Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sleep, Alfred Reginald (1893–1959)

by Ron Davidson

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

Alfred Reginald Sleep (1893-1959), home missionary and private detective, was born on 23 September 1893 at Plymouth, England, one of seven children of Alfred Josiah Sleep, a driller at the naval dockyard, and his wife Thirzena, née Snell. Alfred grew up in a zealous Congregational family and at 16 gave his first sermon as a lay preacher. Under the auspices of the Colonial Missionary Society of London, he reached Western Australia with his brother Harold in July 1913 and was sent as a home missionary to the Nungarin district, on the north-eastern edge of the wheat-belt. Provided with a horse (which at first he could not ride) and some hymn books, he enthusiastically spread the Congregational message and won commendation as 'a preacher of promise'. Late in 1914 he travelled to Adelaide, intending to enter Parkin Theological College, but decided instead to accept a posting to the Tumby Bay Congregational Church.

On 25 March 1916 Sleep enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Joining the 10th Battalion on the Western Front in October, he was evacuated to England next month with chronic gastritis. He could neither eat hard rations nor march well, and medical authorities concluded that he was 'useless for general service'. Transferred to A.I.F. Administrative Headquarters, London, in January 1917, he performed welfare work at the War Chest Club where his 'amiable and tactful disposition' made him a great success with the soldiers. He was promoted acting sergeant before ill health led to his return to Australia in the following year. On 4 October 1918 he was discharged from the A.I.F. in Adelaide. At St George's Church of England, Goodwood, on 15 November that year he married Gwendoline Hannah Sauerbier; he was to divorce her on 3 December 1930.

After working as a secretary for the Young Men's Christian Association, Sleep went back to Western Australia, became a Methodist home missionary, and served at Gnowangerup (1924-25) and Merredin (1926-27). When church officials fell behind in paying his stipend, he abandoned his calling and moved to Perth. By 1929 he was a private detective. On 6 December 1930 at the Charles Street Methodist Church, West Perth, he married Edith Alice Stump, a former parishioner who had been moved to tears by his sermons.

Sleep prospered as he gathered material for divorce hearings. His evidence was invariably accepted by the courts. In his new profession he became more worldly. He grew portly and began to dress well; he also discovered beer and whisky, developed a taste for good food, and sharpened his talent for one-liners. A former parishioner met him in Perth and remembered the fragile figure whom he had known ten years earlier. 'You seem to be flourishing, Alfred. How is that?' Sleep replied: 'In a word—adultery'.

Alfred R. Sleep—with his trusty torch—was built into a Perth identity. The Mirror, which specialized in reporting divorce cases beneath punned headings, promoted stories about his amiable and tactful raids on hotel rooms and motorcars, his investigations in parks and at beaches, and his subsequent efforts at marriage counselling. The stories became more frequent with the arrival of American servicemen who caused considerable domestic disruption during World War II. Suffering from cirrhosis of the liver, Sleep retired in 1958 to tend his three hundred roses. He died of coronary disease on 26 October 1959 at Claremont and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery. His wife and their daughter survived him, as did the daughter of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Davidson, High Jinks at the Hot Pool (Fremantle, WA, 1994)
  • Western Congregationalist, Aug, Sept 1913
  • People (Sydney), 27 Sept 1950
  • Mirror (Perth), 8 May, 14 July, 29 Sept 1945
  • Methodist Church of Australia, Minutes of Western Australian Conference, 1924-27 (Uniting Church Archives, Perth)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Citation details

Ron Davidson, 'Sleep, Alfred Reginald (1893–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sleep-alfred-reginald-11710/text20931, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 18 September 2014.

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

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