Mary and Bob moved from Sydney to Sandy Beach, just north of Coffs Harbour, years ago but Mary still calls every so often for a catch up. This year when she asked me if I was still doing my photography I told her about my WWI project. That is when Mary told me her father Henry Costin’s remarkable story.
Henry had been a corporal and a gymnastics instructor in the British army, and was also an excellent marksman, when he answered an advertisement in 1910 to join an exploratory expedition to South America with British Army Colonel Percy Fawcett. Henry and Fawcett got along so well that Henry journeyed with him three times, mapping borders in Bolivia and Brazil for local authorities. And with Henry’s sharp shooting skills procuring their dinner on many occasions. After one of their journeys they returned to civilisation to discover the world at war in Europe.
Both explorers then served in WWI with Henry seeing action on The Somme and rising to the rank of Lieutenant. It was during his war service that Henry made a small tortoise from Turkish shell casings and telegraph wire and sent it home to his “sweetheart” Annie, Mary’s mother to be. When Mary showed it to me and we opened it there was tiny letter inside to her mother explaining what it was made of and how to open and close the tortoise. Mary also has two embroidered postcards made by French women that Henry had sent her mother. Inside one was a tiny lock of hair and some pressed flowers, no doubt put there by her mother, nearly a century ago.
If that wasn’t extraordinary enough, Mary has several photographs of her father, dressed both in his WWI uniform and in his explorer’s clothing. But most prized of all are a copy of Fawcett’s book and four letters Henry wrote in 1940s to Mary when she was a teenager. The letters document his exploits with Fawcett in South America and contain a hand drawn map of the country they were exploring. Totalling over 50 pages the letters are a priceless memento of Mary’s father’s travels with Fawcett.
Henry turned down the last great adventure with Colonel Fawcett. Possibly because he was married and starting his family, but also because he didn’t get on with Fawcett’s son Jack – so when asked to accompany them back to the wilds of South America looking for the fabled “lost city” Henry didn’t go. Fawcett’s party never returned and to this day it is a mystery what happened to them!
After WWI Henry chose the trade of marbler and grainer, and became so proficient that he could paint a wall to look like marble, wood or any texture required. His craftsmanship was such that he was invited into many private residences in the UK and Europe, including Buckingham Palace, to undertake work. Henry and Annie had four children: Frank, Eric (who died in WWII), Mike, and Mary. Frank and Mike both had careers in the aircraft and racing car industries, and famously designed aerodynamic bodies for the Lotus racing car.
Mary and her husband Bob raised a family, moved to Australia, flew gliders and have just celebrated their 60th diamond wedding anniversary amongst friends and family across four generations. Mary is also a talented artist and keen gardener still at 85 years of age.
Most surprising of all in 2017 is that on 24 August the movie The Lost City of Z will open in Sydney. Starring Charles Hunnam as Col Fawcett and Robert Pattinson as Mary's father Henry Costin the film documents their exploits in South America looking for the fabled lost city! A fitting way to remember this WWI veteran and explorer!