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The watchmaker and the $1m Launceston gold theft

In March 1884 workmen were demolishing a building in Charles Streets in Launceston, near its junction with Brisbane Street, when they came upon an old sign for F. Riva, Watchmaker, Jeweller, etc.

Ferdinand Riva operated his business in Launceston from the 1840s for more than 20 years and Launceston’s Daily Telegraph on Wednesday 26 March 1884 related the story of a brazen gold robbery at his shop some 30 years earlier.

The newspaper said that Mr Riva was a large, handsome, respectable elderly German (he was actually Italian), who up to about 1860 conducted a watchmaking and jewellery business and also sold tobacco and snuff and other miscellaneous goods:

He had been a purchaser of gold from the time when diggers were in the practice of making a run over here from the richest alluvial goldfields of New South Wales and Victoria, with what was then considered the very laudable desire of “melting down” their well-filled bags and “belts” of easily obtained gold.

Many diggers preferred dealing with Ferdinand Riva as he was a cash buyer which enabled them to quickly join their mates and celebrate their good fortune.

An “active” digger, the newspaper said, would tour the hotels and inns as far as Franklin Village or Perth and hire a fiddler and drummer “or tambourine performer if no drum was available” to accompany him and his female acquaintances calling “shoutin' for all hands!”

Diggers might spend a very sizeable “belt of gold” in a fortnight while celebrating in this fashion and it became known that Ferdinand Riva kept his gold dust and nuggets in a cash box in his shop.

In reporting the subsequent court case, the Cornwall Chronicle of Saturday 26 March 1853 said that on 8 January, around tea time when few people were about, two men entered Mr Riva's shop and while one distracted him looking at clocks the other grabbed the container of gold and fled.

When he reported the theft, Ferdinand Riva said 500 ounces of gold, worth £1,000, had been kept in the cash tin. On today’s gold prices that valued the theft at more than $1 million and it naturally caused a sensation at the time.

The Daily Telegraph said it didn’t think Mr Riva ever knew exactly how much gold dust he had in the tin. Rewards were offered for the conviction of those responsible and “some people – innocent people it was said – in and about the old Enfield Hotel in Brisbane Street got into trouble about it.”

Three men – John Jones, William Mooney and George Atkinson – were later charged over the theft but only John Jones was found guilty and sentenced to transportation for life. Some of the gold was recovered and the Daily Telegraph said that Mr Riva seemed unconcerned at theft.

There was no mention in stories of the gold theft of Ferdinand Riva’s convict past. In fact, the uncovering of his shop sign from the 1850s apparently reminded older citizens of “his kind heart and those quaint old times and many quaint old residents” of the gold rush days.

Ferdinand Riva was born in Lake Como, Italy, about 1806, and was believed to be part of a group of thieves in England when he was charged with receiving stolen money and watches. He was found guilty and sentenced to 14 years transportation.

He had previously been imprisoned for theft and left behind a wife and child. Ferdinand Riva was transported to Van Diemen’s Land with 298 other convicts on the ship Aurora that included Charles Brentani, who was also from Lake Como.

As an assigned convict Ferdinand Riva was assigned to Launceston and Perth and in 1839 was charged with theft and sentenced to 12 months imprisonments with hard labour.

After being granted their tickets-of-leave, Ferdinand Riva and Charles Brentani set up in business in Launceston as watchmakers, jewellers and general traders. About 1845, Charles Brentani moved to Melbourne where he established a successful business.

Ferdinand Riva remained in Launceston and advertised that watches and clocks purchased from him were guaranteed for 12 months and that he sold thermometers, barometers and hydrometers “for land and sea”.

His wife Catherine and son joined him in Van Diemen’s Land and he received a conditional pardon in 1845. By 1848 he was also selling Catholic books and had added stationery to his business.

After the Victorian gold rush began in the early 1850s, he became a buyer and seller of gold. His business seems to have done well and he acquired several properties in Launceston. Ferdinand Riva died on 1 July 1860 at his home in Charles Street, Launceston.


Excerpt from DOING TIME, Stories of Convict Clock and Watchmakers in Van Diemen's Land available from bookshops and the author.


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