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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people should be aware that this website contains names, images, and voices of deceased persons.

In addition, some articles contain terms or views that were acceptable within mainstream Australian culture in the period in which they were written, but may no longer be considered appropriate.

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Ferris Arthur Ashton (1926–2013)

Ferris Ashton was always a lad who was handy. Lads who made fun of his first name did so only once. By age six he could scrap rather well. Father Francis O'Connor taught him boxing. His left jab eliminated a need for his right hand. His prowess at cricket and rugby league was evident from an early age and he went on to play both at a high level, including league for Australia.

He later went into television and was known for many years as part of Controversy Corner with Rex Mossop.

Ferris Arthur Ashton was born on August 21, 1926, at Darlinghurst, and the family moved to Bondi when he was very young. His father, Arthur, played trombone and double bass with the Cec Morrison Big Band. His mother was Wilhelmina (nee Makin). Ashton grew up in a household with music. Showmanship was in his genes.

At age 17 he enlisted in the navy. He served on HMAS Quickmatch. In the navy, he fought 19 amateur bouts and was undefeated. In Tokyo, the Australians matched their champion with a winner of the Golden Gloves in the US. Ashton won.

Returning to Australia at the end of hostilities, Ashton was looking splendidly handsome in his white uniform as he strolled along Circular Quay. The sight was irresistible to Patricia Brennan, who introduced herself to him — this was Ashton's version of events, uncontested by Pat. Love developed and marriage followed.

Playing for Bondi United in rugby league, Ashton earned his nickname, ''Ferdie'', when he charged at a fullback with his head down and flipped him over his back. Ferdinand the Bull was a popular song at the time.

However, playing for Eastern Suburbs was his fondest ambition. In 1949, Ashton was graded: he played five games in the second row in reserve grade. He was part of the Easts side that won the reserve-grade premiership. He made his first-grade debut in 1950.

Nowadays, early specialisation and contracts all but prevent anyone playing both football and cricket at a high level. Ashton was good enough as a wicketkeeper and batsman to make his first-grade debut for Waverley in 1950. In 1952 against a St George attack, Ashton scored 106 not out.

His most celebrated dismissal behind the stumps was of Richie Benaud; that is, celebrated in the sense of most often told by Ashton. Benaud glanced and set off for a run, the ball hit Ashton's foot and bounced back onto the stumps. Ashton played first grade until 1955.

He would not go higher in cricket, but in rugby league he was much better than most and was always going to play for Australia. In 1951, he played for NSW against France. The next year he made his Test debut against New Zealand.

Through it all, however, Ashton had to make a living. He was raising a family. His principal job was with the Commonwealth Treasury.

''As a family man it was a case of the needy and the greedy,'' Ashton told sportswriter Ian Heads. ''I worked two jobs. I would get up at 5 o'clock each morning and catch a bus into town, go to the Danea Arts Studio in George Street, get the scrubbing brush out and, on my hands and knees, scrub the studio. I would then go to work at the Treasury. On training days I had special leave from the job to go and train with the team.''

By the time of the 1952-53 Kangaroos tour, Ashton was an automatic selection. The first Test against England on that tour was the first rugby league game to be telecast live.

It is not usual for a Kangaroos side to have an accomplished pianist. At the hotel, Ashton took over the piano that was always available in hotels that accommodated sporting teams in that era. He belted out honky-tonk.

In 1957, past 30, having achieved all the honours there were in the game, Ashton retired. He could not argue with an offer from the Snowy Mountains Authority of £40 a week, plus house and car. He was an industrial officer in a project with a lot of disputes; safety was a major issue. He was with the authority until 1962. He resumed cricket with Kaisers in the Monaro competition and starred.

Ashton impressed local representatives of the American International Group, a giant insurance firm, with his handling of insurance claims. He was adept at negotiating outcomes. AIG was sufficiently impressed to offer him a job in the claims department. Ashton duly became the claims director for Australia and New Zealand.

Appearances on the panel of Controversy Corner on a Sunday morning for three decades made him a household name. The program followed a template that was like the launch of a spaceship. ''You're looking particularly fit today, Ferris,'' Rex Mossop observed without fail. ''That's because I've had my Viking sauna,'' Ashton replied. You looked forward to the exchanges. Footballers received a presentation pack from Meapro meats and Patra orange juice — details never forgotten. No sponsor could complain about a lack of exposure.

The humility in Ashton prevented him grasping that he had become a living legend. Though a television personality, his life continued as before: he was part of the crowd for his beloved Easts in the winter, and Waverley cricket in the summer. His father had nominated him for membership of the Sydney Cricket Ground when he was a boy. For 63 years he attended whatever happened at the SCG. He became a fixture in the special area set aside for 50-year members.

When the SCG Trust wanted to plant a pine tree, the seed of which was descended from the lone pine at Gallipoli, Ashton was the only league first-grader the trust could find who had served in World War II. With the creation of a major game on Anzac Day at the Sydney Football Stadium, Ashton was central to its credibility and success. The crowds loved him.

Ashton did not follow his father into showbiz; not paid, that is, but he was a natural showman. At the Snowy Mountains, where entertainment was prized, Ashton and Patty combined with other husbands and wives to put on a show of song and dance. Ashton was compere and on the piano. The shows attracted a huge audience. The governor-general, William Slim, attended.

For more than 30 years Ashton was in a revue at the Manly Golf Club. His performance of On the Good Ship Lollipop was Shirley Temple and so much more. If a league team needed help, Ashton was available. He received no fees for his fund-raising.

Ashton was a sparkling conversationalist, he understood his audience and gave his all. He left life without an enemy.

Ferris Ashton is survived by Patricia, four children, seven grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.

Original publication

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Citation details

'Ashton, Ferris Arthur (1926–2013)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 17 July 2024.

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