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.