Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Roberts, Murray Beresford (1919–1974)

by Malcolm Brown

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Murray Beresford Roberts (1919-1974), impostor and swindler, was born on 10 August 1919 at Brooklyn, Wellington, New Zealand, only child of New Zealand-born parents Andrew Murray Roberts, surveyor, and his wife Annie Isabelle, née Huckstep. On leaving Auckland Grammar School, Murray enrolled in medicine at the University of Otago, but did not complete his degree. One of his contemporaries noted his charming manner and his tendency to make extravagant claims about himself. In 1941 Roberts was fined £50 for acting as a locum tenens for a medical practitioner without being qualified. During World War II he posed as an assistant medical director, with the rank of brigadier, 3rd New Zealand Division, and boasted about having done postgraduate work in brain surgery in Moscow. In 1946 he moved to Australia and taught at several schools.

Falsely claiming university degrees, Roberts was employed in turn by Australian Paper Manufacturers Ltd and Imperial Chemical Industries of Australia and New Zealand Ltd. In Western Australia from 1947, he briefly edited the Kalgoorlie Miner. On 21 February 1949 at St Philip's Anglican Church, Cottesloe, he married Dorothy Elizabeth Bright, a typist; he gave his name as 'John Malcolm Cook'. The couple were to have one son before being divorced in 1955.

Always a rogue, Roberts frequently impersonated medical practitioners and schoolteachers even though he was convicted in several States. With his handsome appearance, 'plummy' voice, intelligence and wit, he obtained money and credit in Melbourne by claiming in June 1954 to be 'Professor Sir Leonard Jackson', the 'new prosecutor' at the [Petrov] royal commission into espionage. Next year in New South Wales he posed as a professor of neurosurgery to gain access to Goulburn gaol to interview a prisoner, and arranged to do a muscle graft at Goulburn Base Hospital on the following day, an appointment he did not keep.

In Tasmania on 27 April 1956 Roberts relieved a truck driver, Ernest Stanley Wignall, of £50 as the deposit on a house which Roberts did not own. Departing for the mainland, he reached Sydney where he posed as 'Lord Russell', governor-general designate of Australia, and obtained a luxury hotel suite. Having served another term in gaol, he was extradited to Tasmania. There he told the magistrate that he considered himself to be 'more of a nuisance value than a criminal'. After his release from prison, he claimed to be 'Sir William Penny', 'Sir John Douglas' and 'Dr Bodkin Adams' (in Melbourne) and 'Mr Law, woolbuyer' and 'Justice Adams' of the New Zealand Supreme Court (in Brisbane). Leaving that city without paying his hotel bill, he appeared in November 1958 at Sydney's Central Court of Petty Sessions charged with theft.

Roberts amused Sydney in June 1960 by impersonating Baron Alfred von Krupp: in this role he entertained the mayor of Manly and promised to give the municipality a £250,000 car park. Roberts received another gaol sentence. At Abergeldie Guest House, Bowral, on 29 December that year, as 'John Martin Jackson' he married with Presbyterian forms Beryl Florence Sinclair, a 31-year-old schoolteacher, but in the following March was sentenced to yet another term in gaol for giving false information to the marriage registrar. The marriage ended in divorce.

His fraud turned nastier in November 1962 when Roberts, as 'Lord Porter', a privy councillor and medical attendant of the royal family, persuaded Lionel Coleman, that Coleman suffered from 'deep-rooted cancer of the spine' and to give him £400 towards the cost of an operation. This time Roberts was gaoled for four years, having been extradited from Darwin. Judge C. V. Rooney said: 'One doesn't need a lively imagination to picture the terror you caused in this man's family by falsely telling him he had cancer'.

In 1967 Roberts gained the consent of a widow, Mrs Joyce Derrom Brown (from New Zealand), to a proposal of marriage and persuaded her to give him £4000 to invest. Sydney fraud squad detectives apprehended him at a bank. In his later life Roberts turned to alcohol. He choked on his vomit and died on 5 August 1974 in a hotel room at Papakura, New Zealand; survived by his son, he was cremated. Roberts's autobiography, A King of Con Men (Auckland, 1975) was published posthumously.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Dettre, Infamous Australians (Syd, 1985)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 4 Jan 1954, 6 July 1955, 18 June 1957, 23 Dec 1968
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 July 1955, 29 June 1960, 29 June 1963, 31 Mar 1967
  • Sunday Telegraph (Sydney), 3 July 1960
  • Sun (Sydney), 17 Mar 1961
  • Truth (Sydney), 25 Mar 1968
  • Australasian Post, 26 Dec 1968
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Aug 1974.

Citation details

Malcolm Brown, 'Roberts, Murray Beresford (1919–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/roberts-murray-beresford-11538/text20585, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Cook, John Malcolm
  • Jackson, John Martin
Birth

10 August 1919
Brooklyn, Wellington, New Zealand

Death

5 August 1974
Papakura, New Zealand

Cultural Heritage
Occupation