“You beauty, you bastard!”

WORDS: Greg Pride PHOTOGRAPHY Brian Usher - plus supplied by Tommy Campion

One of the Coast’s last true characters, happy-go-lucky larrikin photographer Richard Campion opens up about his torturous childhood, his epic fight for justice against the Anglican Church and his personal battle for happiness.

YIPPEE! Wonderful! You beauty! You bastard!

Cover Image of Tommy Campion by Brian Usher

Anyone who knows colourful Gold Coast photographer  Richard ‘Tommy’ Campion will know these refrains (often accompanied by a clown horn-like ‘HONK!’) well. They’re the enthusiastic greetings/expressions of joy/terms of endearment for which Tommy is renowned, whether he’s bumping into you on the street or interacting with you on Facebook about his latest evocative photo or (often provocative) post.

Combined with his crazy dress sense (the louder the trousers and socks, the better) and wild grey mane, tied back in an equally lairy headband, he’s the ultimate larger-than-life, happy-go-lucky larrikin and one of the Coast’s last true characters. But those who know him also know there’s another side to Tommy. A side that had left the one-time Clown Prince of Queensland media, in his many dark moments, a deeply sad and at times bitterly angry clown.

Tommy with his beloved Nikon’s on Main Beach, Gold Coast. Sand between his toes!

Born in the northern NSW sugar town of Broadwater in November 1947, the living hell that was Tommy’s childhood began at just two when he and his sister, Suzanne, then four, were abandoned by their mother.

Tommy enjoying some fun with his cat ‘Ralphie’

“We’d moved to Lismore and one day when my father went to work, my mother packed her bag, put some sixpence in my sister’s hand and locked us in,” he says. “We never saw her again. She walked 300 yards, jumped on the train and pissed off. My father couldn’t cope with us or didn’t like us – I don’t know. So he put us in the Church of England North Coast Children’s Home.”

Portrait at home with Tommy and his Nikon

Tommy endured 14 years of horrific physical and sexual abuse at the home. His sister suffered there for eight years.

“That home was full of bloodshed, bashings, beatings and discipline,” he says. “We were starved, locked in cupboards and made to stand on one leg. If we wet the bed, we had our noses rubbed in it and were made to wash the sheets. We had to clean the floors with toothbrushes, the showers and the toilets. We had to go to church three times a week and Sunday school.

Portrait – Tommy Campion by Brian Usher

“We didn’t know any different. We thought that’s what life was like. You got a hiding every day. We ate swill. If you didn’t make your bed you got a flogging. If you swore you got a beating. If you got caught doing anything real bad they’d call over the minister, Reverend Morgan. He’d take the belt off his cassock and belt the shit out of you. He flogged me so hard on the back that it broke my skin open – and that happened twice. (To him) you were nothing but a piece of shit and you would never go to heaven. You were going to see the devil.”

The home’s matron was a chain-smoking, violent drunk who would beat Tommy and the other children regularly and mercilessly for ‘crimes’ such as not eating dinner or making the bed.

National News story about Tommy and child abuse by the Anglican Church.

“At times some of the kids had to go down to the bush to grab a scrub strick and bring it back and get belted by it,” he says.

One of Tommy’s worst memories from his years at the home was the time he was brutally beaten with a pony whip by the matron for not reciting part of the Bible on command.

“I couldn’t say it. I was frightened,” he says. “She leapt on me and belted across the back until I fell to the floor. I remember sliding around on the floor in the blood. I was nine or 10 years old. She only stopped because she was exhausted. If any child tried to help you, including my sister, they’d cop a flogging too. Everyone was sent to bed, no matter what time of the day it was. No one was allowed to comfort you. My sister used to sneak in and hold my hand. She used to hold me when I was ill with asthma and could hardly breathe. I had to go to hospital a few times.”

Tommy and Kids from the Church of England North Coast Children’s Home

Sometimes, Tommy would wake up in the home to find an empty bed. He later discovered that some of the children had been used in medical experiments.

“It was a life of hell,” he says.

At one point, Tommy was reunited with his beloved sister Suzanne and sent to live with her and her adopted family in Kyogle, but it only lasted a couple of weeks.

“The family said it was like I’d been raised by wild animals. They couldn’t handle me,” he says. “My sister came home one day and I was gone. I got sent back to the children’s home for more beatings.”

After several failed attempts at running away, Tommy finally escaped the home for good when he turned 16. He got a job in a local hardware store ‘weighing up nails and bolts and mixing paint and bottling kerosene and metho’.

“I fitted in pretty well at the hardware store because you could have a laugh,” he says. “I got sent down the road one day for a tin of striped paint. I asked them to paint stripes on the tin (in keeping with the joke).”

Then one day, Tommy saw an ad in the local newspaper, The Northern Star, for a cadet photographer.

Hero pic for Tommy’s column in the paper

“The ad said  ‘must be outgoing’. I thought to myself, ‘I can do that’,” Tommy says with a wry smile. “I had a face full of pimples, corduroy pants, Hush Puppies, a pair of dodgy old school socks and a two-bob shirt but I got the job, even though I was really ashamed of myself. I’d lived in the home for so long and I was trying to understand the world, normal things in life. That was really embarrassing. I was happy, but I was frightened.”

The Northern Star cadetship started an illustrious career in newspapers which would see Tommy named Australian Press Photographer of the Year, with his eye-catching images gracing the front pages of The Australian and The Courier-Mail. But first, he spent two years in the darkroom of The Northern Star, learning the craft that would make him an award-winning snapper.

Daughter Elouise with the hairy unshaven Tommy Campion in the 70’s

“I had no interest in photography whatsoever. All I knew is I wanted a career and a life,” he says. “I didn’t want to work in a hardware store. I believe joining The Northern Star threw me into life with more gusto and more enthusiasm. I realised there was something for me.”

Tommy’s first actual photographic assignments included covering the local football, running up and down the sideline with a big, old-school Graflex camera.

“I was pretty quick lugging this heavy camera and was told I’d make a pretty good winger, but my asthma did me no favours,” he says. “Working on The Northern Star was a really good grounding in press photography. You’d cover everything – sport, weddings, crime, floods and fires, you name it. I didn’t want to stuff it up because I didn’t know what else I’d do. But I was lucky enough to be able to frame a shot and I believe it’s because of the way I could approach people and make them do anything, within reason (chuckles). I could charm them and it helped me later in life when I went to the city.

Man who can’t read the Wet Paint sign, Surfers Paradise

“Mind you, I nearly got put off a few times for misbehaviour, like pinching the company car to go down to Ballina to get on the piss or chase some girls, or for not wearing a tie. You used to get choked in the children’s home so I hated anything tight around my neck. I still do.”

Tommy says working for the local paper also gave him recognition and respect in the local community ‘for the first time in my life’.

3 times World Surfing Champion Mick Fanning, Snapper Rocks

“It was a nice feeling when you’d been treated like shit all your life,” he says. “I really enjoyed being involved in the community and helping out with different charity projects. It was rewarding to give something back, where I couldn’t before.”

At 18, Tommy married a local girl named Angeline, who was two years younger.

“Living in a country town back then, everyone wanted to get a girl, marry and settle down,” he says. “Her family didn’t like me at all and I had to take them to court to get permission to marry Angeline. I got put in the witness box and the judge put me through the griller. Her mother told me I’d never amount to anything because I’d been in the home, but that made me more determined than ever. I ended up winning, but the old cheese (Angeline’s mother) pushed me down the steps at the courthouse, told me to f..k off and didn’t come to the wedding.”

Suzie Taylor – former GC Model and star on ‘The Block’

The marriage only lasted five years but produced a daughter, Elouise who, along with her sons George and Jack, are the apple of Tommy’s eye.

After five years at The Northern Star, Tommy felt he had to move on. He worked on a privately owned paper in Townsville and later, in the bright lights of Brisbane where he worked on The Courier-Mail and Sunday Mail.

Mr Pee Pee – Actor, Comedian & Physical entertainer

“I got chipped a few times for going to the canteen and laughing too much,” he says. “A photographer was leaving The Australian and told me I’d be great and should go for it, so I was interviewed in the pub in the (Fortitude) Valley on the way to a job for The Courier. We had about eight schooners, I went and did the job, which was covering some waterski championships, and ended up getting the front page with a photo of a bloke accidentally doing a summersault on his skis. But I was over working at The Courier. It was fun and I learned a lot, but it was too regimented for me.”

Former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam at Labour Party Rally in King George Square, Brisbane

Working for The Australian and other papers then owned by the Murdochs including The Telegraph and The Sunday Sun, Tommy says, was ‘just a wonderful job’.

“The whole world opened up into a really, really big flower,” he says. “I was in the middle of the flower with some gun photographers. Blokes who loved going to the pub, blokes with a good sense of humour. Nothing mattered except get your pictures out and then do what you want. You used to get a huge run (with photos).”

Dame Edna Everage – Press Conference at Jupiters Casino

With his finely honed news sense, eagle eye and artistic flair, Tommy scored countless front pages covering major news events like the 1990 Mt Tamborine bus crash, in which 11 elderly passengers died and 38 were injured. Chilling images of a priest performing the last rites on victims at the scene of the devastating crash were among the most powerful Tommy has captured.

He was also ‘Tommy on the spot’ in 1989 to capture the dramatic gunpoint arrest of one of the kidnappers of 10-year-old Gold Coast schoolgirl Marissa Wong, who had been snatched from her family’s Benowa Waters mansion by armed balaclava-clad abductors demanding a $2 million ransom.

Magazine Fashion Shoot at the Southport Court House with Press joining in

Based in the Gold Coast bureau for News Ltd, Tommy also photographed many visiting celebrities including Johnny Cash, George Harrison, Tom Jones and Joe Cocker.

“Joe was probably the best,” he says. “We got on the piss with him down at the Greenmount Hotel. He fell off his stool at the bar but we caught him and he just threw back his beer.”

During his never-a-dull-moment newspaper career, Tommy says he was ‘shirtfronted’ and threatened numerous times – ‘once with death’ – typically by criminals or their associates outside Southport Courthouse.

Publicity photo for Fish Week

“I’ve had bikies threatening to shove a camera up my arse and was chased by other people who didn’t like their photo being taken,” he says. “Boyfriends of girls I’d photographed wearing next to nothing used to come to the office not happy and wanting to see me.”

Tommy’s time as a press photographer ended ingloriously in the late 1990s when he was wrongly blamed for a published photo of what were thought to be strippers who were appearing in Southport Court on prostitution charges. The ‘strippers’ were in fact local TAFE students and despite having correctly captioned his photos, he was made the fall guy and unceremoniously sacked by the picture editor with whom he’d been mates.

Tommy testing the new Revlon Lipstick range after the shoot

“I was struck down pretty hard that I could lose my job like that for doing nothing wrong,” he says. “I took some time off, started fighting the church and became pretty ill. Depression set in. No matter how much joy you’ve got in your heart, how much love for life, there’s nothing you can do to stop that black dog creeping up on you. It really wore me out.”

Despite his mental health struggles, Tommy spent years bravely battling the Anglican Church on behalf of himself and the other kids who suffered so terribly at the North Coast Children’s Home. He was one of the first victims to give evidence at the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse, breaking down in the witness box in 2013 as he gave harrowing evidence about his time at the home.

Bert and Patty Newton Press shot in the 80’s

His testimony led to the resignations from the church of two senior clergymen, including former Queensland Government Cabinet Minister Pat Comben, who was central to the diocese’s hardline stance against victims seeking compensation and an apology for the ungodly abuse they suffered at the home.

“I solved a lot of problems and crises for children who had been abused and became an advocate to offer advice the best I could,” he says. “I managed to get probably 80 people compensation where they wouldn’t have got it before because they didn’t know what to do. I had to learn it myself and I did most of it on my own.

Surfer at Snapper Rocks

“I wasn’t fazed, meeting with barristers and bishops. It didn’t bother me. It was just like talking to the boys in the pub. It was amazing actually, because I knew what I was talking about and I knew that I was completely right. I fought these bastards bloody tooth and nail, living on the bones of my arse then. I achieved the unachievable. It was David and Goliath type stuff. I was told to pull out by many, many people who said ‘you can’t beat the church’ but I whipped their arse.”

Tommy’s fight isn’t over yet, however. The two clergymen who relinquished their holy orders in disgrace, Comben and ex Bishop Keith Slater, were reinstated ‘through a glitch in the system’.

Elton John in a 1970’s Brisbane Press Conference

“I won’t rest until they’re permanently defrocked,” Tommy says. “I’m on a mission and the mission is nearly finished. It’s just a matter of these blokes (church officials) pulling their finger out and doing something about it.”

After many years of barely picking up a camera during his exhausting battle with depression and the church, Tommy resumed photography some years ago, reconnecting with old fans of his work and finding new ones through the power of social media. His daily posts depicting life on the Gold Coast, from sublime sunrises over the Broadwater opposite his home to raw images of the homeless and their struggles living on the streets, never fail to captivate, stir emotions or warm the heart.

Elouise and Tommy at the Coolangatta Zoo, camera’s at the ready

One day, he can post a pic of the ‘top tucker’ he’s whipped up for dinner or his mischievous cats, Ralph and Barry; the next, it’s a powerful portrait of a world-weary homeless bloke with whom he’s happily struck up a conversation and given a few dollars to buy a feed.

He worked for years as a volunteer for Lifeline and Angel’s Kitchen, feeding the homeless, as well as children’s Charity the Variety Club.

“It’s either in you or it’s not,” Tommy says of his empathetic streak. “I see people on the street who I feel sorry for and I can’t walk past them.”

One was David, a homeless man Tommy befriended who died in 2020 after a battle with cancer.

Elouise at 18 with dad Tommy

“Many people on their morning walk would stop and stare, but just as many offered him food, blankets, coffee and an abundance of good wishes,” Tommy wrote in a moving Facebook tribute after David died. “He was a loner. He was a lone walker. He was hairy. But as he was a wonderful human being, so many people still loved him, especially the ladies at the Caltex Service Station in Labrador who supplied him with coffee, food and clipped conversation. David my friend, your homeless days are over, so now you may be able to rest in peace with plenty of food and blankets.”

Another heartfelt post marked the death of his sister Suzanne, who passed away in palliative care in northern NSW in May this year.

“During her life, my dear sister gave more than she ever wanted to receive,” Tommy wrote. “She believed everyone was more important than herself. Her family and friends always came first. My Suzanne was raised in an Anglican Church children’s home with me where abuse, starvation, hatred and threats ruled our lives. We clung to each other whenever we could. She held me in her thin, soft arms and I lay in my hard bed trying to suck air into my asthmatic lungs. She held me close whenever I was beaten. Without her, I would have had trouble surviving. My sister may have been born into a common household but she is worthy of being a princess.”

Lady playing the guitar in Times Square, New York City

As he woke in a motel across the road from the palliative care unit, Tommy wrote, Suzanne ‘closed her dreamy eyes and went to sleep forever’.

“Rest in peace my dear sister: I love you, your family loves you, your friends love you and if all my friends had met you, they would have loved you too.”

In a typically irreverent flourish, Tommy added: “P.S. Suzanne, don’t expect me to join you for at least another 10 years, maybe more.”

Antarctic Cruise on the National Geographic Explorer

The good karma he so richly deserved finally came to Tommy about six years ago when he met retired scientist Marilyn in a Southport camera shop.

“I told the shop assistant to give her 10 per cent off, no make it bloody 20 per cent,” Tommy says with an excited chuckle. “I looked at her, she looked at me and then my friend and I left the shop. We came back about an hour later and Marilyn had left her phone number. I thought ‘how dare she’ (chuckles). I rang her but I was going to Tasmania on a trip and she was going to Morocco.”

The boys leaping off Snapper Rocks

When they got back, they met at the Southport Yacht Club for a drink.

“We sat down and I fell straight in love with her heart,” Tommy says. “Not the face, not the body, just the kindness in her. I thought, ‘she’s not a bad old stick, this one’. I said ‘why don’t we go and get a bite’. So we went to Main Beach and had a curry. I nearly died that night because they put too many chillies in.

“I gave her a kiss good night and was thinking ‘oh, I don’t know about this’. It was three months before I woke up to myself and we moved in together. She’s a beautiful person. We’ve really come to love and care for each other, which is something I never thought would happen again.”

Tommy shot for his 60th birthday

Tommy and Marilyn have travelled the world together, including to Antarctica. As you read this, they’re winging and cruising their way through Europe.

Now 74, Tommy is finally content.

“Looking back, with everything I went through, it nearly bloody killed me, especially with all the hatred I had inside me for the church. I’m amazed I survived, really,” he says. “Now, I’ve got an exceptional life with a lovely partner, a beautiful family and wonderful friends.

Tommy in Greece at Syros in the late 90’s

“I think myself lucky.”

Tommy, you beauty, you bastard!