Joseph Aloysius Lyons was four years old in 1883, when his father Michael moved the family to the Tasmanian seaside town of Ulverstone. Mr Lyons Snr. opened a bakery and butcher’s shop, but unfortunately he fitted the description of ‘feckless’ rather well, and lost everything betting on the 1886 Melbourne Cup. Presumably he failed to back the winner, Arsenal. He was forced to sell up and find work as an unskilled labourer.
Young Joseph and his older siblings had to help out by taking part-time jobs. Joe became an errand boy for a drapery store, as an elderly lady recalled in 1937; ‘I mind him well at the Ulverstone shop, a pleasant lad, sturdy, very well spoken.’ He was paid three shillings per week.
For a while he was an apprentice at the short-lived local newspaper The Coastal News. However, the apprentice decided that his weekly wages of six shillings were no compensation for the amount of work demanded and he simply left on the spot. Alternative employment included the tough job of clearing scrub around Ulverstone, but at least he had made a stand for the rights of the worker, albeit himself! It’s appropriate that the following rare survivor from the paper is a political leaflet, produced during the 1893 State election;
On January 6 1934 Mr Lyons, now Prime Mnister, returned to Ulverstone to open the new clubhouse and dressing rooms for the local surf club. He was accompanied by his wife Enid.
In his speech that day the Prime Minister said, ‘I spent many happy hours years ago – nearly 50 years ago, on this beach, amongst the waves and also in the river. In those days our dressing shed was the boobyallas, but today we see what splendid progress has been made, and I want to thank all concerned.’
As many of us know, ‘high summer’ at Ulverstone does not guarantee good weather, and on the day of the opening it was truly awful. The Advocate reported;
In spite of very unfavourable weather a large crowd attended the ceremony. A strong southerly wind made the surf very rough, and the conditions on shore were unpleasant, and added to this the tide was full, causing a shortage of space. It was impossible for more than a few people to hear the speeches of those on the balcony, who took part in the function.
Twelve months earlier Mr Lyons had attended an event at the State school, but his memories of that place were definitely not rosy. He told the audience that when he turned up for the first time he saw a boy getting a caning. Deciding immediately that it was not the place for him, he took the same, decisive action as at the newspaper office… he walked out! He subsequently attended St Joseph’s Catholic School in Alexander Road, which had opened in July 1889. However, contributing to the family finances meant that work still took priority over his education, which was sporadic. Fortunately two unmarried aunts, the Misses Carroll, ‘rescued’ young Joe and took him to live with them and to go to school in his birthplace of Stanley.
Those difficult years in Ulverstone certainly gave Joseph Lyons an understanding of ordinary working people and the challenges they faced. This would serve him well when he became Premier of Tasmania in 1923 and later, one of the longest serving Australian Prime Ministers. He died while still in office in 1939.
Here is a broadcast From Prime Minister Lyons on New Year’s Eve 1934, at the height of the Great Depression. CLCK HERE