died during the London blitz and that her two sons had served in the war.
There was great surprise when the middle aged Ethel suddenly announced she was to marry James Rex Beech, a civil servant with the Treasury Department. The ceremony was to he held on December 8 at the fashionable All Saints’ Church at Woollahra. She was to be given away by another ‘fast tracked’ friend, Sir Frederick French. He was the former Commodore of the P.&O. shipping line. No expense was to be spared in the floral decorations within the church and it was arranged that a flock of doves would be released as she said ‘I do’. The honeymoon was to be spent at the luxurious Carrington Hotel, at Katoomba, in the Blue Mountains. A guest list that began with six names reached the hundreds within days.
Soon, plans had grown to such proportions that the bride-to-be had to hire a housekeeper, and a private secretary, Miss Joyce Derry.
WEDDING DAY WORRIES
On the morning of the wedding it was announced that the bride was becoming stressed and ill due to the glare of publicity. Secretary Derry said that her employer’s marriage in All Saints’ would be replaced by a quiet ceremony at the Darling Point residence of Dr W.D. Cunningham, Ethel’s physician. The doctor said he only really knew Mrs Livesey as a patient, but had offered the use of his home because he felt sorry for her. As many guests as possible were contacted and asked to bypass the exchange of vows and go straight to the reception. In the Blue Mountains the couple’s reservation was changed to a ‘best room’ instead of the bridal suite.
Meanwhile, preparations continued and the bride and her attendants assembled for a group photo. In a rapid elevation from secretary to personal friend, the bridesmaid was Joyce Derry. Mrs Cunningham the doctor’s wife was drafted in as one of three matrons of honour.
The flower girl, 7 year old Marigold Dezarnaulds, was to carry Ethel’s 36 diamond wedding ring on a satin cushion.
Oh yes, and here is the splendid Ethel, photographed alone in her orchid pink wedding dress. It was created by the French designer Molyneaux, and flown in from Paris. Rare orchids made up her bouquet and corsage.
A lavish reception had been booked at the Hotel Australia, with unlimited champagne laid on for the hundreds of guests. The centrepiece was a spectacular, four tier wedding cake.
BUT WAIT! MRS LIVESEY IS JILTED
An hour or so before the 6.00pm wedding, the groom turned up at Ethel’s flat accompanied by a solicitor. A lengthy chat ensued before Mr Beech and his legal man left. Ethel promptly collapsed, took off her dress and went to bed. The marriage was off, just as the limousines were pulling up outside the flat.
Oh the disappointment and embarrassment for the would-be attendants. They shielded their faces from waiting photographers as they left. What on earth could have gone wrong?
The fact was, James Beech had discovered that his bride was not the person he or anyone else believed her to be.
Meanwhile a huge crowd of onlookers had gathered outside the Hotel Australia. When the bridal party failed to arrive they felt let down. A chant of ‘Where is the Bride?‘ went up to the tune of ‘Here Comes the Bride‘.
The invited guests began to arrive in evening gowns and dinner suits, only to be told that the bride had become too unwell to go through with the marriage.
Mrs Livesey, who weighs almost 20 stone, was said to be suffering from a severe attack of arthritis in the legs. (The Sun, Dec. 9)
Mr Johnson, the hotel’s head caterer. announced that Mrs Livesey wished the reception to go ahead. The unlimited champagne had been cancelled, and the cake remained uncut, but after some initial awkwardness the party began. Eighteen waiters filled plates with expensive delicacies and cocktails and liqueurs were served. Some couples even took to the dance floor. The well known singer Jean Hatton, originally booked to sing at the wedding, entertained guests with ‘Lo! Here the Gentle Lark‘. The following photos are from The Sun, on December 9.
Mr Johnson probably regretted allowing the reception to continue, as it turned out that his wife had lent the charming Mrs Livesey £500.
At 6.30 am the following morning, the jilted bride left her flat with six suitcases and a hatbox in tow. Word leaked out that Sydney society (and her intended husband) had been duped by a serial imposter. Over the years she had used so many names it was hard to keep track of them. Gardiner and Livesey were just two of the more recent ones
MRS LIVESEY – WANTED WOMAN
Where did she go? Well, a lot of people wanted to know that, including the police.
Eventually she was located and called to account; she probably needed that cigarette!
THE WEDDINGS GIFTS PRESENTED A PROBLEM
To find suitable presents for Mrs Livesey, some of the guests had scoured the shops in the week before the wedding. They wanted mostly Venetian glass, said to be collected by the bride. But when they heard the price of the only good Venetian glass available in Sydney (up to £6 for one wineglass), they jibbed and turned to crystal instead. Most popular selections: decanters, wine and sherry glasses, pieces of fine china. Said a Castlereagh Street dealer; ‘Many of the guests were obviously buying above their pockets, because they knew the bride was wealthy. One said to me; ‘She’s used to the best. I don’t want anything cheap.’ (The Daily Telegraph, Dec. 16 1945)
When the wedding was called off, people were stuck with the presents and tried to sell them back to the dealers. Few were successful because of a widespread strike at the time. People out of work were selling pieces of china and crystal to stay afloat, in a market described as the worst since the second year of the war.
JAMES ACHIEVES SOME JUSTICE
Poor James Beech had been lucky to escape Ethel’s clutches, but his troubles were by no means over. She had the cheek to sue him for breach of promise….claiming £10,000 no less; for hurt feelings, money spent on the cancelled wedding etc etc. Beech countered by saying Mrs Livesey (so called) was not the moral woman she purported to be. He had been informed of her adulterous relationship with a James Livesey in London. And then there was the litany of lies about her financial circumstances, such as her claim of owning a string of properties, including a chateau at Monte Carlo and a manor house in Wales.. As for owning a luxury yacht on which she insisted she had entertained the Duke of Windsor, that was complete nonsense. He did win the case in the end, but only after a lot of trouble.
Before much could be done in Sydney, authorities in Adelaide demanded ‘Mrs Livesey’ face charges of false pretenses and larceny dating back to 1933. She had some harsh words for her former pals in Sydney when she arrived.
The verdict did not go her way (what a surprise!) and she was sent off to gaol. Was it the end of her criminal career? Not by a long shot, although my story ends at this point.
NOTE – One fact about ‘Mrs Livesey was established beyond doubt. The surname she was born with was….SWINDELLS. Oh the irony. 😎
Author Freda Nicholls told the whole, bizarre story of Ethel Livesey;
🚩 WOULD YOU LIKE TO HEAR ETHEL’S OWN REACTION TO THE EVENTS OF 1945? IF SO, CLICK HERE