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Meet Crasher and Slim

January 25, 2011

Richard Frederick “Dick” “Crasher” Kirwan was my grandfather’s brother – my great uncle.  I never met him.

Marion (Hanna) Kirwan

Marion (Hanna) Kirwan - she had auburn hair 🙂

Richard was born in Perth Western Australia on 10 August 1909.  His parents were Nicholas Wade Kirwan and Marion Hanna.  Richard was their second child.  Their first was my grandfather, Frank Greer Kirwan who was born in Sandstone, Western Australia on 27 April 1908.

When Richard was 15 months old, and Frank was not quite three years old, their mother, Marion – known by their father as Daisy – died, aged 23 years, of typhoid fever in the Perth Hospital (now Royal Perth Hospital).

Marion’s mother, Rosina (Hammond) Hanna had six children, of whom Marion was the eldest.  Frederick “Eric” Hanna was the youngest.  He was also born in 1908 – so about the same age as Frank.  Rosina had already raised six children still had two under school age.  She decided to take the baby.  Frank was raised by Kirwan and Wade relatives.

Rosina lived in various houses in North Perth and Mt Lawley, in Perth.  Frank also (I discovered recently) lived nearby with his Aunt, Emma (Kirwan) Willmott and her husband.

Frank Greer Kirwan about 1968/9

Frank, my grandfather told a story of walking down William Street in Mt Lawley and spotting his grandmother, cousin and brother down the street. (It has just occurred to me that perhaps they attended Highgate Primary School – where my own children went not that long ago!).  He was excited to see them, and ran to catch up with them and was almost run over by the very first car he had ever seen!

Rosina Hammond

Rosina Hammond

Another story that was told to me, was that Richard and Eric (and possibly Frank – but I’m not 100% sure about that) used to go to their Grandfather’s hotel in Diorite King in the school holidays.  Although Rosina lived in Perth (presumably so that the children could go to school there) Frederick Greer Hanna ran a hotel in the Goldfields – the Kurrajong Hotel in Diorite King, Mt Margaret.  It was near there, in Doyle’s Well that Marion was living when she married Nicholas Wade Kirwan.  Nicholas was a ‘carrier’ – a truck driver.  Except there weren’t any trucks in those days.  Nicholas drove a team of camels through the Goldfields – he was based in Carnarvon, and travelled down the the inland goldfields, carrying goods.  Marion was a shop assistant.

It appears that although they lived apart, the family was still very much a family unit.

On their school holiday visits to their Grandfather’s hotel, Richard and Eric (and Frank) used to collect the gold dust that fell on the floor from the miner’s clothing and pockets, around the bar.  Richard saved his up, little by little, until he had enough to make a ring.  He melted the gold down and made a ring, when he was older.  After the war he was in London, and he went from jeweller to jeweller, telling the story of how he collected the gold dust, and showing them the ring, to try to get an apprenticeship.  Eventually he was successful, and became a jeweller.  He had a jeweller’s shop in Sydney and lived in Roseville.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Richard and Frank were both young men who would try their hand at anything.  When they were about 14 or 15 they went out to work with their father for a short time. It was a short time because they found it intolerable – they found their father intolerable.  Frank used to refer to Nicholas as ‘Old Nick’ – the reference to the devil was not accidental.

Frank was artistic and creative – something both boys must have shared.  He was 21 years old when he was spotted crossing the street, by his cousin, Doreen (Miriel Doreen Burvill).  Doreen told me that she was working in a large warehouse store in Wellington Street, G&R Wills, opposite the train station.  G&R Wills website says:

G&R Wills like other wholesale warehouses depended almost entirely on overseas supplies for stock. Pre World War II, G & R Wills was making steady profits from warehousing and agency business, but after the War the company developed a substantial apparel manufacturing operation.   The company soon established offices in London and Singapore to support a vigorous export /import trade in the expanding secondary industry based in S.A. G & R Wills became a publicly listed company in the late 1950’s with operations in all Capital Cities throughout Australia.

A ticket writer at work

A ticket writer at work in London

Doreen said that she looked out the window and saw a tall, thin young man, crossing the street from the train station and something about his posture, his walk, made him instantly recognisable as her cousin, Frank.  She ran out to meet him, and found that he’d just arrived in Perth and was looking for work.  She brought him back to G&R Wills, and got him a job as a ticket writer.

Frank was a sign writer.  I don’t know if/how/where/when he trained as a sign writer. Perhaps the ticket writing job was his introduction.  A ticket writer was a bit like a sign writer.  Back before advertising in shops was all printed, any specials or prices or information the store wanted to display (in a window for example) or draw attention to, was painted on card, by hand.

David Simkin, on his wonderful website of photographers in Sussex 1841-1910, from which the photo above originated had this to say about ticket writers:

A ticket writer painted the signs that appeared in shop windows and on the walls of  common eating-houses. The signs, which were painted on sheets of thick card, announced prices, special offers and simple descriptions. Thomson and Smith mention the following examples – “Cheap”, “The latest novelty”, “Try our own dripping at 6d a lb.” and “A Good dinner for 8 pence”. Appropriately the subject of this photograph is painting a sign which is headed “Choice Fruits” (William Lane was the son of a Fruiterer)

Frank’s uncle, Greer Hanna was a ‘confectioner and fruiterer’ according to the Western Australia Postal Directories.  He had a shop in William Street, Perth.  Perhaps that is where Frank learned his signwriting or ticketwriting skills originally.

As a young man, Richard was a mechanic.  He married Frances Mildred Sinclair in January 1930.  In 1931 they walked from Perth to Brisbane.  They got rides from passing motorists and funded their trip by assisting motorists broken down on the  Nullabor.  They walked to Brisbane so that Richard could compete in dirt bike riding in Speedway in Brisbane.  Richard was a motorbike stunt rider.  He toured in Hollywood, and family stories contend that he was a stunt rider in Hollywood movies.  He was known throughout his speedway career as ‘Dick Crasher Kirwan’, or just ‘Crasher’ Kirwan, and sometimes simply Crasher.  He started his speedway and stunt riding career in Claremont.

Richard Kirwan was active in Brisbane speedway for many years.

Frances divorced Richard in Perth on 3 November 1937 on grounds of desertion.

Richard Kirwan enlisted in the army in the second World War at Claremont Western Australia on 23 November 1939.

When he enlisted, he named ‘Grace Kirwan – Wife’ as his next of kin, with an address in Bassendean, Western Australia, but this was changed at a later date to ‘Maude Fitzpatrick – friend’, with an address in Cootamundra NSW.

I have not yet tracked down who Grace Kirwan was.  I presume Richard was married again, probably in Queensland, but as they would have been married after 1937 when he was divorced from Frances, it is probably too recent for historical indexes.  On 12 June 1944, Richard Kirwan divorced Grace M Kirwan on grounds of adultery with Allen King.

The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW : 1888-1954), Wednesday 8 August 1945, reported as follows:


SYDNEY – When a soldier and his bride cut their wedding cake at a Sydney reception they used a Japanese sword the groom had captured at Wewak a few weeks ago.  The couple were Richard Kirwan of Murchison River, West Australia and Sister Pat Fitzpatrick of Cootamundra, a member of the staff at Prince Henry’s Hospital.

Richard made the news on several other occasions: once in Queensland in 1938, when as proprietor of Kenmore Service Station he complained to police that he was the victim of a drive by shooting.  He stated that he could not think why anyone would want to shoot at him, and concluded that it was a joke or a prank.

More disturbing are several reports in Western Australian newspapers in 1944.  A Richard Kirwan, soldier 34 years old (and therefore the right age to be ‘my’ Richard Kirwan) was charged and later acquitted of unlawfully wounding Mrs Dorothy Elizabeth Dawson, wife of a prisoner of war, who was at home with her three children when Richard Kirwan came to her house on 26 March 1943.  She recognised him as the husband of a friend of hers.  He asked her to come to his car where he  would show her something.  When she refused, he held a bayonet to her back and threatened to ‘drill it right through her, and proceeded to punch her about the head and face’.  She sustained multiple injuries including lacerations from the bayonet.  He claimed that she was the aggressor and that her injuries were sustained in his efforts to retrieve his bayonet after she removed it from its scabbard and threatened him with it.  It was stated that Richard Kirwan had been away from his unit without leave and had just returned to Western Australia from Sydney when  he was arrested in May 1944.  The account of his committal to trial makes compelling reading.  The jury eventually found him not guilty. The only witness for the defence was another young soldier, Private David Charles Gray AIF, whose testimony was found to be not credible.  He was later charged and convicted of perjury.  That story even made it as far as Tasmania.

In January 1949, a Sydney newspaper reported that someone had thrown a brick through the window of Richard Kirwan’s jewellery store in Roseville and stolen watches and jewellery valued at £200.

When I made contact with Richard Kirwan and his wife (I presume his third wife) in 1991/2, he had suffered a stroke and was unable to communicate. His wife told me that he was very pleased to hear from me, and after he passed away she sent me two scrapbooks, in which he had saved press clippings and programs from his speedway glory days, stories he had written about his wartime exploits and photographs and his war service pay book.  The newspaper reports above were not included.


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