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“The Little Digger”; William Morris (Billy) Hughes: A Family Connection

I first came across the name of  'Bill Hughes' when reading some of the letters written by my grandfather, Charlie Payne, while he was serving in the British Army during the Great War.  On the 4th May 1918 he wrote to my grandmother and mentioned: "I note Bill Hughes has been wounded and is at Bristol.  Do you know if his father will come from Australia this year? Last Sunday our padre opened his sermon with a reference to one of Mr Hughes' speeches in London - I well remember the speech - it was the one he made at the Queen's Hall in June 1916".

Charlie Payne's (my grandfather) letter of 4th May 1918 from the Western Front, mentioning 'Bill Hughes' and 'Mr. Hughes'
Charlie Payne's (my grandfather) letter of 4th May 1918 from the Western Front, mentioning 'Bill Hughes' and 'Mr. Hughes'

At that time, I hadn't a clue who Bill Hughes or his father were.  However, 'Mr Hughes' sounded a rather newsworthy person and I  decided to Google the words “Hughes, Australia” though I expected little success.  Instead, I found gold straight away. My search highlighted a Wikipedia article on ‘Billy Hughes’ the Prime Minister of Australia, between 1915 and 1923.  That led me to the website of the National Library of Australia which holds his archive, and that contained some correspondence from a 'George Payne'.  Knowing that my great-grandfather was called George Payne, I sent for copies of the letters, which gave me all the proof I needed as they had been written from my great-grandfather’s home address. Billy Hughes and George Payne had, for some serendipitous reason, been the best of friends. I was now hooked: wanting to find out how the two men might have become friends, how Hughes had become Prime Minister of Australia and what part he played in Australia’s considerable contribution to the First World War. 

George Payne c 1895
George Payne c 1895

Billy Hughes emerged during my research as a character who, when you start reading about him, you simply can't put him down. Born in London in 1862 to Welsh parents he spent some of his early years in Llandudno before returning to the Westminster area of London when he was about 12 years old. There he attended St Stephen's School near Rochester Row, and it is at that school that he must have first met my great grandfather, George Payne, whose father ran a Cutler's business in that street. The two boys remained lifelong friends, with George Payne and his wife Louisa, helping to pay Billy Hughes' fare when he decided in 1884 to emigrate to Australia on an assisted passage. Struggling to make ends meet, Billy Hughes was employed for several years in a number of seasonal and labouring jobs in the bush and towns of Queensland, before arriving in Sydney as a galley hand on a coastal steamer.

After settling in Sydney he became involved in socialist politics in New South Wales, becoming an elected Member of the New South Wales State assembly in 1894, and a Member of the House of Representatives (MHR) of the first Australian Federal Parliament in 1901. In October 1915 he became Prime Minister of Australia at a critical time during the First World War. As a great patriot and supporter of the British Empire he remained Prime Minister until 1923, and continued as a MHR until his death in 1952. However, he remains one of the most historically controversial of Australian politicians for his pragmatic style of politics and, in particular, the decisions he took in 1916 which led to a major split in the parliamentary Labor [sic] Party.  It seems that even to this day, he is regarded as a 'Rat' by Labor for  his actions then.

US President, Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)
US President, Woodrow Wilson (Wikipedia)

I may be biased for familial reasons, but it seems to me that Billy Hughes was a wartime Prime Minister of great physical and intellectual courage. He is also a source of some of the most wonderful anecdotes:  my favorite anecdote being when he was in the role of enfant terrible as a member of the British Empire Delegation to the Peace Conference in 1919, and was striving to secure German New Guinea as a mandated territory of Australia, in a bid to help improve the security of Australia's northern seaboard. His dialogue with the US President Woodrow Wilson ( the two men did not get on) is believed to have taken the following format, with David Lloyd George attempting to referee the confrontation:

Wilson:“Do I understand that Australia in the face of the wishes of the world would insist upon having her own way?” Hughes: “That’s about the size of it, Mr. President.”

Wilson continued: “Do you think 5 million Australians should hold to ransom the 1,200 million represented by the Conference”. Hughes: “I speak for sixty thousand (war) dead [the casualty figures within the Australian Imperial Force]. For how many do you speak?”  (Everyone knew that the Australian casualty figures were higher than those of the American forces)   Trying to defuse the situation, Lloyd George only sent it further into the depths of farce, asking:

“Would you allow missionaries free access to New Guinea?” Hughes responded: “Of course, I understand these poor people are very short of food, and for some time past they have not had enough missionaries.”  Little wonder perhaps that Wilson described Hughes as a “pestiferous varmint”.

Billy Hughes (right) pictured with Louisa and George Payne (centre and left), July 1919
Billy Hughes (right) pictured with Louisa and George Payne (centre and left), July 1919

My family, however, will remember Billy Hughes for the lifelong friendship he maintained with his old boyhood friend George Payne and George's wife Louisa.  Apart from the letters from George Payne to Billy Hughes in the National Library of Australia archive, there are at least  two surviving letters written by Billy Hughes to the Payne family (my thanks to my second cousin Mariya Ward for access to these).

The first of these letters was written shortly after Hughes had become Prime Minister. The fact that it was written on Christmas Day 1915, just as the Gallipoli campaign was ending, perhaps highlights the strength of the friendship. 

"25th December 1915

My dear George and Lou

I hope that all is well with you on this day. Peace which the hurt and wickedness of man has changed into a life and death struggle. The sun shines here in all its glory and it is indeed a typical Australian summer’s day.  Here all seems peaceful  and the blasts of war as far removed as Heaven from Hell.  But they are just posting up the 39th casualty list and that is enough and more than enough to remind all Australians that all is not Peace.

I’ve not seen Fred [Fred Payne, George Payne's younger brother who emigrated to Australia in 1883] for years, yet he works in the same street as I do; Such is life!  I’m going to try and dig him out during the next few days. All being well  I shall probably be in London early in March and of course will see you.  Mrs Hughes and the baby will come with me (DV).

With best wishes from all here to you all.

W. M. Hughes"

The second letter was written in 1934 to Dorothy Brauer [nee Payne; George and Louisa's daughter] following the death of Louisa Payne.

Dorothy Brauer (nee Payne) and her Australian husband Leo, 1918
Dorothy Brauer (nee Payne) and her Australian husband Leo, 1918

"14 December 1934

Dear Mrs Brauer

Your letter conveying the sad news of your mother’s death has just reached me and I am very sorry.  I know what a blow this must be to you: for she was a lovable woman and the kindest and best of mothers. I can hardly bring myself to think of her as dead!   I recall her as she was when I first met her years and years ago: the very incarnation of womanhood on the threshold of maturity.  I treasured her friendship and that of your dear father as one of my most precious  possessions; and through the long years of absence my thoughts turned again and again to them as I had known them when they and I were young and care-free. My dear Dorothy believe me, I deeply sympathise with your sorrow, and am yours most sincerely

W M Hughes

P.S. You must write me from time to time and if in trouble don’t forget to let me know.

If you are interested in finding out more about Billy Hughes, I would recommend the following books:

"William Hughes, Australia" by Carl Bridge (2011) published by Haus Histories in the "Makers of the Modern World" series. An excellent modern evaluation of Hughes's political contribution.  Concentrates on Hughes's role in the 1919 Peace Conference

"Billy Hughes" by Aneurin Hughes (2005) published by John Wiley, Australia.  A short biography, strong on anecdotes and Hughes's family relationships .

"That Fiery Particle" (1964) and "The Little Digger" (1979) by L F Fitzhardinge,  published by Angus and Robertson, Australia. A two-volume, and very comprehensive, political biography.

"The Billy Book" (1918) by David Low. Gloriously funny and razor-sharp satirical cartoons. Available as a free-download  at

"Broken Nation: Australia in the Great War" (2013) by  Joan Beaumont. Allen and Unwin. A winner of several literary prizes, and provides a more critical analysis of Billy Hughes' role during the Great War.

I shall leave you with a few of my favorite quotations about, and by, Billy Hughes.

The Billiwog, from 'The Billy Book' of satirical cartoons by David Low
The Billiwog, from 'The Billy Book' of satirical cartoons by David Low

Said about Hughes:

“...arguably, the most formidable, most amusing, most Australian of our prime ministers." [Jill Kitson]

“I didn’t agree with his politics but I’ll not hear a word against him.” [An old ‘Digger’]

“I’ll never work for [him] again.  I’d rather go to bed with a sabre-toothed tiger. As cold as sea-ice, vain as a peacock, cruel as a butcher bird, sly as a weasel and mean as cat shit”  [a former secretary]

Said by Hughes:

“They might go to the dogs and bet on ponies but they had enough sense to keep me in Parliament” [about the Australian electorate]

“They say I eat my secretaries.  It’s a lie. I’m on a strict medical diet.”

“Better to have fewer cleverer men and more ordinary ones. You’d get more done."

If you are interested in finding out more about my publications and talks, please visit my website.

5 thoughts on ““The Little Digger”; William Morris (Billy) Hughes: A Family Connection

  1. Peter Daniel

    Dear Chris

    My name if peter Daniel and I am Education Officer at Westminster Archives. I came across your blog as I am in the process of applying to HLF to run a project here that will include the story of Billy Hughes.

    I read about your talk with great interest. perhaps you could let me know how much you charge as we could put it on here in Westminster.

    Even if I do not get funding I have the following confirmed programme for 2015:

    March 2015 Westminster Archives outreach to 9 classes to tell the story of Gallipoli through researching the stories of Royal Marine Pte James Brill and Paddington born AIF VC holder L/Cpl Leonard Keysor.

    March 2015 Library Workshops based around Michael Foreman for all 9 classes Ali Pasha. Schools to create a class book based around the story

    April 2015 National Army Museum Art session based around Gallipoli veteran Charles Sargent Jagger linking his artillery memorial at Hyde Park Corner to similar work in Melbourne. Schools to photo art works to send out to Australia.

    April 23rd 2015 ANZAC Cafe show to 9 classes at Abbey Centre theatre. This will tell the story of Minnie Rattigan who ran the Horseferry Rd ANZAC Cafe, and Billy Hughes-the Pimlico PM and Gallipoli stoires of Pte James Brill, L/Cpl Leonard Keysor, and Sgt Major Robert Middlemiss (blinded at Gallipoli). Schools to send out PPt on Billy Hughes

    May 2015 Visit to Westminster Abbey for service for Brill and Keysor and visit to Household Cavalry Museum to hear the story of Australian Captain Rattigan of the Life Guards-Minnie Rattigan's husband. schools to send out letters based on Rattigans story.

    We now have the following schools partnerships:

    Westminster Cathedral -Diamond Creek (hopefully film swap will be a key focus)
    St Saviours - Yarrambat
    St Gabriel's Mill Park 1
    Churchill Gardens Mill Park 2
    St Barnabas Adelaide School (St B teacher is from Adelaide)

    I also have 4 more classes confirmed who will take part in our programme that I have yet to find a school in Australia to pair with.

    Hallfield School x 3 classes
    St Peter's Eaton Square


    Peter Daniel
    Westminster Archvies
    0207 641 5182

    1. admin

      Hi Peter. Thanks for your interest. I'll contact you by 'phone to explore options, but I would certainly be interested in presenting my talk on "The Little Digger" in Westminster City Archives at a time to suit you.

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