Still Standing A Life History of Tom and Dennis Moﬀatt
Story by Tom Moffatt and Dennis Moffatt Written by Emma Mitchell Guided by Tim Carroll Edited by Melinda Jewell Layout and design by Alessandro Berini Cover image by Oneworld Photography Published by Outloud: outloud.org.au ISBN: 978-0-9853202-8-7 No part of this publication may be used without written permission of the publisher. Views expressed are not necessarily those of the publisher.
Still Standing: A Life History of Tom and Dennis Moffatt
By Dennis Moffatt, Tom Moffatt, and Emma Mitchell
In Memory of Our Lost Brothers and Sisters
Memorial plaque at Camperdown Cemetery. Photo credit: Oneworld Photography
The authors acknowledge that we are sharing this story on the country of the Gadigal and Wangal people of the Eora nation. We acknowledge the Darug people and Darkinjung people on whose country this story was also recorded. We pay our respects to elders past, present and emerging. This book is dedicated to Brother Jimmy and all families impacted by forced child removal policies. Special thanks to Sir Joseph Banks High School Koori club – Finny, Tali, Mereki, Teora, Lizzy, and Ashlea – for interviewing Tom and Dennis with such warmth and maturity. Your listening helped Dennis to heal. Thank you to Tim Carroll, former Director of Outloud, for the generous and unfailing guidance and assistance. Thank you to Finn O’Branagáin, Artistic Director and CEO of Outloud, for support publishing the book. Thank you to Christopher Woe Photography and Oneworld Photography. Thank you also to Bankstown Community Resource Group, and Lynn Fahey and Cheryl Certoma for sharing their photos. Thank you to Inner West Council for funding this project through its Community History and Heritage Grants, with special credit to Amie Zar for her direction and support.
Part of the Moffatt Family Tree
Transported Into a Nightmare
Knockin’ About Newtown
Rough and ready
Learning the caper
The hardest of the hard
Life and legend
It’s a Moffatt Thing
Putting the pieces together
You Find the Joys in Life
Introduction When Tom first knocked on Dennis’s door the two brothers hadn’t seen each other for over 30 years. Tom had been taken as a baby and had no memory of his older brother. Dennis could remember pushing baby Tom in a pram up and down Redfern Lane at the back of their house until one day he was just gone. In 1960 the Welfare had taken two-year-old Tom and his other young siblings into care and fostered them out. Dennis was 16 years old when Tom was taken. As Tom stood on Dennis’s doorstep, he was nervous not knowing what reaction he would get. ‘To tell the truth I was shitting myself ’, he told me the first time I heard the story. Dennis was expecting him – he’d had a call from his brother Jimmy – so when he opened the door he just said, ‘Tom, where’ve you been? I’ve been waiting’. They burst into laughter and felt instantly close. ‘Straight from that moment it was as if we had grown up together’, Tom told me. Dennis agreed: ‘As soon as I seen Tom I knew straight away we were made from the same cloth’. Tom and Dennis were part of a complex extended family torn apart and scattered in the name of child protection. After Dennis’s mum had died, his dad had taken up with Tom’s mum. Dennis and Tom shared 15 brothers and sisters from their dad. Tom had at least another 12 siblings on his mum’s side who were born after his parents had separated and weren’t related to Dennis. Most of the children born of these relationships had been taken away from their parents, put in orphanages or fostered out. Tom and Dennis didn’t share the same bond with all the siblings they were reunited with in adulthood. ‘It’s different with Tom than the others. When I speak about Tom he’s me brother’, Dennis said. Tom agreed: ‘The apple didn’t fall far from the tree, and I think that’s why it’s different with us. I think we’re so similar, whereas all the others they lived a different sort of life’. Some of the other children went to ‘good families’, as Tom put it. But Tom and Dennis had both lived rough and come good. They’d led strangely parallel lives 12 years
apart; both survived the cruel irony of being taken into ‘care’, both created mischief and violence in Newtown streets and clubs, both spent time in prison, and both reached a turning point when they started a family. This book tells the story of those parallel paths and how they crossed. I spent 18 months on and off interviewing Tom and Dennis in 2018 and 2019. I met Dennis while doing research in South-West Sydney for my PhD. He knew he had a good story to tell and asked if I would help tell it. Tom happened to be in town the day Dennis and I planned our first official interview. He was visiting from his home on the Central Coast so he joined in. After two and half hours sitting in Nugent Park in Chester Hill it was clear that this was a story about the two brothers. I think we all felt it was a special meeting. Dennis said he was walking away happier because he had been able to tell his story. Tom agreed it had been a good day. And I caught the train back home to Newtown – where much of their story took place – buzzing with gratitude and excitement. Dennis and Tom both have a gift of telling a good yarn and I have tried to channel and incorporate their voices as much as possible. There may be errors or gaps in detail. Exact dates were sometimes difficult to pin down. But this is their story as they remember it. Some memories have faded with age; repetition has given other memories a life of their own. In order to translate Tom and Dennis’s story to paper I retell it from the perspective of an attentive listener. As I see it, they are the artists and I am the curator.
Transported Into a Nightmare When baby Tom disappeared, Dennis didn’t yet understand that history was repeating itself. Dennis was in his early teens and had not long been out of the orphanage himself. He had been taken by the Welfare as a young boy, along with his sisters, Kay and Gale. The authorities came back later for his older sisters: Barbara, Fay, June, and Sandra. His oldest brother, Stanley, had passed away young. By the time Dennis was taken, his oldest sister, Shirley, and brother, Neville, had both found partners and married. Shirley managed to save one of the youngest children, Carol, from the Welfare by placing her with another family around the corner. These eleven were the children of Unice Carmen and James William Moffatt. By the time Tom was taken, their father – affectionately called Dadda – had six more kids with Kathleen Bartholomew. The Welfare took Jimmy, Michael, Tom, John, and Donna. Only their older brother Wayne managed to get away by taking the name of his brother, Jimmy, and hiding out at Shirley’s place. Before meeting Dadda, Kathleen had already lost five children to the Welfare: Jeff, Janet, Margaret, Judy and Bill. After Tom and his siblings were taken from Kathleen and Dadda, Kathleen would go on to have seven more taken from her over the years: Cheryl, Rhonda, Harry, Paul, Michelle, Robyn, and PJ.
Early memories Dennis remembered his early years as two distinct periods: before and after the death of his mother. He had to try hard to remember the good times before his mother died because the nightmare of the orphanage crowded them out. When I asked him about his strongest memory before he was taken away, he told me: I remember the good times like when my grandmother, Mimmy, she used to pack us all up and we’d go to the bush, out at La Perouse, we’d go to the bush and we’d live in the bush, stay and live in the bush for three, four days. And we’d go over to
Crookwell, because that’s where Mimmy and Dadda they came from. He said that Mimmy was a great food collector out in the bush. She would find berries and catch lizards and snakes. Dennis remembered in Crookwell, she’d dig into the side of the creek and she’d get the frogs. Like the frogs have got two stomachs, they store water in one and everything else in the other. You’d squeeze them to drink some of the water, but you wouldn’t drink all the water, because she used to tell you, you know, you wouldn’t drink all the water. Mimmy lived at Eveleigh Street in Redfern before it was known as the Block. They moved around quite a lot, ‘like Aboriginal families do’, Dennis told me. Dennis was born in St Peters before ending up at Herne Bay, now known as Riverwood. ‘We finished up where all the army huts are’, he said, perhaps recalling the military hospital barracks that was converted into a Housing Commission Settlement in 1946. Sometimes of a night they’d have a fire at Herne Bay: We’d go down to the bush and we’d light up, we’d light up the big fire and sit around the big fire and you’d have potatoes. Dad would have the potatoes in there. There’d be me, there’d be Mimmy, there’d be the girls. Dennis remembered going out on the horse and cart with his Dadda, which he’d hire to flog various wares: ‘one day you’d go out and sell clothes, another day it might be coal, another day it might be bananas and things like that’. Dennis did his best to hold onto these bits and pieces of ‘the times before’, as he called them. But it wasn’t long before memories of the good times began to bleed together with the bad. Tom comforted him with the words, ‘Stay strong brother’, as he choked over the painful words: I can remember after me mother died, the Welfare were always coming around, and grandma used to hide us down the
Herne Bay Public Housing Centre, believed to be 1957. Photo courtesy of Georges River Libraries
backyard, and I can remember the day when the nuns and the Welfare come, and they collected me. Dennis paused to catch his breath. I remember the girls crying and I can remember being put into like a grey truck with one nun and the driver, who as I found out later on worked at the orphanage up at Kincumber. Then I was transported there, like being transported into a nightmare. He was separated from his sisters, Kay and Gale, and to this day has never seen them again. ‘I haven’t seen them for 60 years or more … I’ve tried to find them, I’ve tried everything. I just want to know if they’re still alive’. As long as they’re missing the wound remains raw. Refusing to let it go is Dennis’s way of keeping them close. ‘I never forgot them … My life will never be full until I’m reunited with them’. Little Dennis was taken to St Joseph’s Orphanage at Kincumber on the Central Coast, run by the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Later he was transferred to St Vincent’s Boys Home at Westmead, managed by the Marist Brothers. Dennis didn’t know the exact year this happened or the age he was at the time. He had
been given a copy of official records when he had tried to track his family in middle age, but he had long since lost the letters detailing his encounters with the Welfare. The fear and pain he felt at the time never left him though. Dennis could talk at length about the abuse he experienced at the hands of two particularly vicious Sisters at Kincumber and two brutal Brothers at Westmead. Common to all of his stories was the cruelty of punishing kids for doing things that kids naturally do. When he wet the bed he was made to wear the soiled pyjamas around his neck all day. The kids would be giggling, chatting, or mucking around and suddenly one of the nuns would swipe them across the legs, neck, or back with a leather strap. ‘I remember the welts on your back and around your chest’, Dennis told me. ‘The welts used to come up like a big line of lumps’. Even recreational activities were tainted by cruel violence. The football coach ‘used to run behind with a cane, and if you dropped behind you’d cop the cane on the back of ya legs’. The band conductor would use his baton to whack the knuckles of anyone who played a wrong note. As one of the older kids at the orphanage, Dennis felt responsible for the younger ones but powerless to protect them. I was sorta one of the older ones. I’d look after a little one – he was probably six or five – and I’d dress him of a night in his pyjamas and get him ready for bed, made sure he went and done a wee and things like that. He used to feel sorry for the little kids; he wanted to help them but there wasn’t much he could do: They’d look up at ya, you know, she’d be there hitting them, and they, they’d sorta be looking up at you for help but you couldn’t do nothing. You know they’d be, you could see their little eyes, they’d be begging you “help me, help me,” but we couldn’t do nothing, we couldn’t do nothing. Dennis was a small child himself and there were no trustworthy adults he could turn to. He was betrayed by the very people entrusted to care for him.
Despite the brutality, there were some pleasures and victories. On the weekends and during the school holidays the boys would go swim in the river: we were all down there swimmin’, playin’, laughin’, muckin’ around … we were always down near the water. Always there, catchin’ the crabs and yahooin’ down there, building cubby houses down there. And Dennis found strength in defiance. He stole the ironing cord one of the nuns hit the children with. He was belted for it but at least he’d stood up for himself: ‘I told her, I said I stole it because of what you do’. He was sure she had it in for him because he wouldn’t give in. ‘I would always say I’m an Aboriginal and things like that and she’d say, No you’re not, and I’d say, Yes I know, I know who I am’. He knew he had to work out a way to survive or he’d fall by the wayside. Dennis had been ripped from his family and found himself alone: ‘We were all a great big family and then all of a sudden, bang! They vanished. Then there was just me’. But his older sister, Shirley, had been working hard to bring the family back together. One Sunday a nun told Dennis he had a visitor: ‘She said, It’s your sister. I said, Who? I’d never seen anyone in all that time’. At first she was like a stranger to him; his memories of before had been stamped out by life in the orphanage. Shirl would save up the fare and from time to time make the trip from Newtown to Gosford, taking an old bus down an all dirt road on the last leg from Gosford to Kincumber. When Dennis was moved to the Boys’ Home at Westmead she kept up the visits. Eventually he was let out on weekends as long as the family paid the fare and had him back by Sunday night. Shirl and her husband, Pancho, lived on Longdown Street in Newtown. Shirl had gathered up the brothers and sisters she could find and ‘took on the mum role’. Twelve of them, including Dennis on weekend visits, squeezed into the two bedrooms. ‘We were all family in that two-bedroom house, and it was bunk on top of bunk’.
Shirl at the Courthouse Hotel, Newtown, 1978. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Certoma
One Sunday night Dennis just didn’t go back to the orphanage. Shirl would sing out ‘Dennis’ when the Welfare came looking for him and he’d run and hide at his neighbour’s house across the road: Stella, she had a three bedroom house that was one bedroom downstairs and two bedrooms upstairs, and she used to hide me upstairs and then her backyard used to look over on to our place, and Stella used to look out the window and she’d wait, ‘cause she could see when the Welfare would walk out of our place, she could see because, very rarely did you see cars coming up and down the street in our area, because no one could afford it, and people are dressed up in suits and things like that, that just wasn’t on. And she’d give us the nod, and Shirl would get the nod and send me back over. He marveled at Shirl’s knack of knowing when the Welfare was coming. Once she got her family back, there was no way she was handing anyone back to them again. Eventually she convinced the authorities to let him stay despite their objection to the overcrowding. Dennis was in his early teens. This was the beginning of his days running amok in Newtown.
History repeats Dennis guessed this was around the late 1950s, by which time Dadda lived with a new young family in Redfern. Dennis would often visit his younger siblings there. Dennis liked to tell a beloved family story of little Tom – no older than two – streaking in the back lane. Dennis would laugh as Tom jokingly groaned, ‘you had to tell it didn’t you?’ My sister’s got a favourite story she always tells. Because Skin used to go over and babysit at Dadda’s a lot. Tom had a bad habit – he’d take all his clothes off. He’d run out the back, he’d see that gate open, and I don’t know why before he run out he’d take all his clothes off. He’d scoot out that gate and he’d be runnin’ up the road and Skin would sing out, You mongrel bloody coot, get back here! Skin said she’d be chasing him up the lane and he’d be off. Oh it was funny!
Skin was Sandra’s nickname, given because she was so skinny. Dennis’s memories of visiting little Tom, John, Jimmy and Michael always ended abruptly with them vanishing: ‘But as I said, one day when I went over there, everyone was gone! I wondered what happened to them’. He thought they might have gone to live somewhere else, but he never imagined that they had been taken by the Welfare just like he had. Tom was only two when the Welfare took him so he couldn’t remember being taken or the life he lost. ‘That’s the saddest part about the whole story’, he told me, ‘it’s that I don’t have no memory of them’. Tom had been back to the house they were evicted from in Redfern Street, willing memories to come back: ‘I’ve stood there and I’ve stared at the place and I’ve tried to remember myself there with Den … but nothing ever comes back to me’. What Tom knew of that time he had pieced together from what his siblings had told him and the ward file he had accessed from the official records. According to that information, Dadda and his new family had been evicted at the end of January 1960 for not paying the rent. They moved to Mimmy’s small flat on the same street, but the landlady threatened to evict everybody, including Mimmy, if the family didn’t leave. Within the month the children had been taken from their parents and put in the care of the Department of Child Welfare. A letter from the Department of Family and Community Services relaying this information to Tom in the late 1980s simply says that the four boys were brought before the Children’s Court on ‘a complaint of neglect, in that you had no fixed place of abode’. Tom was in a state home for only six weeks before being placed with a foster family. Looking back he thought perhaps he was somehow lucky to avoid the state homes, but foster care was a comparable kind of hell: my adopted father he was a brutal, brutal man, and I was copping the same treatment that they were all copping in the homes, only I was copping it off my father and you know, he used to fight me, as a five-year old, like he was in a bar room
brawl, and my dad, he was a big man, he was over six foot, he was a wharfy and he was just solid muscle … he just continually belted me, punched me. Like Dennis in the orphanage, Tom was denied the chance to ‘do the things that a normal kid would do’. He wasn’t allowed to ride his bike, go out and play, or go to birthday parties: ‘I never had friends. It was me, me, and me. I didn’t play with me younger brother because we’d just end up in an argument. So I used to sit in my bedroom and just read’. He described himself as a prisoner in his own backyard. School was where Tom got to muck around and be a kid. He’d go there to hang out with his mates, clown around, kick the football about, play cricket, get into a few little scuffles. ‘I couldn’t do that at home ‘cause it was just the back yard. So I went to school to enjoy meself ’. Not that he did much learning there. School meant nothing to him except as a place to fool around and have some fun. So I liked to go to school but I didn’t like to learn what they had to teach me and the curriculum. All bar English – English was the only class that I paid any attention in, and even then I was still the class clown.
Dennis and Tom return to Longdown Street, Newtown, April 2019. Photo by Emma Mitchell
By the time he reached fourth form the Deputy Principal told him outright there was no point sitting the test for the School Certificate: And I said, No its fine. I’ll sit ‘em, and he said, You’re only gonna embarrass yourself. I said, Oh well if I embarrass meself I embarrass meself. I sat the test and I got a B+ in English and I got C and D. But I passed by about half a dozen marks. But the way I seen it, it was a pass. And I got me School Certificate. Tom was clearly proud of refusing to give in and defying his teacher’s low expectations of him, but he also regretted the opportunities he’d lost by not taking school seriously: ‘I often think to meself if I had of actually concentrated I probably could have been reasonably smart and might have ended up going on a different course. But that’s life as they say’. It’s little wonder Tom found it hard to concentrate at school given the darkness in his life. He put up with his adoptive father’s abuse
Fitzroy Gardens in King Cross, 1970. Tom lived on the streets of Kings Cross after running away at 13. Photo courtesy of City of Sydney Archives
for years until he turned thirteen and cracked. Tom’s voice shook as he told the story: I crept into the bedroom one night with a knife and I was gonna stab him, but my mother woke up just as I was about to do it. For the grace of god she did cause god knows where I would’ve ended up… because I was gonna kill him there was no two ways about it cause I just put up with so much I couldn’t cop it anymore. Feeling out of options, he tried to take his own life. Tom broke into tears as he choked out the words: ‘about a month later… I attempted to hang meself … and again but for the grace of god the rope snapped and here I am now’. Dennis punctuated this sentence with the words, ‘Thank Christ it did’. Tom was barely a teenager bearing the weight of these traumatic experiences. He decided there was only one thing for it and ran away. He didn’t know the family he was taken from, but he knew he didn’t belong to the one he was in. For a couple of months he survived on the streets of Kings Cross by pick-pocketing until he was nabbed by the police and sent home. Bolstered by a new determination to finish school and get out of there, he put up with it another three years. ‘I made it to sixteen, got me School Certificate and then I said, That’s it I’m leaving. And I walked out of the house and I never went back’. Out on his own and out on the streets, Tom was yet again heading down the same track as the older brother he still didn’t know existed.
Tom aged 7, 1965. Photo taken at North Ryde. Photo courtesy of Tom Moﬀatt
Knockin’ About Newtown I arrived at the Courthouse Hotel in Newtown on Anzac Day, 2018, assuming Dennis and Tom were there to play two-up. I hadn’t understood when they invited me to join them that they were the ones running the game. Every year for the last 20 years they returned as a team on the one day of the year it was legal to play – riding the resurgence of Anzac Day commemoration. Dennis boasted about the youthful crowd of ‘all sorts’ they attracted – a pair of brothers, a gay couple, a group of butch lesbians – regulars that returned year in, year out. It was a very different Newtown to the one they once knew; ‘full of people like me’, I joked. The local butchers, bakers, greengrocers, and corner stores had been replaced with trendy cafes and boutiques. The same housing stock once condemned as slums was now prime real estate. Late-night partiers, pushed west by the lockout laws in the CBD and eastern suburbs, now filled pubs along King Street. LGBTQI locals that had made the area home since the 1980s paraded to ‘keep Newtown weird and safe’. But despite these changes, Tom and Dennis enjoyed coming back. Tom put it this way: ‘It’s strange because livin’ up the Coast I don’t get down here that often but when I come here, I feel like I’m home even though it has changed’. Dennis agreed: ‘It all began here. Your travel in life, walkin’ through life, which road you were gonna take in life. Everything started here. This is where your family were, this is where your friends were’. In the decades that Dennis and Tom were born, inner city suburbs like Newtown were associated with crime. When historian Sue Rosen interviewed long-term residents of Newtown in the 1990s about what it used to be like, they often rejected this association. They told her that ‘real’ criminals did not live in their neighbourhood; they were in the adjacent suburb, over that way, not here. But the Newtown Dennis and Tom once knew was a place of crime and they were well and truly mixed up in it.
Tom and Dennis running two-up at the Courthouse Hotel, Newtown, Anzac Day 2018. Photo credit: Christopher Woe Photography
Running amok Dennis was initiated early into the mischief and misdemeanors of the Newtown streets. As a young teen he used to run bets for the bookmaker: He’d give you these addresses and you’d collect their bets, and they’d have thruppence each way, a penny each way, things like that … each day you’d be going back and forwards, taking people their winnings and taking a lot of bets. There were other benefits to having kids around for the bookmaker. If he got a tip-off from Newtown police that there’d be a raid, he’d get the girls to hide the betting slips down their Bombay bloomers. The punters would slip out via the back fence, leaving the girls innocently skipping rope when the police turned up. When the police would come the girls would be skipping, there’d be cordial and fairy bread, and the bookmaker he’d say, What you talking about? It’s a kids’ party, no gambling here. And that was the routine. There were lots of ways Dennis made money as a kid back then, some honest and others not. He told me a bloke at the University of Sydney would pay Dennis and a couple of his mates two shillings for every stray cat they brought him to dissect. ‘You tell people that, they’d deny it’, he said, aware of how outrageous it sounded by today’s standards. They’d collect glass bottles in a cane pram and sell them to the bottle yard. Full of cheek, they’d steal copper from the metal yard and sell it back to the owner. Collecting vine leaves for the Fish and Chip shop window display could earn Dennis two bob or a serve of chips. And he would keep an eye out for the coppers while his Dadda ran two-up rings after the races and for the brothels on Riley Street of a weekend. He remembered blushing when the Madame of one of the brothels smothered him in a busty embrace and teased that she had made the little fella’s night. Dennis and his little brother, Noel (technically Shirley’s son), looked after the horses at Harry Cohen’s stables. It was their job to clean the
boxes, do track work with the horses at Harold Park, hose and brush them down, clean their hooves, and give them water. Dennis remembers the stables as the place where he and his brother fell for a pair of sisters. One day Harry brought two girls, Cathy and Carol, to the stable. They were the daughters of a barmaid at the Marlborough Hotel up the road. ‘It was love at first sight’, Dennis told me. The girls’ parents were separated so they only stayed with their mother in the school holidays. Noel and Cathy went on to marry and have children. Dennis got distracted by another girl in between holiday visits. This didn’t surprise me. When we walked the streets of Newtown together, Dennis pointed out so many houses of past girlfriends that it became a running joke between me and Tom. ‘I’ve always regretted that’, Dennis told me every time Carol came up. Dennis was nostalgic about these days of roaming and running amok. ‘They were great old days for kids, Emma!’ he told me. ‘Oh did we get up to some stuff!’ We used to get the fish and chips for dinner and you’d go to the movies. You used to have five shillings. It’d cost you thruppence to get in and at interval time you’d go out and buy a drink, a scorched peanut bar. And from five shillings you’d still come home with spare. The cinema was a lively place. There’d be Jaffas flying and kids up on stage for yoyo contests or custard-eating competitions. Sometimes they’d come dressed up. One time Dennis took the invitation to dress up as a cowboy to extremes and rode in on a Shetland pony borrowed from Harry Cohen’s stables where he worked. The mischief returned to his eyes as he told the story: Billy was its name. And one day I got dressed up and went down and got Billy from the stable – I should not’ve done it. What we used to do, the kids would go to the toilet and they’d open the door and let you in because you couldn’t pay. And they opened
King Street, Newtown, 1960. Photo courtesy of City of Sydney Archives
it and I come out on Billy, straight up the aisle, and I had the cap guns goin’ and everything. They barred me for a fortnight. Dennis missed the community of knowing who lived in every house on the street and that the neighbours would pitch in half a pound of pumpkin, half a loaf of bread, or a quart of milk if someone lost their job. ‘Goin back in them days, everyone helped everyone’, he reminisced.
Rough and ready It made Tom sad listening to Dennis’s fond memories of his childhood in Newtown. ‘I think, well I should’ve been a part of that, you know, I should’ve been running the streets doing the things that they were getting up to and I never got that chance’. Newtown had changed by the time Tom arrived on the scene. ‘By the time I started coming here and exploring it was completely changed. The cemetery had gone and all those places Den used to knock about.
The stables had all closed up’. Yes, he haunted the same pubs and courted the same strife. But family didn’t surround Tom. So for me it’s a bitter-sweet thing when I come here. I come here and I know that I’m home and I feel home, but it also makes me a bit sad because I was taken away from it all. He may have followed in the footsteps of his brother, but he was denied the chance to walk that road with him. Tom was also inducted early into the rough and ready ways of the streets but, unlike Dennis, he was alone. He had to make his own way, first when he ran away from home at thirteen and later when he left home for good in 1974. ‘I lived on the streets for most of my teenage life so I had to learn to fight and to look after myself ’. Eventually he squatted in an old abandoned house in Drummoyne. It was rundown and he only went there of a night to sleep. ‘I stole a little foam mattress and blanket out of the back of a panel van. I had a little torch and candles’. He kept his homelessness hidden from the other members of his gang. When Tom was sixteen a small gang of Sharpies became his brothers and accomplices. Sharpies were known for their signature style. In Tom’s day it was a tight t-shirt, jeans cropped at the leg to show off shoes worn without socks, and an ‘animal cut’ (now known as a mullet). Unlike other Sharpie groups they weren’t particularly territorial; they’d knock around Newtown, Central, Balmain, Ryde, Gladesville. ‘Over the posh area, Tom!’ Dennis teased when Tom described the places they’d roam. ‘Compared to Newtown’, Tom agreed, ‘not that I lived in any of the posh houses’. Newtown was where the gang’s nights out always started and often ended. ‘This was our meeting spot. From here we’d decide where to go next’. They’d usually start with a drink at the Marlborough Hotel and then move on to Glebe, Balmain, or Kings Cross. ‘If we were getting up to mischief we’d meet back here in Camperdown cemetery or Victoria park’. When I asked what ‘mischief ’ meant exactly, most of what Tom described was petty crime. The gang usually went outside of the suburb to actually commit the crimes.
27 Reminiscing about mischief in Camperdown Cemetery, June 2020. Photo credit: Oneworld Photography
‘We’d all split up and meet back here and divvy up whatever we’d made ... Newtown was like our safe haven ‘cause nobody knew us’. There were the ‘two bob crimes’, as Tom called them. These included jumping the fence of a Milk Bar or takeaway shop of a night to steal crates of bottles, which they’d sell back to the shop the next day. Or they’d follow the Postman’s run and steal the money out of birthday, Easter, and Christmas cards as they were delivered. ‘Surprisingly, we made good money from that scam’, Tom said. Stealing the bread and milk money that people left out was an easy way to earn a few bob. These crimes kept money in the pockets of three of the Sharpies, but behind their back Tom and two of his trusted gang members were getting more serious. They had even hatched a detailed plan to hold up a bank on King Street, Newtown. They figured that it was so close to the police station no-one would suspect them to be foolish enough to attempt it. The idea was to lure the police away by staging a decoy robbery at the Camperdown Bowling Club. In the end they decided that the traffic on the main road made for no easy escape route and the heist just wasn’t worth the risk. Even so, for Tom the plan marked a transition from the two bob crimes of adolescence to the more serious crimes that would come to land him in prison. Mischief also involved getting into brawls. Fighting had long been a default response for Tom so the violence of gang life came easily to him. If someone picked on me at school I’d just hit ‘em. Yeah I was back then very violent. You know I used to go lookin’ for fights. Because I knew no differently and I didn’t know how to walk away. On the one hand, violence seemed to follow Tom. He didn’t know if it was his look or demeanor, but it seemed that wherever he went people would pick fights with him. On the other hand, he acknowledged that he was quick to erupt.
I would never walk away because I had this mentality, well you had to learn to be able to stand up for yourself otherwise you were in big trouble if you couldn’t. Winning or losing a fight didn’t matter as much as showing you wouldn’t give up. ‘I just always wanted to make sure that the bloke I just fought knew that I would never back down and the next time he was going to have a go at me, he might think twice’. His private motto was ‘never walk away from a fight’. That was how Tom met the lads in his gang. Louts from all over Sydney would converge on the pubs and youth centres to see bands like ACDC play before they were famous, often ending in brawls. At a pub in the city one night Tom recognised a bloke he’d seen around at these gigs. The bloke went out to the back lane to fight some fella – nothing unusual about that – but Tom noticed two others walk out behind them. ‘And I thought, these two blokes are gonna jump in here and they’re gonna three out this bloke’. The three of them were laying into him when Tom ran in and helped belt them back. Later that week Tom was at his regular milk bar opposite Central Station. He called it ‘Ma’s’, after its owner. Later he found out Dennis and Dadda ate there too and knew it as ‘the hole in the wall’. Narrow white booths lined the walls on either side of the entrance. A serving hatch in the very back exposed Ma in the kitchen. This time the bloke who’d been jumped at the pub was there with his gang. Tom overheard him say, ‘That’s the bloke I was telling you about’. He stood up in front of Tom, who thought there was about to be trouble. Instead the bloke reached out his hand to shake Tom’s and said, ‘that was a gutsy thing to do. Good on ya’. From that day if Tom wasn’t on his own he was with his gang of Sharps.
Fortune turns While Dennis was often nostalgic about his teenage years in Newtown, he also told stories of brutality. Roaming the street as a kid, he became familiar with police harassment. He described the police as ‘another lot of child bashers’:
They used to go around, anything that would happen, they would go and round the kids up, and they’d set you up saying you done this, you done that, and there was no saying you never. There was no saying you never, you just had to accept it. Going back then, I can remember the beatings we got off them. Dennis said sometimes the coppers would give you a choice: either point the finger at someone else or they’ll pin it on you. ‘Well you probably wouldn’t see them [the coppers] for a while, but eventually they would sneak up behind you and – bang – they would wail into you’. Dennis was barely 18 years old when he was falsely charged with robbery. One night the police picked him up and assaulted him until he confessed to the trumped-up charges. They brought in a witness and, pointing to Dennis, said, ‘Is that him there?’ Dennis was relieved when the bloke looked straight at him and answered ‘No’. But the detective pulled the witness aside and had words in his ear. He asked the question again – ‘is that him there?’ – and the bloke said, ‘yeah, that’s him’. Dennis said they beat him until he signed a statement and that was it. ‘You know that cost me, caused me to go in jail, for nothing, for three and a half years, for nothing, for nothing!’ Dennis retold this story often, each time bitterly listing the names of the three detectives who stitched him up. Years later he consulted a solicitor about getting justice, but he was told it would be expensive and hard to prove. Everyone back in the 60s was railroaded, he was told. After his release Dennis graduated to the violent stand-over business. His friend, Billy, arranged for Dennis, Horse, Eric, Bobby, Big Allen, and Billy’s brother, Boots, to be in the right place at the right time. For a fee they defended certain Greek gaming clubs from rival gangs demanding control or protection money. Like, we had a racket going in Newtown, with the Greek clubs, because the Greek clubs were all just coming alive. After pub
closing hours, you’d go to the Greek club, you could eat, you could drink, dance and you’d gamble, you’d do what you want. Coffee lounges and social clubs operating as illegal gambling joints dotted the inner west, housing SP betting and unlicensed poker machines. Dennis described one of the biggest clubs in the area, ‘Paul’s’, on the corner of King and Church Street: ‘It was a dark place, because they had the topless dancers and the topless waiters, and a brothel out in one room’. Dennis and his crew would hang around the club, eating, drinking, and waiting for trouble to arrive. Sometimes violence broke out; tables were upended, windows smashed, blokes belted. Reflecting on Tom’s stories of reckless violence, Dennis said it was much the same around the clubs: ‘Beltin’ this bloke, beltin’ that bloke. And when I say beltin’, it was an iron bar, beatin’ this bloke with a baseball bat’. If someone owed the club owner a debt, Dennis and his boys would get him the money. ‘I suppose in a way, like if you look at it that way, we were demanding protection money too’, Dennis conceded. But instead of demanding the money they’d say, ‘If you ever have any trouble, we’re here’. They’d send some boys to turn the place upside down if things got too quiet so the clubs didn’t get too secure. They made sure their services remained in demand and the perks kept coming. ‘You’d go to the Greek club, sit up all night. Drink for nothin’. Eat for nothin’. Wouldn’t have to pay a penny’. Dennis did well for himself in his 20s and early 30s, although he admitted that the good money he pocketed was lost just as quickly on gambling. ‘I used to love gamblin […] I’d borrow $1000 and go straight out on the trots. Sometimes it got up, sometimes it never’. In his early 30s he married and became a father, but things started to unravel after he and his wife broke up. By his late 30s he was homeless – another thing he shared with Tom: It’s been the same path. Like I can remember being homeless. I used to squat in a place down in McDonaldtown, me and Regie
Coreless. And then we got thrown out of there and moved into a place on Raper Street and squatted there for a while. Dennis took Tom and I to an undercover carpark at the University of Sydney and showed us where he’d slept behind the concrete stairs for a time. He would get a good feed by rummaging in the bins at the back of restaurants. This was familiar to Tom: ‘They used to throw some good tucker out. It was amazing what you could get out of a garbage bin’. ‘Sometimes I’d get a whole baked dinner!’ Dennis added, laughing as he joked about lighting a couple of candles for a romantic dinner for one. Dennis’s fortune turned again when an old friend, Harry, offered him some work and a place to sleep for the night. Dennis had roamed around with Harry and his wife, Lynn, in his late teens and early 20s. They had all grown up together. ‘We were great friends’, he told me. Dennis had taken me to visit Lynn during one of our walking tours of Newtown, where she lived in a small terrace on the same street where she grew up. A photo of Lynn, Harry, and Dennis at the Coogee Bay Hotel sat on her dresser. Fresh-faced and fifty years younger, Lynn’s cigarette rested idly between her fingers, Harry’s crisp white shirt-sleeves were rolled to the elbow, and Dennis wore a tie around his neck and a band-aid across his brow – evidence of a brawl from the night before. Dennis had been up at the Milton Hotel when Harry asked him if he wanted some work the next day. Dennis was used to picking up work here and there and said ‘alright’. At first Harry told him to meet back there early the next morning, but he quickly changed his mind: He said, No come down to my place, you can sleep at my place for the night. Ten years later I was still sleepin’ there. A really good family and I lived with them for years. Dennis’s work with Harry made his shadier dealings less necessary but he didn’t drop them completely. He could always do with an extra dollar after all.
It was common for working class houses to be crowded and home to multiple generations of family members back in those days. Harry and Lynn shared their two-bedroom house on O’Connell Street with Mumma, Gurdy, Budda (Brian) and Keithy – Harry’s mum, aunt, and brothers. Dennis and Budda shared the back room. Gurdy, who had an intellectual disability, would pull Dennis’s ears to get his attention. She’d pass the day playing Jacks in the back-yard, yelling
Dennis shows us where he used to sleep rough in a Sydney University carpark, April 2019
at the thieving pigeons that would make off with her jacks when she tossed them. Another brother, Jack, lived up the road. On Saturdays Dennis and Budda would drink and play cricket with Jack’s kelpie as slip fielder, until Budda would start drunkenly singing and Jack would send him packing. Dennis moved with the family to Alexandria and later Stanmore. He was there to welcome Harry and Lynn’s two children, Shane and Kim, to the extended family. ‘There are times I’m lying in bed and I’d give anything to be back with that family’, he once told me.
Crossing paths Each time Tom and Dennis retold memories of their youth in and around Newtown, one of them would wonder aloud how many times they’d crossed paths without knowing they were brothers. We stood outside the Marlborough hotel on Missenden Road one afternoon. It was the place where Tom and his Sharpie gang would often start their nights out. In the same pub his Dadda – a drinker in his day – would knock back schooners. Shirl’s place on Longdown street, where Dennis and Jimmy had hidden out to escape the welfare, was only a few blocks away. Nowadays the interior of the pub was unrecognisable to the brothers, with its polished wood paneling and sparkling fairy lights. A few doors down was the Campos coffee shop. It amused Dennis that the people queuing for their fancy coffee had no idea the kinds of sordid things that used to be housed there. His Dadda had been a stand-over for the brothel and sly grog joint housed in the narrow terraces. Standing in the doorway of a closed Italian restaurant, Dennis told me matter-of-factly, ‘I was sitting on this step when Dadda was shot’. He was only a small boy when it happened – the memory lingered from before the nightmare of the orphanage. Dennis pointed to the spot where his father had stood. The story went like this: I can remember when they shot Dadda, cause there used to be a sly grog place – gambling and all that. Well Dadda used to look after that. And Dugan and Mears, they were tryin’ to take over.
And I remember I was sittin’ not far from Dadda when they shot him. Darcy Dugan was an infamous crook that came to be known as ‘Houdini’ for his bold attempts to escape custody. Dennis pointed across the road to the corner of Missenden and Longdown Street: ‘I can remember Dugan and Mears they come from over there and shot Dadda in the leg’. When I asked if he survived Dennis assured me, ‘Oh yeah, it was just a warning shot’. There was no police investigation or charges ever laid. These things were best sorted inhouse and ‘half the coppers were just as bad’ anyway, so there was no use involving them. Tom would go on to know the man who shot his father when the two became friends in Maitland Gaol. Dugan counseled him to quit getting himself into trouble. ‘I remember he said, When you get out
(From left) Lynn, Harry, and Dennis at Coogee Bay Hotel, March 1969. Photo courtesy of Lynn Fahey]
Dennis shows us where Dadda was standing on Missenden Road when Dugan shot him, January 2019
mate, just give it away, you don’t want to be doing this, you don’t want to be coming in and out of here’. Dennis laughed, ‘Of course, ‘cause he never told you what he had done to Dadda!’ Not that Dennis held a grudge; he knew and respected Dugan on the outside. Tom still didn’t know about his family, let alone the shooting, and wasn’t going by the name Moffatt at the time. The brothers remained separated. They had a few more mishaps ahead of them before they’d come out the other end to find one another.
Shifty Business When Tom finally found his older brother, he immediately recognised Dennis as a fellow ‘tough guy’. They had both ran around with the same kinds of people, been crooks and thieves, and lived by the principle that ‘the strong survive and the weak get trampled’. Tom went by the nickname ‘Dodger’, won for his years as a prolific pickpocket when he first hit the streets. Dennis got the name ‘the Black Gopher’ because he could ‘climb in any space’. The first time we sat down together they skirted around some of the details of what they got up to as these alter egos. As the months went by, they began to share more and I learnt what stood behind phrases like ‘shifty business’. While Dennis and Tom got away with a good deal of shifty business – which we won’t mention here – some of it landed them in prison. Both brothers also served time for crimes they didn’t commit. The longest stint they each did was around three years. Tom reckoned he’d served about ten years in total; Dennis guessed he’d done around seven. They both served their first sentence aged 18. They were even kept in the same prisons but never at the same time.
Learning the caper Tom described his first night in prison after being sentenced to 12 months for stealing a car: They put me in a cell and I remember there was one, two, three bunks and they were all bolted to the side of the wall. And I was up on the top and I remember thinkin’ to meself, if these two blokes weren’t in this cell I’d get that bed sheet and I’d wrap it around and hang meself. ‘Cause I was dead set shittin’ meself. The next day he was taken to reception and allocated clothes and sheets. He considered himself lucky to be put in a cell with two other first-timers. The screw sent him down to the head sweeper’s cell to get his ration of sugar and coffee. Tom was still reeling at this point.
And I remember I went down and I knocked on the cell door and I was dead set shittin’ meself. And the cell door opened and, lo and behold, who was standin’ in front of me? Me mate Danny who I used to knock around with. Tom laughed remembering his mate’s reaction: ‘he just burst into laughter and said, Fancy fucken meetin’ you in here, Dodger. And that very moment all me fear went away’. Danny took Tom around the prison and introduced him to a few of the big-name crims, including Darcy Dugan. Having these men vouch for him meant Tom was able to avoid a certain degree of trouble from the other inmates. ‘That didn’t mean things didn’t happen’, Tom added. ‘You had to fight back whether you were gonna win the fight or not win the fight, you weren’t ever gonna let ‘em stand over ya’. Otherwise men would take your smokes, steal your dinner, or worse. ‘You had to stick up for yourself, even if you couldn’t fight’, Dennis insisted. ‘As long as you had a go they’d leave you alone’. Both brothers agreed that having learnt the rules the first time behind bars made the next time easier. As Tom said, ‘once you’d been in there the first time you knew the caper … you learnt who was who in the joint and you learnt who had what position’. Dennis said he’d find himself locked up and think ‘oh no, not again’. But ‘you knew what to expect the next time’, he added. The screws would say to Tom each time he left, ‘see you next time,’ and he’d reply, ‘yeah maybe,’ or ‘yeah righto’. After a while, Tom said, going to goal was just a matter of ‘here we go again’. Eventually Tom would volunteer to do time to pay off his fines. He explained how it worked: ‘So you’d rack up these fines and walk into the police station and say, Look I’ve got these fines, I wanna cut ‘em out’. ‘Everyone used to do it’, Dennis chimed in. Tom would be sent to a special section of the prison to wait out however long he needed to cover what he owed. He guessed a week was equivalent to about $50. ‘I used to say to my wife, Alright, I’ll see ya in a month. I’ll see ya in two weeks. I’ll see ya in a week’.
Tom visits his old cell at Maitland Gaol, now a museum, October 2016
There was one prison they almost didn’t want to leave though. Both spent time at a minimum-security prison farm in Emu Plains. The inmates worked the dairy, the piggery, the poultry farm, and a huge vegetable farm. They lived off their fresh produce and supplied the other prisons. Tom chuckled as Dennis described it as a ‘home away from home’: You’d sit at a proper table to have meals. You’d get your meal. The bread would be cut. There’d be cordial. You know, and during the day you’d go up and make a cuppa tea, cuppa coffee whenever you wanted to make it. You had to work to be there and they both loved the work. Tom said he couldn’t believe it when he first arrived: ‘I was like, this can’t be for real. It was like being on a workin’ holiday’. Tom worked in the piggery. Dennis had worked on the poultry farm then in the laundry, and after that as the boiler boy. ‘Then I held three positions: boiler boy, butcher and cook. I held three ‘cause hepatitis hit the camp’. There were freedoms and luxuries at Emu Plains. ‘You drive down the driveway – no walls, no gates, nothin’, Dennis said. They weren’t constantly monitored by screws. They’d sneak swims in the river. Tom’s mate worked in poultry and would take a couple of eggs so they could make fried egg sandwiches. Tom explained that ‘back in them days, ten years after Den, we used to have Brevil sandwich makers and jugs in our cells’. Dennis never had that, but he found other comforts. He befriended a stray cat: She used to come up every night, Mrs. Tibs. In wintertime I’d have the window down and she’d get up on the window and there she’d be, she’d come and get into bed, old Mrs. Tibs. He sighed and added: ‘Oh dear, honestly, when it come time to go home, the night before I’m laying in bed and I thought, this isn’t right, they can’t just kick you out like that’. There was no guarantee of fresh food or honest work on the outside.
The hardest of the hard The open paddocks and relative freedoms of the farm were a dream compared to Goulburn Gaol – from where Dennis had been transferred. ‘It was a scary place, being only 18 years old’. He had been moved there from Long Bay, where he spent his first night in prison thinking to himself, ‘what am I doing here?’ and ‘you’re here, you gotta do the best you can’. It was the first night of a five-year sentence. He’d end up serving three-and-a-half years of it. Like Tom, Dennis felt he lucked out with his cell mate – a Scot who loved to sing. As Tom said, in the morning when the cell doors opened it was just like bein’ home. How you goin’ Bill? How you goin’ Charlie? Oh John, how long you been here? He was safer because of the blokes he knew from the outside. ‘The blokes I got round with, they were the hardest of the hardest. Neddy Smith. Bobby Chapman ... And really in a way when I look back probably knowin’ them people was a big thing in your favour’. Not that this shielded Dennis from violence, but it spared him being on the receiving end of the worst of it. ‘The things that went on it there, Emma!’, Dennis would say, shaking his head. He told me distressing stories of blokes suffering at the hands of predators and thugs. ‘You know, I seen all that. I seen all that happen. You used to feel sorry, but what could you do?’ He told me about the time he bashed a man who wanted to stab him over a disagreement about tobacco. I got wind of it that he was gonna shiv me. He got the pass to go to the toilet and they had two passes so I waited for him to get the pass and then I got the pass to go to the toilet and Ned stood outside and ah then we went into the toilet and I said to him, What’s your beef? and then just laid into him. And I picked up the tin, the tin where you throw the rubbish and I bashed him with the tin. And I remember I left him laying half in the cubicle and half not.
Nothing came of it. The disagreement was put to rest and the screws had no evidence it was Dennis who had left the man bloodied on the toilet floor. ‘They knew it was me that done it but they couldn’t prove it. So they dismissed the charge and let me out of lock up’. Ned was Neddy Smith, who would go on to become one of Australia’s most notorious criminals. He was known for his vicious temper and brutality. Dennis served time with Neddy Smith and Bobby Chapman in Goulburn Gaol – not the pair’s first time behind bars. In 1968 both men had been jailed for the pack rape of a young mother. Smith was 23 and Chapman was 21. This was the first of many times Neddy Smith would make headlines. He became a leading heroin trafficker and was caught up in, and eventually taken down by, the Sydney gang wars in the 1980s. Smith would end up surviving several attempts on his life and serving a life sentence for murder; Chapman would be found murdered at the age of 50. Dennis grew up with them. As teenagers they would hang around together, mucking about and playing pinball. Chappo was the easier going of the two ‘but his tough side came out with Ned’. Dennis knew Neddy Smith was a violent man but he said he had a ‘good side’ most others didn’t see: I still mixed in the company because we were kids who grew up together, we had good times when we were kids, we had good times. We were still friends but there was sort of code between me and him. He knew where he stood, he knew where I stood, he knew he could squash me any time if he wanted to. They ‘had good laughs’ together but Dennis still classed him as one of the two most violent men he ever knew, and he had known a lot of violent men. Dennis told a story about refusing to deal in Neddy Smith’s drug trade: ‘I said I couldn’t go and sell drugs or be involved with anything like that, with people whose mother and father I’ve grown up with, I said I couldn’t be a merchant of death’. Luckily for Dennis growing up together counted for something and Neddy Smith cut
him some slack: ‘He turned around and looked me straight in the eye and he said, Dennis, I’m telling you something: don’t ever say that to me again. We’ll leave it at that’. Violence was normal and familiar to Dennis and Tom both inside and outside of prison. Dennis described it like this: You’re never by yourself. You’re always in a group. You’d never be caught out by yourself. The mates who are in your group, you’re always with ‘em. You’re never alone ‘cause once you’re alone you’re very vulnerable. As a young lad Dennis didn’t expect to live past 30. ‘I thought for sure I’d be dead by 30. ‘Cause we were involved with hardened criminals, really hard men’. Tom hadn’t planned on getting old either. Violence was all he knew so it was his answer to everything. ‘If anybody ever did me wrong, I only had three ways of dealin’ with it. Punch ‘em, stab ‘em or shoot ‘em. I had no other knowledge; I was a very violent person’. That’s how Tom ended up in prison for a third time serving his longest sentence. He beat one of his friends so badly that he was put in an induced coma. Tom had been arrested for pickpocketing after two of his gang members told the police where they might find him. If someone ‘pushed his buttons’, Tom was in the habit of assaulting first and taking the consequences later. He confronted one of them and they fought: ‘I just kept hitting him and hitting him. Lucky the coppers come along ‘cause if they hadn’t come along I reckon I would have near killed him’. The guy recovered and Tom was lucky not to end up facing a murder charge. Dennis admitted there were things he’d done that he didn’t talk about. ‘When I look back there’s things I don’t talk about. Bad things’. He had some regrets: when I think back to poor people, innocent people who had just gone into a Greek club to have a game of cards, have a drink of coffee, and like here we are, young, well built, physical, all built
to box and things like that and they’re people in their 40s and 50s and next minute you’re beltin’ them. You know the poor buggers have got no defense against ya. But he also saw it as a matter of survival, adding, ‘I don’t regret a lot of the other stuff because that would’ve happened to me’. That way of life ‘was just how it was’: Because goin’ back then, like Tom said, you had to stand up and be counted. If you never they would just walk over the top of you. It was just how it was growin’ up in them days. That was what made the brothers more alike than the rest of their siblings, according to Tom.
Life and legend Despite being separated by age and absence, Tom and Dennis both knew well the aggressive camaraderie and survival of the Sydney underworld. ‘I suppose I went through the same thing as Den, but only ten years later’, Tom told me. While Dennis had associated with high profile career criminals – the ‘who’s who of the underworld’, as he called them – Tom had looked up to them as heroes. ‘My generation grew up on all the stories of those blokes … we grew up on that legend’, Tom said. ‘It’s a strange way of putting it but they were sort of like our heroes, because of the lifestyle we were in’. These figures took on a legendary quality for Dennis, too, the further away from that life he moved. As Dennis got older he distanced himself from their criminal dealings but he paid careful attention to their rise and fall in the news. Whenever a name from his past resurfaced in the newspapers he would call me, keen to let me in on the hidden backstory. I could tell Tom and Dennis enjoyed telling me about their unruly former life. In our earlier interviews I nodded as if I knew who characters like Neddy Smith were. Later I often disappointed them by owning up to my ignorance. Tom and Dennis would shake their heads and say, ‘where have you been, Em!’ Sometimes they would
talk about these individuals in a way that elevated their names to a class of person – ‘the Lenny McPhersons’, ‘the George Freemans’, ‘the Abo Henrys’ – walking the line between life and legend. Other times they would reflect earnestly on the things they’d seen and done. Tom talked about the Dodger as a completely different person. ‘It’s like there’s two of me’, he once told me. ‘I beat myself up still to this day. I hate him. If I could actually physically grab him I’d belt him’. We laughed at the ironic violence of this response and joked that the new Tom might find a gentler way to express himself. Finding family had changed him – not overnight, but gradually. Tom was serving a sentence in prison when his wife, Judy, visited with a letter from his adopted father. ‘Even though I sorta changed me life around a bit having met my wife I still dabbled in the criminal side of things, so I was in and out of jail for quite a few years in our early marriage’, he told me. This was just after Tom’s daughter was born. His adopted parents had visited to meet the baby and, after learning he was in prison, sent him a message. It read: ‘Your real name is Thomas Charles Moffatt. Your father is James and your mother is Kathleen. We think there’s a possibility that you have a brother’.
It’s a Moffatt Thing When I asked Tom and Dennis in our first interview what had given them the strength to survive everything they had been through, Tom answered by telling me about a shirt he had at home with ‘It’s a Moffatt thing’ printed on it. They both put their survival down to their heritage. Tom had never met Dadda but he felt he’d inherited some of his strength: I think I’m a lot like Dadda and I think I know where I got all my strength ... You know because when you grow up in another family as an adopted child, even though you know you’re a part of that family, you know you’re not one of them. And so I always knew the blood running through my veins, I knew that there were people out there that were mine. Dennis credited Dadda for teaching him how to stand up for himself. It was Dadda who taught him how to box. Dennis described him as a ‘pretty rouseabout bloke’ who used to arrange fights for Dennis in the back lane. Strength is ‘just bred into you as you go along in life’, Dennis said.
Putting the pieces together After learning his real name, Tom wrote a letter to the Department of Family and Community Services. The reply told him he had not one brother but four, as well as a sister. And then when they did a little more digging they found Dennis’s lot. And then there was another lot. Me mother had had children before we came along and then she had children after we came along. So it turned out that there were 29 of us. Tom managed to track down his brother Jimmy, who was taken into the custody of the Department at the same time as him. It would take him about ten years to track most of his brothers and sisters down.
Then a chance encounter led Tom to the other Jimmy, whose real name was Wayne. Jimmy had taken on his little brother’s name to successfully stay out of reach of the Welfare. One day Tom handed his bank-book over to a chatty teller in Wyong. By this time Tom was going by the name Moffatt. ‘Oh I’m married to a Moffatt’, the teller said. She wore a name-tag that said ‘Patricia’. Tom told her his story on the chance there was a link. When Patricia said her husband’s name was Jimmy, Tom told her he’d just found his brother Jimmy in Bega so they couldn’t be related. ‘Well actually, Jimmy is his nickname. His real name is Wayne’, she added. Tom had found his older brother, and with him the key to Dennis and all the family who had been left behind. Jimmy introduced Tom to Dennis and the three became a trio until they lost him to lung failure. ‘I know if the old mate was here, he’d be sitting here with us. Losing him was hard, ‘cause the three of us were really the closest’, Tom said through tears. I knew from stories that Jimmy had been a bit of a rogue in his day. So I think that’s what made us so close. Because probably out of all of us, Jimmy, me and Den are the most alike. Like Jimmy was a rogue too but I don’t think that he ... the difference with Jimmy and me and Den was that Jimmy would get to that fork in the road where he knew he’s not steppin’ over that line. Dennis remembered how he liked to party and he liked to drink. Dennis used to like to go out with Jimmy because he attracted all the girls. ‘He was a good lookin’ bloke’, Dennis said. Tom laughed through the tears, ‘yeah he was a good lookin’ bloke’. Dennis insisted that Jimmy was exactly like Tom: ‘I look at Tom and I think of old Jim. Like Tom’s always cracking a joke, always if you’re down bringin’ you out of that mood. Before Jimmy got sick, he was like that’. Tom told me that the three brothers had a bond so strong, anyone who didn’t know their story would assume they had grown up together.
Tom’s favourite photo of him and Jimmy in their younger days
That bond held even in death. Tom told me they were visited by Jimmy the night before his funeral. He and Dennis were sleeping in the small room beneath the house that Jimmy and his wife used as a spare room. It also happened to be where Jimmy used to sneak off for a smoke. Tom woke in the night to see a silhouette of Jimmy standing in the doorway. He rose early the next morning to find Dennis with a strange look on his face. Tom assumed it was grief until Dennis said to him, ‘I saw Jimmy last night’. They couldn’t believe it, each asking the other what exactly they’d seen. ‘It was as if he was looking straight into my mind and describing what I’d seen’, Tom said. ‘From that night to this day I have always believed it was Jimmy’s way of telling me and Den that the three of us were still together’. Dennis didn’t seem to recall this when I asked him but he embraced Tom’s memory of the night. ‘I felt his presence with me as soon as he passed’, he confirmed. Tom made contact with Jimmy too late to meet Dadda and Mimmy. ‘By the time I did find out about it all they were all gone. Dadda had died. Mimmy was gone’, he said sadly. And he had no memories of them to console him. ‘I had no memory. Like, I don’t remember Dadda’. He described the photos of his parents that sat on his sideboard as ‘a photo of a man and a lady … just strangers’. The best he had were the stories of them Dennis and Jimmy shared and the haunting feeling that he could have passed them in the street without knowing he was a Moffatt and that he belonged to them. Dennis described Dadda as ‘a character’ and a ‘lovable lout’. He sported an earring and had a dark complexion and curly, snowy grey hair. ‘When you looked at Dadda you’d see the Indigenous in him’, Dennis said. James was a boxer who went by the nickname ‘Ringo’. Dennis laughed as he told me Dadda would get a few drinks in him and say ‘who wants to go a round or two for a pound or two with Ringo the Dingo’. Dennis would try to talk him down with the kind of embarrassment reserved for teenagers towards their parents. Dadda would run fights for Dennis out the back of the Marlborough Hotel, spruiking his son’s skills and taking bets that he’d win. Like his son after him, he was a stand-over for the SP betting and the sly-
grog joint. ‘In his younger days he was a hard man’, Dennis told me and Tom. ‘You could hate him one minute; you’d love him the next. He had that sort of charisma about him’.
Moving on Dennis wanted to remember the good times with ‘old Dadda’ but the anger and hurt about his childhood weighed on him. One day, not long before our first interview, he’d been overcome by it while driving his truck. ‘I felt this building up inside of me and Dadda come and I had to stop’. He’d pulled over and slammed his palms against the steering wheel. And I said to myself, You bastard! What you done to us, to us kids and just walked away (voice breaking). Never once did you inquire how we were and then not only that but to do it again! You’d think after the first you wouldn’t let it happen again. I thought, you bastard, you bastard I hate you for it! The next minute Dennis flipped, saying ‘I’m sorry, Dadda, I’m sorry’. As suddenly as the anger had taken hold it subsided; Dennis started the truck and went on his way. Dennis said his resentment surfaced a lot these days, while he was lying in bed or washing the dishes. He never raised it with Dadda
The photos of Kathleen, Dadda, and Jimmy that sit on Tom’s sideboard
even though he’d wanted to and so he was left wondering. ‘I don’t know, only he knows what happened; why he didn’t come to see us, why he didn’t come to get us. Only he knows’. Hurt also tainted Dennis’s memories of Mimmy. He told me the words she had greeted him with when he escaped from the orphanage – welcome home in her language. I asked him to repeat the words but he stumbled over the pronunciation, unsure of his memory. His reunion with Mimmy stung even more because she had not tried to find him. There was a pained pitch to his voice as he insisted, ‘In Aboriginal culture family is everything. You cling to them’ – as if pleading to Mimmy herself. Having dealt with the Welfare for over a decade to track down his family, Tom was more sympathetic about how hard it would have been for Dadda. He said that for years he had the hate inside him like Dennis. But then I sat and thought about their situation. I wasn’t there so I don’t know what was going on. But I do know it would have been a hard fight to try and get us, and make contact with us. Tom and most of his siblings had been fostered out with the view to adoption. According to his ward file, his mother could not be located to request consent for adoption, and his father’s consent was not needed because they were unmarried. In 1964 the Department had sought approval from the Court to ‘dispense with the mother’s consent’. Tom understood that once the children were adopted there was no chance of them returning home. According to a letter Tom had received from the Department of Family and Community Services, the last reference in his file to the possible return of him and his siblings to their parents was correspondence with the Housing Commission dated 21/06/1961. Tom had shown me this letter during one of my visits to his home on the Central Coast. According to the letter, the Department’s correspondence with the Housing Commission ‘indirectly suggests that your parents wanted their children back’. The Department had replied to James and Kath’s request for housing support by
Jimmy and Dadda, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Tom Moﬀatt.
stating, ‘The onus (was) on the parents to provide and maintain a satisfactory home standard for a period before consideration (could) be given to the return of the children’. Tom could imagine the heartbreak his parents would have felt knowing there was a chance to get their children back but being turned away. ‘In that way it was sorta a bit easier for me because at least I know they tried. It just didn’t happen’. Dennis’s resentment softened when I asked him how he felt hearing Tom’s view of confronting the Welfare. He named the 11 children born to Dadda and his mother and reflected on what it would have
been like to feed a big family and keep the house running back in those days: you know it must have been hard for them. And as I said, the Welfare – from what Shirl tells me – the welfare used to be down once every week and have complaints; people would ring up and say, Them Moffatt’s are runnin’ around like blacks again, and all of this business. Dennis laughed remembering the fires they would light out the back of the house and all the kids running wild, ‘I don’t blame them for ringing up and saying, Them Moffatt’s are at it again’. But he did blame the authorities for overlooking the love that held them together and only seeing overcrowding and neglect.
Family ties Dennis told me what he knew of his family’s backstory. He thought Mimmy was from Thursday Island in the Torres Strait, though he couldn’t pinpoint how he came to know that. As far as he knew his grandfather was a roustabout and Mimmy worked on an outstation. ‘From the stories Mimmy used to tell me, her and my father’s father ran away together and they came and settled in Crookwell and that’s where Dadda was born’. Dennis used the language of blood quantum that was current in that era to talk about his Aboriginal heritage, even though for him community connection was what defined his identity. ‘Dadda was quarter cast Aboriginal, his father was half cast Aboriginal’. Mimmy moved with Dadda down to the city where they moved between Redfern, La Perouse, Herne Bay, and Newtown. Dennis was a proud Indigenous man, but the strength he drew from his identity wasn’t always matched by acceptance. In the orphanage they told him he wasn’t Aboriginal but he insisted he knew who he was even at that young age. When he got out his older sister, Shirl, refused to speak about their heritage: ‘she knew more about things than I knew and she used to say to me all the time, Dennis, leave
The only photo of Mimmy, date unknown. Photo Courtesy of Tom Moﬀatt
it alone, leave it alone’. Dennis explained that it was common for Aboriginal families back then to say they weren’t Aboriginal: ‘cause goin’ back then you couldn’t get a government job, you couldn’t hold the endowment. There were a lot of things
you couldn’t do, so a lot of families would say, No, we’re not Aboriginal. He said it could also be hard back then to find acceptance from the black community if you were a ‘white black fella’ – a fairskinned Aboriginal person. ‘Goin’ back in the 50s, 60s and that, if you weren’t at least half-caste you weren’t recognised; you weren’t accepted by the Aboriginal communities’. Dennis would say to himself, ‘not black, not white, where do I belong?’ Dennis felt that over the years things had changed and there was more acceptance now. ‘I’ve been accepted by most, but there are a few there that don’t ... But I proved who I was and where I come from’. Dennis meant not only that he had lived his life in Aboriginal community but also that he had an Aboriginal identity card to prove his heritage. ‘I grew up in the Aboriginal community in Redfern and Newtown and I always knew that I was different. I was accepted by them but a lot of times other people I’d meet they’d sort of …’. He trailed off, mimicking the grumble of skepticism he was met with by some. I came to know Dennis as a proud and loved regular at local Koori social events and programs in South-West Sydney. Tom had a different relationship to his Indigenous heritage. He had never known Dadda or Mimmy, let alone the formative experiences of family and culture that Dennis carried with him. ‘I don’t have the same connection with Dadda and Mimmy ‘cause I don’t know ‘em’, he told me. From the first time they met, Dennis had told him about their heritage. But the fact that others in the extended family weren’t convinced left Tom confused. No one in the family had been able to definitively trace where Mimmy was from. ‘You see that’s the hard part, because there’s no paper work. I don’t really know for 100% certain that it is. I’m one of those people where to see is to believe. Whereas Den has the memories of it’. In the time I’d known Tom, he had begun receiving teachings from an Aboriginal Elder on the Central Coast and visiting Country with
him. It had changed his way of thinking. Tom described himself as ‘anti-Aboriginal’ back in his younger days. I just thought they were a pack of whingers; always pointing fingers at the whites. Learning about it, it’s trauma based. I sat and thought about it and it’s no different from me. Most of my stuff, I ended up on the streets because it was trauma based because of what had happened to me in my own home. I’ve come to understand now. He said these days he was more likely to be the one pulling someone up on the street for spouting racism. I asked Tom if he had come to identify as Aboriginal. ‘I understand that I’ve got it in me but, because I’m more on the white side than I am on the Indigenous side, I don’t walk around saying I’m a proud black fella’. He didn’t claim Aboriginal identity as his own, but he was sometimes still accused of being ‘just a white bloke wantin’ to be a black fella’. Tom had recently taken a step back from the teachings and an invitation to attend ceremony because he couldn’t commit to the time involved. Jude had been unwell and he didn’t like leaving her alone. ‘I can’t be four, five hours away out in the bush if something happens. ‘Cause when Jude had a stroke I wasn’t here so I’m a bit paranoid’. He was the type of person who didn’t sign up for something unless he could fully commit. Meeting Jude was something of a turning point for Tom. He didn’t give up the mischief right away, but he gradually changed his ways with a push from his wife. In their early marriage he’d still been in and out of prison, twice leaving Jude to manage a newborn on her own. She eventually gave him an ultimatum – keep it up and don’t bother coming home – and it was enough to shock him onto the straight and narrow. But it was the aggression that raged in Tom that changed most dramatically. Finding his wife and having his children revealed to him the kind of man he wanted to be. Jude had come out of an
Jude and Tom celebrating Tom’s 21st birthday, January 1979. He and Jude married in September that year. Photo courtesy of Tom Moﬀatt
abusive relationship and Tom didn’t want her to end up on the same path twice: I think that was the trigger that actually did make me think about me violence because when she told me her story she was very open to me about the life she had been living with her first husband and I thought to myself, well I’m gonna have to do something here if I’m gonna hold onto this women. Jude still saw his violent side down at the pub, but eventually he stopped going and put an end to his heavy drinking. And he was determined not to treat his children like he had been treated by his adoptive father. ‘I always knew that if I had children of me own
(From left) Pancho, Shirley, Dennis and his first wife Brenda, date unknown. Photo courtesy of Cheryl Certoma
I would never hit ‘em ‘cause I just remember what I went through’. When I asked Jude how Tom had changed, she said he’d mellowed out. The couple were determined to make something of what they’d been through. Tom and Jude, who had her own experience of an abusive home and homelessness, became foster carers in the early 2000s. Tom had hated the idea of fostering but he could relate to the children.
There were a couple of times where they’d wanna call us mum and dad and I refused to let them call me dad. I’d say, I am not your dad, I’m only your carer. You’ve got a family out there. The saddest day for Tom was when the kids would arrive on his doorstep; the happiest was when they went home to their families. Tom and Jude saw their role as carers as supporting the kids to find their way home: ‘at the end of the day all they want to do is get back with their mum and dad and you gotta fight with them to get ‘em back’. Meeting his first wife and daughter changed Dennis too. ‘I told her this is me; this is what I’ve done; this is what I do’. Being a ‘pretty straight shooter’ herself, Dennis’s wife wanted him to stop. ‘I remember tellin’ her, I’m too old to change. This is how I’ve been livin’ and it’s just what I do, it just comes natural for me’. But when his daughter Belinda came along he made a decision to ‘finish with it all’. While Tom seemed happy to leave his former self behind, it wasn’t so easy for Dennis. His mates would rib him and he missed the good times; the gambling and the rorts, the money and the status. ‘It was HARD for me too. ‘Cause I missed it’, he admitted. Dennis grew up to be like his Dadda in more ways than one. He inherited his stamina; he got mixed up in the same shifty business; and went on to have another family entirely. In his late 50s Dennis remarried and had five kids to his new wife, Aro. But that’s where their similarities ended. Dennis was committed to his kids, even though it could be tough being a parent to toddlers and teenagers at his age. He wanted them to know who they were and where they came from. They didn’t always match his enthusiasm, but he was happy that this story would be waiting for them when they were ready to seek it out.
You Find the Joys in Life Reflecting on her life with Tom, Jude says they are in a good place now. ‘You find the joys in life’, she tells me. Their kids have grown up good, respectful, and decent. They keep busy with hobbies and relish their time with their grandkids. Life has settled down and they don’t have the same struggles they used to. While Tom is settling into the peace and quiet of his 60s, Dennis, now in his 70s, is kept busy by a young family. The struggle to provide for his kids as an older father leaves Dennis feeling strung out at times. But if anyone has the energy to keep it up, it is Dennis. He is still wily and fit; on any given day I could call to find him laboring, training boxers, or even breaking in horses. When I ask Tom and Dennis about the best thing in their life, they both answer without hesitation: family. ‘Having me own family, having me own wife and me kids ‘cause that’s what saved me. If not for them I wouldn’t be here, I know that’, Tom says. He wipes away tears as he remembers the happy times with Den and ‘the old mate Jimmy’. Dennis answers, ‘the family; the kids’. He asks me to acknowledge the people he has walked through life with ‘even if they’re not named in the book’. Dennis struggles to keep it together as he talks about the importance of Tom in his life: ‘One of the best things about my life is Tom. He’s me brother, he’s me best mate, everything to me’. Dennis insists he wouldn’t change anything about his life if he had the chance: ‘I think I would have walked the same road as I walked back then and I walk now’. For one thing, he has found Tom: I had a good life, and then I look at things now, and I’ve got a better life now because of Tom. I’ve got Tom. I wouldn’t have Tom if things would have been changed. You know what I mean? I’m happy when I look back.
Tom has also found comfort in accepting that ‘you can’t change the past’: what’s done is done and you just have to learn to accept it. I don’t ever say get over it, because people never get over things, but you’ve just gotta move on with life ‘cause if you’re gonna worry about what happened five years ago or ten years ago or twenty years ago you don’t get anywhere. Coming to terms with this has helped Tom to let go of his aggression. Life doesn’t aggravate him like it used to; he has learnt to ‘just go with the flow’. I ask the brothers if they have any advice for their kids or grandkids to help them through the hard times. After a thoughtful pause Dennis says, ‘really, I don’t think there’s no advice you could give them, you’d have to work it out for yourself ’. Tom agrees: ‘I think you just get through it. I think you just, I don’t know, there is something within ya’. After a moment he adds, ‘the only advice I would give: don’t back down and don’t let the bastards beat ya. If you’re gonna take a beating, take a beating. I always said there’s no shame in losing’. Their kids finding out about their wild past doesn’t worry them. As Tom put it to his daughter: ‘I’m your dad, the person that you know now, not that fella in the book. He became your dad but he’s somebody else’. For Dennis, the lesson is in the story: ‘looking back on me life I can say, well I come out the other end. I’m still here; I’m still standing tall. I might not be tall but I’m still standing’.
Author bios Tom Moffatt has written a memoir of the long road to finding family and a sequel of portraits of the characters he met along the way. Dennis Moffatt coaches the Sydney University Boxing Club. He still gets around lending a helping hand to anyone who needs it. Emma Mitchell is a researcher at Macquarie University and the University of Technology studying experiences of housing. She is the Secretary of the board of Outloud, a youth arts organisation in SouthWest Sydney.
Dennis and Tom in front of the old Moreton Bay Fig tree at Camperdown Cemetery, June 2020. Photo credit: Oneworld Photography
Still Standing tells the life history of Tom and Dennis Moffatt, two brothers who were taken from their family by child welfare services and raised apart. They lived strangely parallel lives during a colourful period of Sydney history that drew them into the orbit of some of the city’s most notorious gangland criminals. Tom and Dennis were reunited as adults and forged a new purpose out of their commitment to family. This is their story of finding and reclaiming stolen identity. Still Standing offers a unique perspective of local history from the vantage point of two men who grew up in the underworld of Sydney’s Inner West in the 1950s, 60s, and 70s before eventually settling in South-West Sydney and the Central Coast. Their story is testament to the maintenance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family and social ties that stretch across neighbouring local government areas and greater Sydney and extend to regional NSW and beyond.