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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Keith Saunders (1934–2003)

PUBLICATION: Keith B. Saunders Learning the Ropes, Aboriginal Studies Press (Canberra 1992)

SEX: Male

BIRTH DATE: 16 February 1934

BIRTHPLACE: South Cardiff, near Newcastle on the North Coast of New South Wales.



  • Singleton: Keith’s parents left Singleton in 1927, before he was born. He described this as a courageous move, motivated by racial discrimination. (p.1-2)
  • Cardiff: Keith’s parent thought Cardiff would be a more accepting community than Singleton. There were only three Aboriginal families living in Cardiff when Keith was born. (p.7)
  • The Saunders family lived in a shanty built by their father, until it burnt down in 1936. (p.13)
  • Sydney: In 1937, Keith travelled with his mother to visit his brother Colin in Paddington, Sydney. (p.36) The family relocated to Redfern permanently when Keith was 10. (p.36)
  • Perth: Keith travelled to Perth for a fight at United Stadium in 1958.
  • Green Valley: Keith and his wife Jan were forced to move into a housing commission named Green Valley in Sydney's western suburbs in 1966. At the time, Keith was unemployed, as his wife was sick with a gall bladder infection. (p.203) Keith was told they had been allocated a house, however when he arrived he was assigned to a block of flats. (p.203)
  • Hillview: the Housing Commission finally found a house for Keith and Janice in 1970, which had enough rooms for their large family. (p.216) Keith invested a great deal of time in renovating the house, which he saw as an expression of his love for his family.
  • Regent’s Park: Keith moved into an apartment in Regent’s Park after he split with Janice for the second time. (p.220)


  • New Zealand: Keith travelled to New Zealand in 1959 to compete against Tuna Scanlan.


  • Keith didn’t enjoy school at Cardiff, as so was always tardy and frequently truanted. He was bullied because of his ethnicity, and his brother Noel taught him to defend himself aggressively. (p.20) As a result of his frequent fights, Keith built up “quite a reputation” in Cardiff. (p.21)
  • Keith and his friends and followers became were very mischievous. He recalls that, on one occasion, they vandalized the Cardiff school during the summer holidays. (p.20)
  • Keith’s problems with discrimination followed him to Sydney, where he attended the George Street School. (p.37) Like in Cardiff, Keith got into fights and won alliances with the “tough boys of the school”. (p.37)
  • When he has finished primary school at George Street, Keith began attended Gardners Road High School. He left high school four or five weeks into his first year, and looked for paid work. (p.46)
  • In 1978 Keith complete a diploma in Natural Therapies. This meant that he knew quite a lot about human anatomy, which helped him to better understand the effect of alcohol on his liver. (p.221)


  • Due to the discrimination he encountered in primary school, Keith was keen to prove himself somehow. (p.38) He recognised, however, that his options were limited: even if he did get an education. (p.38) Keith identified Rugby League as a possible career path, and began to pursue the sport in Sydney. (p.38)
  • Keith’s football ambitions were thwarted when he was not chosen for the representative side. He believes that board of selectors discriminated against him because of his colour. (p.39) As a result, Keith gave up League: but continued to be a life-long supporter of the Redfern All Blacks. (p.62)
  • Very early in his high school career, Keith dropped out and started selling newspapers. (p.39) Keith also had a number of other laboring jobs, “all hard yakka jackhammer types” (p. 63). He points out that many Aboriginal people were involved in important, large-scale developments in Sydney. (p.64) Some of these projects, such as the demolition of the Wynyard tram subway, put Keith’s life in danger. (p.65)
  • Keith believes he was “destined to come into contact with the boxing game.” (p.40) When he was 12, Billy McConnell – the owner of gymnasium based in Chippendale – saw him fighting three other boys outside the Royal Oak Hotel. (p.40) Billy recognised Keith’s potential, and offered to be his coach. (p.41)
  • Keith defends the game of boxing from its detractors, who see it as a “barbaric” sport. (p.61)
  • Keith had his first amateur fight at the age of 13. Three years later he made it to the New South Wales State Amateur Boxing Finals. Keith was selected as part of the training squad for the Olympic Finals: but, for financial reasons, Mr Mac convinced him to go professional in 1952. (p.65)
    • “’You cannot eat cups or medals’, he informed me.” (p.65)
  • Keith fought – and lost – his first professional match was in 1952 at the Sydney Stadium. (p. 65)
  • Throughout his professional career, he frequently served as a sparring partner for some of the world’s best boxers. In 1959, he was labeled the “best gym worker in Australia”. (p.60) Keith believes these boxers and Mr Mac exploited him, because he was voluntarily helping them train, when he should have been getting paid or working on his own career. (p.68)
  • In the early 1960s, Keith’s professional and married life came undone because of alcohol. After spending some time institutionalized, and living away from his family, he decided to try and rebuild his life. Keith got a job at the Ashfield Council. Unfortunately, this working environment was not conducive to giving up alcohol and winning back his wife. (p.189)
  • Keith moved up the professional ladder at the Ashfield Council, from a garbage collector to a roller driver. (p.189)
  • This promotion gave Keith the confidence to ask his wife to live with him again. (p.190)
  • Keith left the Ashfield Council in the mid 1960s, after a “trivial matter erupted into a major controversy.” (p.191) He then began work at a timber firm on Mullens St. (p.192) The benefits of this job was that Keith was able to drive the company truck home, and use it to take his family on outings on the weekend. (p.192) Keith had to give up this job on Mullens St when he was forced to move from his house in 1966. His wife was sick, and he was forced to live with his cousin. Eventually, these financial burdens forced him to return to boxing. (p.192)
  • When he returned to boxing, at the age of 32, Keith had to focus on building his leg strength and finding a new gym. He appealed to his “old-time opponent” and close friend Mick Fernandez, who now owned a gym in Redfern. Due to his financial difficulties, Keith was forced to fight against a talented younger boxer, and suffered a “humiliating defeat”. (p.196) After another loss in 1966, Keith went into retirement again. (p.204)
  • With the failure of his return to boxing, Keith was forced to move his family into a housing commission in Western Sydney. During this period of unemployment, Keith lived on social security. (p.224)
  • After having his sixth child, Keith was driven to return from retirement again. He began training by running around the local oval, and then had his first match on July the 31, 1968, at the South Sydney Leagues Club. (p.207)
  • Keith lost the match in 1968. He felt reassured, however, when someone stated that he would have beaten the opponent when he was younger. (p.207)
  • In 1969, Keith gained public attention when he returned to boxing again after a period of retirement. He fought against at boxer named Johnny Infantile in Sale, and again lost the fight. (p.209)
  • Keith then got a job as a truck driver with Parson’s General Food. He was delivering a load of rice cream when a young boy darted onto the street. Keith swerved to miss him, and lost the entire load. (p.213) Despite the accident, Keith stayed in this job for some time, until “through disputes over various matters” he lost his job. (p.213)
  • Keith had no employment, and the Housing Commission Flat in Green Valley was becoming over crowded. He couldn’t apply for a transfer until he paid his electricity bill, and so he organized another fight in 1970, even though he knew he would lose. (p.192)
  • After Keith separated from his wife the second time, and stopped drinking, he got another job as a truck driver. (p.219) When his job was sold to another company, and he began training again. (p.192) Keith enjoyed getting fit and reuniting with his old boxing friends, and decided to make yet another return to the sport. (p.192)
  • While Keith was sparring at the gym, he felt severe pain in his head. He was taken to hospital, and it was later discovered that his septum pellucidum was split – a form of brain damage. (p.223) After this, Keith retired from all forms of work.


  • Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council: supported Keith to write his autobiography. (p.2)
  • Stadiums Limited: The company that had a monopoly on boxing in Australia. (p.68)
  • Long Bay Prison: Keith was caught driving under the influence of alcohol and sentenced to three months hard labour in Long Bay Prison. (p.137)
  • Rozelle Psychiatric Centre: Keith was briefly institutionalized at the Rozelle Psychiatric Centre after he almost burnt his house down while drunk, because the authorities presumed that he was trying to commit suicide. (p.188)
  • McKinnon Hospital, Rozelle: Keith submitted himself to the McKinnon Hospital, which is an alcohol rehabilitation centre, after passing out at his daughter Rosheen’s birthday party. (p.220) They gave him lots of different vitamins and ensured that he attended meetings. (p.221)


  • Keith describes the ongoing effect of the 1909 Aboriginal Protection Act, which regulated “most aspects of the lives of Aborigines”. (p.48).
  • Under the Aboriginal Protection Act, people were not permitted to drink alcohol without ‘dog tags’ (formal exemption from the Act). Keith drank only where he was known for his boxing, but refused to carry a dog tag. (p.48)


  • Keith got tonsillitis while travelled to Sydney with his mother when he was four years old. He had to be taken to the hospital in a hearse, because there were no ambulances available. (p.36)
  • At 19, Keith broke his ankle while playing street football in Victoria Park. Three weeks after the accident, he went to a cabaret at Alexandria Town Hall. He got drunk and wet his cast, and then lied to the orthopedic surgeon about the nature of the accident. (p.77)
  • In the early 1960s Keith became a problem drinker. He became violent towards his wife, which led her to leave him. (p.187) Keith also had a near-death experience when, in a drunken stupor, he almost burnt his house down. He was briefly institutionalized at the Rozelle Psychiatric Centre because the authorities presumed that he was trying to commit suicide. (p.188)
  • Keith was diagnosed with a diseased gall bladder in the early 1970s, after collapsing when he tried to have a glass of beer. (p.217) When he was taken to the Prince Alfred Hospital, the doctors performed an exploratory operation and discovered that he also had an enlarged liver.
  • After the operation, Keith was placed on an oxygen machine for what “seemed to be a long time”. (p.217) When they finally removed the sutures, he had an enormous scar: and was told that if he did not give up drinking and smoking he would die within six months. (p.218) Keith ignored the doctors’ advice, and his health deteriorated. (p.218)
  • Keith’s drinking also began to affect his relationship with his wife and children. (p.218)
  • When Janice expelled Keith from their home, and he moved in with his sister, his drinking only became worse. (p.218)
  • Under the influence of his sister, Keith converted to Christianity. After this, he was sober for seven months. However, his conversion did not have the effect he had hoped: as his family was suspicious of his change in character. Keith moved out of his sister’s house, and then submitted himself to the McKinnon Rehabilitation Centre. (p.220)
  • While Keith admits he has had a number of problems related to alcohol, he does not like to use the word ‘alcoholic’.
  • Keith made his late return to boxing when he was in his fifties, but injury forced him to retire for good. He claims that boxing didn’t cause him any long-term damage. (p.223)


  • Mary Saunders: Keith describes his mother as a hardworking, proud, self-disciplined woman, who inspired the same work ethic in her children. (p.9) While Keith respected his mother; he also claims that she was “too darn strict.” (p.16) According to Keith, Mary’s “only bit of pleasure” was occasionally placing a horse bet. (p.10)
  • Throughout his life, Keith harbored resentment towards Mary for divorcing his father. This resentment made him feel guilty, because he recognised his father’s bad habits, and the fact that his mother was the “one and only person who brought me into this world.” (p.129)
  • Mary initially refused to attend Keith’s matches, because she was opposed to his career choice. He was thrilled when she eventually agreed to attend a fight in Wollongong. (p.129) Keith believes that her support at this time helped him to overcome his feelings of resentment and guilt, and propelled him to win the fight. (p.132)
  • Mary was a very affectionate grandmother of Keith’s son, until she died of diabetes in 1962. (p.191)
  • Sidney Saunders: When they moved to Cardiff, Sidney worked on the road and saved enough to buy some land for the family. According to Keith, he gave “a lot of patience and long hours of hard work building a home or shanty, as it were, for his wife and family.” (p.3)
  • As a child, Keith had a “deep seated love” for his father: but Sidney showed little interest in his son. (p.29) On one occasion Sidney took Keith camping, and showed him how to fish and use a whip. (p.30) This only increased Keith’s craving for his father’s attention. (p.30)
  • While Sidney provided for his family, he was also a “bout drinker”, which meant that he would disappear for a number of days every month or so. (p.16) Alcohol made Sidney aggressive and argumentative, but he never admitted to having a problem. (p.16)
  • Sidney and Mary separated when Keith was seven. While Keith is not sure of the specific reasons, he presumed that alcohol played a role. After Mary kicked Sidney out of their home, he returned to the Purfleet Mission. (p.31) Keith visited his father once at Purfleet, and then didn’t see him again for ten years. (p.31)
  • Keith believes that, unlike his older siblings, he was greatly disadvantaged by the lack of a father figure during his youth.(p.33)


  • As a successful boxer, Keith had relations with many different women.
  •  Keith claims that most of the women he had relations with were white.  He claims that white women desire him, because Aboriginal men were known for their sexual prowess. (p.152)
  • On one occasion, a woman Keith was seeing almost shot him for having an affair with her best friend. (p. 84)
  • Terry: Keith first serious relationship was with a woman named Terry. She was a bartender at the White Horse Hotel in Surry Hills when they met. Keith describes Terry as “gorgeous-looking blonde, whose every curve protruded through a tight-fitting white dress”. (p.116) He claims that she had many admirers, but she pursued Keith. (p.116)
  • Keith describes his first night with Terry as “an education in sex that was far beyond my wildest imagination”. (p.117) After this encounter, Terry tried to make Keith commit to a permanent relationship. At the time, however, he did not want to give up his “fast life”. (p.117)
  • Keith eventually let Terry become part of his life, and began taking her to training with him. (p.119) She travelled with him to Young for a fight, and while they were there he agreed to move in with her. (p.120) While living with Terry, Keith began to regret his promiscuous ways.
  • After they had been living together for six months, Keith discovered that Terry was having an affair with an army officer. (p.121) He responded by trying to attack her, and then throwing her clothing into the street. (p.121) The incident shook Keith’s confidence, and he responded by training harder. (p.121)
  • Keith continued to liaise with a number of different women, often on the same night.
  • He also visited a number of brothels, particularly one run by a woman called Dawdy in Surry Hills. Keith recalls one night in particular, in which he had a sexual encounter with a French woman named Dione. (p.133) When he travelled to Western Australia, Keith went straight to the high-class brothels on Roe Street, but he only went “window shopping” because the prostitutes were too expensive. (p.163)
  • Janice (Jan): Jan was a red haired woman of Irish descent, who worked as a phone operated for an oil company. Keith met Jan through mutual friends, and thought her very beautiful. (p.172) As he got to know her, he came to consider her “somewhat different from the other run-of-the-mill girls”. (p.172) They began a relationship, and Keith development a strong attachment to Jan. (p.174)
  • Jan did not enjoy “blood sports”, but as their relationship progressed she started attending fights at the gym to support Keith. (p.174) She gave Keith a miniature set of boxing gloves, that he took to all matches to bring him luck. (p.184) Nonetheless, Jan’s reservations about boxing did affect Keith’s career somewhat. (p.174)
  • Keith and Jan were later married. They moved in with Keith’s family in Redfern, and had a son, Shane, and a daughter, Rosheen. (p.186) This move put strain on their relationship: because Jan did not get along with Keith’s family; he began to drink and become violent. (p.187) This led to their first separation. (p.187)
  • After being apart from his wife and children for sixteen months, Keith began to mourn his loss. (p.189)
  • After being promoted at the Ashfield Council, Keith felt confident enough to ask Jan to return to live with him again. They bought a house off Parramatta Road, and had a twin boy and girl. (p.191)
  • After Janice suffered from a gall bladder infection, and Keith lost his job, they were force to move to the Green Valley Housing Commission in 1967. (p.205) Jan did not want to move into a Housing Commission, and was unhappy at Green Valley. (p.205)
  • Keith began drinking heavily again after his liver and gall bladder operation, created more marital problems. (p.218) After one “filthy mouthed argument”, Janice had Keith removed from their house by the police, and he was forced to stay with his sister Joan. (p.224)
  • Keith sobered up after moving in with his sister and converting to Christianity. He had hoped this change would mend his relationship with his wife. He was disappointed to discover that Janice, and the rest of his family, did not like his “new image”. (p.219)
  • Janice did not allow Keith to return to their family home: even after he had moved into his own apartment, and found a new job. (p.222)


  • Janice and Keith had six children in total; Shane, born in 1960; (p.186) Rosheen, born in 1962; (p.187) the twins Lisa and Scott, born 1965; (p.191) and Darren born while they were living at Green Valley. This large family put a great deal of strain on Keith, both financially and emotionally. (p.206) Keith’s family was also a source of joy and meaning in his life.
  • When their youngest son Darren was five month’s old he was diagnosed with meningitis. This made Janice and Keith anxious and attentive to their son. (p.208) He became a very shy child, and would often hide under the bed. (p.213)
  • Keith had immense pride in his children and felt they were the “greatest children ever born.” (p.215)
  • Keith taught all his children how to box, but never forced them to take up the sport. Nonetheless, they were all talented sportspeople in other areas.
  • Keith became concerned that, because of this drinking, he was not a good role model for his children. When he separated from his wife, he continued to keep in contact with them, and to provide them with guidance. (p.219, 220)


  • Alan Saunders: Keith’s eldest brother, who got a job working with the Ashton Circus in 1932 (p.4) Like Keith, Alan was a gifted boxer, however his passion was country and western music. (p.26) In the 1940, Alan and Keith’s sister Joan won the Australian Amateur Hour on the 2HD radio. (p.26)
  • Colin Saunders: Keith’s second eldest brother, who got a job working at the iron foundry in Newcastle in 1932 (p.4)
  • Noel Saunders: Keith’s third eldest brother, who was the toughest of the Saunders sons. Keith and his siblings feared and idolized Noel. (p.5) He used on call Keith a “sook”, because he was a shy and anti-social child. (p.19) On one occasion, Noel caught him attempting to back out of a fight with a racist boy twice his size. Noel threatened to punch Keith himself if didn’t “stand up and fight”. (p.19)
  • Like his brother Alan, Noel had natural sporting talent, but lacked initiative. Eventually, with Keith’s support, Noel developed his boxing career with coach Tom Maguire. (p.28)
  • When Keith took up boxing, he saw it as his opportunity to prove his worth to his brothers, particularly Noel. (p.41)
  • Later in life, Noel began “knocking about in the wrong company.” (p. 83) He got into a fight in a pub in Newtown, and was stabbed several times. (p.83)
  • Joan: Keith’s only sister. Keith’s moved in with Joan after Janice kicked him out for drinking. Joan was a practicing Christian, and put pressure on her brother to start attending church. (p.219)
  • Under Joan’s influence, Keith converted to Christianity. This “newfound faith” helped him to stay sober and gave him a source of self-respect (p.219) He hoped that it would also mean that he could return to his family, but they were concerned by the changes in Keith’s character. (p.219) As such, he decided to move out of Joan’s house, and develop a life independently. (p.219)


  • Mrs Freeman: A “kind and sympathetic next-door neighbour”; who used to take Keith in when his father was intoxicated. (p.16)
  • Billy McConnell (Mr Mac): The owner of gymnasium based in Chippendale, who recognised Keith’s potential as a boxing after watching him fight three other boys outside the Royal Oak Hotel. (p.40)
  • Mr Mac became Keith manager and coach. Keith resented the fact that Mr Mac took a large share of his winning. (p.68) He was, however, forced to stay with his manager, because he would not have been able to get fights with Stadiums Limited on his own. (p.68)
  • Keith also felt that Mr Mac didn’t invest enough time in him. For example, he never coached Keith from the corner during his matches. (p.69)
  • Freddie Dawson: one of Keith’s boxing opponents at McConnell’s gym. Keith describes Freddie as a quick-witted conversationalist, who became a close friend. (p.60)
  • Nervice: the daughter of Keith’s only sister Joan. Keith was particularly smitten with Nervice when she was a baby, and often pushed her around in a pram. (p.78)
  • When Nervice grew older, she and Keith became close friends. She was a talented singer, and often sang it the gym on Saturday nights. (p.80) Keith helped her to make recordings in Coogee. (p.79)
  • Nervice had eight children, before she died at the age of 39. Keith mourned his niece’s early death: and regrets that he did not support her career more. (p.80)
  • Freddy Potts: A friend of Keith’s, who also trained at Billy McConnell’s gym. (p.95) Keith lived briefly with Freddy’s family in Werris Creek in 1955. (p.97)
  • Terry: Keith’s father in law. Terry was racially prejudiced man, and for this reason Jan didn’t want to introduce him to Keith. When Keith and first met his father in law at the Redfern Station, Terry refused to shake his hand. (p.186)
  • Over time, however, Terry became a good friend to Keith, and grandfather to his children.
  • When Keith and Janice suffered from financial difficulties in 1967, Terry and his wife supported them by buying them a leg of pork for Christmas and gifts for their children. (p.204)


  • Keith claims that he had “never been a practicing follower of the faith”.(p.206) This changed when his heavy drinking ruined his marriage with Jan, and forced him live with his sister Joan. Joan was a practicing Christian, and she convinced Keith to start attending church. (p.219)
  • After some time, Keith also converted to Christianity. He attributed his sobriety, self-respect, and the respect of his peers to his newfound religiosity.  (p.219)
  • Unfortunately and unexpectedly, Keith found that his family did not embrace his “newfound faith”. (p.219) Instead, they were “afraid” of the changes in his character. (p.219) This response propelled Keith to move out of Joan’s house, and to start “taking matter into (his) own hands.” (p219)


The “Fast Life”

  • Keith describes both the negative and positive aspects of life as a boxer. He found the training and matches exhausting and often agonizing. Keith also felt that managers exploited fighters, who received the “short end of pay packets.” (p. 133) Nonetheless, the thrill of the fights, as well as the financial benefits and prestige, outweighed the drain of training.
  • During his extended breaks from boxing, and outside of training times, Keith enjoyed partying with his friends and having relationships with different women. (p.73)
  • There parties were often alcohol fuelled, and ended in violence. Keith was not disturbed by these events.
  • The “fast life” had its drawbacks, however, as it meant that Keith attracted many unwanted companions. (p.87)
  • Furthermore, this lifestyle meant that Keith did not have any savings when he finished boxing.


  • Keith suffered from racial discrimination throughout his life. During his boxing career, his first “embarrassing face-to-face” experience of racism occurred during a trip to Coonamble. (p.145) Keith was unable to find accommodation, which he presumes was because of his colour. (p.146)
  • In Sydney, Keith got in a fight with a man who claimed that Aboriginal people should not be allowed to consume alcohol. As a result, Keith had to get nine stitches. (p.171)
  • Keith also believes that some people only accepted him in their social circles because his wife was white. As an example, he remembers that his neighbours in Green Valley often came for dinner at his house. However, when he split from Janice, and had no where to stay, they wouldn’t take him in. (p.225)
  • Keith complains that there is a “savage, unrelenting racism” in the Australian sporting world. (p.227) This means that many Aboriginal athletes do not receive the recognition they deserve. There are also many unfounded, racist assumptions that exist: “that there is something inherent in the Aboriginal temperament that switched the mind off under competitive pressure.” (p.227)

MODE OF LITERARY PRODUCTION: Keith wrote Learning the Ropes himself, with the help of his son Darren, Kenny Pretis and the staff at the Aboriginal Studies Press. He also used the research of Jack Polland, Ray Mitchell and Colin Tatz. (p.viii)

Additional Resources

Source Project

This biographical entry was contributed by Australian Indigenous Autobiography Archive

Citation details

'Saunders, Keith (1934–2003)', Indigenous Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 5 March 2024.

© Copyright Indigenous Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


16 February, 1934
Cardiff, New South Wales, Australia


2003 (aged ~ 68)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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