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John (Jack) O’Toole (1917–1983)

by John Arnold

This article was published:

John O’Toole (1917-1983), policeman and woodchopper, was born on 13 September 1917 at Warragul, Victoria, son of Victorian-born parents John Bernard O’Toole, farmer, and his wife Mary, née Brien. Raised on a Gippsland dairy farm, at 19 Jack began work as a timber-cutter in the nearby Erica district. He joined the Victoria Police Force in 1942. Stationed at Kew, Melbourne, he was the force’s heavyweight boxing champion for eleven years, at times struggling to find an opponent willing to challenge him. A no-nonsense, old-fashioned policeman, he used his boxing skills and imposing physique—he was 6 ft 2 in (188 cm) and over 14 st (89 kg), later more than 16 st (101 kg)—to exert his authority in his police work as well as his sport. Melbourne newspaper reports described him as ‘the toughest man in the force’.

Having started competitive woodchopping at 17, in 1947 O’Toole won his first world titles in the underhand and standing categories. In his career, competing in the rounds of Australian agricultural shows and in New Zealand and North America he amassed over 120 titles, including 26 world championships (12 standing; 14 underhand). Known for ruining more axes than any other chopper, he incessantly sought an improved way of grinding the cutting edge and was occasionally seen at the grinder without any protective gear, just before taking his position. He was very competitive: his rivalry with Tom Kirk, especially at the Sydney Royal Easter Show, was legendary; the two men apparently hated each other, in and out of the woodchopping ring.

Jack O’Toole played Australian rules football for the Hawthorn reserves and, in later life, successfully raced greyhounds. On 7 April 1945 at St Brendan’s Catholic Church, Flemington, he married Audrey Francis Mary Roche. At the home that he built at North Kew he kept fit by cutting logs of hardwood. While terse (once asked whether he smoked or drank, he replied, ‘well, I don’t smoke’) he was never reluctant to voice his firm opinions. He was quick tempered, and as the journalist Tom Prior recalled, had ‘an awe-inspiring confidence in himself’.

In 1957 O’Toole was seconded to the Melbourne City Council as a by-laws officer to guard the trees in the city’s parks and gardens—an irony the press savoured. He retired as a senior constable in 1972 but continued competitive woodchopping for several years, often announcing his last event but continuing to appear. In 1982 he won the police woodchop at the Royal Melbourne Show shortly after his sixty-sixth birthday. Through the 1970s he became something of a cult figure for sports-minded Melburnians, hosting — and almost always winning — the woodchopping contests which featured on HSV-7’s Sunday television program ‘World of Sport’; he appeared there alongside ‘Leather Lungs’ Doug Elliot.

On 19 July 1983 Jack O’Toole died of myocardial infarction at his home; survived by his wife and their four sons, he was buried in Templestowe cemetery. Two sons, Lawrence and Martin, won world championships as woodchoppers, and a grandson, Lawrence O’Toole junior, continued the family tradition. A reserve in Kew was named in his memory.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Beckett, Axemen, Stand By Your Logs! (1983)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 29 Aug 1950, p 18, 21 Aug 1976, p 13, 30 Oct 1976, p 1
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 21 July 1983, p 2.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

John Arnold, 'O’Toole, John (Jack) (1917–1983)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

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