Tom Dawson- Comedian


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

He was born Tom Besley in Wales in 1874. After a short time as a child labourer in mines and factories, he  moved with his family to Australia. His first job was with the Adelaide Advertiser, but newspaper work did not appeal to Tom’s happy go lucky nature so he left it to pursue photography. But this was too staid a profession for Tom who yearned for variety in his employment. It was not until the end of the 19th century that he found his true vocation, stage comedian.

Tom began his career singing comic songs and doing sketches and dances with small touring companies. His talent was finally spotted in 1903 when he played the dame in the pantomime, Little Red Riding Hood. It was a lucky break for him, as he replaced the original performer in the part. Tivoli manager Harry Rickards, recognized Tom’s comic potential in the pantomime and almost immediately engaged him for the famous Tivoli circuit.

From 1904, Tom was a regular feature of Tivoli shows. 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 NewZealand.  Unlike many of his fellow theatricals he had a guaranteed job and a guaranteed 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. On another occasion, 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 that she was interred next to her mother in Waverly cemetery in Sydney.

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 at Martin Place in Sydney. Two hundred men marched in military formation to create a marshal atmosphere 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 was permitted to stay in Australia and performed at several charity benefits. The most notable of these was a large charity performance for a Gallipoli veteran, Private Hodgson, who was permanently disabled by war injuries. He was also allowed to continue to earn a living whilst waiting to ship out.

 That time eventually arrived and Tom was shipped to Egypt. Yet, the desert climate did not suit his constitution and he was sick upon arrival. But he recovered and was soon entertaining the troops at Red Cross performances and cheering his fellow recruits in camp.

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

The situation there was dire and the conditions were beyond horrific. Tom with his mates sat in the trenches anxiously awaiting the order to rush the German lines in front of them.

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 he 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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