Auckland had a flourishing prostitution business in the 1870s and 1880s, much to the dismay of respectable citizens, the police and civic authorities. Several brothel-keepers became prominent but one of the best-known was Madame Valentine (as she called herself). For some 20 years she owned and operated several establishments in the city. Hers is a story of pretence, manipulation… and mystery. Who, exactly, was she?
Finding the Real Becquet
Her first deceit began in 1873 before she came to New Zealand… and continued after she left.
In the absence of other official records, the starting point for research to try to reveal the “real Valentine” was the detail entered on a Charge Sheet. This is the document prepared for every person who goes on trial in the Supreme Court. In Valentine’s case, it was presented to the Grand Jury in 1882 when she was arraigned for larceny (theft).
Starting with “Queen of the Age”, the ship it was said that brought her to New Zealand. This was a barque chartered by New Zealand Shipping Company for just one voyage to carry 154 passengers from England to a new life in New Zealand.
They were assisted-immigrants under the New Zealand Government’s programme to attract specially-recruited tradesmen and their families to build resources in the colony. They had their fares paid by the New Zealand Government and when they arrived the men would be employed in a range of trades while single women were offered positions such as needle-workers, cooks, teachers, and dairywomen.
The New Zealand Immigration Agent in England was responsible for recruiting only the most suitable people so that the New Zealand Government would get “value for money”, having paid their fares. Just before each ship left England the passenger list was published detailing names of the immigrants plus their trades and skills. This enabled potential employers in Auckland to scan the lists so they could match their requirements and engage the new settlers when they arrived.
Among these assisted immigrants was Valentine Becquet. But the passenger list issued in England did not include the name Becquet. Maybe an oversight or perhaps she joined the voyage at the very last minute and was not included? As it turns out, no.
“Queen of the Age”
The ship left London in November 1873 and had an eventful voyage. It encountered several fierce storms, during one of which a seaman was lost overboard, and then there was a lengthy period when the ship she was becalmed. Seamen were caught pillaging cargo while at sea and, when the captain intervened, there were acts of mutiny. Passengers were called-on to take arms to help guard sailors clapped in irons in the brig. Eight offenders later faced charges in Auckland.
“Queen of the Age” arrived in Auckland harbour on March 2nd 1874 when another, confirmed, passenger list was issued but it does not include anyone by the name of Becquet.
Did Valentine Becquet arrive in Auckland on the “Queen of the Age”?
The Charge Sheet, an official Court document, says she disembarked from the ship in Auckland. There are several clues when looking over the passenger list that leads to Becquet. The first is that the list shows six couples of French origin and another from Belgium, showing all the men had preferred trades: bricklayer, bootmaker, plumber, engineer and blacksmith.
But none by the French-sounding name Becquet. One of the women, however, does have the christian name “Valentine”, one Valentine Francois, travelling as one of the French couples, with husband Cheodore (Theodore) Francois, listed as an engineer.
This was Valentine Becquet using an alias.
The Charge Sheet says she was single. The passenger list says she was married.
The only things that tally between these two documents is her origin… France… and her age, born in 1851. It’s apparent, in hindsight, that the surname Francois was probably the couple’s alias. It seems a very convenient invention when these two French nationals had to make up a false name, perhaps on the spur of the moment, to create subterfuge. “Francois” suits French nationals. It seems the couple travelled under these false names. There were more serious repercussions to come.
Just a day or two after their arrival four of the Frenchwomen ventured from their accommodation at the Immigration Barracks to the Lorne Street Hall to attend an evening performance of a Diorama and lecture. The subject was the Franco-Prussia War.
(The reason for the women’s interest in this historic event was later explained when it was found that some of the men, fellow passengers on “Queen of the Age”, apparently took part in the conflict)
The newspaper “Daily Southern Cross” became aware of trouble the women ran into during their outing and on 4th March 1874 reported subsequent events.
“A piece of most disgraceful conduct was witnessed last night in Queen Street. On leaving the theatre, the women were discussing amongst themselves the merits of the various scenes they had seen. A crowd, numbering several hundreds of ill-bred fellows went after them, and the girls went to the other side of the street to avoid the impertinence. Still the crowd followed them from side-to-side of the street until the young women began to get afraid. Sergeant-Major Pardy of the Constabulary made his appearance, and took them under his protection, and, after some difficulty succeeded in getting them safely returned to the Immigration Barracks”.
Within a week of the French group’s arrival in Auckland an advertisement appeared in local newspapers promoting “La Troupe Parisienne”, 10 dancers and entertainers comprising “the celebrated troupe of French artistes”.
It was immediately apparent these were the couples who had arrived days earlier on “Queen of the Age” because some of the names on the ship’s list were repeated in the advertisement. It rapidly became obvious that the group of Frenchmen were probably not qualified tradesmen, as they had represented in order to gain free passage to New Zealand. The advertisements also indicated the men would be performing “eccentric” ballet routines far beyond the usual ability of mechanics, boot-makers and plumbers!
And in an extraordinary move, management advised an increase in normal admission prices to cover additional expenses!
“Expenses incurred through the engagement of the above artistes” seemed hardly necessary given they were assisted immigrants, their fares to Auckland, £29 per couple, paid by the New Zealand Government. In other columns “The Auckland Star” printed what publicists wanted – “These Parisian ballet artistes gained some reputation in London for their graceful acting and dancing”.
But the performance was far from graceful, jeered by the big audience and panned by the newspapers. In its critique “The Auckland Star” said “…the audience suddenly awoke to the fact that they had been sold. The performance was a lamentably feeble attempt to imitate the notorious “Can Can” to the discomfiture of some of the women present”.
The “Daily Southern Cross” said “…the artistes seemed to us unskilled performers, who endeavoured to make up for their deficiency by recourse to queer, if not questionable, attitudes and gyrations, somewhat suggestive manipulation of drapery, and an affluent display of leg which… …lowers the profession and injures their chance of patronage by the Auckland playgoers”.
Mademoiselle Valentine and her colleagues were not appreciated.
A Letter to the Editor of the “New Zealand Herald” criticised those men who flocked to the theatre for opportunistic gratuity saying that, in the end, they had paid to see “…four women, who could neither speak, dance, or move more gracefully than quadrupeds”.
Deceit and Political Wrangle
The French immigrants became the centre of political controversy when the truth emerged. “The colony wants skilled labour rather than ballet dancers”, the hounds were baying. The local Immigration Officer, Henry Ellis, reported in depth on the arrival of the “Queen of the Age” but made no mention of the French passengers. Questions only began to be asked a few days later when it was clear those on the stage were the same as this who had arrived on “Queen of the Age”.
At first Ellis said he had no doubts the French would “return to their trades somewhere in the Colony” but later in response to a “please explain” from the Superintendent of the Province he conceded they intended leaving for Australia and it was unlikely their fares from London, totalling some £226, would be refunded, either voluntarily or through the Courts. Then it was revealed that the group had somehow been recommended as suitable tradesmen- immigrants by the Society Francais de Bienfaisance, an organisation which helps underprivileged French Nationals.
Later reports from London advised that the Society had assisted with the group’s fares to London and that a representative accompanied them to the New Zealand’s immigration offices in Westminster Chambers where he vouched for their authenticity.
When this became known in Auckland there were suggestions that the Society had perhaps assisted felons being deported from France, in other words, it had helped with their transportation to the colonies under the guise of tradesmen, their fares unwittingly paid by the New Zealand Government.
The wrangle about “paying the fares of ballet dancers” was very much publicised at the time, involving top politicians whose immigration programme had been made look stupid. New Zealand’s Agent-General in London, former politician Dr Isaac Featherston, was greatly embarrassed by the episode, and, as a result, procedures were altered to prevent repetition.
It’s obvious the names of the dancers in the newspaper advertisements are a strange mix of christian and surnames as shown in the passenger list. The “dancers” include a Belgium, Auguste Hugue, a “bricklayer”, while the women are referred to as “mademoiselle” (single women) when they were all listed as “married” on the passenger list. There are also changes in spelling: some of the unfamiliar foreign names might have been corrupted in print.
After a disastrous, truncated, season at the “Prince of Wales”, the newspapers reported that the ballet dancers “chose to try their luck in Australia”, allegedly signing up for big fees with a theatrical agency in Sydney. “The New Zealand Herald”, welcoming the news that they were departing, urged Immigration Officer Ellis, to ensure that before they left Auckland they paid for their assisted-passages to New Zealand. Not a chance!
All in all…
It’s evident some of the immigrants used false names to enlist in London for assisted passage. It can be assumed none were trained tradesmen: nor were they dancers when they improvised cheap salacious and indecent scenarios for traditional dance routines. Only some might have been married. One or two of the group had mentioned when they arrived that they were experienced wine-growers but when Auckland horticulturists approached them, hoping to pioneer vineyards, the Frenchmen said they were not interested.
It’s my belief that immediately they arrived in Auckland they saw the opportunity to do a deal with the management of the “Prince of Wales” theatre to put on the “ballet”, thus earning enough to pay their fares on the next departing ship for Australia. Most chose Melbourne.
Their aliases meant it was going to be difficult to trace members of the “the troupe”. They probably invented more names before they left for Australia. Some reports say they were pleased to get out of Auckland… they were marked as illegal immigrants here and they might later be sued to pay for their passage to Auckland. In Australia each could begin again with a new persona. Some were able to be tracked down, detailed later.
But at least one couple – Theodore and Valentine Francois – remained in Auckland. Her new alias was Valentine Becquet, just one name of many yet to come!
Valentine Becquet was living in Cook Street, Auckland, in December 1874. We know this because of an advertisement in “The Auckland Star”.
We also know that Alice Allen was “well known” in Christchurch, Dunedin, and then Auckland. The fact that she and Valentine Becquet were acquaintances indicates the type of women “Madame Valentine” was mixing with in Auckland. Birds of a feather! The question was… whether a gold chain was really lost or, alternatively, was the advertisement a clever “calling card” for both Alice Allen and Madam Valentine who could be found at their address in Cook Street, a brothel?
Mrs Alice Allen
It’s worth a slight deviation to meet Alice Allen, a vital early player in Valentine’s story.
With her husband, said to be a dentist, Alice Allen arrived in Lyttleton from London in January 1869. She became known as the “The Mermaid”, a name given to her on the ship which brought her to New Zealand and, as newspapers described at the time, “…because she was the first lady to introduce long or combed-out hair” to Canterbury society. Her husband was soon to be retained in an asylum and Alice joined the women of the city’s lower classes. Within 6 months of her arrival, she was arrested for drunkenness. She moved to Dunedin where she took up as a barmaid. She must have earned a certain reputation because it was there, late in 1872, she was contacted by Henry Abbott who kept the City Club Hotel in Auckland, offering “The Mermaid” immediate employment.
Alice travelled north where she later admitted she was “a peepshow” at the City Club Hotel, but one which the crowds soon tired of. Coupled with a slowdown in the local economy, there were few patrons in the bar so in February 1873 the publican Abbott dismissed her without notice. Allen said there was a contract and wrote to the newspapers setting out her story, condemning Abbott’s actions. In a heart-tugging appeal she pointed out she had a husband in care, a child to support and a contract… so court action over her dismissal was inevitable. The question was immediately raised… who wrote that letter? It was couched in language far beyond anything Allen was capable of.
Indeed, the case went to Court. “The Auckland Star” reported “…Allen, known as the “Mermaid” appeared in Court as a showily-dressed lady with an exquisite headdress, consisting of a hat of the latest fashion, with a very extensive blue feather, covering a super-abundance of hair”. After a brief hearing the hotel-keeper Abbott brushed aside his indignation at the bad publicity Allen had caused and the parties agreed a compromise.
It almost appears that the court case was planned and timed by Alice Allen – coincidentally it brought her name to public notice just when she was about to make her debut on the stage as the leading lady in a short play called “The Conjugal Lesson”.
The show received poor reviews. “Daily Southern Cross” observed that “the Mermaid, the chief attraction, lacked natural ease which is so essential on the stage. Better actresses have appeared in Auckland…”.
Allen was in court in March 1873, the Coroner’s Court, giving evidence into the death of a sailor she met downtown. His body was later found floating in the harbour and it was determined that she and the man… whom she knew as Harry Bluff… had been together in her lodgings and that she was the last to see him alive. The coroner found that Henry Brown (real name) drowned when he fell into the water while boarding his ship.
Allen mixed with women often charged with minor offences, and on her return to Christchurch she was before the Court with two others of her kind for using bad language towards one of their “colleagues”, Ellen Lilly. The Judge dismissed the action. “Trumpery” he said, advising the women to leave the court through separate exits.
Back in Auckland in 1875 Alice Allen was in company again with Valentine Becquet before they both took the steamer “Mikado” to Sydney.
Becquet appears to have used the alias “Mrs A. Martin” on her passenger ticket, Alice was listed as Mrs Allen. It seems the two later went their own ways in Australia.
Alice Allen, better known under her new names “Madame Alice”, “Madame Burdett”, or “Alice Burdett”, was mentioned in a court case which placed her in Melbourne in 1876 but by 1877 she had moved to Sydney where she appeared in the Police Court charged with keeping a noisy brothel in Glebe. The case was dismissed; she returned to Melbourne where she later faced a serious charge. Newspapers reported “Allen, also known as “The Mermaid”, is one of the numerous well-dressed prostitutes who abound in Melbourne and is charged with assaulting a female child aged 5 years, a girl the woman has adopted”. The infant had multiple injuries caused by what the judge said was “shameful treatment”: Alice Allen was sentenced to 3 months in jail. On her release she went back to the brothel business with a house in Flinders Street and the inevitable arrests arising for bad language, keeping “a rough-house” and illegally selling liquor.
Valentine Becquet Back in Auckland
Valentine returned to Auckland on the “Mikado” in October 1875 under the name Miss Valentine accompanied by Minnie Williams (also known as Fanny Williams). There is no doubt about Minnie’s occupation and lifestyle: she had been convicted in Australia of numerous charges – typically those brought against prostitutes – vagrancy, being idle and disorderly as well as obscene language. She was discharged from Darlinghurst Prison in October 1875 so must have made the trip to Auckland with Valentine immediately on her release. Valentine Becquet, acquainted with Williams in Sydney and travelling with her, all but confirmed Valentine’s continuing career path in prostitution.
In November both ladies were seemingly involved in an incident in the “Prince of Wales” theatre when acid was thrown over their dresses, damaging them.
offering a reward for any information leading to the culprits. Their address is given as Grey Street (now Greys Avenue) where Valentine set up in business, one of several brothels there. The story about the acid was not followed up in daily newspapers: it looks like a stunt to attract attention to the two and their new business address in Grey Street.
Minnie Williams had been living with Madame Valentine in Grey Street until May 1876 when Minnie was thrown out of the house. There’s no doubt it was a brothel. Madame retained boxes containing Minnie’s property, so she had to borrow money to get them back, loans she did not repay. Taken to court, she told the Judge that she had borrowed the money as a single woman, thus she had no husband who could be held responsible for her debts. But then her story changed. She said she had a husband, but he was in Sydney. The Judge was not impressed with the different story under oath – he ordered her to pay her debts, nearly £20, including costs.
Minnie Williams left Auckland with other debts to her name. She resumed her way of life in Melbourne and Sydney and consequently was convicted many times for the familiar: vagrancy, assault, bad language and being idle and disorderly. She was labelled an “inveterate drunkard” and then a “habitual drunkard” and jailed for 12 months. She crossed the Tasman several times and in 1883 her health was obviously affected by her alcoholism.
In January that year a reporter wrote in Sydney’s “Evening News”: “Minnie Williams, a woman of 28 years with coarse, bloated and blackened features, appeared before Mr. Crane at the Central Court to-day with having insufficient means of support. When she paid her first visit to the Court for drunkenness some 10 years ago, she was a handsome, flashing young woman; now she is a mere wreck of her former beauty. She was sent to jail for a month to recuperate”.
Later that month Minnie attempted suicide when she was witnessed “flinging herself into the Yarra River”. After rescue by police she was charged with attempted suicide, the Bench vacating the charge when one of Minnie’s friends came forward explaining Minnie was bereft that she had not been able to improve her lot. The friend promised to take care of her.
Minnie’s offending ends abruptly in Australia in 1884, the reason was that she travelled to Auckland where she continued the same lifestyle… again landing her in trouble with the law.
Grey Street (now Greys Avenue)
Returning to Valentine…
Grey Street became even more popular for “custom” when police raided, or closed, brothels in downtown city streets. Their latest purge merely moved the brothels to other streets and, apart from the expulsion of Minnie Williams, Madame Valentine did well in her house in Grey Street.
Until September 1877, that is, when police raided the place arresting her and a man the newspapers said was her “nominal husband, Theodore Francis” whom, they said, “was most singularly bejewelled. He was dressed in a heavy frieze overcoat, and on his fingers were no fewer than six massive rings, some set with rubies, some with greenstone, and some of solid gold. He had a handsome diamond breast-pin, a quartz solitaire, three watches, one of which was gold, and a massive gold chain with pendants and gold coins attached”. ‘Nominal husband’ was an apt description of the man named as Theodore, or Cheodore Francois, Valentine’s “husband” on the passenger list of the ship that brought them to Auckland.
The case attracted wide interest and the courthouse was crowded when it was thought that men found on the premises at the time of the raid would also be appearing in court. The police spared this spectacle, telling the Bench that the residents of Grey Street complained about the noise from the house and its surrounds which disturbed the peace at all hours and that this, they claimed, lowered property values.
The hearing, however, caused interest in another direction when the two pleaded not guilty… but then, through their lawyer, making a U turn, tacitly admitting their guilt of keeping a brothel… and then asking for mercy on the grounds that both the accused were leaving Auckland. They gave a solemn undertaking that they would take the first steamer to San Francisco. The Judge accepted their promise and on that basis the charges were withdrawn, the pair discharged.
Newspapers commented that it was a strange way of deciding justice: “…notwithstanding a not guilty plea to a grave offence, no evidence was taken to support or controvert the charges, yet they were set aside. Curious.” said “The New Zealand Herald”.
It appears Theodore Francois and Valentine quit Auckland within days of the court case. But not on a liner bound for San Francisco. In September 1877 they took the coastal ship “SS Wanaka” for southern ports, he using the name Francois, she again turning to the alias Mrs A. Martin. Theodore disappears from the record, perhaps keeping his promise to emigrate. But Valentine had no such intention: she was soon doing business in Wellington. The next connection with Madame Valentine was a newspaper advertisement for a lost diamond ring: the announcement was almost identical to one inserted by Alice Allen and Valentine in Auckland newspapers soon after she arrived there.
The coincidence seems too great, so the same question arises… did she really lose a diamond ring or does the advertisement cleverly announce that she had “set up shop” at Pipitea Point? And noting, also, she was using her Auckland alias, Madame Valentine. It’s plain she was back in business.
A column syndicated to many newspapers in New Zealand, noted – “Great fashionable places of resort here (in Wellington) are Miss Baker’s and Madame Valentine’s where jaded members repair for the enjoyment of the consoling influences of female society. Some people in high official positions seem to be sadly in want of their wives and families to look after them”.
Madame Valentine appeared in court and was fined two shillings and sixpence for not registering her dog!
But in August 1878 it was more serious for her when she was charged with keeping a brothel. The matter was dismissed, however, when the Judge was advised the premises had been vacated, the nuisance abated. Madame was on the move but remaining, for now, in Wellington.
The house she had vacated took on a certain notoriety when it was advertised to let.
In February 1880 Madame Valentine was accused, with 4 other women, of breaking windows during a neighbourhood dispute, but the charges were dropped when the complainant didn’t turn up for the hearing. In June 1880 Valentine was charged with selling alcohol without a licence, the case confused by legal arguments and taken to the Supreme Court for resolution.
The Last of the French?
In May 1878 the “New Zealand Herald” had declared that “the last of the French who were brought out as desirable immigrants some years ago, at the expense of the colony, have left Auckland. Some time ago the police made the place too hot for two of their number, the celebrated Madame Valentine and her protector: their place, however, taken by two others of the troupe, the “big Frenchman” and a woman, who have maintained an establishment in Cook Street to the annoyance of their respectable neighbours. This pair left Zealand’s shores yesterday. They were a costly and undesirable importation, and the country is well rid of them”.
The “Herald”, and all Auckland, were soon to know this was not the end of the saga of the French who arrived on the “Queen of the Age”.
Madame Valentine was back in town. And in the early 1880s she found the streets that she had earlier frequented were much more boisterous than before.
She found she now had to share the market-place. Sarah Carroll kept a brothel in Baker Street (now Morton Street) and in Cook Street. Other brothels sprang up in Alexandra Street (now Airedale Street), Annie McKenzie started one in Pitt Street, Marsha Cushion in Victoria Street and, going back to former locations, a new one opened in Chancery Street. Henry Goldsmith, many times convicted of minor crimes, hosted a house, described in evidence in 1879 as “a brothel” and Sarah Carroll opened doors of her new “house” on Albert Street. Alexander Lynch represented men who operated brothels in Auckland with his place in Abercrombie Street (now St Paul Street) along with William Francis Crowe who kept a “facility” in Oxford Street, off Great North Road, for uptown clientele.
There had been a spate of the usual crimes associated with these businesses – illicit sale of alcohol, assault, deliberate damage, theft, fighting and, in one case, attempted murder.
Julia Wilson, aka Curtis, aka Black Julia, was also on the scene at the beginning of a long connection with brothels, their associated activities, and Madame Valentine Becquet.
Julia’s first appearance before the court was in late 1879 when she was charged with aiding and abetting one of the “girls” to smash window-panes in a brothel’s front door. The case against her was dismissed. It was her first appearance before the courts – but certainly not her last, charged over the years under several aliases.
Valentine Comes to Notice
Becquet made a quiet start back on the Auckland scene. The “New Zealand Herald” acknowledged this when it reported her arrest in September 1882. “Madame Valentine, who, some years ago, was a noted character in Auckland, but who, since her return has kept out of trouble, so far as the police are concerned, was arrested at the North Shore yesterday, on the charge of stealing £30 from a bushman, named Henry Collins, who slept in her house on the previous night”. The evidence in the Police Court claimed that Collins was robbed of his money while he was in a drunken sleep at Valentine’s house in Wellesley Street: his beer had probably been spiked with a sleeping pill. Valentine denied taking the money and the case was sent to the Supreme Court for trial. She could not raise the bail, £100 from herself and two others of £50, and while she was in prison on remand two of her “girls” were “saved” by authorities and her Wellesley Street establishment was temporarily closed.
From the Supreme Court the “New Zealand Herald” reported: “The prisoner, a showily dressed woman, was called upon to plead and answered ‘not guilty’. She then burst into a fit of hysterical passion, making most extraordinary noises and knocking herself violently against the wooden railings around the dock”.
The Judge called on her to stop, advising the behaviour would do her no good and might suggest she was mad, but she resumed the hysteria, and threw herself from the chair, repeatedly groaning and gasping. She settled, and evidence was heard from the other women who were in the house at the time of the alleged theft. They said they, too, were drunk but insisted that they took the money, rifling through the unconscious man’s pockets – but only after Madame Valentine ordered them to do it, quoting the Madame – “it might as well be spent here rather than at Black Julia’s place”, referring to Julia’s competing brothel. This “instruction” to the women could not be corroborated in Court and the case collapsed, the judge observing that the witnesses had changed the evidence they had given under oath in the lower court.
The jury found Madame Valentine not guilty, and the judge discharged her. But this did not console her… according to the “New Zealand Herald”, “she plunged, she swayed from side to side, she sighed, sobbed, and gasped, with resolute persistence. She staggered out of the dock and cast herself into the nearest seat. Her lawyer, Mr. Tyler, imparted to her all the consolation of success, but “the lady” would not even then be calmed. Eventually she did get up. She saw that the Judge, the jurors, the police, and even the reporters were gone. Whereupon she gathered her rich habiliments about her, shook the dust from her feet, and proceeded along the Waterloo Quadrant with a firm step, and at a rapid pace”.
The diversionary tantrum in court and the confused evidence were hallmarks of similar court cases involving those who worked in, or frequented brothels, together with their, often, narrow or lucky escapes from heavy fines or jail sentences.
There was an immediate follow-up to this court case. One of the women from the brothel, in her evidence, had said that after the money had been stolen, she went for a “pick me up” at a chemist’s shop and a bath at Roth’s Bathhouse in Victoria Street.
The fact that women associated with Madame Valentine might have bathed on the premises angered the owner who feared for the place’s reputation. He could not allow the circulation of the fact that prostitutes, fresh from a brothel, had washed in his baths. There was a Letter to the Editor of local newspapers saying “Mr William Roth never allows women of that class to use his baths. Therefore, the two girls who came to the baths on that morning were summarily ordered off the premises… and neither of the witnesses, nor any other of the women, had a bath in that establishment”
Further, Mr Roth said “I have invariably turned away applicants of shady reputation and, to prove it, I am offering £25 to anyone who can prove to the contrary”.
The Wellesley Street House
This brothel, where the alleged theft took place, was on the corner of Albert and Wellesley Streets and leased by Madame Valentine who later employed the well-known prostitute, Julia Curtis aka Julia Wilson and “Black Julia” to manage it. The place set a new standard in these establishments: the 6-roomed house was tastefully furnished with every comfort. Julia went on a trip to Sydney and left three women (described by “The Auckland Star” as “nymphs of the pave”) in charge.
On 10th August 1883, while Julia was still in Sydney, the building was all-but destroyed by fire. Despite an early discovery of the evening blaze and the prompt attendance of the fire brigade whose station was just half a block away, the premises were badly damaged. While the building was insured, the furniture and contents were not. About all that was saved from the ruined rooms was a small music-box, plucked from the debris by a constable and taken to the police station to await its owner, Julia. The policeman was bemused when it played “Auld Lang Syne’ as he salvaged it. “The Auckland Star” reported: “Julia’s musical box is in frequent use at the station – it performs eight popular airs, and its soft, sweet sounds are consolatory to the ears of the lock-up keeper in the still hours of the night”.
It was determined that the cause of the fire was a candle, blown against a curtain in one of the back rooms, the flames conveyed to the walls and ceiling before engulfing the whole place.
A serious contretemps between firefighters and police resulted from this fire. See the details in “Police vs Fire – A Public Confrontation – 1883” on this website.
“The Stone Jug”
This was the name of Madame Valentine’s house in Wellington Street. It was mentioned in the columns of the “Observer” newspaper in December 1883.
The columnist was congratulating police for their crackdown on city brothels and then wrote very directly about Valentine, going into her personal life:
“We are glad to learn that the police are carrying on a vigorous campaign against some of the most notorious and abandoned of the brothels that infest the city. There is one in Wellington-street, presided over by the notorious Madame Valentine, which has lately been subjected to domiciliary visits. The lady in question is distinguished by a waywardness and instability of affection – that leads her to adopt one protector after another, very much in the same way that some other women become attached to pet dogs. Her latest weakness was a Frenchman named Victor Collen, formerly of Wellington. This gentleman took up his permanent residence on the premises, known as ”The Stone Jug,” and became the guide, philosopher, and friend of the other inmates, but having received a hint from the police, he has promised to shake the dust of this city from his boots, and seek other pastures. That Madame is well able to indulge in the luxury of a protector is evident from the fact that she receives a rental of £6 a week from “The Mermaid ” (Alice Allen) of the ” Hermitage,” and £7 a week for the house in Rokeby-street, tenanted by “Black Julia”.
Julia returned home from Australia and transplanted business from the burnt-out house to new premises in Rokeby Street, off Queen Street (today it’s Waverley Street, opposite the Town Hall, instantly making the short thoroughfare even more notorious than it had been.
Rokeby Street was so narrow it became a one-way street towards Queen Street which, as Waverley Street, remains to this day.
Julia took over the “White House” on the corner of Rokeby and Queen Streets and she had associations with the “Brick House” which was opposite another brothel, “Paddington Villa”, owned by Madame Valentine.
In June 1884 other residents in Rokeby Street and environs were getting tired of the types the brothels were attracting, the noise at all hours and the drunkenness. They petitioned the City Council which gave the owners of the offending properties one week to vacate them. “This will lead to the cleansing of one of the blackest moral plague-spots in the city” reported the “New Zealand Herald”.
But the brothels continued. In January 1885 there was a further complaint from residents and police took over where the Council had failed. Again, there was a deadline set before which some 14 women living in the “three offending houses” must be gone. They took legal advice questioning the rights of the police to evict them. By this time Julia Curtis/Wilson had taken over running “Paddington Villa” as a tenant, paying its owner Madame Valentine £6 rent a week while Madame was away in Sydney.
Valentine, advised of the eviction notices, hastened home at the end of February 1885 so she could take care of matters surrounding the future of her “Villa”… and her business interests. As soon as she arrived back in Auckland, she sought out the Chief of Police asking if the eviction order on “Paddington Villa” could somehow be cancelled so that she and Julia could continue business there.
Superintendent Thomson turned down her request – “… unequivocally, the eviction stands”. “Then I must sell the place”, was her reply.
In a day or two Madame Valentine saw her business and assets ruined beyond repair. In the early hours of March 2nd 1885, a small fire began undetected near the kitchen in “Paddington Villa”. Flames quickly swept through the building. The 5 women residents, as well as Julia’s babe-in-arms, were lucky to escape the blaze which quickly took over the whole place. Men, too, fled the building: it was reported in the press that they decamped very quickly, some undressed, climbing over the back fence and making their getaway. There was a delay getting the fire brigade to the burning house because Rokeby Street was so narrow. Once on the scene fire-fighters found good water pressure to prevent flames spreading to other houses but “The Villa” was, by then, a total loss.
Meantime, once clear of the burning building, the women observed that Madame Valentine was already outside, watching on – calm, cool and collected. Some of the women recalled her making threats earlier to “burn the place down” if it could not continue in business after the evictions – due in just a few days. Others said that on the night of the fire Valentine said she was returning to Sydney “on the very next boat”.
Police heard about these accounts and went in search of her. They found her and immediately arrested her, charging her with incendiarism. She had allegedly set fire to the place, thus defrauding the South British Company of £300, the value of the insurance policy for furniture lost in the fire.
Newspapers zeroed-in on the story of the fire, its likely cause as arson, the insurances, the value of the losses… and the arrest of whom they called “a notorious Madame”.
Back in Court
Valentine Becquet appeared in the Police Court, later on the same day as the fire, charged with “unlawfully, maliciously, and feloniously setting fire to a dwelling-house in possession of Julia Wilson with intent to defraud the South British Insurance Company”. As before, she could hardly contain herself in the dock but settled in time for the case to proceed. Following formal and witnesses’ evidence, Superintendent Thomson asked for more time to investigate, and this was granted by the Bench, with Madame Valentine to remain in custody, meantime. This brought on another episode, as the “New Zealand Herald” put it: “The accused here burst into tears and had to be removed sobbing”.
The next hearing took place in a packed courtroom. Madame Valentine and her case had caused lots of interest and the precincts of the Courthouse were crowded with those hoping for a glimpse of the Madame.
Evidence was given about the property in Rokeby Street, its insurances (some of which had lapsed) and its ownership. Then the women who were present on the night of the fire gave their evidence about the blaze and their escape, and more or less collaborating comments said to have been made by the accused. Nellie Bremner, no stranger herself to the inside of a courtroom, told the Magistrate “…on Sunday evening last Madame called at “Paddington Villa” and told the women occupants “If the girls are not out of the b— house she would sell the house or burn it”. Another woman quoted the accused of saying “I will see you all in a ditch or burnt out… Julia and the girls have led me the life of a dog”.
Police told the court that, in her statement, Madame Valentine had said she owned the property, she had paid £500 for it, then £300 for the furniture, plus £100 spent on repairs, and £100 on clothes: she had lost everything.
The time came for the defence and her lawyer, Mr Cooper, ended his brief address with a question: “Has a prima facie case been made?”
The Magistrate, H. G. Seth Smith said “…It has not – and the information is dismissed. The accused is subsequently discharged”.
Valentine either kept a very low profile in Auckland or she may have carried out her intentions, as earlier mentioned to her colleagues, to go to Sydney “on the next boat”. Passenger lists for ships departing in March/April 1885 do not help track her movements. I think she went to Sydney.
Her name next comes up in January 1887 when it’s likely, I think, that she returned from Australia with funds to renew business, in Wellesley Street premises.
The reason for this scenario is the appearance of Madame’s tell-tale “calling card” in the “New Zealand Herald”. It was the “lost ring” advertisement which, it will be recalled, she had deployed twice before as she set up in business in Auckland and Wellington. It appears to be a very public reminder that Madame was still in business, or had returned to start afresh, in Wellesley Street premises. Either this, or once again these women were very careless with some of their most valuable possessions!
In May 1887 Valentine hired a piano from the London and Berlin Piano Company for £1 a month. Piano-playing and singing were part of the entertainment in brothels, the noise of loud “music” often part of the complaints from surrounding neighbours.
In August that year she sold the instrument to an auction company, even though she did not own it. This perhaps indicates Valentine was “selling up” her furniture etc, preparatory to departing.
The piano changed hands again and there was a subsequent court case in September to sort out its ownership. There was no follow-up by the auction house to recover costs from the Madame nor by police charging her with theft or fraud: a suggestion she had by then left Auckland. None of the various names she regularly used show up in shipping records of the time, so it’s not known when she departed… probably leaving for the other scene she knew, Sydney, and maybe under yet another name! Or remained in New Zealand using a new alias.
The trail goes cold.
The residents of Rokeby Street and surrounds who petitioned the Council for a quieter environment almost got their way. The street was much quieter. Even during Valentine’s court case it was reported that the women were packing up, moving on. But Julia had other ideas and she continued in her “Brick House” despite ongoing attention from the police. In 1891 her establishment was mentioned, in passing, in a civil court case which the “Observer” picked up on, referring to her house as “Pearl-shell Villa, the fair, I mean dark, Julia’s, where her lilies toil not, neither do they spin”. Evidence was given in the case that police and others had called there in connection with, of all the unlikely things, collecting money for the blind!
For 15 years Julia weathered multiple charges brought by the police… accusations of keeping a brothel, drunkenness and illegally selling alcohol. The last of these appearances was in July 1899 when plainclothes policemen, one masquerading as a seaman, entered “The Brick House” looking for evidence of ‘sly grogging’ – sales of liquor without a licence. They charged Julia with selling beer but like so many of the cases brought against her over the decades, she was discharged because there was inconclusive evidence.
Her health suffered and Julia Curtis, aka Julia Wilson, aka “Black Julia”, died in February 1900 at her residence in Rokeby Street, just 6 months after her last court appearance and following some 30 years in business on the Auckland scene.
The Scary Press
Auckland newspapers often called attention to what they labelled the “seamy”, “disgraceful”, and “unlawful” way of life in local brothels. They once warned that the names of those men in one of these establishments at the time of a crime would be given in evidence during the follow-up court case. This caused a great crowd of inquisitive citizens to throng the courthouse: the men were neither named nor did they appear! Apart from heightening curiosity it must have been a bit of a frightener to the men concerned!
The “Observer” newspaper had some harsh words about a respected citizen when details of Valentine’s proof of purchase of the “Villa” came out in the court case alleging arson. “Auckland is not free from men who will scale any heights or descend any depths to make money. Not a person in Auckland is unacquainted with the rumours, founded on fact, that have floated about in reference to the disgraceful proceedings that nightly have been going on in the brothels in Rokeby Street, and yet we find a professor of religion, and, above all, a Presbyterian, aiding and abetting these debaucheries by lending money to a prostitute to purchase a house which she lets to another frail sister, therein to carry on the purposes of her licentiousness. I cannot find fault with a radical man of the world making the most of every wind that blows, but when a “saint” does such a thing, and at the same time palms himself off as a model of piety, no language is too harsh to denounce him”.
Then, after the court case the “Observer” must have raised anxieties when it said: “We shall probably next week have something to say with reference to some pious young men who are so regular in their attendance at church on Sundays, but who are often seen emerging from Rokeby Street”. No such publication was made!
There was also a Letter to the Editor about this time fiercely damning the practice and profits of prostitution saying the rents paid to Madame Valentine were unbelievable …£6 a week for “Paddington Villa” and £7 for her “new” house in Wellesley Street. (This compared with the rent of 5 shillings and sixpence a week quoted for the rental of a place in Rokeby Street some years later).
Newspapers at this time provided the only means of communicating with the public and we have seen Madame Valentine had a keen sense of her own publicity with what must have been deliberate placement of classified advertisements: the lost rings etc. She, and other brothel-keepers, beyond any sense of shame, probably regarded their names in Court Reports as valuable and ongoing advertising for their businesses.
Valentine’s Shipmates on “Queen of the Age”
It’s been difficult to trace those passengers of French origin, besides Madame Valentine Becquet, all of whom arrived in Auckland on “Queen of the Age” in 1875.
It was reported that most went on to Sydney where they had signed a lucrative deal with a showman to stage their French ballet. After their poor showing on stage in Auckland this was an unlikely venture. But we can find some of the men who separated from the troupe and went into business in their own right, even in their own name, or at least the name they used to emigrate to New Zealand.
Their stories are fascinating in their own ways… worth recording.
“Monsieur Victor” (Victor Becker on the Q of A Passenger List)
He left Auckland for Melbourne, probably with Eugene Froidure, because they are both mentioned in news reports as is later recounted here in Froidure’s activities.
Becker’s athleticism led to his appearance on the show biz circuit in Australia in the early 1880s, providing entertaining wrestling, fencing and other rough-and-tumble games in particular sparring with well-known wrestler “Professor Miller”. He travelled to New Zealand in 1882 – the name “Victor Bekker” is on the passenger list of SS Rotorua. In Auckland the newspaper heralded that “Professor Miller, the champion athlete and wrestler of the world, and Monsieur Victor, a wrestler and swordsman of high repute in La Belle France will appear. They will wrestle in the Greek-Roman style and will give statuesque illustrations of locks and stops as practised by the gladiators of Rome, and by the modern wrestlers of the present day. Some will replicate statues in Auckland Museum”.
The entertainment ended with a wrestling match between Monsieur Victor and a local French amateur – Victor very easily beating his opponent. That amateur wrestler turned out to be a man named Delamare, one of the “Queen of the Age” passengers, detailed below.
By the time he died in Melbourne in 1903, “Monsieur Victor”, Becker, was so well-known in Australasia that there were obituaries published in newspapers. “The Melbourne Sportsman” noted that he had arrived in Melbourne in 1875 (this would have been immediately after the ballet performance in Auckland) crowing “I am Monsieur Victor of Paris, champion middle-weight wrestler of the world, and I challenge all comers to wrestle in the Greco-Roman (French) style for £50 to £100 aside. This offer remained unanswered until Professor Miller returned from America”. The obituary went on: “…the dead athlete also encountered many others in wrestling, boxing, fencing, and swordsmanship contests with a fair measure of success. Victor was born at Paris on May 1, 1847, and was, therefore, a few months over 56 years at the time of his demise. He stood 5ft 9in, and weighed, in condition, at 11 stone. Peace to his ashes!”.
Other eulogies mentioned his mesmerism stage-act that he toured widely, his theatrical agency and the stints he had successfully managing provincial hotels.
Another account told of Victor’s background. “He entered the French army where he gained great reputation as a wrestler and fencer and attained non-commissioned rank. He was still wearing uniform when the Franco-Prussian war broke out in 1870, and during the siege of Paris he was lying wounded in one of its hospitals, with a bayonet thrust in his chest, received during the fighting that preceded the siege. He recovered before the siege ended, and he used to declare that its best lesson to him was the skill which be gained in preparing a decent meal from the most unpromising materials”.
(He was thus probably seen as a suitable person to be assisted to New Zealand, albeit illegally, by the French Benevolent Society. And it’s likely that Victor did take part in the Franco-Prussian conflict: his stories of it probably interested the four Frenchwomen who, immediately on their arrival in Auckland, attended a diorama and lecture about the war)
General regret was expressed in the Sydney cemetery of Victor’s untimely end, and it was agreed that matrimonial and monetary worries were at the bottom of it all.
In fact, he had taken his own life with a pistol in his Melbourne hotel room.
Delamare (Adolph Delamarre on the Q of A Passenger List)
Two of the Frenchmen from “Queen of the Age” were thus reunited on-stage in Auckland in April 1882. I had been aware (already mentioned) when newspapers recorded in May 1878, that the departure of a “big Frenchman and his wife” were the last of the French ‘immigrants’ to leave the city. They had owned a brothel in Cook Street.
Then I found that Monsieur Victor wrestled one Delamare during the Auckland performances, he was described as “a French wrestler, a man of huge proportions, who boasted that he could put Victor into his pocket with one hand while he wrestled another”. This led directly to Delamare.
Whether Delamare had remained in New Zealand, or he had returned from Australia in 1882: the name, his nationality and size matches. Despite his claims and bravado, he was, as already noted, trounced by Monsieur Victor in the wrestling matches, remembering they were on the stage in front of a paying audience: the bouts may have been “arranged”.
Eugene Froidure (this was the name on the Q of A Passenger List)
This man probably travelled to Australia immediately after the ‘immigrants’ were ‘found out’ following their ballet performance. Within a month of that debacle Froidure is in Melbourne writing to the Victorian Royal Humane Society offering his services to assist. Publicity about the formation of the local Society, to reward those who save lives, prompted Froidure to offer his help, based on what he described as his extensive previous experience saving human life. He told the Society he held one gold, and two silver medals, and had also received the decoration of the French Legion of Honour for having rescued no fewer than thirty-seven persons from drowning at different times for which he had received other official certificates.
Begun in Victoria in 1874, the Society became Australasian-wide
And in a separate offer Victor Becker wrote offering his services to the Society… “from one who has been a member of the English and Parisian societies”.
These two offers put Froidure and Becker in Melbourne, obviously in touch with each other and both looking to assist the fledgling Victorian Royal Humane Society whose secretary turned down their offers saying it was too soon to accept – the Society was not yet properly constituted.
So what were Froidure’s real credentials? Melbourne’s “The Age” newspaper, September 1874, reckoned it had the facts when it reported – “His name is Eugene Paul Froidure – he was born near Marseilles, his father was a charcoal burner. But Froidure’s love of the water was excited, and became dominant, whenever human life was endangered by the proximity of water. When eighteen years of age he took to the sea and observed a woman tumble into the mud which surrounded the dredging barge on which her husband was employed. He instantly plunged into the turbid stream, and in spite of the choking mud and the dredging apparatus which encumbered his exertions, dragged out the woman, Dame Vignon. For this brave deed he was entitled by the ordinances of the city of Paris, to a reward of thirty francs, which he nobly refused. On the 13th August following, the Commissary of Police of Marseilles warmly commended the aquatic hero for saving another life followed by his actions when Boyer and Jean Baptiste Andre Bellon were saved from drowning when Froidure jumped in with his clothes on, and, remaining two minutes under water, landed both safely. Then Froidure prevented loss of life when he went in after Citizen Cadoniat who fell overboard in the port of Marseilles. And for his exploits on the following Boxing Bay, Froidure received an honorary silver medal of the second class from the Secretary of Marine and Colonies for saving a drunken man who had fallen into the harbour of Marseilles.
“The Age” gave this detailed account to explain the man behind an entertainment that was scheduled for the Princess’es Theatre in September 1887. It was a new kind of show wherein the star, the “Man-Fish”, would defy logic by holding his breath underwater for prolonged periods.
The man was Eugene Froidure, the keen diver so adept at saving life, who, on the night of the performance approached the water-filled tank wearing a bathing suit covered in scales, hence the name he became so well-known by – “Fish-man”.
Froidure’s manager had a big build-up for what was billed “the highlight of the night”. The audience was advised that the tank had been specially made for “Fish-man” with a window so that the diver could easily be seen by the audience as he remained submerged “…for at least one and half minutes and, as you’re all privileged to witness tonight, much longer than that!” “Fish-man” prepared to go into the tank and throughout the theatre gentlemen reached for their pocket watches. They would time the duration of the dive for themselves, just to be sure!
The countdown, and then Froidure was in the tank, quickly submerged. Everywhere pocket watches were quickly noted, and the collective gaze returned, fixed, on the tank.
The crowd did not have to view the underwater diver for very long. In fact, after just ten seconds Froidure jumped out of the tank and disappeared off-stage. The water was far too cold for him, it was explained, it took away his breath, impossible to endure. A quantity of hot water was poured into the tank and the build-up was repeated, pocket watches were out again, and Froidure re-entered the tank. But as before, he was out of the water within seconds and off-stage. Management announced the show would not proceed that night – there would be a further attempt on Monday. A new tank would be required – after the show the glass shattered, though there’s no report of a flooded theatre!
In a follow-up explanation it was said Froidure found the Melbourne water too turbid and too cold: the supply had come from pipes under the theatre that had not been used for an age accounting for both its murkiness and chill. The show was not repeated the following Monday, nor ever again, and the “Fish-man” was renamed “Fish-Kon” by one of the local newspapers. Another reporter asked how a man with the name Froidure (in English it translates to “chilled”,”freezing”) could possibly be afraid of cold water!
Froidure apparently suffered after-effects within days, and it was reported he was in hospital dangerously ill, suffering from inflammation of the kidneys and lungs. A newspaper chided – “Monsieur Froidure was unable to successfully perform his feat on Saturday last, a complete failure, the water being almost at freezing point. He was unable to play on Monday night and is now suffering from the effects of the sudden shock to his system”.
By January the following year, 1875, he had obviously recovered enough to get into trouble with the law, charged with a serious assault. Once over that, there was a string of further court appearances mixed with being named as insolvent when his “colonial wine shop” in Sandridge went down. He sued and was sued, and then in another encounter he accused a man of theft… of all his rings. And this man turns out to be Vink, one of the Frenchman of the “Queen of the Age”! (More on Vink below)
In another case at the time Froidure sued an auctioneer for selling him a horse, said to be placid, but which, first time out, overturned its buggy. Froidure admitted he knew nothing about horses: the case was dismissed. In one of his other court appearances his excitable nature and pugnacious attitude earned him another nick-name: “Queer-Fish”
Froidure goes to ground from about 1878 when an advertisement in a Sydney newspaper called on him to pick up his personal property or it would be sold to defray storage expenses. He was on the move.
Fiorimonde Vink (Vinik Florimond on the Q of A Passenger List)
The accusation of theft brings to notice Fiorimonde Vink (as listed in the Melbourne Court documents) and, our old acquaintance “The Mermaid”, Alice Allen.
The case developed like this – In December 1876 Froidure, described on the charge sheet as “a lumper” – a cargo-worker on the wharves – picked a bar-room fight with, of all people, another from the “troupe”, Edward Duret. In preparation for the fisticuffs Froidure took off all his rings (he said they were worth about £100) and asked the barman to look after them. But Fiorimonde Vink quickly grabbed the rings and, together with Edwin Duret and “Madame Alice”, left the bar.
This scrap of court-room evidence means “The Mermaid”, Alice Allen, from Auckland, had kept in touch with the Frenchmen in Melbourne and had, by December 1876, joined their circle.
The case against Vink was dismissed.
Auguste Hugue (sometimes Hughes)
Probably went to Melbourne with Froidure and Becker and kept in contact with them. In January 1876 Hugue appeared in court with another Frenchman charged with seriously assaulting Froidure, threatening to take his life. The Bench sorted out the differences that caused the fight and the defendants were bound over to keep the peace.
He moved to Melbourne where he owned a “colonial wine shop” in Stephen Street and, several times, was involved in high jinks with Froidure and at one stage with Alice Allen.
The French Imposters
The latter history of these six men shows that there was no doubt that they were imposters when they travelled, free of charge, as assisted immigrants to New Zealand. It is now plain they were not the tradesmen they said they were, nor were they all married to the women they accompanied to Auckland. Some of their number travelled using assumed names which begged the question whether they were on the run… and why had the French Beneficiary Society assisted their travel from France to London where the group was recommended to Immigration Officials in Westminster?
Neither were they “Talented artistes of the troupe Parisienne” as they claimed on their arrival in Auckland, nor were they vineyard workers as some said they were.
“Valentine Francois” soon changed her name when she first arrived in Auckland… as Valentine Becquet she, with accomplice Julia Curtis aka Julia Wilson, shared the reputation as the city’s most notorious Madame of the time, no matter which name she was using.
Madame Valentine Francois (name she used to immigrate to New Zealand with Theodore Francois, supposedly her husband)
Mrs A. Martin (Passenger to Sydney)
Becquet Martin (used when arrested in Auckland)
Valentine Becquet (most commonly used)
Valentine Beckett (an apparent anglicisation of the above)
Becquet Valentine (used when arrested in Auckland and Wellington)
Madame Valentine (used in the brothel business, even though it’s thought she was single)
Mademoiselle Valentine (stage name for her ballet act)
The Twists… the Update
In the 1880s Black Julia managed The White House on the corner of Rokeby Street (now Waverley Street) and Queen Street, one of several brothels in what was once described as “a nest of infamous houses”.
So it was ironic that in the year 2000 entrepreneur Brian Le Gros established “a classy adult entertainment centre” naming it The White House, situated just up Queen Street a little and opposite the much earlier, notorious, White House.
The other twist is that for many years there’s been a brothel in Waverley Street, right in the heart of where the old Rokeby “nest” was located! These days it looks a bit jaded from the outside but the “Open” sign still flashes its welcome, day and night.
National Library of New Zealand – Papers Past website
NZ Archives on-line
Trove – National Library of Australia and partners around Australia
Auckland City Archives
“Decently and in Order”, G. A. Bush, Auckland City Council, 1971
The White House website
© RCC Valentine’s Day, 14th February 2022