The day Rockhampton's mayor was shot by his mistress

Rex Pilbeam. Photo Contributed
Rex Pilbeam. Photo Contributed Contributed Photo ROK060613rex1

REX Pilbeam was always on the move. Whether he was raising money for Rockhampton's Olympic pool, cleaning up the cemetery before the Queen's visit or having a punt at the races, he rarely sat still.

But he was stopped in his tracks only a year into his record 30-year term as mayor - and it could have changed the face of Rockhampton as we know it.

Sixty years ago today Mr Pilbeam and his former secretary Jean Frances McGregor Jennings, 26, were driving near the showgrounds when she shot him in the side, lodging a bullet just above his heart.

The bizarre story was shot across national media and cemented his place as one of Queensland's most controversial and colourful mayors.

A court room was set up in Mr Pilbeam's room at Tannachy Hospital on July 15, 1953 where it came out that the two had had an affair and Mr Pilbeam had lived with Ms Jennings under an assumed name at a Maroochydore Hotel, having promised to marry her.

It was testified she had said she wanted to kill him and then herself.

Rex Pilbeam always had his eyes on the road ahead.
Rex Pilbeam always had his eyes on the road ahead. File

Mr Pilbeam had terminated the affair, and refused to give her job back after returning to Rockhampton from two years in Brisbane.

Police testified that during her arrest Ms Jennings had asked "How is Rexie? Is he all right? Will he die?", adding "I know he's poison. He's poison for me, but oh, what sweet poison."

Yet things still became stranger.

On August 30, Ms Jennings was found guilty of 'unlawfully attempting to kill' and sentenced to two years jail, a sentence which was suspended upon a 100 pound bond.

The next day Mr Pilbeam resigned from his post saying he felt compelled to give his constituents the opportunity to decide if they wanted him to continue in his post.

Few thought he would be re-elected, but he was, although with a significantly reduced majority from the 10,000 vote landslide two years earlier.

Mr Pilbeam went on to serve for 30 years and it's safe to say Rockhampton as we know it today would look vastly different without his influence.

In 1952, Rockhampton had only 1.6km of bitumen road and Mr Pilbeam was elected on the promise of sealing the roads - he campaigned as he drove the streets in the evening in a truck full of iron fillings.

"I'd smack into a huge pot-hole deliberately, and the racket would be awful," he told The Newcastle Herald in 1983.

"I'd stop, apologise to everyone who'd rushed out in their nightclothes to see the smash, and say we really needed bitumen roads, didn't we.

"Vote for me and get 'em."

It worked and he was elected with a three-to-one majority to his closest opponent.

Over the next 30 years he sealed the roads, sewered the town, established an art gallery with an impressive collection, fixed the town's major financial problems, kept rates down and built the barrage - which many say was his greatest achievement as mayor.

But always the controversial figure, he is known to this day as a womaniser and it's safe to say he wouldn't be the most popular figure among modern women.

He had a policy of not hiring married women, saying single women needed the jobs more as they didn't have husbands to support them.

Despite this he was quoted towards the end of his mayorship saying he had a high regard for the modern woman.

"I don't mind them as long as they don't abandon their children or decide not to have any," Mr Pilbeam said.

Rex Pilbeam convenes a meeting of the trainers, bookmakers and the Rockhampton Jockey Club to support Minister for Racing, Russell Hinze. Mr Pilbeam was a well-known punter.
Rex Pilbeam convenes a meeting of the trainers, bookmakers and the Rockhampton Jockey Club to support Minister for Racing, Russell Hinze. Mr Pilbeam was a well-known punter.

In what was sure to be a rare occurrence for a regional mayor, he appeared in Playboy after fundraising for John Dingwall's movie Buddies, seeing it filmed on the Gemfields with a cameo from the man himself.

Local historian Dr Lorna McDonald remembers Mr Pilbeam well and said he was brilliant, if a little rough and ready.

"When I began my research on him I'd never met him but heard lots of rumours," she said.

"I came to respect him very much and indeed, in my opinion as an historian, he is the most outstanding mayor in Rockhampton.

"He copped a lot of criticism, some of which was no doubt deserved, but you have to balance that against his devotion to advancing Rockhampton.

"He was a man of vision... he was a hard worker - to get the first pool he tramped from door to door collecting people's money boxes that they put a few pennies in.

"People had trusted him."

He was married at only 20 to his enduring wife Barbara and despite his indiscretions they sustained a 67-year-long marriage.

Many said she was the real force behind his success, and is widely remembered as a valued and loved member of the local community.

In 1983 he described their marriage as sporadic warfare.

"I was pretty tough to handle when I was young," he said.

"But now I'm under the control of one woman."

Rex Pilbeam with his wife Barbara, to whom many said he owed a great deal of his success.
Rex Pilbeam with his wife Barbara, to whom many said he owed a great deal of his success.

 

Rex's great career

  • Mayor from 1952-82.
  • MP for Rockhampton South from 1960-69. He ran for the Liberals and won despite it being one of the safest Labor seats.
  • Only drew a part-time salary from his mayoral duties, receiving no overtime, holiday pay or superannuation.
  • Ran an accountancy business in Warwick, before coming to Rockhampton to work as the secretary of the Show Society in 1949.
  • He served four years military service, three of which were overseas.
  • Continued working after his mayorship at the Art Gallery Trust.


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