I apologise for the shortage of new blog posts in the last six to seven weeks. However, don’t blame me, blame Billy Hughes.
This year I somewhat over-enthusiastically committed myself to preparing two new talks within a month. One of these was on the topic of “The Little Digger; The impact of William Morris Hughes (Australian Prime Minister) on the Great War and its Aftermath”. It was a lot more fun to do than the title suggests, but it has taken up a considerable amount of time in the last few weeks .
I first came across Billy Hughes when reading some of my Grandfather’s letters written while he was serving in the British Army during the Great War. On the 4th May 1918 he wrote to my grandmother: “I note Bill Hughes has been wounded and is at Bristol. Do you know if his father will come from Australia this year? Last Sunday our padre opened his sermon with a reference to one of Mr Hughes’ speeches in London – I well remember the speech – it was the one he made at the Queen’s Hall in June 1916”.
At that time, I hadn’t a clue who Bill Hughes or his father were. However, ‘Mr Hughes’ sounded a rather newsworthy person and I decided to Google the words “Hughes, Australia” though I expected little success. Instead, I found gold straight away. My search highlighted a Wikipedia article on ‘Billy Hughes’ the Prime Minister of Australia, between 1915 and 1923. That led me to the website of the National Library of Australia which holds his archive, and that contained some correspondence from a ‘George Payne’. Knowing that my great-grandfather was called George Payne, I sent for copies of the letters, which gave me all the proof I needed as they had been written from my great-grandfather’s home address. Billy Hughes and George Payne had, for some serendipitous reason, been the best of friends. I was now hooked: wanting to find out how the two men might have become friends, how Hughes had become Prime Minister of Australia and what part he played in Australia’s considerable contribution to the First World War. That is the basis of my new talk.
Billy Hughes emerged during my research as a character who, when you start reading about him, you simply can’t put him down. Born in London in 1862 to Welsh parents he spent some of his early years in Llandudno before returning to the Westminster area of London when he was about 12 years old. There he attended St Stephen’s School near Rochester Row, and it is at that school that he must have first met my great grandfather, George Payne, whose father ran a Cutler’s business in that street. The two boys remained lifelong friends, with George Payne and his wife Louisa, helping to pay Billy Hughes’ fare when he decided in 1884 to emigrate to Australia on an assisted passage. Struggling to make ends meet, Billy Hughes was employed for several years in a number of seasonal and labouring jobs in the bush and towns of Queensland, before arriving in Sydney as a galley hand on a coastal steamer.
After settling in Sydney he became involved in socialist politics in New South Wales, becoming an elected Member of the NSW State assembly in 1894, and a Member of the House of Representatives (MHR) of the first Australian Federal Parliament in 1901. In October 1915 he became Prime Minister of Australia at a critical time during the First World War. As a great patriot and supporter of the British Empire he remained Prime Minister until 1923, and continued as a MHR until his death in 1952. However, he remains one of the most historically controversial of Australian politicians for his pragmatic style of politics and, in particular, the decisions he took in 1916 which led to a major split in the parliamentary Labor Party. It seems that even to this day, he is regarded as a ‘Rat’ by Labor for his actions then.
I may be biased for familial reasons, but it seems to me that Billy Hughes was a wartime Prime Minister of great physical and intellectual courage. He is also a source of some of the most wonderful anecdotes: my favorite anecdote being when he was in the role of enfant terrible as a member of the British Empire Delegation to the Peace Conference in 1919, and was striving to secure German New Guinea as a mandated territory of Australia, in a bid to help improve the security of Australia’s northern seaboard. His dialogue with the US President Woodrow Wilson ( the two men did not get on) is believed to have taken the following format, with David Lloyd George attempting to referee the confrontation:
Wilson:“Do I understand that Australia in the face of the wishes of the world would insist upon having her own way?” Hughes: “That’s about the size of it, Mr. President.”
Wilson continued: “Do you think 5 million Australians should hold to ransom the 1,200 million represented by the Conference”. Hughes: “I speak for sixty thousand (war) dead. For how many do you speak?” which as everyone knew was more than Wilson did. Trying to defuse the situation, Lloyd George only sent it further into the depths of farce, asking:
“Would you allow missionaries free access to New Guinea?” Hughes responded: “Of course, I understand these poor people are very short of food, and for some time past they have not had enough missionaries.” Little wonder perhaps that Wilson described Hughes as a “pestiferous varmint”.
My family, however, will remember Billy Hughes for the lifelong friendship he maintained with his old boyhood friend George Payne and George’s wife Louisa. Apart from the letters from George Payne to Billy Hughes in the National Library of Australia archive, there appear to be only two complete surviving letters written byBilly Hughes to the Payne family (my thanks to my second cousin Mariya Ward for access to these)
The first of these letters was written shortly after Hughes had become Prime Minister. The fact that it was written on Christmas Day 1915, just as the Gallipoli campaign was ending, perhaps highlights the strength of the friendship. The second letter was written in 1934 to Dorothy Brauer [nee Payne; George and Louisa’s daughter] following the death of Louisa Payne.
“25th December 1915
My dear George and Lou
I hope that all is well with you on this day. Peace which the hurt and wickedness of man has changed into a life and death struggle. The sun shines here in all its glory and it is indeed a typical Australian summer’s day. Here all seems peaceful and the blasts of war as far removed as Heaven from Hell. But they are just posting up the 39th casualty list and that is enough and more than enough to remind all Australians that all is not Peace.
I’ve not seen Fred [Fred Payne, George Payne’s younger brother who emigrated to Australia in 1883] for years, yet he works in the same street as I do; Such is life! I’m going to try and dig him out during the next few days. All being well I shall probably be in London early in March and of course will see you. Mrs Hughes and the baby will come with me (DV).
With best wishes from all here to you all.
W. M. Hughes”
“14 December 1934
Dear Mrs Brauer
Your letter conveying the sad news of your mother’s death has just reached me and I am very sorry. I know what a blow this must be to you: for she was a lovable woman and the kindest and best of mothers. I can hardly bring myself to think of her as dead! I recall her as she was when I first met her years and years ago: the very incarnation of womanhood on the threshold of maturity. I treasured her friendship and that of your dear father as one of my most precious possessions; and through the long years of absence my thoughts turned again and again to them as I had known them when they and I were young and care-free. My dear Dorothy believe me, I deeply sympathise with your sorrow, and am yours most sincerely
W M Hughes
P.S. You must write me from time to time and if in trouble don’t forget to let me know.”
So, if you are interested in hearing my talk on Billy Hughes, I shall be presenting it at 7.30 pm on Tuesday 7th May 2013, at the North Lancs Branch meeting of the Western Front Association at the Kings Own Royal Regiment Museum, Lancaster, UK. On the other hand, I could be persuaded to deliver it again at a venue near you with suitable enticement, including travel expenses, particularly if you live outside the UK! See the ‘Talks‘ page on my website for further details.
If you’re interested in finding out more about Billy Hughes, I would recommend the following books;
“William Hughes, Australia” by Carl Bridge (2011) published by Haus Histories in the “Makers of the Modern World” series. An excellent modern evaluation of Hughes’s political contribution. Concentrates on Hughes’s role in the 1919 Peace Conference
“Billy Hughes” by Aneurin Hughes (2005) published by John Wiley, Australia. A short biography, strong on anecdotes and Hughes’s family relationships .
“That Fiery Particle” (1964) and “The Little Digger” (1979) by L F Fitzhardinge, published by Angus and Robertson, Australia. A two-volume, and very comprehensive, political biography.
“The Billy Book” (1918) by David Low. Gloriously funny and razor-sharp satirical cartoons. Available as a free-download at http://archive.org/details/billybookhughesa00lowdrich
I shall leave you with a few of my favorite quotations about, and by, Billy Hughes.
Said about Hughes:
“…arguably, the most formidable, most amusing, most Australian of our prime ministers.” [Jill Kitson]
“I didn’t agree with his politics but I’ll not hear a word against him.” [An old ‘Digger’]
“I’ll never work for [him] again. I’d rather go to bed with a sabre-toothed tiger. As cold as sea-ice, vain as a peacock, cruel as a butcher bird, sly as a weasel and mean as cat shit” [a former secretary]
Said by Hughes:
“They might go to the dogs and bet on ponies but they had enough sense to keep me in Parliament” [about the Australian electorate]
“They say I eat my secretaries. It’s a lie. I’m on a strict medical diet.”
“Better to have fewer cleverer men and more ordinary ones. You’d get more done.”