Posted by: Lisa Hill | August 11, 2022

Nimblefoot (2022), by Robert Drewe

Nimblefoot, the eighth novel from the prolific Australian author Robert Drewe (b.1943), is an intriguing mixture of rollicking yarn, social exposé and a mischievous flirtation with the historical truth.  It’s a fictionalised version of the all-but-forgotten story of Australia’s first international sporting star, Johnny Day (1856–1885) who in real life was an undefeated child winner of walking races in the 1860s, who went on to win the 1970 Melbourne Cup on a horse coincidentally called Nimblefoot and who then disappeared out of the historical record.

Click here to see an image of Johnny Day at Trove.  Drewe says in the Afterword that it’s the only picture of Johnny in existence and that he was captivated by it:

Johnny and his exploits were completely unknown to me — and also to everyone to whom I subsequently mentioned him.  I was riveted by the sepia print of a confident little Australian kid wearing a winner’s sash and red athletic shorts and leaning nonchalantly on a milestone on a winding dirt road in the English countryside.  (p.302)

Did you follow that link?  So, in the Afterword excerpt, did you notice the red shorts described in a sepia print?  Did you notice where Johnny’s impressive sash is? Did you then Google Johnny, to find him featured on the ABC no less, back in 2014? Fossick around online a little more and lo! Click here to see another image of Johnny Day, this one at the National Portrait Gallery.

*chuckle* These are signals that the author is being playful, eh?  Clearly, the reader needs to be alert…

The first part of the novel brings Johnny’s childhood to life, and while this is a book intended to entertain, there are aspects of this childhood that will give a reader pause.  We have, sadly, been made only too well aware of historical institutional abuse and exploitation of indigenous and parentless children; and while A.B. Facey’s autobiography A Fortunate Life, by A.B. Facey (1894-1982) covers a period some decades later than Drewe’s novel, it gives a vivid picture of a childhood of neglect and exploitation that was commonplace for children of the working class. Drewe’s novel, while not labouring the point, also illuminates the pitilessness of 19th century life for the children of feckless parents.

The ‘rollicking yarn’ in Nimblefoot is a smokescreen for a novel that reveals a devastating portrait of the way children were treated in the colonial era.  Transpose the way Johnny Day’s parent exploited his son’s precocious talent to the present day, and he’d be hauled up before welfare authorities and the media would have a field day.

The novel is told from Johnny’s point-of-view, sometimes in Johnny’s voice, and sometimes by a narrator who sees and comments on more than Johnny does.  The tone is often jocular, and Johnny seems sanguine about walking incredible distances and his father pocketing his winnings.  He gets to travel the world in pursuit of these winnings, but he doesn’t actually see much of it because he has to make the most of being a child prodigy while he can.  (He doesn’t get an education either.)  By the time he reaches his teens, Johnny’s days as a child wonder are over, and since he’s very short in stature, his father offloads him to work in the racing industry.

Well, even today, the racing industry means a hard life that contrasts with the glamour of the track, but in Johnny’s day it meant sleeping on a sack in the stables so that the horse doesn’t get stolen.  The horse is valued a whole lot more than the vulnerable human looking after it.

Crude medical care failed his mother in that era, and in the form of leeches and quackery it fails Johnny and his stable mates too when they catch various infections from their unhygienic living conditions.

But Johnny’s triumph at the Melbourne Cup takes the novel off on a different, more sombre tangent.  Nimblefoot’s win coincides with the visit of Prince Alfred (one of Queen Victoria’s offspring) and while I have only Drewe’s word for it, Prince Alfred celebrated the win with underage sex at the same hotel where 14-year-old Johnny, plied with drink, has lost his virginity with a couple of good-time girls. He wakes to screaming:

In the hubbub no one pays me any attention.  The Prince disappears back into his room, complaining about bad form, leaving the other three, standing in their underwear in the corridor.  [Police Captain] Standish and [society bookmaker] Slack look to [Lord] Lacy for instruction.

‘Time to call it a night,’ he says.  ‘Oh, what’s this we have here?’

A sobbing naked girl about my age and hardly developed, limps out into the corridor, all swollen and bleeding down her legs.  A tortured but beautiful face.  She sobs that she’s reporting the Prince to the police for poisoning her and burning her insides with Spanish fly.

‘I am the police, Standish says.’ (p.78)


The girl yells that she will tell all the influential clients who also come to Mother Fraser’s — the Governor, the Solicitor-General and their associates.  What happens after that is that a lot of people have to be silenced to preserve the Royal reputation. The light-hearted tone of the narrative doesn’t mask the horror when the list of potential witnesses grows to include Johnny’s father:

Butchering being perhaps the most heavily armed of the basic trades, butchers don’t anticipate violence on their premises.  Back in Ballarat a week after the court case, Tom Day had sent his workers George and Bobby home and was preparing to close up at eight o’clock when a late customer entered the shop.

Perhaps his father had forgotten his Standish anxieties when he turned his back to trim the customer’s order of lamb cutlets.  Maybe he was impressed by an order of spring lamb instead of the usual hogget or mutton.  Anyway the killer caved in his skull with is own meat hammer and left the cutlets, hammer and body on the floor, different bloods fusing in the sawdust. (p.96)

Johnny takes flight, making his way to Western Australia on the steamer Queensborough.  Along the way he meets Anthony Trollope on his tour of Australia, and can’t resist bragging a little about his sporting achievements.  Alas, he was not to know that Trollope can’t resist writing about the child wonder…

His pursuer, careless of the fact that police had no powers once they crossed colonial borders, tracks him down and then there is a cat-and-mouse trail south and north and into the hostile inland as Johnny tries to elude capture while also making a living and falling in love with a couple of young ladies.  Disappearing into anonymity is made harder by Johnny’s short stature. He can disguise himself with a fledging beard, but he cannot disguise his height…

Johnny is a remarkable hero for this novel.  What we would now call PTSD haunts his adolescent dreams but he is indefatigable.  He comes across as an adolescent with initiative, courage, good humour and resilience.

That much is true, I like to think…

Author: Robert Drewe
Title: Nimblefoot
Cover design by
Publisher: Penguin Random House (AU)
ISBN: 9780143786450, pbk., 307 pages
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House (AU)


  1. I dunno…those shorts look red to me, even in sepia tones! Heheh Reading fictionalised biographies often brings up interesting ideas; this isn’t a story I would have recognised historically, but I can see where it would be a good read in the context you’ve shared.


    • LOL Marcie, how could they be red when colour photography hadn’t been invented?
      I think Drewe has used young Johnny as a catalyst for all sorts of interesting ideas… one I didn’t mention in my review was the fleeting nature of celebrity and how quickly the world moves on. Johnny’s fame should have protected him from the murderous intentions of Standish, but it didn’t because he was a nobody again.
      These days a child prodigy would get counselling to deal with being a has-been, but Johnny just had to get on with it.


  2. I read your review yesterday and wasn’t sure what to say. I think authors get ‘playful’ when they run out of other ideas. I used to read Drewe every Saturday in the magazine supplement and got tired of him. I love his earlier works, especially The Savage Crows and The Shark Net and if I read another one it will be A Cry in the Jungle Bar.


    • LOL Bill, I was careful not to specify the geographical details of the pursuit in WA in case you took Drewe to task for being inaccurate, but you’re still not happy!


  3. My admiration of Drewe’s writing stopped at The Shark Net. I did not get on with Montobello at all and Whipbird was a DNF. But I’m pleased to see this review so that I can talk about the book favourably at work with my customers – thanks Lisa :-)


  4. […] Lisa has also reviewed this novel. […]


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