Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skeyhill, Thomas John (1895–1932)

by Gerald A. Moloney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

Thomas John Skeyhill (1895-1932), soldier and lecturer, was born on 10 January 1895 at Terang, Victoria, son of James Percy Skeyhill, driver and later aerated waters factory manager, and his wife Annie, née Donnelly. Both parents were native born of Irish extraction. Tom was educated at the local state school and from 1902 at St Mary's Convent School, Hamilton. At 14 he became a telegraph messenger at Hamilton and later a telephonist. A clever reciter, he was successful in local elocution competitions and was a debater with the Hibernian Society.

Enlisting in the 8th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force, in August 1914, Skeyhill embarked from Melbourne in December and landed at Anzac Cove as a signaller on 25 April 1915. On 8 May, during the advance at Cape Helles, he was blinded by an exploding Turkish shell. He was invalided back to Melbourne in October and later was officially welcomed home at Hamilton Town Hall.

Skeyhill had been composing verse, some of which was published in the London, Cairo and Melbourne press. In November 1915 he appeared at the Tivoli Theatre, Melbourne, in full Gallipoli kit, reciting his compositions. His Soldier Songs from Anzac, published in December, sold 20,000 copies in four months. For two years Signaller Skeyhill, 'the blind soldier poet', toured Australia, lecturing and reciting, raising funds for the Red Cross Society and appearing on recruiting platforms. He was discharged on 28 September 1916.

In December 1917 Skeyhill left on a lecturing tour of North America. He became a sensation—at Carnegie Hall, New York, Theodore Roosevelt praised him as 'the finest soldier speaker in the world'. Under osteopathic treatment he recovered his sight in Washington in 1918. Claiming that he was then rejected as unfit by British recruiting authorities, he was appointed war lecturer with the United States forces. He visited the war zones and on return lectured throughout the U.S.A. in aid of the Liberty Loan. After the war he became associated with the Pond Lyceum and Chautauqua lecture circuits.

Commissioned by the American Affiliated Lecture Bureau in 1920 to visit Russia and eastern Europe, he was refused entry to the Soviet Union but illegally went to Petrograd (St Petersburg). He was unimpressed by conditions he found there and subsequently lectured on 'Communism with the lid off'. In September 1921 he returned to Australia for a six-week lecture tour of Victoria and New South Wales. In 1926 Ohio University, U.S.A., awarded him an honorary degree.

In 1919 Skeyhill had published in New York A Singing Soldier and he later wrote plays, including Passing Shadows, Moon Madness and the successful The Unknown, and a biography of Sergeant Alvin York, which was filmed in 1941. Skeyhill was killed in an air accident at Hyannis, Massachusetts, on 22 May 1932. He was survived by his wife Marie Adele, a New York actress, and by their daughter Joyce. Though he had lived in New York, he was buried with a military funeral at West Dennis, Massachusetts, where he had had a summer home.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hay (ed), Meeting of Sighs (Warrnambool, Vic, 1981)
  • Theatre Magazine, 1 Aug 1916
  • New York Times Book Review, 23 Dec 1928
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1932
  • Hamilton Spectator, 20 Oct 1915, 13 June 1918, 13, 15, 22, 25, 27 Oct 1921
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 27, 28 July 1916, 4 Feb, 6 May, 12 Oct 1918, 13 Dec 1919, 11 Mar, 21, 22, 23 Apr, 25 June 1921, 27 Nov 1926, 25 May 1932
  • San Francisco Chronicle, 18 Apr 1918
  • Terang Express, 27 Sept 1921
  • New York Times, 12, 14 Oct 1928, 23 May 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 24 May 1932
  • Argus (Melbourne), 25 May 1932
  • Bulletin, 1 June 1932
  • Age (Melbourne), 10, 20 Mar 1969.

Citation details

Gerald A. Moloney, 'Skeyhill, Thomas John (1895–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/skeyhill-thomas-john-8444/text14843, published in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

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