Thomas G Rabbets (1875-1919)
Social Commentator, Journalist.
Thomas G Rabbets was one of the smallish number of self educated Queensland journalists who wrote sharp-eyed and much admired columns in prose and verse in the period up to the end of the first world war.
Rabbets was born at Grenfell, NSW, in 1875. His father was killed when Rabbets was 9 years old, so Rabbets was sent out to work as an apprentice printer at the age of 12. Within a few years he had progressed to edit a number of newspapers in rural NSW, before moving to Queensland in 1901. There he worked as a sports journalist, till in 1916, he became a leader writer for the Brisbane Courier (now the Courier Mail).
At the Courier he wrote bi-weekly columns under the name 'St Ebbar'. These columns discussed in prose and verse the topical issues of the day. There are poems about the first world war, daylight saving, the Golden Casket (recently introduced by the Ryan Government to meet the cost of public hospitals), Trades Union, the school syllabus, religion (Rabbets was a staunch Methodist) and the communist threat. Some of his essays include light hearted examinations of topics like the Melbourne Cup, six o'clock closing, the 1919 influenza epidemic, the sale of stale bread and the development of a Brisbane Town Plan.
His last published essay was another light hearted piece called 'Seeing a specialist', which prefigured his own death, probably from cancer, in June 1919.
A collection of his work, called 'Whimplin Whimsies' was published late in that year, in a handsomely bound edition of 300, with an introduction by the Courier's editor, Firmin McKinnon. McKinnon is half apologetic for the quality of the work that was included in the book, saying 'Many of the verses in this volume were "struck-off" on the type-writer while staff men hurried in and out of the office'.
It's true that at the time this book was being published, T.S. Eliot and his colleagues were revolutionising poetry in English, and the British war poets were exploring the human condition in a deep and profound way. But if you want to know the attitudes of an ordinary Queenslander to the pressing local issues of the day, there is no better place to start than in Rabbets' book.
Of the poems I have selected for this site, 'Rub! Dub!....' is a reminder of the recruitment marches which were used to attract volunteers The first of these, the 'Cooee' march began at Gilgandra, NSW, in October of 1915. The Queensland March, known as the Dungaree, started at Warwick, on the Darling Downs, on November 20 in that year and raised 120 volunteers. 'Rub Dub' is a jingoistic piece that records fairly accurately the prevalent nationalistic fervour:
What has brought these men from stations and selections and from farms?
'Tis the call of Mother England! See her stretching forth her arms!
Keep your eyes wide open, brother! See afar the brutal Huns!
Will you leave it to the braver men to man the Empire's guns?
'Men of Brisbane' is also jingoistic, but records with a journalist's eye the fact that only one of the 120 volunteers joined up at Brisbane:
And when they get to Brisbane, a rally great they hold;
Oh see there in Market-square the heroes young and bold.
And when the last appeal is made, the loyal cheering done,
They get a "heartening" response of volunteers- one.
A third poem, 'Damitall' is a humorous reminder of the lengths that people would go to, in 1917 as now, to avoid being caught breaching water restrictions.
Rabbets lived a full life outside of work. The pieces in Whimplin Whimsies show a wide experience and, best of all, a positive outlook. He married twice, the second time to the sister of prominent Brisbane solicitor Sid Fletcher, and found the time to conduct both the Albert Street and West End Methodist choirs. He was a skilled pianist, and published a number of musical compositions. Rabbets died widely mourned, by the journalistic, legal and sporting communities of Brisbane and left behind a book to be savoured.
Best book to buy: Rabbets, T.G., Whimplin Whimsies, Brisbane, R.G.Gillies and Co, 1919.
McKinnon, F. Introduction in Whimplin Whimsies and other Selections Brisbane, R.G.Gillies & Co, 1919, p6.
Australian War Memorial Website: https://www.awm.gov.au/encyclopedia/recruiting_march/statistics/, accessed 5/11/12.
Death of Mr T.G.Rabbets, in The Queenslander, 14 June, 1919, p3.