Monday, July 4, 2011

Across the Border: Rushcutters Bay: People: Lester Sinclair

I received an email recently from Canberra-based writer Chris Vening who is writing a biography about Australian author Lester Sinclair (above), who wrote and published children's books during the war years under the pen-name John Mystery. Sinclair was born in the UK in 1894 and migrated to Australia from New Zealand, where he had joined a circus.
Sinclair wrote about 300 John Mystery books and they were massively successful. According to historian Derrick Moors, between 1944 and 1946 Woolworths supermarket chain signed a contract with Mystery's publisher, Publicity Press, for 9.5 million copies of around 230 different titles. 

Many of the books were printed on poor quality and yellow paper because that was all that was available during the war. Moors notes that in My Little Sailor's Book, Mystery wrote a note to his readers apologising for the shortage of books and reminding them that, ''the fighting services must of course, come first in everything and, therefore, paper for my books is not so easy to obtain as in normal times . . . the government has been good to us, and everyone is doing everything possible to give you books.''

Moors also says one of the ''enduring'' aspects of the books is Mystery's Dear Cobber letters, in which he encouraged his young readers to write to him at Adventure Castle, Sydney:

Sinclair built the folly, Adventure Castle, at Illawong on the Georges River in Sydney's southern suburbs and lived there with his wife, Ellen Sinclair, who was a cook book author and food writer with The Women's Weekly in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. Unfortunately the castle has since been demolished and replaced by units, although some of Sinclair's commissioned animal carvings, by artist Ilja Chapman, still survive in the sandstone cliffs of the property. 
Before Sinclair moved to the castle, he lived at The Alexander apartment building on Bayswater Road in Rushcutters Bay. And that is why Vening wrote to me. 

According to Vening, Sinclair lived at 11/67 Bayswater Road between about 1938 and 1942 and this was the period when he met Ellen. I'm afraid I was not much help to Vening as I could find absolutely nothing about the Alexander building in the usual archives that I trawl. 

But I did refer him to Trove and other online archives and he was able to find a reference to The Alexander from 1919, when it was apparently 35 Bayswater Road, not number 67. I actually think the building looks like it's from a later period, say late 1920s, early 30s, but I am no expert on architecture. 

I was going to buzz number 11 and see if I could convince the resident to let me have a look for Vening's sake, but then I really don't want to enhance my reputation as a local weirdo any further.
Anyway, if you know anything about The Alexander, its history and residents, specifically in the period when Sinclair lived there; or if you have any old photographs of the building, please contact Vening:
Sinclair died on October 5, 1974. I can't wait to read Vening's book, as Sinclair's life sounds quite colourful. 

Sinclair Picture Source: State Library of Victoria
Adventure Castle Picture Source: Sutherland Shire Council Library

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