Up against it [the early days of P.M. Billy Hughes, 25 February 1923]

Up against it

Hughes’ battling days — played many parts

“Bones in a sack.
Poverty riding on misery’s back.”

These were the doggerel lines which some rural would-be wit chalked up in the back-blocks of New South Wales, over 30 years ago, when a young fellow named Hughes acquired a horse, and rode out to organise and to sell tickets for the Shearers’ Union.

But Mr. Hughes, later to be for seven years Prime Minister of the Commonwealth, had had worse times before he thus got on horseback. Like the proverbial Scot who becomes a millionaire, this young Welshman landed in Brisbane in 1884 at the age of 20, with half-a-crown or so in his pocket.

An interesting story is told of the way in which he was led to come to Australia. When he was a pupil teacher in London he liked to wander about the docks and watch the ships.
One day he ran across a boy very much down on his luck. When young Hughes asked him what was the matter the boy said that he wanted to go home, but had not the money.

“I will lend it to you,” said Hughes. He went home and produced 30s., all the money he had in the world. The boy who borrowed the money went to Australia. Several years later he re- turned the money and told Hughes that he ought to come out to Australia. Hughes came.

Homeless, moneyless, and friendless, except for a youth who came out with him. Hughes had a very hard time in Queensland. He went away to the country, where he worked for a time in a railway goods shed. He went on to Roma, Wambulalla, Charleville, and Adavale. At one place he did some boundary-riding, at another he sank post-holes or did odd jobs.

During a recent tour in Queensland, Mr. Hughes visited Adavale, and mentioned that he had been there before. So he had. It was there that he found that there was, owing to the drought, no work to be had. So he walked to Brisbane, nearly 600 miles away. He put in four months tramping with his swag, with intervals in which he worked to earn tucker.

During the next few years Mr. Hughes tackled all sorts of jobs. He worked as a shearer, railway laborer, boundary-rider, fencer, stockman, drover, saw-setter in a timber camp, a sailor on a coastal vessel, a cook, a blacksmith’s striker and several other things.

Mr. Hughes once decided to ship as cook on a barque. For some reason, however, he did not go. “God was good to those poor sailors,” he said, in telling the story years after.

At a Press and stage luncheon in Melbourne two years ago Mr. Hughes, mentioned that he had once been on the stage. “I rubbed shoulders,” he said, “with that fine Shakespearian actor George Rignold. At least, it was not exactly shoulders. He trod on my stomach when, as Henry V., he stormed the breach at Harfleur.”

Hughes as a Lion.

There was a sequel to this experience as a super at His Majesty’s Theatre, Sydney.

Years afterwards, when Mr. Hughes had risen to great dignity and power, he was lunching one day at a restaurant, and seated opposite to him was a florid old gentleman whose face seemed to be very familiar, but Mr. Hughes could not give it a name or place in his memory. Leaning forward he said:
“Haven’t we met before?”
“We have,” said the old gentleman.
“When?” asked Mr. Hughes.
“In the year 1415,” came the reply, which led Mr. Hughes to believe that he had stumbled on to a lunatic whom he thought it best to humor.
“Quite so,” he said, soothingly; “and what were we doing?”
“We charged together at the battle of Agincourt,” came the reply, which brought back to Mr. Hughes’s memory his days as a super playing with Mr. Rignold in “Henry V.” They shook hands and laughed heartily over the days that were.

At a function given in honor of Mr. Rignold, some time afterwards, Mr. Hughes got reminiscent, and told the story of his stage experiences. “On one occasion I played the part of a wave,” he said. “My duty was to get underneath a sheet of painted canvas and bob up and down, in order to give the resemblance of moving water.

“My star part was that of Vox Populi. I had to stand in the wings and shout in unintelligible language in resemblance of a crowd of people roused to a sense of duty and threatening to tear down from their pedestals all the great men of the period.

“Once when I played the voice of a lion, Mr. Rignold, stepping off the stage into the wings where I was located, congratulated me on my artistic display. He said that my voice was more like that of the blinking king of beasts than anything he had ever heard; and as he, as the star ac- tor, wanted to be heard by the audience, if I didn’t subdue my leonine growl he would throttle me and cast my blinking dead body on to the stage. I came to the conclusion that I was not cut out for an actor and left.”

Ticket and Horseshoes.

As a result of his work in the back blocks Mr. Hughes became an organiser for the Shearers’ union. It was then that he acquired the horse, originally one of Jimmy Tyson’s brumbies, already referred to.

He had a hard row to hoe in this job. Many squatters were bitterly hostile to the union. Some of the shearers, too, resented the request to take out tickets, and more than once they chased him off the station.

Once the organiser went to a smithy to have his horse shod. While the blacksmith worked on the job Mr. Hughes urged him to take out a union ticket. When the smith asked the price, Mr. Hughes replied by asking how much the shoeing would cost “Five shillings.” said the blacksmith. “Then the ticket is 5s.,” answered Mr. Hughes.

In 1890 Mr. Hughes settled down at Balmain as a small, very small, shop- keeper. He also repaired locks and mended umbrellas.

It was not long before he became a power amongst the waterside workers. In 1894 he entered the State Parliament and his real “battling” days were over. — Sydney “Sun.”

The Sunday Times (Perth, WA), Sunday 25 February 1923, page 1s (page 1 of the “Second Section” of The Sunday Times)

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