Heritage: Historians track the life and crimes of ‘Texas Jack’
PUBLISHED: 15:00 20 June 2015 | UPDATED: 10:00 21 June 2015
Historians Dick Weindling and Marianne Colloms provide us with another account of an extraordinary resident from the past - this time ‘Texas Jack’.
In April 1936, Alexander Wardlaw was sentenced to two years imprisonment at the Old Bailey.
He told the court he was an actor, with the stage name ‘Texas Jack,’ and living in a room in Priory Road, West Hampstead. He called himself ‘Texas Jack’ because the best selling memoir of the American outlaw, stage coach and bank robber, Nathaniel ‘Texas Jack’ Reed (1860 to 1950), was published in 1936.
We investigated Alexander Wardlaw and found he had led a restless, colourful life where travel, thrill seeking and crime featured large.
The Youngest Boy in the Army:
Born in Dunfermline on 20 Feb 1902, the youngest son of Peter and Elizabeth Wardlaw, Alexander was known to friends and family as ‘Alick’.
His three older brothers joined the army during World War One. Peter signed up as a Corporal in the Grenadier Guards; William was with the Seaforth Highlanders and John (known as Jamie) was in the Royal Artillery.
Alexander was desperate to do his bit and in 1915 aged only thirteen, he tried to sign up several times and amazingly, on his third trip to the recruiting station, he was allowed to join the 7th Black Watch as a drummer boy. When his parents were taken in front of the local Dunfermline School Board for Alick’s non-attendance, the press saw a good story and sent a reporter to interview him in his barracks in September 1915.
Alick told a reporter in his strong accent: “Ay, I like sodjering better than the school. I was at the Queen Anne school, and ever since the War began I wanted to be a sodjer. When my brother Jamie joined the Royal Artillery I was the last left in the hoose. I tried to join up several times and at the third attempt I got in. When I went home and telt my mother she was fine pleased. All she said was, ‘See an’ keep yoursel’ clean if you gang away. Ye’ll no need to come hame to me dirty’.”
So far, he’d been drilling, carrying a heavy pack in training and working as a dispatch rider taking telegrams between bases in Scotland. He was looking forward to learning the drum and going abroad; he was particularly delighted with his pay of seven shillings a week.
At the hearing, the Chairman of the School Board beamed at the patriotic solder boy wearing his khaki uniform. Having been reassured that Alick’s education would not be neglected in the Army, bizarrely the Chairman chose not to intervene. Instead he told the hearing he hoped the boy would return to Dunfermline with three stripes on his arm!
Alick was in France for a week before his age was discovered and he was sent back to England and discharged on 4 August 1916.
In May 1919, he joined the Royal Scots Greys. Although his medical report said: ‘Clean, a healthy looking chap,’ he walked with a limp which interfered with marching and Alick was again discharged, this time as unfit, after just three months.
The young Wardlaw decided to travel the world. He tried farming in Australia, until the drought broke him. He knocked about the South Sea Islands for a spell; had a look at New Zealand, hiked all over the United States and Canada, where he whiled away the time with a bit of bootlegging.
We have a report of him in 1920 aged 18, working as a boundary rider on a sheep farm in Midkin, NSW Australia. Two of his brothers were also in Australia: Jamie was based in Western Australia and William was working as a railway employee at Tarro, a suburb of Newcastle NSW.
During his time in Australia Alexander took up acting and began his criminal career. That August he appeared at the Sydney Police Court charged with assaulting a man by the name of Hing War, with intent to rob him. Detectives said they had seen Wardlaw on 28 July at a house in Annandale, Sydney after receiving information that he had fired a shotgun at a Chinese man. In his defence Alexander said: “This is a lot of rot. I am mad on shooting and just took a shot at the man’s basket to see the effect.” He was found guilty and sentenced to one month hard labour.
He was still in Australia in April 1921 when he failed to appear at the Sydney Quarter Sessions to answer a charge of larceny. The New South Wales Police Gazette wanted him arrested and published his description:
He is 19 years old, 5 feet 8 or 9 inches tall. Long fair hair, clean shaven with a fresh complexion. He is dressed in a grey tweed suit with a grey tweed cap, tan lace up boots.
To avoid arrest Alexander left for London where he went into business for a while. Then he returned to his native Scotland, firmly resolved to settle down, but it wasn’t long before he was working his passage on a 400-ton boat from Glasgow bound for Sydney. He left the ship at Durban, and within half an hour secured work as overseer in a coal mine at £40 a month. His job, which was mainly superintending the native miners, involved him in several scuffles and ended in a fight with a very large man. Wardlaw won, but broke a knuckle on his right hand.
Big Game Hunter:
After a few months Wardlaw, who had saved a useful sum from his wages, decided to try big game hunting. He bought rifles and equipment, hired a tracker and gun bearer, and travelled to Rhodesia and Kenya. There he spent three years hunting elephants and lions, making a large amount of money from his exploits.
In November 1927 he married Nina Clara Wills in Durban; (the couple divorced in 1931). He was deported from Dar es Salaam in 1927. Later he was employed by the Kenya-Uganda Railway but was dismissed for insubordination. Then he was deported from Africa.
When he returned to Scotland in January 1928 he was interviewed by the Dundee Courier. He told the reporter that he had led a Smithsonian Chrysler Expedition from the US to capture game for the Washington Zoo. (This was a slight exaggeration, in fact the expedition to Tanganyika in 1926 was led by William Mann, the director of the National Zoo in Washington). Wardlaw recounted many adventures in the jungle including an encounter with a leopard that jumped on him and clawed his right arm. On his last expedition Wardlaw collapsed with blackwater fever (a complication of malaria), but managed to survive alone in the jungle for nine days. When he was found, natives carried him for 650 miles to a hospital in Albertville. He was blind for two months before recovering.
But life in Scotland lacked excitement and after just six months, Alexander decided to return to Africa. In June 1928 the correspondent of a London newspaper spoke to him the day before he sailed. The reporter wrote:
“Up and down the African coast, in native encampments and among the traders who deal in pelts and ivory, you are likely to hear strange tales of a young Scot who bids fair to earn for himself the title of ‘Lawrence of Africa’. His exploits are confined to game hunting, but his phenomenal success, the sureness of his hand and eye, and the hairbreadth escapes that have befallen him, have made Alexander Wardlaw a man of mystery and endless anecdotes.
“I tracked him down in London on the eve of his departure on another adventure into the dark places of the Belgian Congo. I found him a slight young man of 27, sandy-haired, and with eyes and hands that grew tense as he told, in a cool enough voice, of his thrill-packed life.
“One afternoon in Dunfermline he went with his mother on a visit to a woman who was locally famous for her power of second sight. ‘Alex,’ she said, ‘you will soon leave for Africa; you will lie for nights in the jungle when a stick will save you. And when I see you again you will bear scars on your arm and forehead, and a broken knuckle.’ Alex grinned at this, but the wander lust had him and he headed for Africa.”
He could not stay in one place for long and on the 8 September 1930 we find Alexander on the passenger list of the ‘SS Minnetonka’, arriving in London from New York. He is aged 28, occupation; horseman, address; 58 Victoria Street, Dunfermline, his parent’s home.
Back in England in July 1931 he was arrested again. Alexander Wardlaw, aged 29, who this time described himself as a journalist of Markham Street (off the Kings Road) Chelsea, was sentenced at St Albans to three months hard labour, after being found on premises with intent to commit a felony.
The Chief Constable of Hertfordshire said Wardlaw had been in Canada, Australia, America, South America and Africa. He had worked on the Kenya-Uganda Railway and also with a scientific expedition. He had spent a good deal of time as a big game hunter. In Bulawayo he was sentenced to 12 months hard labour for housebreaking and theft. He had escaped from prison and when captured, was sentenced to a further six months in prison. Wardlaw disputed he was sent to prison in Bulawayo, he said it was an asylum.
On the 15 July 1933 we again find him on a passenger list. This time Wardlaw now aged 31, sailed on the ‘SS Arlanza’ from Southampton to Buenos Aries. He described himself as a film actor and still gave the family address in Dunfermline.
He married again in Southwark in June, 1935. Florence G. Petty, his wife and a wealthy woman, left him a month later because she said he was always demanding money from her. That September he was interviewed by a reporter on his way to Addis Ababa to offer his services to ‘fight for the Emperor’ and it looks as though Wardlaw did fight in Abyssinia for a short period before returning to Scotland.
The situation was that Mussolini had threatened Haile Selassie in Abyssinia in a dispute over territory. There was considerable political activity from Britain, France and the League of Nations, but in October 1935 Italian troops invaded Abyssinia. On 2 May 1936 the Emperor was forced into exile and the Italian troops captured Addis Ababa three days later. Haile Selassie spent his exile years at Fairfield House, Bath. On 5 May 1941, he finally entered Addis Ababa and personally addressed the Ethiopian people, five years to the day since his 1936 exile.
His Old Bailey Trial:
After loosing track of Wardlaw for a few years, he was arrested in London in April 1936, after he had broken into a shop at 11 and 12 Dover Street, off Piccadilly. Harry Simonds worked there as a porter. When he was locking up the premises on 3 April he saw Wardlaw, who said he was waiting for a lady friend at the dancing school in the same building. Simonds went out but came back soon after to find Wardlaw hiding inside. He locked him in and went to get a policeman. When they returned they found Wardlaw surrounded by a group of people outside the restaurant next door. The manager of the restaurant said Wardlaw had jumped through into his kitchen and then run upstairs.
When arrested Wardlaw was found to be wearing a pair of cuff-links stolen from Sir Thomas Beecham, the famous conductor. The cuff links and a gold watch were taken on 19 March from Sir Thomas’ home at 16 Abbey Lodge, Park Road, St John’s Wood.
Wardlaw had the proceeds of other robberies in his possession and his rooms in Priory Road contained a considerable quantity of loot. The receipt for a safe deposit at Selfridges, rented in the name of “Texas Jack,” led to the recovery of more stolen property, which the police identified as the proceeds of 10 robberies. The manager of Selfridges said Wardlaw had rented the box for a year, giving an address in Belsize Road.
Wardlaw explained it wasn’t his property. His story was that en route to Abyssinia, he had stopped off at Marseilles, and it was there he met Miss Lucy Thompson, an auburn-haired beauty. He met Miss Thompson again on his return to England, and was waiting for her to come out of the dancing school when he was arrested. He said that Miss Thompson gave him the cuff-links saying they belonged to her brother Jose, who was dead. She also asked him to take care of all the other property.
Detective Sergeant A. McBain revealed that Wardlaw had five convictions recorded against him for robbery and other offences, here and abroad. Evidence was given about his travels and life in Africa. Since returning to England, Wardlaw had been employed by various film companies.
“He is regarded by us as an expert housebreaker,” continued Sergeant McBain, “inasmuch as when his premises were visited we found six pairs of new chamois gloves, the fingers of which were black as though they had been used in climbing stack pipes.”
Wardlaw was charged with a total of 12 offences, including breaking and entering and receiving stolen goods. Passing a sentence of two years with hard labour, Judge Dodson told Wardlaw, “I am sure it is my duty to send you to penal servitude. The amount of goods involved was something like £1,770. It is true that £1,150 worth, as the result of the energy and diligence of the police, has been recovered. It was not due to any goodness on your part.”
Wardlaw made a slight bow to the Judge, and then went jauntily down the steps of the dock to the cells.
After serving his time in prison, he set sail for South America. On 10 Sept 1938 he arrived in Buenos Aires on the ‘SS Highland Princess’ from London. On the passenger list he is shown as 35, an engineer living at 9 Colville Square, which is near Portobello Road. The next time we find him several years later arriving in Rio de Janeiro on 16 August 1942 as an engineer from London.
Unfortunately, after this we lose track of him completely and he just disappears.
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