When asked, Allan Tonkin said he wasn’t sure what his epitaph might say when the day arrives. Perhaps something to do with his mantra: The purpose of life is to have a go and enjoy yourself. This, he certainly has.
Others will write “Shonky Tonks” in stone, for which he has long been best known. He laughs at the notion for he has always seen it as a term of endearment. Whatever some may suggest, he has been many things to this community, and “great” heads the list.
Allan will turn 70 on the Queen’s Birthday holiday in this, his 50th year running Tonkin’s Sport, which is undeniably South Australia’s best known sports store. It was only a few weeks ago that a man on holiday from Sydney walked into the shop and said as a kid he bought his first pocket knife in the camping section, as did his father before him.
It was what South Australians from afar always did – go to Victor for a day’s outing or a holiday and walk into his shop for a game of dodge-the-ball amongst a maze of sporting goods, and fishing, camping and shooting equipment. Fortunately, in this changing world of e-Sports with video games that has brought in professional groups like AFL clubs including Allan’s beloved Adelaide Crows, there is still a place for Tonkin’s Sport store in a kid’s heart.
There isn’t enough space tracing his jottings to include everything about Allan, especially the not-so-good times… a significant amount of money siphoned from the business, being betrayed by someone close to him, and in recent years suffering profound sadness at the loss of Bowley, his dearest partner and best mate of 35 years. During her epic battle with cancer there was the harrowing bully-like tactics by authorities relating to vehemently contested sporting gun breaches.
At times, it has been like Allan has been an easy target for some; jealousy comes to mind, the grossly exaggerated accrued wealth from the store, but for most part he has risen above all this by his mantra. He’s not one to boast, but you feel there is surely a sense of personal pride in his achievements in business and his greatest passion – sport, particularly cricket and also these days playing badminton.
In Allan’s Leaving class at Victor Harbor High he would think about nothing but sport (dare we add girls?) and with the son of the principal would break into the school sports locker at 4am and hone their cricket skills in the nets before class.
Allan was admired as a top-order right-hand batsman and a freakish left-arm orthodox spinner, but nothing came easy like everyone believed. Nothing has in his life.
Aged 16, he got his first A-grade game with Victor Harbor and his captain Bill Moore gave him the ball with Ron Fielke, a brute of a batsman, at the crease. “Gee, he was a big hitter,” Alan exclaimed.
“I was so nervous with my first ball, and he went whack, hitting the ball for six between the goal posts at the Inman River end. I was embarrassed. Next ball, six again through the goalposts. And again. Bill had his wicketkeeping gloves on, and he said, ‘keep on tossing em up we’ll get him’. Next ball I took Ron’s middle stump. I was 1/18 off four balls.”
As captain of the school cricket team, Allan had the thrill of meeting then South Australian Sheffield Shield captain and Test opening bat Les Favell, and Springbok great Barry Richards through Coca-Cola coaching classes.
Allan had the chance to bowl at Richards, who also hit him for six first ball. “This was worse than when Ron belted me because all my girlfriends were watching,” he joked.
As Allan continued to claim record hauls of wickets, Favell recalled their meeting and invited him to train with East Torrens. Allan went out, but it was an impossible situation because of the sports store. The comment was made that had he given as much dedication to cricket as he did to his business he could have been “anything”.
“I was mad keen on sport, and when I passed my leaving I was encouraged to be a schoolteacher, plus I had three banks ringing me up to work with them,” Allan said. “All I was interested in was sport and Col Stringer had the sports store in Victor Harbor.
“He wooed me into the shop in 1966 and it came with a few promises. Everyone bagged me for being a shop assistant; they saw it as the lowest thing, but he said to me, ‘if I ever get out of this business you will have first option to buy’.
“A few years later Col went to Darwin and left me in charge for three months and I had 12 record weeks of sales. When he came back he kept his promise, and he had drawn up a seven-day day contract to make up my mind. I was just 18 then.
“A lot of people wanted to buy the business including big-name league footballers from town. I remember the Monday morning sitting at the kitchen table with my mother father (Lesley and Phylis) and my brother (Tony) talking about it. I had no money.
“My mum and dad were still paying off the house, so my father’s mother paid it off to make it freehold so the Commercial Bank of Australia could lend me the money on their house. My parents risked everything.
“I could have gone downhill and lost my parents’ house, but we paid off the business in nine months. We just worked so hard. My mother worked in the shop too.
“In my early days I’d come home some mornings at four o’clock, and my father would be sitting at the breakfast table,” Allan said. “I’d say good morning dad, and he’d say goodnight son. It’s just how things were; I worked hard like my dad did.”
Incredibly, Allan still has the original first invoices from the store in 1969 in boxes at home. Countless invoices still flood his store office, which is not much bigger than an old red telephone box, yet at the blink of an eye he knows where every single one of them resides.
Allan and Bowley shared 35 wonderful years together but never married. “I was already married to my business,” he confessed. “I remember previously having a girlfriend who was expecting me to marry her, and her girlfriend came down one Christmas and took me past all these jewellery shops. I bought that girl everything but a ring, and I got the boot after that.”
Allan never forgot that faith his parents had in him, and he did the same for many others. He went guarantor for a few sporting clubs when they were either in trouble or wanted to build their clubrooms; Tonkin’s Sports has also sponsored countless sporting clubs over the years.
He may have a crusty exterior, but Allan has a heart of gold. It’s tough these days when people walk into the shop, try sports gear on and then buy it online. Forgotten is what Tonkin’s Sports has done for the community.
In the days when sporting goods reps still called in, Allan knew them all. “They were all good people,” he said. “I still think about them… there’s David Prince from Adidas, Tom Casey from Slazenger; good people, and they’ve all come and gone and the sports store is still here.
“I know along the way people have called me Shonky Tonks but it has never bothered me; I take it in my stride. There was always the joke of me adding a Shonky Tax on my invoices and we’d have a laugh, but then they’d be other people who thought that if something cost a thousand bucks I’d be making a thousand bucks. Of course, you don’t. And then they probably forgot the discount I may have given them.”
Tonkin’s Sports has also taken Allan to some of the world’s greatest sporting events like the Sydney and London Olympics, a couple of British Open Golf championships, to Wimbledon three times, and five Ashes Tests at Lord’s. He’s rubbed shoulders with John McInroe, and during his last visit to India he was greeted by this pint-sized Indian who said: “Hello Tonks.” It was cricket legend Sachin Tendulkar. And if you really want to expand the mention of names Allan is very close mates with with Ross Faulkner, the bloke who makes footballs, and Allan’s dad did the upholstery in Sir Donald Bradman’s car.
Hopefully Allan excuses the tad of indulgence on his behalf there, but it emphasises how the who’s who of this sporting world knows him. He’s been in the most remote parts of this world, like the jungles on fishing trips to dangerous spots in New Guinea. The thought of Allan being the first white man tribsemen had seen is daunting. The Northern Territory jaunts have been a many.
Above everything, the sports store has enabled Allan to make some indelible friendships, garnished in recent times by a beautiful renewed acquaintance with a school sweetheart Rosalie. Maybe she didn’t see Richards belt Tonks for a six on the school oval that day.
Millions have heard of Shonky Tonks, especially after he draped a sign over the fence at Lord’s on July 2, 1985 during the last day of the Second Test. It read: “Victor Harbor hello! from “Shonky”. The response back home was amazing.
“A good mate Ray Topley made it for me, and in those days you couldn’t hang up banners at the cricket,” Allan said. “Before I got in there I met Tony Greig (Channel 9 commentator) who had come into the shop, and I asked him to get it on TV for us. The first person to see it was Allan Border (man of the match) and all the Australian players were pointing at it.
“Everyone at Lord’s at that moment looked at the sign and it was on TV. The sign was up for 35 minutes when I went and got a beer, as you do, and when I got back there was this old copper with his bell hat on walking along and asking: ‘Who owns this sign?’ I came back with two pints and said I did. He said he would toss me out of the ground if I didn’t take it down.
“All the Pommies around me – and I say that with much affection – jeered him, but I took it down. It stood out, alright, and after Australia won by four wickets I walked out on the ground and Les Favell happened to see me so he took a photo.”
Allan can look and see that he started with nothing and everything that he has today he worked hard for. “I have worked long hours,” he said. “I am not as bad now, but I am still here all day, 10 hours a day, seven days a week. Work is always on my mind.
“But life has been good. I guess if I think hard about it maybe when I’m gone they’ll say I was always keen.” Rosalie says more like: “He was different.”
Robert Niederer, a loyal mate and confidant, perhaps best characterised him by saying: “Those who know Allan will recall him as someone who was unappreciated.” Fortunately, we have time to change that. Allan has, after all, been the face of Ocean Street for almost 50 amazing years. It is why we at Coast Lines, when doing market research before we started, asked Allan whether he thought the magazine concept would work.
“Great idea,” Allan said. “It’s just like a community magazine we had here years ago.” When asked what happened to it, he replied: “It killed him.” Thanks Shonky.