A swindler often goes by many names and when a Sydney crook with a nefarious plan turned up in Hobart in January 1870, he was calling himself Alexander Lambert.

He booked in at the The Rock Hotel in Elizabeth Street. After a couple of weeks he departed, with a couple of bottles of brandy, but no word of explanation. He left behind a rather weighty box, presumably as assurance that he would be back to pay his bill. Mr Moore, the landlord, certainly hoped so. When Moore heard that Lambert had only moved up the street to the Old Bell Hotel, run by Mrs Smith, he wandered along and asked Lambert what was going on.

ELIZABETH STREET (Source, University of Tasmania)

Well, said Lambert, the landlady here has allowed me to store three barrels of brandy in the backyard. He said he had commenced a little business as a wine and spirit merchant.


Now it turned out that the wily Lambert was making a lot of money for very little outlay. He had managed to insert a small bag inside the casks at the tap hole, which he filled with the brandy obtained from the Rock Hotel. To show ‘good faith’, he would test that liquor in front of customers by using a Sykes hydrometer; an instrument used for calculating the alcohol content of spirits.

Hydrometer similar to the one used by swindler Lambert

He filled the rest of the cask with water, which he was selling in hogsheads (smaller casks) to unsuspecting publicans. Mind you, some people would say that Tassie’s water is as good as any spirit! šŸ˜Ž

An aggrieved customer must have blown the whistle on the scam, and Mr Lambert decamped on the coach to Launceston. In what must have been an advanced detection method for the time, a photo of the fugitive was forwarded to the Superintendent of Police. Lambert was identified and nabbed at the Wharf Boarding House in George Street, where he was calling himself John Robert Nelson. He was no doubt waiting for the next Sydney bound vessel.

It was actually the theft of the hydrometer that he was charged with back in Hobart.

When Mr Moore at The Rock heard of the arrest he was relieved that he still had Lambert’s trunk. With a bit of luck the contents could be sold to cover the trickster’s outstanding bill. However, when opened it was found to be filled with ….rocks! Oh the irony.


Thirteen years later, police in Sydney were alerted to a new wine and spirit store in Sussex Street. The proprietor had no licence, which aroused suspicion;

One day last week two policemen were told to search the premises, a warrant having been duly taken out beforehand to arrest the occupant of the premises if the suspicions entertained were discovered to be founded. The police entered by the front door, and Mr Lambert possibly went out by the back …..The casks were sounded and found to be full. Then they were tapped by means of a sampler, and of course ‘tasted’ and the liquor was good. But on closely inspecting one of the casks it was found that a tube was let in through the bunghole, and fastened thereto neatly by means of brass fastenings, and that the liquor was confined to this little tube, the remaining contents of the cask being water. All the casks were found to be the same. (Evening News Sat. Oct 13 1883.)

Oh dear, it seems the wretched swindler had refined his technique since Hobart, though not quite enough. I was amused that of his many aliases, including Davidson, Smith, Norton, Cameron and Mitchell, he chose to use Lambert again, all those years later. It must have been one he reserved for spirit scams. šŸ˜Ž


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