Smithy's Ukulele



Sir Charles Kingsford Smith
photographed with a ukulele in 1934


The ukulele in the QAM collection

Although this ukulele in the QAM collection technically did not belong to Sir Charles Kingsford Smith, there is no doubt that he autographed it and almost certainly no doubt that he would have played it.

During September and October of 1931, Smithy attempted to break the solo record from Australia to England in the Avro Avian VH-UQG Southern Cross Minor. This would be a feat of endurance for a fit man but Smithy was ill for most of the flight and any hope of breaking the record was lost long before he reached London on 7 October. On the advice of his doctors, Smithy abandoned his plans for a record attempt in the reverse direction and returned to Australia by sea, leaving the Southern Cross Minor in England. Smithy sailed on the liner S.S. Orford which berthed in Melbourne on 16 November. After consulting with an Air Force doctor, Smithy's condition was diagnosed as carbon monoxide poisoning, the suspected cause of which was a shortened exhaust pipe which had been intended to improve the performance of the Avian's engine.

Amongst the other passengers on the Orford were Mr & Mrs Frank D'Arcy. Mrs D'Arcy was a keen player of the ukulele and she had brought her instrument with her to pass away the hours on the long sea voyage. By this time, Smithy was an accomplished, self-taught player of the ukulele and the life of any party. No doubt it was the ukulele which brought the D'Arcys and Smithy together because on 30 October Smithy inscribed and signed the back of the instrument:

In memory of a happy voyage
C Kingsford Smith
S.S. Orford

Although the instrument belonged to Mrs D'Arcy, there can be little doubt that Smithy would have played it. When he departed Australia in the Avian, the passenger's seat was occupied by a 90 gallon fuel tank so there would have been little space available for personal luggage. Carrying a ukulele would have been an unthinkable indulgence. By the time Smithy arrived in London he was exhausted and unwell so shopping around in London for a ukulele would have been the last thing on his mind. By the time he was at sea and beginning to unwind, the wafting sounds of Mrs D'Arcy's ukulele must have been a godsend to the gregarious Smithy.

Having gone to so much trouble to inscribe his message into the ukulele, it is surely inconceivable that Smithy would not have played the instrument if only briefly, so perhaps it's not so unreasonable to call it Smithy's ukulele.

QAM acknowledges with thanks that the ukulele was donated by Mrs. D. Caldwell on behalf of Mr. & Mrs. Frank D'Arcy.

Much of the historical information on this page is drawn from the book The Life and Times of Sir Charles Kingsford Smith by the late Ted Wixted who has provided for us once again.



Smithy's Inscription on the back of the ukulele


The S.S. Orford



The S.S. Orford (20,000 tons) was built for the Orient Line by Vickers Armstrong at Barrow in 1928. In 1932, the year after Smithy's voyage, she participated in a procession of ships at the ceremonial opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. The Orford ran aground off Marseilles while evacuating troops from France in 1940. In 1947 she was refloated and scrapped.


Compiled by Ron Cuskelly


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Original issue