The Strange, Strange Story of Phillip Wearne: Part One

Comic book pioneer Phillip Wearne is largely forgotten these days in the Australian comic book circles.  He drew a handful of comic books and it’s the circumstances around those books that are fascinating.  Even more fascinating though is his life, where he came from and what ultimately happened.  Wearne was a pioneer in the comic book field.  He was savvy enough to create a book from scratch, write and draw it alone and arranged to co-publish it, all at the age of 17. By the time he was 20 years old he had fought his publisher for ownership of his work, and won. He controlled his work, he could publish it as he saw fit, eventually shopping it around for the best deal possible. He should have been hailed as a visionary, yet he was labelled a plagiarist and a hack by virtually all Australian comic book historians, who all but ignored what he was able to do.

In the end his comic book career spanned a few years, one concept and four issues. His main downfall was his inability to generate any original concepts. That, even more so than his hubris, hobbled him.

Away from comic books his life was even more colourful; he was accused of theft, he set up businesses and consorted with criminals, he contested a divorce that saw the presiding magistrate seek advice from the Federal Attorney General and launched a one-man crusade against Scientology, resulting in the religion being banned in Victoria.  He was intelligent, egotistical and subversive, the former kept him one step ahead of people, and the latter two traits saw him classed as a crackpot by ASIO.  He crossed paths with spies, the mental health industry and publishing…and along the way he rarely looked back.

Over the next five days you’ll discover the weird and often unbelievable world of Phillip Wearne, writer, artist, publisher, spy and agitator.
Part One: The Wearne Family Tree

Broken Hill, 1888
Phillip Bennett Wearne’s family line can be traced back to the 1600s in England.  The first of Wearne’s ancestors to visit Australia was William Bennett Wearne, who was born in Cornwall, England, in October, 1847.  The Wearne name was well known in Cornwall, Wearne's have been living there since the 1500’s.  Cornwall, the southernmost peninsula in England, was known for its strong family ties and an economy built on the back of fishing and mining for both copper and tin.  Life in England during the mid-1800s was hard and drab and, although the Cornish mines were better than most, there wasn’t much of a future for miners, other than a life down in the pits and a possible early death.  After hearing about opportunities in a new country, Australia, Wearne packed up and arranged to work his passage on the Transatlantic, leaving England in 1863 and arriving in Sydney in June of the same year.  He then arranged for passage to Moonta, South Australia, where mining was reaching a peak.  At the time Moonta was an outback town, originally settled on the back of its rich copper mines.  Most of the settlers in Moonta were of Cornish descent, drawn by the promises of good money for hard work.  Wearne had left England, sailed around the world and was seeking his fortune, all before the age of 18.

Wearne settled in Moonta and quickly established himself as a miner.  In November, 1869, at the age of 22, he married Susan Metters, a bright 18 year old who was born at North Adelaide.  Once William Bennett Wearne Jr was born, two years later in 1871, W.B. Sr became a family man with responsibilities.  However life in Moonta wasn’t making Wearne as rich as he wanted to be and people were always on the lookout for new, fresh mines to establish.  Thus, when word arrived about the untapped wealth in the ground at Broken Hill, New South Wales, where vast tracts of silver ore were found, a rush of people promptly moved  in search of riches.  Sensing an opportunity, Wearne, now aged in his 40s, packed his wife and family, loaded a cart and a buggy and hitched the lot to two horses.  The Wearne's then made the perilous journey by foot, across some of the most inhospitable terrain anyone was likely to see.  Travelling the same journey by car today, it’d take you just under six hours. Travelling by horse and cart in 1887, across the outback where few roads existed, it would have taken weeks, if not the better part of a few months, to make the trip.  Once in Broken Hill, the Wearne’s settled in and started to assert themselves.

The Barrier-Miner, 2nd March, 1889
Wearne Sr promptly went back into mining, as did almost every able bodied male who made the trip to Broken Hill.  Like a lot of others, Wearne Senior promptly lost as much money as he made.  He was well known in the district for staking claims, talking them up, selling shares and then losing cash hand over fist when the mines turned out to be duds.  He also moved into real estate, first buying a general store and then building a mansion which he turned into a hotel. He spared no expense in making his hotel one of the most popular in Broken Hill, however he soon got bored with it and converted his mansion-hotel first into a boarding house and then into a shop, out of which he operated another general store.

As well as mining, Wearne Sr dabbled in the stock market and set himself up as a share broker, although how successful he was at this might be reflected in a series of ads he placed in the local newspaper.  On the 22nd of January, 1890, Renowden, Wearne &Copp announced their new partnership to the world as, “Auctioneers, Mining, Land and General Commission Agents”.  The very next day an announcement appeared declaring that Renowden, Wearne and Copp had dissolved their partnership by, “mutual consent”.  The third day brought a repeat of the first day’s ad, only this time it was for Renowden and Wearne alone. It didn’t stop him from buying and selling.

W.B. Wearne, Sr, passed away in 1909, his wife, Susan Wearne, would outlive her husband by twenty years, passing away in 1929.

The Barrier-Miner, 12th January, 1890
W.B. Wearne Jr also went into the business of operating a general store, establishing his storefront in 1892, also in Broken Hill. Described as a ‘pedestrian’, which was another way of calling a person an amateur sprinter, Wearne married young, in 1893, and sadly his wife, Jane, would pass away in 1912 at the age of 41.  Before she died she gave birth to a son, Horace Oswald Wearne, who was the father of Phillip Wearne.

While W.B. Jr was busy in Broken Hill, his son Horace, or Horrie as he was known, made the move to Adelaide.  A gifted short distance runner, it was reported that he competed in a number of events in and around Adelaide and won them all including the prestigious Bay-Sheffield in 1916, which was known as the Sheffield Handicap and run at Semaphore Beach, before it moved to its current location in Glenelg.  However there is one problem with this – the official winner of the 1916 Bay-Sheffield isn’t H. Wearne; the history books show a H. Taylor as the winner that year. Wearne claimed to have won other, similar, races, but, thanks to poor record keeping, there is no way to test the veracity of his claims. If Horrie Wearne did make up stories to send back to Broken Hill to be reported in the local newspaper, the Barrier Miner, it would have set a precedent that his own son would ultimately follow.

Horrie was back in Broken Hill by October, 1916, as he was named in a then notorious legal case. In Sydney twelve members of the Industrial Workers of the World were arrested and charged with treason against the crown for distributing seditious literature and sabotage in the form of lighting fires with the intent to eliminate their competition. The case was a cause celebre at the time and Horace Wearne was deposed to give evidence against the twelve men and stated that he and W.B. Jr were removing chaff from the railway only to discover fire accelerants present in the chaff.  The case was exciting, full of twists and turns and included people being enlisted into the I.W.W. at gunpoint, spies, assaults and even the rumour of death.  As the nation was at war, the case couldn’t have been bigger and the charges were proved and lengthy prison sentences handed down.
Broken Hill, 1888

Horace was also the driver of one of the first automobiles in Broken Hill, and proved to be one of the first four wheeled recidivists when it came to breaches of the road code, being pulled up and fined for such infractions as having failed to carry a lighted lamp at night and failing to carry his licence.

In the early 1920s Horace was sharing his time between Adelaide and Broken Hill, still running and claiming to be playing SANFL football with the North Adelaide Football Club.  Sadly the Wearne name does not appear in the official North Adelaide Football Club records, but one thing is known – Horace was breaking the law in Adelaide, being picked up and fined, and spending time doing hard labour, mainly for exceeding the speed limit.  In between his running, selling chaff and being arrested, Horace made time to marry one Gladys Carver.  Their first son, Phillip Bennett Wearne was born on the 19th of September, 1925, at Rose Park, Adelaide.

In mid-1930 W.B. Jr was enjoying a normal day in his general store, opening as usual and having a lunch of fritz.  Shortly after his lunch he was serving a customer in his general store when he grabbed his chest and collapsed. He was immediately rushed to hospital but died that night.  With the death of W.B. Jr, Horace cut all ties with Broken Hill and settled in Adelaide permanently.

TOMORROW: Phillip Weane goes to school, draws a comic book and joins the R.A.A.F only to be bundled out for getting airsick.


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