The Smiler – a moniker inspired by a dour Scots countenance that masked an impish wit and an irrepressible adventurism – was undaunted. He would go on to launch and edit a string of frontier newspapers, before expanding his horizons as a miner, actor, war correspondent, pugilist, gun runner, soldier of fortune – and one of the most internationally popular novelists in Australian history.
Born in Kent Town, Adelaide, in July 1860, Hales had a basic primary education before studying assaying at the Ballarat School of Mines in Victoria. He worked as athletics editor for the Sydney Referee, then moved to Broken Hill as a mining reporter, exposing the fraudulent sale of “salted” mines and worthless shares in the late 1880s.
After touring the United States as manager of Australian boxer F.P. Slavin, Hales spent time in London before news of the West Australian gold discoveries saw him rush home in 1894 to try his luck “with the pick and the pen” at Coolgardie. After a stint on the Coolgardie Miner, he founded his first newspaper, the weekly Coolgardie Mining Review, where he built and lost a small fortune after fire gutted the plant. He then moved to Boulder, starting with his brother Frank the Boulder Star and later the Boulder Miner’s Right.
“I did a foolish thing – I started a newspaper and made money, but mining would have paid me better, because a newspaper takes a man into politics, and politics take him to the devil,” Hales wrote in his memoir My Life of Adventure.
He stood for Parliament in 1897 but was beaten by Alf Morgans, a mining engineer who went on to become WA premier. Hales later described the defeat as a victory: “I am now sincerely glad that Coolgardie rejected me as an MP. I have had a broader and bigger life as a free-lance than I should ever have known as a politician; I have travelled far and learnt much.”
Hales would have two illustrious careers beyond the mining towns of Australia: as a war correspondent and as a novelist.
In 1899 he went to South Africa to cover the Boer War for the London Daily News and John Bull, quickly earning a reputation as a fearless and outspoken critic of British operations. He argued that the real reason for wartime censorship was to prevent the British public from hearing about ‘‘their awful blunders, their farcical mistakes and their criminal negligence’’.
He was wounded and taken prisoner during a Boer ambush in Natal in which The Age correspondent William Lambie became the first Australian war correspondent to be killed in action.
“When the kindly Boers came up they dug two holes; Lambie was laid to rest, but when they straightened me out from under my horse, they discovered signs of life and took me back to their laager,” Hales later wrote.
In 1903, Hales went to Bulgaria to write and fight – joining the partisans led by General Ivan Tsonchev in their failed uprising against the Ottoman Empire. Tsonchev – who insisted that correspondents in his caravan must fight alongside his men – later presented Hales with the carbine he had carried into battle with a small gold plate inscribed: “To the champion for the liberation of Macedonia, A.G. Hales”. Hales went on to cover the Russo-Japanese War and World War I in France and Italy – after being rejected as too old to enlist.
His book Campaign Pictures of the War in South Africa 1899-1900 became a classic of the era and, in 1901, Hales published his first novel, Driscoll, King of Scouts. It was followed soon after by the first of 20 novels retailing the exploits of McGlusky, a tough, adventurous Australian of Scottish descent who roamed the world “with a Bible in one hand and a brick in the other”. The McGlusky series would sell more than two million copies and make Hales one of the most popular novelists of his era in Britain, North America and Australia.
After his exploits in the Balkans, Hales travelled the world visiting most of the great mines of the era and lecturing to audiences in Britain, South America, South Africa and Australia. He crossed the Gobi Desert on horseback and spent four years prospecting among the “redskins” in South America.
Hales was devastated by the death of his first wife, Emmaline Pritchard, while they were in Argentina: “I lost all interest in personal fame, the day I stood by my little comrade’s grave in Buenos Aires … when the shadows fell around her, the spring of ambition snapped.”
Finally settling in Britain after World War I, Hales also wrote historical novels, stories set in exotic locations across the globe, plays and several autobiographical works. His writing was infused with patriotism, embellished with colourful reportage and tinged with moralising.
By the time of his death, in Kent in 1936, his catalogue ran to more than 60 book titles. One of the most accomplished journalists and prolific authors of his era, Hales also knew his limitations: “I often write poems of an evening even yet, but I mostly burn them before breakfast.”
Mark Baker is chief executive of the Melbourne Press Club and a former correspondent and senior editor at Fairfax Media.