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Larry Foley, predecessor of ‘The Rock’

30 May

Australian bare knuckle-champion-turned-boxer, Larry Foley, was the late Victorian-era equivalent of Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson. During the last three decades of the nineteenth century, he had a stellar profile as a sporting star. And from time to time, he used this to put in cameo appearances in big theatrical productions in Sydney.

Foley first came to fame in Australia when he fought a gruelling bare knuckle prize match against Sandy Ross on 18 March 1871. He also won the Australian bare knuckle championship against Abe Hicken at Echuca in 1878 – a match he said was brazenly attended by the Ned Kelly while the bushranger was still at large. Soon afterwards, Foley became a key figure in Australia’s transition from bare-knuckle fights to gloved boxing matches, following the Marquis of Queensbury’s rules.

Foley loved the stage as well as the prize-ring. Just as the innate theatricality of professional wrestling and the WWF made it easy for The Rock to segue into bit film-parts today, Foley found it a cinch to appear in big theatrical productions in the late nineteenth century.

In 1880, for example, he appeared as Charles the Wrestler in a production of As You Like It at Queen’s Theatre in Sydney. The production starred a touring American actress, Louise Pomeroy, as Rosalind. The audience who turned up for the opening night were more interested in Foley’s performance, however – or at least it seems so from the review that appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald the next day. ‘The majority of those present were very noisy’, the Herald reported. ‘Besides interfering with the comfort of the remainder, their boisterousness seriously militated against the success of the entertainment’. The paper added that Foley was much to be commended on his appearance, especially for his ‘well-considered fall in the wrestling scene’.

Larry Foley evidently enjoyed playing Charles the Wrestler, because he ended up reprising it in several later Sydney productions of As You Like It, including one starring Ada Ward as Rosalind in 1882 and others starring Lily Dampier in 1886-87. He also made attempts to become a theatre manager for a time, but went back to managing exhibition boxing matches when it proved financially unviable.

Foley is a perfect example of the interconnections between sport and theatre that I have talked about in a previous post. This overlap between theatre and sport was apparent all over the English-speaking Western world, including Australia. It was at its most acute pre-1930 – but of course, it still lives on in the tradition of sporting dramas on the screen and in the person of sporting celebrities-cum-actors such as Dwayne Johnson.


Sydney Morning Herald, 4 October 1880, 6; 8 March 1882, 2; 29 October 1886, 2; 29 July 1887, 6.

W. M. Horton, ‘Foley, Laurence (Larry) (1849 – 1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, p. 193.

Image of Laurence (‘Larry’) Foley from

See my other post on Larry Foley here.

Captain of the Push, and other embroideries

23 Apr

In the mid-1900s, any number of romanticised accounts of old Sydney were written by novelists or journalists trading in nostalgia for late nineteeth-century life. Isadore Brodsky, Ruth Park and Frank Clune were among the most popular of these writers, while the Saturday supplements of the papers were rife with lesser offerings.

A standard trope in these nostalgic accounts was the remembrance of the larrikin push (Australian for ‘hooligan gang’) back in the ‘bad old days’. Brodsky’s Heart of the Rocks of Old Sydney, Ruth Park’s Sydney, Kenneth Roberts’ Captain of the Push and other works all tell us that the inner suburbs and city-fringe neighbourhoods of Sydney were made into the fiefdoms of ruffian pushes, many of them ruled by larrikin ‘kings’.

In his more recent history of Sydney, for example, Geoffrey Moorhouse draws on this oeuvre to tell us that ‘the so-called Forty Thieves had the suzerainty of the Rocks, the Iron House Mob ruled Woolloomooloo, while Bristley’s Mob ran the show between George Street and Darling Harbour’.

Now it is the case that there were larrikin pushes in late nineteenth-century Sydney who got involved in street fights and were prosecuted for numerous other crimes. But there is also a great deal of exaggeration and in some cases downright nonsense about them in these histories. 

The idea that larrikin pushes made whole suburbs into their ‘peculiar kingdoms’ (to quote Ruth Park’s Sydney) is an obvious example. Even if unruly groups of adolescents and older rowdies were a routine feature of life in a particular neighbourhood, the use of an overblown imperial language to describe them is absurd.

Larry Foley

A case of outright misinformation also appears in Captain of the Push. Its author Kenneth Roberts claims that the bare-knuckle champion-turned-boxer Larry Foley was the leader of an all-Catholic larrikin push called Larry’s Mob in inner Sydney at the start of the 1870s. He says that Larry’s Mob did battle with the all-Protestant Rocks Push led by Sandy Ross at the time. On the basis of this, accounts in the Australian Dictionary of Biography and numerous other online sites erroneously claim that there were two larrikin gangs called the Green and the Orange which were once fought for supremacy of the Rocks.

No evidence I have seen supports these claims. For a start, the timing is wrong: there weren’t well-defined larrikin pushes in Sydney at the beginning of the 1870s. And the obituaries for Larry Foley that Roberts seems to have relied upon only suggest that there were loose Protestant and Catholic factions within Sydney’s bare-knuckle fighting fraternity, each of which urged Larry Foley and Sandy Ross to hold a prize fight in March 1871. The rest of Roberts’ story about the pair being the captains of rival street gangs seems to have been embroidered from poetry such as Henry Lawson’s ‘The Bastard From the Bush’ (in which the phrase ‘Captain of the Push’ appears) and other accounts of larrikin pushes from a period later than the 1870s.

The moral to this story is: beware accounts of a larrikin street gangs big on talk of kings and suzerainities and short of evidence to back up their claims. They tell us more about twentieth-century nostaligia for hard masculinity and the mean streets than they do about Sydney’s inner-suburban life in the late-Victorian years.


Isadore Brodsky, Sydney Looks Back (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1957).

Isadore Brodsky, Heart of the Rocks of Old Sydney (Sydney: Old Sydney Free Press, 1965).

W. M. Horton, ‘Foley, Laurence (Larry) (1849 – 1917)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, Melbourne University Press, 1972, p. 193.

Geoffrey Moorhouse, Sydney (St Leonards, Sydney: Allen and Unwin, 1999).

Ruth Park, Ruth Park’s Sydney, rev. ed. (Potts Point, Sydney: Duffy & Snellgrove, 1999, first published 1973).

Kenneth Roberts, Captain of the Push (Melbourne: Lansdowne, 1963).

Image of Larry Foley from

On sentimental cowboys

28 Jan


Last post I wrote about Lance Skuthorpe (1870-1958), proprietor and presenter of an Australian rough-riding show called Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia in the early 1900s. What fascinates me after reading more about him is his combination of sentimentality with a tough masculinity.

According to Lem Partridge, one of Skuthorpe’s long-term riders and managers, ‘Skuey’ was incurably reckless with his cash. Just as soon as he raked in good returns from a show, he had spent them and was broke again. Life was ‘full of laughter and heart-break’ with Skuthorpe, Partridge said. And what went along with this boom-and-bust way of living was a simultaneous hardness and tenderness of character.

Skuthorpe was in many ways as hard as nails. What else would one expect from a rough-rider whose trademark style in the saddle was a nonchalent immoveability, acting as if the frenzied buckjumper beneath him was nothing at all? He was also notoriously tough with his fists, going deaf in mature age from too many blows to the head during fights as a younger man. But at the same time, he was drawn to the sappiest ballads and poems. So far as his biographer Jack Pollard was concerned, Skuthorpe’s favourite song was the super-saccharine ‘I’ll Be All Smiles Tonight, Mother’, closely followed by ‘The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy’ (the lyrics for which are below) and ‘The Dewy Downs of Yarra’. ‘Lance’s repertoire of bush ballads and folk songs was remarkable’, Pollard continues, ‘…and he hoarded them with a sentimentality common in such a hard Australian bushman’.

The more I read of late-Victorian and early-twentieth century English-speaking culture, the more it seems to me that the flash cove who mixed toughness with sentimentality was a recognisable type – be he an Austalian bush/showman or larrikin, poor Irish-American fan of minstrelsy, or Cockney vaudeville enthusiast. Minstrelsy and vaudeville both mixed ultra-weepy songs about dead mothers with a riotously anti-authoritarian comic shtick, just as bushranger melodramas portrayed iron outlaws with hearts o’gold. Like the bush ballads hoarded by Skuthorpe, these theatrical forms appealed to rough blokes (among others) who were said to cry and roar along to the action depending on the emotional mood. This mix of hard and soft, for want of less overtly gendered metaphors, points to how limited our imagination of masculinity and femininity can be. If even someone like Skuthorpe was given to the expression of tenderness, why do we so often persist in seeing sentimentality as feminine, as something alien to masculine sensibilities?

PS: here are the lyrics to “The Soldier’s Poor Little Boy”:

The snow is fast a-falling,
And the wind on loudly roars,
When a poor little child, quite frozen,
Came up to the rich lady”s door.
He spied her from the window so high,
Which filled his heart with joy:
“For mercy sake, some pity on me take;
I”m a soldier’s poor little boy.

“My mother died when I was young,
My father went to the war;
And many a battle so brave he has fought,
Always covered with wounds and scars.
Many a mile on his knapsack
He carried me with joy.
But now I’m left quite parentless-
I”m a soldier’s poor little boy.

“The snow is fast a-falling,
The night is coming on,
And if you don’t protect me
I shall perish before the morn.”
She rose up from the window so high
And opened the door to him:

“Come in, you young unfortunate child;
Thou shalt never wander again.
My only son in the war was slain,
My pride, my all, my joy;
And as long as I live, some shelter will I give
To a soldier’s poor little boy.”


The above image is from Nelson Boren Art, a site full of similar schmaltzy offerings.

Jenny Hicks, Australian Cowboys: Roughriders and Rodeos (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 2000), 36-7

Veronica Kelly, ‘Melodrama, an Australian pantomime, and theatrical constructions of Australian history’. Journal of Australian Studies (1993) 38: 51-61.

Jack Pollard, The Roughrider: The Story of Lance Skuthorpe (Lansdowne: Melbourne, 1962), 94.

S. J. Routh, ‘Skuthorp (Skuthorpe), Lancelot Albert (1870 – 1958 )‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.11 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 627-628.

Australian Wild West Shows

22 Jan


Wild West Shows, roughriding and buckjumping contests enjoyed a great upsurge of popularity in Australia around the turn of the twentieth century. There were travelling outfits offering spectacles of steely riders and bucking horseflesh in the city and bush alike – Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia and Edward Irham (‘Bohemian’) Cole’s flashy company perhaps the most well-known examples.

Born in 1870, Lance Skuthorpe (originally ‘Skuthorp’) first made his name as a stunt rider in 1896, and  acquired his own show in the early 1900s. In 1900, he organised a fundraiser for a local Catholic priest in Melbourne, in which Ned Kelly’s cousins, the Lloyd brothers, also starred. It was so successful that he set up Skuthorpe’s Wild Australia with his brother Dick (orignally Cyril). In 1906, he made a sensation riding a notorious horse known as Bobs in a Sydney show at Rawson Place. E. I. Cole also played Sydney and Melbourne: he leased a venue in Melbourne’s Bourke Street for a time, and otherwise had vast tents in which he set up in parks like the one next to Sydney’s Central Station for weeks on end. Apparently you could hear the shouting and gunfire all the way to Circular Quay in some of his Sydney performances.

Both Cole and Skuthorpe combined a passion for Australian bush lore with a gaudy showman’s persona. Cole was originally an American, and styled himself very deliberately as a combination of Australianness and Americanness for his shows. He was known as the  ‘Australian Barnum’, wearing the six-gallon hat and the flowing locks of American Wild Westers (see the National Library Australia website here for a portrait). He was also an afficionado of Australian bushranging history, hoarding Kelly memorabilia and writing gazillions of plays about the deeds of bush outlaws. Lance Skuthorpe was bred in the Australian bush, and worked as a stockman before his move into showbiz. In the ring, however, he wore sapphires studding his shirt and specialised in his own Barnum-like shtick. Both Skuthorpe and Cole performed with the famous ‘Dr Carver’ during the 1890s in Australia, a period in which Carver was on tour from America with his own Wild West Show.

Debate still rages in horsy circles today about the ‘Australianness’ of Australia’s roughriding-show history. Some trash it as an American importation; others insist on its credentials as an authentic national tradition. I came across a discussion on something called the Eques Forum, which summed up this debate. In it, a true believer defended Lance Skuthorpe as an ‘Aussie through and through’ in spite of the fact that he wore American clothes in his shows. Sure, Skuthorpe might have gone in for ‘American razzamatazz’, but underneath it he was a bushman, possessed of nothing less than ‘the heart of the Australian idiom and character’ .

Really, it is false to set up a dichotomy between the Australian bush tradition and American razzamatazz. The roughriding show was always an intriguing combination of cultural factors in Australia – a hybrid which drew on local practices, bushranger lore, the traditions of British fairgrounds, circuses, and American Wild West Shows. A combined love of scruffy raffishness and slick flashiness was also entrenched as a recognisable form of rough masculinity in late nineteenth-century Australia. It was embodied by larrikins, for a start, as also by Ned Kelly, and before that, English highwaymen like Dick Turpin. So the whole idea that the roughriding tradition has to be either American or Australian, that cultural traditions have to be nationally pure like that, is simply an historical misnomer.


The above image is from 8 seconds, an Australian rodeo site.

Edward Irham Cole Papers. Mitchell Library, ML PXD 735.

Jack Pollard, The Roughrider: The Story of Lance Skuthorpe (Lansdowne: Melbourne, 1962).

Billy Moloney, Memoirs of an Abominable Showman (Adelaide: Rigby, 1968), p. 15 on E. I. Cole (how good is the title of this memoir?!)

S. J. Routh, ‘Skuthorp (Skuthorpe), Lancelot Albert (1870 – 1958 )‘, Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.11 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 1988), 627-628.

See info. on the Lloyd brothers and their participation in buckjumping shows in this entry on Maggie Kelly on Ned Kelly’s World.

Brisbane larrikins

23 May

According to the travel-writer Gilbert Parker in the early 1880s, Brisbane had no larrikins. There were abundant low characters in the streets, certainly. Brisbane’s rough boys didn’t wear a slouch hat set at a rakish angle, however: they didn’t have quite the right features and style that Parker had identified as ‘larrikin’ in Australian cities further south. A particular sartorial style was indeed highly signficant to larrikins: they formed a subculture with its own dress codes and distinctive pursuits as well as an example of violent dissidence in turn-of-the-century urban Australia.

Parker can’t have been looking all that hard for larrikins in Brisbane’s streets. Either that, or he visited the city just before the full development of  its larrikin culture. Certainly, by the late 1880s and early 1890s, there were plenty of reports in the Brisbane press of the ‘full-blown’ larrikin boy and girl.

‘The larrikin loves Saturday night’, wrote a journalist for the Brisbane Courier in December 1888, ‘and in all the glory of high heels – of the French pattern – bell-bottomed pants, and bobtailed coats, decked with many buttons, he propels himself against hotel walls … and bespatters the fooway with his copious expectoration’. The same paper wrote of pushes of larrikin girls in Woolloongabba after dark in the 1890s, wearing short skirts and behaving ‘suspiciously’. Some larrikin girls in central Brisbane were prostitutes (or assumed to be such), and were imprisoned in ‘Lock Hospitals’ under contagious diseases laws in the early 1890s. ‘Latterly it has become a custom for them to break out at night as soon as they get an opportunity’, wrote a police sergeant in 1891, to sneak off to ‘meet some of their larrikin acquaintances, get drunk and return before the matron is up in the morning’.

Other accounts of Brisbane larrikins document the same kind of anti-Chinese violence in which Melbourne larrikins were engaged in the 1880s. The Brisbane riot in Albert Street on an election-day in 1888 was spearheaded by a group of larrikins throwing stones and beating Chinese men, egged on by a drunken crowd spilling out from nearby polling booths. At least two women were among the larrikins smashing Chinese shopfronts – and two Anglo women were also beaten as they came out of a shop near Queen Street because they who presumed to be concubines of Chinese men.

Intriguingly, and horribly, too, larrikins at Goodna fell upon a troupe of Mexican fortune-tellers making their peripatetic way about the Queensland interior in April 1902, a long way from where they were born.


Raymond Evans, ‘Night of Broken Glass: The Anatomy of an Anti-Chinese Riot’, in in Brisbane History Group, Brisbane in 1888: The Historical Perspective (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 1989) pp. 47-60.

Rod Fisher, ‘Old Frogs Hollow: Devoid of Interest, or a Den of Iniquity?’, in Brisbane History Group, Brisbane in 1888: The Historical Perspective (Brisbane: Brisbane History Group, 1989) pp. 17-46.

Mark Finnane, ‘Larrikins, Delinquents and Cops: Police and Young People in Australian History’, in Rob White and Christine Alder, eds, Police and Young People in Australia (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994) pp. 7-26.

Bryan Jamison, ‘A Great Social Forece Making For Order and Morality: An Analysis of Institutions for Rational Recreation in Late Victorian and Edwardian Brisbane’, PhD Thesis, University of Queensland, 2002.

                     , ‘Kangaroo Point, 1902’, in Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier, eds, Radical Brisbane (Melbourne: Vulgar Press, 2004), pp. 123-32.

Murray Johnson, ‘Leaning Against the Lamp-Post: A Study of Larrikinism in South Queensland 1880-1920’, B.A. Hons Thesis, Department of History, University of Queensland, 1998.

W Ross Johnston, The Long Blue LIne: A History of the Queensland Police (Bowen Hills, Qld: Boolaroo Publications, 1992) pp. 169-70.

Gilbert Parker, in Edward Morris, Austral English: A Dictionary of Australasian Words, Phrases and Usages (London: Macmillan, 1898) pp. 259-63.

The coster and the larrikin

16 Mar


Last post I wrote about the larrikin Bill in C J Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke (1915). Even though he had grown up a pugilist in a Melbourne slum, this Bill was famous for his romantic longings and penchant for reverie. (That’s his wedding scene from the 1919 Raymond Longford silent film based on Dennis’ poetry).

Dennis’s bloke Bill shows us that the Australian larrikin was able to be imagined in bewilderingly different ways by the early twentieth century. In 1870, Marcus Clarke had decided that the larrikin was much the same as Sam Hall, a rough music-hall character who went to the scaffold for murder, shouting ‘damn your eyes!’ at all society. In The Sentimental Bloke, however, the larrikin was a bovver-boy given over to a desire for domesticity. It was extraordinary that this sentimentalised view of the larrikin was possible, given that only a few decades before, larrikins were the subject of a moral panic in Australia over street youth and their gang-raping propensities. There was still concern about the degeneration of urban youth in the early twentieth-century, mind you, as well as the survival of early negative views of larrikinism. But these were no longer the only perspective available on Australian boys from the push.

The Australian larrikin’s progress from Sam Hall to Sentimental Bloke in C J Dennis’ poetry (and its filmic and theatrical spin-offs) almost exactly mirrors the characterisation of roughs in the English music hall. As historian Peter Bailey sees it, anyway, the quintessential music-hall character in mid-century England was none other than the murderous Sam Hall. The leading character in the 1860s and 1870s was the heavy swell: the plebeian Champagne Charlie who whooped it up in even higher style than his betters when out on the town. By the 1890s, however, the coster singer a la Albert Chevalier predominated, dressed in a pearlie-stitched velvet suit singing sweetly of “my old Dutch” (his wife; rhyming slang with Dutch fife). This shift in music-hall characterisation represented a movement, Bailey says, from class culture to mass culture – from popular resistance, through emulation of the upper class, to domestication.

There’s a lot to mull over in Bailey’s conclusion that coster singer of the 1890s represented the triumph of sentimental mass culture over the oppositional class culture of old. Since there are so many correspondences between the coster and the larrikin, this same argument might well also be applied in an Australian context. Nonetheless, I find it hard to accept the implicit judgment in the view that popular culture wrought a transition from an insurgent class identity to sentimentalised domesticity. Anyone brought up on feminist critique would surely blanch at the suggestion that representations of rough costers and larrikins are to be preferred over sentimental ones on the basis that the latter are inauthentic and that in any event sentimentality is undesirable. What Bailey is essentially doing via this argument is pitting a positive masculine notion of authentic toughness against a negative feminine one of overdone sentimentality – an old old trope by now. And this view can also be seen in Australian discussions of Dennis’ Bill. The Sam Hall-style larrikin is seen as a heroic figure, of sorts, while the Bloke-style one is considered an absurd fabrication, born of Dennis’ own middle-class fantasy.

I guess for my own purposes, what I am interested in why a sentimental vision of the larrikin gained such currency and popularity in the first decades of the twentieth century. I’m interested in explaining the shift from bad boy to sweet one rather than passing judgment about it. At the same time, I’m aware that the bad-boy vision didn’t disappear. In the 1920s, for example, the vaudeville comic Roy Rene gave his own spin to a raffish larrikin-figure on the popular stage. His Mo character was a Jewish boy from the slums of Woolloomooloo: frequently drunken, leery, and full of double entendres, a larrikin of a very different mould to Bill from Dennis’ poetry.

(Roy Rene as Mo)


The coexistence of these two larrikin figures suggests that there wasn’t some overall debasement of cultural attitudes in early twentieth century Australia, in which tastes otherwise attuned to the oppositional and carnivalesque turned instead to the sentimental. What seems to have happened is that the sentimental developed alongside a continuing interest in the raffish, anti-bourgeois larrikin type. Views of the larrikin diversified, in other words, rather than changing neatly from one thing to the other. So far as I know the same thing happened in England: the sentimental costers of Albert Chevalier still competed for room on the music-hall stage with more rebellious and gritty personae.

Ultimately, I suspect that recognising and interpreting the development in views of the larrikin/coster will require a less judgmental perspective on what was taking place in popular culture than the one offered by Bailey. It won’t be possible to explain the emergence of sentimental figures as part of an overall feminisation of Anglo culture. And nor will it be possible to simply equate mass culture with a syrupy domestic sensibility, imagined as something insincere and bad.


Peter Bailey, ‘Custom, capital and culture in the Victorian music hall’, in Robert D Strorch, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in 19thC England (London: Croom Helm, 1982): p. 198.

Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991) (on the denigration of sentimentality and mass culture as feminine).

Marcus Clarke, ‘Australian larrikins’, Australasian, 19 March 1870.

C J Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915).

Jonathan Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), pp. 198-218 (on Roy Rene as Mo).

Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mass culture as woman: modernism’s other’, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (London: Macmillan Press, 1986), pp. 65-81.

John Rickard, ‘Lovable larrikins and awful ockers’, Journal of Australian Studies 56 (1998): 78-85 (on sentimental visions of the early 20thC larrikin).

The Sentimental Bloke

13 Mar

When my sister was still in high school a few years ago, I went to see her in a musical based on C J Dennis’ Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Apart from watching her as an Anzac-era working girl, flouncing and sashaying about in the chorus, the main thing I thought as I sat in the audience was how little Dennis’s work now speaks to us. Published as a collection of poetry in 1915, it became immensely popular during World War One – particularly given that Dennis wrote further spin-offs, The Moods of Ginger Mick and Digger Smith, which featured Anzac heroes. There seemed to be such a gulf to me, sitting in the auditorium of a Sydney high-school, between what appealed to wartime Australians and what appeals to audiences now.

For a start, the vernacular in which Dennis had his characters speak no longer sounds Australian (”Er name’s Doreen… Well, spare me bloomin’ days!’). No one hawks rabbits through Melbourne slums now, either, as Bill the Bloke does in Dennis’ poems.  More than anything else, though, the reason that the musical seemed so removed from my own sensibility, at least, was because it wasn’t funny. In its own day, The Sentimental Bloke was renowned for its comedy, but what is comic now about a plain-torkin’ bloke who loves a ‘tart’ from a pickle factory?


(Still from an amateur production of The Sentimental Bloke, ransacked from this public photo-album. Click to enlarge.)

When I first began thinking about it, I decided that perhaps The Sentimental Bloke was funny in its day because of the incongruity of its larrikin character, denizen of Little Bourke Street, talking of ineffable yearnings and ‘ideel love’. There was something condescending about the laughter he incited then, with his rough vernacular rubbing up against his soft spot for Doreen. Perhaps this humour was augmented, I surmised, by the fact that sentimentality was not quite the thing for a man of the time. In an era when men were increasingly supposed to be tough, muscular, and beloved of other men’s company, here was the doltish bloke Bill carrying on about Doreen, oblivious to the fact that his wistfulness made him ridiculous to his fellow man.

Now that I have been reading a little further into it, it appears that most of The Sentimental Bloke‘s Anzac-era fans found it funny not because they found his sentimentality ridiculous, but because they found it sweet. I know that humour can be both things at once: witness, for example, the comicality of Michael Caton’s Daryl Kernigan in The Castle, a latter-day sentimental bloke if there ever was one, or Kath’s husband Kel Knight in the TV series, Kath and Kim. But from reading contemporary accounts so far, I don’t get any sense of the snigger-snigger that Kel and Daryl incite in reactions to The Sentimental Bloke. So far, references to his embodiment of supposedly universal longings, and of a defiantly anti-elitist love of the Bloke’s sweetness, are what prevail. 

In his preface to the 1915 edition of Dennis work, for example, Henry Lawson vaunted the Bloke’s everyman status and his ‘exquisite humour’ as the key reason for the book’s appeal. Others similarly spoke of the Bloke’s ‘sentiment’ as his most alluring quality. And the very pictures that accompanied the original book suggest that this sense of his sweetness didn’t come with the laugh-at-the-bogans edginess of later comic offerings. They portrayed Bill as a chubby cupid, pink-skinned and baby-cute.  


How, I wonder, does all this celebration of sweetness and sentimentality fit in with the historiography of masculinity in the early twentieth century? In Making the Australian Male, for example, Martin Crotty looks at the way that middle-class Australian boys were inculcated in a certain dashing manliness and militarism in the lead-up to World War One. They were taught to place less emphasis on domesticity and sentimentality than the generation before them, he says. In an English context, John Tosh similarly talks about a movement away from an expressive personal style and from domestic desires among middle-class men in this period. In Australasia, there is also of plenty of commentary on the consolidation of the muscular, stoic-masculine ideal after the War, as the Anzac myth got underway.

The popularity of the Bloke’s wistfulness makes me think that there was rather more attraction to sentimentality among Australian and New Zealand men in this period (among working-class and populist men at least) than we might imagine from this historical literature.


Martin Crotty, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity, 1870-1920 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001).

C J Dennis, Songs of the Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915), including preface by Henry Lawson.

John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire (Pearson Longman, 2005), especially the last chapter.

On geniality & the Australian bloke

6 Mar

Some time ago now I wrote about the blokish persona I kept encountering in theatre memoirs of the late-nineteenth century: ‘loud, jocular and blib, as if perpetually ready to slap someone on the back and make a show of meeting in the street’. This morning I’ve been reading the memoirs of the Australian actor, Billy Molony, wonderfully entitled Memoirs of an Abominable Showman (1968). What strikes me most is the fact that the all-hail-well-met persona had such longevity for theatrical men.

On paper, Molony is a dead ringer for Bobby Watson or Augustus Baker Peirce or Simon Hickey, all of whom were principally involved in popular theatre some decades before he was, and whose memoirs I have also read over the past few months. What I said earlier about Watson applies equally to Molony: he too exudes a kind of soiled, knocked-about-a-bit but-ain’t-that-life sensibility, full of anecdotes one imagines delivered with a wink and a wheezy laugh. Molony further resembles accounts of Harry Clay, an Australian vaudeville manager in the early 1900s, who first made his name as a tenor in travelling minstrel-shows in the 1870s.

According to his biographer (Clay Djubal, a distant relative), the word most often used to describe Harry Clay was ‘genial’. Clay was renowned for his practical jokes, prodigality of invective and handiness with his fists. Most of all, though, he was known for his generosity and friendliness – in short, his geniality.

This term, genial, a rather quaint word now, was widely used in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries to describe men with a common touch. In Australia, it was a precursor to a phrase like ‘all-round good bloke’ (or something like that). The labour leader, William Guthrie Spence, a contemporary of Harry Clay, was also repetitively described as genial (I’ve written an article about him which will appear in the Journal of Australian Studies this month). It was this quality which made Spence such a good negotiator as a unionist, and a skilled stacker-of-branches as a Labor MP.

Given the currency of the term genial to describe a certain sort of all-hail-well-met fellow, it would be interesting to investigate its significance for understandings of masculinity in Clay and Spence’s lifetime.

An absence of eloqence? Australian speech in the 1890s

18 Feb

Once again I’ve been reading Don Watson’s exquisite diatribe, Death Sentence (2003). It’s an important book. It rails against the mangling of language by big companies – and even worse, the adoption of their managerial verbiage by politicians and public servants. It’s also a rollicking book. “This is a clag sandwich with the lot”, he writes after citing a particularly mealy example of corporate-speak. I laughed out loud at that one. 


Now that I’ve been reading back over reportage of the Maritime Strike of 1890 for my chapter in Crucial Moments, however, I’ve found myself questioning some of the historical arguments Watson makes. Australians were never bred to be eloquent, he says. Across our history since 1788, we’ve been taught not to enjoy the sounds of our own voices, to avoid flights of sentimentality, to shy away from verbal extravagance. At the turn of the twentieth century in particular, no animating ideals appeared on which to base a sense of Australian nationhood: ‘none at least that were articulated’.

Even a quick glance at the speeches of trade unionists during the Maritime Strike, or the histories of it written by Labor leaders over the following years, suggests that this was not always the case. Here is the New South Wales Labor leader George Black, for example, writing in 1915:

‘The magnificent loyalty of the strikers… and the splendid self-denial of their martyred wives, were equal in heroism to the undying deeds which are blazoned in the glowing pages of history’. 

And what about William Guthrie Spence, a union leader and Labor MP?:

‘The trades unionist workers – men and women – are the true heroes and heroines of the world. Their names are unrecorded in history, but their work lives after them and has given colour and force to a Movement which cannot die, but is becoming more powerful and better understood as time goes on. After all, names matter not; it is deeds that count’.

What, too, about the manifesto issued by Queensland’s Maritime Council in August 1890, calling on unionists to support a group of marine officers on strike: ‘The same spirit of union courses through their veins which thrills in ours’? 

Historian John Hirst writes about the sentimental language accompanying the ideal of federation in late 1890s Australia. We hear a lot about the pared-back prose of bush poets in this era, he says. But most Australians did not take the work of Henry Lawson or Banjo Paterson all that seriously at the time. They saw it as light and ephemeral verse, lacking ‘the nobility, the profundity, and moral elevation thought proper to poetry’. Real poetry was of the kind William Gay wrote, so high-faluted it is liable to induce altitude sickness in those unaccustomed to the style:

‘From all division let our land be free / For God has made her one: complete she lies / Within the unbroken circle of the skies…

O let us rise, united, penitent / And be one people – mighty, serving God!’

So it seems that the absence of a rhetorical tradition in Australia is actually a matter of historical forgetting: more of a lack of eloquence in subsequent historians and publicists, perhaps, than at that formative time.

A fortunate life

17 Jan


While I waited at the hospital yesterday to have my wisdom teeth cut out (a succession of waiting-rooms of diminishing size, each opening Russian doll-like onto the other), I read chunks of Albert Facey’s A Fortunate Life.

The book was published in the 1970s, nine months before Facey died in his late eighties. As an Australian historian, I can’t quite believe I hadn’t read it before – it is, after all, one of the few iconic works of Antipodean social history. Somehow I had passed over it, however, as too hokey (or something), until a few days ago. Once I began, it was hard to stop. I kept reading it even after I woozily returned home, and finished it when I woke at 3am, in a business-as-usual bout of insomnia.

A Fortunate Life is a tonic for anyone with petty ailments and the ordinary run of minor dissatisfactions – far more profoundly so, it seems to me, than today’s self-helperama. The bodily privations and gruelling loneliess Facey endured in his early life are delivered with such a shocking lack of rancour that it is impossible not to feel chastened, reading of them. Envy, frustrated ambition, resentment, bitterness: all these emotions are stunningly absent from his story. Such feelings are so integral to contemporary sensibilities that it is hard to imagine this man not falling prey to them, whether during the course of his exploitation as a child labourer, or his sufferings after the Great War. 

Stoicism is not an unmitigated good. It can lead to kind of haplessness I see in some of my older relatives, a weary fatalism (the kind of culture of consolation that Gareth Stedman Jones wrote about of the late-Victorian English working class). But Facey was never just numbly resigned to his lot. In later life he was committed to an active labour politics, and to efforts at civic improvement. Nonetheless, he had an aptitude for quiet happiness – the very best kind of stoicism, it seems to me – and this was precisely because he did not believe himself entitled to good fortune.