After the discovery of sheet music with a common lyricist published in Central Queensland around 1917, Janet Stevenson was compelled to investigate further.
When a family friend passed an old and beloved folio of early-twentieth-century sheet music on to me, I became intrigued about the missing back page of the World War I tune, “Boys of the Dardenelles” (1915). Upon further investigation, I was puzzled to discover many pieces of music with lyrics by one Ezra Thomas Shorley, all published in Rockhampton, Central Queensland by the Record Printing Company. This business was a name I recognised – but Shorley’s was not.
My preliminary research into local resources, as well as via Trove, could not satisfy my curiosity. I discovered some Shorley descendants who were still living locally. But who was Ezra Thomas Shorley?
In 2014, I received a grant from the Regional Arts Development Fund to continue my research, which led to some amazing finds in the National Library of Australia’s archive. This research ultimately led to two large community concerts in Central Queensland, featuring the popular music of World War I, as well as making links with community organisations such as the 9th Infantry Reenactment Unit and the Returned Serviceman’s League.
With the support of Shorley’s descendants, who shared some of their family history, I embarked on a project to create a stage production. I didn’t realise what I had started yet, eventually, the story of a colourful local figure came to life.
Born in 1868 in Bedfordshire, England, Shorley immigrated to Maryborough on the Fraser Coast in 1888 and later moved north to Central Queensland. He became well known in the small town of Bajool as a Shire Councillor and an active worker for his community. His name features regularly in press reports about cricket, the shire minutes, and even accounts of community events.
In the early years of World War I, Shorley lost his wife to tuberculosis and his two eldest sons joined the Australian Imperial Force. But in 1915, too old for active service, Shorley encouraged local men to sign up “to fight for Australia and the Empire.” In the local Rockhampton newspaper The Capricornian, Shorley asserted, “If in the position, he would go himself.”
By early 1916, he was actively working across the shire as a recruiting sergeant, appointed by the Department of Defence.
Family recollections picture Shorley as always strutting around in uniform, riding his horse, and questioning young men as to why they weren’t in uniform. Such memories portray this local character as a stickler for rules and a patriotic supporter of the war. What many failed to realise was that he was obeying to the letter the dress code regulations specified in the Revised Instructions for Local Recruiting Committees and Recruiting Sergeants, issued by the Queensland Recruiting Committee in Brisbane in 1916.
Given this background, why does a middle-aged father of eight suddenly start writing poetry and song lyrics around 1916? The tumultuous events of his recent life must have been factors which precipitated this change, although there is evidence of his earlier participation in the organisation of clubs, sports, and other entertainment for small community events.
According to Melissa Bellanta (2012) in her article “Australian Masculinities and Popular Song: The Songs of Sentimental Blokes 1900-1930s,” communal singing took place in the home and elsewhere in Australia. It remained a favoured pastime during the first three decades of the twentieth century. Shorley’s life supports the premise made by Bellanta that men had not lost their taste for the sentimental:
Masculine sentimentality was not extinguished during the war. On the contrary, … forms of sentimental culture assumed a heightened significance for men at that time. … [t]he intensifying pressures on men to behave stoically and without ostentation in this period went hand in hand with the avid consumption and performance of sentimental songs well into the 1920s and indeed the 1930s as well.
Whether as a direct response to troubles in his own life or as another opportunity to make a living, Shorley lived through the very era of which she speaks. His own experiences would have provided insight into the way men on the land and in regional towns and cities responded to songs at community gatherings and public performances. Because of this popularity of sentimental songs, at home and on the front, Shorley possibly saw this as a potential money-maker for himself, another of his many projects throughout his life.
On the one hand, Shorley embodied the stoicism and masculine behaviours that Bellanta describes. He was not one to back down from an altercation, either in words as in letters to local newspapers or face-to-face as in a confrontation during a council meeting. On the other hand, between 1916 and 1937, Shorley published patriotic song lyrics and personal poems locally, in regional newspapers from Cairns to Newcastle, and in Queensland’s capital, Brisbane.
There is no indication of when he wrote most of his poetry, only that he published his volume Poetic Reflections In Rhyme and Reason in 1925 and again in 1937.
A poem published in this volume, entitled “What Some People Say,” expressed how Shorley clearly had to contend with people ribbing him for his poetry. But he was not to be swayed from his writing: “It helps to cultivate the mind, and smooth the rugged patches.”
In the last years of World War I, sheet music featuring lyrics by Shorley appeared in print. The patriotic chorus to his first published sheet music “For They’re Defenders of Our Country” (1917) read:
For they’re defenders of our country,
Noble, brave, and true –
Over the bounding billows,
Over the waters blue.
On the burning plains of Egypt,
On the snowy slopes of France,
Fighting the Turk and the German,
They’re the boys to make them dance.
As Robert Holden notes in And the Band Played On: How music lifted the Anzac spirit in the battlefields of the First World War (2014), “both the London Times and Sydney’s Daily Telegraph reported in 1916”:
The Australians are, if not a nation of musicians, at least a singing people; and their soldiers come from homes of music. But they had no marching songs … A school of soldier song writers sprang up in the Commonwealth. The songs were all sorts; some were good, many bad; but all had to pass the test, not of merit, but of acceptability to the men who had to sing them.
The popularity of wartime favourites such as Edward H. Tyrrell’s “Cooee, Cooee, You’re Wanted at the Dardanelles” (1915) and especially Walter Francis’s “Australia Will Be There” (1915) was recognised by both ANZAC troops and on the home front.
Shorley’s lyrics also filled this need for marching songs. Other titles include “March On! March On! Australians” (1917) and “The Day of Victory” (1918). The chorus of “March On!” referred to “bold Canadians” as well as helping the “Mother Country”; it takes on quite a jaunty gait if he only had arranged it for brass band, as performed in 2016. The latter song, “The Day of Victory,” was subtitled: “In commemoration of the signing of the Armistice, 11th November, 1918.”
Shorley frequently conjures images of home, family and romance while dealing with war and patriotic issues in his early lyrics. “The Peace Song – Joy Bells are Ringing” (1918) offers a sentimental home-coming from families and communities:
Marching in line, and swinging in time,
You come back over the main,
Joy-bells are ringing with glorious peace,
Welcome, brave lads, home again!
Several of his poems from Poetic Reflections reminisce about regrets and reflect over his life. This is in stark contrast to the masculine themes in some of the bush poetry and poems written during the Great War, as well as to Shorley’s own humorous or political verse. The poem “We Meet in Peace,” written after the Great War, provides some insight:
May we with tender care and mind, be ever to their loved ones kind,
May we their darkness turn to light, and shield them with a giant’s might;
The orphan who will see no more, the face he loved in days of yore,
Let us be merciful and true, and help him on life’s path anew.
Other poems, such as “In Memoriam,” appear to reflect on the passing of his first wife, Miriam. “To a Friend” is to a lady friend, possibly his second wife, Daisy. Songs about the seaside including “Down on the Sands at Emu Park” (1918), the beauty of nature and rural locations portray his softer side and probably also his growing relationship with Daisy (and marriage in the same year). In contrast, the poem “Old Father Time” portrays Shorley as an optimist, loving life and resisting the effects of old age: “I am busy now you see.”
Was the sentimental something that society just accepted more readily in that era? Choirs (including male choirs), brass bands and dance bands remained very popular at the turn of the twentieth century. Vaudeville and travelling troupes were all the rage. Shut down laws had been enacted in most states in 1916 (but not until 1923 in Queensland) so alternative entertainment was sought, and World War 1 was in full swing.
The period between the wars brought many changes in Shorley’s life. A common thread was his ability to reinvent himself whenever things didn’t work out. From Shire councillor to poet and lyricist, from vocalist and comedic entertainer to hawker, Shorley displayed this recurrent optimism.
The climax of Shorley’s life occurred when he performed “The Peace Song – Joy Bells Are Ringing” at the end of World War II. Rockhampton’s Morning Bulletin reported a huge crowd at peace celebrations in the city’s main street. As one letter at the National Library of Australia attests, Shorley reported to Justice Ferguson (of the Industrial Commission of NSW, later Sir John Ferguson) that he had performed his song in these very celebrations and detailed the enormous satisfaction he felt at this time. His life was a succession of projects and a constant striving for success – a forerunner to the modern entrepreneur, albeit of limited realisation. Shorley died less than a year after his grand performance.
A century after Shorley farewelled his sons as they embarked for the Great War, the stage production The Optimist: The Life of Ezra Thomas Shorley in his own words premiered over the 2016 Anzac Day weekend across Central Queensland in Rockhampton, Mount Morgan, and Emu Park. Directed by Rod Ainsworth and with a cast of local talent from Rockhampton and the Capricorn Coast, The Optimist brought to life a real local character through his words and song, allowing audiences to relive an era of loss and hardship experienced by so many.
To find out more about E.T. Shorley and the 2016 stage production of The Optimist, check out the State Library of Queensland’s blog and digital story:
Janet Stevenson is a Heritage Leader for Q ANZAC 100: Memories for a New Generation, a five-year Queensland-wide program of legacy initiatives commemorating 100 years of World War I. Janet is also a writer, researcher, and the playwright of The Optimist: Ezra Thomas Shorley in his own words (2016). Originally involved in education, Janet completed her Masters of Education (Research) at Central Queensland University and continues her long-standing involvement with music education and community music projects.
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