Duke Tritton Workshop © Chris Woodland, photos © Bob Bolton
I did a workshop on Duke at the NFF in 2005 (40 years after Duke’s death). I had between 250 and 270 in attendance throughout the performance; very successful. Those on stage were Bob Hart, John and Dale Dengate and myself. I got Frank Maher up to give a little talk (towards the end if I recall correctly). (email Chris Woodland)
Chris Woodland, 03-02-05, for National Folk Festival, Easter, 2005.
The following is intended to be the basis of a workshop to be held at the 2005 National Folk Festival, that year being the 40th anniversary of Duke’s death.
The Life, Works & Times of Duke Tritton - by Those Who Knew Him Produced by Chris Woodland.
- Recordings of Duke singing at least two of his songs (Goorianawa & Hughie)
Personal Recollections by Gay Scott, Frank Maher, John & Dale Dengate, Chris Woodland.
Linda McLean: Mention Linda, her book, Pumpkin Pie & Faded Sandshoes, and her love for her father (read her last Xmas card). Also the book that outlines her life.
John was taking no chances with this “find” and decided to write to the Duke himself. The day he wrote the letter Duke appeared at his door. After preliminaries, Merro put the tape recorder on and recorded the Duke singing 18 songs, including Goorianawa, Travelling Down the Castlereagh, The Shores of Botany Bay, Harry Dale the Drover and others. Duke offered to sing some of his own compositions, but John Meredith was something of a purist at that stage, and declined the offer. We have the late Alan Scott to thank for taking on that responsibility.
Before long the Duke was accompanying John on his field trips, often giving him valuable information regarding possible performers. He joined the Bush Music Club where he would perform at the workshop evenings and became active with the concert party of that club.
Duke remained a member until his death in 1965 in his 79th year, and that was 40 years ago in two month’s time – in May.
A ‘tall’ man …
1985 tribute to Duke
Time restraints …
A fourth generation Australian, Duke was pleased to claim both Maria Smith, of “Grannie” Smith apple fame, and socialist leader William Lane as branches on his family tree.
The Trittons were actually living at Lakemba when Duke was born, but then moved to the farm at Five Dock, later to Redfern when his father got employment driving a delivery cart for Lassetter’s, a large Sydney store.
Little Duke – or ‘Croy’ as he was called then - began school at the nearby Waterloo public school. About eighteen months later his father took a job at Wyong managing a sawmill. Frances’s abject horror of snakes, and following some colourful encounters with said reptiles in the house, the family found themselves back near Sydney within six months.
This time they lived at Essex Hill, now part of Lakemba. They were still in the bush however, as Sydney stopped at Canterbury in those days in the early 1890s.
Often out of work, Edgar would sometimes take his old muzzle-loading shotgun and go hunting for meat for the family. Sometimes he would get a hare (the rabbits had not arrived there at that time) or, more occasionally, a wallaby. Following heavy rains the Trittons would eat well on ibis, duck and other waterfowl gathered from near Salt Pan Creek on the George’s River
From his notes later written of this period of his life it is obvious that he was developing a more than usual awareness of his young world. Things and people around him were evolving a passionate interest. He was fascinated with the landscape and its creatures, historical incidents and the stories, songs and colourful language of the people he came into contact with. This interest in the language is no better illustrated than in Duke’s Dear China Plate, an exercise in flash-talk, or rhyming slang. (Published in John Meredith’s ‘Duke of the Outback’)
in Duke’s early life there was “Bill the Juicer”. Duke
was warned by his parents never to have anything to do with Bill the
Juicer who was the bogey man of the district. Despite these warnings,
Duke gradually developed a virtual clandestine association with the
old lag, for that is what he was, an ex-convict. The old chap was
ninety years of age and Duke was eleven or twelve. Eventually, at the
lad’s morbid request, the old man showed the evidence left by
floggings so many years before. Duke recalled: “The skin was very
white on his chest, but his back and ribs were a dull red, and a mass
of corrugations from shoulders to loins. In the grooves the flesh had
been stripped away and the bone was showing in several places.”
Over time, Duke learnt that when released from the flogging post the
only treatment Bill had received was a bucket of salt water thrown
over him. At Coal Harbour he was released from the post and sent back
to work lumping coal with the rough bags and lumpy coal keeping his
painful wounds open.Bill the Juicer was so called because of the
various concoctions he was reputed to brew – and drink. Mr Bill, as
Duke called him, lived at a place called Tucker’s Farm, now known
as Wiley Park.
Times were tough. At 13 Duke worked for six
months for a professional fisherman at what is now Herne Bay. He sold
newspapers on the trams and streets of Sydney for a year. Then, after
a year at a Marrickville jam factory he had “words with the
He was apprenticed to a wire mattress maker in
Ultimo Road, for 18 months, but after staging a one-man strike he had
At 161/2 he got a job as a builders’
labourer carrying bricks in a hod. At 18 he was out of work again and
picked up a job working on the roads where he met Dutchy Holland.
This mate was to become Dutchy Bishop in his book Time Means Tucker.
In fact, Dutchy in the publication was a composite character, Dutchy
Holland only being with the Duke for about half of the 4 years he was
on the track.
‘In strode ‘Duke’ Tritton – all handsome, white-haired, sunbaked, six feet, sixty-seven years of him. His nickname was not for nothing. He took my hand in one of his enormous shearer’s ‘dukes’ and seemed to crush every bone while he summed me up with a very direct blue gaze. We talked. He had copied out some words we sought in his huge, carefully formed handwriting . He spoke of the station Goorianawa, subject of one of the songs we most needed. He sang Goorianawa and went on to sing song after song. A fascinated audience gathered in my room and in the lobby outside. Then the Cup began and most of the audience sloped away. ‘Would you care to hear the Cup?’ I asked. ‘No,’ he said, no interest in it at all. Duke must have been the only Australian who ever lived who did not wish to hear the Melbourne Cup.’
She then went on to say how she introduced Duke to folksong collector John Meredith and how he then went on to begin a second career on radio and in public performances. She also suggested that he write a book. “ ‘How would I do that?’ A start would be to go down the road to Coles and buy a few sixpenny exercise books. Not long afterwards,” Keesing continues, “he came into the office with a bundle of ruled, school exercise books – sixpenny ones were the largest available in those days - filled with big, clear writing. ‘Here’s the book. You read it and see what you think. I read it and thought it was splendid.” [End of quotes.]
Doug Stewart refused to read a handwritten manuscript so Keesing got Doug Stewart’s wife Margaret to read it and she convinced her reluctant husband to tackle the handwritten manuscript. To Keesing’s knowledge the serialised version of Time Means Tucker was set directly from Duke’s handwritten schoolbooks.
‘The most popular passage from Time Means Tucker, and the piece most frequently quoted, is his description of the Aboriginal mother who had her baby, not in a manger, but under a gum tree beside a travelling stock route, and in place of a shepherd was met by a young drover named Tritton bearing a gift of a parcel of corned beef and damper sandwiches.’
From Sydney they caught a paddle steamer to Newcastle at a cost of 2/6 (or 25 cents) each, and camped at Hexam that night, completely unaware of the renowned notorious ‘Hexam Grey’ mosquitoes. The following evening they camped at a creek beside the Singleton road. A Maitland policeman had told them to get out of town and ensured they did by following them beyond the town outskirts. The next day they encountered a friendly policeman in Singleton and were offered a lift by a teamster who, Duke said, cut ‘a striking figure’. Mr Jamison wore white moleskin trousers, Crimean shirt, high boots and a cabbage-tree hat.
At Quirindi they were introduced to the monotony of burr cutting for which they received a pound a week and tucker – the tucker consisting of mutton, damper and post-and-rail tea. After two weeks they left and picked up a couple of days work at the friendly and picturesque Breeza. They left Breeza with bulging stomachs and tucker bags, 24 shillings (or $2.40) in their pockets and very fond memories.
After Breeza the two young men were introduced to jumping the rattler, arriving at Gunnedah in time for the annual races and show. Here, in the boxing tent, Duke earned the hardest thirty-four bob (or $3.40) boxing four rounds with a young Aboriginal for a draw decision. On the Sunday they sang Ave Maria and Mother Machree outside the Catholic church for nearly one pound. They did almost as well outside the Church of England – as the Anglican Church was then known - singing Abide With Me and Lead Kindly Light.
Again they jumped the rattler, this time ending up at Narrabri on the Barwon River. Here, they and many other swagmen, were the main reason the complete town was not destroyed by fire. The tremendous effort put into fighting the fire by the itinerant workers was rewarded by six policemen arriving at the swaggie’s camp at daylight, when some were just getting to sleep following the fire, and all were ordered to get out of town immediately. No reason was given for this act. Of this incident the Duke notes that several swagmen were injured during their fire-fighting labours, one receiving a broken arm. Of two looters captured, neither was a swaggie.
The intrepid two-some then helped a drover take 7 000 sheep to Collarenebri. Now they learnt other skills, like the time-honoured, but illegal art of grass stealing. It was during this time on the road that Duke passed a large group of Aboriginal people where the impact – already mentioned – of seeing the mob and the young mother with her new-born baby left an indelible image with him for life.
Loading wool onto riverboats at Walgett, classing sheep near Brewarrina, singing for good money in the same town – again, outside churches, and at the annual show ball – and giving boxing exhibitions, kept them occupied and fed for a few days. Then they were on Charlton station on the Bogan ready for their shearing debut, which followed some rabbit poisoning on the same station.
It was at Charlton that Dutchy put four lines together that he sang to a music hall tune that had been popular in Sydney the year before. With the help of about fifty other men the Duke wrote down the song Hughie, ignoring the frequent cruder lines offered.
When the Charlton shed cut out Dutchy and Duke reached Yarrawin on the Marra Creek a couple of nights later to hear that there had been heavy rains and the Bogan, Marra, Macquarie and Marthaguy were in flood. In short, the two young men soon found themselves plodding through an inland ocean, moving from small rises to other small elevations, which they shared with sheep, roos, emus, wild pigs and snakes when they camped at nights, before they exhaustedly reached the pub at Carinda for a warm bath and good meal.
When the fence was completed they found themselves at Coonamble where they renewed their acquaintance with a travelling show and travelled through Gulargambone, Gilgandra, Dubbo, Wellington, Gulgong to Mudgee where they gave the boxing away because they were getting too knocked about for two pounds a week plus tucker and transport.
The numbers of sheep shorn at each shed in those days was enormous. At the “cut-out” a concert, or even a ball was held to celebrate the event. Duke had much to say about the dances, singing, and of the playing of fiddles, accordions and tin whistles on these occasions.
Duke relieved a coach driver when he drove a 12-passenger Cobb and Co. coach between Gulargambone and Baradine and return for a couple of weeks.
Their travels then took them with 405 head of cattle to Angledool near Lightening Ridge, then with 3 000 sheep from Walgett to a place on the Liverpool Plains.
While shearing at Bomera Duke got into a fight with a bloke who did a fine job of singing Shearing In a Bar, but insisted he had written the piece. Eventually the plagiarist shoved his plate of hot stew into Duke’s face and punched him a few times. Fortunately Dutchy intervened and gave Duke time to recover. It took two rounds for Duke to put the bloke down. Duke missed out on two days’ work because of his scalded eyes and the other bloke had trouble shearing 50 a day, though he usually shore over the hundred.
After three more months at fossicking Duke and Dutchy sold up their plant of horses, buggy and dogs, getting more money for them than they expected. So after four years on the track the boys made for Sydney and their families.
Bill told me that there was a serialised story written by an old bloke who had had many experiences in earlier days in the bush. He said that he knew I would be interested in the story and that perhaps I should read it to both of them, as I was probably a better reader than he. I did as Bill suggested and loved this yarn called Time Means Tucker written by this natural writer and bushman by the name of Duke Tritton. A few months later I was working on The Mole station on the Macquarie Marshes and heard that the Bulletin was publishing the complete story in a magazine sized paperback. I sent away for a copy and received the valued book just before Christmas. It is still in my possession.
About three years later I was living in Sydney and, with a few others, including Edgar Penzig, formed the Wild Colonial Days Society, a group that went around the countryside re-enacting bushranger events to popularise colourful historical incidents, as we believed that in the face of foreign culture, our own was doing very badly.
At monthly meeting of the WCDS the concert party of the Bush Music Club kindly came along and provided entertainment. With the concert party was a familiar looking fine looking older man with a shock of white hair. Talking to him later I found out he was actually the author of Time Means Tucker, Duke Tritton. I was immediately taken back and can recall thinking to myself that authors wrote books, you didn’t meet them! I later joined the Bush Music Club and had good talks with the Duke, and we discussed, amongst other things, the areas and stations where we both had had experiences or passed by – Nocoleche, Dunlop, Barringun, Enngonia, Toorale, and the Macquarie Marshes.
Dot and he were married in December 1909 following an unusual, but colourful courtship.
Eventually, Dot with her first born, a little daughter called “Dorrie”, kept house, or rather, camp, for her husband and three brothers at bush camps that radiated out from Mudgee. The men worked at clearing, fencing, rabbiting and ringbarking.
It was in 1912 in Mudgee that a fellow writer of verse, who had been a schoolmate of Henry Lawson, asked if the Duke would be interested in meeting and talking with Henry as he was in town on one of his infrequent visits. (I mean to say, what a question!!) They met in a private room at the Miner’s Arms hotel, which was owned by another schoolmate of Lawson, by the name of Jack Fitzsimmons. One of Duke’s strongest memories was of that 3-hour talk with his literary idol. They also spoke on the street the following day. Of his days on the track Duke said that Lawson’s works were sung as much as they were recited.
The Duke and Dot’s three brothers went into Mudgee to enlist in the army. Duke and one of his brother-in-laws were rejected as they were said to have flat feet! Both men were flabbergasted, as both had carried swags for years, tramping across most of New South Wales. Later, Duke tried again and was accepted into the army, but did not go overseas as the war finished.
In 1936 he was still only finding casual work now and then. Duke applied for a position on the rail line that was to be built between Sandy Hollow and Maryvale. Duke got the position of “powder monkey”. There was much blasting of rock to be done on this line, a railway line that was never completed. Duke received a slight fracture of the skull during a blasting mishap that took his workmates 20 minutes to dig him from.
Dropping 10-years he tried to enlist again in the army when Darwin was bombed in February 1942. The enlistment officer looked him up and down, at his greying hair, and said, “I think you’d do better to go back home and help look after the grand kids, Pop.”
Tragedy struck the family in 1943 when their son Colin died of peritonitis after he was hospitalised with appendicitis.
About 1945 Duke went back to the bush searching for gold and doing casual bush work but, as was their usual luck, the yellow metal was not to be won in appreciable amounts. They finally settled back in Sydney sometime after John Meredith first met Duke in 1955.
He travelled with Merro collecting old bush songs; he became a member of the Bush Music Club and performed with their Concert Party. He became an adviser on matters of Australiana; he performed at union and university concerts. He was on ABC Radio and made appearances on TV. In the first half of 1964 he appeared on Channel 9’s Dave Allen’s Tonight show and, according to Merro, was probably the only person to upstage the Irish comedian. Pete Seeger visited Australia that year and filmed Duke at his own home. Later in ’64 Duke toured with the Four Capitals Folk group, which visited Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide with Gary Shearston, Brian Mooney, Martin Wyndham Reed, Lenore Somerset and other young performers. It is noteworthy that Duke was 78 at the time and that he acted as Actor’s Equity union delegate for the group.
If time permits:
I got to know him very well over the years and we have a great photo of him taking the hat around outside one of the pubs in Gulgong (perhaps Mudgee?) when we were busking to raise money for a swimming pool for the local kids.
It was at his 50th wedding anniversary I met Douglas Stewart, one of my literary heroes, and when Duke’s wife Dot gave me and Lorna Lovell bush bonnets she had made for us to wear with our full, long skirts when performing.
He was a man of great integrity and we were very sad when he died so tragically.
Alan was very influenced in his style of singing by Duke and I put Merro and Scotty [Alan] in the same category as Duke and I know they’d be proud to be there.