|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: May 22, 1998
This is a transcript of the complete original interview conducted for the Australian Biography project. Each transcript page covers one videotape (approximately 35 minutes). There is also QuickTime video of the full interview available. To play the video, click on the icon in the right hand column. In addition, each question in the transcript is linked to the video. Clicking on a question will play the video from that point. (Help with this feature.) Optionally, you can download the video file for offline viewing (approx. 10MB).
The interview has been left it in its original state so that you can get a sense of how the conversation developed. The repetition of some questions, or a question followed by another question, is often due to the end of a particular tape or some other interruption, and has been indicated at the appropriate place in the text. There has been minimal tidying up of the text so that the flavour of the encounter has been kept.
When and where were you born?
As best I know: 22 Drummond Street, Carlton in Victoria, on the 4 October 1914.
And what kind of a household were you born into?
Living there at the time was my mother, my aunt, her sister, another sister - a younger one, my grandmother and grandfather, and a lady Elizabeth Salthouse, who had come from Lancashire with them on the Benalla, arriving here in 1913. My mother and father met each other on the Benalla, and they got married soon after they arrived here, while they were living in Drummond Street, Carlton. Then, soon after I was born they moved to a very small flat in East Melbourne, after which, he went away to camp at Broadmeadows, and then to the First World War, where he spent nearly four years in France - survived the war itself. He never came back to Australia. And my aunt and mother - my aunt first, then [my] mother, were able to get a job as cooks in the mental hospital at Sunbury. So that meant that we all had to move - did move as soon as we could - to Sunbury. So my grandfather and grandmother took a small farm just outside of Sunbury. It's still a small farm, it hasn't been built on yet, but it was only half a mile out of Sunbury, where they had a cow or two and were just I think on survival level for a while. My grandfather did a bit of work each week for Sir Rupert Clarke, the owner of Riverswood - this large mansion just outside Sunbury. So that's the beginning as far as I was concerned. That was the birth period.
Staying with that for a minute, who was your father, what was his background and what kind of a person was he?
His name was James John Cairns. He was born in Glasgow. He became a clerk in the town clerk's office in Glasgow. When he came to Melbourne, for a very short time he was a clerk in the office of the Melbourne City Council, and on their board where all the people who went to war and were killed are listed, he's listed there until today, near the front entrance of the Melbourne Town Hall under J. J. Cairns.
When you say he went to the First World War and never came back to Australia, what does that mean? He stayed in Europe?
No, it doesn't mean that. It means it's a tragedy. He didn't want to come back. He didn't want to take the responsibility of a wife and a child, and he went to Africa: Kenya. We never heard of him, never heard a thing, and I didn't get an account of all this until right up into 1952.
What were you told?
So, as a small boy did you ask about your father?
Well, I suppose I did. I don't remember. We had some pictures of him - we've still got them here. One of them. He was a very good looking fellow, but he couldn't take responsibility, never could it seems. And, his sister was the one in England, in Ireland, they lived in Northern Ireland by this time. He was born in Glasgow, but they had moved to Northern Ireland just outside Belfast. A place called Bangor, where in 1952 Gwen and I met them all, and we picked up this history of my father for the first time really.
So, as you were growing up, he really just didn't figure in your mind?
No, he didn't figure in my mind. In the real sense of the word, I didn't have a father.
However you lived with your grandfather and grandmother. What was your relationship with your grandfather?
Very much one of an adult to an adult. They treated me as an equal. I'd already had a better education at the age of six or seven than they had had. They'd lived in Lancashire in a very working class environment. My grandfather began work at the age of seven in cotton mills just outside Manchester. He worked all his life until he left England - all his life to the age of well over forty, for about ten hours a day, just a living wage, that was all. They never had any money of any sort to spare, but they never seemed to be in any difficulty. They were never really what you called poor, they always had enough to eat, they had enough reasonably looking clothes to wear. They never begged, they were never short of money, but they never had any. They used to say they made do very well with what they had.
What was the atmosphere of the house at Sunbury?
Very much one of equals. I had got an education and I knew all sorts of things, like the length of the Ganges and the height of Kosciusko, the population of New York. All sorts of things like that I knew and no one else knew, so I was the authority, and I used to be the little lecturer, I think. Anyone who suspected I should become a lecturer got their feeling about that from seeing the way I used to talk, and the way people used to accept that and exchange with that. I always got on extremely well with people when I could talk to them.
You were the only child in this household of adults: a grandmother, a grandfather, an aunt, your mother and the woman who'd come with them from Lancashire, you were the only child. Did that make you very much the centre of attention?
Well, some people would say so, but I had a lot of time on my own, by choice. I used to read a lot on my own, by choice. I'd often go to bed early and get up fairly early. They all got up early because we had then cows to milk. I never got involved in any work like that, even though I was by then nine or ten or eleven, they never had me milking cows. I didn't have to do that. But, we lived where there were creeks and rocks and trees and rabbits, and I used to spend a lot of time playing around in that area.
Why were you allowed to escape the chores? That's unusual for a farm boy, he usually has to do a lot.
Yes, I think it is. I'm sure it is. And it was unusual for me. Some people say I was spoilt. Now being spoilt is ... I don't know what people mean by being spoilt, but it means that your character is spoilt, your behaviour is distorted, that's what spoilt meant. Now when I was in a sense left alone and treated with respect as an equal, I wasn't being spoilt, I was allowed to develop my own capacities, and to develop them well. When I wanted contact with other people they were always there for that contact. I do remember very well, through much of the time, I did miss my mother a lot, because my mother and aunt both continued to work at the mental hospital at Sunbury and later at Royal Park, and when they were at work they came home only once a fortnight, and drove usually with a horse and gig, all the way from first Sunbury to Melton, and I saw them only once a fortnight. And I can remember as it were until this day sitting on the gate post watching them go off, on the Sunday night, knowing they wouldn't be back for a fortnight, and I'm sure that made me feel very sad.
What was your mother's personality like?
Very quiet, unexpressive, never sang or danced, or played anything. It was altogether unobtrusive, efficient. She was able to do all the kinds of work that women do, very well. But she was unobtrusive.
Was she affectionate?
Not affectionate at all.
No. We used to shake hands.
Everybody in the family, the same?
Yes. [Dogs in background]
What was your mother's attitude to you? How did she treat you?
Well I think she left things to me. Right from the very beginning - I think I was outlining it a few minutes ago - that was how it was. I wasn't interfered with. I was left to do things the way I wanted to do them. Where she became involved, she was involved, but not very much. The years could be summed up in saying that that didn't change. I was left to decide what I was going to do. Now, having done that, invariably she approved of it. Whatever I did was right. Except one occasion when I cut the top off a ladder, the top six feet, because I wanted one for myself, and when she came back at the weekend something had to be done. So I climbed the tree to get out of the way, then came down and she smacked me a couple of times. That was it. The only time she ever hit me was that time.
What about your grandfather and grandmother, did they punish you?
No, never. Never.
And apart from physical punishment did they ever discipline you?
Were you a very good child?
So there really wasn't any need for it.
That's probably so.
Why do you think you were a good child?
Well, it's the most sensible thing to be, isn't it? If you're naughty it causes things to be unpleasant, if you are good things are always pleasant. I was recalling just the other night: when we lived at Sunbury, we lived at the end of the Gap, and maybe you don't know Sunbury, but the Gap is three miles out of Sunbury on the Bendigo Road. And right at the end there was a small, old house fronting the road, occupied by the Murphys, and there was Steve Murphy. Now, Sunbury and this district was very much torn by Catholic-Protestant rivalry and dislike, at that time, very much. And Murphy was a Catholic and I was a Protestant. And I used to ride my pony down past his place and many times I had difficulty in getting past - in escaping you see. So one day I decided I'd do something about it so I bought three meat pies in Sunbury for three pence each and went up with the three meat pies, and Steve Murphy came out as usual. And I said, 'G'day Steve, would you like a meat pie?' 'Oh, yeah', so I gave him one meat pie and I ate the other. And I said, 'Hey Steve I've got a second one, would you like a second one?' 'Yeah', he said. So that was a change. We never had a harsh word after that, for the next two years that I lived there.
Was that a principle you used at all later in life?
Yes. 'Doctor Yes' they used to call me.
During that time that you were a child, what were the values that predominated in the house? What system of values was the one ...
Christian, but it was not ... We weren't being good as a result of talking Christianity. We were being good and that was Christianity. That was the justification for Christianity, behaving that way, but there was no preaching. We weren't good because we were told to be good, or because we believed in Christianity. We behaved that way because it was the best way to behave.
Did you go to church?
When you were small, your grandparents didn't take you to church?
No. In that sense I never once went to church - I was never taken to church. They didn't go that much, but they did go sometimes down to the Presbyterian Church in Sunbury. They were inclined to be Methodist, but there was no Methodist Church so Presbyterian was the second best choice. And they did go on and off and I think they thought ... I was a pretty good runner you see, and I think they thought if I went to the Sunday School picnic and won the races, as they felt I probably would, it might ... I think that was going on in their mind. So I did go one year to the Sunday School races, and I won the sprint, but I didn't go back again.
So what did you believe yourself, as a boy? What were your own thoughts on the question of religion?
Look, I have never believed myself to be anything that I can attach a name to. I wasn't a Christian. I didn't regard myself as a humanist or a socialist. I was something: what I am, and it didn't have a name.
But did you test out what you were against things that did have a name? I mean, when you were thinking about the fact that there were churches and that people believed in religion, and you were thinking about what you thought about that, did that position you at all? Were you thinking, well I'm certainly not that, you know?
Yes it did. I was not attracted at all by the way people who went to church behaved or talked, not in the least. It was what I knew of that, that would have stopped me going to church.
And what did you know of that?
Oh, very selfish, very unsympathetic, very showing superiority, very clever. Those things didn't appeal to me at all. And that was the main reason - not because it was Christian, or not because it had a procedure. The main reason was I didn't like the people.
What was it like when you went to school? Did you get on well there?
I never spent much time at school. I used to ride my pony to school every morning, put him in a little paddock nearby, go to school, getting there at about ten to nine, just in time to go in, go to class, break for a little bit of time during lunch, some more classes. As soon as we finished, I went and got my horse and rode home. I didn't spend much time at school.
Did you play with the other kids?
Not very much.
What did they think of you?
I don't really know.
And you didn't care at the time?
Didn't be relevant. It wasn't relevant. I didn't really have to think about it.
Because you went home to your own pursuits?
And what did you ... how did you go academically at the local school?
Well, you see that was not only the same at Sunbury. You say academic, but after I'd finished the state school at Sunbury, my parents and my mother were very keen that I go to a higher school. Well Sunbury is quite a long way from a higher school, and one day Grandma and I went to Melbourne High School to do the entrance examination. And I failed. There was some algebra and geometry: whatever was that stuff?
You hadn't been taught it?
No, never heard of algebra and geometry. Education to me was arithmetic and reading, English, so I didn't get into Melbourne High School.
And they didn't ask you about the length of the Ganges?
No, I knew that. But after failing at Melbourne High School, somebody said Northcote High School: Northcote District High School, St Georges Road, Northcote. So I went there and there was no entrance examination, and I got in. But school to me then was something: seventy-seven miles a day away from home: thirty-eight this way, thirty-eight that way, and I travelled there every day, thirty-eight miles a day. As soon as school was over - on to a train at Mary Station, round to North Melbourne, on to a train at North Melbourne, up to Sunbury. So I never spent much time at Northcote High School playing. But I did get into the playing area, quite dramatically. I had always had the reputation of being a fast runner, so not having broad jumped before, I borrowed a pair of spikes and entered the Northcote District High School broad jump championship. When the other kids of my age were doing sixteen to seventeen feet, I jumped twenty feet two inches, and won the championship. Well it wasn't school work or anything else that made my name at Northcote High School, it was that single jump. I jumped to fame. And so, the next year I became house captain, prefect, wore a green cap instead of a blue one, all on the strength of one single jump! Now that's been my life. I've got somewhere on the strength of one single jump, very often, which had nothing to do with what I was getting on to. Jumping had nothing to do with being house captain: it didn't make you a good house captain, it didn't make you a good prefect. But I was made into a house captain and a prefect because of this fantastic jump. I went on and in the combined high schools that same year, I won the jump there. That is, the whole metropolitan area broad jump. And that year I left Northcote High School so that was the end of that.
What about team sports? Were you just in athletics or did you get involved in football?
I played a bit of football. I could have been good at football. We had a couple of good footballers at Northcote High School, like Ron Todd. You're not a Melbourne lady Robin, but if you had been a Melbourne lady, you'd know who Ron Todd was. And when he was playing football at Northcote at the age of sixteen and I was, I used to beat him in the home marking or anything else. And he turned out to be the ... What was it? The best centre half back in the Victorian Football League. I might have been all right at football - I'm glad I wasn't. I played a bit of cricket, a bit of tennis, and it was more playing in all this time than studying. My ... If I can use the word academic for such low levels, my academic levels at Northcote High School were pretty poor.
You certainly got this attention from your athletic activities so it wasn't really surprising that you put your effort into that. Do you remember what you made of it all, at the time, when you suddenly with one bound jumped into fame?
Well, you see the way it leads. As a result of my athletic ability at Northcote High School, Steve Paddle, the secretary of Melbourne Harriers, the oldest athletic club in Australia, invited me to join Melbourne Harriers. So I joined Melbourne Harriers at Olympic Park ... (interruption because of noise)
You see what I'm trying to explain here, is why did I have so many successes? Why did I become Deputy Prime Minister, and all that? What I'm saying is it's illogical that I should ever have done so. I didn't ever study the things that would have made ... would have been necessary to become Acting Prime Minister, as you would have studied law to become a lawyer. I didn't do any of that. I didn't do the Prime Ministerial things as it were. I jumped to fame with twenty feet two inches. The step after Northcote High School, where that was famous, was Melbourne Harriers. Well with Melbourne Harriers we won the A grade premiership.
What was Melbourne Harriers?
In those days at Olympic Park over 2000 men - never a woman - used to compete in inter-club athletics at Olympic Park. They'd be watched by 500 people: 2000 competing, 500 watching. The opposite of football. So, in that we were very successful. I won two Victorian championships. I won the Victorian broad jump championship and the Victorian decathlon championship. Now how's that leading to further steps of success? It brought to me a connection with Sir Thomas Blamey. Sir Thomas Blamey was then Commissioner of Police in Victoria. And one day I tore the muscle in my right leg, and I was told to go and see a man called Granville Dunstan in Collins Street, Melbourne, who was a masseur etc. etc. While I was there I was lamenting to him that I had to work at the Australian Estates and Mortgage Company incorporated in England in 1914, for a time of sometimes sixty hours a week, and I couldn't train properly, therefore this injury was a result of it. So he said, 'You must meet a friend of mine'. So the following night I looked down from the table where I was being treated, and I saw this pair of highly polished brown shoes and a very expensive pair of grey pants, and he said, 'This is the boy I was telling you about', in a quite well educated voice, and I hadn't ever spoken to many, if any, who spoke ... and he turned out to be Sir Thomas Blamey. And so I got to know him that way, and right out of the blue I said to him, 'Do you think I should join the police force?' 'Oh', he said, 'That is a decision for you'. Didn't say yes or no, so within a week or two, I'd put in an application to join the police force. Well I went into the police force and I became quite notable in the police force within ten years, so much so, that everybody was predicting that I would be Commissioner of Police. I didn't stay long enough for that.
Why did you go into the police force?
To get time to train for athletics.
No other reason?
No other reason.
Did you know what going into the police force would involve?
It just involved time off for athletics?
Yes. But of course I was able to do other things. I was in a very special part of the police force known as 'the dogs' shadowing squad. And I was involved in a number of very dramatic arrests. I got eight commendatory injuries in five years. I was promoted to be a first constable in four and three quarter years. Those are still records.
What did you do in these arrests? Could you describe the most spectacular of them.
The most spectacular one took place in the Exhibition Gardens. There was a group of men doing armed hold ups and they lived in Collingwood. And the two of us were working, watching them all day, more or less, and this afternoon they left home, got on a cable tram. My colleague, who was working with me, couldn't catch the tram because he couldn't run fast enough. So I caught the tram, got on to it, sat inside and they were on the trolley at the back. And he must have rung Russell Street. He did ring Russell Street, and told them what was happening, that I was on the tram with these two fellows. So the gentlemen in charge, Detective Sergeant Davis, William Edward Davis, decided that they would come out and arrest these characters, because they thought it was dangerous for me to be on the tram with them on my own. So they pulled in behind the tram and one of them, William John Cody ... Everyone [involved] is by this time - [it's a] long time ago - dead. Cody hopped in through the door of the tram with a thirty-two calibre revolver, pushed it into my chest and pulled the trigger. It didn't go off. So I pushed him aside and he took off: raced down through the tram and across into the Exhibition Gardens. Then I got up and went out to the back, and Davis, the other one was there, and I pushed him into the police car - by this time it had arrived - jumped down and chased Cody. I had a twenty-five calibre Browning automatic in my shirt pocket, and as I chased Cody, he's turning around, by this time got his gun to go. I counted five shots that he fired in my direction: five. And when we got that far, I fired two in the air above him and he called out, 'I've had enough'. So I caught up to him, and pulled the gun from him. By this time another detective had arrived, Alf Guider, and another police car was coming in from the other side, and so Alf Guider said, 'Shoot the bastard', and I said, 'No, he hasn't got a gun'. So I protected him. When he came out of gaol, after doing seven years for shooting me, he arrived with a bunch of flowers for Gwen. He did seven years for shooting at me. However, no one got hurt. And what had happened was that ... and I'd seen them do this. They had thrown into the Yarra, near the end of Burnley Street, a newspaper parcel full of something. And then they'd gone over into the grass and they spent a lot of time there and they were counting money. Later we had the Yarra searched, nearby there, and we found a parcel of guns. So the ... They'd had a habit of using guns that were, fortunately, not always in good order.
When you were chasing... (interruption)
[end of tape]