Australian Biography

Tom Uren - full interview transcript

Tape of 14

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What kind of a household were you born into, Tom?

Well, a happy one, but poor ...

What did your father do?

My father was out of work in those days, he was just a labourer and he was out of work in the early '20s, in the late '20s, and 'course in those days umm, we lived in Balmain. I was born in a house in 40 Pashley Street, Balmain. And I can remember my mother talking, even as a very young boy, about the poorness of our house because we used to have to pawn. The old landlord, who was a pillar of the church, used to come round and ask, 'Mrs Uren, is there anything else you could pawn to pay for the rent?' And I might tell you that all we had left in the bedroom was the normal bed and butter boxes each side and, so, it was very very grim conditions. I might say that that in those days, you know, there were no unemployment benefits or anything at all like that, I mean, if you really wanted to get welfare, you had to go before the 'nice' people of the community, to see whether or not you were worthy of welfare. And those things always stayed with me. Because my mother had told me about it. But normally my mother worked with my Aunty Mary as a barmaid, between having children, because you see in those days the society wouldn't accept a pregnant woman behind the bar, and that's why at the most needing period of our lives was the most difficult because my mother couldn't go out to work, my father being out of work. My father was a person who … he made, he was a handyman, you know, making yachts and making small things, he was very very clever with his hands but he just couldn't get … people don't realise how difficult it was in the '20s and '30s in this country for employment, not only the '30s but even the '20s.

What was your father's actual qualification?

My father was a jockey, the only profession he had. He was a jockey.

A little man!

Well he was, even though he was round about five-foot-eight, but tall and thin, and ultimately he had to give up riding because he was too heavy and he was always wasting to try and get his weight down. But, yes, and my mother wasn't a tall woman either, but I think I draw my height from my mother's people, because the Millers -- that's my mother's maiden name -- they were tall people and that's where I think I got my tallness from.

Where had the family come from originally?

Well, we were a mixture. The Uren name is a Cornish name. It comes from Penzance in Cornwall but my grandmother, my father's mother, was part-Jewess and her mother was a Jewess and her father was a Wellard, an Englishman. On my mother's side, they were both Scottish. The McCouats and the Millers.

And so in this household there in Balmain, there was a father who was unemployed, a mother who was trying to work to keep the family together, quite a lot of poverty and how many children?

Well there were three children. The eldest brother -- it was an unusual thing that happened to my brother, the first-born, and I think because of that I received a great deal of the love of really being the first-born. I was the middle one. Jack was two years older than me and Les was two years younger. But when my mother and father met in Newcastle, Jack was born in Newcastle. My grandmother who was quite, in many ways, a remarkable woman because she'd helped during the flu epidemics and all those things, she went out and nursed and she did wonderful things, but it was thought that she was going to die of cancer. And she was given six months to live. And she more or less asked my mother could my brother Jack stay with her. And of course it broke my mother's heart, but she conceded to that request. Well my brother Jack was 14 years of age before my grandmother died, and that's when he came back to live with us. But we always would go there on school holidays and things like that. But my mother gave the warmth and love and affection to me really as a first-born.

So you were very special to her?

Yeah, and she was special to me too [laughs].

What was the relationship like? Could you describe it?

It was always a warm one.

Do you feel emotional now just thinking about it?

Yeah, yeah. No, it was a great relationship. Yeah, great relationship. I would kiss her by the ear and, you know, flirt with her right up into her early 70s. She died at 71. But we had a wonderful relationship and ummm she was a very loving woman, very giving, very warm, and in a way I think I draw a lot of that warmth from her and …

So, she …

My old mate [Jim] Cairns reckons that every child needs a great deal of love for the first five years of their life and where he didn't get much affection and love I certainly got all and he always used to say to me, 'Uren, you're the most natural guy, person, I've ever met.' He always says that because I think it was that enormous amount of love that my mother had given to me as a young person.

And do you feel that's always given you a sense of emotional security about who you are and where you are?

Well, I don't, one doesn't know, but you know I think that people do say that I've always had a kind of inner strength and inner security and I've always had that. I've been inadequate in so many ways, but ummm certainly I've always felt good about that and I've always felt that my mother has given me that strength and that tenacity and that drive and that warmth and affection and love in my life.

Was she ambitious for you?

Yes she was ... Oh, only from the point of view of 'Tommy, you've got to go and go back to school and get a better education because I left school at 13 to get a job and to help the family,' in that way, but I would go to night school and she would always be driving that, you know, 'Tom, you've got to try and better yourself, you've got to keep on and better yourself, improve yourself.' [laughs]

But she also accepted you.

Oh yes, very much so. She thought the Army made me a little coarse, but what mothers don't?

What about your father?

My father. I think I got much closer to my father through my wife Patricia, my first wife, 'cause he had a dry sense of humour and Patricia had that, that warm sense of humour as well. But I always remember my father long before I even, you know, became older and was courting Patricia, but even in my fight days, I was about 19 years of age and I was fighting, I remember, fought in the stadium, like I bid for the Australian heavyweight title, and I really was not fit enough, I'd only had flu a few days before and I shouldn't have fought, but it was the courage, my father said to me how proud he was of me …

And you always remember that, that he …

Always.

Yes. Yes. Yes. But when you were younger and growing and a little boy, you had a lot more to do with your mother than with your father?

Yeah, I think the influence on my personality was my mother, although I'll never forget my father's death. And I thought my father was the most courageous person I've ever seen in death. Because I've seen so much death in my life. And some people die as heroes and others die as cowards. I mean even in civil life as well as prison life. But my father died as a hero. [breathes deeply]

So there was a lot of warmth, a lot of emotion, and even though your father was a little bit remote there was warmth between you and your father too.

Yes, yes, ummm … I mean Dad's a bloke who's really, you know, he was a battler but a person who really had a great deal of ability within himself, he made boats, and, not only model boats, but big boats would go out on the sea and everything, he had enormous ability, and he never really was able to, because of the economics and conditions, achieve anything of any real note in the business world. But in my childhood period, there were times when dad worked at Tooths Brewery in the early '30s and I would have been just about 10 at the time, maybe nine or 10, and Dad would come home with a few drinks, then I my mother would kind of nag at him or probably go cross about it and I've never seen my father hit my mother but, you know, they can kind of get aggressive back and I've always kind of got in front of my mother, between my mother and father, but as I've grown older I also know the understanding of a working-class worker, the pressures on him, and the conditions, so I meant I have had some understanding, greater understanding, of my father as I've grown older.

Do you think observing his frustrations as a man at that time and seeing what it was like to live through those very difficult Depression days left a mark on you?

No, no, I don't think it did in any way. No, I think the only mark on me, the imprint really that still remains today, is the social injustice to my mother -- that here was a woman that had to raise a family and couldn't get the right of welfare without going before the 'nice' people to plead for some economic justice. That left an enormous imprint on my life. But I don't feel any other imprint in any way. I always admired my father's personal skills with his hands, to create things. And my old Dad … I always remember after the war when I came back and my Dad was by this time, they had to move. Not a lot of people realise again that at the war there was a lot of unemployment, right up till 1939, and my Dad had to go down to Wollongong to work at the Port Kembla steelworks for they were starting to gear up there and a great deal of employment, and that's where Dad worked through all the war years. And of course when I came back from the war and came home, my Mum and Dad were living in Wollongong and I went down there and stayed with them. But on the whole I kept my headquarters in Sydney and I stayed with, first of all, a friend called Babe Daniel's parents and later with my Aunty Mary at Five Dock. But Dad was on a 17-week strike -- it was an enormous big strike in the steelworks after the end of the Second World War -- and it was then there was Left leadership and the Communist Party leadership was leading the unions and they were having a really stand-up struggle against BHP, which was then the powerful union, and my dad was a part of the 17-week strike. Well, of course, my third pay and all that paid for the family in that period, but I always remember Dad at the end of that strike saying, 'We beat the bastards!' [laughs] Well, so much so [there was] the question of two men and they, the Arbitration Court, said that they had to re-employ them and they stayed I think a week and then moved on to another job. It was really where the union movement -- particularly the Left union movement, the leadership, a lot of Communists there, Ernie Thornton and others in the ironworkers -- overstepped themselves, over-stretched themselves and in fact I think they paid for it in the years to come because they were removed from the leadership …

… By putting the men through a lot for not much result?

But my Dad, I mean long strikes I can always recall. I always recall when I was writing, reminding the pilot strikers (that long strike of the pilots during the Hawke era) they should look at some of their history, should look at the AWU strike at Mt Isa, and anywhere, whenever there's been a long strike. Generally the workers replace their leaders, it's a most unusual case where they don't. There are rare occasions when they don't, but on the whole [with] long strikes the workers are the ones who suffer most [INTERRUPTION].

Going … [INTERRUPTION]

… But what I was trying to get to was that point about my father saying 'we beat the bastards'. [laughs] I'll never forget it. It was a good education for me.

You were born in Balmain. Where did you grow up?

Well, for the first five years we lived in Balmain and from there we moved of course to Harbord where, in those days, a lot of Balmain people used to go down there and [it] used to be a kind of a weekender area and it was a very working-class period at that time, Harbord, lot of weatherboard cottages there, and my father used to work for a landlord by the name of Nixon and we used to repair the houses and so I lived in Moore Road, Harbord, nearly opposite, not quite opposite, where the Harbord Beach Hotel is now.

What was that like for a kid growing up in the Manly district?

Oh, just a wonderful life. I mean, I went to swim, I would go swimming before school and after school. I never wore shoes. When I went to primary school we went barefooted to school. And in fact the first time I wore shoes is when I had to go into Manly into intermediate high school. But I just hated wearing shoes and I didn't realise there was also, probably, economics were also involved, but I didn't realise that. But I can remember walking from where we are, we're in Moore Street, up to where Harbord Public School is now on Harbord Road, that most of the country between there (we'd cut across the blocks) was tea-tree country and a lot of Australian flora was available in those days. It was just a wonderful spot. Even in those days I can always remember sometimes my mother would make a hot dinner and she would come up and meet me as a kid and we'd have our lunch together. It [was] just wonderful.

So it was a very happy childhood in that way. How did you spend your time? Were you serious about your schoolwork? Did you do well at school?

Not particularly. I wasn't, I wasn't great at school. I was good at things like history and geography and maths fascinated me, always fascinated me, figures always told me a story right from the word go as a kid, but the English and grammar I was always frightful. I always remember, there was a Miss Rolfe in our class in Harbord and she told me, she said, she would get me to stand up and read a certain passage and I'd drop every 'h' in the thing and she'd kind of belittle me and I'd go scarlet from tip toe, I was always an extremely sensitive person and always [laughs] I can still feel it now, it, it's a strange thing, but that always, it never left me.

You were humiliated through speaking in public, for the way you spoke in public, and then you became a politician and had to speak in public all the time.

No, you know, the thing that -- I wouldn't say humiliated -- embarrassed me, I prefer to use the word embarrassed, but all my political life I hated reading speeches and if I'd read a speech, particularly in my parliamentary life, particularly when I was a minister (would never read a speech if I wasn't a minister) [I'd] make an off-the-cuff speech, cos I was much more relaxed and I could talk to people with my eyes and my hands and my heart. But if I had to read the speech, particularly if I wasn't comfortable with my audience, I'd be really uptight. An' it's never left me, I hated, I hate, reading speeches.

And that all started with Miss Rolfe?

Well, Miss Rolfe is still with me, if I [laughs] can remind you. She never left me. But what I do love, and I want to say this, what I do love about communicating is I prefer, when I'm talking to an audience, particularly anything up to 150 people -- I live off them, I draw on them and they bounce back and I get their warmth or the look of their eyes or attitudes or you know when you're going well because you can hear a pin drop. But if you're not doing too well you can hear a few just ruffles around the audience. So I love communicating with people, and talking with people; I love it more than ever I loved, liked, talking in parliament, never did like talking in parliament. On very rare occasions, a few rare exceptions, but ...

So, when you were a kid what did you love doing and what were you good at?

Well, I loved football and I loved cricket and I loved to swim and ultimately I probably was one of the best junior surfers, you know, and swimmers in the district. You know I think I won [as a] 12-year-old the Manly-Warringah District swimming championship in those days, and of course then went on to become a young surfie, and was junior surf champion freshwater from '36 to '39, and I was a part of the R & R team, so that I played football with Manly-Warringah present club side -- in those days we didn't have a first-class side. North Sydney was the first-grade side, and I played district football, first of all football at school and then later of course representing the district as a President Cup side; that's under-21. And I did that three years from '38, '39 and '40.

So, as a Depression kid, I imagine you would have been a little bit affected by thoughts of security for the future. What were you imagining you might do to make your way in the world?

Well, I think underneath it all, growing up, you know, as a youngster, I didn't really think too much about the future, I mean, I was enjoying life and really it didn't seem to worry us too much. But ummm as a teenager, the more I became engrossed in sport, I started work when I was 13 and I had worked for a firm called Allaledjian & Company, they were an Armenian group, and there was a chap by the name of Chaldjian, who was my boss, and he was a man of, an Armenian, a person of outstanding character.

What did the firm do?

They imported furs and skins from overseas that they would sell to both the furriers, the fur-trade, or also to the … in those days what they called the mantle trade, which was the frocks and coats and what have you to put the fur-trimmings on. And that we would do. But it was his great strength of character that I admired greatly and he had an enormous influence on me, because of his strong character. He was as straight as a gun-barrel. And where the other Australian person who worked with us I found was a devious person who would blame everybody else but himself. But not my boss, Chaldjian, he had this great strong, strength of character, which talked directly at people. And he had magnificent brown eyes. I can just see those shining brown eyes now [chuckles], they just stayed with me. But anyway, that was a job that I had and I enjoyed it but the more I went on, the more sport kind of took over. First of all I'd swim in the surf carnivals, every Saturday, and all during the summer time and win quite an amount of money in those days: 30 shillings was the first prize and I was one of the best junior surf champions, although Bob Newbiggen was the best and the next best was a bloke by the name of Jammy Jenkins and I think I would have been third in the list although in the surfing game if you catch a wave you can beat your mate, but I was one of the best surfers at that time, so therefore I used to get a certain income, small, only prize money, and that that was of some help to me personally because my people were still not over, you know they were still, battling during the '30s. I think the question of sport though [helped] cos I carried the name Tom Uren and in my own way I could -- I wasn't what you would call a bully kind of bloke, I never did -- but I could fight a little bit and kinda defend myself, even though, even as a youngster, I had a mate who was a bit better than I was, a bloke with the name of Georgie Scott, who turned out a great cricketer in Manly. But I went on and when I joined the Army and of course went on and got tuition at Jack Dunleavy's, and I wanted to become a great fighter, and that was the ambition and aspiration.

And this took over?

Yes.

In your teenage years you decided you'd really like to be a professional boxer. Was there really any other sport that you could regard as a profession?

Well, in those days it was the sport where you really lifted yourself out of the norm, and made some money if you really made it. If you were a really good fighter you really made a lot of money. And money wasn't the question, money wasn't the question, but it was the question of fame, if I can use the terminology. And so I went, that's the only profession that I've ever learnt scientifically in my life.

So you say that it was because you bore the name Tommy Uren. Who was Tommy Uren?

Well, Tommy Uren of course was one of the greatest fighters of our history. I mean, not as great as [Les] Darcy, but he was in a category very special. And he was the lightweight, welterweight and middleweight champion of Australia and he was a great fighter and he fought from about 1918, during the First World War, right through well past the 1930s, so he fought a long while, probably too long. But he was a great fighter, and a very skilled fighter.

Was he any relation?

My dad and he met when my father was riding as a jockey and they both discovered their parents came from Penzance and they discovered that they were cousins. Now, how far back their cousinship goes I don't know but they, my Dad, always said that Tommy and he were cousins and [in] Penzance the name Uren is quite a common name; we're a clan really.

What did your parents think, both of them, of your boxing ambitions?

Well, I think my mother was never happy about that, but my father was as proud as punch but I really did enjoy fighting and not from the point of view of brutality, but from the point of view of scientific boxing, and I learnt the scientific boxing, and I boxed in a scientific way, and the people I admired in those days -- there was an American, a great American fighter by the name of Archie Moore, who came out here and I saw him box, and he later became light-heavyweight champion of the world, and I admired him greatly, and I admired people like Billy Cohn, who was an American light-heavyweight champion of the world ...

What class did you box in?

Oh well, ultimately I was a heavyweight. I couldn't get down to the light-heavyweight. But I fought at about 13.3. Now 12.6, 12-stone-6, was the weight for the light-heavyweight, but I fought always at 13.3. But I admired people like Joe Louis too but anyway it was a sport which I saw as a skill, not the brutality of it.

Were you conscious at all of the damage it does to people in the long-term to fight like that?

Well of course, you only have to go into a gymnasium to see the damage that it did do and that people's brains were affected, so I always had that well in my mind, yes.

But it didn't deter you?

No, not deter me at all, no.

Was it because you didn't think that that would happen to you because you'd be too good, or why did you not put the two things together?

Well, I thought that I would make it to the top and I always thought that I had the ability and the skills to reach the top and that I had enough common-sense to know that when I had to get out I would get out. There were also other inspirations. People like Gene Tunney, who in fact really made it to the top and got out without any real scars at all. So I mean, there were other examples of people, where in fact you could really make it. On the other hand there were others that sadly drink and other things, see it wasn't drugs in those days, it was drink and women and the fight games which in fact ruined them in the long term. And though I didn't drink, I didn't smoke and I lived, you know, I watched myself generally. I mean, actually women weren't a great attraction to me in the early part of my life, I mean I wasn't a womaniser at all.

So when young boys normally start getting terribly interested in girls, you were off training in the gym?

Yes. I lived, dreamed and fought everything, worked through that fight game, and sport, it was the whole of my life. And I put everything that I had into it.

No stirrings towards the girls at all?

I had an attraction on one person, but it was never deep, no, not before the war, no.

How old were you when the war broke out?

I was 18 years of age. And in fact I'd applied for the Army, to join the permanent Army, in May of 1939. I got the call up. The war broke out in September and I got the call up in October, so I was in the Army from October 1939.

What had made you decide to want to join the permanent Army in the main?

Well, young people are adventurous, you know, it wasn't really the patriotism that made me, it was just more or less adventure, change in lifestyle and as I told you I saw myself as being a boxer. I s'pose again it's that kind of sensitivity that I had, the feelings about it, that even the question of Darcy, the story of Darcy, that Darcy had been branded [a] slacker and …

… Because of not wanting to go to the First World War?

Not serving in the First World War and of course although I saw myself as a returned soldier, I didn't really see myself as a patriotic warrior when I joined up.

Of course the Army also was a place where they had boxing as part of the agenda, didn't they?

Yes. Well, but that was really only a part of the sport, but I actually weren't paid for my lessons with Dunleavy, and every moment I had spare I would [go from] North Head, I would go and train at Jack Dunleavy's gym, which was down nearly on the corner of -- it was in a building upstairs near the corner of Liverpool Street and George Street, Sydney, opposite where the theatres are now.

What did he think of you?

Oh well, Jack was really good and he in fact thought a lot of me because I had some early success. He said to me one day, 'Tom, you know you should make sure that you don't get a big head with the publicity you're getting.' And I said, 'Oh gee Jack, I won't do that, I'll just work all the harder.' And of course that's what I did.

So when war broke out and in October you were in it, what happened?

No, war broke out in September, and I joined and I was put up at North Head. And I was at North Head from October 1939 until about the middle of 1941, when I got transferred across to the AIF [Australian Imperial Forces]. It was very hard to get out of the permanent Army into the AIF, but, because they decided that there were two coastal batteries, two guns from the old six-inch mark-elevens off the old Sydney had been put over at Timor, they decided they wanted an artillery unit to man that, those things. And of course, planning went on for months and months before the actual thing happened. But so about mid-1941 I was transferred from the permanent Army across to the AIF and I was there at North Head down at the quarantine station until we got transferred to Darwin. And I will never forget, they took us onto a railway siding at Alexandria; in those days they put us into cattle trucks and what have you [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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