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Porteous, Richard Sydney (1896–1963)

by Robert Dixon

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

Richard Sydney Porteous (1896-1963), author, was born on 18 August 1896 at Toorak, Melbourne, second child of Richard Porteous, an Irish-born photographer, and his wife Lillie Alice, née Short, who came from Scotland. Educated at St Albans State School, Richard studied (1911-13) under Bernard Hall and Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery schools, Melbourne. He worked as a jackeroo in the Riverina, New South Wales, before enlisting in the Australian Imperial Force on 18 November 1914. Allotted to the 8th Light Horse Regiment, he was mentioned in dispatches (1916) for his services in the Middle East. He was wounded in action on 1 December 1917 at El Burj, Palestine, admitted to hospital with malaria in November 1918, promoted squadron quartermaster sergeant in May 1919 and discharged from the army on 6 October in Melbourne.

After working as a commercial artist, Porteous returned to jackerooing. By early 1925 he was employed by the Barnard family at Coomooboolaroo station, near Duaringa, Queensland. He eventually rose to station manager and acquired a share in the property. On 9 December 1927 he married 20-year-old Marion MacLaren Paterson at St Andrew's Presbyterian Church, Rockhampton. She died in childbirth on 2 August 1930, leaving him with a daughter. At St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Rockhampton, on 23 August 1932 he married Madge Elizabeth Archer (d.1957), a member of the Archer family of Gracemere. They were to have two daughters.

In 1937 Porteous left Coomooboolaroo. He started a charter fishing business at Eimeo and gained his master's ticket on 8 August 1938. When the United States of America entered World War II in 1941, the U.S. Army assembled a fleet of small ships to carry supplies to troops in Papua and New Guinea. Porteous signed on as second mate in the Mongana on 6 December 1942. His most important posting was as first mate in the Kurimarau, which operated out of Milne Bay. He was discharged from the small ships service due to ill health on 6 December 1943.

During the war Porteous began writing stories. Because of wartime censorship, he disguised them as letters to his wife Betty who sent them to the Bulletin for publication under the pseudonym 'Standby'. A well-educated woman, she was probably his earliest editor. The first two stories, 'Little Known of These Waters' and 'Once a Fisherman', appeared in print in February 1944. Porteous's collection of stories, also entitled Little Known of These Waters (Sydney, 1945), was published by Dymock's Book Arcade. The stories were well-crafted, realistic narratives in the style popular in contemporary magazines and military publications. The best of them combined humour, character study and seafaring action; the worth of manly labour and the contribution of the Small Ships Fleet to the war were recurring themes.

Porteous settled at Mackay where he built a home in 1950. His worsening health necessitated regular visits to Greenslopes Repatriation Hospital, Brisbane. He received radium treatment for a skin condition caused by exposure to the sun in Palestine; the treatment damaged his left eye, which was surgically removed in 1946. Writing became his main interest. An active member of the Mackay Community Theatre, he wrote and directed a number of plays, including The Girl from Singapore. In 1947 Porteous's book Sailing Orders, which examined the pressures of war on the crew of a small ship, won second prize in the Sydney Morning Herald's competition for the best novel of the war. His second collection of stories, Close to the Wind, was published in 1955 by Angus & Robertson Ltd with assistance from the Commonwealth Literary Fund, and a third, Salvage and Other Stories, was published in London in 1963.

He also produced a trilogy for young readers—Tambai Island (Sydney, 1955), The Tambai Treasure (1958) and The Silent Isles (1963)—told from the viewpoint of an Australian boy, Ken Gellatly ('Squit'), who lived with his father, a planter, on an island near the Solomons. The series recalled Edwardian boys' adventure books, with their themes of stolen treasure and espionage, and their casts of foreign agents and criminals. The 'ripping yarn' suited Porteous well.

His pastoral sagas, Brigalow (1957) and Cattleman (1960), were serialized in the Bulletin and the Brisbane Courier-Mail respectively. Cattleman won the Courier-Mail's £1000 Centenary Novel Competition. These two books were much loved by readers in Central Queensland for their accurate depictions of station life and their celebration of a rural ethos. Significant in the history of Queensland writing, they also reflected the broader tradition of literary nationalism. The Mackay Daily Mercury observed that Porteous's work 'has been praised for the authentic ring of its locale—often the Australian bush or Australian waters'.

By 1960 'Skip' Porteous had written about 130 stories. Many of them were published in the Bulletin and other magazines, but not all of them were reprinted in later collections. He developed friendships with Douglas Stewart, the Bulletin's literary editor, and with the writers David Rowbotham and T. A. G. Hungerford. It was only in the final years of his life, after the publication of Cattleman, that writing brought him a modest income.

On 31 January 1961 at St John's Anglican Cathedral, Brisbane, Porteous married Jessie Mary Boden, née Archer, a 53-year-old nursing sister and a widow. He died of cancer on 10 April 1963 at his Mackay home and was buried with Anglican rites in Mount Bassett cemetery; his wife survived him, as did the daughters of his previous marriages.

Select Bibliography

  • Bulletin, 9, 23 Feb 1944
  • R. Laurent, Changing Horses (Highfields, Qld, 2001)
  • Porteous papers (privately held).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Robert Dixon, 'Porteous, Richard Sydney (1896–1963)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/porteous-richard-sydney-11445/text20399, published first in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

View the front pages for Volume 16

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