At 3 pm on 31 August 1917, Private William Joseph Punch, AIF was buried in East Cemetery Boscombe, Bournemouth, in England. He was accorded a full military funeral with the firing party supplied by the New Zealand Engineers, Christchurch. Wreaths were sent by Australian friends and his fellow comrades from ‘C’ Floor, Mont Dore and the Mont Dore Nursing Staff. According to information in his service record he was 37.
Only two days earlier, he dictated his will in Mont Dore Military Hospital, on 29 August, the day he died. By then although able to write with facility he was too weak to do so and signed with a cross, obviously determined to communicate his final wishes.
He signed up as William Joseph Punch but was known in his home town of Goulburn, New South Wales simply as Punch and referred to himself as such. His real name is unknown. Punch is sometimes said to have come from Queensland but was actually born in New South Wales, probably near the Bland north west of Goulburn, where he was found after the murder of his Aboriginal family in retaliation for cattle spearing. He himself gave New South Wales as his place of birth on his attestation. In fact the story of his Queensland origins was a subterfuge to disguise his early history.
Punch’s story was published in 1992 and 1993 in the Journal of the Goulburn and District Historical Society by Albert Speer whose family lived in the Goulburn area and knew Punch well. Punch had once saved Speer’s father’s life. Speer’s contact with an old resident of Goulburn revealed that Punch’s clan had been murdered by a group of Goulburn area locals seeking land to adjist their cattle. He grew up in the Goulburn district where he worked as a labourer on the surrounding farms and became a well known and well liked member of the community. This may explain the fact that despite the prohibitive military regulations, when he volunteered at Goulburn he was accepted into the AIF – his attestation clearly refers to him as Aboriginal. His identity is underlined by photographs taken of him in uniform before embarkation.
Portrait of Punch in AIF uniform. Courtesy Albert Speer and Goulburn and District Historical Society.
Punch is centre, middle row in this detail from a group photograph of Goulburn recruits dated 22 February 1916. Courtesy Albert Speer.
Newspaper reports of Punch in pre-war days confirm he was popular and extroverted. One report, of the 1908 Boxing Day Junction Social at Woodhouselee near Goulburn, shows that at the same time he was clearly demarcated by his Aboriginality.
The music was all that could be desired, and when I mention such first class violin players as Messrs. Will Gallaher and J. Siggs, and “Punch,” ably relieved at intervals by other players whom the writer did not know, it shows that the dancers had nothing to complain of on that score … One of the characters of the evening was a coloured “pusson ” rejoicing in the soubriquet of “Punch.” He was all over the place, and as lively as the proverbial “bag of fleas.” Just as some of the guests were departing “Punch” bounded out of the door, no boots on, took a flying leap on one of the horses behind the rider and saddle, stuck his heels into the horse’s flanks, and gave the company an exhibition of buckjump riding which showed that he had not been among horses all his life for nothing.
Punch’s companion John Siggs was the member of the Siggs family who rescued him as a baby. Will Gallaher was also a Siggs relative as was Oswald Gallaher named by Punch as next of kin and a joint beneficiary in his will. The other beneficiary was Eliza Jane Lynch or Mrs Michael Lynch of Laggan near Goulburn, where Punch was employed before the war. One of her daughters married into the Siggs family and another into the Gallaher/Gallagher family. Punch’s recognition of these people in his will attests to the nature of his relationship with the Siggs and connected families.
Punch volunteered at Goulburn at the age of 36 and served with the 1st and 53rd Battalions. After a few weeks in Egypt he went to France where he was twice wounded, in September 1916 and April 1917. On 13 May 1917 he was sent back to hospital in England and died four months later of pneumonia. The report of his first injury also tells much about Punch and his situation.
5th October 1916. “PUNCH” WOUNDED. Mr. O. Gallagher, of Bourke Street, Goulburn, on Wednesday received a telegram from Base Records stating that Private Wm. J. Punch had been wounded. Private Punch is an aboriginal, and was better known as “Siggs’s Punch,” he having been reared by the late Miss Siggs and the late Mr. John Siggs, of Pejar. Mrs. Gallagher (mother of Mr. O. Gallagher) is a sister of the late Mr. Siggs, and Mr. Gallagher was a great friend of “Punch.” “Punch” was trained in the Goulburn Camp, and was a favourite. He was looked upon as a mascot. He was very adaptable, and was a good rifle shot. He was with the Australian forces in France.
Punch as well as being wounded had severe problems with his feet which resulted in his spending time in hospital in December 1916. A letter to another friend, Mrs Emily McLachlan whose children grew up with Punch, shows he was still out of action in mid January:
France 18 January 1917
Dear Mrs McLachlan
Just these lines hoping they will find you enjoying the best of health. I have been in the hospital but I am in a convalescent camp now & am better again. Remember me to the boys and girls. I have had no letters for quite along time but I hope to get some shortly. I will close now with best wishes from
Your sincere friend Punch
Copy of a gum leaf and a post card, sent by Punch to Mrs E. McLachlan. Courtesy Albert Speer.
Punch was not the only Aboriginal man to volunteer at Goulburn in late December 1915. At least one other recruit was also Aboriginal and became like Punch a member of A Company 1st Battalion. This was James Merritt (aka Middlemas) of Queanbeyan who is probably the unnamed Aboriginal man in a photograph of the Goulburn recruits taken on 22 February 1916. However it was Punch who was nominated as a battalion mascot by his fellow Goulburn volunteers, perhaps a reflection of the character he displayed at the Woodhouselee social. Merritt had a very different upbringing with his Aboriginal mother – whereas Punch was deprived of this connection and while popular was also objectified as ‘Sigg’s Punch’ in the white community he lived in.
Autographed photograph of the troop ship Ceramic, Exchange Studios, Pitt Street Sydney. Punch’s signature is bottom far left. The signature of James Merritt is immediately above the forward mast of the ship. The original was shown to Albert Speer by Mrs Welch of Bungonia. Courtesy Albert Speer.
Punch’s story is a tragic one. He was treated well by the family which took him in and was liked by his community but at the same time, unbeknownst to him, lived amongst the descendants or even the actual people responsible for the deaths of his real family. There is no evidence that he associated with other Aboriginal people in the area – although they may well have been relatives. Rather he lived until the age of 36 as something of an anomaly in his community, respected but different. Like Punch, Douglas Grant, another Aboriginal member of the AIF, was the victim of a massacre and taken in by a white family. Grant achieved some success after the war but in the end his life crumbled around him as he was unable – or society itself was unable – to resolve the issue of an Aboriginal man alienated from his culture trying to exist in a white man’s world. It is likely the future for Punch may have not been so unfortunate but this is unknown. The community acceptance he did have ultimately did him no service as it facilitated his entry into the AIF which in turn led to his premature death.
More information about Punch can be found in
Albert Speer, ‘William Joseph Punch 31.3.1884 – 29.8 1917’, Journal of the Goulburn and District Historical Society, No. 267, October 1992 and No. 271, April 1993.
Australians at War ‘Aborigine survives Family Massacre but dies in war’.
My thanks to Albert Speer, Monica Croke and Goulburn and District Historical Society
Philippa Scarlett 12 June 2013