Tasmanian Axeman

Writing in 1926, a journalist  (The Daily News, Perth) reflected on  the sport of wood chopping in the years before WWI. He appeared to have been pretty impressed by competitors from the island state.

In Tasmania, in the underhand events, the axemen invariably were barefooted, and they marked the line of the cut with the big toe. If they had been a fraction of an inch out in their swing it would have been a case of ‘goodbye toe’. The axemen down there, by the way, wrapped their blades in silk handkerchiefs. And to test whether they were properly sharpened, they shaved the hair off their arms as with a razor. At that time, Jack Calder was the champion.

Calder, from Cygnet,  had the perfect physique.  He stood at 6′ 2″  and weighed  in at 15 stone.

Jack Calder, one of the Tasmanian axemen  lost at sea.
Jack Calder, pictured circa 1910

In 1909 Calder and fellow champion axeman  Alf Clarke, from Queenstown,  embarked on the S.S. Waratah, bound for London.  

Alf Clarke, one of Tasmanian champion axemen aboard the Waratah.

The men  were due to compete against all-comers in international  chopping events at the famous Crystal Palace.   

There was more to Jack Calder than mere brute strength. He sent home  the following verses;

Dear mates, it was the first of June

I left my native home,

And bade adieu to Tassy,

O’er the ocean blue to roam.

I’ve taken with me for a mate,

An axeman of great fame.

Well known to all Tasmanian sports.

And Alf Clarke is his name. 

And when we’ve seen our share of life,

Then homeward we will steer,

Back to Tasmania’s golden shore,

The land we love so dear.

From Durban, the  politically active Calder wrote to The Clipper,  a Tasmanian, Labor Party publication, describing the voyage and expressing his excitement at what lay ahead;

We only had one really rough day; that was coming through the Great Australian Bight…..but the Waratah being such a grand sea boat, we did not feel it much. I was never a bit sea-sick, and feel better than I ever did in my life. We have had some good concerts on board, and some very good talent, both instrumental and vocal. Alf and I do our training, such as it is, boxing and skipping, on deck every day, to a fairly large audience of both sexes. They seem to enjoy it very much. Of course, the greatest time will be in London , and letting the Londonites know what Tasmanians are capable of with the axe, if she is a bit behind in other ways. I have no idea how long we may be away, but if success is ours, we intend to see all the countries we can over this way.

How poignant this letter is, knowing the fate of those two young Tasmanian axemen and the ‘grand sea boat’‘ Jack Calder spoke of in such glowing terms. Others who travelled on the ship’s maiden voyage from London to Australian earlier in the year had not been so complimentary.


There was a third person accompanying the Tasmanian sportsmen, mentioned in a Durban newspaper report which was reprinted in Australia.

Professor Bonner was an Australian Vaudeville performer, a self-styled hypnotist. The name does not appear on passenger lists, so Bonner must have been his stage name, unless he left the ship in Durban. One of his more outlandish stunts was to send a man to sleep, then bury him underground for days on end. Hmm, bit of trickery there I hope, or he would have run out of volunteers.


On July 27, as she made her way between Durban and Cape Town, the Waratah communicated with the passing steamer Clan MacIntyre. She identified herself, gave a weather report of strong winds, and said she was bound for London.

Clan McIntyre – Thanks. Goodbye and pleasant voyage.

Waratah – Thanks. Same to you. Goodbye.

The ship was never seen again. Nor has the wreckage ever been found, despite exhaustive searches.

On September 14 1909, Alf Clarke’s wife Eva gave birth to a baby boy. Naturally he was named Alfred, in memory of his father.

There were stories of axemen who could have been on the Waratah with Calder and Clarke, except that fate intervened. My thanks to Helen for the following;

211 lives were lost on S.S. Waratah. You can read the full story HERE

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