John Stanley James Julian Thomas Vagabond
John Stanley James aka Stanley James aka Julian Thomas aka The Vagabond (courtesy: The Australasian)

Somewhere in the Melbourne General Cemetery is a headstone simply stating Julian Thomas — The Vagabond.

In 1887, John Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of the British Isles described the placefir as follows: “Walsall, parliamentary and municipal borough, market town, and parish, Staffordshire, 8 miles NW. of Birmingham and 123 from London by rail … 3 Banks, 3 newspapers. Market-day — Tuesday. The parish consists of the 2 townships of Walsall Borough and Walsall Foreign, population — 7652 and 50,801 …”

It is an undeniable fact that the history of mankind can boast of several instances where a chance remark or a seemingly trivial incident has precipitated a series of events that have, in their entirety, constituted a major and abiding historical chronicle. This narrative revolves around one such remark made in a casual conversation.

The story had begun November 15, 1843 when the Walsall household of Joseph Green James, an attorney, whose family were also the owners of an iron foundry, and his wife, Elizabeth, became the proud parents of their only son, subsequently named John Stanley James. There would be two sisters born subsequently, as projected in the 1851 Census Record. Having completed his basic education, James Jr had worked as an articled clerk his lawyer father for a while. His documented biography, written by John Barnes, depicts John Stanley James as having lived a varied and interesting life, and of his having been a man who was something out of the ordinary mould for the times.

His sheltered apprenticeship had not lasted long, however, and he had moved to London after an altercation with James Sr. Making a reasonable living in London was not an easy task for a tyro in the mid-1800s. With his little legal training, he first tried his hand at drawing up legal documents and contracts as rough drafts and then copying the final terms of the instrument legibly on to parchment paper, “engrossing the document,” to use the legal terminology of the times. When that did not prove to be very profitable, he tried his hand at journalism.

A restless soul, he had then sought employment first as a railway clerk and then as a station master in Wales. When that had not worked out, he had returned to London in 1868, and tried to revive his journalism career. Speaking of his varied and colourful career in later years, James Jr was to recount how he had once been imprisoned for a few weeks on charges of spying in Paris in 1870. Back in London, he had reported on the Franco-Prussian war (1870-71). In 1872 he had reported the events leading to the formation of the National Agricultural Labourers’ Union with farm labourer and lay Methodist preacher Joseph Arch as the elected leader of the movement. His journalistic skills and reputation had been, by his own estimation, on the ascendency by this time.

His relationship with his father, however, continued to deteriorate, and after another difference of opinion, rather more serious this time, he had decided to forsake his native country of birth and to try his luck in the United States of America, sailing there in 1875. James Jr’s short but eventful sojourn in USA has been the subject of much study by Robert Flippen, who contributed his observations to a book about him, under the title The Vagabond Papers.

The book reveals the fact that James Jr had found his way to Farmville, traversed by the Appomattox River, in Virginia, in 1875, and was welcomed by the Farmville British Association. He was named a member of the Board of a local bank within a short interval of his arrival. Being quite impecunious at the time, he had had the foresight to marry Carolyn Lewis, the wealthy widow of a Virginia planter. Using his wife’s money, James had set about ordering a grand Victorian mansion to be built for himself “atop a bluff overlooking the Appomattox River.”

The local media had reported in 1875 that the grand mansion had been completed and ready for occupancy in a mere 10 weeks’ time, a remarkable example of the industriousness of the local builders. Projecting himself as a Dr Stanley James (his first nom de plume, as it were), he had began to advertise in the local papers his intention of opening a seminary, to be named the Stanley Park Academy, for “a select number of boys under 16 years of age,” with himself as the Principal. For many years, the four-storey edifice would be known locally as the Stanley Park Mansion.

James had proved to be a very poor banker and to be quite irresponsible about the use of the funds from people who had entrusted their hard-earned money to the bank for safekeeping. When his customers had lost money because of his laxity, he had begun to repay the amounts from his wife’s money. Hauled up in court, James had sought the easy way out by making over the house, the furniture and other contents of the mansion to his wife and by absolving his wife of any further debts incurred by himself.

For inexplicable reasons, given the brevity of his stay in the USA till that time, James had quickly become an ardent advocate of the local British expatriates seeking American citizenship. He had begun to write letters to the local British population urging them to follow his advice. Not everyone had been en rapport with his thinking, however, and his untoward zeal in this regard had soon become a major cause of concern for many recipients of his letters, including some influential media stalwarts, who had begun to engage him in a debate on the issue in print. Under the circumstances, James had thought it prudent to move out of USA at the earliest.

It was late in 1875 that James landed at Sydney, this time in the guise of Julian Thomas, impecunious as before. This time, however, he was determined to make a success of his journalistic skills. Gravitating to Melbourne, he began to write a series of articles for the Argus on some of the lesser-known aspects of life in metropolis, bringing into focus many issues that were, for all practical purposes, taboo for the press of the times. He is believed to be one of the pioneers of investigative journalism, and to be a pathfinder in the concept of immersion journalism, a term upgraded to embedded journalism in modern times.

In 1876-77, a series of articles began to appear in the Argus highlighting life in such institutions as the Pentridge Gaol, Melbourne Hospital, poor houses and charitable institutions, and mental asylums. These were largely 5,000-word pieces, invariably written in the first person, and appearing under the bye-line A Vagabond. In April 1876, the Argus published an article entitled A Night in the Model Lodging House that began to set tongues wagging.

There was no question about the sincerity with which he went about establishing his credentials as a journalist among the Colonials. His biography states that to add a stamp of authority and verisimilitude to his copy, and to gather first-hand material, he spent a day in the Immigrants’ Home, had himself admitted to the Benevolent Asylum, worked in the capacity of a porter at the Alfred Hospital, as an attendant at Lunatic Asylums, and as a dispenser-cum-dentist at Pentridge Gaol. Melbourne was soon agog with curiosity about the real identity of The Vagabond.

Let us now take up the saga of this extraordinary person in the words of Malcolm Knox in Never a Gentleman’s Game: “By night, as it were, he dwelt among the lowly. A George Orwell of his time, he consorted with beggars, prisoners, prostitutes, penniless immigrants, and lunatic asylum inmates, documenting their plights…” By day, he was soon seen as a well-dressed Englishman with connections in the “right” places.

What, one may be asking oneself at this point of the narrative, did this journalist and “boulevardier of the Yarra,” to quote Knox, have to do with cricket? It may be remembered that James Lillywhite Jr had been touring the Antipodes with a team of professional English cricketers in 1876-77 Australia with the intention of taking on Colonial teams on even terms and of generating their own finances on tour.

Having begun in Australia, the travelling party were having a short stint in New Zealand, when the powers that be in Australian cricket had conceived of the possibility of fielding a team of combined New South Wales and Victoria players, designated grandly as “United Australia,” against the visitors. The visitors were not averse to the idea and it was determined that a set of two matches would be arranged at Melbourne upon the return of the tourists. The first game was to begin at Melbourne on March 15, 1877.

Being a well-connected man-about-town by this time, Julian Thomas, to use his present avatar, had soon befriended Lillywhite and had been present at Melbourne Cricket Ground along with thousands of onlookers on the historic first day of the match when the Sydney batting ace, Charles Bannerman, had put the bowling of the tourists to the sword to the tune of 165 before being compelled to retire hurt when a delivery from Yorkshireman George Ulyett had damaged his hand.

In conversation at the White Hart of Melbourne later, Thomas had enquired whether, in Lillywhite’s estimation, a reciprocal visit by a representative Australian team to England would generate the same level of interest in the Home Country. This was a new concept to Lillywhite, and one never before been thought of. Keeping the experience of the tour of the team of indigenous Australian cricketers with which Charles Lawrence had visited England in 1868 playing only “minor” games in mind, Lillywhite had not been very sure.

Thomas was quick to point out that he did not have exhibition matches in England in mind, but was asking whether a tour by a representative Australian team to England, playing against the major English counties and clubs, against the Gentlemen and the Players, perhaps even a representative England team on equal terms, could be arranged. Lillywhite’s response to this query by Thomas is, very regretfully, lost to posterity.

Sitting close by had been John Conway, a noted Melbourne all-rounder and cricket entrepreneur. One remark by Thomas had caught his ear. “There’d be plenty of money in it,” Thomas had remarked to Lillywhite.

It was as if a seasoned war horse had heard the sound of a bugle in the heat of the battle. Hearing the magic mantra of “money,” Conway had been unable to restrain himself and had quickly joined in the conversation, eager to discuss the issue. The persuasive tongue of Conway had then convinced Lillywhite about the financial possibilities of such a venture to such an extent that, before the Englishmen had left Melbourne, Lillywhite had promised to probe the possibility once he was back in England, promising to stay in touch meanwhile.

The events that followed in quick succession and some details of the tour of England in 1878 by the first fairly representative Australian team have already been chronicled in these pages. John Lazenby has given a comprehensive account of the tour in his book The Strangers Who Came Home. Suffice it, then, to state that the chance remark made in a private conversation between two men in a smoky and ill-lit Melbourne bistro called the White Hart was to lead to one of the most famous cricketing rivalries of all time, culminating in the aura and legend of the Ashes, the attendant passion surviving the passage of time.

Having done his bit for the establishment and development of cricketing ties between England and Australia,Thomas turned his attention to the fulfilment of his journalistic dreams. His journalistic career began to blossom in an unprecedented manner, his undercover work as The Vagabond being read avidly and being appreciated by the cognoscenti.His keen observations, practical judgements and meaningful suggestions for reforms were to make his offerings, published as The Vagabond Papers, very popular and eagerly awaited, and by degree, his journalistic avatar became quite a cult figure, as mysterious as it was thought-provoking.

In Aug/1877, after a round of farewell receptions, the presentation of an illustrated citation and 308 sovereigns, Thomas set sail for Sydney to write for the Sydney Morning Herald.At this point of time, Julian Thomas was enjoying, perhaps, the zenith of his journalistic career, albeit incognito, his true identity not being revealed till 1912. Although his writings from this point onwards did not turn out to be as popular or as eagerly anticipated as The Vagabond Papers, his output was as prolific as before, but the flavour of his offerings began differ in character.

By all accounts, he now assumed the role of a roving reporter, visiting many far-off places, his nose for a good story helping him to identify and elaborate on events and experiences that would be likely to interest the readers of his columns. Several collections were later made of these travel-related writings, some of the well-known ones being Occident and Orient (1882), Picturesque Victoria (1884), and Cannibals and Convicts (1886).

By the early 1890s Thomas had become a well-known figure in the media world of Australia. In 1890, he was appointed the Secretary to the Victorian Royal Commission on Charities, holding the post till 1892. In the meantime, he continued to write sporadically, mostly for the Melbourne Leader.

The September 5, 1896 issue of the Argus carried the headline Death of a Well-known Journalist. The single column report informed the general public that “Mr. Julian Thomas, ‘The Vagabond’” had passed away on Friday, September 4, 1896. The news item carried the information that Mr Thomas had not been keeping good health in recent times, and that the once-popular figure was being seen but rarely in his usual haunts.

It seems that Thomas, who was known to have been suffering from cardiac asthma, had gone up to his rooms on Princess Street, a rather run-down and ‘squalid’ area of Fitzroy on the Thursday evening, in an apparently normal state. It was also common knowledge that he had, of late, “almost given up eating and drinking.” His dead body was discovered in his bed the following morning. The column ended with the information that his internment was scheduled to be carried out at the Melbourne Cemetery on September 5, the cortege to leave his chambers at about 3 PM.

Over years, there have been individuals whose fame and achievements have transcended their passing away. Thomas was one of them. The December 8, 2012 issue of the Herald Sun was emblazoned with the headline Melbourne Press Club’s Hall of Fame honours significant contributions to journalism. Short descriptions of the first 20 inductees to the Melbourne Press Club’s Hall of Fame followed the headlines in chronological order.

The introduction for the fourth name in the list was as follows:
JOHN STANLEY JAMES — ‘THE VAGABOND’ (1843-1896)
James, aka Julian Thomas but famous for his Vagabond byline [sic], practised immersion journalism more than a century before the term was coined. His fly-on-the-wall pieces inside Melbourne institutions such as lunatic asylums, hospitals and other institutions were the talk of Melbourne for their detailed descriptions, revelations and anonymity. He began one piece on the Kew asylum like this: ‘The Angel of Death hovers continually over Kew, but he brings no terror with him. Death is relief to many of these poor lunatics…’”

The cricket fraternity will always owe a deep debt of gratitude to the journalist who, by one chance remark made to Lillywhite in a Melbourne tavern in 1877, fortuitously overheard by Conway, had made bilateral cricket ties with England and Australia a reality with all the subsequent historic significance attached to perhaps the most famous sporting rivalry of all.