The Life and Death of Joe Lynch

Joseph Young Lynch would have been very embarrassed about the way he died. He fell off a ferry while drunk on May 14, 1927, and was dragged to the bottom of the harbour by the weight of the bottles of beer in his overcoat pocket. The fact that his death is now the most famous drowning in Sydney Harbour would have doubled his mortification.

Joe’s life and death are now part of Australia’s cultural heritage, exposed for all to witness in Kenneth Slessor’s poem “Five Bells”, which begins:

Time that is moved by little fidget wheels
Is not my Time, the flood that does not flow.
Between the double and the single bell
Of a ship’s hour. Between a round of bells
From the dark warship riding there below,
I have lived many lives, and this one life
Of Joe, long dead, who lives between five bells.

Life began for Joe in 1897, one of four children born in Melbourne to Joseph Patrick Stanislaus Lynch and Annie (nee O’Conner). Joseph was a stonemason, draftsman, architect and sculptor who in 1907, searching for work, moved the family to New Zealand. They settled in Auckland where Gertrude, Frank (known as Guy), Joe and Patricia all grew up. Among their childhood friends was George Finey, a regular visitor to the Lynch home, where there were not many Saturday nights without a family concert when Joseph and Joe would play on their violins. However, all George, Guy and Joe ever dreamed of was becoming artists.

Unhappy with the lack of opportunities in Auckland, Finey moved to Sydney in 1919 looking for work as a cartoonist. After getting a job on Smith’s Weekly in 1921 he urged the Lynch brothers to follow him. They arrived in late 1922 and Guy acquired a house in Western Crescent, Gladesville, into which the Lynch family moved.

One of the attractions was a large workshop in the backyard, which was to be used as a studio. Guy worked there on a satyr sculpture that he intended to enter in the 1924 young artists’ exhibition in the Anthony Hordern’s Art Gallery. He used Joe as a body and head model and to get the legs right they tied up a goat in the backyard. The plaster sculpture—coloured to represent bronze—was called a masterpiece by the art critics, while the more sedate circles of Sydney society suggested it needed a fig leaf. The Satyr brought Guy a lot of attention, which extended to Joe and his cartooning, and a job offer followed for him to work on Punch in Melbourne, the same magazine on which Slessor had taken a job as chief subeditor. Melbourne Punch, published since 1855, had enjoyed success as an imitation of Punch in London. But by the 1920s it was struggling and Keith Murdoch acquired it for the Herald and Weekly Times group, intending to revive it with new staff to compete with the Bulletin and Smith’s Weekly.

Had the resuscitation worked, Slessor and Lynch would probably have stayed in Melbourne. But in December 1925 Punch was merged with Table Talk and Lynch returned to Sydney and a job on Smith’s Weekly. Slessor remained in Melbourne for a while, working on the Herald, before moving back to Sydney, where in 1927 he too found work on Smith’s Weekly and resumed his social life with Lynch.

Drinking and partying played a big part in the lives of many journalists and cartoonists in the 1920s. Finey once wrote: 

It was difficult to restrict alcoholic intake round Sydney. It seems to be the very life—and breath—of the place. All appointments made were for meetings in hotels, never any other place. If you happened to collide elsewhere you naturally walked to the nearest pub. Never to the Art Gallery, or the Museum. The City of Sydney was formed on rum, and grog has remained the symbol of progress and development ever since.

Given the limitations of money, and the need to enjoy life and keep drinking, there were few Saturday nights when there was not a party at Finey’s home in Mosman. They were usually a bit of a free-for-all, attended by cartoonists, writers and other people looking to enjoy themselves.

Word went out that there would be a party at Finey’s on May 14, 1927. It was on Joe’s agenda that morning as he readied for work. It might have been a Saturday, but office protocol required him to dress in a suit when going in to Smith’s Weekly. It was about two kilometres along a quiet track to Looking Glass Point where he caught the ferry into the city and the Smith’s Weekly office. After he finished work he put on an old overcoat he had in the office, and walked down to Circular Quay. The Harbour Bridge was still being built and there were a number of pubs in the area where people could meet while waiting for a ferry to take them across the harbour.

When Joe arrived there were already several other cartoonists and a few journalists at the bar. Guy and his new bride Madge were there drinking with Frank Clancy, a journalist who worked on the Labor Daily. Clancy and Joe were mates and shared an extensive knowledge of world literature and art. Joe also knew Clancy’s sisters Abbey and Patricia and there were suggestions of a romantic connection between Pat and Joe. Clancy and Joe also held strong political views, leaning to the left. All of this would have fitted well with Joe’s views and his talk of wanting to blow up the world. Slessor said, “Joe was a devout nihilist and frequently (over a pint of Victoria Bitter) said that the only remedy to the world’s disease was to blow it up and start afresh.”

Everyone enjoyed more than one or two drinks before setting off for the 7.45 p.m. ferry, Kiandra, bound for Mosman. Everyone was loaded with bottles of grog as they crowded on board. Guy and Madge sat outside. With a shortage of seats Joe and Clancy stood opposite leaning against the rail. Near Fort Denison, Joe just disappeared over the side.

Deep and dissolving verticals of light
Ferry the falls of moonshine down. Five bells
Coldly rung out in a machine’s voice. Night and water
Pour to one rip of darkness, the Harbour floats
In air, the Cross hangs upside-down in water. 

While Joe’s death caused much distress among his family and friends few Sydneysiders would have given much thought to it. For them it was just another drowning in Port Jackson, not the first and regrettably not the last.

That may well have been all that history recorded about Joe had it not been for Slessor. For reasons he could never explain, eight years later he started thinking about Joe. Maybe it was because he had picked up an unused 1927 diary to use as a notebook and the date reminded him of Joe’s death. 

Why do I think of you, dead man, why thieve
These profitless lodgings from the flukes of thought
Anchored in Time? You have gone from earth,

Gone even from the meaning of a name;
Yet something’s there, yet something forms its lips
And hits and cries against the ports of space,
Beating their sides to make its fury heard.

Some people have speculated that Joe committed suicide, others claim he jumped from the ferry intending to swim ashore. The truth is he was drunk and just fell over the side and despite an effort to rescue him he sank to the bottom. His body was never recovered. But if death was on Joe’s mind, it is more than likely it would have been about how he was going to end up dead drunk after drinking the bottles of beer in the pockets of his overcoat. 

Are you shouting at me, dead man, squeezing your face
In agonies of speech on speechless panes?
Cry louder, beat the windows, bawl your name!
But I hear nothing, nothing … only bells,
Five bells, the bumpkin calculus of Time.
Your echoes die, your voice is dowsed by Life,
There’s not a mouth can fly the pygmy strait—
Nothing except the memory of some bones
Long shoved away, and sucked away, in mud;
And unimportant things you might have done,
Or once I thought you did; but you forgot,
And all have now forgotten—looks and words
And slops of beer; your coat with buttons off,

Your gaunt chin and pricked eye, and raging tales
Of Irish kings and English perfidy,
And dirtier perfidy of publicans
Groaning to God from Darlinghurst.

–Five Bells

One of the many places Lynch and Slessor had enjoyed a drink or two was at Harley Matthews’s Riverside vineyard in Moorebank. Matthews had worked with Slessor on the Sun before he left to develop the winery. Once it was established most of the drinking took place in a low-roofed cavern of cement called the “pillbox” which was dimly lit and flanked with wine casks. Trips to the vineyard were by train to Liverpool and then by taxi. However on one dark rainy night Slessor and Joe walked there from the station. Much of this walk would have been on unsealed roads and they would have arrived very tired and wet.

Then I saw the road, I heard the thunder
Tumble, and felt the talons of the rain
The night we came to Moorebank in slab-dark,
So dark you bore no body, had no face,
But a sheer voice that rattled out of air
(As now you’d cry if I could break the glass),
A voice that spoke beside me in the bush,
Loud for a breath or bitten off by wind,
Of Milton, melons, and the Rights of Man,
And blowing flutes, and how Tahitian girls
Are brown and angry-tongued, and Sydney girls
Are white and angry-tongued, or so you’d found.
But all I heard was words that didn’t join,
So Milton became melons, melons girls,
And fifty mouths, it seems, were out that night,
And in each tree an Ear was bending down,
Or something had just run, gone behind grass,
When, blank and bone-white, like a maniac’s thought,
The naphtha-flash of lightning slit the sky,
Knifing the dark with deathly photographs.
There’s not so many with so poor a purse

Or fierce a need, must fare by night like that,
Five miles in darkness on a country track,
But when you do, that’s what you think.

                                                           Five Bells.

It was in Melbourne that Slessor and Lynch became friends. Slessor once said, “I liked his mad Irish humour and his mad Irish rages.” Slessor had married Noela Senior in 1922 and in Melbourne they rented a house in South Yarra. Joe lived alone in a boarding house. Slessor once explained: 

In his bedroom at a North Melbourne boarding-house, Joe found a battered, morocco-bound notebook, apparently the relic of some unknown lodger, and gave it to me for scribbling. It contained some pages of manuscript notes written by the lodger (or Joe) which, of course, I had really no right to see. One of these entries is reproduced literally in “Five Bells”. Its misspellings (“photoes”, “differant”, “curioes”) give it, I think, a peculiarly haunting and convincing flavour. I imagine that Latassa, at the beginning of the extract, is the name of another Melbourne lodging-house and that the writer is describing his bedroom “at the top of the tower”. But for the purpose of the poem I have assumed that this is Joe’s own entry. 

Slessor assumed “Latassa” to be Labassa, a thirty-five-room towered mansion in North Caulfield built in a mixture of German and French styles. In 1889 it had been one of the grandest houses in Melbourne, but time had not been kind to it and in 1923 it was converted into a lodging house. 

In Melbourne, your appetite had gone,
Your angers too; they had been leeched away
By the soft archery of summer rains
And the sponge-paws of wetness, the slow damp
That stuck the leaves of living, snailed the mind,
And showed your bones, that had been sharp with rage,
The sodden ecstasies of rectitude.
I thought of what you’d written in faint ink,
Your journal with the sawn-off lock, that stayed behind
With other things you left, all without use,
All without meaning now, except a sign
That someone had been living who now was dead:
“At Labassa. Room 6 x 8
On top of the tower; because of this, very dark
And cold in winter. Everything has been stowed
Into this room—500 books all shapes

And colours, dealt across the floor
And over sills and on the laps of chairs;
Guns, photoes of many differant things
And differant curioes that I obtained …”

Joe moved back into the house in Gladesville that Guy was sharing with his now blind father, mother and his sister Patricia. On April 27, 1927, Guy married Marjorie Cush, a twenty-seven-year-old secretary, in St Francis’s Catholic Church, Paddington. Known to her family as Madge, she was one of eleven children born to John and Elizabeth Cush, farmers from Tamworth. It was lucky she came from a large family, as she too moved into the Gladesville house, which was never short of visitors. 

In Sydney, by the spent aquarium-flare
Of penny gaslight on pink wallpaper,
We argued about blowing up the world.

But you were living backward, so each night
You crept a moment closer to the breast,
And they were living, all of them, those frames
And shapes of flesh that had perplexed your youth,
And most your father, the old man gone blind,
With fingers always round a fiddle’s neck,
That graveyard mason whose fair monuments
And tables cut with dreams of piety
Rest on the bosoms of a thousand men
Staked bone by bone, in quiet astonishment
At cargoes they had never thought to bear,
These funeral-cakes of sweet and sculptured stone.

Guy took his brother’s death badly. He took to walking around the shore at the Botanical Gardens, looking out at the harbour as if looking for Joe. Guy’s home life also completely changed. His sister returned to New Zealand to live. His mother and father moved out too. Classified as blind, his father was admitted to the Little Sisters of the Poor in Randwick on July 28, 1927. Then the house was sold and in 1929 Guy and Marge sailed for London. 

Where have you gone? The tide is over you,
The turn of midnight water’s over you,
As Time is over you, and mystery,
And memory, the flood that does not flow.
You have no suburb, like those easier dead
In private berths of dissolution laid—
The tide goes over, the waves ride over you
And let their shadows down like shining hair,
But they are Water; and the sea-pinks bend
Like lilies in your teeth, but they are Weed;
And you are only part of an Idea.
I felt the wet push its black thumb-balls in,
The night you died, I felt your eardrums crack,
And the short agony, the longer dream,
The Nothing that was neither long nor short;
But I was bound, and could not go that way,
But I was blind, and could not feel your hand.
If I could find an answer, could only find
Your meaning, or could say why you were here
Who now are gone, what purpose gave you breath
Or seized it back, might I not hear your voice?

In an explanation of the poem, Slessor wrote:

“Harbor-buoys Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each.” No pun on “boys” is intended, as some critics have suggested, though there may have been a subconscious Empsonian instinct. It is an attempt to describe the Harbour navigation-lights, winking alternately on each side of the channel, so that it might appear that one was throwing a “fireball” to be caught by the other.

Five Bells concludes:

I looked out of my window in the dark
At waves with diamond quills and combs of light
That arched their mackerel-backs and smacked the sand
In the moon’s drench, that straight enormous glaze,
And ships far off asleep, and Harbour-buoys
Tossing their fireballs wearily each to each,
And tried to hear your voice, but all I heard
Was a boat’s whistle, and the scraping squeal
Of seabirds’ voices far away, and bells,
Five bells. Five bells coldly ringing out.

                                                          Five Bells

After Joe’s death Slessor continued to work at Smith’s Weekly. He was appointed editor in 1935 and somehow in August found time to start work on what became “Five Bells”. Working in pencil, Slessor slowly evolved the poem over the next fifteen months and completed it in January 1937. Despite all the hard work, surprisingly there is no record of him showing it to anyone. It was still in his desk drawer in 1938 when Guy Lynch returned to Sydney in November. 1939 was a big year for Slessor. In June he was elevated to the position of editor-in-chief of Smith’s Weekly. Then in August “Five Bells” was published in a small book with nineteen other poems and five Norman Lindsay illustrations. It was the same month Frank Clancy married Elizabeth Durack. Any joy Slessor may have been feeling came to an abrupt end in September when Smith’s Weekly was sold and he resigned. Coincidentally it was the same month Table Talk folded.

Since it was published in 1939, the poem has motivated other artists. Musical compositions include Allan Browne’s Australian Jazz Band with Five Bells and Other Inspirations, Miroslav Bukovsky’s Five Bells Suite, George Tibbits’s Five Bells, Peter Sculthorpe’s Between Five Bells and Kirsty Beilharz’s Between Five Bells.

John Olsen was also inspired by the poem. His painting Five Bells was commissioned by George and Eva Clarke in 1963. It was acquired by the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1999 and has been on exhibition ever since. Olsen returned to the poem when he was painting his Salute to Five Bells mural that was installed in the northern foyer in the main concert hall in the Sydney Opera House in 1973.

Guy Lynch died in 1967. His plaster Satyr had been purchased for the Art Gallery of New South Wales in 1926 and—except for occasional exhibition—it had stayed in storage. In 1977 Marge Lynch paid to have it cast in bronze and placed in the Botanical Gardens near the Opera House gate, as if looking out to where Joe had drowned. She said it had been her husband’s last wish to have The Satyr on permanent exhibition.

Slessor died in 1971. In 1988 listeners to the ABC voted “Five Bells” Australia’s favourite poem.

Lindsay Foyle is an historian specialising in Australian cartooning. He has been researching the life of Joe Lynch and his involvement with Kenneth Slessor for several years. He hopes to complete a book on the subject soon and then go hunting for a publisher.

Leave a Reply