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National Museum Captivates with the Curious

November 07, 2005
National Museum Captivates with the Curious

By Denis Shephard, Curator Australian Culture & Society, National Museum of Australia

The Saw Doctors Wagon and tractor were purchased from a private collector in 2002. The wagon was workplace and home for Harold and Jean Wright for over three decades.

Harold Wright (c1905-69), a young English carpenter, arrived in Melbourne at the height of the Great Depression. In 1935 he use the little money he had saved to convert a horse-drawn wagon into a combined workshop and home. The workshop included tools and stones for sharpening all manner of items, from kitchen knives to saws. You might say I started with my nose to the grindstone, he quipped in the 1960s.

Christening his home-workshop the Road Urchin and calling himself the Saw Doctor Harold set out on a journey along the roads of eastern Australia that did not end until his death in 1969. Along the way he met and married Dorothy Jean McDougall and together they raised a daughter, Evelyn May.

Harolds home-workshop grew like topsy over the years. Initially pulled by a single horse, it was later fitted to the chassis of a 1928 Chevrolet light duty truck. In the 1950s Harold recalled that

Saw Doctor 5th wheeler NMA

I painted it up brightly and wrote signs and decorated it to make it attractive to the public... thinking this would attract business and make life a bit easier

The wagon was covered in signs, including The Sharpening King is Here and All Types of Power and Hand Mowers Scientifically Ground. From time-to-time the family fell on hard times and their home was removed from the truck chassis and placed on a horse-drawn vehicle, to save on the cost of petrol. The truck was converted to a trailer in 1963 and was pulled by a 1948 David Brown tractor. A utility truck cabin was fitted to the tractor, which was also decorated with all manner of bits and pieces.

Reflecting on his life in the mid-1950s Harold explained that:

Life on the road is the toughest existence a man can chose. People often say to me it must be a lovely carefree life. They don't understand the hardships caused by the weather, or realise how the uncertainty of work causes constant worry

The Road Urchin attracted a crowd wherever it went but brought little business. In a voice tinged with emotion he observed:

They flock to see my truck and ask me about it, but they don't seem to understand I am looking for work. Why do they think a man has spent all his money and spare time to make a showpiece of his business? Don't they see that I'm like them and have to make a living, too?

He continued:

My life has been hard, but satisfying. I strive hard to do my work to the best of my ability, to give my customers good honest value in exchange for my efforts

Saw Doctor Office area NMA Saw Doctor work area NMA

Harold James Wright died on 5 October, 1969 at Cobram and was buried in Wangaratta Cemetery.

Following Harolds death Dorothy sold the wagon and tractor to a Wangaratta second-hand dealer and, it is believed, moved to West Wyalong where she remarried and subsequently died. Peter and Wynn Herry purchased the Wrights home in 1977 and shifted it to their small farm outside Wangaratta. Thanks to their foresight, Harold Wright's remarkable travelling home and workshop was saved for the National Historical Collection.

Captivating and Curious is on show at the National Museum of Australia from December 14, 2005 to April 17, 2006. Entry is free.

Editor's note: The National Museum of Australia is always looking for information on subjects like the 'Saw Doctor'.

See Forums General: 16 Sep 2005 - Best of Museum's collection on show freeand in Information Features

The contact is Denis Shephard
Curator, Australian Culture Society
National Museum of Australia
Ph (02) 6208 5136 or 1800 026 132
Fax (02) 6208 5014

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