Researcher Roger Ley revisits the century old cold case concerning Les Darcy and his disappearance. He answers the questions - What made Australian boxing legend Les Darcy stow away to America two days before the 1916 Conscription plebiscite? What crime led Australian and American newspapers to vilify him mercilessly? Why did three American state governors ban him from boxing?
Speakers: Alex Philp (A), Roger Lee (R)
Location: National Library of Australia
A: - everybody, welcome to this beautiful theatre and to the National Library of Australia on this beautiful Canberra night. My name’s Alex Philp, I’m the Director here of Overseas Collections. As we begin I’d like to acknowledge the traditional custodians of this land, I thank their elders past and present for caring for this land we are now privileged to call home.
I'm absolutely delighted to have you here this evening to hear from researcher, Roger Lee, as he takes us through the controversy surrounding Les Darcy and his decision to leave Australia during the middle of the first world war to pursue his boxing career. I’m also delighted to meet Les' niece, Margaret Darcy, out the front before, Margaret – there you are. Oh and the nephew as well, welcome. And the rest of the family, glad to see you here.
A: Now Les Darcy is probably the most Australian name I’ve ever heard, Les Darcy. Our nation’s sporting heritage as many called Les, among the most famous and notorious. Among my favourites Les Boyd, the hard-tackling rugby league player in the ‘70s and ‘80s, and Les Favell, the cricketer who was the mentor to the Chappell Brothers and taught them how to sledge. I’m known to many as a very, very deep sports lover but I have to admit boxing’s not really my thing, I’m very much way too timid. What I absolutely love about boxing are two things, it’s the photography and the writing. There’s a photo of Les Darcy shaping up to the camera in that well-known style from that era, his eyes are level, perfectly balanced and really threatening. My favourite bit of writing about boxing is Norman Mailer’s piece on the Ali Foreman fight called The Fight. You should look it up, it’s a beautiful piece of writing, brings you right into the ring. But we’re here tonight to talk about Les Darcy, born on 31st of October 1895 and died a hundred years ago today in Memphis, Tennessee, an extraordinary athlete and an idol to many. He was a middleweight but held the Australian heavyweight championship title at the same time. He started in boxing at 15 as an amateur and quickly turned professional. Many people call him Australia’s finest boxer.
Now Roger Lee has dedicated his time and energy to discovering the truth about this Australian legend. I’d now like to invite Roger to the stage to tell us more. Thanks, Roger.
R: Thanks very much. Before I start tonight’s talk I’d like to thank the National Library for allowing me to give this presentation. The NLA and its online resource, Trove, are truly national treasures. The many others on whose expertise I’ve leaned or who have allowed me to use their images will be acknowledged on the screen at the end of my talk but I’d especially like to thank my wife, Alison, my friend and friends for their tolerance over the last six years when I tried, often successfully, to turn every topic of conversation back to Les Darcy. So let’s begin.
It’s almost exactly – well it is exactly a hundred years since Australian boxing legend, Les Darcy, died of septicaemia in Memphis, Tennessee. He was 21 years old. News of his death was reported in papers across the world. Memorial services were held in Memphis and San Francisco where – I’ll just go back to that other slide – where the casket draped in the stars and stripes and Australian flag was taken to the docks in a special white hearse followed by 500 mourners. Crowds paying their respects in Sydney and in Les’ hometown of Maitland were unprecedented. No-one had written of scenes such as these at the death of a sportsman. So what made Les Darcy an Australian legend? Why did he stow away to America? Why was he banned from boxing in the USA? Who was behind the ban and why did they do it?
Tonight’s talk will attempt to answer these questions. As we do so we’ll come across some famous men, heroes, spivs, spies, ratbags, even politicians. See if you can spot the one who shafted Les Darcy.
According to Sport Australia’s Hall of Fame a sporting legend’s record must show high achievement, peer respect, integrity, courage to overcome adversity and unwavering determination. Les had all of them. Les’ achievements compare well with those of Boxing Australia’s other three legends, Johnny Famechon, Lionel Rose and Jeff Fenech. He was clearly the hardest-working with 79 rounds per year. Only Johnny Famechon comes close but because of rule changes the longest bout any of the others fought was 15 rounds whereas 40 of Les' 50 bouts were over 20 rounds and 11 went the full distance. All of Les Darcy’s opponents spoke well of him. A top American middleweight who fought Les four times said you people in this country think you have a good fighter in Darcy, let me tell you he is 10 times better than you think he is. I don’t known the legitimate middleweight in the world he would not beat.
Integrity. Les' integrity shines through his unwavering dedication to his family. He was a devout Catholic but he also learnt from others. People like Bill Ford, the blacksmith to whom he was apprenticed. Years later Les sent Bill a postcard from America which read dear Mr Ford, we are touring all through the country, still don’t drink, smoke or gamble. With best wishes to you and yours, Les Darcy.
From his earliest youth Les Darcy showed great courage and determination. He was the second-eldest of a family of 10 children. His father was a labourer but also an alcoholic. Les' mother did her best to keep all the young mouths fed through selling milk from a small herd of dairy cows but it was a constant battle. Les' elder brother was disabled and from the time Les got his first wages he did everything he could to support his family. But he was determined to box as well. Speaking about those years he said it seems as if I had an instinct for boxing, I used to wrap old shirts, rags, anything I could get hold of ‘round my hands to serve as boxing gloves. Another fellow would do the same and we boys would box. I got some great hidings then but I didn’t care as long as I learnt something about the game.
When he was 15, Les won his first professional fight against a 21-year-old, the start of an outstanding career at a time when boxing was hugely popular in Australia and worldwide. That year there was another challenge to his determination. Les was apprenticed to Bill Ford who didn’t approve of boxing and made sure Les knew work at the forge came first. So Les went to church at 6am, worked at the forge all day then trained each evening six days a week. Father Cody, mentor and friend, said only a strong resolute boy could have persevered in that tough schedule but who was tougher? The punishing routine added great strength and endurance to other physical attributes that naturally suited him to boxing. By the time he turned 18 Les was the best young boxer in the Hunter region with 23 victories in Maitland and Newcastle. And boxing was the best way to help his family. Supported by his prize money his parents were able to rent a small farm on Pitnicree Road in East Maitland. But Les' determination was soon put to the test again.
In 1913, the farm was inundated by catastrophic floods. His family lost everything. Les’ father was a broken man. Realising it was up to him Les resolved to free his family from poverty. He needed bouts in Sydney but he ran into a brick wall named Snowy. Reginald Snowy Baker, Managing Director of Stadiums Ltd, had been Australia’s most versatile athlete, an Olympian in three different sports. Snowy was also a spiv. Known as the great I Am he drove a bright yellow sports car with brass serpents coiled around the mudguards. Described by one observer as the ‘lairiest’ thing you’ve ever seen. Regrettably, no photos have survived.
Snowy wasn’t about to let an unknown 18-year-old from the bush fight at Snowy Baker Stadium but he soon changed his tune. In London in April Snowy met Australia’s new Governor-General, Sir Ronald Monro Ferguson, who expressed interest in seeing young Australian boxers in action so on July the 18th, 1914, young Les Darcy had his first bout at the Sydney Stadium against a wily and experienced American boxer, Fritz Holland, then a contender for the world middleweight championship. It was a sell-out. Extra trains had to be arranged from Newcastle to Sydney. At ringside unannounced was Sir Ronald Monro Ferguson with two aides.
Sir Ronald must have been impressed by Les' smiling entrance to a huge roar from the crowd, particularly as he was draped in an Australian flag and wearing green shorts, a patriotic Irishman. Les lost on points after 20 rounds, a correct decision but the crowd didn’t agree, they rioted, attempted to burn down the stadium and broke every window. A new boxing star was born but events would soon conspire against Les Darcy.
Two weeks later Britain declared war against Germany. As a British dominion, Australia was also at war. Australians responded enthusiastically, eager for the young nation to prove its worth to the empire. Young men could have a paid adventure and see England and Europe. Les and two mates tried to join up but being underage, they needed their parents’ signatures. Les' mother threw his recruitment papers into the fire. He turned his attention back to boxing.
Snowy Baker lost little time in ending Les' indentures and setting him up with a skilful trainer who later commented, so began the hardest year of my life. The combination worked. When their contract ended in November 1915 Les had won the Australian version of the world middleweight championship and defended it successfully five times. He was Australia’s most famous sportsman. Reports of his victories and interviews with boxers he had defeated had also made him famous in America and he had a sweetheart, Winnie O’Sullivan.
So Les had all the attributes of a legend, high achievement, peer respect, integrity, courage and determination but that determination led to tragedy, which brings us to our other questions, what made him stow away to America? And why did Americans ban him? To answer them we’ll need to go back to May the 1st, 1914 when the first list of Australian war casualties was published. From that day on casualty lists appeared in the press every second day and casualty numbers grew. Imagine how it must have felt to those with husbands, sons or friends on Gallipoli or later at the western front. Five hundred today, how many more tomorrow? The war was no longer an adventure. Recruitment numbers fell and attitudes hardened. Able-bodied young men who didn’t join up were labelled slackers. Wowsers called for racetracks and stadiums to be closed. But they couldn’t criticise Les Darcy in June 1915 when he completed two weeks’ compulsory military training in Maitland as an armourer corporal in the 6th Australian Light Horse.
Meanwhile Snowy, aware of the threat to Stadiums Ltd, responded by staging patriotic carnivals, fundraising events and recruitment rallies at the Sydney and Brisbane stadiums but one went badly wrong. On July the 31st, 1915, before Les' world middleweight title defence against Eddie McGorty, New South Wales Premier, William Holman, and Opposite Leader, Charles Wade, dressed in dinner suits, attempted to make recruitment speeches. The crowd responded by booing the politicians and then counting them out, a PR disaster for Stadiums Ltd. The South Australian Premier commented that if he were in Holman’s position he’d close the stadium and give anyone wanting to see a fight a free ticket to Gallipoli. That September the Universal Service League was formed, Holman and Wade spoke at its first meeting. That month Les heard one of his best mates had been killed at the battle of Lone Pine. They’d tried to join up together in 1914. The news made him determined to join up but he’d have to wait until he was 21. Until then he’d concentrate on his other priorities. The house he was building for his family was going well but how to be undisputed world middleweight champion.
The world champion at the time was American, Al McCoy. A year earlier the New York Morning Telegraph sport editor had written, the middleweight champion, Al McCoy, won’t accept challenges. He’s a lemon, a cowardly coyote, a puffball. Around his terrified tippy toes howl the wolves called Eddie McGorty, George Chip, Jeff Smith, Jimmy Clabby, Mike Dillon and a hundred little known middleweights such as Lester Darcy of New Zealand.
By October 1916 Les had knocked out McGorty and Chip, beaten Smith on a foul and Clabby on points twice but the American authorities still wouldn’t accept his claim to the title. If Les wanted to be undisputed world champion he had to go to America. He had plenty of offers including from an American boxing manager who tried everything, even releasing a press statement falsely claiming Les had signed for a tour. Les didn’t want to go then because he was building the house for his family but the story reached other less sympathetic ears. The pressure on Les was building.
In November 1915 the New South Wales Minister for Works was asked in parliament if he had noticed newspaper reports that a boxer named Darcy was about to leave Australia. Did the Minister know his destination and would he make enquiries with a view to inducing those in charge of him to take him to Gallipoli or Flanders where he would have an opportunity of doing something for his country? Five days later the Federal Executive Council introduced a regulation requiring all males over the age of 15 to obtain a passport before leaving Australia. Seeing his name mentioned must have made Les feel uneasy. At the end of 1915 Les moved his family into the house he had built for them in East Maitland. Now they had a home Les could look to America.
In the first week of January 1916 Hugh D McIntosh, also known as Hugh Deal, former boxing promoter, philanthropist and ratbag, offered to arrange a US tour for Les. McIntosh had connections including New South Wales Premier Holman and Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Getting Les a passport shouldn’t be a problem. Les agreed to meet McIntosh later in Sydney. In February Hughes sailed for England where he was feted as a hero. He visited the western front and saw the conditions of the soldiers firsthand. The British command told him that due to lack of reserves they were considering breaking up the Australian divisions. He returned to Australia convinced of the need for conscription.
Meanwhile a near tragedy put even more pressure on Les. In March Margaret Darcy became critically ill, almost dying after an operation in Maitland Hospital. Les returned home only to find his father’s condition worse and his 15-year-old sister and 14-year-old brother too young to care for their five younger siblings and four-month-old baby brother. He was committed to joining up but what would happen to his family if he were killed? He needed to make a lot more money and fast, another reason for going to America. He hired a lawyer to get a passport and offering a bond against his return to Australia.
From March to September 1916 Les' career stalled. He easily beat all the opponents Snowy offered. Although he had trained with Maitland Light Horse and tried to join up twice his fame made him a target. In April came the Easter Uprising in Ireland and reports of the treatment of the Sinn Feiners by the British Government. Sectarianism in Australia intensified. As Australia’s most prominent sportsman who happened also to be an Irish Catholic Les was guilty by association. Articles and letters attacking him and promoting conscription started appearing in the press like this one, will the Commonwealth Government issue this great sportsman a passport to enable him to run away from his obligations?
On August the 15th just before a bout in Brisbane Les announced he was joining up. On hearing the news Margaret Darcy was taken ill and sent him a three-word telegram, are you mad? Still underage Les was forced to publicly withdraw his announcement. That didn’t satisfy Snowy. Upset at the bad publicity for Stadiums Ltd he convinced Les to sign a statement that on completion of his contract in six weeks he wouldn't fight again until he joined up and Stadiums Ltd had a monopoly on boxing in Australia. Stadiums Ltd had effectively conscripted Les Darcy. But on the train back from Brisbane Les met Ted O’Sullivan – no relation to Winnie, by the way – race course tout and boxing manager who was planning to stow away to America before the conscription plebiscite. Would Les liked to tag along? Les may not have believed O’Sullivan but he had nothing to lose by showing interest. O’Sullivan said he’d make enquiries and contact Les again in Sydney. On August the 30th Billy Hughes announced a plebiscite on conscription to be held on October the 28th. At a second meeting early in October Hugh D McIntosh produced a contract for a six-month Vaudeville tour and three bouts in the USA for £5,000. But Les knew he could earn more from a single bout in America. The meeting ended acrimoniously.
On October the 21st O’Sullivan told Les he was leaving on a ship from Newcastle five days later. If Les wanted to go with him he would make the arrangements. Les wanted Mick Hawkins, his first trainer and close friend, to go with them but Mick couldn’t because his father was critically ill. He warned Les not to trust O’Sullivan. Les faced a momentous decision. If he stayed in Australia he’d be in the army in a few weeks with the risk of being killed before ensuring his family’s future. If Reg Delaney and Eric Newton, young, fit warriors just like him had been killed - they were both his sparring partners, by the way – he reckoned his chances at 95%. But in America, win three or four fights and he’d be undisputed world champion. He’d proved he was good enough and those few fights would set his family up for good. Then he would go to Canada or England to join up. He’d done the right thing, applying for a passport and offering a bond but the authorities had refused him. Sure, people would criticise him if he went to the States but once he’d joined up they’d treat him as a hero again. He told O’Sullivan to go ahead.
On the 24th O’Sullivan confirmed that all was ready. The next day Les said goodbye to Winnie and set off for Maitland. His mother and father, Cody, tried to convince him not to go but he was determined. He said not to worry, he’d be back in six months. Margaret made Les promise to send for Mick Hawkins as soon as he could. That night Les and Tim O’Sullivan stowed away to America. His appearance was international news. There were rumours he’d been kidnapped or had had an accident on his way to Melbourne for a return bout with George Chip. Once they knew their goldmine was on his way to America Snowy Baker and Hugh D McIntosh, now owner of The Sunday Times newspaper group were furious. Under this headline McIntosh’s paper demanded that the government investigate the case and seize his property and that the US authorities should refuse him entry as an undesirable immigrant, a disloyal pugilist with a yellow streak. But it didn’t accuse Les of desertion or avoiding conscription. The accusation was avoiding home defence, as you can see there, a ridiculous charge because home defence only applied if Australia was under direct threat of attack. Les’ actual offence against the War Precautions Act was leaving the Commonwealth without a passport.
The bad press continued in Australia. Snowy Baker said Stadiums Ltd had stripped Les of his titles and forgotten him. Winnie O’Sullivan was so upset that her father forbad her from reading the newspapers. Then her friend Lily Malloy, a young actress, was offered a Hollywood role. She invited Winnie to go with her. Her parents refused until Lily’s aunt agreed to go as chaperone. Les had no idea they were coming to America and wouldn’t find out until after they arrived.
In New York Les' arrival was a sensation. He was met by a flotilla of boats crammed with would-be boxing managers led by a tugboat carrying the world’s greatest boxing promoter, Tex Rickard. Tex took Les and O’Sullivan to a hotel where they held a press conference. Les denied he was a slacker and stated his intention to go to Canada or England and join up after four or five bouts. Les wanted to fight straight away but Tex wasn’t ready. There was only one venue big enough for the fight Tex had in mind, Madison Square Garden. It was for sale. Tex intended to buy it and stage a bout there between Les Darcy and French middleweight and war hero, Charles Carpentier, but the negotiations would take time so Tex arranged for Les to go on a vaudeville tour, he could see something of America and would be paid well. Mick Hawkins, who’d had no trouble getting a passport, joined Les after a few months – a few weeks, I’m sorry.
But, the tour drew poor crowds. The press, impatient to see Les fight, started to turn against him. Then in February, Tex cabled to say his bid for Madison Square Garden had failed. And then Les heard that in his absence and without any authority O’Sullivan had been negotiating contracts in his name, even being paid a $5,000 cash advance by Madison Square Garden’s new owner. He left the tour, returned to New York and confronted O’Sullivan who claimed that he’d done Les a favour and demanded 30% of his earnings from the contracts he’d negotiated. Les broke off relations with him and wrote to the papers making it clear that O’Sullivan had never been his manager. Madison Square Garden’s new owner wrote a new contract with Les and he started training for his first bout there scheduled for March the 5th. He’d been right about the money in the US, his share was to be $30,000.
But on March the 2nd, 1917, three days before the bout, Governor Charles Wittman banned Les from boxing in New York state. Although Les made a personal appeal Wittman refused to change his mind so Les and Mick left for Cleveland, Ohio only to be met with a headline in the local papers like On Your Way, Darcy, We Don’t Want Slackers Here. O’Sullivan had been there a few days earlier. The Ohio Governor banned him as well. When Les tried to plead his case he was met by an aide who said when Washington speaks we listen. He and Mick moved on to Memphis but it was looking as though Les would never box in America. And then he had a visit from an irate boxing manager, Billy Hark, who’d received a letter from O’Sullivan threatening him if he dealt with Les. Hark took Les to see the Mayor of Memphis who cabled the Secretary of Defense saying Les would join the airforce reserve if he could have three fights before completing his training. A cable came back the same day giving Les permission to fight. He joined up and overjoyed phoned Winnie to give her the good news.
On April the 24th, Les began training for a bout for May the 7th but three days later he collapsed and after initial – an initial assessment was taken to the Gartley-Ramsay Hospital in Memphis, shown here. A doctor removed his tonsils and a dentist removed his two front teeth but the infection in his tooth had entered his bloodstream. Remember they had no antibiotics in 1917. Les told Mick not to worry Winnie or his mother saying they’d only tell him – they’d only tell them how serious his condition was once he’d recovered but he gradually deteriorated. News of his condition leaked out and was cabled to Australia. The next few weeks must have been terrible for Margaret Darcy, receiving encouraging cables from Mick but reading news reports that Les was on death’s door.
On May the 20th Mick Hawkins cabled Winnie, Les fading fast in Memphis, come at once. Winnie and her chaperone made a three-day dash across America by train arriving on May the 23rd. Les Darcy, Sergeant in the American Airforce Reserve, died in Winnie’s arms on May the 24th.
That’s Les’ story as we know it but these questions have remained unanswered for a hundred years. Other British and Australian boxers were allowed to fight in America, why was Les singled out and banned by three state governors, possibly with federal involvement? Why would they bother banning a foreign boxer? Could the Australian government have played a role? They all lead to my larger question, who shafted Les Darcy?
A search of Chronicling America, the Library of Congress’ online database of American newspapers, shows that on March the 6th, 1917 the Bridgeport Evening Farmer reported Governor Wittman as denying he’d called Les Darcy a slacker but that if he returned to Australia he’d be arrested as a deserter, an opinion reached as the result of a careful enquiry made of an Australian official here. Very strange. As a British dominion Australia had no official representation in America in 1917. But Governor Wittman had no reason to make this up so he must have been telling the truth. The Australian official must have been travelling incognito. He misled the Governor because although Les committed an offence against the War Precautions Act it’s a gross exaggeration to say that he would have been arrested as a deserter so we can begin to build a profile of our shafter.
He was an Australian official who was in New York in February, March 1917, he was very familiar with Les Darcy’s case and he also contacted federal authorities and led them to wrongly conclude Les was a deserter, thereby shafting him. Who could it be?
In an article on Les Darcy in The Sporting Globe in 1931 a journalist called Will Lawless wrote, the man who pulled the strings on this side was said to have been a certain member of parliament who happened to be in America at the time. Harkening to his master’s voice he did the dirty work but as the parliamentarian has been gathered to his fathers long since I need not mention names. Assuming this rumour to be true we can build on our shafter’s profile. Our suspect now becomes an Australian parliamentarian who died before 1931 and did his dirty work on behalf of a master. But how to find him after a hundred years?
In 1917 if a parliamentarian left Australia there would have been some kind of a send-off and sure enough a thorough search of Trove reveals that on December the 21st, 1916 the Lord Mayor of Sydney gave a farewell luncheon with 350 guests to honour the Honourable Charles Gregory Wade, Leader of the New South Wales Opposition who was taking a holiday prior to taking up the post of New South Wales Agent General in London. Could Charles Wade be our shafter?
Wade was an Australian parliamentarian who was travelling incognito in the US. He died in 1922 so we can tick those three boxes. Shipping timetables and other articles tell us that he was in America from January to the end of March 1917 travelling from west to east. According to the Australian Dictionary of Biography he allayed his anxiety at crossing the Atlantic by buying gutta-percha lifesaving suits which he’d tested in the Hudson River. So he was in New York in February, March. Wade was one of the two politicians booed out of the ring before one of Les' titles defences so he certainly knew Les' case thoroughly.
In an interview on his arrival in London on March the 30th, 1917 Charles Wade said he’d met politicians in the USA including Theodore Roosevelt and Secretary of State, Robert Lansing. At this point lawyers in the audience will be thinking Roger, you haven’t proven anything, Wade might have been misquoted, where’s the proof that he met any of these politicians? More to the point show us some evidence that they discussed Les Darcy’s case. Luckily for us there is some proof.
Through this entry in Robert Lansing’s diary of March the 3rd which reads Mr Wade, Australian Government, on his way to London called. So we know he met Lansing. And to prove they discussed Les Darcy’s case ask yourself this question, if I were Robert Lansing and a bloke I’d never met came to me claiming to represent the Australian Government and making accusations against an Australian boxer what would I do? I’d probably want to check out his story. And we can be very confident that he, Lansing, did just that because we have this cable from the US Consul General in Sydney sent to Robert Lansing on March the 5th, 1917. It reads Les Darcy alleged to have left Australia clandestinely American ship before conscription vote. Incident reported Luckenbach Line, New York. Now that – the dates of that, given the difference in dates between Australia and America, mean that that was virtually an immediate response so it’s likely that Lansing’s question was – cable was urgent.
So Wade fits our profile pretty well. And a brief look at his background shows he had plenty of motive. Charles Wade was educated at King’s School, Parramatta and Merton College, Oxford. Regarded as one of the finest wing three-quarters of his day he played rugby for Oxford and represented England eight times. On returning to Australia he became Crown Prosecutor, conducted inquiries into coal mine disasters and later was briefed by coal mine owners in the industrial court. With support from the Loyal Orange Institution and Australia Protestant Defence Association he entered politics, soon being appointed New South Wales Attorney General then Premier. He was so determinedly pro-conscription that in his farewell speech in Sydney he said that he would do his best to satisfy the people of the United Kingdom that the recent referendum did not represent the will of the people. So he was very loyal but I think his loyalty outweighed his mathematics.
It’s not hard to understand why he would have associated Les Darcy with the Irish Catholic miners who booed and counted him out of the ring in 1915. We can safely say I believe that Charles Wade, later Sir Charles, shafted Les Darcy but one question remains. If Charles Wade was acting on – sorry, I skipped a slide there – if Charles Wade was acting on behalf of a master who was it?
In March 1917 Wade, on a holiday to take up a posting as New South Wales Agent General in London, to meet senior American politicians as an Australian Government official he must have had some form of introduction. His immediate boss was New South Wales Premier, William Holman, who wasn’t a member of the Australian Government. Wade’s other possible masters are Prime Minster Billy Hughes or Governor General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson. As Australian Prime Minister Hughes would probably have introduced Wade through the British Consul General in New York but if that were the case an Anglophile like Wade is likely to have mentioned meeting British officials in America. His other possible master is Governor General Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson who had a personal connection to Teddy Roosevelt but who knows?
What we can say with confidence I believe is that Les Darcy was shafted by Charles Wade representing the Australian Government. What harm would it have done for that government to have given Les Darcy a passport and trusted him to keep his word? Many years later in recalling paying his respects to Les at the memorial service in San Francisco the retired American middleweight said, when I saw that unmarked sleeping face, the face of a kind decent young man I thought will you and the Australians ever forgive us? I have never forgotten that face. We shouldn’t forget Les Darcy either. Thank you.
A: Roger, thank you, that was truly fascinating and I love the case of characters you brought to us and showed us on the screen and particularly loved also the newspapers and the letters and so on that no doubt you found on Trove through the National Library. Thanks very much.
A: Look, we’ve got lots of time for some questions and we’ve got a couple of microphones poised at either side ready to jump so put up your hands and let’s have some questions. Thanks. I think first was down here on the left.
Au: Hi, thanks for the talk. Now did Snowy Baker who was young enough and fit enough ever volunteer for world war one?
R: That’s a very good question. Snowy actually had a car accident and injured his back and he tried publicly to – there was a lot of pressure on him to join up and at one of the Stadium bouts he staged a recruitment – within the ring and so people came up to be checked medically and a spotlight went onto Snowy Baker and he came up onto the stage and was declared medically unfit. Two of his brothers did join up but Snowy didn’t and later on after Les Darcy had died he and McIntosh were treated like lepers, people would cross the road to avoid them and anyway he – Snowy then – the stadium closed and Snowy had to pursue a different career and the career he pursued was as a movie star and there are movies – actually you can still see them in the Film and Sound Archive on their website and he was - in those movies he performed stunts like Jacky Chan and that was during the war. So does that – I think that answers the question.
Au: Roger, Dennis Blight.
R: Hi Dennis.
Au: I’m interested in the language used at the time and what research you did to estab – ‘cause I know you’ve written some stuff in dialogue as I understand it as – or a screen play and I'm interested to learn what approach you took in imagining the words they were using. You used the words, slacker, ‘lairiest’ and ratbag. Now I don’t know whether they’re your words ‘cause I think I’ve probably heard you say them before referring to me but – or were they words –
R: I think I did, actually.
Au: Yeah. Were they words which were in common usage during Darcy’s lifetime?
R: Well it’s a difficult question. I think some of them were, certainly the word slacker – that appeared in the newspapers and that was what Wittman accused him of or was said to have accused him of. So slacker, yes. Ratbag, I think I got that from reading about Hugh D McIntosh in a book by Keith Dunstan which was entitled Ratbags and he was one of the main ratbags. ‘Lairiest’, that is a quote so yes, I think they were words from that era. But it was such a different era, I mean you know when you think that there was - phones had only just become commonplace, cars had only just become commonplace by the time Les Darcy died, there was no radio, there were no television obviously or internet so very different time and the language I’m sure was very different too.
Au: Thank you, absolutely fascinating. You mentioned letters of recommendation which were fairly common from government officials here in Australia for people travelling overseas all the way up into the 1970s. You haven’t mentioned, and I don’t know whether your points of enquiry have ever touched on, records that may have actually said where those letters of recommendation could possibly have come from, either here or possibly even within his own records.
R: Sorry, I didn’t quite understand the question.
Au: Okay, letters of recommendation, you mentioned three people that could have provided letters of recommendation as far as the contacts back in the United States were concerned?
R: Oh I'm sorry, yes, yes, yes, yeah, introductions, yes.
Au: Yeah, yeah, sorry, introduction. Just wondering did – you must have made enquiries on that, where those enquiries had gone and how you were able to pursue them both here or in the United States?
R: Okay so – well there is no record of any meeting or any letters like that in Governor Wittman’s archive, I actually got someone, a student in New York to go and check it out and he couldn’t find anything. Also I contacted the Roosevelt Centre to see if there was any reference to Teddy Roosevelt and again there was nothing. The only one happened – the Lansing one, I contacted the – well I - actually I should – sorry, thank you, you’ve reminded me of something – okay so there are the acknowledgments and it was the Office of the Historian, US Department of State that provided the record in Lansing’s diary and also sent me the copy of the cable from Australia to Lansing so that’s how I found that one. But no, not that I know of.
Munro Ferguson’s contact or link to Roosevelt is quite an odd one and I found that through a letter that was in his archive here. There’s a handwritten letter to Munro Ferguson to Teddy Roosevelt and it refers to Bob, someone called Bob who travelled ‘round with Teddy Roosevelt and it turns out that Bob is Robert Munro Ferguson who was Ronald Munro Ferguson’s brother and they were both Scottish, aristocrats, I guess, and Munro Ferguson pursued a political career in Britain and Robert went to America and became one of Roosevelt’s rough riders and a - quite a close friend of Teddy Roosevelt’s. So there was a link there and there are other letters and so forth. Munro Ferguson then got on well with McIntosh. Anyway I could go on but I hope that answers the question.
Au: Roger, I was wondering why you went down this journey, what wanted you to solve this issue?
R: Okay well it – I had a – back in the ‘70s I did a Graduate Diploma in Film and Television Production and I pursued a completely different career but as I was about to retire my family tried to encourage me to go back to that so they paid for me to do an intensive scriptwriting course. And then – I did that and I was looking ‘round for a topic and my wife has a book group and once a year they invite the husbands and they do what they call a man book and it happened to be on Les Darcy and at the end of that session one of them said gee, this’d make a great topic for a film so I decided to write a film script. And I have written one and I got a professional assessment from the Australian Writers’ Guild, it was about six pages and my wife will disagree with this but it came back I believe without a single positive comment. So I’ve got some work to do on the script but that’s really how it came about.
Au: I’ve got – first of all thanks for the talk, it was terrific, really interesting – I’ve got first of all a comment and then a simple question. The comment really was in fact by coincidence this morning I was reading a debate in England in 1912 led by The Times opposing Jack Johnson, the American black fighter, fighting an Englishman anywhere in England and for me it just was resonant of just how big the political context is for Les Darcy and for boxing and perhaps we don’t really appreciate just how economically valuable boxing was as a sporting commodity in the very early 20th century. Boxing films alone were a huge turnover and of course boxing fights, in particular between Americans and Australians. My question is what became of Les Darcy’s – was she his fiancé or sweetheart and what became of her and what’s her story?
R: Okay well the first one I could actually show you a little segment. You raised the issue of Jack Johnson. Hugh D McIntosh, the chap I mentioned, the ratbag, had a very interesting career but he was the man who built the stadium, the Sydney stadium and the way he did it was that at the – in 1908, I think it was, Roosevelt sent – Teddy Roosevelt sent the American fleet painted white around the world on a friendship tour and basically the idea was to – it was a friendship tour but it was also to establish America’s growing military power. And it was coming to Sydney and Hugh D McIntosh was a caterer and he found out that the flight – the fleet was coming to Sydney so he hired every entertainment venue in Sydney or booked them for the week they were going to be there. And then he thought that it would be good to hold a boxing match ‘cause the sailors would be interested.
So he went to Rushcutters Bay where there was a market garden and he said to the chap who he looked – it was an old – he dressed up in an old suit and he looked through the wire at this guard and the owner came up to him and he said oh look, I’m trying to – I’m interested in a two-man entertainment for these visiting sailors and I’d like to rent this property. So he ended up renting the property for a – basically a pittance for five years and then three weeks later the trucks moved in and he built the stadium. And he set up a boxing match, was between Bill Squires and Tommy Burns and as it turned out only two sailors turned up because Squires had been beaten by Burns several times and they thought – the sailors all thought it was – the fight was going to be fixed so the only two who turned up were drunk and they volunteered to fight anyone in the stadium.
But anyway what happened was 15,000 - I think it was -Australians turned up so McIntosh discovered that he had a market. The next thing he did was to set up a fight between Tommy Burns and Jack Johnson. Tommy Burns was a Canadian, a fairly little guy and Johnson was six foot six and just a ball of muscle and you can actually see that fight on YouTube and it’s quite amazing but McIntosh promoted it on racist grounds. That fight couldn’t have happened in America because they had a white champion and a black champion and they wouldn’t – because of their racial issue they wouldn’t fight.
So the – Johnson had been chasing Burns all around the world, buying a ticket, going to ringside and then challenging him for the ringside and Burns always turned him down. But McIntosh said to Burns how much would you be willing to – or if I set up a fight with Johnson how much money would you want? And Burns nominated £6,000 which was a ridiculous amount of money and McIntosh said okay and so he staged this fight and that put Sydney centre stage in boxing in the world for that time and it made it hugely popular in Australia as well if – it was already popular anyway.
So that’s essentially McIntosh’s story and it’s the story of how you know the racism – if you read – for example this is – I hope I’m not going to offend anyone by saying this but it was a quote from Tommy Burns’ manager who said – when he was asked who was going to win he said Jack Johnson will have – is a coon, he’d have a – like all coons he’s got a yellow streak, his’ll be a mile wide and Tommy’ll win easily. In actual fact what happened was Tom’s – Johnson absolutely flattened Burns, in fact he was ridiculing him during the rounds and holding him out like this and talking to the crowd and then in the – I’ve forgotten which round it was, he just went – just knocked him out.
And then, before the bout Johnson discovered how much Burns was getting and asked for more money. And, Hugh D McIntosh didn’t like people you know welching on deals so he went and got a .38 revolver from his desk, pointed it at Johnson and said if you’re not in that ring in one minute, you dirty coon, I’ll blow your brains all over the floor. Now that’s the kind of language that was used in those days and the attitudes of the people and those words occur in the newspapers and so forth, it’s really amazing to read it. Anyway that’s that question answered.
The other one was about Winnie O’Sullivan. She later on married and she had a son who became a priest and that son has donated some of the – some of Les Darcy’s – I think a bracelet or couple of things that Les Darcy gave to her to the National Library – National Museum so you can see them there. Sorry, I went on a bit there. Hope that’s alright.
A: Alright, I think we’ve got time for one more.
Au: One more? Paul Arnold, Roger, I’m up here. I was interested; you talked about Snowy Baker’s role as the owner of Stadiums Ltd. I was under the impression that even though he may have been running it, that John Wren who you probably have touched upon at various other times was involved heavily with Stadiums Ltd. Now there is some thought, some conjecture that Wren had a big bearing on whatever Snowy Baker did. Now is there anything that you touched upon in your research that may have indicated that John Wren had something to do with the whole thing?
R: It’s an interesting question, I – the stadium as I said was originally set up and built by Hugh D McIntosh but he then after a while lost interest in that, he went and took over the Tivoli Theatre circuit and he sold the Sydney Stadium to Stadiums Ltd which was set up by John Wren, Snowy Baker, Harold Baker, Snowy’s brother and there has been a suggestion that McIntosh still did – and I think he probably did – had some kind of financial interest in it. So it’s true that John Wren was – I think he was one of the direct – or the shareholders in probably the main one, in Stadiums Ltd but I haven’t read anywhere that he had an influence over Les Darcy other than two incidents. One when Les Darcy fought in Melbourne at the Melbourne Stadium and John Wren was obviously - was based in Melbourne and so they would have met and McIntosh also met Darcy in Melbourne, I believe. But the other one was when there was a suggestion that one of the fights might have been rigged and Snowy Baker contacted John Wren about that and John Wren said if that’s the case, if you go and talk to both the boxers and if there’s any suggestion tell them that if there’s any suggestion that this fight is rigged all bets are off. So that’s about the only connection that I know with John Wren. There may have been others but – and he may have been one of the businessmen together with McIntosh who wanted to organise that tour of America for Les but I don’t know.
A: Alright, thanks. Thanks, Roger, very much. Look, to me you’re a natural and gifted storyteller so please do have another go at that script. Can’t help but be successful.
A: Look, before I let you go tonight my friends in the events team will get cranky with me if I don’t mention the beautiful exhibition upstairs, Melodrama in Meiji Japan, it just opened today so please go and have a look, it’s both very beautiful and the stories behind the pictures are really fascinating so please do check that out. Also I will plug the National Library’s book published a couple of years ago called Boxing in Australia which is a terrific book, I’ve given it to two of my relatives and they both loved it so do come and purchase that from the bookshop but please join me in thanking again Roger Lee.
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