Yesterday I said to a mate that “I was as happy as Larry”. Bemused, my mate, 35 years my junior, said “What do you mean?” Fair call. Aussies born before World War 2 often used the phrase “happy as Larry” when they were very, very happy. It’s not used much these days. So who was Larry?
Larry Foley was a pug who made a name for himself in the brutal bare-knuckle days in Sydney during the 1870s.
On debut, Foley eventually won the first unofficial championship of Australia after 140 rounds. You’ve read it right, 140 rounds: a knockdown constituted a round.
The report said he “flattened” Abe Hicken to win. It would probably have been more accurate had the report read Hicken had fallen over dead-set exhausted and couldn’t get up one more time.
Foley said afterwards that he was very, very happy, and the report ended with the punters being described “as happy as Larry” with the result.
The phrase was born. And it stuck solid.
No wonder Larry was very, very happy: he pocketed 1,000 quid cash, a veritable fortune in a sport that was against the law.
While Foley and Hicken did battle, 20 frustrated cops were on the other side of the Murray keen to arrest the pair after getting a tip-off. They ended up empty-handed; Foley’s hands were full of cold hard.
This was a fascinating period in Sydney’s rich history, graphically written by Geoffrey Scott in his book Sydney’s Highways of History, published in 1958.
Let Geoffrey tell the story:
By the 1880s, leather gloves and Marquis of Queensberry rules were transforming the bloody old prize-fighting game, and Larry was ready to quit.
In 1883, he had the toughest fight of his career, when he conceded two stone (13kgs) and three inches (a tick under eight centimetres) in reach to “Professor” Billy Williams at the Academy of Music in Castlereagh Street. A mob of Larry’s supporters saved him from ignominious defeat by storming the ring.
After that, Larry retired “undefeated,” settling down to preside over the White Horse hotel in George Street and to run his boxing academy in an annexe of glass and iron, affectionately known to the sporting world as the “Iron Pot”.
A fearsome concoction of boxing talent was brewed in the Pot: the giant Cornishman Bob Fitzsimmons, who won the world heavyweight title in 1897 by beating Gentleman Jim Corbett, the simple and gentle-mannered West Indian Peter Jackson, “Starlight,” the New Guinea boy from the pearling grounds of Thursday Island, Frank Slavin, Joe Goddard, and Young Griffo.
In later years, Larry Foley became a prosperous demolition contractor, as well, pulling down many of the old buildings at The Rocks.
(Still as happy as Larry; not so for many of his peers).
Frank Slavin died in Canada, after toting a gun and badge as the sheriff of tough Dawson City in the Klondike. Peter Jackson spent his last years as a penniless consumptive in Queensland.
Young Griffo (Albert Griffiths) died in New York in 1927, a forgotten drunkard living on charity, even though he was arguably the best fighter Australia has produced.
The White Horse hotel and Foley’s boxing academy have long disappeared from George Street. But the site, near the present Strand Arcade, should be sacred soil to Australian sportsmen.
Indeed it should Geoffrey Scott, and many thanks for taking us down memory lane.
Now we are all as happy as Larry, including my mate.