Tag Archives: Larry Foley

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.

References

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 www.cyberboxingzone.com.

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.

Sources

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 www.cyberboxingzone.com.