Jack often claimed some of his work as factual (for example, in the second Madman’s Island and all but two of the stories in The Yellow Joss) but other people have accused him of falsifying his facts or of mixing facts with misinformation, exaggeration and innuendo. The self-styled adventurer, Dick Smith, did both. In his own “fly-in-fly-out” style (and with 55 years of hindsight) he examined the story of Lasseter’s reef and criticised Jack’s Lasseter’s Last Ride which was written contemporaneously with Lasseter’s expedition.
Jack’s account in The Desert Column of the fall of Beersheba has also been disputed (see http://mc2.vicnet.net.au/home/woer1769/index.html) and in an excellent biography of James Dick, he was shown in The Tin Scratchers to have been mistaken about the names of two significant North Queenslanders. Jack said he met “James Dickie” (pp17-20) but there was no such person. In Peninsular Pioneer (pp127/128) it is clear that Jack met James Dick. Jack obviously confused James Dick with John Dickie – another larger-than-life North Queenslander.
And certainly, Jack did from time-to-time tell imaginative yarns arising out of his experiences. He was always able to take an idea and embellish it to make a good story. In the second Madman’s Island the discussion with Charlie about ambergris was included in The Yellow Joss, and in 1937 in The Canberra Times. In these imaginative stories the desolate, inhospitable Howick Island was transformed into a tropical paradise, home to a contented beachcomber.
However, one of Jack’s strangest mistakes concerns the name of one of his best mates. Jack wrote a book about him – My Mate Dick – and dedicated The Opium Smugglers to “my mate Dick’. Only occasionally did Jack refer to his mate as anything other than just plain Dick.
However, when he did use Dick’s family name he got it wrong.
In the Author’s Note to The Yellow Joss, Jack refers to Dick as Dick Welch. In My Mate Dick (for example, P30) he also refers to his mate as Dick Welch. And again – in The Tin Scratchers (for example, p38) Dick is referred to as Dick Welch. Beverley Ely in her biography Ion Idriess (for example, pp64, 109) also refers to Dick Welch.
Surprisingly, Jack got the spelling of Dick’s family name wrong. Richard Albert Welsh was born in Cooktown in June 1894 and his service record confirms his name.
Nevertheless, I believe that when Jack set out to provide a descriptive record, he wrote facts as far as he knew them. Mistakes? Certainly. But my conclusion about the truth of Jack’s work is best illustrated by a quote from Mark Twain – one in which he had Huckleberry Finn say about Tom Sawyer:
“There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth”
That’s it. Jack did sometimes stretch things a bit but mainly he told the truth.
Dick’s birth certificate.
National Archives of Australia, Defence Service Records, Barcode 8381302, B2455,
Dick, A J, Peninsular Pioneer, Privately published, 2003.