Edward Phillip Harrington was an Australian poet and short story writer, the last of the bush balladists.
Edward "Ted" Harrington was born to Phillip Henry and Margaret nee O'Brien on the 28th September 1895. His early youth was spent in the Shepparton area where his father worked a small wheat growing property at Pine Lodge Creek.
It was here that his sister, Mrs Reilly, recalls Ted composing his first poem at the age of nine as part of a competition between the two siblings to see who could write the most impressive verse. His sister recalled that Ted immediately set to work and produced a five stanza poem which "...was a much better piece than mine even though I'd copied one out of a school reader."
Ted's skill with the pen was soon recognised by one of his teachers, Mr McKernan, at Shepparton East State School. Mr McKernan sent off some of the young poets work to the Department of Education and the offer of a partial scholarship was made for the then, Bendigo College. However, Ted's parents were unable to pay for his board and soon after the family moved to a small selection at Wanalta, not far from Colbinabbin.
Phillip Harrington expected that his sons would assist on the farm but as his sister recalls, for Ted, there were always other priorities... "He'd leave the horse and plough in the middle of the paddock so he could write down what was in his mind straight away, and if father found them or came upon a half milked cow or a half-sown crop he'd come storming into the kitchen. Our mother would simply say she'd called Ted in to have a cup of tea."
The young Ted attended the Wanalta School - referred to by that other local writer Joseph "Tom Collins" Furphy as "...the schoolhouse on the plain..." - and followed in Furphy's lead by contributing his poems to the Rushworth Chronicle under the pseudonym "A Wanalta Schoolboy". And when he left, at age fourteen, his formal education was complete although, as his once father commented, "He was always reading!".
The Hills of Whroo
But, as for many young men in the district at the time, Ted's life was to be changed irrevocably with the onset of war. The Rushworth Chronicle of March 23rd, 1917 offers the first known publication of a poem by Ted Harrington under his own name. A recollection of youthful adventures it reads in part:
"Far below us in a hollow
Slumber'ing in the morning haze,
Lay the quaint, old mining township,
Relic of the Roaring Days.
Through its empty streets we cantered
And our reins we never drew,
For our thoughts were in the future,
Riding o'er the hills of Whroo."
The poem's publication included the editors footnote "The above lines were composed by Private E.Harrington, the third son of Mr and Mrs p. Harrington of WandIra to enlist for active service." What prompted Ted, who is remembered by all who knew him as sensitive and thoughtful man, and who, himself, in his later life remarked on the brutality of war, to enlist is perhaps contained in the final lines of The Hills Of Whroo:
"Aye; 'tis verdant green, old comrade,
But - your grave is verdant, too!
And we'll go no more together,
Riding o'er the hills of Whroo."
Ted joined the Fourth Light Horse Division and saw service in Palestine. He was in the Charge of Beersheba, the siege of Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley campaign (Ess-Alt) and the final Battle of Damascus. It would be easy to suggest that Ted hardened himself to the horrors of war but in a letter to Miss J.G. Shain he reveals that the thoughtful poet and experienced soldier went through everything together:
"A couple of nights before the charge of Beersheba (31st October 1917) Joe McGrath recited Henry Lawson's 'Star of Australia' at a concert at Tel El Tara. Joe was rather a rough elocutionist but it impressed me greatly. When the charge occurred I knew how well Lawson had visioned it. Poor old Joe, the rough elocutionist had his leg blown off."
After The War
It would be fair to say that, like many returned servicemen, for many reasons, Ted was never really able to settle back into his old life again. At the end of the war he returned to the family selection but his health had suffered greatly during the war and he spent siix months at the Caulfield Military Hospital before being trained as a plasterer as part of the Repatriation Department's Vocational Guidance Scheme. He moved between the city and the country staying with various family members and even working as a rouseabout and drover...but, as always, he continued writing.
By the 1930s he was a regular contributor to the Bulletin and helped to found a number of literary groups including the "Bread and Cheese Club" and the "Lawson Society". He also published three volumes of his poetry - all now unfortunately out of print - and a number of Poetry Society pamphlets. All of this took place at a time when a poets skill was widely appreciated and the 'bush balladeer' from Wanalta was greatly respected by his contemporaries and critics alike.
But as 'new' poetry styles emerged Ted found himself part of a generation of writers forgotten by many, even in literary circles. A striking -and ironic - example, both of Ted's enduring talent and the 'changing of the guard' that took place in popular tastes, occurred in 1954 when the new musical "Reedy River" premiered in Melbourne. In the audience was the writer of the Australian classic "Power Without Glory", Frank Hardy, and he was amazed to hear that the song "My Old Black Billy", which was included in the show, had been attributed as a traditional Australian bush ballad. Hardy arranged for Ted, who had written the song less than 15 years before, to attend the last night of the musical's record breaking eight month run in Sydney where he was called onto the stage and receive his due applause.
As with much of Ted's work the origins of the song hark back to the Wanalta selection and and his war years. As Hardy reported: "Suddenly Harrington remembered the shack he lived in as a boy, with a tall gum tree just outside the door. Many swagmen used to pass that way and his mother would nearly always have the oven full of scones. Many of the swaggies were shy and his mother would say 'Ted - tell him to come in' and he would go out and get them ....."
The thing that stood out most in Ted's memory was the inevitable old black billy - the most conspicuous part of the swagman's kit - 'plain and sensible' ..." And in Harrington's own words: "Even in Palestine with the light horse the 'old black billy was considered the most important part of a soldier's kit, even more so than his rifle. At every stop the chaps would be scurrying all over the place looking for sticks to build a fire and boil a billy"
Ted's contribution during World war Two included working in a munitions factory and for the Department of Aircraft Construction where a young lady he worked with, now living in Nagamble, remembers him fondly as a 'lovely, quiet gentleman' that she would sit with during her lunch breaks.
Ted retired on a T.P.I. pension and continued to write regularly for newspapers across the state, the Bulletin, the Catholic Leader and the Labor Call. But the war never left him and with the onset of Vietnam he published a poem in pamphlet form" arguing against committing Australian troops to what he believed was a foreign conflict. The poem was titled "This Is Not Home Defence" and the copy in the State Library includes the words, in Ted's hand, "My contribution to' the Vietnam controversy 26.7.1965."
A colleague of his wrote at this time: "He is in and out of Heidelberg, his diet seems to consist of mainly capsules, tablets and brandy. Melbourne weather is not the best climate for his war disabilities." Less than a year later, almost fifty years after his enlistment at Rushworth, Edward 'Ted' Harrington passed away.
He never recovered from his war service mentally. phvsicallv or spirituallv and retained a certain bitterness, that other ex-serviceman in all three wars have written of, that the society he returned to transformed itself into something that he did not feel he had fought for. But, commenting on father's recollections of his workmate John Dunn - the last surviving member of Ben Hall's bushranging gang - Ted reveals a little of the personal philosophy that may have allowed him to reconcile his experiences of war with his life afterwards - "There's a spirit of goodness even in things evil, perhaps it is the ~ beginning of wisdom to recognise this."
In remembrance of Ted and those who served:
"We answered to the call to arms, unquestioning and blind,
We trusted to the promises of those we left behind.
We gave our lives ungrudgingly. we did not flinch nor quail,
Strong in the splendid faith we held that justice must prevail,
And as we drew our latest breath in sorrow and in pain,
This faith upheld us to the last: "We did not die in vain."
From "The Dead Come Home" by Edward Harrington