Strange’s War: The World War One Cartoons of Ben Strange
For the first time in Australia cartoons depicting conflict and political issues came together during World War One. Across Australia cartoonists were walking a fine line between political commentaries on the war and supporting Australia’s war effort.
Ben Strange was the cartoonist for the Western Australian weekly newspaper the Western Mail. Ben a self-taught illustrator, had a natural gift for seeing the funny side of life as well as cutting to the heart of an issue. His cartoons were much loved by the readers of the Western Mail and provided an insight into how many Western Australians felt about the war and other local issues during that time.
Who was Ben Strange?
Benjamin (Ben) Edward Strange was born in Ireland in 1868 at the Cavalry Barracks, Newbridge. Ben’s father was a solider with the 10th Hussars and he spent his early childhood travelling between army barracks in Britain before the 10th Hussars were sent to India in 1873.
In 1875 Ben’s father accidentally discharged a musket into his shoulder and had to return to England for medical treatment resulting in 16.5cm of his right humerus being removed. Declared unfit, Ben’s father was pensioned out of the army in 1876 and the family settled in South London.
It was while at school in London that Ben began his love of art. Ben once recalled that:
Although very fond of drawing, I’m afraid much of my time was wasted, trying to paint, my efforts good, bad, or indifferent – mostly indifferent, I’m Thinking. Beyond the instruction imbibed from school teachers, artistic friends and the small art classes I attended, generally at night-time, my knowledge of art was limited.
On 23 January 1885, age 17, Ben left England aboard the Glenavon bound for Perth, Western Australia. On arrival he did a variety of jobs before moving to the recently discovered Eastern goldfields in 1890 to try his luck. In his spare time Ben continued to draw and on the encouragement of friends he sent a couple of his humorous cartoons to The Bulletin in Sydney where much to Ben’s delight, they were published. In 1894 Ben quit mining to become a full time illustrator for the Coolgardie Miner and the Coolgardie Pioneer. He was only allowed to draw humorous cartoons as they had to be sent by boat to the east coast of Australia to be engraved which took a number of weeks making it hard to draw topical cartoons.
In 1897 Ben moved to Perth to work on a new weekly paper called Clare’s Weekly, started by W.E. ‘Billy’ Clare the owner of the Coolgardie Miner, before being employed by the Western Mail where Ben would work until his death in 1930.
In early 1900 Ben enlisted in the Second Boer War with Robert’s Horse, a volunteer unit in the British Army. Ben spent eight month in South Africa, sending back letters and sketches about his experiences which were published in the Western Mail.
Ben returned to Perth and his job at the Western Mail. In October 1902 he was promoted to chief cartoonist and started doing full page political cartoons until 1927. Towards the end of his career Ben again illustrated humorous cartoons for the paper’s Page of Fun with other cartoonists.
Ben died on 16 August 1930 at his home near Canning Bridge. On hearing of his death R.C Spear the editor and owner of the Golden West, an annual journal that Ben regularly contributed to, said:
His merit could be associated with that of Australia’s foremost cartoonists, Livingstone Hopkins (“Hop”) and Alf Vincent, both of ‘The Bulletin’. Had he chosen, he could have gone East or abroad to enlarge his career. He was invited but chose to remain in Perth, the city of his adoption.
His obituary in the Western Mail summarised his work as:
…never gross, and never such as to give needless pain or offence to their subject. Their satire was of the gentler Gilbertian sort. It reflected his own kindly nature, and so it came about among the thousands whom his quaint caricatures excited to laughter were the caricatured themselves.
His good friend Ivor T Birtwistle, who had known Ben since he started at the Western Mail as an office boy before working his way up to editor of the paper, described Ben lovingly as:
..short and fat and looked like a barrel, and indeed was a barrel because he consumed enormous quantities of beer.
Ben Strange was buried in the Karrakatta Cemetery, he never married.
Western Mail 1 September 1900, p45
Western Mail 9 February 1901, an early example of Ben Strange’s ‘Topical Cartoons’ page.
The City of Armadale and History House Museum would like to thank the following people and organisations for making this exhibition possible.
- The Department of Veterans Affairs for providing funding through the Centenary of ANZAC Local Grant program.
- Henry Zelones AOM, JP Mayor City of Armadale
- Andrew Webster, Senior Lecturer Murdoch University
- Dean Alston, West Australian Newspaper
- Professor Jenny Gregory, University of Western Australia
- Matthew Keogh MP
- The staff and volunteers of History House for all of their help putting this exhibition together.
- To the Birtwistle family for donating these works to museum.
- Mrs. Court for donation ‘East is East and West is West’ to the museum