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Gray, Thomas (Tom) (1905–1941)

by Rod Moran

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas (Tom) Gray (1905-1941), stockman, soldier and poet, was born on 14 April 1905 at Onslow, Western Australia, third of seven children of Richard Vickers, also known as Gray, a White, Australian-born labourer, teamster and horse-breaker, and his Aboriginal wife Ida, née Harris. After Richard died in 1913, Ida married Ted Payne. In the 1920s members of her family lobbied State politicians for citizenship rights for part-Aborigines. Ida instilled in her children the view that education was the path to social emancipation for Black Australians. Educated at Onslow State School, Tom developed a love of poetry and proved to be a fine athlete.

Finding work as a drover, stock-handler and bushman, Gray learned to recite more than one hundred poems and composed his own verse in the saddle. He often inscribed his lines on the blades of disused windmills and jotted them on the sides of water tanks for passers-by to read. The only piece ever published, 'Crosses', was to appear in the A.I.F. News (Cairo, 13 September 1941) after his death. By the mid-1930s Gray was employed as senior stockman at Anna Plains station. A respected racehorse-trainer, he won the Port Hedland and Marble Bar cups on several occasions. In addition, he owned thirty stockhorses and was in demand throughout the region for his droving skills. His gentle and patient techniques as a horse-breaker were unorthodox but effective; one of his friends noted that the quicker, harsher methods of other breakers produced animals with mouths like mules and temperaments to match.

For an Aboriginal Australian of the time, Gray was relatively affluent. Most Aborigines only entered the homes of Whites as domestic servants, yet he was a welcome dinner-guest from Port Hedland to Derby, appreciated for his generosity of spirit, sense of humour and philosophical bent. He lived with Yarni at Anna Plains, and had a son Donald and a daughter Winnie; with Josie Roe from Broome, he had a son Tom.

In 1935 Gray was hired to accompany a party of police which trekked some 3000 miles (4828 km) through inhospitable country pursuing those who had murdered a dogger Daniel O'Brien in the Great Sandy Desert. Gray acted as quartermaster, tracker, stock-handler, pathfinder and—in concert with the police blacktrackers—intermediary between the policemen and nomadic Aborigines. He was also instrumental in the arrest of one of the killers.

On 10 August 1940 Gray enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. Having trained at Northam, he sailed for the Middle East in April 1941 as a reinforcement for the 2nd/16th Battalion. Comrades in camp and the troop-ship recalled that he recited poetry, including A. B. Paterson's 'The Man From Snowy River' and Rudyard Kipling's 'If—', and remembered his exploits at two-up. He joined the battalion on 16 June in Syria. In his short time with the unit he became 'quite the most loved man among us'.

Following fierce fighting against Vichy French forces around Damour, Lebanon, Gray was leading prisoners back to his lines on 6 July 1941 when he was killed by fire from a machine-gun post. He was buried in the Beirut 1939-1945 war cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • M. Uren, A Thousand Men at War (Melb, 1959)
  • J. Hardie, Nor'Westers of the Pilbara Breed (Port Hedland, WA, 1981)
  • R. Hall, The Black Diggers (Syd, 1989)
  • Boomerang (Perth), 31 Aug 1942
  • Daily News (Perth), 28 Dec 1935
  • AN 5/3, Police Dept Acc 430, file 6862/1935 (State Records Office of Western Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Rod Moran, 'Gray, Thomas (Tom) (1905–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/gray-thomas-tom-10348/text18323, accessed 15 December 2017.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012