Charles Kirmess: Man of Mystery

Charles Kirmess: Man of Mystery

Philippa Scarlett asks the question ‘Who was Charles Kirmess?’ and finds answers, and more questions, in the collections of the National Library of Australia 

In 1908, the journal Lone Hand serialised a story entitled ‘The Commonwealth Crisis’. This was reprinted as a book in 1909 with the title The Australian Crisis. Set in the near future, it centred on an invasion by the Japanese of Australia’s north. The novel has more recently been recognised as part of the ‘invasion scare’ genre and become the subject of scholarly attention.

Little is known about the author Charles H. Kirmess and his identity has been the object of speculation by historians and others for some decades. In fact, so scarce has information been about Kirmess that one historian, Neville Meaney, in 1976 was prompted to suggest that he did not exist and that the views put forward in his book were actually the work of the Lone Hand’s editor Frank Fox.

Charles Kirmess, 'The Commonwealth Crisis', The Lone Hand, Vol. 3, No. 18, October 1908, p. 91,

Following his discovery of Kirmess’ correspondence with his publisher Thomas Lothian, Meaney resiled from this theory in 1996 but said that Kirmess was ‘someone about whom we know very little’. However, by then the damage had been done and now a cursory internet search for Kirmess, his novel and Fox still comes up with references to Frank Fox as the author of The Australian Crisis under the pseudonym C.H. Kirmess.

I have had a particular reason for investigating what has been said about Charles Kirmess. I grew up knowing that he was the man who broke the heart of my grandmother’s cousin Lily Service (sometimes known as Lilly) and that he had written the faded red-covered book, emblazoned with a white map of Australia, which I found as a child on our bookshelves. My mother told me that Charles Kirmess was a German living in Sydney in the early twentieth century. During that time, he met and became engaged to Lily Service, who lived in the Sydney suburb of Randwick. The story as my mother told it was that Kirmess later left Australia promising to send for Lily but the First World War intervened. The extraordinarily patient Lily eventually received a letter from Kirmess. He wrote that he had enlisted (presumably in the German army) and had lost a leg. For this reason, he was releasing her from their engagement. Lily, who was 25 when Kirmess’ book was published, remained single until she was 40 and died in 1924, soon after her belated marriage to another. Photographs of her reveal an attractive and strong-featured woman and include one taken in 1912 clearly showing her engagement ring. Apart from this family story, the only tangible connection to her relationship I know of is the book I now possess, inscribed in her definite and rounded hand ‘To father from Lilly 31.5.1909’.

C.H. Kirmess, The Australian Crisis, 1909,

Prompted and puzzled by my discovery of the Fox confusion, I began to look for information about Kirmess. I was able to establish he arrived in Sydney in December 1904, sailing from London on the SS Geelong and that he remained in Australia until 1910 when he returned to London, travelling third class, on the RMS Orvieto. He was still in London in 1911 when as Karl Kirmess he was recorded in the UK census living in a boarding house in St Pancras. He was 31 years old, single and stated his nationality as German, his birth place as Harburgh, Prussia, and that he was a journalist.

Like Meaney, I also looked at the Kirmess–Lothian correspondence, which was written in a distinctive hand unlike that of Fox or of writer Ambrose Pratt, another suggested candidate for authorship of The Australian Crisis. I found, as did Meaney, that the nature of this correspondence makes it clear that Kirmess was a real individual and a rather assertive one with a keen interest in the publication details and sales of his book. Kirmess’ letters mention contact with Fox and with his successor as Lone Hand editor, Arthur Adams, and seek to arrange a meeting with Lothian. He complains about lack of publicity for The Australian Crisis and in this context mentions his acquaintance with university men who are interested in his work. His letters are written from a boarding house at 168 Cathedral Street, Sydney, and show glimmers of personal detail—his bushwalking in the Illawarra and a recent indisposition. In his last letter dated 20 April 1910, he suddenly announced that he was returning to Europe and would be willing to ‘relinquish all [financial] interest in the book’ in return for ‘a final consideration’. One interpretation of this statement is that for some reason he was forced to return, that he was in need of cash and that he did not intend to maintain a connection with Australian contacts.

But while Kirmess’ existence as an individual is confirmed, the notion that he lent his name to a work written by another author still persists. One reason for this is the assertion that as a German it would be impossible for him to have written a work in English. This argument is countered by the examples of authors like Conrad and Nabakov who wrote with facility in English. Moreover, as an educated European man he was likely to be fluent in more than one language.

Another suggestion is that it was not Fox but one of the university men referred to in his Lothian correspondence who was the book’s author—but one preferring to hide behind Kirmess’ name. Lone Hand editor Fox was an early member of the Australian National Defence League. Also among its membership were professors Mungo MacCallum and Normand Maclaurin, who are listed in League subscription records held by the Australian War Memorial. Both were prominent on the staff of Sydney University. They equate with the ‘well known Sydney University men’ Kirmess told Lothian he knew and collaborated with regularly, although the nature of this collaboration is not made clear. Kirmess complains to Lothian that the university men ‘have never bought my book simply because they have never seen it in the book shops they frequent’ and that he is ‘morally certain they would acquire the book on the slightest provocation’. Obviously the close relationship suggested by Kirmess did not extend to his telling them where the book could be purchased. Their open membership of the League makes it unlikely that they would use the Kirmess name to distance themselves from their views.

If it is accepted that Kirmess was the author of The Australian Crisis, the question of his motivations then arises. This is something that further evidence about Kirmess the man may help to answer. Is there any trace of his writings in Australian German-language newspapers? Can personal details and evidence of his activities as a journalist be found in German or United Kingdom records?

Jas. C. Cruden, Lily Service Wearing Her Engagement Ring, 1912, courtesy Philippa Scarlett

Returning to Kirmess’ fiancée Lily Service, it seems probable that she was duped by him. My family referred to him darkly as a spy, echoing the suspicions often held about foreigners, particularly Germans, during and prior to both world wars. Poor Lily was a casualty in his possible intrigue. Although incidental to the bigger story, the small part she played had major ramifications for her personally and dominated the rest of her short life. Kirmess still remains a man of mystery but I am glad for Lily’s sake that he is now acknowledged to have existed.

Philippa Scarlett is a Canberra historian. Although her main focus and publications are in the area of Aboriginal war service, she is also interested in the history of families, including her own, and how the lives of ordinary people can intersect with broader issues in Australia’s history.