It was uncanny to see Katharine’s husband, Hugo Throssell, as the lead story on the WAToday website today. He was one of many whose lives were destroyed by the Great War and his death in 1933 can be seen as the long term consequence of the trauma he suffered at the front. Kudos to WAToday for examining the impact of war and placing history on its front page. But it was an article which got several things quite wrong. I was going to leave it at a fairly irenic comment at the bottom of the article – but they still haven’t approved the comment nine hours later, so now I’m feeling annoyed. Continue reading
I’ve been writing about Hugo Throssell’s infamous speech at Northam in July 1919 so I needed to visit the town. Newly married to Katharine Susannah Prichard, Hugo, a Victoria Cross winner, returned to his hometown as the guest of honour for the local celebration of the signing of the Treaty of Versailles. After the afternoon parade, he was one of five speakers in the evening and 1200 people witnessed him announce that the war had turned him into a socialist. There would keep being wars, he said, until we stopped people profiting from them.
I took my two-year-old son, Thomas. There were lots of diggers, buses, and trucks along the way to keep him interested until he suddenly fell asleep, just as I was going to call into the Greenmount Liquor Store on the way to talk about what I’d unearthed of the history of their shop. (It’s the last remnant of the Wandu Estate, where Katharine and Hugo first lived in WA.) So we kept driving without a stop, an hour and a half east of the city and into the Wheatbelt.
I’ve only visited Northam twice before but it’s familiar, reminding me of the town I grew up in, Collie. I stumbled on the Hugo Throssell statue and memorial before I even had my phone out to look for the Avon Street Mall, an unfinished space in the centre of town. It was hard to imagine 1200 people crowding in. The platform Hugo spoke from was meant to be outside the Fitzgerald Hotel, formerly Tattersall’s. The historical bin on the street gave a spiel on it, but the hotel was nowhere to be seen. Then I realised it’d been demolished a few years ago; the patch of green grass marked its spot. The statue was striking, oversized as statues need to be to have gravitas. It’s not a great likeness, but the ambiguous look of distress and determination on his face is appropriate for a veteran who was to suffer so much. He’s clutching his Victoria Cross. I’m glad the statue stands on the site he gave his speech; it means owning a difficult history.
It was an overcast day and as I walked Thomas up the hill from the statue occasional drops of rain came down in the moderate heat. I was amazed by several mansions along the way; I learned soon after that part of Northam was nicknamed ‘Nob Hill’. We came to the school built around the old Throssell mansion, Fermoy. Thomas was complaining by then and the rain seemed to be threatening heavier, and so being a less intrepid biographer than I should be, I took a photo from a distance which would not upset the security guard and turned around. I imagined Hugo taking Katharine up the hill and pointing out where he grew up; in 1919 it had been a hospital for a few years.
Near where I parked the car was a sun-faded train fort. This, for a toddler whose patience was at an end, was the highlight of Northam.
The great Australian artist Tom Roberts volunteered to serve in a London military hospital during the Great War. He ended up serving as an unofficial batman to Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, who was being treated for war wounds. I picked up Humphrey McQueen’s comprehensive 1996 biography of Roberts and found a lively account of their friendship. Another biography I wish I had the time to read. Each chapter has the name of a literary work from “Such is Life” to “The Good Soldier”. I love this acknowledgement at the back:
Paul Kelly for offering me a column in the Weekend Australian. The $585 I earned each week for two days work during the almost three years was the equivalent of a literary fellowship, without which this book would still not be completed. Rupert Murdoch let us get away with it until the week before the first draft went to the publishers.
One must always look for creative ways to fund the writing of a book.
Another note: McQueen’s great account of Roberts and Throssell is quoted or paraphrased at length in John Hamilton’s biography of Throssell Price of Valour without referencing. Mcqueen’s book does appear in the bibliography, but I don’t think that’s enough. Even “popular” biographies owe it to other writers and to the readers to acknowledge their sources fully.
A speech for “Katharine’s Birthday,” Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, Sunday 6 December 2015
In London a hundred years ago Katharine Susannah Prichard met Hugo Throssell in the shadow of World War I. The war brought them together and cost them both so dearly. The Great War radicalised them, leading them to reject militarism and the system which had caused such a disaster. Continue reading
It’s a hundred years ago on Friday since King George V decorated Katharine Susannah Prichard’s future husband, Hugo Throssell, with a Victoria Cross, Western Australia’s first. To mark the occasion, I’ve been asked to give a speech at Katharine’s Birthday, the annual end-of-year celebration at the Katharine Susannah Prichard Writers’ Centre, alongside Chris Horvath, a specialist on the 10th Light Horse. It’s an interesting assignment for a pacifist like me. Continue reading
The Price of Valour by John Hamilton (Pan MacMillan, 2012)
Hugo Throssell is a fascinating, tragic figure, well deserving of his own biography apart from his role as husband to one of Western Australia’s most important writers, Katharine Susannah Prichard. Indeed, they met in London during WW1 as two Australian celebrities in their respective fields. (The photo here is not of Prichard, but Throssell with an unidentified nurse.) Throssell was a war hero, Victoria Cross winner and son of a prominent conservative politician. The tension between this and his marriage to a communist writer is part of what drives this biography by John Hamilton.
Hamilton is a journalist by background, and has written two other books about World War I. He approaches Throssell as a military historian; in telling the story of Throssell’s life, it is the trench battles in World War I which receive the most attention. This is appropriate, because it is Throssell’s role as a war hero which made him famous, and the trauma of battle which would contribute greatly to his suicide in 1933.
Hamilton’s research is the greatest achievement of this book. He managed to track down the only (then) living person who could remember Throssell well, a niece who died at nearly 95 a year before the book was published. He finds official records which shed much light on so many aspects of Throssell’s life – not just his military service, but even a note from the Northam RSL requesting that the premier remove Throssell from his role as the soldier’s representative on the Soldiers Settlement Scheme (303).
It’s always an achievement in biography to revivify long lost events in ways that go beyond the bare official record, but don’t seem indulgent. One scene which comes vividly to life in this case is the description of the infamous event at Northam on Peace Day, 19 July 1919, when Throssell declared that the war had made him a socialist (286). ‘The crowd’s warmth toward the speaker gave way to a frozen, disbelieving silence.’
I was going to write that a second example was that of the grand opening of Throssell’s rodeo (330), which helped ruin him financially – but looking back, it is a lengthy quote from the local paper, The Swan Express, which brought it to life for me. It’s a device Hamilton uses often through the book, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The extended quotes are well chosen, and present the events in the language and outlook of the day, which is surely valuable. Yet is it ‘good’ method in a biography? I imagine it might be disallowed in a more academic biography. (On that note, although providing a thorough and helpful bibliography, Hamilton does not properly reference the quotes; another case of a convention of popular biography vs academic biography.)
Writing in The Canberra Times, reviewer Michael McKernan argues that the division of the book into ‘triumph’ (in World War I) and ‘tragedy’ (in his marriage) is an incorrect one – the war experiences were part of the tragedy, setting up what was to follow. Hamilton may not disagree – as a military historian he seems very aware of the cruelty and tragedy of war – but in another important sense, perhaps McKernan’s comment reveals fundamentally different ways of looking at the meaning of war.
For me, there are important underexplored questions in the account of Throssell’s tragedy. To what extent did his speech at Northam make him a pariah? His job with the soldier’s settlement scheme continued until 1930. Were the objections to his rodeo scheme related to his politics? The question may be unanswerable, and Hamilton has at least provided some good evidence. Another question – what was Throssell’s politics, and how did it relate to his entrepreneurial activities as a land developer, gold miner, and rodeo promoter? And what was the state of Katharine and Hugo’s marriage when she left on her extended trip, going to stay for a time with her ex-lover and his new partner in Russia? Again, probably unanswerable, and I may be wrong to ask for further speculation than Hamilton provides.