THE LATE MR. JULIAN THOMAS. 1
A correspondent writes :-" Alas, poor Yorick ; ' though I cannot say I knew him well, I found him a man of "infinite jest and humour." When he visited Tasmania in 1891, to write up the descriptive matter for the " Picturesque Tasmania " Supplement issued by the Melbourne Leader, his health and strength were evidently failing, and this at times seemed to cause mental distress and render him slightly irritable. I met him in Hobart, and found that the spectacles he used to write in had the right glass opaque, so that the strain of composition thus fell on the left eye. This increased my desire to assist him, and I wrote descriptions of the Lakes district, the Huon, Tasman's Peninsula, and other localities he was unable to visit personally. He subsequently wrote me a very kind letter of thanks from the Yorick Club, Melbourne, and when the success of this supplement (arranged by Mr. E. T. Luke, the artist and canvasser of the Leader) led to a similar one being compiled for Northern Tasmania, "The Vagabond" again visited Launceston, and from that city wrote me - " I have seen the Cataract Gorge, the most beautiful scene in Tasmania, one of the most beautiful in the world, so near a city. Come up and ' talk it ' to me."
It was some days before I could comply, but one day I arrived in Launceston from the North-West Coast by the mid-day train, and as soon as lunch was over we drove to the Cataract Gorge, and I " talked it," with his notebook in hand, and whenever a sentence in the description pleased him, Mr. Thomas said "put that down," and it was jotted into the notebook in legible longhand. The energetic hon. secretary and hon. engineer of the City and Suburbs Improvement Association turned up later, on their daily visit of inspection ; an introduction followed, and more information was imparted, I still carrying the notebook and recording when instructed. In the last letter ever received from Mr. Thomas, written early in 1895 after his return to Melbourne, he stated that the press of matter for the commercial portion of the supplement had so curtailed the space available for his descriptive articles, that he had been unable to utilise a considerable portion of the information collected while in Tasmania.
In the course of private conversations I gathered that Mr. Julian Thomas was born in sight of the Blue Hills in Virginia, U.S. A.; that his family had been ruined by the Civil War, and that he had served in the Confederate Army. But the memories the reminiscences of this period seemed to revive appeared to be bitter ones, and I did not attempt to probe the sore, He had visited many lands, under what circumstances I am not aware, and was on the staff of the New York Tribune at the same time as Mr. H. M. Stanley, when Mr. Gordon Bennett issued that order to " find Livingstone," which made Mr. Stanley's name a household word. At a later period (1875) he was on the San Francisco press, and evidently among a fast set. Money was made freely, and spent freely, until Mr. Thomas found if he did not pull up his health, his health would pull him up, and he determined to take a rest, and visit England, In order to make the sea voyage as long as possible he decided upon travelling via Australia, which he had never seen, but how it happened that In 1876 he left 'Frisco, with the intention of proceeding from Australia to England, and yet arrived in Melbourne almost penniless, is still a mystery to me.
Mr. Thomas was very reticent about his past life. He would give graphic descriptions of places he had seen, or notabilities be had met, but convey no clue as to how he came on the scene, or in what capacity. On the last evening spent together we had been sitting for ever three hours in earnest " confab," and he had reverted to his boyhood's home, mid to his life in Australia, seeming to regret wasted opportunities, and the infirmities that now reduced him to a mere employee in journalism. To ask direct question was to drive him "into his shell," and I could only piece together portions of a conversation that was always diverging into anecdotes or reminiscences. One reminiscence of his own career may be of interest; Having read with interest as they came out in the Argus that series of articles Mr. Thomas' first contributions to the Australian press that created such interest and alarm in Melbourne, and put into everyone's mouth the question, " Who is 'The Vagabond' ? " I had purchased them when republished in book form (four volumes). In the last volume a portrait appeared of "The Vagabond," which at the time, I believed to be mythical. In reply to a query as to whose portrait it was, Mr. Thomas said there was so much speculation as to the identity of " The Vagabond, " and so many persons had been pointed out as that mysterious personage, that it was decided to keep up the joke, and the portrait published was reproduced from a photograph of a fellow-passenger, presented to him before they parted on the steamer.
The publishers of the book, Geo. Robertson and Co., could, perhaps, testify to the truth or otherwise of this statement. Our last evening together was broken in upon by the entrance of Captain A, K. and another friend, who were pleased at the opportunity of being introduced to one long familiar by repute. The "vag" and the captain found many points of common interest, and each had something new to tell the other. Before long the conversation became a duet, with a delighted audience of two. One reminiscence recalled another, till both became excited by the memories recalled. " The Vagabond " forgot his asthma, and the opium straightened himself up in temporary forgetfulness of an unlodged bullet which had recently been troubling him. The audience listened spellbound to unpublished anecdotes of great men, to tales illustrating the " seamy side of war" that never get into print; we were taken in spirit to the Indian Mutiny, to the Crimean war, to the revolt of the Canadian half-breeds under Louis R..., etc., and as I watched Julian Thomas, holding his head erect, his eyes flashing, and his voice growing more sonorous as he related the true account of bygone deeds and political incidents of which we had heard only one side. I could not help reflecting what a man he must have been in the prime and vigour of life, and how great were the abilities and opportunities he had wasted. The little party separated with regret, and meeting the captain next day, we mutually agreed that it would be long ere we were likely to again enjoy such a pleasant and profitable evening.
Julian Thomas is no more, but we two, I am sure, will, with many others, " keep his memory green."
AN ADVENTUROUS JOURNALIST. 2
The following telegram from Melbourne appeared in the Mercury of Saturday last.—"Mr. Julian Thomas, well-known throughout the colonies by the nom de plume of 'The Vagabond,' was found dead in his bed at his lodgings in Fitzroy this morning." Another of the literary Bohemians who made the Melbourne Yorick Club, in years gone by, resemble the Mermaid Tavern, described by Beaumont in his letter to Ben Johnson, is gone—
What things have we seen Done at the Mermaid !
Heard words that have been
So nimble and so full of subtle flame,
As if that, every one from whence they came
Had meant to put his whole wit in a jest,
And had resolved to live a fool the rest
Of his dull life.
The walls of those rooms above the mercer's shop in Collins-street could tell queer stories of Bohemian life, when actor and pressman, and literary physician and brilliant barrister, met on common ground, and exchanged odd experiences of life, and made their commentaries on men and things. Of late years, "the Yorick" has been steadily losing its fine old character as the home of the literary dilettante, and the man who has seen many lands and diverse peoples. The purely commercial and professional men, lacking the literary tastes and philosophic souls of the men of 10 or 15 years ago, have elbowed out of the club—unconsciously, of course—the good old type, of which "The Vagabond" was one. One by one, the founders and early members of the Yorick are disappearing. Within the last 12 months I have stood by the open graves of two—William McKinley, barrister, and Malcolm Stark, journalist. Three years ago James Duerdin, the old secretary, fell dead in the street at South Yarra ; on Friday last "The Vag." was found dead in his bed in that old home of the actors and pressmen. Fitzroy. In the Yorick Titheradge has been feasted, and Howard Vernon has been lionised, and a banquet has been prepared for George Augustus Sala, which he didn't come to eat. And "The Vag. "—one of the genuine old stock of the Yorick—has followed his friend Sala quickly !.
The first stone in "The Vagabond's" edifice of literary fame was his spending a day and a night in the Melbourne Immigrants' Home as a "casual." He went in the ordinary way and applied for admission, was received, saw for himself the working of that Melbourne workhouse, and gave the results to the public in the columns of the Argus in such finely drawn pictures of character, and such unanswerable commentaries on the principles on which the institution was managed, that the public was at once aroused and interested. He had previously published an article entitled "A Night in the Model Lodging Home," but the Immigrants' Home gave him wider scope for his powers, and presented a subject in which the mass of the people were more actively interested ; and it was the second article that gave him not only an acknowledged, but a first position, in Victorian journalism. It also made a new man of Thomas himself. A year afterwards, "The Vagabond" thus took the Melbourne public into his confidence in his preface to the first volume of "The Vagabond Papers," published by Mr. George Robertson:—Twelve months back, I landed in Melbourne sick in body and mind, and broken in fortune. After the manner of new chums, my first proceeding was to spend all my store. Then I was reduced to the disagreeable alternative of raising money, or becoming, in truth, a 'vagabond.' In other days and climes, friends have flattered me with commendations of my capacity for 'slinging ink;' so, not being able to obtain a Government sinecure, I turned my thoughts towards literature. I think that the number of the Australasian in which my first effusion was inflicted upon the Victorian public is about the most interesting ever printed. It started a new era in my existence. Since then . . . I have been striking out a new line in Australian journalism, and have been investigating the social life and public institutions of Melbourne from a point of view unattainable to the majority. I have everywhere been on the 'inside track,' and write from that eligible vantage point. It will be seen that I have had, much to my disgust, to work in the different characters I have assumed. I only trust my hard labours have been repaid by the amusement I have afforded the public."
After his experiences at the Model Lodging House, "The Vagabond " became an out-patient at the Melbourne Hospital ; spent three days as an inmate of the Benevolent Asylum, was, for a month, a warder at the Kew Lunatic Asylum, and served as assistant dispenser at Pentridge prison. These were his first fields of operation ; but, subsequently, he enlarged the scope of his action as a private detective, and did good and valuable and lasting work, long before Dr. Conan Doyle gave to the world his "Adventures of Sherlock Holmes." "The Vagabond's" pictures of life in the Model Lodging House in King street, then a new establishment—where he slept between a youth who gnashed his teeth and an Irishman, who fought in his sleep and cursed a mythical antagonist—were most diverting. At the hospital, he made the astounding discovery that a doctor could "polish off" 24 out patients in 10min. In the Benevolent Asylum he would have had the queer experience of making his will had he remained in the house a day or two longer. Every pauper who was received into that institution, in those days, at all events, was required to make his will in favour of the superintendent, and, no doubt, many of them had about as much to leave by will as Don Cæsar De Bazan, who declared that the making of his will would take just two minutes! Writing about the Benevolent Asylum, "The Vagabond " boldly proclaimed his religious creed : "I am unorthodox enough," said he, "not to care particularly about the creed, so long as the divine teaching is not lost sight of. I was born and bred in the Church of England, but, early developing vagabond tendencies, I refused to be confirmed—the Commination and Athanasian Creed sticking in my throat. A gentleman who knows my case has cautioned me to avoid meeting the new Bishop of Ballarat. He says that prelate rejoiceth exceedingly in capturing any stray sheep belonging to the motherland and Church, and restoring him to the fold. This I am not prepared for. My godfather must still bear the burden of my sins. But I have no prejudice against the Church. . ." Indeed, the cosmopolite and broad-Churchman "Vagabond" had no prejudice against any Church whatever. Years afterwards, when he described "Picturesque Victoria" for the Argus, he liberally declared that he found no more hospitable quarters in his travels than the Catholic Presbyteries, where, he added, he found the best whiskey he had ever drunk, and which, unlike the Commination and the Athanasian Creed, did not stick in his throat.
"The Vagabond" did specially meritorious work, both from a literary and public point of view, at the Lunatic Asylum. At Pentridge he had the queer experience of extracting a tooth from the hangman's jaw! Later on, he went to Pentridge on a visit, and had nearly returned the third time a bona fide convict! He was charged with giving tobacco to prisoners, and was prosecuted at the Brunswick Police Court, but got out of the scrape with the aid of eminent counsel. "The Vagabond" visited and reported on the sixpenny restaurants of Melbourne, and, in the drollest way, offered the Victorian Government to stump the United Kingdom as an emigration agent, with the bill of fare of a Melbourne sixpenny restaurant as his inducement to emigrants! Here is ''The Vagabond's" own programme, as published in the Argus 20 years ago:—"In this tide in the affairs of Victoria, I offer my services. Yes, I will give (for a consideration) my valuable aid in saving the State. For a moderate salary, payable quarterly in advance, I will engage, acting under the Agent-General in England, to supply Victoria with as many thousand labourers and mechanics as may be required. But alas, I stand little chance of obtaining another Government office. I have no influence. I am not Irish. My few acquaintances in Melbourne are either helpless poor vagabonds, or hopelessly respectable, I don't even know an M.L.A. So, as there is no copyright of thought or ideas, I now present to the public this my proposed plan of action. I would have printed one million handbills exactly similar to those which any day from 12 to 2 p.m. you will have thrust into your hands in the principal streets of Melbourne, and the wonders of which will strike an English labourer or mechanic dumb. Imagine poor Hodge, who lives on bread and bacon, and whoso only idea of spending 6d. is to purchase a quart of ale, reading from the bill of fare that a breakfast with a choice of 10 hot dishes of meat, bread and butter ad libitum, and 'two or three cups of tea or coffee ; 'a dinner with choice of six soups, 12 kinds of meat, including such Epicurean luxuries as 'beef steak pudding' or 'stuffed ox-heart,' and six puddings or pies, with tea, coffee, and bread and butter as at breakfast, may be had in Melbourne for 6d. a meal. The supper (which, he reads, may be had 'both before and after closing of the theatres,' pleasantly suggesting that it is the custom for his class to patronise those places of amusement) is even more bewildering— 'stewed rabbit,' 'haricot mutton,' 'curries,' and some 15 other dishes, with salad, beetroot, and tomatoes. A land which can furnish such delights for 6d. must, surely, be the working-man's paradise. Such handbills I would have distributed all over Great Britain ; they should be given to Hodge as he munched his crust under the hedgerow ; to the mechanic as he issued from the factory gate, with his handkerchief and a scrap of cold meat, to be eaten at the bar of some dirty public-house, washed down by half a pint of beer. With these handbills should be given another, showing that labourers and mechanics obtain one-third more or double the wages they get in England. The ground-bait thus laid, and the British workman appealed to through the medium of his finest feeling—his appetite—from town to town the voice of "The Vagabond" or his agent should be heard crying out the advantages of Victoria, but chiefly expatiating on the theme, 'All these good, honest square meals for 6d' ; we who speak know, as we have eaten, fattened upon and relished them? This is the plan which I beg to submit to the Government, and I really think many people of old have had statues erected to their memory who did not devise any idea half so productive of public good. I may 'be heard of ' at the Argus office." "The Vagabond" wasn't sent for.
But "The Vagabond," like Marcus Clarke, fell out with the Argus, and took his literary wares to the Age, in whose service he has died. He visited Hobart at the time of the International Exhibition, on behalf of his paper.
"The Vagabond" introduced into Australian journalism a novel and effective mode of exposing evils and abuses, which, at one time, seemed likely to be frequently used by specially enterprising papers. Twelve years after "The Vagabond " had startled the Victorian public by his papers, an eminent politician and journalist of Sydney sent for the present writer, and thus addressed him: "Dibbs has been exposing the neglect and cruelties practised in the Liverpool and Parramatta Asylums. Will you join the staff, and take a billet in one of these places, and let us have the thing from 'an eye-witness?' We'll get you the billet! We shall also want you to go to gaol. We'll make it all right for your character later on, you know, but we want to get a lot of information first-hand." The salary was big—very big—but the work was disagreeable ("disgusting" "The Vagabond " has described it), and so the scribe declined the offer with thanks, and a due appreciation of the honour sought to be conferred. The eminent politician and journalist was unable to find any suitable person to accept the proffered commission, and the present scribe was invited to join "the staff" without engaging to take "three months' hard" or scrub floors in the Liverpool Asylum—and he accepted the milder billet, at, of course, a less enormous salary.
In point of fact, there has been only one "Vagabond "— and now there is none ; and it is not too much to say that he has left a gap in Australian journalism which cannot easily be filled. It is, by the bye, a curious commentary on his adventures and nick-name, that "The Vagabond" died comfortably in his bed !.