Welcome aboard the Australian Dreadnought Boys blog.
Here you will find out about the hundreds of British teenagers who voluntarily migrated to Australia between 1911 and 1939, under the Dreadnought Scheme.
First to farm training and then to work on rural properties, in NSW.
For most boys, it was a tough and lonely start yet, many of the 7,500 young migrants went on to have rich and varied careers in their new home - contributing greatly to the growth of modern Australia.
John Eric Frith was born to Henry and his wife Kate in London, in
1906. John’s father was employed as the Bootmaker-Shopkeeper in Kings Road, Chelsea.
In the 1880s the Frith family had been well known suppliers of footwear to the
gentry of London. John’s father became ill and died in 1909. The family had, by
then, moved to 359 Kennington Road Lambeth.
John’s school years were not
good years for him. He was at boarding school, a savage place with brutal
masters. ‘The food was Dickensian before
the war but it was double-Dickensian when the War was on....’ Sport and art
were of most interest to John in those years, but art had a distinct downside. ‘I got belted more than the average kid at
school because I could draw the masters. I really got whacked, and I was not
encouraged at all for my drawing ability……..….
Other than his mention of
being a jackaroo, little was known about John Frith’s first visit to Australia until
recently. In the difficult years after World War 1, John spent a lot of time
with his grandparents at Wrotham in Kent. Encouraged by his grandfather, John
developed an interest in farming and applied to travel to NSW under the
Dreadnought Youth Migration Scheme. He was accepted and boarded the new SSMoreton
Bay, just back from its maiden voyage. John, aged 15, was one of a
group of 40 Dreadnought boys. After six weeks at sea, he reached Sydney on 22 May 1922. Along with four other boys
from the group, John was sent to the Cowra Apprentice Farm run by the NSW
Department of Agriculture.
The farm training at Cowra
covered horse work, ploughing, milking and fencing and other farm tasks, under the
direction of the farm foreman, a man of tough discipline. In September 1922,
having completed his three months training, John was employed at Mr Jack
Scott’s dairy farm at Warwick NSW (near Cowra on the Lachlan River). He was the
first of four English Boys to have
worked at the Scott farm.
John Frith - Dreadnought Boy
Jack Scott - The Boss
All Dreadnought Boys were
required to write home to the UK once they had been placed in work, so we can
only guess what John said in his letters. It’s also uncertain as to how much
John’s mother knew or approved of his travel to Australia, but on 23 April 1923
when the SS Hobsons Bay docked in
Sydney – Kate Frith was here to take her son home!
Back in London, John began
work with Sale and Company, one of the six private banks behind the Bank of
England. He had been there nearly four years, when he was sent to Yokohama in
Japan. John turned 21 on the voyage between Vancouver and Yokohama. Evidently,
his drawing of the firm’s chief in London had led to the preference for him to
be given this plum job overseas. For the next two years based in Japan, John
did much the same as he had been doing in London. He did have some time in
Korea, which was annexed to Japan at the time. However, even with the firm’s range
of agencies (for example, Rolls Royce) and the freedom his motorbike provided,
the job soon became boring. It was time to move on.
In late 1929, John was aboard
ship on his way back to England from Japan when he arrived in Sydney. He
disembarked for a day, and, he decided the ship could go without him. John
Frith was back in Australia. But the Depression was now biting hard and, for
the next three years especially, life was tough. John Frith had some money when
he arrived, but fell victim to a confidence man. ‘I was literally left with threepence in a foreign country.’
Soon, art was to intervene
again! John’s snapshot sketch of Premier Bavin in Martin Place was accepted by
the Bulletin. He was paid for the
sketch, but also given a job. John took the opportunity to develop his art, to
combine his skill as caricaturist with the calligraphic techniques he had
discovered in Japan, to teach himself a full range of creative techniques, so
that he could then call himself an artist. After two years, John Frith became
the Deputy Art Editor of the Bulletin.
On 30 June 1932 the new
P&O liner, RMS Corfu, reached
Sydney – Kate Frith was here again! This time for the marriage of John to
Dorothy Mae Horseley.
John had fourteen most
interesting years at the Bulletin, working
with Norman Lindsay and Ted Scorfield, as the three permanent artists, in a
relaxed club-like atmosphere. John Frith was always grateful for the
encouragement and help he received from his colleagues at the Bulletin.
In late 1944, John joined the Sydney Morning Herald as its first
cartoonist. It was not long before he made impact, especially with his cartoons
of Arthur Calwell, who became federal Minister for Immigration in July 1945. John
was at the SMH for five years,
finishing in February 1950, when he was recruited to the Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne. As part of the negotiations,
John was able to secure a good house in Kew which he subsequently purchased. He
remained at the HWT as cartoonist
until he retired in 1969. By the time he left Sydney for Melbourne, John had
modelled and cast in bronze, some 150 heads of distinguished Australians.
When he retired in 1969, John
Frith went to Europe, first to England - where one cold winter was enough, and
then to Algeciras in Spain. While in London, a five thousand years old piece of
terracotta in the British Museum ignited his interest in the material. Back in
Australia, John began making hundreds of pieces. Some were made for Bendigo
Pottery and included a range of toby jugs of famous Australians. He also made a
range of Reform flasks. These were based on the Prime Ministers of Australia.
A family man, John drew for children
as well as for adults. Retirement provided time for more pottery, caricatures and
cartoons, and picture stories for the grandchildren. Eventually, John Frith
moved into Moorfields Community Aged Care, in their Broadmead Hostel in
Hawthorn Vic. John was still able to draw two hundred cartoons on the big
whiteboard at Broadmead. In time, aging took its toll and his eyesight failed. John
Frith died on 21 September 2000, aged 94.
In July 2001, the Museum of
Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, launched the
exhibition, A Brush With Politics: The
Life and Work of John Frith. This popular retrospective showed works
spanning his long career; with wide appeal it ran for months longer than first
planned. It was then developed into a Visions
of Australia travelling exhibition, which toured interstate. A Brush With Politics was a fitting way
to celebrate John Frith’s life.
We are indebted to the Frith
family for their generous provision of material for this story and for their
permission to use the photographs and drawings provided.