JAMES, JOHN STANLEY ('THE VAGABOND') (1843–96)
A prominent Melbourne journalist, James became known as ‘The Vagabond’, writing first-hand accounts of down and out life in late 1870s Melbourne. He was born in England in 1843, then made several attempts at journalism in Wales and London.
His life for the next few years is mostly a mystery. On his own account, he was imprisoned as a spy in Paris and reported on the Franco-Prussian war. He went to the United States around 1872, where he changed his name to Julian Thomas, then to Australia in 1875. In April 1876, the Melbourne Argus published ‘A Night in the Model Lodging House’ by ‘A Vagabond’.
Thomas had found his niche. Further articles by ‘The Vagabond’, reporting on his experiences inside places like the Immigrants’ Home, the Benevolent Home and Pentridge Prison followed. Unlike Marcus Clarke, who had written for the Melbourne press about what he termed ‘Lower Bohemia’, ‘The Vagabond’ wrote both as a participant and an observer. He suggested reforms, writing flamboyantly but with compassion.
His articles proved popular, with the mystery of the author’s identity adding to their appeal. A collection in four volumes was published as The Vagabond Papers (1877). Late that year, he went to Sydney to write for the Sydney Morning Herald. He then travelled widely, writing on the Chinese gold diggers in Cooktown, the brutality of the French administration in New Caledonia and his impressions of the New Hebrides and New Guinea. These articles were published as Cannibals and Convicts (1886). He also wrote accounts of his travels in China, Japan and California.
Thomas returned to Melbourne and wrote for the Argus. After being the Argus correspondent for the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London, he wrote further travel articles on the Pacific for the Age. However, despite his prolific output, Thomas died in poverty in Fitzroy in 1896.
‘The Vagabond’ was an important chronicler of what would today be called underclass life in Melbourne in the 1870s. Michael Cannon edited a selection of Thomas’s best Melbourne journalism as The Vagabond Papers (1969). He also edited Vagabond Country: Australian Bush and Town Life in the Victorian Age (1981).