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John Eric Frith (1906–2000)

by John Broadley

John Frith, at work, n.d.

John Frith, at work, n.d.

“Give me that glass, and therein will I read.”
  (Richard II, Act 4 Scene 1) 

It is an old idea that the print media should reflect our world and ourselves, back to us. The reality is, that through the blur of column-inches full of detail, it has been up to the cartoonist to help us focus on what we see. We do that well, courtesy of the craft and cogency of artists such as John Eric Frith, who did this for us with his cartoons and caricatures. However, while Frith pointed us to the core of the story of the day, he had another story – his own! 

In the 1880s the Frith family were well known suppliers of footwear to the gentry of London, with shops in Lambeth and No. 22 Kings Road in Chelsea[1]. Although the business had, by then, been taken over by others, John’s father, Henry, was the Bootmaker-Shopkeeper at Kings Road, in 1901.[2] In 1906, John Eric Frith was born to Henry and his wife Kate[3]. Tragedy was to strike in 1909, when John’s father died[4]. The family had, by then, moved to 359 Kennington Road Lambeth[5] and were to live there for some years. Later, at the age of 93 years, John noted ‘From the age of five, until my present age, I could draw the ground plan of the apartment we had in London.’[6]

John’s mother and grandfather were great positives for him as he grew up. By contrast, John’s school years were not good years for him. He was at a boarding school, which for him was a savage place with brutal masters. ‘The food was Dickensian before the war but it was double-Dickensian when the War was on...[7] Sport and art were of most interest to John in those years, but art had a distinct downside. ‘I got belted more than the average kid at school because I could draw the masters. I really got whacked, and I was not encouraged at all for my drawing ability……..…. My first motivation to draw was to get my own back on the masters at school for whacking me. I used my art to get back at them. Later I got my own back on politicians, not that they had anything to do with my upbringing.’[8]

John Frith’s first visit to Australia was rarely discussed in the family. Other than his mention of being a jackaroo, little was known about it until more recently. In the difficult years after World War I, as John was finishing his schooling, he spent a lot of time with his Carter grandparents at Wrotham in Kent. Apparently encouraged by his grandfather, John developed an interest in farming and applied to travel to NSW under the Dreadnought Youth Migration Scheme. He was accepted and boarded the new SS Moreton Bay, just back from its maiden voyage. He was listed on the Passenger List as - FIRTH John E[9]. Occupation Farm Learner Age 15, and was one of a group of 40 Dreadnought boys. After six weeks at sea, he reached Sydney on 22 May 1922. Along with four other boys from the group, John was sent to the Cowra Apprentice Farm run by the NSW Department of Agriculture[10].

The farm training at Cowra covered horse work, ploughing, milking and fencing and other farm tasks, under the direction of the farm foreman. The tough discipline for which he was well-known, would have shocked most of these boys.  In September 1922, having completed his three months training, John was employed at Mr Jack Scott’s dairy farm at Warwick NSW, about 11.4 km northwest of Cowra on the Lachlan River. He was the first of four English Boys to have worked at the Scott farm, the last of them becoming the owner in later years[11].

Under the scheme, all Dreadnought Boys were required to write home to the UK once they had been placed in work, so we can only guess what John said in his letters. Regardless of how the individual boys had been treated, they all suffered loneliness and isolation, culture shock and tiredness, to some extent. It’s also uncertain as to how much John’s mother knew or approved of his travel to Australia, but on 23 April 1923 when the SS Hobsons Bay docked in Sydney – Kate Frith was here to take her son home![12]

Back in London, John began work with Sale and Company, one of the six private banks behind the Bank of England, with offices all over the world. He was in the Metallurgy Department of their import/export business, in the last of the great mansions in Old Broad Street[13]. He had been there nearly four years, when he was sent to Yokohama in Japan. On the voyage between Vancouver and Yokohama John marked his 21st birthday. It later emerged that his drawing of the firm’s chief in London had led to the preference for him to be given this plum job overseas. During the next two years based in Japan, John did much the same as he had been doing in London. He did have some time in Korea, which was annexed to Japan at the time. However, even with the firm’s range of agencies (for example, Rolls Royce) and the freedom his motorbike provided, the job soon became boring[14]. It was time to move on.                                                 

In late 1929, John was aboard ship on his way back to England from Japan when he arrived in Sydney. He disembarked for a day, and, he decided the ship could go without him[15]. John Frith was back in Australia[16].

It was not a good time in Australia as the Depression was now biting hard and, for the next three years especially, life was tough. Soup queues, evictions and working-age people wandering the streets, marked Sydney life! The one bright spot was the Harbour Bridge, gradually coming to completion. John Frith had some money when he arrived, but fell victim to a confidence man. ‘I was literally left with threepence in a foreign country.’[17]

Soon, art was to intervene again! John’s snapshot sketch of Premier Bavin in Martin Place was accepted by the Bulletin[18]. He was paid for the sketch, but also given a job. John took the opportunity to develop his art, to combine his skill as caricaturist with the calligraphic techniques he had discovered in Japan, to teach himself a full range of creative techniques, so that he could then call himself an artist[19]. After two years, John Frith became the Deputy Art Editor of the Bulletin.

On 30 June 1932 the new P&O liner, RMS Corfu, reached Sydney – Kate Frith was here again! This time for a celebration, the marriage of John to Dorothy Mae Horseley. John had met Dorothy within months of arriving from Japan. After marriage they lived in a flat in Kirribilli.

John had fourteen most interesting years at the Bulletin, working with Norman Lindsay and Ted Scorfield, as the three permanent artists. The place was like a club with its relaxed atmosphere, and the Metropolitan Hotel next door also played a role. People from many different walks of life came up the big front stairs of the Bulletin offices, seeking to have their work published. The Bulletin was the only paper in Australia that paid its contributors their money on the spot[20]. John Frith was always grateful for the encouragement and help he received from his colleagues at the Bulletin.

In late 1944, John joined the Sydney Morning Herald as its first cartoonist. It was not long before he made impact, especially with his cartoons of Arthur Calwell, who became federal Minister for Immigration in July 1945. John was at the SMH for five years, finishing in February 1950[21], when he was recruited by Keith Murdoch, proprietor of the Herald and Weekly Times in Melbourne. As part of the negotiations, John was able to secure a good house in Kew which he subsequently purchased. He remained at the HWT as cartoonist until he retired in 1969[22]. By the time he left Sydney for Melbourne, John had modelled and cast in bronze, some 150 heads of distinguished Australians[23].

When he retired in 1969, John Frith went to Europe, first to England — where one cold winter was enough, and then to Algeciras in Spain. While in London, a five thousand years old piece of terracotta in the British Museum ignited his interest in the material. Back in Australia, John began making hundreds of pieces. Some were made for Bendigo Pottery and included a range of toby jugs of famous Australians. He also made a range of Reform flasks. These were based on the Prime Ministers of Australia[24].

As a family man John related well to children, and drew for them as well as for adults. Retirement provided time for more pottery, caricatures and cartoons, and picture stories for the grandchildren. Eventually, John Frith moved into Moorfields Community Aged Care, in their Broadmead Hostel in Hawthorn Vic. John was still able to draw two hundred cartoons on the big whiteboard at Broadmead[25]. In time, aging took its toll and his eyesight failed.

John Frith died on 21 September 2000, aged 94. Dorothy Mae, his wife of 50 years, predeceased him. John was survived by daughter Jacqueline and son Jeffrey.

In July 2001, the Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House in Canberra, launched the exhibition, A Brush With Politics: The Life and Work of John Frith[26]. This popular retrospective showed works spanning his long career; with wide appeal it ran for months longer than first planned. It was then developed into a Visions of Australia travelling exhibition, which toured interstate. A Brush With Politics was a fitting way to celebrate John Frith’s life.

John was ever the extrovert who loved the company of people. He was a great raconteur, a master story-teller in both the short form of the cartoon and in the longer traditional form. This very interesting and articulate man could keep the story going for half an hour and still finish with a great punch-line[27]. John could draw on a great well of experiences and the extraordinary array of people that he had personally encountered. Among them were Antarctic explorers Sir Ernest Shackelton (at age 14), and Roald Amundsen (at 21); then came the array of people he met to draw, eg. Roy Rene (Mo), Lord Florey, Sir Robert Menzies[28], as well as Ben Chifley and other politicians.

In the light of his own comments, it may be asked if John Frith was vindictive. Some senior politicians might have thought so — but with such an array of subjects who, by word or action, made themselves ripe for depiction, and the relentless rhythm of publication, there was no time for campaigns of vengeance.  It seems that John, instead, had a well-honed instinct for the unfair or unwise, the punitive or problematic in attitudes of authority figures, such as politicians. He often showed himself in his drawings as John Citizen, representing those on the receiving end of their ministrations. There were many public figures forced to blink, some even to wince, when Frith turned his mirror around for them to see themselves.

A most remarkable man!                

The author is indebted to the Frith family for their generous provision of material for this story[29] and for their permission to use the photographs and drawings provided.

[1] UK Census 1881. Lambeth, Waterloo Road Second, (RG11-586/38 p6), , accessed 21 July 2011.
 J.S.C.Morris, London, 1884. Business Directory of London, Part 2: Classified… Section, Image 80/1101, , accessed 23 July 2011. 

[2] UK Census 1901. Chelsea, London, (RG13/74-122 p11)., accessed 19 July 2011. 

[3] GRO Index Births. June Quarter 1906 St Giles Vol 1b P 571., accessed 19 July 2011. 

[4] GRO Index Deaths. September Quarter 1909 Lambeth, Vol 1d P 15., accessed 21 July 2011. 

[5] UK Census 1911 Lambeth, London, (Schedule No.217)., accessed 19 July 2011. 

[6] Duff, Holmes, Sloman and Wilson, Broadmead: A Wealth of Experiences 1999. (Hawthorn Victoria: Moorfields Community, 1999). p 18. 

[7] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 19. 

[8] Duff et al, Broadmead, pp 19-20. 

[9] Name misspelt by the shipping clerk. 

[10] Dreadnought Trust - Records, 1909-1939. Digitised microfilm CY1165, supplied by the State Library of NSW. Scan p 286. 

[11] Jenny Hayes Australia – A New Country – A New Life. (Cowra NSW: Cowra and District Historical Society and Museum Inc, 2007.) p 90. 

[12] Conversations with the Frith family, during August 2013. 

[13] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 21. 

[14] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 21. 

[15] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 22. 

[16] Between 1911 and 1939 some 7,500 boys arrived in Sydney under the Dreadnought Youth Migration Scheme. Some of the Boys went back to UK, however, many of them returned as migrants in later years. 

[17] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 22. 

[18] “Mr John E Frith”. Newspaper News, 1 February, 1950. p 17. 

[19] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 23 

[20] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 23 

[21] Newspaper News, p 17. 

[22] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 24. 

[23] Newspaper News, p 17. 

[24] Duff et al, Broadmead, pp 25-26. John Frith’s work is held in at least eight major Australian Collections and in numerous private collections here and overseas. 

[25] Duff et al, Broadmead, p 27. 

[26] Museum of Australian Democracy. ( , accessed 14 July 2011. 

[27] Conversations, August 2013. 

[28] Duff et al, Broadmead, pp 18 and 24. 

[29] This story was compiled in 2016, by John R Broadley, as a significant addition to the stories of other boys who came to Australia with the Dreadnought Scheme.

Original Publication

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Citation details

John Broadley, 'Frith, John Eric (1906–2000)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 21 April 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012

John Frith, at work, n.d.

John Frith, at work, n.d.

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Life Summary [details]


13 June, 1906
London, Middlesex, England


21 September, 2000 (aged 94)
Richmond, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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