|Interviewer: Robin Hughes
Recorded: January 15, 1996
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.
You're back in Australia courting your wife. What was happening to your boxing ambitions?
Well, first of all I started to train, and go to Jack Dunleavy's gymnasium and do my training and keeping fit, but I kept breaking down in health. And in doing so I went back to what was called the Repat Department then, now Veterans' Affairs, and they put me onto Dr Alan McGuinness, the doctor, and he looked after me and he was a wonderful person. And he suggested to me that I should have at least a year off and that's what I did; in that year I just did nothing. I just courted my girl. And just tried to get fit. And then when we got married I travelled down to Wollongong and that's what happened. In the early days you couldn't get a house, it wasn't possible, but my wife's people had this holiday home at Lake Illawarra South and of course that's where I went down and the first four months of our marriage we spent it there. And I worked at the Port Kembla steelworks, I was a builder's labourer on that job and then I started to train at home. And eventually, when I felt I was fit enough, after the year, I thought I would give it another go and I discussed it with my wife and it was decided that I should go over to England because there weren't many fights in Australia, it was very difficult to get fights as a heavyweight. So, after dialogue with Patricia, I went down and talked to one of the shipping captains and he agreed that he would take me on as a supernumerary, which would pay me, I think you get a shilling a month, but you live with the officers on the ship and so I signed up that way. But the night that we left Newcastle, and that's where I joined the ship even though I'd signed the documents at Port Kembla, they were they were at sea, they were what they call a 'fireman-trimmer' short and they couldn't get one from the Seamen's Union. They said, 'Do you, would you be prepared to do it?' Paid 19 pounds sterling a month and at two shillings an hour overtime, and would I like to do the job? And I agreed that I would do it. In fact it was [the] most foolish mistake I ever made, because it was the intensive heat, working in front of those fires, that brought the malaria bout out on me again. And that I worked particularly hard and I only trimmed, in other words cleared the ashes away, for the first trip from here to Suva. We went to Suva and then to Lavuka in Fiji and into Samoa and then across the Pacific through the Panama Canal. Just after we'd left Suva, one of the firemen got a backlash from the fire and was burnt and therefore I had to take his place and we would do six hours on and six hours off. Now you would think that that sounds pretty good, but it's living under primitive conditions, in fact they were frightful conditions, you had to shower or bath in a bucket of water and because I no longer lived with the officers I moved aft with the men and it was very hard laborious work. In fact it was a 7000-ton tramp steamer, you had to keep your pressure up at 120 pounds, and it seemed to me that in rough storms you would go one pace forward [laughs], two paces back. It was hard, tough, laborious work for the two-and-a-half months it took us to go from Sydney through the Panama Canal eventually landing on the Clyde at Greenock. And anyway ...
And did you go straight to a gym?
Yeah. From there I didn't worry about -- even though my people came from Scotland -- looking at Scotland, I really made a headway for the railway station and I caught this train straight down to London. And of course in London, I'd contacted an old friend -- a chap by the name of Slim Elliott, who was in the East Surreys, was a prisoner of war, and I'd met him in Java, and we'd made a pact that if we hadn't heard from one another for three months after the war then we would write to their parents, and I wrote to Slim's parents just after three months, and Slim was torpedoed off, just off, Nagasaki and never got home. And next to the Department of the Army I was the only person that ever contacted them. About Slim. And of course we kept on corresponding and when I went to England in '47 I took a big luggage, big tin it was, about two-foot-six high and about the same across and that depth, or height, and it was full of food, tinned hams and what have you, 'cause food was so difficult in England, and all I did was, I just took it there and I said, 'That's yours.' [chuckles] Of course they insisted that I should live with them but the wonderful thing about the Cockneys, they lived near Tower Bridge road and Old Kent Road and New Kent Road, just near the Bricklayer's Arms there, just on the other side near the Thames there. And they were real working class and they [chuckles] immediately started sharing it with all their friends within their flat. But the primitive conditions that I lived, they lived under, you could see what the pre-Second World War families had to live under. You know, there were two rooms, I suppose the room was about 12 feet or say three metres, a little bit over three metres by three metres square, the bedroom, and the kitchen, where there was a pull-down bed where I slept was about the same size, and there was a fuel stove and outside, there was no running water inside, but outside there was a little narrow verandah about the same, a little bit over three metres long and about 90 centimetres wide, on one end was the toilet, and on the other was this cold running water. And that's how Slim and his sister had been reared in this family; of course his sister had married and she wasn't living there any more, so the old couple asked me would I stay with them, and I did for several weeks. I stayed with them. But I never ever saw the old feller. He was a chap who used to work on renovations and he'd come home, very dirty job, and I never saw him wash from his waist down, but he would just strip off to his waist, with the furnace with this hot water, and would wash himself each night when he came home. It was an insight, it was a real insight into the London working class. So that was a good education for me. But later I moved from there over to an old friend of mine I was a prisoner of war with, who was a publican in North Islington, and I stayed with him the remainder of the time I was in London.
And what was happening with your fight ambitions?
Well, as soon as I arrived, I went down to Jack Solomon's gym and interviewed Jack Solomon and Jack Solomon must have been impressed with me, and consequently started to allow me to use his gym and I trained there daily, almost morning and night, and met many great fighters, particularly Freddy Mills, who was then light-heavyweight champion of Britain, but later to become light-heavyweight champion of the world. I certainly sparred with him a great deal and Johnny Murphy, who was later also became heavyweight champion, or light-heavyweight champion of Britain too. We were mates together and we trained together. So I trained there and of course a fight was set up for me. There were two major arenas: the major arena of course for the major fight were Harringay and the other one was Royal Albert Hall. Anyway, my first fight was at Harringay and that was the time that -- I was fairly fit by this time, I thought I was, and the chap in my corner said to me, 'Go out and murder the bum.' and of course the chap in my corner, said to me, he said, 'Go out and murder the bum.' And, you know, without using any brains at all I went out to show him how good I was. I ran into one. Well I never ever … I kept getting up off the canvas and [chuckles] in the end they stopped the fight, so I lost on a TKO. I must have got up a half-a-dozen times off the canvas. I just couldn't, so the tragedy of all this ambition, of wanting to be a great fighter, and thinking about fighting and planning a future, I'll never forget as long as I live, of lying on that cold bench in that dressing room alone, with just a blanket over me, cooling down, and the thoughts that had gone through and had relived many of the years that I'd spent in prison camp and my aspirations and everything; I thought my world had crumbled around me. So it was a defeat really. If you take defeat in the right way it can be really character-building in a person, because I feel that when I've been defeated, physically and been sick on both occasions, I found it a humbling experience and if you get too cocksure with yourself it's a kind of a self-examination. And so it was, I had to try to build from there on.
On other occasions when you've been defeated you've got up to fight another day. On this occasion you really decided to quit the fight game?
Oh no, no, no. No, I continued in the fight game and I had several fights. One was at Oxford Town Hall, and I stopped the feller in, I think, the second or third round and I had several other fights and I was quite successful on that, so it looked like I was going to be a great success in England, and then I fought a chap at Caledonian Road Baths, and I was leading by a long way on points -- he hit, it wasn't deliberate, it was accidental, he hit with his head, he hit my eye and it split wide open and of course the referee stopped the fight. The bleeding was so, so bad that they then took me to St Bartholomew's Hospital and they put the clips in it, and overnight the clips, they weren't going to stitch it, it was just clipping, but overnight the clips just fell out, they got pushed out, so they had to go back and they stitched it and I had made up my mind there and then -- well, within days -- that I certainly wasn't strong enough. You see, in the fight game, you have to first of all like being in the sport. And I did, I wanted to be a fighter. But I got to a position where I couldn't get strong, because I was taking drugs all the time, I was taking a drug called Paludrine to try and suppress the malaria that was re-occurring on me and so I just couldn't get fit and I couldn't get strong. It was a very, very cold winter in London, I was lovesick for my wife but I'd made up my mind I was going to give the game away. And of course when I made the decision I told Solomons that I was going home and I'd decided not to fight at all. Then, how was I to get home? I had enough money by the way, by this time, to buy a ticket back, but you had to wait six months or a year to get a passage back from England. So I went down to the company that took me over, the Bank Line, and it seems one of the top executives must have seen me in a fight and so he must have known that I'd gone over on one of his boats so he said, 'Oh well, I'll arrange that,' so they [chuckles] arranged for me to go on a boat, which was a motor ship going back and I went back as a 'donkey greaserman' -- that was the terminology -- and I got paid much more money on this job than I did on the other, I just sat under a ventilator. But before, while I was waiting for this boat to come to Liverpool where I had to pick it up, [at] Solomons I just kept fit in the gym and I was moving so well that Solomons kept on saying, 'Look Tom, you've got to fight, gotta stay and fight,' and I said, 'No Jack, I've made up my mind.' So I was firm about that, that I'd made up my mind, that I just wasn't strong enough to get back and to reach the top, and I just decided I was going to give it away and I did. It was a hard decision but it was a firm decision. And even when I came back, even though I kept fit, I never ever considered going back, although in my dreams I was fighting again. I would dream that I was in the ring again. I would wake up but I was firm on my decision that I would not make it again, but the difficulty was when I came home, [getting] housing in Australia. I mean Patricia and I, where could we live? There was nowhere to live. And she'd looked and looked and looked, whilst knowing that I was coming home and she couldn't get a place. So anyway, we found a place in Five Dock where we could share conveniences and room, and we got a bedroom there and we lived there for say a year or two whilst we both went to work and saved up our money and started to build a house.
And what did you go to work as?
Well, again the difficulty was beginning to get employment. Um, it wasn't easy. I mean there were plenty of work, and I could have got any jobs as salesmen and other things, I wasn't interested in that. An old mate of mine, Tiny Kane who'd been a prisoner of war with me, was working at Goodyear Tyre & Rubber Company on what they call the making tyres, the treadmill, which is very heavy laborious work. So Tony got me a start there and it's a job which again taught me something about, you know what the working class goes through, the hard laborious work, and I worked shiftwork and you get the lamp black and a hole, even the threat of losing your hand in a mill itself, I mean I've felt my glove going in before I pulled the safety cord, and so I've seen the danger, even again the question of carrying, knowing how to work, heavy loads. There is an art and a skill in hard laborious work and your comrades would teach you how to do it the tough and hard way. And I was able to work those skills. And so I worked there for well over a year, looking for good jobs all the time and it wasn't easy to get a start because again I had very little formal education ...
What did you think you wanted to do?
I didn't know. I certainly got an interest in the union movement. It was a Right-wing union, the Rubber Workers' Union, and I started to talk to workers about conditions and different things like that, so there must have been some spark of feeling in there about ...
Was that the start of your interest in the union movement, or had you been involved with it at all in Port Kembla before you went away?
No no, I had had certain characteristics about what I thought was rights and wrongs because, whilst I was working as a builder's labourer at the Port Kembla steelworks on the steel-wright mill there, there were a lot of people that were at work had come there, that really were drifters, if I can use the term, and in fact many of them would put in that they've got several children and so, in other words they wouldn't stay very long, and they were trying to beat the Taxation Department. So there were villains within the workforce, not all angels, but we were getting paid very high wages at this steel-wright mill, it was a cost-plus job, concrete constructions actually, [but] they were a very, very harsh company during the Depression. In the Depression years, Concrete Construction would bring a person on the job and they'd pay 'em two bob an hour and they might work a bloke you know -- in other words, the bull ring, they'd pull 'em off, off the hill on a bull ring, and they'd work them for a couple of hours, fast, and then say, 'Well you're finished,' and bring other people in. So they had a very bad reputation during the Depression years in the construction industry. But on this job they were cost-plus with BHP so there wasn't any real pressure on us. But there was a lot of destabilisation because every day or every other day you'd have a stop-work meeting. And they'd stop, wouldn't matter what dispute was on, they'd stop work and have discussions. So on this occasion ...
This was a policy of destabilisation?
Yeah, it was a policy, I mean they were basically blokes with no real responsibility because they were drifters, not all of them, but when they might only need a half-a-dozen, and if they are of a kind of super-militant attitude, then you'd be surprised how much guidance they could get anyway. In this case there was a stop-work meeting one day and I got up and moved an amendment saying that I thought we shouldn't stop work, that what we should do, if there's a dispute, let the steering committee or the shop committee deal with it, and if they feel it's necessary to call us out, well we can come out then. So a big bloke by the name of Jack Harkness started making agitation at me, and making remarks to me, so when it was all over, I just went down to him and said, 'What, you got a chip on your shoulder mate?' And 'No,' he said, 'I'm not, but you're a mug.' I said, 'Well, look, you knock the chip off your shoulder or name the time and place.' He said, 'Well the time's alright, the place is okay.' I said, 'Alright, well just wait till everything clears away and the workers go back.' It didn't look like anybody was going to go back, so about three or four hundred blokes [laughs] round on the hills. I'd been training at home and I was in fairly good nick and you always know when you shape up to a fighter whether or not you got his measure or not, so anyway, Jack tried to get in at me and I just pick him off with my left hand he'd walk right into it you see and I just kept walking around him with my left hand, just poking him in the left all the time [laughs]. Jack's head would jump back and ultimately I could see him, his mates after a while said, 'Jack's a bit exhausted, this is the end of round one.' I said, 'No rounds in this, mate.' So I just crossed him with one right hand cut him under the eye, you see. And there's this big split under the eye, which he had to get stitches in. And so I felt sorry for him, picked him up, and the funny sequel to it is that, you see, Jack's got a bit of a sense of humour. My father works in this steelworks and he's in the casualty room this day that Jack Harkness walks in. And they said, 'What's wrong with you Jack?' And he said, 'Oh, some bloody bloke out there. Young Tom Uren, I pick him. I hit him and he smiles at me and he hits me and it's just like a pack of bricks falling on me.' [laughs] So he's got a terrific sense of humour. So my Dad's listening to all this, of course, he's as proud as punch that old Jack's saying this. And for years later he'd always say to my father, 'How's young Tom going?' Tom. They were great friends. And of course when Jack stayed off for about three or four days after this incident and when he came back to work there was a stop work meeting again and I moved that the steering, that the shop committee, look after it and Jack Harkness got up and he said, 'I second that motion' [laughs] so that was in good humour, and that was the Builders Labourers Union of which I was a member of in those days. Though that was my period in Port Kembla.
And now, Tom, you keep telling us that violence never settles anything?
Well, I agree completely that violence is not a solution to personal problems. Again I probably shouldn't have, I mean, one grows in oneself, but I don't believe that personal violence, in the family relationship or in a communal relationship, is a solution to problems, nor do I think it's a military solution in the world. I think political solution, dialogue, is the most important thing. So [laughs] I have grown, I have learnt a little in my lifetime.
Now, but this was your first introduction to the union movement?
And then later you got more interested when you were working in making tyres. So what was your interest at that stage?
Well, by this time I was starting to think politically ...
And had that just happened, this starting to think politically?
No, no look, even with my father's 17-week strike you might recall that I thought that they'd over-stretched themselves, the union movement at that time, I just thought that to take workers out for 17 weeks there's something basically wrong with the leadership. So I had even that evaluation, even on those things, and the position of laborious work and even the labour. I talked with the union when I got off the ship for instance, I talked to the union delegates there and told how bloody awful I thought the working conditions of British seamen were. And so I had a feeling there about justice, wherever I come into contact, that was always an educational process in a way, in my living process, because life has been my teacher, it's been my educator. Life and people. So I was growing and understanding those conditions even when I was in prison camp. You see, in prison camp, the working class people, particularly the English, loathe the Welsh. They loathe the Welsh because what happened was the Welsh, during the Depression, the '30s, they would come across, they were forced because the mines were closed, they'd come across, and they'd under-bid and under-cut the Londoners, and there was conflict between the Londoners and the Welsh, and an old bloke once said to me, 'Tommy you can never judge a Welshman until you've eaten a bag of flour with him.' And from that terminology I grew that you never know a person until you've eaten a bag of rice with them. Because when you start off eating that bag of rice with some of your fellow comrades or prisoners of war they look pretty good on the top but by the time they got down to the bottom they weren't too healthy at all. On the other hand, some people who didn't have the best of reputations, for instance some of them [who] were with us were part of Weary Dunlop's group off what they called the Empire Star. The Empire Star was the last ship out of Singapore and it was reputed that those people, soldiers, that got on there deserted and forced women and children off to put for themselves. Now a lot of it was just rumour. But when they came to Java they had to make up their mind whether or not they wanted to stay there and fight the Japanese or be sent back for court-martial in Australia. The overwhelming majority stayed in Java and fought. Now I found later that many, particularly some of the young, only really needed leadership and they turned out remarkable people. On the other hand there were some villains there that were villains when they started and they finished up being villains. There was a transport company there, that were rather oldish people. You know when I say 'oldish' they were up in their 40s and that was quite mature [laughs] in those days. And as they came down from Wampo right down, all the Chinese and merchants would put their wealth and belongings into the safe, and lock their safes, and of course run off. But our blokes, these second-force MT people, they used to blow the safes [laughs] as they came down. And they, in prison camp, they had watches and they had jewels and everything else and they would swap them and barter on them and some of the wealthy POWs, they even gave them IOUs, you know till after the war. I mean, there was some villains in prison. Every one of our blokes was not an angel, don't get me wrong at all, but so there was good and there was bad, and I always say that you can't judge a bloke until you've eaten a bag of rice with him. And I got this from this old experience of learning from the British working class about the exploitation that they, of the competition that they, had with the Welsh.
So, your growing awareness and evaluation of what was going on around you came from practical experience rather than any kind of theory?
Oh no, most of my life is -- I mean books have been a great asset to me as well, but most of my life I've been drawing on, and I've been a sponge, from experience of life and world and other people. But ...
So here you were, working in very basic sort of work, not sure of your direction but beginning to understand more of what was going on in the world around you. What was your next move?
Well, I kept on applying, looking in the Sydney Morning Herald every Saturday morning and applying for jobs. And I wasn't making much progress. I could get sales jobs but I wasn't interested in that at all, but I applied for a job as a trainee executive with Woolworths. And there were about 500-odd applicants at the time I applied and there was only a handful taken. Now in my case they didn't make a decision about me. There was a chap name of Bill Nash. He was the state manager of Woolworths and he said to me, 'Look, I've got to go across to New Zealand. I'll be back soon. I want to have another look at your case.' And of course I thought it was just a con job, you see. And I said, 'Oh thanks very much, Mr Nash.' So I thought that was the end of that. When he got back from New Zealand he called me in. And he said, 'Look, if I put you on this trainee executive course, you're not gonna really like it because most of these blokes have either done university degrees or are doing them or have done part university degrees. Your background, you'll find that's the competitive thing that you won't find, but in the end the course I'm going to put you on, you'll all finish up in the same thing. I'll put you onto a trainee floorman's course.' So I said, 'Okay.' So they started me as this trainee floorman. And of course I went through the early stages of learning to wash windows and sweep the floors and do all those things, and I never forget it was the 1949 strike just about the time I started, I was [laughs] cleaning the windows out at Rockdale, one of my mates, 'Oh Christ Tom, are things that tough?' I said, 'Oh, just a trainee, I'm just getting a start on, but I'll be alright.' So anyway, after about three months training they sent me to Kings cross. And the other day I went up to John Hargreaves' funeral, the funeral service at the Catholic Church in Roslyn Street, Kings cross, and when I got off the train I walked across and for sentimentality I walked into the old Woolworths store there. It's a variety now, but it's owned by, and it was, Woolworths. And of course it brought back so many happy memories. In fact I didn't realise it but Brian White, that great radio announcer, he reminded me many, many years later that I was the one that put him on as a casual at Kings Cross as a student; he worked behind the counter there as a casual. Anyway, it was a kind of a sentimental feeling before I went down to John Hargreaves' farewell.
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