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Blind Freddie

Q From Matthew Brand: A relatively common expression in Australia describes something obvious as one that even Blind Freddy could see (“even Blind Freddy could tell that their marriage wouldn’t last”). I was wondering, has anyone ever traced an actual visually impaired man by that name, or is it simply unknowable?

A My feeling, from half a world away, is that the idiom is slowly falling out of use and is now mainly found in the speech of older people. But it’s still easy to find examples in newspapers:

The proverbial Blind Freddie could have anticipated these consequences as a result of callow policies designed to appease public opinion.

The Australian, 19 Feb. 2012.

The first known use of the idiom I’ve found is this:

The present system has to go. There’s no other way. It MUST go. Even Blind Freddie can see that.

The International Socialist (Sydney, NSW), 8 Mar. 1917.

One candidate often put forward is the India-born Eton-educated Sir Frederick Pottinger. He joined the Grenadier Guards but went through a fortune gambling on horses and had to emigrate to Australia, where he became a trooper in the New South Wales police force. Once his title became known locally, he was promoted to inspector, seemingly beyond his competence, though he was a dogged man who wanted to do well in his job. He made several unsuccessful tries at catching the bushrangers “Wild” Ben Hall, John Gilbert and Frank Gardiner, which unfairly made him a comic incompetent in the press and among local people. He featured in a satirical ballad, The Bloody Field Of Wheogo, about the failed attempt to capture Gardiner, which contains the lines:

But the Ranger proud, he laughed aloud,
and bounding rode away,
While Sir Frederick Pott, shut his eyes for a shot,
and miss’d — his usual way.

Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Aug. 1862.

Pottinger died in 1865, having accidentally shot himself with his own pistol while trying to board a moving coach. Many of the stories told about him are later elaborations, as is the belief that he was the original Blind Freddie. If he was, it’s strange that the first written reference should have appeared half a century later.

A more plausible origin was put forward by the famous Australian lexicographer Sidney Baker:

According to Sydney legend, a blind hawker named Freddy operated in the area bordered by Market, King, Castlereagh and George Streets in the 1920s, selling ties, razor blades, hair oil and other items. Although blind, he is reputed to have been able to find his way around with great ease and to have recognised scores of customers by their voices.

Australia Speaks, by Sidney Baker, 1953.

The creation of a huge collection of searchable historic newspapers by the National Library of Australia, appropriately called Trove, has led to my being able to find out much more about this man. He must surely must be the one described in this newspaper article, which contains the first recorded use of the nickname:

One of the best known identities of the Sydney boxing game during the past quarter of a century is ‘Blind Freddie,’ who never misses a fight of even minor importance, and whose ears assist his mind’s eye to such an extent that exciting situations work him up and he can laugh as heartily as anyone else at amusing occurrences. ‘Blind Freddie’ is not an old man; he lost his sight 28 years ago, when 11 years old. The sightless sport enjoys life as much as most men, and feels many a hearty hand grip and hears many a cordial greeting as he roams round the city alone, for ‘Freddie,’ who follows the calling of a general dealer, is popular with everybody.

The Referee (Sydney), 12 Apr. 1911.

Although the evidence is circumstantial, there can be little doubt the idiom originated with this man, partly because early appearances of the term Blind Freddie are in and around Sydney and partly because later reports reinforce that he was a well-known character.

It may seem odd that Australians underlined how obvious something was by invoking a blind man who was renowned for his remarkable powers of perception. But the idiom was surely a development of the much older slur even a blind man could see ... (as in the Newcastle Morning Herald of New South Wales in 1881: "even a blind man could see this is a clear case of suicide"). Speakers used Blind Freddie as a well-known case of a blind man to personify and localise the saying while ignoring his special qualities.

The next reference in print to a person called Blind Freddie came in 1933, when newspapers reported him as being seriously ill and said his real name was Frederick Solomons. The funeral notice posted by Solomons’s family in the Sydney Morning Herald on 4 December that year identified him as Blind Freddie.

An article reporting his illness described him as “one of Sydney’s most remarkable characters”, in part because his acute senses allowed him to undertake seemingly impossible feats:

Mick Dunn, champion fighter of bare fist days, told today how about 35 years ago this blind man drove a hansom cab from Bathurst street along Pitt street to the railway station without mishap. He has been known to tell whose horse was approaching by its trot. His senses of touch and smell are two of his greatest assets. He can identify people by the touch of their hands or their clothing.

The News (Adelaide), 21 Aug. 1933.

Another article reported his death with the comment,

He could walk to any business house in the city, unaccompanied and without hesitation, and it is said that one day finding another blind man waiting at a corner he led him across an intersection.

The Cumberland Argus and Fruitgrowers’ Advocate (Parramatta), 14 Dec. 1933.

Though few people remember him as a real person, his nickname lives on. I am delighted to have rediscovered the individual behind it.

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