Frank Charles Francis (1895-1980)
Poet, Musician, tireless literary worker
If Frank Francis is remembered at all today, it is for his association with the literary figures of his time. But that is unfair, because he left us a body of work, written in his scarce spare time, that is a fine evocation of his era.
Francis was born in Seymour, Victoria, the eldest of 10 children, on 17 April 1895. He moved to Queensland in 1910. Like so many authors featured on this site, despite limited opportunities, he developed an interest in literature at an early age. But in 1919, his father died, and he and his sister Kathleen were left with the task of providing for their extended family.
He joined the Queensland Main Roads Board upon its creation in 1920 and worked for that department for over 40 years. According to Hornibrook, Francis engaged in ‘mechanical work on railway construction’, but it now seems that his principal occupation in these early years was as a tally clerk, with the rail gang on the Dayboro rail link. He married in 1923, and somehow continued to find time for literature. His poems were first published in local papers in the early 1920s, and by 1927 he had reached the Bulletin. For the next 50 years, Francis published poetry and short stories under his own name and under the pen names ‘Fanuel’ and ‘Fanuela’. In the late 1920s, he collaborated with W.J. Buckley on a musical comedy, ‘Tangles’, which, it is said, was often performed in the pioneer days of radio.
From the 1930s he was associated with the Queensland Authors and Artists Association, and his poems appeared in the Catholic Poetry Society’s one-off publication ‘The Southwellian’.
But Francis seems to have been at his peak during the second world war. The Main Roads Department had its own drama club, and Francis produced plays for them in aid of the war effort. He conducted the choir at Corpus Christi Catholic Church, Nundah, took his part in raising 5 children and for a time helped take care of the ailing John Shaw Neilson, who briefly lived in the (presumably very crowded) Francis family home.Perhaps most remarkably, while all of this was going on, he published his two main books of poetry, Crest of the Rainbow (1943), and Columbus Journeyed South, (1944).
Cecil Hadgraft says that Francis’ work ‘greets the joys and mishaps of life with invincible confidence’. I think this is true for some of his work, but there is also often a hint of wistfulness, a kind of lament for a simpler, more solitary life (which is perhaps not surprising given his own busy existence).
For example, from the poems I have selected for this website (reprinted with the kind permission of the Francis family), Exhibition Cameo (one of the few quality poems about the Brisbane Exhibition), begins when the ‘music and the laughter simmer down’ and ends when:
A disappointed child who stood without
The gilded grounds goes slowly, sadly, home.
From Exhibition Cameo
Likewise, though in real life, the Bells of Condamine were anything but musical, being audible for 6 or 7 miles, Francis finds in their tones a kind of pastoral reverie:
Evening bells at Condamine,
Herds are wending home;
Furrowed fields expectant as the seedlings faintly creep.
Dusk is on the border line,
Bees within the comb,
And all the heart of Condamine goes down the tide of sleep.
From The Bells of Condamine
Francis’ work is, however, quite varied in its form and tone and has shows a range of poetic skills. In 1938, he published an obituary in verse to C.J Dennis, which is a note perfect rendering of the idiom and metre of The Sentimental Bloke:
‘E’s done ‘is dash and crossed the bloomin’ bar,
And left us blokes ter mourn ‘is empty chair,
The alley ain’t the same w’en ‘e’s not there,
An’ all ‘is cobbers arskin w’ere ‘e are.’
From Vale, the Sentimental Bloke
After the war, Francis continued his literary work, but published little verse. He became President of the Queensland Authors and Artists Association in 1950, served as its secretary in the early 1960s, and compiled its official history . He also set some of Shaw Neilson’s poems to music. His family remembers literary gatherings being held in his backyard in the 1950s, where Paul Grano distinguished himself in conservative Brisbane by wearing a beret!
Upon retirement, Francis established the Redcliffe Branch of the Fellowship of Australian Writers (the successor to the QAAA) edited a final work by his great friend James Devaney and a slim volume of Redcliffe poetry, and published two late volumes of his own verse (which are now very difficult to obtain).
He died in September 1980, and left behind him a talented family, many of whom followed in his footsteps in one way or another. One son, became a successful actor on stage and screen. A grandson became bass player for the Go-Betweens (it is his beautiful nylon string guitar solo you hear in Streets of your Town) and now lectures in sound design. Another grandchild is musically gifted and a great grandchild plays in a number of different bands. Another granddaughter is a widely published social theorist. Another two grandchildren followed his work path, at the Department of Transport and Main Roads, (the successor to the Main roads Board).
Perhaps we should leave the last word to Francis, though:
When I have died build me no monument….
But deck the spot with greenness and pass on,
Remembering I loved Australia’s skies,
Her little creeks and falls, her singing birds,
Her waving wheatfields, and her high blue hills.
I ask no fame, no poet’s panegyric-
I would but live in hearts that knew me best.
Best book to buy: Francis: F.C., Crest of the Rainbow, Melbourne, The Hawthorn Press, 1943.
Hornibrook, J.H. Bibliography of Queensland Verse, Brisbane, A.H. Tucker, 1953, 27.
Aubade, in The Bulletin 29 December, 1927.
Poet also wrote Music, composed Songs, obituary in The Catholic Leader,19 October, 1980.
Hanna, C. Jock, a life story of John Shaw Neilson, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1999, 280.
Hadgraft, C, Queenslandand its Writers, St Lucia, University of Queensland Press, 1959, 51.
The Courier Mail 24 January 1938, (under the name ‘Fanuela’).
Freer, M, Recollections of Writers and Writing in Mellick, JSD Writers’ Footprints, North Melbourne, Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2010, 16.