Arthur W. Upfield: A Brief Biographical Sketch

Andrew Milnor, Glenn Bartle Professor of Social Theory, State University of New York at Binghamton

William Arthur Upfield was born on 1 September 1890, at 87-88 North Street, Gosport, and christened in the Gosport Methodist Church on 9 October of that year. Though by the time he arrived in Australia he was Arthur W. Upfield, he was christened with the first two names in reverse order, the order changed because (a) there was another William Upfield and (b) the locals would ask for William, creating confusion. Informally, the order was changed.

He was raised mostly by his grandmother and two great aunts, ostensibly because there was no room in the eleven room house-cum-draperŐs shop run by his father. He was very sick as a child, an illness which went into remission and probably began again in his late adolescent. On the advice of his doctor — go to a dry climate or "I shall not be responsible for your life in three years" — and with the full approval of his father, he emigrated to Australia in late 1910, where he began a love affair with the continent which never ended.

Arriving in Adelaide with letters of introduction in hand, to a firm which did exactly what he had failed at in England, he took a position as farm hand about 100 miles east of Adelaide, in Pinnaroo, but, upon calculating how long it would take before he would have enough money to buy a farm, he returned to Adelaide determined to find an ordinary job among several of his mates from Gosport.

He worked as a gardener in the suburb of Mitcham, left that to work briefly at the South Australia Hotel, but upon seeing an ad for "boundary riders wanted" he applied, and after several rejections, for he was completely unqualified, he got a job as a "jackeroo" on Momba Station, near Wilcannia. After six or so months he left the job as "offsider" to a local character and became a boundary fence rider (i.e., maintenance) on the station. After about a year he left that job and began to wander in the Bush, eventually ending up in Queensland where in 1914 he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Forces, went to Gallipoli, thence to Egypt, back to Gallipoli, and on to England. Fought one week in France and was returned to England suffering myalgia, the same disease which ended his Gallipoli experience. He left the service in 1919, after five years.

In 1915, at Alexandria, he married one of his nurses, Sister Anne Douglas, who was then summarily dismissed from the Nursing Service for marrying. When her husband was sent to England, she journeyed there where they settled in Hampshire, his original home county. Taking a civil service job at Tidwell Barracks, he worked through the summer of 1920 (hottest on record), quit, and in late 1920 they left for Australia with their son, born in February, 1920. They settled near Melbourne, where Arthur, first worked on a dairy farm and then in a factory, lasting until February 1922, when he determined to leave Melbourne and return to the Bush. Thus began a three and a half year separation, informal to boot, which would be resolved in 1927 when he joined his family briefly in Victoria, and then in Perth.

By 1916 he had already written several local newspaper articles, in 1917 three in the London Daily Mail, and two short stories published in 1918-1919. He had put together the clippings and outline of a mystery in 1919 but nothing came of it. In 1923 and 1926 he published two articles — one on dingoes and the other on rabbits — and in turn received a commission from Wide World Magazine for articles on immigration to Australia. By this point he had already started House of Cain, and was thinking about a mystery. Cain was published in 1928, followed by Barakee, in which he introduced the famous Bony, modeled on a short contact with a bi-racial in Queensland.

After a non-Bony book he put together Sands of Windee, which made him famous though had little effect on sales. The book was used as a guide to murder one or more "swaggies" with an ingenious method of disposing of the body. At the 1932 trial of the alleged murderer, Upfield was something of a star witness, annoying to him because it kept him and his family in Western Australia. In October 1933 he received a six-month contract from the Herald (Melbourne) newspaper and was able to bring his family back from Perth to Victoria. He was let go in March 1934.

He was now producing between one and two books a year, selling modest numbers in England, but few in Australia. In 1936 he suffered a severe nervous/ orthopaedic illness which, coupled with an apparent heart attack, nearly left him crippled. He never recovered his full strength. With the outbreak of World War II, he volunteered to work for the intelligence services and abandoned writing for about four and a half years. Slowly he recovered his pen, and, with booming sales in North America, was now able to live on writing alone, to the point that in 1949 he purchased a Daimler Phaeton. In 1946, having left his wife, he met Jessica Uren (née Hawke), a war widow, and remained with her until he died.

Save for an expedition to northwest Western Australia, he would not return to the Bush, but traveled as much as his health would allow, and as his fame grew. In 1950-51 he built a summer house at Bermagui, NSW, although his swordfishing was abandoned just after the expedition. He and his partner — Anne would not consent to a divorce — moved from Victoria to Bowral, just southwest of Sydney, in 1957. He had had a major heart attack in 1951 and suffered a series of continuing illnesses, although he continued to write Bony books until he died in February 1964. Jessica Hawke died the following year, in May.

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