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During that year Fremantle sheltered for a time that prince of romancers, the notorious Louis de Rougemont. His real name was Louis Grin and he arrived in the colony as a valet to Governor Robinson. A Swiss by birth, but able to speak English fluently, he was a suave and voluble individual and by his oily tongue succeeded in duping several Fremantle tradespeople, from whom he obtained advances to prosecute a pearling venture, which advances he never repaid. Among his victims were Pearse and Owston and John McCleery, but the person on whose gullibility he worked most was a reputedly wealthy old gentleman named Coulson, who was staying at the same hostel. He cajoled that simple-minded old gentleman into financing him in the purchase and outfitting of the cutter Ada. In that vessel he sailed from Fremantle and his creditors saw no more of him or his lugger. In the course of time it was reported that he and his crew had been killed by natives in the far North-West, but it was afterwards learned that he had made his way around to Torres Straits and finally landed in England. The Wide World Magazine published thrilling stories of his adventures and exploits, and they made his name famous, earning for him the sobriquet of the modern Munchausen. During his stay in Fremantle de Rougemont lodged at the boarding house kept by G. A. Seubert, a three-storey building that stood on the present site of the Union Bank. It was the best establishment of its kind at the time and was the favourite resort of the North-West pearlers as well as of shipmasters, who in those days spent most of their time on shore while their ships were lying out in the roadstead, the discharging and loading being done by lightering. The pearlers flocked from the North-West in large numbers during the off season and before steam communication with the Eastern States they went no further than Fremantle. Being well equipped with money, they made things hum in the town during their stay. Much has been heard of the 'Roaring Nineties' of the golden era, but many old residents retain pleasant memories of the 'Roaring Seventies' of the pearling era. Hitchcock 1929: 58.
Hitchcock, J.K. 1921, 'Early Days of Fremantle: De Rougemont—The Man of Romance', Fremantle Times, Friday 21 January 1921: 2.
From time to time paragraphs appear in the English press announcing some fresh freak of that modern Munchausen, Louis de Rougemont. His name frequently cropped up during the war, and it is a marvel to me that a man of such infinite resource as he claimed to possess did not invent some deadly means of annihilating the Huns at one fell swoop. But perhaps "a fellow-feeling made him wondrous kind."
I knew this celebrity intimately, having lodged at the same boarding house with him in 1875. He was then known as Louis Grin. The boarding house was kept by the late Mrs. Seubert, and occupied the site on which the Union Bank now stands at the corner of High and Cliff-streets. It was the favourite resort of the North-West pearlers (of whom Mr. Seubert had been one) when they come south for their annual holidays, and was also largely patronised by sailing ship captains, who, in those days, spent most of their long stay in port on shore, their ships lying out in Gage Roads, and being loaded and unloaded by lighters.
Louis Grin (for that was the real patronymic of the notorious de Rougemont) was a sturdy, well set-up young fellow, and a native of Switzerland, but spoke English fluently. He was said to have come to this State as a valet to Governor Robinson. He was about 5 feet 8 inches in height, had a broad forehead, firm chin, dark penetrating eyes, and wore a black moustache with shortside whiskers. He leaned slightly to the right in his gait, as though one leg was shorter than the other. When I knew him he was 25 years of age, so that if he is still alive—and by press reports he is very much so—he must now be over 70. His build somehow gave one the idea of latent strength, though he made a very poor show in a fistic encounter with the late J. M. Finnerty, who subsequently became one of the best known of Western Australian magistrates. It is only fair to say, however, that the future warden, who was over 6 feet in height, was no ordinary antagonist, he being fresh from the fields of Rugby, where the noble art of self-defence was doubtless well cultivated. The two brothers, Charles and John Finnerty, were lodging in the same hostel, and one day an argument between the latter and Grin became so heated that it culminated in a fight. Grin got the worst of the encounter, and forthwith took out a summons against John Finnerty for an alleged unprovoked assault. He enlisted the sympathy of an old sea captain named Embleton, who, although present at the fight, was too intoxicated to know what occurred, yet swore in court that Finnerty was the aggressor, the result being that the magistrate, the late J. G. Slade, fined the defendant 5s. I was a witness for Finnerty, but being a beardless youth at the time, I suppose the magistrate accepted the ancient mariner's testimony in preference to mine.
Louis Grin (de Rougemont) was suave and voluble, and by his oily tongue succeeded in duping several Fremantle tradespeople, from whom he obtained advances to prosecute a pearling enterprise, and which advances he never repaid. Perhaps his greatest victim was a simple but reputedly wealthy old gentleman named Coulson, who, with his young and attractive wife, was staying at the same boarding house. This lady was a brilliant conversationalist, and could talk on any subject, and although the old gentleman himself did not perceive it, all the other boarders were not slow to discern that the relations between her and Grin were too lover-like to be purely platonic. She, too, had been one of Governor Robinson's suite, and gave herself out as Grin's cousin, though she was as unmistakably English as he was undoubtedly foreign. Anyway, the unsuspecting Coulson was so hypnotised by Grin that he was prevailed upon to finance the pearling undertaking to a considerable amount. He, with his wife, departed for England soon after Grin left Fremantle for the scene of his turtle-riding exploits, and it is safe to assume that the advances he made to that worthy were never repaid.
Grin was always well dressed, but towards the end of his stay in Fremantle, when he was fitting out the cutter Ada for his pearling enterprise, he discarded his fashionable suits, and took to a more nautical style of attire. Although he spoke with a distinct foreign accent he had a great command of language and was always eager to join in an argument on any subject. He professed to have travelled extensively on the Continent and in South America, and could always relate some wonderful experience or feat of own that would eclipse anything that anybody else could relate—and there were some pretty tall yarns told by some of the old sea-captains and pearlers who were staying at the house. Meal times were quite animated periods, for there were several lodgers who were always ready to take up the gauntlet when Louis embarked upon his verbal pyrotechnics. Among them I can recall the names of Mr. Jas. Roe (leader writer of the Herald of the day, and formerly an Anglican clergyman); Mr. D. B. Francisco (a cultured and widely-read gentleman, who was Comptroller of Stores at the Prison); Mr. Jas. Brewer (entomologist and author); Mr. Elias Solomon (merchant); Dr. Thiselton (retired army surgeon); and Mr. Horace Stirling (telegraph master at Fremantle, and afterwards one of the proprietors of the Morning Herald). All of these gentlemen, with the exception of my old friend Mr. Stirling ("Hugh Kalyptus") have passed the Great Divide. With such an array of controversial talent opposed to him, poor Grin often had a warm time, but he was never dismayed. In the arguments he was ably seconded by his lady friend, Mrs Coulson, who invariably sided with him; she was even more voluble than himself, and was remarkably well informed on a variety of subjects in which women usually take little interest.
Notwithstanding Grin's penchant for differing in opinion with everybody, he was exceedingly suave, and one of his most marked characteristics was obsequiousness to those from whom he might expect some favour, whilst he plainly showed his disdain for those whom he regarded as his inferiors. Some of the rough-looking pearlers were the butts of his sarcasm, until he discovered that they were men of means, when his attitude towards them changed almost to servility. One of them, a hard case named Bobbie Bax, sized him up nicely, and gave him great offence by referring to him as "Frenchie."
The meek and elderly husband of the young and fascinating Mrs. Coulson seemed, to be of no account in Grin's estimation, for he openly flirted with the lady, even in the old gentleman's presence. True, he was supposed to be her cousin, but there are not many husbands who would permit such attention being paid to their wives, even by their cousins. Nevertheless, the old gentleman seemed to be so much under his influence as to have agreed to finance him in his pearling venture to the extent of purchasing the Ada for him. The fitting of her and the supply of a good stock of stores was done principally at the cost of Messrs Pearse and Owston and Mr John McCleery, whom he cajoled into giving him extended credit. However, after he sailed from Fremantle in the Ada they saw no more of either him or his lugger. In the course of time it was reported that he and his crew had been killed by the natives in the far North-West. Communication with the North-West by sailing vessel was slow and infrequent in those days, and it was not long before Grin was forgotten. It was learned afterwards that he had made his way round to Torres Straits, and that he had finally landed in England where he gulled the editor of the Wide World Magazine with the thrilling stories which have made his name famous. From my personal knowledge of his gifts as a romancer, I can readily understand the conductors of that periodical being deceived into the belief that he was narrating actual facts, when in reality he was drawing upon the resources of his fertile imagination.
There seems little doubt, however, that De Rougemont's stories did have some foundation in fact, and that he actually did live for some time among the blacks, or was well posted by someone who had, for it is said that the knowledge of their habits and customs which his narrative betrays is remarkably accurate.
One amusing incident in connection with De Rougemont's stay at Seubert's boarding house may be mentioned. Someone put a quantity of cayenne pepper or some other irritant, in his bed. Whatever it was it gave him a very bad time, and by the morning he had convinced himself that some strange malady had overtaken him. He rushed off early to Dr Attfield, and gave such a graphic account of his symptoms that the doctor, too, was deceived, and thought there was something wrong. He prescribed for him, and Louis soon got right again.
Grin, or de Rougemont, may have performed deeds of "derring do" among the savages of the North-West; he may have been King with several dusky queens, and he may have astonished them with his agility in riding on the backs of turtles—and he may not. At least he has done one service, and that is to hand down to posterity a new word. If you desire to put a fine point on your language, you have only to call a man a "de Rougemont," and your meaning will be as well understood as if you had used an expressive little word of four letters.
I do not know how many wives De Rougemont has had in his time, but it would appear from the following notice in the London Daily Chronicle, of July 30, 1915, that he must have been as attractive to the fair sex when nearing three score years and ten as he was 40 years earlier, when the winsome Mrs Coulson was captivated by his blandishments:—
"Louis de Rougemont, whose famous story of riding a turtle startled the world some years ago, has been married in London at a West End registry office, the bride being Miss Thirza Cooper. - The lady carries on an occupation in Regent-street as a financial agent, under the name of 'Cooper,' mainly transacting business with clients in London and Paris. The wedding, according to one who was present, was quite a simple affair, no friends or relatives being present except a lady and gentleman well known in London society. Mons. de Rougemont looked well and happy, and bore himself in debonnair fashion. The bride was very charming in a well-cut tailor-made black and white check costume, with a black hat and simple black osprey—thoroughly Parisian.
"Mme. Louis de Rougemont is a strikingly handsome woman, possessed of considerable charm of manner, her personality being more French than English, although she was born of English parents. An uncle of the bride—now dead—was at one time, it is understood, a distinguished figure on the English stage, and Madame herself enjoys the reputation of being a clever amateur actress in artistic circles in London and Paris. When 21 years of age she married a French stockbroker in Paris, who committed suicide. She married again, and divorced her husband some time ago. And now, just to illustrate the French, 'Jamais deux sans trois,' she has married Louis de Rougemont. She met Louis de Rougemont in London for the first time some few months ago in connection with literary work, and found him a delightful 'child of Nature,' recounting for hours together tales true and marvellous. She has said, when discussing her husband with mutual friends before her marriage, 'One cannot be dull in the company of Louis de Rougemont. His imagination is livelier than that of other men. And then, when he presented the truth interestingly, the world called him an outrageous liar. I believe in him. One of the things they poured scorn upon him for was his statement that in Australia he saw the sun obscured by great flocks of wild ducks. Australian friends of mine have quite recently corroborated this, having seen the phenomenon themselves; and as for his ability to ride turtles, it is one thing for a young man to do, as he himself actually did, and quite another thing to expect an old man to repeat such youthful exploits. I believe in Louis de Rougemont. He will yet startle the world with the revelation of a great truth, and those who have thrown stones at him will live to see his name vindicated before the world.'
"M. and Mme. de Rougemont are now preparing for a trip to Australia in connection with a 'a highly interesting discovery,' the nature of which, however, is being kept a profound secret. For the present, they are quietly residing in London, Monsiur engaging himself in play-writing and in the study of the occult, in which latter science he has always delved deeply."
I fancy Monsieur Louis Grin de Rougemont's contemplated "trip to Australia" did not eventuate, as I have never heard of his reappearance in these latitudes, nor of his having "startled the world with the revelation of a great truth." The exploitation of a great "untruth" would be more in his line!
Hitchcock, J.K. 1921, 'Early Days of Fremantle: De Rougemont—The Man of Romance', Fremantle Times, Friday 21 January 1921: 2.
Hitchcock, JK 1929, The History of Fremantle, The Front Gate of Australia 1829-1929, Fremantle City Council.
Garry Gillard | New: 26 June, 2015 | Now: 10 July, 2020