Page 1: Biography
Hanna, George Patrick
Signwriter, cartoonist, comedian, entertainer, inventor
This biography, written by Peter Downes, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, vol 4, 1998.
George Patrick Hanna was born at Whitianga on 18 March 1888 to Australian-born Mary Jane Carnie and her Irish-born husband, Patrick Hanna, a hotel keeper. Educated at Wanganui Boys' District High School, Pat distinguished himself there as an entertainer and cartoonist. A signwriting apprenticeship led to him establishing his own business in Wellington, alongside which he worked as a cartoonist for the New Zealand Free Lance. He was also New Zealand diving champion and captain of the national water polo team in 1912–13.
In August 1914 he enlisted in the army and served as a private with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in Samoa. From 1916 he saw service in Egypt, France and Belgium, being promoted to second lieutenant in December 1916 and lieutenant in December 1917. Following the armistice he became recreational and entertainment officer with the New Zealand occupation forces in Germany, where he set about forming a concert party, The Diggers. With Hanna as director, chief writer and performer, this popular group appeared in Germany, France and Britain, and at Colón, Panama, on its way home.
After demobilisation in August 1919, Hanna reformed The Diggers and during a New Zealand tour raised £3,000 for the Returned Soldiers' Fund. J. C. Williamson Limited then took over the management and in March 1920, augmented by a number of Australian ex-servicemen, the troupe embarked on a tour of Australia. While in Tasmania Hanna added two women to the cast, the first of several to supplement the original all-male company. For the next decade, billed variously as The Diggers or Pat Hanna's Famous Diggers, the group undertook continuous and highly successful tours throughout New Zealand and Australia. Never forgetting his company's origins as an army entertainment unit, Hanna ensured that ex-servicemen were always made particularly welcome.
On 8 April 1922 at Melbourne, Hanna married the pianist Jessie Meadows, who with her sister Hilda was presenting a 'sister' act in The Diggers. Pat Hanna's shows were praised for the high standard of their music, topicality and humour. Although well supported by his talented colleagues, he was the undoubted star, with his comedy routines and pen or charcoal lightning sketches consistently drawing prolonged applause. A notable favourite was his caricature of an army padre who lectured on a variety of unexpected topics. One of these, 'The gospel according to cricket', became a classic.
For six years from November 1929 Hanna made gramophone recordings of his most popular characterisations; many, including 'The gospel according to cricket', were top sellers. In the first recording, 'All quiet on the western front', he was assisted by his wife and young son, Ian.
In the early 1930s, with live theatre being overtaken by sound films, Hanna discontinued touring The Diggers. Before disbanding, he starred with the company in three films, Diggers in 1931, and Diggers in Blighty and Waltzing Matilda in 1933; he also directed the last two. Although popular, the films suffered from distribution problems and were not a financial success.
A film promotional trip to the United States in 1934 included some radio and other appearances which earned Hanna the title the 'Down Under Will Rogers'. By 1939 he had almost forsaken the world of entertainment and was supporting himself and his family in Australia by selling a game he had devised to counter boredom among the troops in the First World War. Called batinton, it was a scaled-down version of badminton, played with solid bats, a cheap shuttlecock and on a considerably smaller court.
During the Second World War Hanna became an honorary bomb instructor in Australia. He also wrote a training manual and invented an igniter for petrol grenades. After the war he resumed marketing his batinton game. In 1961 he and his wife settled in England, where he researched his genealogy and worked to secure the Hanna clan's ownership of its ruined ancestral home, Sorbie Castle, in Wigtownshire, Scotland. He died at Ampthill, Bedfordshire, on 24 October 1973, survived by his wife and two children.
Six feet tall, slim, with penetrating blue eyes and an effervescent, impatient energy, Pat Hanna tackled everything he undertook with unbounded enthusiasm and conviction. Yet he was not a natural businessman, and although The Diggers troupe was immensely popular throughout New Zealand and Australia during the 1920s and early 1930s, many of his later ventures did not make money. He is best remembered, however, for two characters he created: the gangling, archetypal digger, bewildered yet belligerent, and the wispy, supplicating padre with the high, whining voice, forever expounding on the glories of 'The gospel according to cricket'.