Finding Teddy Smith

14 December 2018 by Claire Hunter

Deucem with his wife Daisy.

Deucem Smith with his wife Daisy. Photo: Courtesy the Smith family

When Melissa Smith started working at the Australian War Memorial, she had no idea she would solve a family mystery.

While the digital producer knew her great-grandfather, William “Deucem” Smith, was considered to be one of the finest shearers of the 20th century, little was known about his brother who served during the First World War.

“It wasn’t until Deucem was inducted into the Australian Shearer’s Hall of Fame in 2005 that we realised his brother had even served during the First World War,” Melissa said.

“It was when my father, Warren, saw his photograph at the Hall of Fame in Hay that we first found out. The picture was of Deucem and his brother, and his brother was wearing a soldier’s uniform, but we didn’t even know what his name was … All we had was the name ‘Smith’ … And that’s how it all started.”

Her great-grandfather, Deucem, was a Muruwari man from Bourke who worked as a shearer throughout New South Wales and southern Queensland between 1912 and 1947. He got his nickname in 1912 when he declared that he would “deuce” or out-shear “all the back-bent, bag-booted jumbuck barbers” at the Dunlop shearing shed at Darling. He made good on his claim, shearing as many as 290 sheep a day, and managed to shear 1,430 sheep in one week while nursing a broken thumb.

“His skill with the shears was legendary,” Melissa said. “A street in Canberra is named in his honour and a plaque that celebrates his achievements was unveiled at the Government House Lookout overlooking the heritage-listed Yarralumla Woolshed in which he often worked, but we didn’t know anything about his brother.”

She mentioned the story to the Memorial’s Indigenous Liaison Officer Michael Bell and Curator Garth O’Connell, and within a day they had identified him as Private Edward “Teddy” Smith who enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1916 at the age of 21.

Teddy Smith

Teddy Smith served with the 54th Battalion during the First World War. Photo: Courtesy the Smith family

“It was just wonderful,” Melissa said. “There were thousands of Smiths who served in the First World War and it’s just incredible that they could take a really common last name like Smith and track him down. We knew nothing else about him except that he was my great-grandfather’s brother and that he had served during the First World War, but they still managed to find him, and now we have a name, and a photograph. It’s just incredible, and it meant so much to my family.”

Michael Bell was delighted they could help. A proud Ngunnawal/Gomeroi man, he has been working to identify people of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who have served and researching and sharing their stories.

“When the First World War broke out, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had few rights, poor living conditions, and were not allowed to enlist in the war effort,” Bell said.

“Despite this, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people wanted to serve in defence of Australia, and were willing to change their names, birth locations, heritage and nationality in an effort to do so.

“The stories of these men and women have largely disappeared since then, and the Memorial is attempting to discover the identities and stories of what are believed to be several thousand Indigenous men and women who have served in our armed forces since before federation.

“Thanks to Melissa’s story, we were able to find Deucem’s brother, Teddy, and identify him as an Indigenous Australian who served during the First World War. He was wounded in action in May 1917, suffering multiple gunshot wounds to his right arm and leg, but he survived the war and returned to Australia in the December.”

For Bell, it’s important to share these stories.

“The story of Indigenous service is a story that is little known, but as it becomes known in the wider community, then recognition of the valuable and selfless military service of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, and their contribution to the Anzac legend, will begin to grow.

“It is of the utmost importance to remember their sacrifice, their deeds and their dignity by honouring their memory and sacrifice. It was a privilege to help Melissa and her family find Teddy and learn more about his mob.”

Michael Bell is working to identify and research the extent of the contribution and service of any person of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent who has served, is currently serving, or has any experience of contributing to the war effort. He is eager to find out any further details of the military history of these people and their families, and can be contacted via Michael.Bell@awm.gov.au