Australian Biography

Smoky Dawson - full interview transcript

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So what part did your stepmother play? When did she come into it?

My stepmother - she was my mother's sister. And she stepped in to take the place of my mother to keep him in order. She was the only one that could control him. But she had a way with her too. She had a ... A little bit of him rubbed off on her. And I think she delighted to ... She used to give me quite a few thrashing too, with the same lead.

But she married him knowing what he was like?

You know, I should forget all this but you can't you know. A lot of it stays with you. It's got to come out. And maybe in time, or in time ... Jee, time's moving on. No, I think my time with my stepmother was fulfilled. I look back on her with a lot of sadness. I think she had a tough life too. And in later years they were to come back to me and ask forgiveness. And I forgive, but not forget. But I, you know ... Those drinking bouts of my father was just a daily occurrence. I remember a time when on the Saturday, football day, he would be home all day and those were the days I dreaded because he was with me all the time. Send me over to the pub to get the beer. And I walked over with this empty bottle to have it filled up and all these men around me with spittoons and foul language and the odour of urine and alcohol. It's very prominent in my mind as I smelled it as a kid. It was distasteful. And they'd make fun of me. And I felt dreadful. And I'd run back with it. And he'd say, 'Where's the change? I gave you more than that'. And I'd get a hiding. He just manufactured things. Or he'd come home and he'd say he saw me up the road, chasing girls. I wasn't interested in girls. I was shy like a rabbit - run a mile from a girl. He just had these things that probably that he did or he imagined if he were me that's what he'd be doing. Get up in the morning, go and get the fire wood, chop it down, bare feet, bring it in, down to the newsagent, sell Heralds, come home and he'd be home there to check the money before I took it back, and he'd always say that it was short and I'd get a hiding for that. So that's how it went.

So you finally decided you'd had enough. Did your little brother then become the object of his violence, when he trudged back there that day as you went off on the train, leaving him behind?

I never knew what happened. I never asked Ted what happened, but I think that the game was up because I got off the train at Thornbury, Northcote, where my aunt lived. That was my mother's sister. They were a big family. Scotch. Yeah, old Scotland in a bit of me. Both sides Scotch. My mother was a Muir. But all her sisters ... they were all such lovely girls and I, of course, would run to them and I'd get all the cuddles. That's what I wanted. I wanted somebody to protect me. And my aunt, I showed them ... took off my shirt and showed my back. So she took me down to the police station and showed them my back. So I was whisked off from there and I was put in a sort of a holding pen - a little orphanage. They were holding people until they come up into court, because I was to be taken away from my father. Had to go to court. And I was moved from there into the Gordon Institute, which is the halfway house at the back of the old Melbourne Gaol. I don't even know whether it's still there, but it was sure a landmark. And that was a very poor place because there was a dormitory for kids and they had to wait for places to be taken and adopted. And you could sit out in the front with your feet in the drain in the gutter and let the water trickle by your bare feet. And we'd go down to the cake shop with a little wheel cart and get all the spare, stale buns and cakes, which were all handed round to the boys. And then one day a lady came and said, 'Come with me'. And we went to the court. I remember standing up in the witness box and I was interrogated by my father whom I hadn't seen, and he said, 'Face me boy. It wasn't me who hit you. It was your mother, wasn't it?' And I said, 'No'. And they told me, 'Whatever you do, don't waiver'. So I stuck to my guns.

Did you find that very hard? Were you afraid that he would get you?

I was dreadfully frightened and I think of occasions now, when people now, in case of rape charges, like with girls, frightened to go, or to tell anything about their husband in case they are beaten up, because the law doesn't assure them 100 per cent safety. And to my mind, I'd gone through all this and still hadn't been saved and so I was a bit reluctant. And she said, 'If he gets you under there and starts questioning you, you are liable to go back to him'. So I stuck it out and I came down off the dock. And I remember this lady taking me and my brother and we were walking down the hallway out of the court and my father came racing after and he said, 'My boy, I want my boy'. She said, 'No it's too late. You've lost him. He's not your boy now'. And my brother was given to the care of my grandmother and I was taken to St. Vincent de Paul's Boys' Orphanage in South Melbourne - Cecil Street, South Melbourne, who I still have affiliations with. I've been backwards and forwards to that orphanage and it's no longer what it used to be, but I saw the old places where I used to be. And where I was, had been actually promised by the Brother Superior that there'd be a permanent job for me on the Victorian Railways. (Laughs)

That was what they trained you for there?

Who knows. I could probably have been the Commissioner of Railways if I'd stuck to it, but I didn't. I spent three years there.

Was it a haven for you?

It was a wonderful haven, [a] wonderful haven, but what concerned me was all this glass, broken glass bottles all round the walls. And the girls' orphanage had the same thing. And I questioned this, in the name of religion too. I might mention that my father had my brother and I both baptised, just because ... to hurt my mother and my other grandmother, who hated Catholics. And he had me baptised a Catholic by the great Archbishop Mannix, that great character we all know so well about, who's left a great history behind him. Yes, I had salt put on my tongue to take away all the lies I was supposed to have told. I was reincarnated and I was also confirmed as Saint Aidan - Herbert Henry Aidan Dawson. So I was put in an orphanage and I did, sort of, feel quite priestly for a while. I learnt my catechism. I become an altar boy and I said everything in Latin. I knew my catechism quite well. And my Bible History. I thrived on it. But I seemed to get a hiding there too. Because I found that the seat of the pants was somehow connected to the brain in some way - that your punishment come on the seat if you didn't learn. And it wasn't that I didn't know my subject, because Bible History was always the main subject and when you come in in the morning after your homework the night before, the prayers were said and the first thing was Bible History. Let's say, they'd ask one question and they'd start ... and everybody was so terrified they couldn't open their mouths. They'd go, 'Ah'. 'Next, next, next, next'. And me I'm ready. I know the answer and he said, 'Next, next ...' and he was so fast he went past me before I could give the answer. But I had to join all the others and bend over with this longest bit of harness I've ever seen. That took about seven rumps in one whack. So there I was. I'm out of the fat and into the fire. I was starting to get it there. And I thought, In the name of religion! This is when my little brain started to question God. And the Christian Brothers. I was terrified again. I went through another three years of fear. Fear. Getting older all the time, but winning all the time. I always won at arithmetic. They gave a lovely Wesclock pocket watch for the winner. And I won it with my compositions. My writing, arithmetic - head of the class. But I'd still get the beltings. They wanted perfection. They didn't realise that when you're perfected, you're God. So I decided one day I'd be running away from there. And really the opportunity came when Christmas time, boys were taken out by various people in the community, in the parish, for a holiday. And there was one family named Carew [?] - Mr. and Mrs. Carew - who took me to a place called Urac. And I shared this with another boy called Jim Cummings. And we were chosen to go, on this particular morning, on a holiday, [for] three weeks.

And what was that like?

It was the beginning of life. The joy - I shall always remember that. That's one part of my life that is so vibrant and when I think of love I think of Urac and I think of the Carews.

Do you think this was your first encounter with normal family life?

My first encounter ...

... With normal family ... hang on, I'll ask it again. Was this your first encounter with what you might describe as normal, loving family life?

Oh dear, yes. Catholic family. But I'd go for that. [INTERRUPTION]

So your encounter with the Carews was your first experience of really loving family life.

It really was. It was the great joy of my life. It was the beginning of life, as I was to find in later years, that, something to set me off that gave me faith and hope and a lot of charity. And that was spending all these wonderful weeks of my holiday away in the country. Where 100 miles seemed like a lifetime, you know, away. And ...

What was special about it?

It was special about it in one fact that I was free of all discipline, hardship, what was to be expected of me as a boy. And to [be free of] the enclosure. To be put in a thing that had broken glass in the walls, which was told ... I was told that the reason for that was to keep people out, not for us to escape. But when this family said they want to take these two boys, the Brothers were very joyful for me and I remember I had my new shirt, new pants, a lovely blazer with a moniker on the top, St. Vincent de Paul cap and a football. And a ... I couldn't sleep that night. It was all beside my bed and I got up in the morning - woken up at six o'clock in the morning in the dormitory. Hushed downstairs to a hasty breakfast and then down to Spencer Street Railway Station with this big steam train puffing away and I can see the engineer up there with his rag, polishing up his brass and oh, 'That's what I want to be, a train driver. I'll be an engine driver', and then he was shovelling coal in, filling up the thing. 'That's what I want to be'. You see, the mind has no boundaries, you know, when you start thinking of what you'd like to be. Fireman. I wanted to be all that. So I was on the beginning. So I went up and had a talk with the man at the engine. And he said, 'Going up the country?' I said, 'Yes'. He said, 'Oh you're going to enjoy yourself'. I went back and got in the carriage. And that Brother Breslen, he was a lovely man, he was the Brother Superior. And he was such a nice person. He said, 'Now you have a wonderful time. You're with wonderful people. May God be with you and away you go'. And as the train pulled out I waved goodbye. And out went our heads looking out there. And the first thing we cop was the blooming soot out of the train. So for the rest of the hour I looked at all the level crossings that we passed through, and all the washing lines in backyards. And these level crossings where everybody's waiting on bikes and traffic waiting for the train to pass and the bells ringing. Until we're right out of suburbia and right out into the hills and heading out into the country and all the cows and the green grass, the smell of new born hay and sheep. I'd never seen these.

So this was your first encounter with the countryside?

Yes. Only I have moments of thought, days when I'm back as a child there in Warrnambool. Those ... It's just like looking through a glass, you know, at something that was happening, but I didn't know what. I knew it was in the country. It was a big house, but that's about all. But here I was, first time, out into the country. And that's where I learnt to milk cows and I wouldn't mind. I worked for nothing and of course, work was only 'allowed' to do it. They didn't tell you to do it. But you wanted to do everything that they did. This was the man of me, to get out of my childhood and grow up. Because everybody had made such a mess of it and I reckoned that I could be a better manager of myself than anybody else. And I knew one thing, that kids ... That was a place I didn't want to be, in the world of children. But on the train, there it was: clickety-clack, clickety-clack, clickety-clack, that wonderful sound and movement that I'd never had before. But for the first time of my life, I was a freeloader. I was jumping trains all up till then, but not paying my fare. And here it was all paid for me, and I had no fear. The conductor came along to collect my fare and gave me a big wink. 'Where you heading?' I said, 'I'm going to a place called Urac'. 'Oh then, you know Jack Carew'. I said, ;Well I am to meet him. I've never met him'. 'Wonderful man'. So, 'You've heard of the man from Snowy River, you'll talk to Jack Carew'.

So you actually felt hope? You actually felt that there was some hope?

Oh hope, yes. In my mind here I was going away and at ... I was leaving my childhood behind.

How old were you?

I was about twelve. About twelve. But I was really growing up. And a little romance in my life too, now and again. I was looking for my first dance - how I'd get on. I'd never danced in my life with a girl, which I soon found out I would. But I remember, when we arrived there, we arrived at Birregurra. We were transported to another shorter train, and we came into this, oh, this Birregurra - I think it was. It was just a small station that if the train went too fast you'd have left it behind, you know. We got out and there was this man waiting with a sulky and this other horse with his head down in the nosebag. This man smoking a pipe, his hat down over his ears. And he come forward and grabbed our cases and put us in there, and away we went on this eight mile, along the road to Urac, from the station. It was one of these off the main road, down the side track, the table dray and they had this well worn track where the horses' hoofs went and the wheels of the buggy. And all along there, and I start singing all the songs that I'd learnt to sing in the orphanage because they had a wonderful music teacher and a man in charge of the band called Les Hopman. He said, 'You've got a voice'. He said, 'Yes'. I said, 'My father taught me that'. And he said, 'Well I'm going to do something with it'. So he took me up the keys and next thing I was performing little shows around the orphanage, you know, in the South Melbourne Town Hall, raising money.

What songs did you sing?

Little Brown Cottage That Stands On The Moor: 'Little brown cottage that stands on the hill. No. Little brown cottage that stands on the moor, two little windows, and one little door. I'll never forget wherever I roam, little brown cottage, my haven, my home'. I'll never forget that. Mainly all Irish songs. The Sunshine Sailed Away From Killarney and Danny Boy and I became the lead boy soprano in the choir. And there I was: 'Listen, listen, to the sound of fire. Listen, listen, to the sound of fire. Finiculi, finicula, finicula. Finiculi, finicula'. I was the lead boy singer. Soprano. So there I had my first appearances. I was really in show business. My little white shirt and white pants and green sash - very green, like Erin. 'Here oh'. And he's from Scotch descent. Mixed up with all the Irish and Moscum Judes [sic]. But they were wonderful times. They were beautiful times in the orphanage. They really taught me. They taught me well. I owe them a lot. I really do.

Even though they did it at the end of a strap?

Oh yes. But I don't think it hurt me. See, they weren't devastating. My life wasn't threatened, only the seat of my pants. [Laughs]

So you used these songs to entertain your new friends, the Carews?

When I got there, of course, there was a big family. Most Catholics did have big families. And Mrs. Carew - she was in a wheelchair, a lovely woman. And she made me welcome and she had a pet bird, a brolga, a native companion that they'd brought home as a little chick from the plains where the companions used to do their dance. And the bird used to get violently jealous of anybody who went near Mrs. Carew. And because she was so loving with me, the bird used to attack me. And this thing would stalk after me day and day like a jet. And me run for cover. But oh, the cows and the haystacks. Everything was done with a pitchfork. You tossed the hay up from the cart, from the big sheaves and the stooks that they made. After the header had gone through them and cut them and everything was horse driven then. Horses. And then they built this great haystack and I'd be out there, helping to pitch up the hay.

Did you learn to ride here?

Yes. They put me on a little horse called Brownie. I'll never forget it. And I remember El, she was a wonderful ... one of the daughters. She was the one that did all the cooking of the scones and making the pancakes and on those cold, stormy nights and Jack was coming home from the cattle drive, and she'd be reading from her ... She'd have this apron on with flour all over it and the smell of good cooking and she'd be reading with this lamp The Man From Snowy River, How Kitty McRae Saved the Greytown Mail and the Ballad of the Drover, and I was just absolutely steeped in Lawson and Banjo Paterson and I was really ... that was my life. Then I wanted to be on the horse too. So they got Brownie out and he said, 'Let the boy have a ride on Brownie', and she said, 'Oh Jack I think ... be careful of Brownie. He does bolt sometimes, you know'. He said, 'Well he'll only go at a walk'. And Jim Cummings was with me, so he said, 'You and Jim share it'. So one lead the other. And that's what we were doing and we were leading it out.

So with this singing and this Australian folklore and this learning to ride a horse ...

Yes.

... And this first really big episode of happiness in your life, you were actually getting all the ingredients for the character you would create later as Smoky Dawson.

That's right. They become the ingredients, as you say. They were necessary to compile this kind of character called Smoky, because Smoky is made up of many, many things.

But he was not to emerge till later, and in the meantime, Herbie had the problem of the native companion. Did he continue ... Did the brolga continue to stalk you?

He sure did. And I were terrified of the wretched thing. Once again, fear struck me when I got outside the gate. And I couldn't get back quick enough. And the bird spotted me. And I was on my way over to the ... over to the blacksmith's shop, where I was very interested in making horseshoes. And so Jack was over there belting out a horseshoe and this ... putting it in the coals and I'd go and push the bellows up and down. And as I came out the bird spotted me and I ran. Worst thing I could have done. Because he had the power of a jet. He was skimming to the ground with his great big wings flapping and this big red nose stuck out in front of his beak. And I looked round and here was the bird and I just tripped over and he come tearing up the top of me. He started pecking me to death. Oh, look at this great long beak and these big red flamed eyes. Jealousy written in them. And: My God, what am I going to do? My life's threatened again with this wretched thing! Because I was still only a small child, a boy. Still had the bare legs and short pants. And ...

So what did you do?

He gave me a bad time. But anyway I got even with him. I was down the milking shed and I was learning to milk. And they had a very pet cow called Ruby that used to lick my back. And I used to take my shirt off. It was like sandpaper going over your back - this coarse tongue. That Ruby. I had a sort of affinity with this cow, but she gave me a lot of milk. And they always gave me an old cow to milk. It was easier to learn on because they were very full teats. You just had to squeeze them and it'd just run out of them. And so I used to go into the separation room and turn the separator, and the cream would go in one bucket and the skim milk in the other. That'd go to the pigs. And then while I was down there, I'd have gallons and gallons, drinking this skim milk down until I was full to the neck with skim milk. Well the girls had gone up to the house and left me there to clean up and while I was there, I was about to go out the door and I looked and I thought I saw this bird coming. And I shut the door. I looked through the keyhole and there's the darn thing looking at the cow. And it stayed there, wouldn't move. That blooming bird wouldn't move and I was terrified. Every time I opened the door there's this Peter, the companion, trying to get in. So anyway they came down to see what happened to me and rescued me. So they said, 'The thing is, you'll have to stay indoors'. One day I was picking up some wood for old Mrs. Carew. The firewood. And I heard a very familiar tread behind me, a crackle. I look up and here's this great beak looking down ready for the final thrust. 'Oh God'. So I reach out and grab what I thought felt, was his neck, felt like a rubber hose. And I held onto it so tightly that the brolga just fell down in a lifeless heap. And I knew how it felt because I'd had that happen to me once when I was being strangled. And next thing Mrs. Carew was hauling me off. She said, 'My bird, you're killing him'. There he was, nearly out to it. That bird nearly was nearly strangled. But I ... in my reaching out to grab, you couldn't miss it, it was such a long neck. You know, when I came up the following year, for another holiday, we were all met there at the front and out came Mrs. Carew and El with the flour on her apron and the scones - you could smell them a mile away. And there was Peter, instead of coming to the front, hiding behind Mrs. Carew. Every time he saw me, he kept out of my way. And she said, 'He's reformed. You don't have to worry about Peter any more and his jealousies'. So that's about the bird. Yeah.

So the Carews became the place you went on your holidays and you had this growing love of the country and country life. What happened to take you away from the orphanage and the planned career in the railways to become the country ...

Oh yes, I feel bad about that sometimes. I often wonder. We had to go back. Because those weeks passed very quickly and Jack was always such a wonderful shot with a rifle. And he was my hero, Jack Carew. Wonderful man. And they'd go to church on Sundays. One would stay home to milk the cows while the other went. And then we'd go to the dances and then hear the recitation of The Man From Snowy River. Oh that used to pass so quickly and when the day came I'd do everything I could to delay it so we'd miss the train. And we'd get in and he'd say, 'Come on, face up to it. You've got to go back. It'll come again. And we'll save all the rabbit skins up for you that they shot and they're all be put out there to dry and they'll all come up and be pocket money for you when you come back next year'. So with that thought in mind it wasn't so bad. And he'd take us back to Birregurra and we'd wait for the train to come. And as we got there, there was all the usual flood of tears. And Jim Cummings, of course. He wasn't as emotional as I was because he was very down to earth. He didn't care one way or the other. But anyway, we arrived back in Melbourne, the train ... We caught the tram because the Brothers trusted us you see, to come back. And I came back. This was the second year. The first time I went, right back, went into the gates. And this last time, my brother had come down from the country. He had gone many years before when he left my father. He had run away, gone up the bush and made a living for himself and really was great. In a place called Stewarton [?], Victoria, the Kelly country. And he was quite famous there for his breaking records in plough and shearing and whatever. And he came down to see the Principal to see whether he could take me back with him, being responsible, older than me. And they said, 'Oh no, no. We've got it all worked out for him. We've got him ... guaranteed a position on the railways'. So that ... I came back to this and they talked him out of it. They said, 'You can't take him. He's got all this that's going for him. He's going out to tech'. And so when we got near - we caught the cable tram. I said to Jim, 'Jim, I'm going to see my grandmother before I come back here, so I'll see you later'. So he went back. I took the tram out and saw my grandmother [whom] I hadn't seen for all those years. And oh, of course, there was the usual thing of, 'Come in. Oh doesn't he look like Emily' and 'I can see it all over again', and 'No he's more like his father'. Anyhow, they'd try and position you all the different ways of who you look like. But, 'Ooh isn't he lovely and tanned'. And I was standing up very proudly. I was a man, you know. I was thirteen. Thirteen. I was a man. And then grandma was going to get some money. Make a lot of money for gran. And all this. And of course she was looking after Ted and, of course, Ted come out. He was out of work. He was just living there. Everybody was so poor. Anyway, I said to her ... she said, 'Well, when do you have to go back?' I said, 'I don't have to go back 'til tomorrow'. So we were allowed out on weekends. So I stayed. It was glorious renewing the old times and my grandmother. Beautiful woman. She'd gone through a hell of a ...

Well I would have loved to have gone with my brother. I really would have. But I would have preferred to have gone back to the Carews. But you see they couldn't employ anybody. And I was a bit ashamed at the fact that my intention was to go anyway. To know that I ran away. It was going to be a hard thing to face them in later years. But I did think about what the Brothers had done for me. The St. Vincent de Paul Boys' Orphanage had given me character and it had given me a good schooling and although I didn't wait to get my Leaving, I had to go. But I look back on those days as the beginning of Smoky.

[end of tape]

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