Hotel Bondi story of John Bluey Kirkwood

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It is lunchtime on a Saturday in the public bar of the Hotel Bondi almost 70 years ago and 13 barmaids in uniform are serving a couple of hundred thirsty male customers.

Some of the drinkers are barefoot and shirtless, others are smartly dressed in coats and ties. Many are ex-servicemen, with memories of the war that ended six years earlier still fresh in their minds. 

One overweight man stares up at the camera in his panama hat and well-worn, beltless trousers. He has made more effort than anyone to pose for the camera but has less reason than most to want to be photographed.

John ‘Bluey’ Kirkwood is a crippled World War II hero who spent nine agonising hours alone on an Egyptian battlefield after being shot in the back by a sniper and shredded by shrapnel through the stomach.

He is also the pub’s SP bookmaker – an agent who took illegal bets for those who could not get to the track in pre-TAB days – and may have killed a man 12 years earlier in a drunken street fight nearby. 

John ‘Bluey’ Kirkwood (circled) operated for years as an illegal SP bookmaker at the Hotel Bondi. He was captured in this iconic photograph taken the hotel’s public bar on Saturday, November 3, 1951, with a couple of hundred other thirsty men being served by 13 barmaids

Kirkwood, a forceful man kindly described as a larrikin, is without the crutches he usually needs to stand, propping himself up with two hands pressed down hard on the bar. 

The picture was taken by Sydney commercial photographer Phil Ward at 12.30pm on November 3, 1951, for Tooth & Company, which bought the pub from Reschs Ltd in July 1929.

The typed caption below the image of the heaving bar remarkably records: ‘Normal crowd’.

It was Derby Day at Melbourne’s Flemington – one of the biggest events on the Australian horse racing calendar – and if Kirkwood was taking bets, he would have been in for a busy afternoon.

The picture is a favourite at the Australian Hotels Association and hangs in the New South Wales branch office. 

‘The image certainly is iconic – capturing a snapshot in time at one of our best pubs – obviously a period when there was still a ladies lounge,’ said AHA NSW director of liquor and policing John Green.

‘The image is particularly poignant to see so many people standing together and “vertically drinking” during a time of COVID where that hasn’t happened for months.’

Kirkwood did not progress beyond the rank of private during his years in the army. 'He used to act up too much,' his great nephew Greg Toner said. 'He was a bit of a larrikin.' Kirkwood is pictured left working as a bookmaker on donkey races in Palestine

Kirkwood did not progress beyond the rank of private during his years in the army. ‘He used to act up too much,’ his great nephew Greg Toner said. ‘He was a bit of a larrikin.’ Kirkwood is pictured left working as a bookmaker on donkey races in Palestine

Kirkwood was a local legend in the Bondi district, having miraculously survived horrific injuries inflicted at El Alamein in 1942 and making worldwide news when he walked again after two years in hospital. He is pictured in a 1958 Anzac Day march

Kirkwood was a local legend in the Bondi district, having miraculously survived horrific injuries inflicted at El Alamein in 1942 and making worldwide news when he walked again after two years in hospital. He is pictured in a 1958 Anzac Day march

Kirkwood was photographed in the public bar of the Bondi Hotel on Derby Day, 1951, about three hours before the start of the Victoria Derby. That renewal was won by favourite Hydrogen, listed in the race book pictured above

Kirkwood was photographed in the public bar of the Bondi Hotel on Derby Day, 1951, about three hours before the start of the Victoria Derby. That renewal was won by favourite Hydrogen, listed in the race book pictured above 

When the Australian National University Archives, which holds a huge collection of Tooth hotel photographs, posted the picture on Facebook, it attracted plenty of comments. 

One social media user wrongly assumed it must have been shot during the notorious ‘six o’clock swill’ when drinkers belted down as many beers as possible before compulsory 6pm closing. 

Others remarked on the lack of dress regulations, the lit cigarettes and a complete absence of women, who were not allowed to drink in public bars.

But for Greg Toner, a property valuer from Orange in the Central Tablelands region of New South Wales, the scene represented something more personal.

‘The bloke in the white Panama hat at the bottom of the photo is my great uncle Jacky Kirkwood who was a local personality and ran the SP there for several years,’ he wrote.

Kirkwood was more local legend than just personality, having miraculously survived horrific injuries inflicted at El Alamein and making worldwide news when he walked again after two years in hospital.

Property valuer Greg Toner spotted his great uncle Jacky Kirkwood in the Hotel Bondi photograph when it was posted on Facebook by the Australian National University Archive. 'He was a mad bastard,' Toner says. 'But all the Kirkwoods were'

Property valuer Greg Toner spotted his great uncle Jacky Kirkwood in the Hotel Bondi photograph when it was posted on Facebook by the Australian National University Archive. ‘He was a mad bastard,’ Toner says. ‘But all the Kirkwoods were’

The Hotel Bondi, on the corner of Campbell Parade and Curlewis Street, Bondi, was built about 1919 for brewers Reschs Ltd and became part of the Tooth & Company portfolio in 1929. It is pictured in August 1930

The Hotel Bondi, on the corner of Campbell Parade and Curlewis Street, Bondi, was built about 1919 for brewers Reschs Ltd and became part of the Tooth & Company portfolio in 1929. It is pictured in August 1930 

Until his death in 1961 he was a fixture at eastern suburbs Anzac Day services, regularly photographed in his flag-bearing wheelchair, catching up with old army mates or with smiling kids trailing behind.  

Kirkwood was Toner’s father Kevin’s mother’s brother and grew up in Bondi as one of nine siblings –  four boys and five girls.

Bluey Kirkwood enlisted in the AIF at Paddington in April 1940 and was posted to the 2/32nd Infantry Battalion

Bluey Kirkwood enlisted in the AIF at Paddington in April 1940 and was posted to the 2/32nd Infantry Battalion

When Toner knew him Kirkwood ran the SP operation at the Hotel Bondi with his younger brother Gilbert. They were both once fearsome knucklemen and the whole family was a bit wild. 

‘He was a mad bastard,’ Toner, whose middle name is Kirkwood, said. ‘But all the Kirkwoods were. 

‘Jacky lived in Bondi in a block of three-story flats and they lived on the top floor. He and his brother had adjoining flats and they would have been rent-controlled.’

Toner remembered visiting the family when he was about five years old at their home a couple of streets back from the world-famous beach in Brighton Boulevard. 

‘They were just hot heads,’ he said of the Kirkwoods. ‘All they ever did was fight. 

‘They used to have Sunday lunch and after we finished the baked dinner they’d all go down into the backyard, which was concrete, and belt the crap out of one another. 

‘Jacky used to occasionally get someone to help him down the stairs and he’d belt them with his crutch.’ 

Toner recalled walking into the Hotel Bondi one day as a youngster with a mate who knew a bit about illegal gambling because his father had a pub in the country.

‘As we walked in my mate glanced over to the right hand corner where Jackie and Gilbert always drank,’ Toner said.

‘He said, “Those two blokes are running the SP”, and I said, “Well those two blokes happen to be my uncles”.

‘He said, “We’ll go over and say hello”, and I said, “No, I don’t think we’ll do that”.’

Eventually, Toner reluctantly agreed to his mate’s request and tapped his uncle Gilbert on the shoulder.

‘With that, Jacky – who was propped up against the wall – flipped one of his crutches over and grabbed the floor end and belted me over the head with the handle part of the crutch.’

‘He knocked me down and then Gilbert said, “Jacky, Jacky, don’t do that, that’s Gregory – Kevin’s son”.’

This picture in the public bar of the Hotel Bondi was taken about the same time as the image that captured Bluey Kirkwood on November 3, 1951.  Some of the drinkers are barefoot and shirtless, others are smartly dressed in coats and ties

This picture in the public bar of the Hotel Bondi was taken about the same time as the image that captured Bluey Kirkwood on November 3, 1951.  Some of the drinkers are barefoot and shirtless, others are smartly dressed in coats and ties

Another picture taken at the Hotel Bondi on November 3, 1951, shows the scene in the saloon bar. Many of the drinkers would have been World War II veterans and the lance corporal wearing a slouch hat could have been off to the Korean War

Another picture taken at the Hotel Bondi on November 3, 1951, shows the scene in the saloon bar. Many of the drinkers would have been World War II veterans and the lance corporal wearing a slouch hat could have been off to the Korean War

Bluey Kirkwood was presumably worried the boys were police. Toner’s mate had simply said, ‘Jesus, they’re flighty.’

A search of the National Library of Australia archives suggests Kirkwood had an even more colourful criminal past than his great nephew ever knew about. 

On September 8, 1939 there was a fight outside a new block of units near the Hotel Bondi in which a 32-year-old journalist called Gervan Gothard McDonald died. 

McDonald had gone to the flat of a Kathleen Banks at 50-54 Campbell Parade about 8.30pm along with a Jack Johnson and another woman called Marion Baker. 

The men brought 16 bottles of beer and three of brandy with them. McDonald got blind drunk during the night and refused to leave in the early hours of the next morning when asked. 

Local man John Kirkwood, aged 30 – which Bluey would have been at the time – arrived as McDonald was telling the group he wanted ‘to kill everybody in Bondi’. 

Kathleen Banks was quoted in newspaper reports stating Kirkwood had told McDonald: ‘I’m in a good mood and I’m not looking for a fight.’ 

‘Kirkwood was sitting silent on the couch,’ Banks said. ‘McDonald said, “Who’s this dirty little mug? I don’t like him”.

‘McDonald went over to Kirkwood and repeated the words. Kirkwood opened his eyes and said, “I don’t like that remark”.’

On September 8, 1939 there was a fight outside this flat near the Hotel Bondi in which a 32-year-old journalist called Gervan Gothard McDonald died. A John Kirkwood, 30, of Bondi, who was likely Bluey Kirkwood, was charged with manslaughter

On September 8, 1939 there was a fight outside this flat near the Hotel Bondi in which a 32-year-old journalist called Gervan Gothard McDonald died. A John Kirkwood, 30, of Bondi, who was likely Bluey Kirkwood, was charged with manslaughter

McDonald followed Kirkwood out of the flat and only the latter returned, saying, ‘That man is lying on the footpath’.

Kirkwood told witnesses when he went to shake hands with McDonald the journalist punched him under the nose. He then swung at McDonald, who fell to the ground.

McDonald was taken to St Vincent’s Hospital, never regained consciousness and died on September 12. The Government Medical Officer found McDonald’s fractured skull could have been caused by a fall, but not likely by a punch.

Kirkwood, who maintained he had done nothing wrong, was committed to stand trial for manslaughter but the result of the court case could not be found. 

Toner said he had never heard of Bluey Kirkwood being charged with killing a man but agreed it sounded like his great uncle. 

‘Although it was a surprise, it’s not surprising,’ he said. ‘I wouldn’t put it past him. The Kirkwoods were never ones to back down.’

What is known is that seven months after the fatal fight, Bluey Kirkwood enlisted in the AIF at Paddington and was posted to the 2/32nd Infantry Battalion as a machine-gunner.

Kirkwood was paralysed from the waist down and told he would never walk again after being wounded at El Alamein but refused to give. In September 1944 after two years on his back he stood for the first time. He is pictured in 1958 at an Anzac Day march

Kirkwood was paralysed from the waist down and told he would never walk again after being wounded at El Alamein but refused to give. In September 1944 after two years on his back he stood for the first time. He is pictured in 1958 at an Anzac Day march

Kirkwood was willing to go to war and fought courageously but did not progress beyond the rank of private. ‘He used to act up too much,’ Toner said. ‘He was a bit of a larrikin.’ 

Toner has a collection of photographs of his great uncle in the Middle East, including him working as a bookmaker on donkey races in Palestine. 

The 2/32nd Battalion took part of the 1941 siege of Tobruk and Kirkwood was almost killed in the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942.

With his platoon cut off by German troops, Kirkwood was hit with three shots from a sniper – one bullet going right through his spine to his stomach.

A mortar round inflicted further wounds to Kirkwood’s belly and he was left behind when his platoon surrendered.

‘I’m sorry I can’t carry you,’ a fellow Digger said. ‘Half my foot has been blown off.’ 

A German soldier uncorked Kirkwood’s water bottle and placed it beside him so he could drink after a doctor inspected his injuries and declared he was ‘done’. 

Kirkwood's 2/32nd Battalion took part of the 1941 siege of Tobruk and Kirkwood was almost killed in the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. This telegram sent to his family reports he was 'wounded in action and dangerously ill'

Kirkwood’s 2/32nd Battalion took part of the 1941 siege of Tobruk and Kirkwood was almost killed in the First Battle of El Alamein in July 1942. This telegram sent to his family reports he was ‘wounded in action and dangerously ill’

With his platoon cut off by German troops, Kirkwood was hit with three shots from a sniper - one bullet going right through his spine to his stomach. This telegram from the Minister for the Army reports he has been removed from the 'seriously ill' list

With his platoon cut off by German troops, Kirkwood was hit with three shots from a sniper – one bullet going right through his spine to his stomach. This telegram from the Minister for the Army reports he has been removed from the ‘seriously ill’ list

Nine hours after Kirkwood was hit a comrade saw him waving from his position and dragged his dying mate back behind friendly lines.

He spent five months dangerously ill in Middle East hospitals before being shipped back home to Australia.

Kirkwood was paralysed from the waist down and told he would never walk again but refused to give up.

Demanding walking irons, a corset to support his paralysed abdomen and springs to lift his feet, in September 1944 after two years on his back he stood again for the first time. 

The Sun reported when Kirkwood hobbled across a ward at Randwick’s Prince of Wales Hospital his parents and other ex-servicemen lying in their beds all cried.

‘I think it was temper that really saved me,’ Kirkwood told a reporter. ‘I used to get furious when I tried to walk around my bed and failed. 

‘I determined it wasn’t going to beat me. I am still only walking on air, mind you. I can’t feel a thing in my legs. I walk from my things, like a goose-stepping Nazi.’

Until Kirkwood's death in 1961 he was a fixture at eastern suburbs Anzac Day services, regularly photographed in his flag-bearing wheelchair, catching up with mates or with smiling kids trailing behind. This picture was taken in 1959

Until Kirkwood’s death in 1961 he was a fixture at eastern suburbs Anzac Day services, regularly photographed in his flag-bearing wheelchair, catching up with mates or with smiling kids trailing behind. This picture was taken in 1959

Kirkwood returned to his old haunts, joining the North Bondi RSL, proudly taking part in Anzac Day marches – and running the SP book at the Hotel Bondi on his crutches. 

‘He had a very strong upper body because he had to wheel himself around and get around on crutches,’ Toner said. ‘He would have had to have assistance to prop himself up to the bar with his arms. 

Toner said as his great uncle’s girth grew over the years he became even less mobile and found it increasingly hard to leave home. 

‘He’d put on a lot of weight because he was either bedridden or had to live in the wheelchair,’ he said. 

‘His really only enjoyment was that somebody would lift him out of bed into the wheelchair and take him downstairs.

‘He’d go to the Hotel Bondi and he ran the SP there every Saturday afternoon for years and years.’

'It was with sincere regret that we learned of the recent sad passing of Jack Kirkwood,' the Bondi Press reported after Kirkwood's death in August 1961

When Kirkwood died aged just 52, newspapers described him as the 'miracle man' who willed himself to walk again after suffering war wounds that should have taken his life

When Kirkwood died in August 1961, aged just 52, newspapers (left and right) described him as the ‘miracle man’ who willed himself to walk again after suffering war wounds that should have taken his life 

When the famous photograph was taken at the pub Kirkwood would have been only 42 but Toner said from his great uncle’s teenage years he had looked at least a decade older than he was.

‘He lost his hair at a very early age,’ Toner said. ‘Most of the Kirkwoods lost their hair by the time they were 21.

‘They were all born with second-hand heads – they all looked old. The whole lot of them.’ 

Kirkwood is pictured leaning out the window of his flat in Brighton Boulevard, Bondi about 1960, a year before he died

Kirkwood is pictured leaning out the window of his flat in Brighton Boulevard, Bondi about 1960, a year before he died

When Kirkwood died in August 1961, aged just 52, newspapers described him as the ‘miracle man’ who willed himself to walk again after suffering war wounds that should have taken his life. 

‘It was with sincere regret that we learned of the recent sad passing of Jack Kirkwood,’ the Bondi Press reported.

‘A notable and very popular figure in his motorised wheelchair, “Bluey”, as he was more affectionately called, became a household word here at the North Bondi RSL, his “Home Club”.

‘Never failing to miss an Anzac Commemoration March, except when the doctors ordered him to, his round cheerful face and boisterous joviality will be dearly missed in the years ahead.’

When Toner’s parents died he inherited the collection of photographs and war papers belonging to Bluey Kirkwood which he keeps in scrapbooks at home.

While Kirwood was once a well-known name around Bondi the line has just about died out.

‘There was a fair few of them down there, back behind Bondi Beach,’ Toner said.  ‘I’m the only survivor.’

Toner remembers the fighting Kirkwood family with fondness, for all their foibles and faults. 

‘They were a pretty rowdy bunch, even the women,’ he said. ‘It’s just that old left-over thing from the Irish and Scottish ancestry.

‘It was a sign of the times in the 1920s through to the 1950s. It was just the way it was back then. Nothing special about it.’

The picture showing Bluey Kirkwood is a favourite at the Australian Hotels Association and hangs in the New South Wales branch office. 'The image certainly is iconic - capturing a snapshot in time at one of our best pubs - obviously a period when there was still a ladies lounge,' said AHA NSW director of liquor and policing John Green

The picture showing Bluey Kirkwood is a favourite at the Australian Hotels Association and hangs in the New South Wales branch office. ‘The image certainly is iconic – capturing a snapshot in time at one of our best pubs – obviously a period when there was still a ladies lounge,’ said AHA NSW director of liquor and policing John Green

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