WHEN THE THREE-YEAR-OLD Phar Lap landed in Sydney in the autumn of 1930, it was the first time the harbor city’s racing fans had seen the rising star of Australian racing since the previous October. On his first look at him, Vedette, the racing columnist for The Referee, wrote: ‘Since he was here in the spring Phar Lap has furnished into a much more impressive type of horse. Never an oil painting, he is not the pretty type, but he fills the eye with his bigness, his undoubted physical fitness and his general air of contentedness and well-being.’
Musket, in The Sydney Mail, added: ‘Were it not for his wonderful deeds few would take a second look at him; but now that he has become famous his rangy frame of greyhound proportions has many admirers.’
The Sydney press had a field day building up the Chipping Norton Stakes, over a mile and a quarter at Warwick Farm on April 12, in which Phar Lap would meet the best two older horses then racing in Australia, Amounis and Nightmarch, and another outstanding Kiwi, Chide. But what was expected in many quarters to be a close contest turned into a one act affair.
Musket: Five furlongs from home, Nightmarch appeared to be catching the three-year-old, but it was only on sufferance, for the gap became wider at the three furlongs, where Amounis began to close on Nightmarch. ‘Amounis will win yet!’ was shouted by his admirers as the old warrior began his famous finishing run, but though he caught Nightmarch he could not threaten danger to the three-year-old, who simply outclassed the placegetters.
‘That settles which horse should’ve won the Melbourne Cup!’ yelled a voice from the crowd. The previous November, Nightmarch had prevailed on the first Tuesday in November, with Phar Lap, the dual Derby winner, back in third place. Now racing had a new hero, and he couldn’t have come at a better time, with thousands losing their jobs due to the onset of the Great Depression and the papers filling with awful stories of hardship and misfortune. For trainer Harry Telford, the irony of his new-found wealth could not have been lost of him. Circumstances had changed drastically for both Telford and the world around him. Men who only a year previously had been calling in long-time battler’s debts were now seeking a handout.
Phar Lap enjoyed further easy wins in the AJC St Leger and the weight-for-age Cumberland Stakes, leading critics to rate him the equal of any of the great three-year-olds of the previous 30 years, such as Abundance, Poseidon, Mountain King, Prince Foote, Artilleryman, Manfred and Strephon. Similarly, it was now being suggested that young Don Bradman, who three months before had broken the record for the highest score ever made first-class cricket, was now on a par with the most celebrated of Australian batsmen, such as Charles Bannerman, Clem Hill and Charlie Macartney. Perhaps only Victor Trumper remained beyond the 21-year-old.
During the next four months, Bradman would smash a succession of Test batting records as Australia climbed quickly back to the top of the cricket tree, and rich and poor Australians alike would begin to rate ‘Our Don’ the best of all time, beyond even than the immortal Vic. In doing so, he joined Phar Lap, who had reached the same lofty status on the racetrack. The hardest markers reckoned only Carbine, the legendary winner of the 1890 Melbourne Cup, might be his equal.
The reason for Phar Lap’s rapid ascension to true greatness was, simply, the AJC Plate. If you talked to anyone in Sydney who saw most of Phar Lap races, the one performance they all raved about was the 1930 AJC Plate, run at Randwick over two-and-a-quarter miles on April 26.
The headlines are astonishingly exuberant: ‘GREATEST HORSE EVER,’ roared the Truth. ‘PHAR LAP MOST SENSATIONAL GALLOPER OF ALL TIME,’ shouted The Referee. ‘AN EXTRAORDINARY WIN’ was The Australasian’s verdict. ‘PHAR LAP A SUPERLATIVE GALLOPER,’ reckoned The Sydney Mail.
What Phar Lap did was take hold of Billy Elliott, up from Melbourne for the ride because regular jockey Jim Pike couldn’t make the three-year-old’s weight-for-age of 7lb 13 (50.5kg), and take off. The pace was suicidal for a normal horse, but Phar Lap just kept going, and going, until Elliott finally managed to ease him up over the last furlong.
Before the race — which involved only three horses, Phar Lap, Nightmarch and the solid stayer Donald — some critics thought Nightmarch might be a chance. After all, he’d beaten Phar Lap easily in the Melbourne Cup and their only subsequent meeting had been over a mile and a quarter in the Chipping Norton. There was talk about, too, according to the Truth, that Phar Lap ‘was going to be raced right into the ground’. Consequently, the three-year-old came up only 2–1 on in the ring, but the big gamblers were on to that in a flash, with Sydney’s most prominent female punter, Maude Vandenburg, quickly taking £2000 to £1000 from rails operator Jack Molloy. The renowned Eric Connolly, however, was spotted supporting Nightmarch. At the jump, the favourite was 5–2 on.
Chiron (The Australasian): Evidently the people who backed Nightmarch took the view that Phar Lap is really not a genuine stayer and that Nightmarch would be able to get the last run on him and outstay him at the finish. It did not work out that way at all, as Nightmarch could never get near enough to Phar Lap to find out whether he can stay or not.
Vedette (The Referee): Phar Lap went fast from the beginning and some of his intermediate times from a mile and a half on, according to private watches, were better than world figures for those distances. He full time of 3:49.5 was a second better than the previous Australasian record and he beat Nightmarch by 10 lengths, with Donald three-quarters of a length away third. He clipped the previous Randwick record by 6½ seconds.
An English writer a few weeks ago mentioned that Walter Lindrum [the champion Australian billiards exponent] was the only man in any branch of sport he would be prepared to back against the world. Sydney sportsmen who saw Phar Lap’s performance in the AJC Plate are convinced he is the Lindrum of the turf. It is difficult to make comparisons between Australian and overseas horses, but when a galloper arises who can make really good performers such as Nightmarch look like novices, there is no question of his class.
The first half mile was run in 49 seconds. In a two-and-a-quarter mile race! Along the back Phar Lap was ticking over the furlongs, 12 seconds at a time, as he opened up a lead of at least a furlong, perhaps longer. Vedette’s stopwatch suggested he ran the first seven furlongs in better than the Randwick track record, equal to the Australasian record, for THAT distance. In a two-and-a-quarter mile race!!
Jim Pike: Phar Lap is faster than Strephon. Much faster. Windbag could win a six-furlongs race and the Melbourne Cup. Gothic won two VRC Newmarket Handicaps and could stay a mile and a half, but I have no hesitation in saying that up to a mile and a half Phar Lap is better and could outpace either of them from anything up to that distance. I feel sure he could win a Newmarket, and win it easily. And I would not hesitate to back him, fit and at his best, to run a mile and a half in 2.27. That’s how good I think he is.
Pike’s comments came straight after the race. Phar Lap had run the first mile and a half of the AJC Plate in 2:28.5, nearly three seconds faster than the race-record time he ran to win the AJC Derby seven months before. Two miles were passed in 3:20.5, which would have won every Sydney Cup until 1971, and every Melbourne Cup until 1950, at which point Elliott was finally able to get a grip, and he slowed the champion down to a canter in the straight, while Nightmarch and Donald were ridden hard, chasing the second prizemoney. So slow was Phar Lap going at the finish, he was walking, ready to enter the mounting yard, only 25 metres after the passing the post.
Jim Marsh (later a rails bookmaker in Sydney): He could’ve won by a furlong. Roy Reed rode Nightmarch and afterwards the stewards got him up before them on a charge of not riding his mount out. He’d got beat a furlong! The judge didn’t say that was the margin, but that’s what it looked like to me. What Reed did was get half a length in front of Donald, then he just looked at him and stayed there. He didn’t try to run after Phar Lap, that was true, and he explained that to the stewards. ‘I could have run him to about 50 lengths,’ he said. All he wanted to do was beat Donald.
A. McAulay (trainer of Nightmarch): It is hard to say what would have been the result if Phar Lap had been asked to do his best: Nightmarch would hardly have been at the home turn when the crack finished.
Phar Lap would win another 25 races before succumbing to the disease syndrome Duodenitis-Proximal jejunitis in April 1932. Some of these victories were remarkable, not least his triumphs in the 1930 Melbourne Cup, the 1931 Futurity Stakes, and the 1932 Agua Caliente Handicap in North America. But as phenomenal as these performances undoubtedly were, they might not have been as purely breathtaking as what he did at Royal Randwick on April 26, 1930.
That was the day, an important day in the history of Australian racing, when racegoers and non-racegoers alike started talking of Phar Lap as the best we’ve ever seen.
We’ve been doing it ever since.
Edward Rennix Larkin (‘Rennix’ was his mother’s maiden name) achieved much in his short life. He was born, the son of a miner, at Lambton, near Newcastle, in the first week of January 1880. After his family moved to Sydney, he earned a scholarship to St Joseph’s College at Hunters Hill. He was briefly a railway worker, joined the staff of the Yearbook of Australia and became a policeman. He was a keen debater, swimmer, boxer and a rugby footballer good enough to play for Australia. He was the first full-time secretary of the NSW Rugby League and member of state parliament, a workers’ representative in a conservative electorate. He died a hero’s death at Gallipoli on April 25, 1915.
Known to his friends and admirers as ‘Ted’ or ‘Teddy’, Larkin was initially a halfback who at age 18 played a few rugby matches with the great cricketer Victor Trumper for Newtown juniors. He had been an excellent and successful student at St Joseph’s and, before that, at St Benedict’s, Chippendale, which was located in one of the most congested parts of the inner city, amid narrow laneways and tiny terrace houses, close to Tooth’s Kent Brewery. He was a star of the St Joseph’s first XV.
His relationship with the Sydney Cricket Ground went back to at least 1899, when he was in the Sydney club side that lost the first-grade final to Wallaroo. Four years later, on the night before his wedding to May Yates, the NSW selectors surprised by naming Larkin —now a 5ft 11 (180cm), 13-stone (83kg) hooker and captain of Newtown’s first-grade side — in the line-up to play the touring New Zealanders on the coming Saturday.
One imagines few were more stunned by this development than the bride. The first day of the new Mrs Larkin’s honeymoon was spent at the SCG, watching her husband mixing it with the All Blacks on a field so flooded the Sydney Morning Herald’s correspondent thought the cricket-pitch area resembled a ‘miniature lake’. A second-half penalty goal kicked by the visitors’ fullback Billy Wallace was the only score of the game.
Larkin was also in a Metropolitan XV that lost to the tourists on the following Wednesday at Sydney University. Ten days later, back at the SCG, Larkin played what would prove to be his only Test match. It was the All Blacks’ first Test, home or away: an emphatic 22–3 victory. Finally, the newlyweds could begin settling in to their new home at Milson’s Point, a move that meant — because of the residential rules then in place — Larkin had to play for North Sydney in 1904. He joined the police force and the responsibilities of that role convinced him to retire from football at the end of the season. He was only 24.
With his prematurely grey hair, he looked older than that. He liked to tell a story against himself from that final season, of he and another constable on foot patrol near North Sydney Oval one day as the first-grade team trained. Ted had not been able to get time off to join them.
‘Who are they?’ Ted’s colleague asked.
‘That’s the district football team,’ Ted replied.
‘Oh yes!’ said the questioner. ‘I saw them playing last Saturday. Not a bad side, but they’ve got one old beggar amongst them.’
‘I was the old beggar,’ Ted would say, with half a grin.
He was a good and reliable footballer, a born leader and a wily diplomat. In the opening game of the All Blacks’ 1903 tour, one of the Kiwi forwards, Reuben Cooke, was sent off after a clash with Larkin’s club-mate Harold Judd. Afterwards, there was scuttlebutt about that the two combatants had taken the matter further when their paths crossed after the game.
To quell the conjecture, the tourists were invited to a ‘smoko’ organised by the Newtown club two days before the Test. A three-round bout between Cooke and Larkin was widely advertised. Ted, it was said, was going to avenge his cobber’s honour.
It might not have been until the two men approached the ring that it became clear that blood was not going to flow. Judd was in the New Zealander’s corner, from where he laughingly waved a white towel of surrender throughout the ‘contest’. Hardly a blow was landed, but reputations were restored. The patrons went home happy too, for the main event was a stirring three-round exhibition between a rising star, ‘Snowy’ Baker, who would build a reputation as one of Australia’s greatest ever all-round sportsmen, and ‘Paddy Martin’, one of Sydney’s most popular welterweights.
Paddy Martin was actually Martin Larkin, Ted’s older brother. They would sign up for the Great War at the same time. They would head for Europe on the same ship.
Ted Larkin became the NSW Rugby League’s first salaried official in June 1909. The League was in turmoil, its very survival in question. Formed in 1907 as a breakaway from rugby union, the fledgling body’s original hon. secretary, James Giltinan, and hon. treasurer, Victor Trumper, had been driven from office amid allegations of corruption and secret bank accounts. The League was substantially in debt, but Larkin and his new cohorts — some of whom he knew from his days in rugby — found the game a wealthy benefactor in the entrepreneurial James Joynton Smith, some of the Wallabies’ best players were lured to the ‘professional’ code and troublemakers were ruthlessly shown the door. Great Britain toured Australia in 1910, drawing huge crowds, far bigger than anything rugby union was now attracting. Within two years of his appointment, Larkin’s league was the biggest game in town.
Never content, over the next three years, Larkin shrewdly negotiated deals with all the major grounds in Sydney, including the SCG, built league as the primary football code throughout country NSW and in Queensland, developed the concept of pre-game entertainment to boost attendances and established a Catholic Schools competition in Sydney that became a bedrock for future development. One of the foundation teams in this competition was Larkin’s old school: St Benedict’s, Chippendale. His integrity was his calling card. In Bathurst in 1913, as league and union fought for supremacy, one union official commented glumly that the problem with Larkin was that he always kept his word.
A year earlier, Larkin had played a pivotal role in the introduction of league in the blossoming country town of Orange and its surrounds, which quickly led to league becoming the principal winter sport across western NSW. His modus operandi was calculated. He was smart enough to realise he couldn’t just plant his sport on the region; he needed the locals to lead the revolution. Once keen interest had been expressed, they all went to work. Keith McClymont, a hooker who had played representative rugby, became the main spokesman for the local league enthusiasts. McClymont recalled:
We organised a meeting of the players, and Mr E. Larkin came along and spoke, telling us what his League had done for other country branches, and telling us what they would do for us. He made several promises, all of which were honoured. He promised us a cup for competition among western clubs and we received a cup valued at 50 guineas. He promised to send along two teams to play an exhibition match. Glebe and Eastern Suburbs came along, and the whole of the gate receipts — £50 — was given to our League for a nest egg. He stated that metropolitan teams would visit us during the season. Nine came along. He promised that our team would be taken to Sydney. Our team went to Sydney and the members and the manager received all expenses and 10/ per day loss of time ...
Larkin, as shrewd as they come, knew that what would most effectively sell his sport to a new audience was the best of the best. The Glebe and Easts teams that ran out in front of a big crowd at Wade Park, Orange, on April 27, 1912, were at full strength. Glebe were led by Chris McKivat, a former star of Orange rugby who had gone to captain his country in union and league, while Easts’ skipper was the one and only Dally Messenger. Alongside them were men who would become legends of the new code: Dan Frawley, Frank Burge, Sandy Pearce and ‘Pony’ Halloway. Tom McMahon, Australian league’s first great referee, was in charge.
A rugby league competition in Orange began soon after and similar leagues were established within 12 months at Bathurst and Dubbo (the Bathurst evolution causing a ‘split’ in the Chifley household, with Ben continuing as a member of the Bathurst rugby club while younger brother Patrick joined the nearby Kelso rugby league team). By October 1915, the Orange Leader noted that many former union strongholds, such as Wellington, Forbes, Parkes, Molong, Mudgee and Gulgong, would all be playing league in the following season.
Larkin’s role in all this cannot be understated. Yet it was just one of a series of major developments for a football code that just a few years earlier had been on the brink. Given all that was achieved in such a short period of time and how the Sydney sporting landscape changed under his watch — and especially considering the way rugby league became entrenched for all time as the primary winter sport in NSW and Queensland — Larkin must be ranked among the most influential administrators in the history of Australian sport.
A writer for The Australian Worker once noted that Larkin was ‘a keen student of social problems and seldom without a socialist book or pamphlet in his pocket’. At the 1913 state election, he claimed the seat of Willoughby for the Labor Party after conducting a smart and relentless campaign. Never before had the conservatives lost a metropolitan seat on the north side of the harbour.
It was, the new MP told a trembling crowd at Crows Nest, his life’s ambition to be elected to parliament. ‘There was a scene of the wildest enthusiasm,’ the Sydney Morning Herald reported. ‘Men and women embraced the victorious candidate and carried him shoulder high to a waiting car. Here a torchlight procession was formed and some brass instruments played See the Conquering Hero Comes ...’
Larkin tried to resign immediately as League secretary, but he was asked to stay on until the end of 1914. In August, however, as soon it was announced Australia was at war, he made plans to enlist. He also relinquished his role as president of the Federal Cycling Council of Australasia, ending a formal association with the sport that went back to 1911, when he’d organised some cycling and athletic events. He stayed on the board of the Royal North Shore hospital (a position that would be passed on to his widow). He was the father of two sons, aged six and two. ‘I cannot engage in the work of recruiting and urge others to enlist unless I do so myself,’ he said.
As the member for Willoughby, Larkin could have sought rank. Instead, he entered the army as a private. Within 48 hours, he was promoted to sergeant. Within weeks, he might have been second guessing what he had done.
‘We have been silly enough to think that the Australian Army had been democratised,’ he wrote from Egypt. ‘There was never a greater delusion. Class is everything for advancement … Suffice it to say that there would be very few here if the men were free to leave or had anticipated how they were to be treated.’
Larkin contracted a virus so severe he was reputedly offered the chance to be invalided home. He declined. In another letter home, he derided the politicians who had not followed him into battle, calling them ‘rotters who think only of themselves’. He was a member of the 1st Battalion, which was not among the first to land at Gallipoli but was soon rushed into the fray. He didn’t survive long; slaughtered as he led his men over Plateau 400 towards an area that would become known as ‘Lone Pine’. For a while, there was much conjecture about exactly what happened to him. It will never be known for absolutely sure.
What is beyond doubt is that, as is documented in official records, he displayed ‘conspicuous gallantry’. Private Harold Cavill, a bugler in the 2nd battalion, recorded what he’d heard of Larkin’s demise in his diary, which was reproduced for public consumption in 1916:
Wounded and dying he lay, yet when the stretcher-bearers came to carry him in, he waved them on, saying, ‘There’s plenty worse than me out there.’ Later, they found him — dead.
This story was echoed in dramatic fashion by Father Dowling during the Requiem Mass for Larkin at Sydney’s St Mary’s Cathedral on June 27, 1915.
Suddenly the well-known figure of Sergeant Larkin is stricken down; yet as he falls he still cries, ‘On men, on.’ In spirit we see him on the sand which is being reddened by his blood. The ambulance comes. It is almost full. Our hero insists on some of his more severely wounded comrades being taken first. But, alas!, when the ambulance returns, it is found that the Turks had wrought their deadly vengeance.
He was dead …
Corporal Charles Lawler, who smashed an index finger so badly he was invalided out of the war within a week of the landing, told the Newcastle Morning Herald in an interview published on August 12, 1915, that he was only ‘five yards’ from Larkin and ‘well up in front’ when the sergeant died:
‘It must have been shrapnel that got him. We were charging under bursts of shrapnel and there was very little rifle fire.’
Sergeant Harry Sparks, who was in the 1st Battalion, provided his version of events in a missive from the trenches to Charlie Ford, a prominent official with the North Sydney Rugby League Football and the chairman of the NSW Rugby League’s management committee. Sparks recalled that ‘the night before we left the ship to commence operations Ted and I had a long talk, and amongst other things he remarked that there would surely be a great scramble for his constituency of Willoughby if he went under’. He also described how Larkin had an early ‘narrow escape’ when, shortly after landing, ‘the pannikin hanging to his gear got in the way of a bullet’ …
I was with Ted in a hot corner, and as he was in charge, he gave the order to advance, which was done rapidly with bayonets fixed. We got amongst the enemy's trenches which had been evacuated owing to our hurried visit. We stayed there until shelled out ...
According to Sparks’ account, he was leading one section of soldiers; Larkin was commanding another team. Eventually, they were separated.
Ted fell with his lads right in front of the argument. His brother Martin and my brother Mervyn went at the same time …
Larkin’s remains were not recovered until the armistice of May 24, near ground the Anzacs had named the ‘Pimple’. So severe were his wounds erroneous rumours spread from Gallipoli to the streets of Sydney that the Turks had mutilated his body; so toxic were these rumours, the army felt it necessary to issue an official denial from Captain Charles Bean, their press officer on the frontline.
Bean’s cable, in which he described Larkin as ‘a fine man and a brave soldier’, was published on the front page of Sydney’s Evening News of June 29. The previous day, the same paper had been the first publication to report the death of Victor Trumper at age 37, a victim of Bright’s disease. In his official history of Australia in the Great War, Bean concluded Larkin had been cut down by ‘machine-gun bullets’. The rumours his corpse had been attacked by Turkish bayonets might have come from traumatised soldiers unfamiliar with the carnage modern ammunition could cause when fired relentlessly from close range. Most likely, when the stretcher-bearer offered to help the stricken former Test forward, they both must have known he was done for.
Larkin’s casualty form held at the National Archives in Canberra states his remains were buried by the revered Salvation Army padre, William McKenzie, in or close to the ‘Valley of Death’, now more commonly known as ‘Shrapnel Valley’ or ‘Shrapnel Gully’. This contention is supported by a letter from Brigadier-General Glanville Ryrie, an arch conservative, the federal member for North Sydney, to Fred Fleming, the Liberal candidate defeated by Larkin at the 1913 election, which was published in the Sydney Morning Herald. Brigadier-General Ryrie, commander of the 2nd Light Horse Brigade, had arrived in Gallipoli on May 19. One paragraph of the letter includes the following:
During an armistice on Monday we buried 200 of our men and about 3000 Turks. We found poor Larkin’s body that day. I can assure you that the tales about the mutilation in his case are lies. I had a talk with the clergyman who read the prayers and the men who were at the burial. The legislator-soldier must have been killed instantly … I have written a comforting, note to Mrs Larkin, which I hope she will get. We had a church parade yesterday [May 30] on the side of the mountain. I shall never forget the solemnity of the scene. The sun was setting, and an aeroplane was circling over us. Down in the valley shells were bursting. Apart from the terrors of war, that sunset was magnificent.
Soldiers who arrived later in the campaign would write home to say they had stopped by the grave. But the cross planted to mark his resting place did not survive and Larkin’s ultimate sacrifice is now remembered at the Lone Pine Memorial, as one of the almost 5000 Australian or New Zealand Gallipoli victims who either have no known resting place or who were buried at sea.
In November 1915, a grand plaque was unveiled in the Legislative Assembly chamber at NSW Parliament House, to honour Ted Larkin and another member of the Assembly who died at Gallipoli. Lieutenant-Colonel George Braund, commander of the 2nd Battalion and the member for Armidale, lost his life early on May 4. It was the first permanent memorial to be placed on the walls of the chamber and much was made of the fact it was prominently located between portraits of William Charles Wentworth and Sir Henry Parkes. Sadly, they inscribed the wrong date of death. Braund was killed ‘in the month of May’. Larkin was not.
In an obituary for the Saturday Referee and Arrow of June 19, 1915, the great sportswriter JC Davis rued the fact that Larkin’s ‘life’s work had only just begun’. Four days later, in a much longer piece, he placed the late sergeant alongside some of the giants of the Labor Party and pondered what fate had taken away:
In the early manhood of the present premier of NSW, in the ante-Labor days of Australian politics — Mr WA Holman, then a young Englishman, a cabinet-maker, was one of a group of men who won no little distinction as debaters on social and political subjects in Sydney. They moved in a restricted sphere, but were developing for the wider work in front of them.
One night — a Sunday night, too — after he had given a most brilliant address on socialism, I remarked to the youth from whom magnetic eloquence flowed as though he were an Edmund Burke, that he would enter Parliament and that if he were to supplant some of the idealism which permeated his mind by a more practical view of life’s problems and a keener recognition of the frailties to which human nature is heir, he would become premier of NSW. It was a precocious prophecy. But there was not a great deal in that peep into the future, for the WA Holman of that period possessed oratorical powers and a memory that made his contemporaries, some of whom have risen as high as he has, marvel.
Among those contemporaries who had not tasted of the nectar of the life political were Mr WM Hughes, Mr George Black, Mr F. Flowers, Mr JD Fitzgerald and Mr JC Watson. I have gone out of the way somewhat, but what I desire to say is that Mr Larkin in later years struck me also as possessing qualities which, while differing from those of Mr Holman and Mr Hughes, would have made him a force of no uncertain strength in the political atmosphere into which he had advanced so soon as he had felt his way.
But, alas, the Kaiser and the Turk have intervened and this man of promise and performance has gone.
A SMALL BOAT LANDED at Gallipoli at noon on November 13, 1915. On board was Lord Kitchener, the British Army’s Commander-in-Chief, a legendary figure said to have the best-known face in the British Empire next to King George. Kitchener wanted to see for himself what had become a military stalemate. After he stepped off the boat, he was surrounded by soldiers who, though sick and weary, cheered him keenly.
Army records suggest that Private Clyde Pearce of the 10th Light Horse also landed at Gallipoli on this day. He may have witnessed Kitchener’s arrival and may even have seen some irony in his low-key landing compared to the hero’s welcome the Field Marshal received. Clyde had once been a celebrity himself, in sporting circles at least, back in the days when he was the best golfer in Australia. He knew what it was like to be cheered by a crowd; it was just seven years since he became the first native-born Australian Open champion. That mattered for nothing now.
Kitchener stayed for just a couple of hours, during which time he saw enough, it is said, to recommend a withdrawal. Clyde was there for a month. He missed the worst of the ghastly clashes that had cost so many lives, but he still froze through some of the worst of the Gallipoli winter and at different times survived — according to the 10th Light Horse’s diary:
Heavy bombing and machine-gun fire … Turkish attacks … Heavy shelling … Continuous bombardment ...
In between, there was the ‘silence’. Through late November and December, to set the scene for their departure, the troops were ordered to be quiet, that ‘no form or any sign of life was to be visible’. You couldn’t fire a rifle or curse the snow. The evacuation became one of the most notable triumphs of the entire campaign. Not a man was lost. Clyde and his comrades left Gallipoli on December 16.
His war had just begun.
CLYDE WAS THE SECOND son of Edward and Emmeline Pearce, respected Tasmanians, stalwarts of Hobart’s golfing community. He first came to sporting prominence in 1903, aged 15, playing off scratch in interclub golf matches and finishing 19th at the Australian Amateur Championship. He had what a Launceston Daily Telegraph story from that year described as a ‘very orthodox style’.
‘[Pearce] does not waste much time in addressing his ball, times well and has a most correct follow through,’ the paper continued.
Wiry, strong and athletic, Clyde was fortunate as a boy to receive individual tuition from two Scottish professionals, James Hunter and Edgar Martin, who worked at the fledgling Hobart Golf Club in the early years of the 20th century. From 1904 to 1910, his name was prominent at Australia’s major golf carnival, which featured the Open and the Amateur Championship. He reached four straight Amateur finals between 1906 and 1909, and claimed the Open/Amateur double in 1908.
Galleries were amazed at how far and straight Clyde — a man of medium height (his enlistment papers record him as 5ft 9½in, or 177cm) — could send the ball with seemingly little effort. A writer using the pseudonym ‘Mid Iron’ analysed his swing for the Australasian and concluded, ‘There is no “hit” in any sense of that word … it is a pure swing that simply sweeps the ball away, but a very firm crisp sweep indeed.’ An Evening News reporter at the 1908 Australian Open described Clyde’s golf as ‘drive, approach, long putt, short putt; nothing ever seems to get out of order’. He was in superb touch one day while playing at Albury in country NSW, his round including a hole-in-one at the 197-yard first hole. Afterwards, his vanquished opponent admitted forlornly, ‘I got so wrapped up watching Pearce play I couldn’t concentrate on the darned game.’
Clyde was, though, a mediocre putter. Photographs show him crouching low over the ball, hands gripping the club well down the handle. The New Zealand Herald reckoned ‘four comparatively easy (missed) putts’ cost Clyde his first Australian Amateur final, against Ernest Gill in 1906.
He began the 1908 Open at The Australian with a course-record 75 and shot the same score in the second round, but then missed ten putts he should have made during the first 18 of 36 holes on the final day. Mid Iron wrote that Clyde’s ‘long game and approaching had been just as fine as ever [but] three on the green at many of the holes completely neutralised the real excellence of the Tasmanian’s play’.
So upset and confused did Clyde appear during lunch, some observers assumed he was out of contention. But he regrouped to shoot another 75 — a performance so brave and precise it probably remained the finest final round in Open history until Norman Von Nida’s last-day 65 at Royal Melbourne in 1953 (which itself was never challenged as best ever until Jordan Spieth conquered The Australian in 2014). Clyde then beat Michael Scott 6-and-5 in the semi-final of the Amateur Championship and NF Christoe 10-and-8 in the final to do the ‘double’.
It was an impressive feat for one so young. What was most remarkable, the Sydney Morning Herald explained, was that Clyde had been so busy on his brother’s farm he had not picked up a club all year until he arrived in Sydney three weeks before the Open.
IT HAD BEEN CLEAR since his 18th birthday that Clyde was not just a golfer. In 1906, he had left Hobart for Corowa, on the Murray River in the Riverina region of southern NSW, to work on the sheep farm his older brother Roy was managing. Both men joined the Corowa Golf Club and played when they could; the farm would remain Clyde’s base for his annual sorties to Australian golf’s championship week until 1910.
In 1911, Clyde enjoyed an extended tour of Britain and Ireland. He was accompanied by his parents and his younger brother Bruce, an accomplished left-hander and three-time Tasmanian Amateur champion. At the British Amateur Championships, Clyde was knocked out by Bernard Darwin, destined to become one of golf’s finest writers, in the fourth round. His one tournament victory came at Peterhead, and he also impressed in Ireland, most notably during the stroke competition at the Irish Amateur Open Championship, when he was second in a ‘blizzard’ so dire many of the refreshment tents at Portmarnock were blown far away.
Immediately after the 1911 British Amateur, Darwin wrote in the London Sunday Times about the ‘desperate struggle’ he and Clyde had enjoyed. ‘He is a beautifully accurate hitter with all his clubs,’ Darwin commented. ‘If he ever does hit a tee shot crooked, it seems only to occur by the merest accident.’
Seventeen years later, the respected Scottish golf historian Donald Grant recalled Harold Hilton’s victory in this Championship, and how a key factor in Hilton’s triumph was his ability to put enough backspin on the ball so his approach shots stayed on the small, true greens.
‘[Only] one other player had that shot,’ Grant wrote. ‘Clyde Pearce, Australia, a fine golfer.’
On his return to Australia in November, Clyde was interviewed by the Hobart Mercury. All of 23 years old, he reveals himself as a traditionalist. His greatest respect was for ‘old school’ players, as he called them, who’d learned the game using the gutta-percha ball that went out of fashion around the turn of the century.
‘They have the better swings,’ Clyde said. ‘The young fellows “hit” more and are therefore not nearly so certain of their game.’
‘ALONG THE GREAT SOUTHERN [railway line] there are a great number of settlers who came from South Australia and Victoria,’ Perth’s Western Mail reported in August 1911. ‘They are progressive men, full of grit and enterprise.’ Clyde and another young golfer, the left-handed 1909 Australian Open champion Claude Felstead, were cut from this cloth. The golf community was stunned to learn in January 1912 that the pair had purchased the Chybarlis farm, 2500 acres of sheep and wheat country located between the townships of Pingelly and Mooterdine in Western Australia, about 160km south east of Perth.
Both men signed up as members of the fledgling Pingelly GC, with Clyde joining the handicapping committee and offering advice on the layout of the new course. But the Australasian confirmed in August that Clyde and Claude were ‘too busily engaged in their business in the West’ to contemplate playing in any big tournaments. Twelve months later, Clyde did enter the Western Australian Amateur Championship and the inaugural WA Open, after showing he was in good form by breaking the course record at the Fremantle and Perth clubs, the latter by six shots. In the Open, Clyde found a worthy rival in the English-born Norman Fowlie, but a superb final round gave him a decisive win.
‘Up to his second shot at the 17th,’ the West Australian said of this performance, ‘[he] made no mistakes.’ His 4 and 2 defeat of Fowlie in the Amateur final two days later was similarly clear-cut.
OF COURSE, WE CAN never be certain what truly motivated his decision to sign up for the War. The fact he did so just days after the initial landing at Gallipoli suggests it was more about patriotic duty that any quest for adventure. A number of Pingelly GC members had enlisted, and one, Private Harvey Rae, had been wounded in action, his left arm amputated. Private Rae, from the 11th Battalion, was one of the first to come ashore on April 25, around 4.30am. He was hit by an ‘explosive bullet’ in the early afternoon.
On May 13, Clyde participated in a stroke competition at Pingelly. Except for a couple of rounds he managed to sneak in when on leave from camp, this was his last game of competitive golf. On November 12, Claude Felstead got married in West Perth, though the mood at the wedding was tempered when the groom revealed he was about to enlist.
The next day, Clyde Pearce and Lord Kitchener arrived at Anzac Cove.
FOR MOST OF 1916, Clyde served in the Middle East. He was quickly promoted to Lance-Corporal, but spent time in hospital, at first irritated by an ingrown toenail, then laid so low by cholera. A recommendation for further promotion arrived soon after he returned to duty and on November 13 he was ordered to proceed to Alexandria, from where he would sail on the Minnewaska to England, to accept a commission as a second lieutenant, 52nd Battalion. Unfortunately, his journey was interrupted when the Minnewaska hit a mine laid by a German U-boat off Souda Bay, Crete, and was fortunate to make it to shore. No lives were lost but the one-time ocean liner was ruined.
On May 10, 1917, the West Australian revealed that Clyde was in France. ‘Whilst in Britain [at officer training] he had some golf at Glasgow with some old friends and spent some days of his leave there,’ the paper reported. ‘He has had a month in the front line.’
During that month, Clyde was involved in the great struggles at Lagincourt, Noreuil and Bullecourt. ‘No one could have failed to realise what a magnificent officer your son was,’ Lt Col Harold Pope, the 52nd’s commanding officer, would recall of these conflicts in a letter to Clyde’s father. Soon after, the members of the 52nd were dodging shells and machine-gun fire during the epic Battle of Messines in Belgium, fighting for strategically important high ground south of the town of Ypres, not far from the French border.
The 52nd Battalion’s chaplain, Rev Donald Blackwood remembered how Clyde ‘led his men on so splendidly and bravely in the first great charge of June 7’ and how ‘he did splendid work in organising the new line and repelling counterattacks’. But Rev Blackwood continued:
He brought his men out safely from the Messines Ridge on the Sunday morning [June 10], had a good rest, and then led them in again to a more difficult bit of work — a more strenuous charge. In this he fell, right in the enemy’s barbed wire. He was there among the first at the head of his men ...
The Australians believed the German wire had been cleared, but this was not always so. Clyde, at the head of his platoon, became trapped, a sitting duck. His Australian Red Cross ‘Wounded and Missing Enquiry’ file contains the following accounts:
Corporal Henry Butler: ‘He was my platoon officer. I saw him killed by machine-gun fire, on the right of Messines. We were on our way over and he got caught in the wire; he was killed outright — 6 or so bullets right through him. We went on and gained the objective. We lost a terrible lot then, owing to the wire not being properly cut.’
Corporal George Jones: ‘I saw Lt Pearce lying dead in the field on the 2nd advance in the Messines stunt. He was within 150 yards of the German trenches, shot through the centre of the forehead. Mears, another stretcher bearer in A Company and Falkner in C Company buried him where he was lying.’
CLYDE PEARCE’S DEATH IS commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres, which bears the names of more than 54,000 men whose final resting places are now unknown. His grieving parents built a memorial to their lost son, by helping to fund the relocation of the historic Mariners Church — which had been situated on the Hobart waterfront — to a new site at Sandy Bay, on part of what was, until 1914, the course of the Hobart Golf Club. A plaque at the ‘new’ Church of St Peter’s, which still stands, remembers Mr and Mrs Pearce’s noble gesture. The tree planted in 1918 in Clyde’s memory on Hobart’s Soldiers Memorial Avenue survived and is now well maintained.
In the west, Claude Felstead returned from his stint with the Australian Flying Corps. In 1938, owing to illness, he put his two properties — Chybarlis and the nearby 1300-acre Glen Erne — on the market and eventually retired to the city. He died in Perth in 1964. The clubs with which Felstead won the 1909 Australian Open are on display at Pingelly GC and due recognition is made of his ‘business partner Mr Clyde Pearce’.
Elsewhere, as is sport’s way, new heroes emerged and memories began to fade. From the 1930s, Clyde’s name appeared occasionally in golf columns but mostly as a statistical footnote, rarely with any reference to his rare ability and unique back-story. His enormous courage, exceptional poise for one so young and remarkable ability to win big tournaments on a limited preparation were largely forgotten.
His was one of almost 7000 Australian lives lost at the Battle of Messines, a struggle the British ‘won’. Afterwards, Corporal Arthur Dowling met a soldier who had tried to carry Clyde out, before realising there was no use. According to Dowling, the great golfer’s last words were succinct, brave and heart-rending:
‘I’m all right ...’
PRIVATE ROBERT RICHARDSON TIDYMAN of the 19th Battalion was 24 years old when he joined the AIF on December 6, 1915. Earlier in the year he had played for a Metropolis XIII, a standout personal effort in a disappointing premiership year for his club that saw them finish fifth on the ladder, with just six wins from 14 games. In all, he’d played 30 top-grade matches for Easts since his debut in 1913, to go with his two Test caps.
A short man, but quick, thickset and strong in the hips, he had come into the Australian team for the second Test of 1914, one of six changes, and quickly announced himself to Test rugby league with a smothering tackle of Harold Wagstaff that saved a try. Straight after, he made a long run down the left wing after receiving a pass from five-eighth ‘Chook’ Fraser, beat three men and then cross-kicked for his captain, Sid Deane, who was tackled near the posts. The move thrilled the crowd, and though it didn’t lead to a try it set the mood for the game. ‘Tidyman is cut out for representative football,’ wrote one critic in his report. ‘The best Australian back,’ enthused another.
Fourteen years later, Harry Sunderland, one of rugby league’s most dynamic administrators, recalled the try that he believed generated the greatest enthusiasm he ever saw from an Australian crowd: ‘That was the touchdown which the late Bobby Tidyman and Chook Fraser effected for Australia on the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1914, when it enabled Australia to win against Wagstaff’s men in one Test by 12 to 7.’ In the main, the Australian selectors stuck with the old guard for this series, so young Tidyman’s exciting play was especially noteworthy. The third Test — known famously today as the ‘The Rorke’s Drift Test’ because of the way an undermanned British side refused to give ground — was fought out on a mud-patch that restricted opportunities for the two backlines, but The Referee noted that a Tidyman dash from one 25 to the other was ‘the trickiest and cleverest run by an Australian in the match’.
‘The advent of young ones of the type of H. Horder, R. Tidyman and W. Messenger indicates that the star players are still coming along,’ JC Davis wrote in The Referee at season’s end. Nothing that happened on the football field in 1915, not even a broken arm that cost Tidyman a number of weeks on the sideline and a slightly tentative return when he recovered, refuted that assessment. For the second year in a row, Easts came good after the premiership had been decided, and thrashed Glebe 22–3 in the City Cup final, with Davis noting that ‘R. Tidyman also played a fine game, getting into it more than usual.’
Bob Tidyman was one of the few players from the Australian Test team of 1914 with many years of top football ahead of him. Yet he was the first of them to die.
One cannot be sure what motivated him to enlist; the romantic would like to think that the hurt of leaving his parents, Robert and Elizabeth, and a flourishing football career was outweighed by the family ties that compelled him to follow his two younger brothers, William and Christopher, who were due to depart for the War in a fortnight’s time. He had been born in Townsville in North Queensland, but the family had moved south soon after, and were now living in working-class Woollahra. When Bob Tidyman enlisted, he was 19 days away from his last Christmas.
He left for Europe on April 9, 1916. On September 25 — six week after Easts won their third straight City Cup by defeating Glebe 18–15 in the final — he found himself in the ghastly mud-filled trenches of the Somme, a God-forsaken place where so many soldiers on both sides of the conflict perished. The battlegrounds stunk of death and disease, and by November there was a stigma about the place that had engulfed all sides: this was hell and there seemed no way out. One soldier described being up to his waist in slush as he manned the frontline, before adding: ‘The dead lay everywhere.’ The 19th Battalion, of whom Tidyman was now a member, had been involved in the appalling battles at Pozieres in July and August, and with their reinforcements they were now being asked to attack again at Flers, trying to win a semblance of advantage before the worst of the winter set in. An assault took place on November 5, for no gain and many casualties. A repeat was ordered for two days later, but an arctic tempest prevented that. There was a further postponement on November 9, but then on November 14, despite the cold and the bog, the infantry was sent over the parapets. Apparently, Bob Tidyman was the first man running, and with his pace he would have been among the first to the opposition trenches, too. Within 24 hours, he was gone.
The Australian Red Cross’ missing persons file for Tidyman provides conflicting reports of his death. For almost 12 months, he was listed as ‘missing’ rather than ‘killed’ in action, a distinction that appalled his parents — to be classified as ‘missing’ for so long carried a possible implication of desertion. The family wondered whether an incident in England, when he was charged with being late for a 6.30am parade and confined to camp for four days, might have worked against him. He would not be the last good footballer to be late for training. The most accepted version of his death was that his platoon had been surprisingly successful, though at great cost, and Tidyman was told to look after 50 prisoners while back-up was sought. He was never seen alive again. The presumption is that he was overpowered by the German captives.
However, there were other stories, which add to the mystery. One private from the 19th Battalion wrote, ‘I knew him well. He came from Sydney and used to play for the Eastern Suburbs FC. I saw him wounded on November 14th. This was on the Ancre-Thiepval side, I think. He was taken away by our own stretcher bearers and that is all I can say about him.’
Another, who was not an eyewitness: ‘I am certain Tidyman was taken prisoner at Flers, Nov. 15/16. It was known throughout the Battalion.’
A third version: ‘I knew Tidyman quite well — he was a great footballer. He was a short man, about 5ft 5in, about 26. He was wounded in Nov. at Flers, then he went to England, returning to France again, and I saw him at the base at Etaples in Jan. He was going back to the Batt.’
And a fourth: ‘I saw him on the 14th Nov. 1916. He was sent back with prisoners and that was the last I saw of him. He was a very popular chap and a champion football player in Sydney, New South Wales.’
Another informant claimed that he saw Tidyman fall. But he did not know what became of him afterwards, adding, ‘He was a great footballer, and a favourite with all.’
Private John Cleary, also from the 19th Battalion, a former plumber from Balmain whose mother lived at Darlinghurst and who’d sailed to Europe with Tidyman on the HMAT Nestor, seemed to offer the most succinct account: ‘Tidyman was in D Co. and he was killed at Flers on November 14th, after the stunt was over, while coming back with prisoners. I saw this myself.’
It may not have been exactly 50 prisoners, but it was definitely plenty — a dreadful ask for an inexperienced soldier in such a ghastly theatre of war. His body may well have been out there in the mud, but as with so many of his comrades there was no chance for a search or time for ceremony. The battle moved on.
A sequel to this tale of anguish came in the June 20, 1917, edition of The Referee, when the following story appeared:
Private R.B. Fitzpatrick of the 4th Battalion writes to Mr Claude Corbett, General Manager of the Sunday Times Newspaper Company, from France (14/4/17) as follows:
‘Noticing the remarks re Bob Tidyman, Eastern Suburbs footballer, in the Referee, dated January 3, it is with regret that I forward the following: two months ago, while going over some ground which had just been taken, I picked up an old Rugby Football League membership ticket, with the name R. Tidyman on it. Another man and myself then looked around a bit and we discovered the body of one of our boys, and lying around near him were some letters with the name R. Tidyman just discernable on the envelope. There was nothing else to help in identification, so we buried him and marked the spot. Unfortunately, censorship prevents the name of the place being given. Of course, we could not do much for the poor chap at the time, as we were under direct observation and fire of the enemy, but should I get down that way again I shall have a tablet erected. I thought, of course, it was poor old Bob, but was hoping against hope that I might be wrong, but knowing if he was at the front or not. If it were he, then his relatives and friends may know that he died ‘following on’ and forfeited his life for his country in one of those game rushes for which our boys are famous. I can quite understand that this will be hard news to bear for his relatives, for my own brother lost his life in somewhat similar circumstances.’
It was sad news, indeed. The writer of the letter was a rugby league referee in the lower grades, and his brother to whose death he refers was Lieutenant Fitzpatrick, the well-known Centennial Park cricketer and cricket official. Mr John Quinlan informs me that this news is not regarded as conclusive, inasmuch as Robert Tidyman did not possess a Rugby League ticket, as he did not need one. He thinks there is still hope. The ticket might have belonged to one of Tidyman’s brothers, two of whom are at the front, one having been wounded.
But there was no hope. When Private Fitzpatrick saw Johnny Quinlan’s response to his letter, he wrote again, to explain that the ticket was actually a NSW Leagues Club honorary membership ticket, ‘marked Mr R. Tidyman, member, H.R. Miller, secretary, available till October 21, 1915.’ Quinlan had thought he meant a season ticket, the kind that got holders into matches. Not that it mattered, for the War Office had finally confirmed his death. No one ever managed to give the dead footballer a proper burial, or to plant a cross or erect a tablet; there is no known grave, but his fate is recognised, with 11,000 other brave Aussies, at the Australian National Memorial at Villers Bretonneux.
It is almost quaint that Tidyman chose to carry a souvenir of his rugby league days into battle. And there is a certain trivial irony in an Australian player from the Rorke’s Drift Test being beaten in this much more important fight because he was outnumbered, and on a mudheap, too. But very seriously, with no evidence to the contrary, we can safely presume, as some of his comrades asserted, that Bob Tidyman died a hero’s death. Strangely, neither the NSW Rugby League nor the Eastern Suburbs club ever recognised his service in any significant way. It is a shame that his gallantry was never truly commemorated by the game he graced for far too short a time.
IT'S AMAZING WHAT YOU can find in ‘junk’ shops. Just recently, on a visit to such a store at Avalon, on Sydney’s northern beaches, there for sale among a pile of old magazines was the July 1952 issue of Sporting Life. Originally published by Associated Newspapers in Sydney, Sporting Life was one of the country’s best and most innovative sports publications from 1947 to 1957. It was edited in its early years by AG ‘Johnnie’ Moyes, one of the most celebrated figures in Australian cricket from the 1920s to the 1960s. Its star writer was Keith Miller, the great allrounder.
On the cover of this issue is a photograph of Samuela Domoni, a member of the touring Fijian rugby union team. The lead story is a profile of champion sprinter Marjorie Jackson, written on the eve of her departure for the Helsinki Olympics. ‘It is not generally realised that if Marjorie wins an Olympic title, she will be the first Australian to have won an Olympic track event since 1896,’ wrote journalist Geoff Allen. There are tales of Clive Churchill and Vic Patrick, a review of the recent Collingwood v Richmond ‘Australian Rules experiment’ at the Sydney Cricket Ground and a preview of the British Open, a tournament no Australian golfer had ever won (Peter Thomson’s first victory was still two years away). Sporting Life sold for a shilling and three pence in 1952; two dollars at Avalon in 2016. Money well spent.
It wasn’t until later, when the magazine was being thumbed from front to back, that a hidden jewel was discovered. The story on page 42 is headlined:
Australia’s Best Baseballer: Uncanny Merv Deigan is the only baseballer chosen in every All Australian team since 1946.
Merv Deigan was a prodigious sporting talent, a prolific hitter for Petersham-Leichhardt in Sydney grade baseball and an excellent batsman for Petersham in Sydney grade cricket. He would be inducted into Australian baseball’s official Hall of Fame in 2006. The story’s author wrote that ‘Petersham fans are unanimous that Deigan is the best third baseman in Australia — a view shared by several prominent ex-players and officials to whom I spoke’.
That author is Richie Benaud.
At this time, Richie had played one cricket Test match for Australia. He was 21 years old, working in Associated Newspapers’ accounts department and a regular visitor to the busy Sporting Life office. In the years to come Richie would, of course, become a unique figure in the sporting media and the greatest TV commentator cricket has known.
It has been generally accepted that Richie media career began in 1956, at Associated Newspaper’s afternoon daily, The Sun, when he was given a chance on police rounds. He had written a few stories for sports magazines in the three years before, including three for Sporting Life, but always on a freelance, one-off basis.
This article from July 1952 pre-dates all that. A trawl through earlier editions of Sporting Life failed to find another contribution by Richie Benaud. Given his age and lack of experience (as a writer and cricketer), it seems unlikely his work would have appeared elsewhere. The Merv Deigan profile is almost certainly the first story by Richie published in a major newspaper or magazine.
THAT THE STORY IS about baseball should not be a surprise. Richie as a sportsman is remembered today almost totally as a cricketer, but in the early 1950s he was also known for his work on the diamond. He made his debut as a shortstop for Western Suburbs in Sydney’s first-grade baseball competition during the autumn of 1951, a year in which he scored his maiden first-class century (against South Australia at the Adelaide Oval) and was included in a NSW Colts baseball team that also included the future Test cricket opener Billy Watson.
Richie knew Merv Deigan well. Their relationship went back to at least October 1947, when they were both members of a squad of junior cricketers that trained at the SCG nets on Wednesday afternoons. Also in that squad were future Test cricket stars Graeme Hole and Jimmy Burke.
‘Petersham Oval, Sydney, is a busy baseball centre in the winter months,’ Richie’s story begins. ‘Crowds of up to 5000 people go there each weekend to watch their clubs play the game that is steadily gaining popularity in Australia.
‘The idol of these crowds is a solid, wavy haired young man playing third base for Petersham-Leichhardt …’
AS RICHIE TOLD it, he started his working life at age 16 as a clerk in a city accountant’s office. ‘I was never sure I was cut out for accountancy, but at Parramatta High School, in keeping with all other secondary schools, they provided tests for pupils to see for what they would be best suited, he wrote in Anything But … An Autobiography, which was published in 1998. ‘I loved English but the testers said I was outstanding at mental arithmetic, so accountancy it was.’
In 1950, Richie was, in his own words, ‘put off’ from the position that had been paying him £3 a week. He soon found a similar job, on double the money, at Associated Newspapers. The appeal of this opportunity, it seems, apart from the pay rise, was that his new boss, Bert Scotford, was a ‘cricket fan who had heard of me’. Richie, still a teenager, had just made his first-class debut for NSW. Getting time off for practice and interstate tours was not going to be a problem.
At school, Richie achieved what was known as a ‘sportsman’s pass’. He did his schoolwork while devouring his sport. The local Parramatta papers wrote of him as a future champion, and as legends such as Steve Waugh and Ricky Ponting would do after him, his focus as a young man was very much on his sport. He made his Test debut at age 21 and his first Ashes tour at 22, by which time he was being spoken of as a future captain.
In the recently published Richie: The Man Behind the Legend, one of Richie’s old teammates at the Cumberland grade club, Bruce Ritchie, who first met the Benaud family before the war, recalled:
When Richie left school, a rising star in cricket by then, just about everyone was surprised when he took a job with a chartered accountancy firm. We all thought he would head into something to do with sport. At the time, I think that deep down he was wondering about how successful he could be at cricket and whether he could make a living out of it, so he took the accountancy option to give him a solid ‘back up’ if his sporting ambitions backfired.
Bruce Ritchie was another member of that junior cricket squad, alongside Richie and Merv Deigan, that trained at the SCG on Wednesday afternoons in 1947. The picture he paints of his mate from that time is of a young man who didn’t quite know what to with his working life. Richie had no formal qualifications, but gradually the realisation would come that he really could be a journalist. What part did his debut article play in that process?
In Benaud On Reflection (1984), Richie remembered that during the three years prior to the 1956 Ashes tour he had been repeatedly requesting a transfer from Accounts to Editorial. ‘My hope was to follow Keith Miller into the media world,’ he wrote. ‘But I wanted to learn about journalism in the different areas of the newspaper, not purely in Sport.’
Before the team departed for England in 1956, Lindsay Clinch, the Executive Editor of The Sun, told Richie that when he returned there might be an opportunity in the sports department. ‘I’d rather be on News if possible,’ was the cricketer’s response. That Richie was now resolutely serious about a career in the media is clear, best shown by his decision at the end of the Ashes tour to take part in a three-week training course with BBC-TV. In part, this might also have been motivated by the continued desire to follow Miller, who had agreed a deal to work in front of the cameras for Frank Packer’s fledgling Nine Network in Australia.
But that training course was an investment in the future. For now, Richie’s ambitions were in print. ‘I wasted no time getting back into The Sun newspaper office the day after arriving home [and] went into see Lindsay Clinch by appointment, anxious to know if there was any chance now of moving out of the Counting House and into Editorial.
‘We want you to write a column for the sports department each week; they’ll get someone to ghost you if necessary,’ Clinch said.
‘I’d like to work on Police Rounds and News,’ Richie responded.
‘He looked at me for what seemed like minutes but was only seconds,’ Richie continued in Benaud On Reflection.
‘Okay, go and see Jack Toohey [the News Editor],’ Clinch said.
An excited, smiling Richie turned for the door. And then Clinch added quietly, importantly: ‘He’s expecting you.’
The rest, as they say, is history. Richie was given the chance to work under the ace crime reporter Noel Bailey. In the 1960s, while still Australian captain, he became a respected cricket writer for The Sun in Australia and News of the World in England, always maintaining that the experience he earned while working with Bailey was a key to his success. His television commentary career began in England in 1963; in 1977, he became the ‘voice’ of World Series Cricket, and soon the TV voice of all Australian cricket. On his death in April 2015 — 12 months ago this week — he was recognised across cricket as an exceptional allrounder, a great captain and the greatest TV commentator.
RICHIE DID OCCASIONALLY RECALL his link to Sporting Life, but never suggested that the magazine played a significant role in the evolution of his working life. After he moved to Associated Newspapers in 1950, he immediately discovered that the building in Elizabeth Street in which he was now employed also produced the best-selling magazine. ‘It was a wonderful privilege to be able to slip up to the Sporting Life offices occasionally and listen to some of the opinions on the game and its various players,’ Richie wrote in Anything But … An Autobiography.
These opinions would have come from some of Australian cricket’s most renowned and influential figures, including Miller, Moyes, the best-selling author Ray Robinson and the former NSW captain Ginty Lush. Another regular contributor was the former Sheffield Shield and Australian Services XI opening batsman RS ‘Dick’ Whitington, The Sun’s cricket correspondent. In his biography of Miller, The Golden Nugget (1981), Whitington recalled:
In 1950, Moyes’ magazine Sporting Life was rising towards a monthly circulation of 250,000 … Moyes applied for additional staff and was told he could seek a junior assistant.
It so happened there was a blue-eyed blond named Richie Benaud working in the Accounts Department of Australian Associated Newspapers Limited at that time. The boss of that department was a cricket fanatic named Bert Scotford and Richie, then 19, was showing considerable promise as a hard-hitting batsman and googly bowler.
With Scotford’s consent, Richie joined Moyes and Miller on the staff of Sporting Life.
Richie’s time on the Sporting Life payroll was short-lived. His transfer back to Accounts probably occurred in 1951, after Moyes departed as editor; the fact Richie never mentioned he was on the staff certainly suggests it was a brief arrangement. But he did continue to visit the magazine’s offices and, as his status as a cricketer grew, he would have felt more and more comfortable doing so. This would have been especially true after July 1952, given that he was now a published contributor. He would have more stories appear in the magazine — ‘So You Want to be a Big Hitter’ (March 1954), ‘Age is Kind to Spinners’ (October 1955) and ‘How to Beat the Batsman’ (December 1955) — but his first commitment through this period remained to his sport. All the stories and profiles of Richie at this time — including one by Miller that appeared in Sporting Life in October 1951 — are of a young man who couldn’t get to the practice nets quick enough.
It is intriguing that Richie never made mention of his debut contribution to Sporting Life in his memoirs. Perhaps he just forgot about it, but the first published story is always a major moment in a journalist’s life. The tens of thousands of people who remain interested in, even inspired by his life’s work, will see this debut story as genuinely historic. But in the most recent issue of the cricket journal Between Wickets, Rodney Cavalier recalls an evening where he witnessed Richie being approached by a potential biographer. Richie politely declined. ‘I have written all anyone needs to know about me,’ he said.
The guess is that in July 1952 — even though he now had a byline — Richie still wasn’t sure where his working life was heading. It was not until at least a year later, perhaps after experiencing his first Ashes tour, that he knew in his heart that he wanted to be a journalist and not until 1956 that his great media adventure truly began. To include the Merv Deigan profile in his life story would have been to give the article more prominence than he felt it deserved, to create a false impression. That was never Richie’s way.