“ Soldier, Head Teacher, Unionist, Strike Leader, Schools Inspector, Mayor and Political Candidate “
Jack BLAIR was born in Ballarat, Victoria , in October, 1875. His father was a prominent grazier and farmer of the district. Young Jack attended a local State Primary School before enrolling at the School of Mines in Ballarat. On graduation, he enrolled in the Teachers College in Melbourne and succeeded in qualifying to be a teacher.
BLAIR’s teaching career started in Victoria, before he took the opportunity to transfer to Western Australia in 1896. He initially taught at the Perth Boys School before transfers followed to Coolup, Collie, Donnybrook , Maylands, Rosalie, Norseman and York. He became the Acting Headmaster or inaugural Head Teacher at the York Primary School and had proven to be very successful in setting up new schools. He was appointed as Collie’s first School Teacher in 1899, starting with 36 children. Student numbers had quickly grown to 170, before he was transferred to Donnybrook for the 1901 School Year.
In 1908, Jack BLAIR passed further qualifying examinations which led to his appointment at Wagin Primary School in 1909. He married his second wife, Mary , in 1910 whilst working at Wagin ( tragically his first wife, Janet, who he had married in Collie in 1900, had died from ill health in Perth in 1905. He and Janet had previously lost 2 infant sons , who had died in 1901 and 1903 respectively ). BLAIR was further promoted in January, 1913, when appointed Headmaster at Bunbury Central State School.
Following the outbreak of the First World War, Jack BLAIR volunteered for active service and completed his initial medical examination in Bunbury, WA on 16 August, 1915. The Southern Times Bunbury of Tuesday 21 September, 1915, wrote – “ On Monday afternoon, the children of the State School gave an enthusiastic send-off to their Headmaster, Mr. J.T. BLAIR, who has gone into camp. Mr. BLAIR was exceedingly popular amongst his young charges, and has left an undoubted mark on the School. The scholars marched to the Station and gave three/tinging cheers for their departing Head as the train steamed out “.
His official service enlistment date became 16 September, 1915, when he was just shy of 40 years of age. Private Jack BLAIR was allocated to the 7th Reinforcements of the 28th Battalion and appointed to the rank of Provisional Sergeant on 1 November, 1915, whilst continuing training at Blackboy Hill Camp, WA.
Sergeant Jack BLAIR embarked from Fremantle, WA on 18 January, 1916 aboard the transport ship “ Medic “, which docked at Alexandria Egypt on 16 February, 1916. His Unit was later trans-shipped to Marseilles , France where he disembarked on 27 March, 1916. He completed further training at the British Forces Training Base where he chose to revert to ranks, before joining the 28th Battalion in action in the field at Armentieres, France on 3 May, 1916.
BLAIR wrote a number of letters to his wife and friends at home, however is best remembered and acknowledged for a letter dated 4 April, 1916, which he sent from France , addressed to the boys and girls of the Bunbury Central State School:-
“ Having changed my place of abode, I thought I may, as far as the regulations allow, give you a short account of my doings. At present I am lying on the floor of the tent writing this by the light of a short candle. My comrades are talking incessantly, and I cannot easily fix my ideas. It has often been said that ladies have a monopoly of gossip, but these lads can easily win at this particular game of chat. After spending a month or so in Egypt, we embarked at Alexandria, and after a beautiful passage of about 5 days, arrived at Marseilles. We were all very delighted at getting to France and nearer the scene of active operations. I nearly missed the trip altogether. Much against my inclinations, I was appointed Chief Sergeant of the Musketry in Egypt and the Officer in Charge commanding the 7th Training Battalion, had made up his mind to keep me there. My mate and I made strenuous efforts to get away with our Unit, but the Adjutant would not consent. At the very last minute, 2 men were missing. Mr. TREVET again made a special appeal on our behalf, and this time we were successful. We immediately packed our humble belongings and were ready to march out with the Unit at 3.30am. Alexandria is a very busy shipping place just now , being the Chief Port for Egyptian trade and transport of troops from Egypt. Someday when I return to Bunbury, I will be pleased to give you an account of some of the places of interest in Egypt, the Pyramids, the Mosques, the Citadel and many other places of interest. The marks of Napoleon’s invasion are seen on the Sphinx and on the doors of the Citadel; this place is very beautiful and cost over one million pounds to build. The King of the time had the eyes put out so that he could not build another to equal it in beauty. Many fine buildings are to be seen in Heliopolis, Cairo and Alexandria, but sorry that our quarters are filthy in the extreme. At Malta, which most of you know , was for centuries, the home of the famous Knight of St. John. Soon after leaving Malta, we saw a school of whales busily engaged in blowing up the water for our edification. Further along on our right, we passed close to the Western shores of Sardinia, the birthplace of that wild, but brave and patriotic Garibaldi, who played such a big part in the liberation of modern Italy. The rugged isles of Napoleon’s birthplace next came into view, and this was the last land we saw until the shores of sunny France cheered our souls.
At the entrance to the harbour at Marseilles, I took a snapshot of the famous Chateau. It aws where Monte Christo was supposed to be incarcerated for so many years. One need only look at this lonely place to see how small were his chances of escape. I looked in imagination: I traced the path he would have taken until picked up by the boat. We landed at Marseilles about midday and took a train to our temporary home, which we reached in a few days. The French people gave us a most enthusiastic reception along the route, cheering us and waving flags and banners. The ladies especially, were most demonstrative. At many stations they brought steaming hot tea and coffee, which was very acceptable, as the weather was now bitterly cold. During the last evening of our journey, there was a heavy fall of snow. Many of our lads had never seen snow before.
The French are very proud of their Towns, we can understand their pride, for the country we passed through was beautiful orchards, vineyards and splendidly cultivated farms meet the eyes everywhere. There appeared to be woman folk, however very few young men seen in civilian clothes. Almost to a man, they have joined the great army of their country.
French people would not take money for bread supplied to us on our way up, given freely, and would only accept something in the shape of a souvenir. Most of our lads stripped their coats of the badges to repay in a small way these generous souls. The French ladies knew that we were coming to fight for their country, as well as our own.
Just one little experience of my own – at a certain station, several of us rallied forth to get some bread, and I met a little French boy about 9 years old and asked him where I might get some , but he could not tell me. I gave him one shilling and sent him down one street to look for a Baker’s shop, while I went down the other. Before I was halfway down my street, the Train gave the starting signal and I had to scamper back and jump on. Just as the train was nearly out of the station ( I might here mention that the train was over five hundred yards long ), the little lad came up breathless and handed me the shilling, saying he could get no bread. Had this happened in Egypt, I would never have seen the boy or the shilling again. I bought a camera and took snaps of several places in Egypt, but in France, soldiers are not allowed to have cameras in their possession, so sent mine to a friend in Scotland yesterday.
We may be called into the firing line any day now and all are eager to do our bit. Though a terrible business, the experience will always be worth the risk ( If I am fortunate enough to last a few months in the trenches, I will try and send you a short account ). To me there is something fascinating about the whole business. I was having some practice with the machine gun yesterday. This weapon holds forty-seven cartridges in the magazine, and these can be fired in five seconds – a perfect hail of bullets. This morning I was again on the range, doing rapid firing with forty-five men a yard apart, in each detail. The noise is terrible, and I put wadding in my ears to deaden the sound.
We are not allowed to put any information in our letters that would be of use to our enemies and of course we do not wish to give them any – they know enough already.
Aeroplanes are as common to us now as motor cars are in Bunbury. The sudden removal from Egypt has upset the mail arrangements, but I hope to soon hear from you. Several Bunbury boys are in our Company. Sergeant Percy BLYTHE is a very popular boy and Walter MOORE, among others. Now, dear boys and girls, I hope you are all having a happy and prosperous time and that as soon as this war is over, we will meet again. With kindest regards and best wishes to all “.
At the time that Sgt. Jack BLAIR arrived near the front lines, trench warfare had become deadlocked around Vimy, Amiens and Albert and had included huge losses of Australian troops, near Fromelles.
On 3rd June 1916, BLAIR was slightly wounded in a hand and required hospitilization for a few days of treatment. Soon after rejoining his Unit, they were engaged in the Battles of Pozieres where BLAIR was seriously wounded by gunshots to the groin and thigh. He was initially admitted to a Stationary Hospital in Rouen, France. However, the seriousness of the wounds forced his evacuation for further treatment at the 3rd London General Hospital at Wandsworth, England, being admitted on 4 August, 1916.
During his treatment and recuperation at Wandsworth, Sgt. BLAIR wrote a number of letters to his wife and friends; a number had extracts published in the local newspaper, and included:-
Firstly, the account of his wounding in the Battle of Pozieres on 29 July, 1916, reads- “At 11.00pm we reached our assembling point in No Man’s Land between our own and the German trenches…….we moved forward silently and lay down. The Germans evisently spotted us , for their deadly machine guns and artillery poured on us. Many were hit, but we lay still, until we got the word to advance. Then the earth seemed to pour lead and other metals from all points at once. The bullets were thick as hailstones and the shells and shrapnel terrific. One only wonders that any could live a minute in that field of fire. Our men were dropping like flies from poison, but still we pushed on. The smoke from the bursting shells prevented my seeing very far. I hung to my section and went on, and when within 30 yards of the Germans’ barbed wire, I was struck in the groin and body with something both heavy and hot. I was stunned but retained consciousness. I thought my clothes were on fire and tried to put them out…..I was bleeding freely.”
It was quite ironic that BLAIR, in an earlier letter to friends he had stated:- “ We now knew for certain that our fellows had failed to take the trenches and we were in a queer fix. My mate reckoned we were done for, but I was not willing to give up the ghost and preferred the bullets of machine guns, to be taken prisoner of war, bayoneted by the Huns .”
In another letter to the students of the Bunbury Central School, he informed :- “ Of course we sleep in our clothes, so as to be ready at all times to seize our loaded rifles and get to business. There is no mistake about it, this is quite a change from School Teaching .“ A number of BLAIR’s letters also referred to other Bunbury men he had met from the 11th, 16th and 28th Battalions, when they were deployed together.
Sgt. Jack BLAIR’s convalescence and rehabilitation lasted until the end of September, 1916, when he was posted to the 7th Training Battalion at Perham Downs in England. In early November, 1916, he was transferred to Officer Training Programs, firstly at Oxford, then joining the Officer Cadet Battalion at Pembroke College in Cambridge. In late March, 1917, BLAIR was promoted to the rank of Second Lieutenant and granted leave in the United Kingdom. He subsequently rejoined the 28th Battalion in the field in France on 21 May, 1917 ( shortly after the Battle of Bullecourt, from 3-17 May, 1917 ). In late June, 1917, he suffered through ten days of illness, before being detached to the Corps School in France from 22 July, 1917. He eventually was instructed to rejoin the 28th Battalion in the field in France on 26 August, 1917.
2nd Lieut. Jack BLAIR was admitted to St. Omer Hospital in France on 8 September, 1917, where he was to spend three weeks overcoming Cellulitis in a foot. During hospitilization, he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and on discharge he was sent to rejoin the 28th Battalion at the front in Belgium. A short extract from one of his letters read :- “ We had some of our biggest guns in action and the damage they did was terrible. I often watched the bombardments at night and they were magnificent. The heavens were simply ablaze with flashes and the noise was worse than any thunderstorm ever heard. “
On 10 January, 1918, Lieut. BLAIR was granted 2 weeks leave in England, then rejoined the 28th Battalion in the field in France in late January. He saw out the winter behind the lineson the Somme in France, before being transferred to the Overseas Training Brigade at Longbridge Deverill in England on 1 March, 1918. He remained at this post until rejoining the 28th Battalion in the field in France on 5October, 1918.
The guns fell silent on 11 November, 1918, the Armistice was signed, the War ended and Lieut. Jack BLAIR was transferred to serve in London, attached to the War Records Office. He embarked from England, aboard the transport ship “ Orontes “ on 15 May, 1919, bound for Australia, where he was discharged from Army Service on 7 September, 1919.
After his War Service Discharge, Jack BLAIR returned to teaching ranks at Fremantle Boys School, and within three months, was elected President of the Teachers Union. He became embroiled in negotiations on the level of salaries being paid to Teachers and Civil Servants. He gained strong support from Inspectors and Headmasters to proceed to strike. The strike promoted a solution by using peaceful means, which led to a successful outcome for all Teachers. BLAIR became the key figure in negotiations on the terms of settlement and he remained President of the Teachers Union for a further three years.
At a 1921 Union Conference, Jack BLAIR gave a lengthy address that demonstrated his incredible foresight, particularly in the developing of the following achievements that were not in place prior to the BLAIR speech:-
- Scholarships to be provided for Higher Education,
- Adequate Teacher Training Programs,
- Professional responsibilities for Teachers,
- Superannuation for Teachers,
- Equal pay for equal work – Gender equality,
- Corporal punishment of children was only to be used as a last resort,
- Continuation classes at night, or Technical School for Trade students,
- Raising of the school leaving age,
- Emphasis on health of students( particularly pre-school ),
- Stricter supervision on quality of children’s food.
During his role with the Teachers Union, BLAIR also collaborated with Colonel Herbert B. COLLETT to compile the book “ The 28th, A record of War Service with the Australian Imperial Force, 1915-1919. COLLETT states in the book Preface – “ I am indebted to Lieut J.T. BLAIR , who placed at my disposal a considerable quantity of material which he had been at great pains to collect whilst in London”.
In 1922, when Jack BLAIR did not re-nominate for the role of Teachers Union President, the Director of Education appointed him as Inspector of Schools. He served in this role for fifteen years, being based in Narrogin for six years, Kalgoorlie for three years and the final six years in Bunbury. He retired from the Education Department in 1937 and together with his wife, Mary, began dedicated volunteer activities and Community Service.
Jack BLAIR was elected Mayor of Bunbury in late 1938, serving for five years until 1943. He died at the age of 77 years, on 15 January, 1952. The South Western Times newspaper of the day, published the following:- “ Death of Mr. J. T. BLAIR
A long life of fine work crowned with high regard
John Thomas BLAIR, who had devoted his whole life
as a worker for people of all classes in various
districts of Western Australia, died in Hollywood
Hospital on Tuesday 15 January, 1952.
The Mayor of Bunbury ( Mr. F. J. WITHERS ) said – “ After his five years as Mayor of Bunbury, no-one could deny that Mr. BLAIR was one of nature’s gentlemen. Mr. BLAIR was elected unopposed as Mayor of Bunbury in 1938, and continued in office until the 1943 elections. His policy had always been to work in complete harmony with everyone, and to ensure as much as possible for Bunbury and the district in the shortest time possible. Much has been done in Bunbury by past Councils to improve and beautify the Town, but during his term as Mayor, his Council and officers carried on the good work and noticeable improvements were everywhere visible. At that time it was a known fact that no Town of the size of Bunbury in Western Australia could show the good roads, excellent footpaths and the general beautification of the surroundings which were to be seen in Bunbury. Scores of visitors to the Town had congratulated BLAIR as Mayor, on the cleanliness and beauty of the City “.
SERVICE MEDALS AWARDED
British War Medal – No. 8628
Victory Medal – No. 8591