The Comedian who became a War Hero.

The Comedian who became a War Hero.

When faced with mortal danger in World War 1, a showman did what came naturally – he cracked a joke.

Leann Richards looks back at the life of Tom Dawson.

In the early 1900s, Harry Rickards’ Tivoli Circuit featured a small number of regulars. They were an expected and much loved attraction of any Tivoli show. One of them was Welsh born comedian Tom Dawson.

Born Tom Besley in Wales in 1874, his first job was as a child labourer in mines and factories, before his family moved to Australia.  

In Adelaide he became a photographer, but it was not until the end of the 19th century that he found his true vocation as a stage comedian.

Tom began his career singing comic songs, sketches and dances with small touring companies. His talent was spotted in 1903 when he played the Dame in the pantomime, Little Red Riding Hood.

Tivoli manager Harry Rickards recognized Tom’s comic potential and almost immediately engaged him for the famous Tivoli circuit.

From 1904, Tom was a regular. He was an end man, a comedic singer and dancer, a performer in sketches and small plays. He wrote many of his own songs, but his most famous song was ‘I’d rather have a hard boiled egg.’ This song was one of the most popular of the early 20th century.

Wherever Tom played, the gallery gods would scream for it, and Tom, ever the obliging performer, would agree to their demand.

As a regular at the Tivoli, Tom supported Houdini in 1910 and Cinquevalli in both Australia and New Zealand. Unlike many of his fellow theatricals, he had a guaranteed job and wage, but this success did not change his good nature.

He was known as a generous and kind hearted man with a keen sense of duty and honour. On pay days at the Tivoli, a crowd of unfortunates would gather outside the office door waiting for Tom to distribute money to his regular pensioners. Another time he paid for the burial of a young girl from an Adelaide bar he frequented. Despite only having a casual acquaintance with her, he ensured she was interred next to her mother.

Tom was a source of laughter, mirth and good cheer for Tivoli patrons for a decade. After the outbreak of World War 1, he continued his merry ways.

However, entertaining at home was not enough for Tom. The tales of Gallipoli and the excitement of war enticed and inspired him.

One October day in 1915, a huge recruiting rally was held in Sydney’s Martin Place. Two hundred men marched in military formation and the police band played patriotic songs. Two beautiful ladies sang the inspiring airs, ‘There’s a land’ and ‘Off to the front.’

The large crowd cheered three new recruits, but the recruiting officer, Sergeant Elliot, leapt to the platform to castigate them.

‘Don’t cheer these men. If you admire their action, follow their example and enlist.’

And then to everybody’s surprise, 41 year old Tom Dawson walked onto the stage.

‘What is your occupation?” asked the Sergeant

‘Alleged comedian,’ replied Tom to the laughter of the crowd. Tom had enlisted and the ‘patriotic comedian’ was asked to make a speech.

He protested that he would rather sing a comic song, however, he was soon speaking to the throng.

Tom explained that he had no children, but he had a wife, Emma. He had sent her a wire, telling her about his intention to enlist and asked her permission. ‘Will I stay or go?” She replied with one word, ‘Go’.

After enlistment, Tom stayed in Australia and performed at several charity benefits including a large charity performance for a Gallipoli veteran, permanently disabled by war injuries. He was also allowed to continue to earn a living whilst waiting to ship out.

Tom was shipped to Egypt, yet, the desert climate did not suit his constitution and he was sick upon arrival. But he recovered enough to entertain the troops at Red Cross performances.

Tom maintained a happy and optimistic outlook, but due to lack of manpower, was sent to the front in France.

The situation there was horrific. Tom sat with his mates in the trenches anxiously awaiting the order to rush the German lines.

Finally one day the order came. The men around him shuffled nervously, and Tom was asked, ‘Well Tom, how is it now?” Tom replied, “I’d rather have a hard boiled egg.”

His response was passed along the lines and relieved the unbearable tension. Then the moment came and the troops clambered over the trenches into no man’s land. Tom grimly grasped his weapon in the midst of intense machine gun fire, but was tragically hit in the lower body and fell to the muddy ground. He lay in no man’s land, surrounded by the groaning wounded for a night. The stretcher bearers eventually arrived, but it was too late. Tom Dawson, the laughing comedian, was dead.

The news reached Australia in September 1916 and was soon confirmed by soldiers who had seen his last moments. Tom was hailed as a hero, ‘an honor to the theatrical profession and to the land of his birth’.

In May 1917, almost every theatrical performer in Melbourne volunteered their services for a benefit for Mrs Emma Dawson. The theatre was crowded to overflowing and the programme was very long that night. A large amount of money was raised, but nothing could erase the spectre of another Australian soldier dying on a foreign battlefield.


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Originally published in the November / December 2010 edition of Stage Whispers.


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