ACT News

Gang-gang: times past

It's almost as if the photo spoke

There is a gentleman, Thomas Braithwaite, asleep in the Riverside Cemetery at Queanbeyan whose headstone says that in his lifetime (he lived a long life and died in 1958) he ''served in six wars''. Six! How can that be?

More of his miscellany of wars in a moment but first we note that he is of special interest to dedicated readers of this column because he appears to be one of the chaps, hitherto unnamed, in that striking Queanbeyan photograph of two men and a bulldog published here a few weeks ago.

We stumbled across the mystery photograph on display at a Queanbeyan civic function and asked permission of the Queanbeyan & District Historical Museum's curator, Gillian Kelly, to publish it for no reason other than its great charm.

The dog, who looks as if he may be a prize-winner, radiates charisma and is flanked by two proud-looking fellows who, in a handsome way, share some of the bulldog's mien and burly good looks. Gillian Kelly had no caption for the photograph and asked us if we could ask this column's titanic readership if anyone knew anything for sure about the figures in it and the nature of the occasion (perhaps a dog show in which the dog had triumphed?) or if they had any clues.

The response was enormous, with engaged, Sherlock Holmesy readers finding clues in fine details in the picture. You noticed, for example, that two of the men are wearing the same (regimental?) tie, and that the man to the dog's right has medal ribbons (suggesting military service?) and a tattooed back of his substantial right hand.

Ever since, Kelly has enjoyed a small blizzard of information about the photograph, and at the time it was last discussed in Gang-Gang we had identified two of the men in the picture. The man to the bulldog's left is ''Darkie'' Rogers (sorry, no given name has emerged yet), and the fellow in the background is Joe Pola who ran a plaster works in Queanbeyan. The venue is the back of Walsh's Hotel. The occasion and the exact date and the all-important name of the dog remain a mystery, but an Anzac Day or a Remembrance Day loom as possible occasions, with, perhaps, the grand dog being a mascot of some kind.


But since we last wrote the indefatigable Kelly has been helped to identify the man to the bulldog's right. No, it isn't, as one reader was sure, Ben Chifley but is one Thomas Gibson Braithwaite.

Someone who lived next door to him in River Street, Oaks Estate, knew him well and has told Kelly that Tom Braithwaite was ''a kindly old man with an interesting history''. Kelly has since begun investigating Braithwaite's history and the word ''interesting'' seems inadequate to describe that history. We don't have and will never have, here, room to do that whole history justice. Just a little, though, about what Kelly has found of Braithwaite's six wars.

The six, some of them really battles or campaigns rather than wars, appear to have been the relief of the siege of Chitral (in 1895, in what's now northern Pakistan), the Battle of Omdurman (in Sudan in 1898), the Ashanti Expedition (in today's Ghana in 1900), the Boer War (in South Africa between 1899 and 1902) and then the Great War of 1914-1918 and finally Word War II.

If all of this is true then it's no wonder that, in the famous photograph, Tom Braithwaite has some medal ribbons to sport on his blazer. Kelly, noting the tattoo on the back of Braithwaite's hand, asked his former neighbour if Tom had been a tattooed man and it was confirmed that, yes, he was liberally tattooed. This, of course, tends to confirm his military background because, though today folk of all kinds are tattooed (for example, this columnist saw a thousand tattooed damsels at Thoroughbred Park on Melbourne Cup day) once upon a time tattooed flesh was the hallmark of well-travelled soldiers and sailors.

There was much more to Tom Braithwaite's life than just being a warrior but it is fascinating to wonder what incredible memories of wars and foreign places there must be lurking in the mind behind that avuncular face. What a shame (and how often do we say this after someone remarkable has gone to his or her Great Reward and it's too late to interview them?) he was not laid siege to by some persistent oral historian while he was with us.