Lofty Prentice: a complicated criminal.
Lofty Prentice: a complicated criminal.

The violent veteran who made an enemy of Squizzy Taylor

Lofty Prentice was a veteran of two wars. He was also a thief, a pimp, a street fighter and an international conman. Rumours were that he'd been sentenced to death during the Boer War for treason. In 1907, Squizzy Taylor and his gang beat him mercilessly for bullying the prostitutes of Fitzroy. His life didn't get any less complicated after that.

William Edward 'Lofty' Prentice was born in 1878 at Mathoura, a town in the NSW Riverina.

He grew up breaking in horses and swinging an axe in the red gum forests. He was over 6ft 2, incredibly strong, and very handy with his fists.

In 1901 he joined the military and set sail for the Boer War in South Africa. Though invalided back to Australia, his ailments were not permanent, and shortly after his return he embarked on a career as a bookmaker. This venture didn't last long. He was sent to prison for a month for not paying out on a bet.

After he got out of jail he started hanging around with a gang of pickpockets. This didn't work out so well either as he was sent back to prison for 3 months for being a suspected person.

A police report from Senior Constable Brown in 1918 explains the next part of Lofty Prentice's life quite well:

"In reference to this man, his reputation is bad. He is a convicted thief and previous to WW1 was strongly suspected of robbing girls of their handbags at Snowden Gardens, and on one occasion six men of the criminal class stood their trial for assaulting him, their defence being his ill-treatment to prostitutes when they did not give him sufficient money."

The infamous Squizzy Taylor. This photo was taken in the same year his gang bashed Prentice
The infamous Squizzy Taylor. This photo was taken in the same year his gang bashed Prentice

The six men referred to were led by an 18-year-old Squizzy Taylor. His gang were living in south Fitzroy at the time, and the area was known for street prostitution.

One of them, Charlie Currie, had witnessed Lofty striking a prostitute connected with their gang. Currie tried to intervene but was much smaller and stood no chance.

The clash sparked a running battle between Squizzy's gang - and Lofty and his associates.

During one encounter, Lofty threatened to gouge Squizzy's guts out with a broken bottle.

They got Lofty in the end though. Squizzy's brother, Claude, covered him with a gun.

"Take your medicine or you'll lose your brains", he said - and the rest of them, Squizzy included, beat him with iron bars, lumps of wood, boots and revolver butts.

At the beginning of WW1 Lofty enrolled in the military again. While at the Broadmeadows training camp, rumours about his Boer War service arose.

There was a belief among his military superiors, and police stationed at the camp, that he'd been court-martialled for treason and sentenced to death in 1902.

Lieutenant Harry (Breaker) Morant, an Australian soldier of Bush Veldt Carbineers, executed by British firing squad in 1902 after being convicted of murdering Boer prisoners in Pretoria.
Lieutenant Harry (Breaker) Morant, an Australian soldier of Bush Veldt Carbineers, executed by British firing squad in 1902 after being convicted of murdering Boer prisoners in Pretoria.

It was their opinion that, though an Australian Officer named Breaker Morant had been executed by the British, Lofty had escaped the firing squad by having his sentence downgraded.

Because of these rumours Lofty was dismissed as an undesirable. He subsequently lodged

complaints with the Chief Commissioner of Police and a Federal Member of parliament.

His Boer War records were investigated, and the rumours found to be false. He was then reinstated with full back pay. One of his military superiors was dismissed, and a police constable was transferred from the camp as a result.

After the war Lofty moved to London and worked as a conman there. Preying on tourists, he posed as a wealthy Australian grazier and sold to them properties and shares he didn't own. He married an English woman in 1930 and they had two daughters. By 1933 he'd served another two prison sentences.

In 1934 he returned to Australia with his wife and kids. The following year, when charged over a property investment scam, he jumped bail and returned to London.

This time he was not only preying on tourists, but refugees from Nazi Germany. He posed as both an Army Colonel and wealthy grazier - and offered to use his influence with the Australian government to have them resettled in Australia.

He even offered to assist in transferring funds to set up their businesses in Australia. He was charged twice for this racket in 1940.

Lofty Prentice's eldest daughter (left).
Lofty Prentice's eldest daughter (left).

He returned to Australia in 1949 and moved into the wealthy suburb of East Melbourne. This time his reputation didn't seem to follow. His daughters were in their late teens and they dazzled Melbourne's social circuit.

Their photos were regularly on the social pages, and their outfits described in intricate detail. They were both married by 1953, their weddings featured in the press.

Lofty was a real estate agent and property developer in Melbourne before retiring in the early

1950s. This time there were no reports of foul play.

Lofty died of bronchopneumonia in Melbourne in 1962, aged 84.

Michael Shelford is the host of Melbourne Historical Crime Tours

 

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