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James Coates (1901–1947)

by John Lack

This article was published:

James Coates (1901-1947), confidence man, was born on 29 June 1901 at Broken Hill, New South Wales, son of James Mann, miner, and his wife Ellen, née Doyle, both from Ballarat, Victoria. The family apparently moved to Western Australia when James was an infant. He came to Melbourne as a youth and began a life of crime as a pickpocket and card-sharper. Between 1918 and 1927 he served sentences in most States totalling three and a half years.

Deciding to enter the field of international confidence trickery, Coates left for England and with an accomplice 'Dictionary' Harry, who had the gift of the gab, worked ships in the Atlantic. In London he attended a school of deportment and etiquette. Impeccably dressed and groomed, gracious of character and speaking with an Oxford accent, Coates posed as grazier, surgeon or gambler among wealthy tourists in England, Belgium, Switzerland and France.

His most elaborate swindle occurred on a cruise from Alexandria to Marseilles in 1932. Coates assumed the identity of an engineer-inventor and distributed copies of a magazine containing an article in which his photograph had been substituted by a job-printer. He then ingratiated himself with Sir Michael Watson, who invested 3,750,000 francs (£54,000) in a scheme to revolutionize the docking of ships. Coates collected in Paris and vanished. He is also said to have swindled an Australian grazier of £40,000, an Austrian nobleman of £19,000, the King of Sweden's son of £15,000, and an Indian prince of £80,000. Certainly he was the bane of police throughout Europe.

By 1933 Coates had returned to Australia. He built a mansion in Toorak, lived luxuriously, and became a heavy punter, but his reputation, associates and conduct led to his exclusion from most racecourses. At Randwick, Sydney, in May 1933, he was arrested and remanded for the Paris swindle. The charge was dropped.

Just before World War II Coates went abroad again and resumed his life as a confidence man. He fled London in 1939 for New York, but the liner was battered by a hurricane and authorities found him in hospital recovering from injuries. Extradition difficulties saved him. Arrested in Los Angeles and ordered out of the country, he chose to come home.

After 1940 Coates operated as a 'financier' from a comfortable South Yarra flat. He masterminded wartime rackets in Sydney and Melbourne, including blackmarket dealing in cars and the forging of petrol coupons, and he engaged in racing swindles and the flotation of bogus companies. By the end of the war he had spent most of his ill-acquired fortune. Too well known to operate internationally as a swindler, he was driven to blackmail, petty thieving and thuggery. He attempted to enter the protection racket by way of Melbourne's illegal baccarat gambling schools. Hated and feared as a double-dealer and possible informer, Coates was harassed, bashed and shot at. Few mourned when he was gunned down in a contract killing at Windsor on the night of Saturday, 19 July 1947. No arrest was ever made. He was survived by his wife Edith, née Mason, whom he had married at the age of 19; he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Coates epitomized the international confidence man operating between the wars. Suitably conservative or natty in dress, retiring or flamboyant in his conduct, relaxed or lavish as a spender, he inspired trust and became a scourge of wealthy travellers. In his hey-day a doyen among swindlers, he died a petty criminal, penniless and universally detested.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Cox, The Australians (Philadelphia, 1966)
  • People (Sydney), 7 May 1952, 18 Sept 1957
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 May, 1 June, 8 July 1933, 6 Nov, 9 Dec 1939
  • New York Times, 4 Nov 1939
  • Age (Melbourne), 21, 22 July 1947
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21-25 July, 6 Aug 1947
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 July 1947
  • Truth (Melbourne), 26 July 1947, 20 Apr 1957.

Citation details

John Lack, 'Coates, James (1901–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 May 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

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