“I’ll lend you some,” said Hughes impulsively.
He went home and out of the lining of an ancient concertina he produced thirty shillings, all the money he had in the world. He handed this hoard over to his new-found friend and promptly forgot all about it. He kept on teaching.
I cite this little episode because it was the turning point in a great man’s career. The boy who borrowed the shillings went to Australia. Several years later he returned the money and with it this message: “This is a great country full of opportunity for a young man. Chuck your teaching and come out here.” Hughes went.
Three months later—it was in 1884—and with half a crown in his pocket he walked ashore at Brisbane. He looked so frail that the husky dock labourers jeered at his physical weakness. Yet less than ten years from that date he was their militant leader marching on to the Rulership of all Australia.
In those days Australia was a rough land. Beef, bullying and brawn were the things that counted most in that paradise of ticket-of-leave men. Hughes bucked the sternest game in the world and with it began a series of adventures that read like a romance and give a stirring background to the man’s extraordinary public achievements.
Hughes found out at once that all hope of earning a livelihood by teaching in the bush was out of the question. His money was gone: he had to exist, so he took the first job that came his way. A band of timber-cutters about to go for a month’s sojourn in the woods needed a cook, so Hughes became their potslinger. Frail as he was, he seemed to thrive on hardship. In succession he became sheep shearer, railway labourer, boundary rider, stock runner, scrub-cleaner, coastal sailor, dishwasher in a bush hotel, itinerant umbrella-mender and sheep drover.
With a small band he once brought fifty thousand sheep down from Queensland into New South Wales. For fifteen weeks he was on the tramp, sleeping at night under the stars, trudging the dusty roads all day. At the end of this trip occurred the incident that made him deaf. Over night he passed from the sun-baked plains to a high mountain altitude. Wet with perspiration, he slept out with his flocks and caught cold. The result was an infirmity which is only one of many physical handicaps that this amazing little man has had to overcome throughout his tempestuous life.
Yet he has fought them all down. As he once humorously said: “If I had had a constitution I should have been dead long ago.”
After all his strenuous bushwhacking the year 1890 found him running a small shop in the suburbs of Sydney. By day he sold books and newspapers: at night he repaired locks and clocks in order to get enough money to buy law books. Into his shop drifted sailors from the wharves with their grievances. Born with a passionate love of freedom, these sounds of revolt were as music to his ears. Figuratively he sat at the feet of Henry George, whose “Progress and Poverty” helped to shape the course of his thinking. Lincoln’s letters and speeches were among his favourites, too.