Conspiracies and Early Labour History

There has never been a time when, as Colin Roderick claimed in 1991: ‘The notion of secrecy…was repugnant to Australian political life.’ Neither has there been a time when, as Professor Pike claimed in 1962, Australia was ‘the quiet continent’. Subsequent debate on this second error fixated on the suffering of our indigenous inhabitants and left the way open for the erroneous 2013 claims that ‘Eureka (Stockade) was a rare example of white-on-white violence’, and: ‘By shunning the violent route to democracy, Australians laid the foundations for the peaceful democratic reform through which the system has continued to evolve.’[1] These ingrained errors are a carry-over from a time when western Europe was writing the history books, when the future was assumed to be golden and when the British Empire, in its own eyes, could do no wrong.

The ‘march of progress’ view of history, from a dark past to a golden future, is known now to English-language scholars, as the Whig view, since ‘civilisation’ and ‘the enlightenment’ were made the hallmarks for British wealth and power and credited to ‘the Whig (anti-Tory) Party’. So dominant has this view been that Robin Gollan re-stated it when he and other Marxists established the Association for the Study of Labour History in the 1940’s. He continued to assume steady ‘political and democratic advance’ but credited the Australian Labor Party [ALP] for it, at least since the 1890’s. In his view, Labour History [LH] was an interruption to the old history, just as the ALP was ‘the movement’ which stopped Australia’s celebration of British imperialism, colonialism and exploitation of native peoples. The effects of ‘the old history’ have not yet been overcome as is evident from the ill-judged claims still being made.

It’s not accidental that at the heart of the problem are assertions about ‘secrecy’ and ‘violence’. There was a time when the covers of books about ALP history showed ‘labour rebels’ storming castles through clouds of dust and smoke. You could smell the gunpowder and hear the yelling and clash of metal on metal. One especially popular, 20th century account of the early ALP was Bede Nairn’s Civilising Capitalism. He told how the ALP ‘invaders’ had come in to clean up capitalism, but, he insisted, the invasion was calm and peaceful – you know, civilised. The word, ‘revolution’ was often used by class theorists but it was always a cover-up, used to avoid looking seriously at what violence actually involved. Its types and levels, its symbolism, its uses as strategy, its weaknesses and its media value never made the agenda. Labour History Conferences once grieved that the Australian working class had not chosen the revolutionary path. But violence was not discussed there either, any references were more marketing hype than erudition. Today, labour historians can’t even use the ‘r…’ word. They don’t talk about sex or booze, conspiracies or guns, either, which is important to note. Stuart Svensen in 1989 applied the word ‘WAR’ to the story of the 1891 Shearers’ Strike while Ernie Lane thought he was living a ‘revolutionary situation’. I can’t agree with either description but it does show that, despite the indifference of many, there was something of substance happening.

Of course, accounting for the origins of the ALP depends on what you think the ALP is or was. If it was a society for sword swallowers, it would perhaps tell of the first sword swallowers in Australia or perhaps just cover the birth of that one organisation, the registered and licensed Society for Sword Swallowers. However, the ALP was not established as a federal party until after the first sitting of the Australian (Federal) Parliament in 1901. So, before that …???

The ALP is regarded as having ‘descended from labour parties founded in the various Australian colonies by the emerging labour movement’ which process began in 1890. Other writers locate the origins of ‘the movement’ in an idealised Eureka Stockade, or even as far back as Botany Bay in 1788. There is also the question of who, among many, best represents ‘the (labour) movement’, who should be ‘in’ and who should be ‘out’.      Labour’s earliest parliamentary representatives were all, by definition, ‘outs’ who wanted to be ‘in’. Many were poor and felt they had a moral right to be angry. The aspirants at the time, and their historians since, have had a major problem – how to show the fierceness of the struggle to emphasise the bravery of those who broke down the walls while emphasising their respectability and their worthiness to sit in the most comfortable chairs of all. Selective recording and compromised memories have been the preferred approach, by those who made it and by the proponents of parliamentary democracy who came after their heroes. Are the most successful in a parliamentary sense, the best examples of ‘the movement’?

            The first ‘labour’ men and women were a mixed bag, much more diverse than the ALP is today. The cause to which they signed up, the mythical ‘light on the hill’, already had three sides to it. That ‘light’ was a weapon which your enemy could never have, it was a reason to go into battle, but it was also a way to tell who was on your side.             Inside ‘the Big Top’ of parliament from 1889 in NSW and Queensland, there were comfortable ‘billets’, plush padded seats which earned the occupant a wage just for sitting there. These paid seats were available for anyone who could convince enough other people that he or she had what it took to sit in the appropriate manner, something which was still being determined. The auditioning process for such a vaguely defined, but good job, naturally attracted all sorts of desperate, un-washed, ambitious but doubtful characters. How to choose? who was to choose? what did success look like?

Among the spielers and carpet-baggers, the whimsical spouters and the forthright psychotics milling around the ticket office, there were always a few who quickly worked out getting through the door required skills not on the job description. They worked out the real price being asked, they worked through a variety of costumes until they found one that proved adequate, they knew when and who to bribe, which password was the correct one, and whether ‘crashing through or crash’ was the better strategy.

In serious, real-time battles the ‘ins’ normally have resources far in excess of those held by ‘the outs’. The result comes down to weapons, size of army, tactics, resilience, and so on. Historically, newer and better castles have been built by contending ‘ins’, and an Arms Race has broken out. When civilisation came along, rules of engagement were drawn up and conflicts might be arbitrated the day before. Gentlemen’s agreements asserted that actual fighting, even little punch-ups, were not good for the neighborhood, and over many years a whole raft of cold weapons were devised to stop arguments becoming pitched battles. There were various kinds of officials who went around to check on how you were putting out your old newspapers, what colour your bin was, and so on, and there were the most complicated systems of determining which method was the best. One complicated system was called ‘democracy’ where people sometimes had to wait for years before they could see who favoured red bins and who favored blue bins. But at least it was a cold war, and the real estate market remained safe and intact.

This ‘democratic system’ didn’t spring out of the ground, or fall from the sky fully formed and ready to go. It had a history – and that history has been taught in schools using books produced by the system itself. So, of course, the school text books said that the Spanish system, or the Welsh System, or the Austro-Hungarian system was the best depending on what the people who wrote the books had been told in their schools, and before that the books they had used had been written by their teachers who had….

Even in a cold war, the system already in place favoured the ‘ins’. But whereas a well-dug-in artillery position with soldiers in red coats or blue coats, white hats or green hats could be seen from miles away, the weapons used by the ‘ins’ were often less visible. They were often disguised by big signs saying that they were off-limits to anyone without a pass, or had already been checked and passed by the Ministry of Home Economics as carrying no adverse effects. They were harmless, at least to humans, and their operators always told the truth, because they were just like the rest of us. Any complaints should be left on the doorstep to be processed by ‘the system’. In the meantime, all citizens could rely on ‘the news’ because the newsmakers were reliable and in competition with one another to bring you the latest truth first.

Who provided the information and whether it had been fact-checked was an obvious question which we still ask today. The erosion of faith in politicians, in ‘the government’ and in ‘the newspapers’ has been a long, slow process. We are still dealing today with bad news published many years ago because the rumours and the lies that were accepted back then, have been recycled. Back when Ned Kelly was a boy, if the answer about the source of the information was ‘the government’, most people accepted it because their favorite newspaper suggested they should. The better-paid editors of the larger print-runs, The Age, the Sydney Morning Herald, the Brisbane Courier, say, cultivated ‘insider’ alliances. That was, and is their job. They and their agents, the reporters were after information, and they were prepared to pay whatever the sellers of the information wanted. The price was probably a quid-pro-quo – you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours. Even bargains made voluntarily, out of friendship, zeal or patriotism, could involve a Nelsonian blind eye to stories that didn’t fit, the printing of negative stories about the opposition or making up positive stories for the ‘in’ side, all the way to assisting with State surveillance and physical repression of ‘the bad guys’.

Ways of collecting ‘good’ information and preventing the collection of ‘bad’ range from over-hearing back-room ‘gossip’ to purchasing material deemed to be ‘in the national interest.’[2] Not only Australian labour historians have been negligent with regard to these matters. I am with Bernard Porter who wrote in 1992:

Domestic espionage is the hidden underside of political history…(Historians)- who are supposed to tell why things have happened in history – have had almost nothing to say about this side of it at all.[3]

Among the earliest waves of Australian labour publicists, writers like Henry Lawson and William Lane have been emphasised but there were many editors, printers, compositors and even newspaper sellers who were vital to the outcome of the era’s information war, all with different levels and sources of motivation. Strategies, grammar, design and marketing required different skills and while there were ideals to be trumpeted, there was money to be made and there was one’s self to be found, or lost.

Careers could be built on the experimental, flamboyantly-painted bandwagons, ‘THE WORKERS’, and ‘THE PEOPLE’. The well-oiled, already trundling wagons of ‘PROGRESS’ and ‘LAW AND ORDER’ hogged the road and had to be edged aside, sabotaged, or smashed through. The IUD’s of their day, what I like to think of as ‘elephant traps’ – bankruptcies, libel suits, temptations of the flesh – showed up the ill-prepared and the over-excitable. Further out of the light, there were the hard men, the professionals who had their orders and played for keeps.

Adventurers attracted to the colour and movement of the new charabancs were not all workers’ champions. A number were rolling stones who found a niche and prospered. Some, proverbial moths to the glittering flame of eastern Australia, were never going to ‘fit’. Hoping to die peacefully in bed at the end of a long and satisfying life, they flared and perished. ‘Billy’ Hughes, for example, was there as the first pegs were hammered as spectator, spieler or money-changer as the program manager demanded. His memoirs show the problem of selectivity and myth-making in action. Despite his many, documented problems with ‘the Party’ which eventually expelled him, he happily put rhetorical cliche (lies?) before realism:

(It) was this spirit of altruism, of sacrifice, of faith, of white-hot enthusiasm, which animated the Labour movement in those days and carried it, despite its poverty to victory…(etc, etc)[4]

He recalled the ‘newly formed legions of Labour (called) to the assault of the citadels of privilege’, only to bury them under mounds of comic phrases and verbal tricks. He made jokes of the fact his political meetings and audience votes were marshalled by stand-over men, and he painted himself as innocent benefactor of the enthusiasms of well-meaning supporters. His corrupted campaigns were not unique but the history he kept from his readers was extensive and important. Australia, far from being a nation which achieved success without violence, has been riven with bloody conflict in all of its phases. Past coercion of electorates does not seem now as important as massacres of indigenes or the persistent scourge of domestic violence but these are all manifestations of a single, problematic ‘Australian identity’.

When Mary Cameron, later to be Dame Mary Gilmore, urged the still-coltish Henry Lawson ‘to write Australia, and again Australia’ around 1892 she had in mind a romanticised and prudish view of the heroic, golden west ‘Australia’, not ‘the boozy, bawdy’ reality from which she yearned to escape. And after Lawson was packed off to Bourke that year, JF Archibald and EJ Brady told how they saw themselves restoring him to health by getting him out of the infected back-streets of Sydney: ‘We can’t have him becoming the poet of the Rocks!’[5] None of these memoirists ought to have been taken at face value, but that’s what biographers and later social commentators have done, even while they were castigating as ‘moral improvers’ the urban reformers and street-corner agitators with whom he was happily getting drunk and finding out about sex, opiates and blasphemous politics. The urban reality was not to AG Stephens’ pinch-nosed liking, and that over-rated critic built a monument of disdain to bury both Lawson and the people physically and spiritually closest to him. Stephen’s celebrants, the Vance Palmers and Colin Rodericks, et al, have been similarly blinkered and deemed his ‘burrowing in the mud’ irrelevant to an understanding. More politically-interested historians have not been able to see through the 19th century cant to what Lawson’s erstwhile protectors perhaps knew but feared to describe – that ‘the movement’ was growing in those poxy, ramshackle alleys and was dependent on them. They have presented the leaders of ‘the movement’, not as residents but as scrubbed-up escapees.

Reporters observing ‘the push outrages’ and the military deployments against strikers in the 1880’s and 90’s were ‘war correspondents’ in all but name but have not even been seen as players in the drama. For scholars looking back the accuracy of their reports has not been an issue any more than the memories of the players. Readers at the time wouldn’t have agreed. Acres of trees disappeared to satisfy theological nicety and political nuance. Explicitly labour-oriented periodicals began to appear in the late 1880’s but before them exponents of alternative views had already cleared a path. The Bulletin, begun in 1880, was consolidated through the efforts of a number of men working with JF Archibald (1856-1919), but of all those involved he has been the one linked to Sydney’s bohemians and counter-culturalists. He has been credited with formulating the paper’s responses to unionism, strikes, economic depression and the budding labor party but this is an ambiguous, almost meaningless attribution given the range of contributors.[6] In his declining years he reflected:

It does my heart good to see today a party in power with a pledge to abolish capital punishment…It does me good to know of the old age pension and the baby bonus, to see a recognition in the legislation of the fact that every man is a bank, that the State has its hundreds of thousands of little banks whose capital is their working force and strength. These are some of the things we fought for.[7]

It would be a stretch, no pun intended, to argue capital punishment was the principle reason The Bulletin was launched, though issue No 1 contained an exclusive interview with ‘Nosey Bob’ the State hangman. The editorial manifesto, also in the first issue included this:

…The Bulletin bids to win. The aim of the proprietors is to establish a journal which cannot be beaten – excellent in its illustrations…and unsurpassed in the vigor, freshness and geniality of its literary contributors.[8]

It was not uncommon at that time for newspapers to have hand-drawn illustrations but The Bulletin would probably never have survived without the brilliant depictions of ‘Enry Parkes’ and the rest which lit up its pages. These were caricatures, they were not realistic. That the text was often vigorous was proven by the libel suits it quickly attracted. One of its first eye-witness accounts, of the Clontarf Boxing Day Picnic of 1880, is especially relevant here. Entitled, The Larrikin Residuum, and penned by 37-year old Scot, William Traill,(1843-1902)it was simultaneously prudish and prurient. At its heart was a large man’s view of little people he clearly scorned as freaks in a disreputable side-show: ‘There were no manly youths. A six-foot constable towered like a giant among the seething crowd…’ The crowd was made up mostly of inner-city residents, otherwise known as ‘the brutalised poor’, giving themselves a cheap, outdoors ‘knees up’ and a ‘skinny dip’ in an ocean of clear blue water they could only watch the rest of the year. Traill was outraged by what he saw and so were his readers: ‘…Drink and excitement, inherited impulse and, above all, examples and evil associations were doing their work and breaking down the last barriers of modesty…’ What was the worst behaviour he saw?

…(Young) girls…flew wild-beast fashion at one another, boxed like men, and anon scratched and bit like cats. Female children …romped around with gestures and antics that would have shocked a camp of black gins. The males barely restrained themselves to a semblance of decency – the females resented no familiarity…

There were prostitutes on the site and no doubt casual fornication also happened. What was so shocking, and meant the issue quickly sold out, was that everyone knew these annual excursions were as they were but had agreed to turn away and pretend they were not. Traill was outraged by the lack of decorum and the nudity, his readers were shocked by a realisation of their own double standards, and the proprietors of the grounds, the Moore Brothers, were shocked at the loss of revenue the expose caused for the rest of the season. They sued, the sensational court case produced a damages verdict of one farthing but with costs sufficient to send Archibald and John Haynes, (1850-1917) proprietors, temporarily to jail for non-payment.

The Bulletin might have delved further into the story had it been as interested in publicising the street politics of real-time Sydney as, say, the journalist who wrote as ‘Harold Grey’ about brothels, pimps and ‘blue cafes’, and succeeded in having many of the latter closed-down. The Brothers Moore were the proprietors of the ‘British Seaman’ public house in the Argyle Cut, ‘the Rocks’ area of inner Sydney. Its trade was enormous:

  (In close proximity to the wharves, Sailors’ Home and the Seaman’s Church) the    house, a wretched looking structure of the old convict days…was a good    steady advertisement for the…Clontarf Pleasure Grounds where the coin rolled    in    on Sundays and holidays…[9]

Archibald expressed no interest in parliament but Haynes and Traill followed the well-worn path through journalism into public office used by Parkes. It is a path which can lead ambitious young men up the social scale or down into the darkest, sorriest corners, and it is difficult to imagine the first wave of recognisably worker-oriented reformers not having extensive involvement with the gritty, urban world which ‘Grey’ was exploring. Imagine if you can bluff, genial William Traill sitting in the ‘Chamber of Deputies’ representing South Sydney without a copy of The Referee under his arm or in his back pocket: ‘A huge Highlander, big and square in the head, his face covered by a mighty beard, his skull usually crowned with a shaggy tam-o’-shanter, his mouth usually gripping a large, coarse Manila cigar…’[10]  When the next generation of reformers came along – the likes of John Norton (1858-1916), William Willis (1858-1922) and Francis Crick (1868-1908) – links between politics and ‘the sporting life’ were firmly established. The drinking, gambling and womanising took their toll on these men and were formidable issues when the Party sought to be taken seriously as a social and cultural pillar. Norton, for example, appears to have had the world at his feet for a brief period in the mid-1880’s but to have allowed adulation and the drink to soften his brain. He had arrived in Sydney from ‘home’ on 5 April, 1884 and quickly became chief reporter on the Evening News and recognised as a brilliant debater. In 1886 the Trades and Labor Council of New South Wales accredited him official delegate to trades union congresses in London and Paris. After a controversial tour and triumphant return, he wrote and published an Australian edition of the US compilation, The History of Capital and Labour in all Lands and Ages. The next year, 1889, he became editor of the Newcastle Morning Herald, but dismissed for repeated episodes of drunkenness, he returned to Sydney and to long sessions at local hostelries. He became nominal editor and part-owner of Truth in 1891 but repeated drunkenness cost him that position. In the period 1893-95, he helped to organize the NSW Chamber of Manufactures on protectionist lines, eventually returning to a stabilised Truth, with mixed results. He never regained his previous political standing.

Before Federation, it was a given that standing for parliament necessarily involved street corner dust-ups, mass protest meetings and ‘crowd organisation’. In the 188o’s that meant Free Trade vs Protection confrontations, or Orange vs Catholic, and sometimes both. In the transitional, hybrid ‘90’s, the meaning of the words ‘labour/labor’ were the more likely causes for passions to swirl and broken chairs to fly. Whether MP’s were paid or not, getting into politics as a reformer took great commitment, adaptability and flexible ethics. Favors were done and quid-pro-quos received in the currency of the times, publicity being the most reliable coin of all.             The stories of these men were firstly written by them as events were happening, then as memoirs, then by people who remembered them, and then by scholars paid to portray them in ways that would sell to the public of the time. For a period after 1945 books of ALP history favoring certain ‘heroes’ and down-grading others were popular. Mansfield’s 1965 biography of Edward O’Sullivan (1846-1910) commented on a speech made in 1885: ‘The speech made clear the direction which O’Sullivan would set for the labour movement…towards political action on a abroad front.’ [My emphasis][11] An auxiliary series of biographies known as the Australian Dictionary of Biography {ADB – now on line] were produced at the ANU and are still regarded by many as definitive. Those relevant to ‘the labour movement’ were compiled by historians with views based on what Svensen has called ‘the legend of the Shearers’ War’ which he also calls a ‘kind of mediaeval morality play’. In 1989 he concluded his account of ‘the shearers’ war’ with:

One can only speculate on the reasons for the reluctance of labour historians to abandon bourgeois methodology and assumptions, for their apparent enthusiasm for only safe fields of enquiry, and for their failure to explore many of the vital issues which have confronted and continue to confront the working class.[12]

William Spence (1846-1926) of the earlier generation was, like O’Sullivan, deeply involved in the earliest trade union organising, but Spence was a bush-dweller, a mystical, non-drinking Christian who did not enter parliament until 1898, well after the others. He has come to be seen as akin to William Lane, both of whom were heroes at the time but are now both treated patronisingly as heavily flawed. Spence’s academic biographers, Lansbury and Nairn, wrote that he was ‘confused’, ‘muddled’ and verbose, and open to being ‘lampooned by the bright young city Labor men, especially William Holman and Billy Hughes.’[13] Mansfield’s biography of town-based, hard-headed O’Sullivan is a clear contrast:

O’Sullivan was physically sturdy with a ‘quasi-pugilistic’ appearance. He spoke             with tremendous energy even on the simplest subjects.

Although ‘not a discriminating reader’, he is never described as ‘muddled’, but as ‘unusually consistent’. When his initiatives fail, it is because of ‘lack of organisation’ not from personal weaknesses. Most tellingly, his successes are the result of tactics frowned upon when used by less-worthy figures, namely stump-oratory, patronage-seeking and audience-stacking:

…At a mass meeting at the Prince Albert monument in …1884 O’Sullivan founded the Democratic Alliance to be the political voice of working men. It failed through lack of organization; its associated newspaper, the Democrat, also failed…Connexions made with John Gale, proprietor of the Queanbeyan Age, and L. F. Heydon, assisted his (election to Parliament)…Sir Henry Parkes campaigned against O’Sullivan and was harassed by noisy crowds. O’Sullivan used the same weapon against another premier trying to oust him, (Sir) George Reid, in the 1898 election…[14]

Elected as a Catholic Protectionist in 1885, O’Sullivan was later joined by what Mansfield called ‘other radical democrats’ – Thomas Walker, WP Crick and WH Traill. ‘Honest’ John Haynes stood out among these new MPs as comparatively free of corruption but is not remembered in the same way. Haynes’ ADB biographer allows only that he ‘professed concern for public integrity and the dignity of parliament’ and that unfortunately for the cause of integrity, he ‘was a vituperative and unruly member.’ That he might have been unruly because of frustration at the lack of integrity on show in the House seems not to have occurred to this author:

His sharp wit, argumentative nature and readiness to allege corruption and impropriety involved him in many disputes. He made bitter enemies amongst protectionists by publicly repudiating his Catholic faith in the 1887 election, and afterwards often attributed sectarian interest to political opponents.[15]  

My comments here about these biographic summaries would amount to nit-picking if the high level of personal and collective corruption obvious in politics at the time had been pursued by these authors in other places but it has not been. Neither biography has anything beyond the most material and are heavily NSW-oriented. Sectarianism for these ‘fashionable’ authors is only reluctantly mentioned, being unfortunate and irrational and therefore outside the realm of modern politics. The Protestant Standard acknowledged in 1887 that Haynes’ win for the seat of Mudgee had involved ‘the organised body of Orangemen’ being brought to bear against ‘the organised body of the Roman Catholic Church and protectionists.’[16] In other words, audience stacking was common and like faith, drunkenness and breaking the law, were important.

Few of the noisier activists engaged in early labour politics have been graced with an entry in the ADB. If they achieved high public office later on, little has been provided about their activities in the murky but pivotal period before and during the Great Strikes. The chief generators of the ALP’s parliamentary success, we have been repeatedly told, were William Holman, ‘Chris’ Watson, and ‘Billy’ Hughes. The author of ‘Civilising Capitalism’, Bede Nairn, provided the ADB entries for Holman[17] and Watson:[18]

HOLMAN: (edited for length only)

    …With his (family) Holman arrived in Melbourne in September 1888…(Next) year the family settled in Sydney, where he worked at his trade. By 1890 he was frequenting the Sydney Mechanics’ School of Arts reading room, where ‘schemes for the redemption of society’ were formulated. With W. M. Hughes he led the Ethical Society, an impoverished students’ group, soon joined by George Beeby, they studied the works of Herbert Spencer, Karl Marx, John Stuart Mill and Boehm-Bawerk….(In) 1890 Holman belonged to the Australian Socialist and the Sydney Single Tax leagues. He joined the Labor Electoral League (Labor Party) in 1891…He threw himself into the zestful activity of the early party… by 1892 he represented Leichhardt on the central executive. The theoretical socialist aspect of Labor appealed to him…

The overwhelming impression is of words – read, spoken and written, not actions. Meetings are calm, and polite. The ‘zestful’ activities of a man just twenty years old are confined to the study of ethics and to civilised, rational discussion. In the case of the only slightly older Watson, Nairn exhibited an extraordinary degree of hero-worship:

WATSON: (edited for length only)

…Losing his job in 1886, he migrated to Sydney [from NZ] where he took work as a stable-hand at Government House. Briefly a compositor on the Daily Telegraph and Sydney Morning Herald, he was influenced by William Traill to move in 1888 to the new protectionist paper, the Australian Star. By then Watson was about 5 ft 10 ins (178 cm) tall, with sapphire-blue eyes, dark brown hair, moustache and budding beard: his athletic appearance and strength complemented his good looks. A rower and Rugby player, he was a great card-player, good at billiards and enjoyed a glass of beer.

A list of Watson’s official positions follow, larded with the man’s ‘debating and speaking skills’, his ‘proficiency, dedication and gregariousness’ and his exemplary inner self:

…To him, trade unionism exemplified mateship, and was pragmatic, powerful and versatile enough to sustain Labor by adaptation to democratic pressures and changing circumstances. He noticed contemporary advanced social and economic doctrines, but was too practical minded to be unduly swayed by them, though he toyed with ‘State socialism’. Radiating friendliness and respect for others, Watson moved to the centre of Labor action, his authority assured by his rapport with individuals no less than by his exceptional courage and common sense…

During the industrial tumult, we are told only that Watson ‘was a sympathetic observer of the preliminaries of the maritime strike’, except for:

During the Broken Hill miners’ strike, on 15 September 1892 Watson (on horseback) had led a procession, headed by a T.L.C. deputation, to Parliament House…

Nairn had no reflection on this ‘break-out’, or on other testing times when, it seems, our hero remained aloof:

(He) oversaw the organizing of a special unity conference that met on 9-11 November 1893 at Millers Point. Looking and sounding like a born leader, Watson chaired the turbulent gathering…(etc)

This particular 1893 meeting had special significance. Nairn’s setting for it is colorless. Fitzhardinge provided a similarly dotted outline for Hughes[19]:

HUGHES: (edited for length only)

In 1890 (he) moved to Balmain where he opened a small mixed shop, took on odd jobs and mended umbrellas. It was a time of ferment…Hughes’s shop sold political pamphlets, and the back room became a meeting-place for young reformers, among them W. A. Holman and (Sir) George Beeby. The visit to Sydney that year of Henry George stirred their imagination and Hughes made his political début as a street-corner speaker for the Balmain Single Tax League.

A ‘backroom’ meeting place for ‘mob orators’!!?, yet:

He apparently took no part in the election of 1891 which brought the first Labor       Party into parliament…

No part of any kind, not even as ‘a sympathetic observer’?

In 1892 he joined the Socialist League and debating societies at Balmain and the Sydney School of Arts; he had probably already joined the Balmain Labor Electoral League…

Only ‘probably…’? was he not soap-boxing for his new faith?: ‘… Hughes and Holman followed J. C. Watson’s lead to convert the LEL’s to ’solidarity’, is code for accepting the disciplines of centralised administration, which is where we find the same names:

       …Hughes spent eight months organizing in the central west…returning to Sydney       to win pre-selection…for the 1894 election. His electioneering was enlivened by       his and his friends’ production of New Order…

The amount of time Hughes spent out west is contestable and his memoirs are remarkable for their ambiguity, about New Order particularly. In the Preface to his ‘Crusts and Crusades’ he wrote that talking about ‘the honorable men’ he had met would be ‘like talking out of school’ and that these accounts of long ago should be seen as ‘amusing tales’. A number would do credit to any anthology of short, comic stories, but just as Lawson’s fiction was based on real people, Hughes’ narratives were of observed characters, most with political significance, and since the disguises can be penetrated, they refute his non-disclosure statement.

Hughes’ earliest political meetings succeeded through the use of dodgy practices, but they disappear under his comic patter. The men to whom he owed most, three burly Irishmen named ‘M’Callian, McKay and O’Neill’, have been lost to labour history and cannot be consulted. Alf Edden, a Labor colleague, is allowed to be himself, complete with comical dialogue based on his Durham accent and drinking habits. An important rose-grower is disguised as ‘Adolph the Anarchist’ when there is clearly no need to hide his identity. This contrivance of hiding in plain sight is discussed further below with other examples.

Beeby’s biography by Nairn[20] does at least suggest movement and private realities despite the presence of Holman and Watson:

BEEBY: (1869-1942)(edited only for length)

In 1890 (Beeby) attended Henry George’s meetings and became a single taxer; next year he was secretary of the first Labor Electoral League formed at Newtown ..In 1892…editor and manager of the Bowral Free Press…Unemployed by December,…  early in 1893 he went to Hillgrove and organized Labor…By then he had left the single taxers and had joined the Australian Socialist League. He gave significant support to J.C. Watson…became his deputy…mainly against George Black…Joined by W. A. Holman, he moved his newspaper to Hillgrove, but it soon failed and they returned to Sydney broke. Next year with Watson, Holman and others he was charged with conspiring to defraud…but he was cleared.

Nairn also wrote Black’s entry.[21] In Black’s own words, he was used to ‘running with the fast set’, today he’d be seen as promiscuous and vain but a strong and forthright journalist. It was only after 1889, as sub-editor for The Bulletin and 35 years old, that he showed signs of his having become politically important:

BLACK:(1854-1936)(edited only for length)

…By 1891 he had fathered twelve children (five of whom had died) by Mrs Duggan,           and was a well-known Domain speaker, School of Arts debater and member of the            Socialist and Republican leagues.

Nairn’s prudish view was that Black was still a rake and while this is private he can’t leave it alone:

In May 1891 Black joined the initial Labor Electoral League formed in West Sydney…(In) June…Labor won all the seats in West Sydney…   Black at once set his sights on party leadership…(His) private life hampered him politically. He broke violently with Mrs … and formed an attachment with    Mrs…Anxious to have her company at the 1891 Melbourne Cup, he described her as his wife and got a free railway pass for her. In December, (Crick) obtained a (parliamentary) select committee to investigate the incident; it reported in March 1892 that while Black had acted improperly, he had believed that he had conformed with customary parliamentary practice. No action was taken, but Crick and John Norton pilloried ‘Baldy Black’ in Truth. He replied in kind in the Australian Workman — which he edited in 1891-92 — and lectured on ‘The polecat element in politics’.

If fraud, mis-representation and the ‘polecat element’ were ‘customary parliamentary practice’ why does Nairn not analyse them as issues for labor? If they were private why spend any time on them? Why was ‘the private’ the only activity in Black’s life during the Great Strikes that was not ‘literary and oratorical’? Why did not the fact that he was a long-time resident of or candidate for ‘the Rocks’ (Miller’s Point) area attract any attention?:

…Black’s literary and oratorical talents kept him active and influential in          the Labor Party. As the party’s annual conference and central executive tightened         discipline over the parliamentarians in 1891-94 he emphasized..(and) advised.          Single-member seats applied at the 1894 general election and Black won as a                ‘non-solidarity’ against the endorsed Labor candidate in Sydney-Gipps, the              Millers Point area of West Sydney; but when that year’s      conference reworded           the pledge he rejoined the party and retained his seat at the 1895 election…

‘Harry’ Holland played on the same fair ground, for a while. A consistent radical he made his biggest mark in New Zealand, not Australia. O’Farrell’s entry[22] for him is as sparse as the others but there is some sense of personal involvement:

HOLLAND: (1868-1933)(edited only for length)

In 1890 (Holland) became unemployed, and after two years of privation he left the Salvation Army and joined the Australian Socialist League in Sydney in 1892…

He found erratic work on the Australian Workman in 1893 and in October (the) next year he and a friend Tom Batho launched the Socialist as a voice for the left-wing militants and unemployed… (As) a journalist and public speaker, (he became) increasingly critical of the new Labor Party, which he regarded as insufficiently revolutionary: he finally broke with it in 1898.

The account of the early ALP in your hand does not attempt to reiterate what is already reasonably well-known. It attempts to provide newish insights by linking old information in ways not previously done and so to provide new information. It involves people who have rarely made the footnotes of ‘proper’ history and it shows those who have in a different light. It brings back to life ‘Jack’ Andrews, ‘Billy’ and Bertha McNamara, ‘Sam’ Rosa, ‘Alf’ Yewen and ‘Larry’ Petrie. The better-known become the fellow-travellers, there are some still hidden behind nom-de-plumes.

Back then, it has to be understood, secrecy was almost a life-style choice – JF Archibald refused ‘photo opportunities’ and William Astley, ‘Price Warung’, had a drug problem – but it was the day-to-day perils which led directly to most literary aliases, the multitude of changed addresses and identity transformations. Not Astley but ‘Warung’ is remembered by his acquaintances ‘(giving)…the impression that he was the confidential agent of a mysterious and hidden personality of consummate power and resources.’ AG Stephens, over-rated literary critic and his contemporary, remembered him as ‘a sad rogue.’[23]

Not every ticket-holder into what became labour’s own big tent was planning violence, hogging the megaphone or slinking about in the shadows, but all were affected by the plots and counter-plots out of which the ALP staggered, bloodied and torn, to celebrate Federation in 1901. They had all been required to choose a path, often to choose a side. Few of them have been given their authentic voice. ‘Tommy’ Dodd’s exchanges with police in 1894 as he was arrested for refusing Senior Police Constable Handon’s call to move on, are as close as contemporary records take us:

Ere, you’re treadin’ on my toes…Roll up boys! Don’t let the dog take me…I’ve got two or three members of Parliament at my back, and I’ll make it hot for you…I’ll have fifty witnesses in the morning…(In court, to Prosecutor Crick, sometime MP) He knows as I’m opposing him for West Macquarie, and that he won’t get in…[24]

This minor example of journalistic verisimilitude is part of one of last century’s ‘bovver boys’, aspiring to go from a larrikin gang to the ‘the House of Fossils’, as the Macquarie Street edifice to ambition, the NSW State Parliament, was known. The path being undertaken was uncertain, the environment tumultuous, civil war was considered possible, even likely, and violence and secrecy were topics of everyday conversations. Spies and informers were known to be in the audience at public meetings, and machine gun posts ‘observed’ strike camps and street parades. Working people’s options necessarily included coded messages, disguised courier networks, and a choice of whether to escape altogether, into the bush, to South America, or into fantasy and paranoia.

Before Svensen, Verity Burgmann’s In Our Time (1985) and Ray Markey’s (1988) The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales, 1880-1900, expressed frustration with the work of their predecessors and both attempted improved versions. Burgmann sought to rehabilitate the image of the socialist agitators, influential but side-lined by Nairn and the like. Markey was the more old-fashioned, arguing that ‘The Labor Party in the late 1890’s resembled a radical Country Party rather than an urban, working class organisation.’ His view that ‘populism’ was developed by a parliamentary-oriented leadership – he named George Black, William Holman and ‘Billy’ Hughes – who widened labour’s voter base beyond Sydney’s industrial workers and helped ‘the bush’ triumph over ‘socialism’, is one of the few fully realised ‘story-boards’ available. Being a materialist historian, he has little time for the uncertainties or ambiguities of human experience. Events, such as the loss of banking credit, simply happen or don’t happen. Legislated solutions to social problems, like ‘unlocking the land’ simply fail, the Sydney Trades and Labour Council simply loses out in a power struggle with the Australian Workers Union, ‘the State’ simply intervenes on the side of the employers, and so on.

Burgmann was open to humanity’s diversity but, like Markey, failed to come to grips with the ‘theory vs real life’ paradox inherent in basic terms such as ‘socialist’. Real socialists must be ‘state socialists’, others are ‘utopian’, ’moderate’ or ‘evolutionary socialists’ and they, of course, fail to understand or to act as real socialists would. For Markey, ‘class conflict’ is something real socialists engage in, whereas the other kinds don’t. That’s how you can tell them apart. Workers who are class-conscious, by definition, engage in class conflict, the non-class-conscious workers don’t. In their accounts, violence has a large presence but never has to be investigated, analysis can remain at the level of definitions and abstractions. ‘Violence’, the topic, is only broached to be dismissed – why was there no Australian revolution? or why was the ALP never a revolutionary party? or why was there never any class struggle in Australia? ANSWER: because the working class was never class-conscious. The next question: why was it never class-conscious? ANSWER: because it didn’t match X’s definition.

With the exception of Svensen, labour historians who have followed Nairn, O’Farrell and Fitzhardinge, have presented the same play with only minor script changes. Is it even conceivable that the (mostly) young men they speak about were all drawing-room steady, honest and transparent and had no part in the underground message networks like EJ Brady’s or the schemes of ‘Ragnar Redbeard’ and the Lanes? Was ‘Shear Blades Martin’ really a one-off? Known conspirators were in constant contact with these squeaky-clean, future labour leaders in pubs, in doss-houses and on the street, and, despite factional disputes and raging ambitions, were more or less on the same side. They clearly knew one another well and retrospective ‘omissions’ only magnify the likelihood that important connections with real life existed but needed to be concealed, then and later.

Traill, in one of his first leaders for The Bulletin wanted his editor Archibald to head his 1881 column on the death of the Russian Czar, ‘Dynamite As A Civiliser’, but had to settle for ‘The Execution of the Czar’. Traill’s indictment of the dictator and rationalisation of his murder was however reprinted far and wide:

…(The Czar’s) death was not an assassination. It was an execution – the execution of a murderer more deeply-dyed than ever swung on a British gallows…[25]

The system being protected in Russia was dictatorial and repressive in the extreme, and therefore sympathy for rebellion was conceivable. A Bulletin commentary on the local situation of 20 October, 1890, began:

The Revolt Has Begun

Were it not so what need of the… military preparations on behalf of Capital? What need of Nordenfeldts and armies if it were not recognised that this strike differed from the rest in proclaiming war, not against individuals but against a System?

Locals were arguing that for working Australians, ‘the system’ was dictatorial and oppressive in the extreme, and that sympathy for rebellion was conceivable. There was a choice being posed, not only about a future ‘socialist’ ideal, but about the contemporary situation. Was it so bad that it needed to be swept away?

The system being protected in eastern Australia with rapid-fire machine guns was at least as chaotic as that in Russia. Thousands of unemployed were roaming the streets, property prices had collapsed, and ‘understandings’ between legislators and commercial banking houses were being re-written. The same scenes were being acted out around the globe. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr, described the US ‘panic’ coming to a head in 1893:

…A failure two years earlier of the British banking house of Baring Brothers had merely accelerated the process. In February, 1893 a major [US] railroad, the Philadelphia and Reading, had gone bankrupt with debts of $125,000,000. Stocks kept falling, trusts collapsed, and thousands of farm mortgages were foreclosed…By April, 1893…it was apparent to almost everyone that disaster loomed…[26]

On almost the same day in April 1893, Arthur Desmond was jostled into a police wagon in Sydney for having written on the wall of a Sydney bank ‘Gone Bung’, that is, he was arrested for merely asserting a bank was insolvent. You won’t find this ‘coincidence’ of timing in Markey or any other Australian history book, indeed, you won’t find Desmond even in the footnotes of most of them. A central figure in the secret history of the ALP, Arthur Desmond called himself ‘Ragnar Redbeard’, others thought him ‘one of the most mysterious figures in our history.’

            This essay asserts that five years after Traill’s justification of the Czar’s murder in 1881, his complacent world was shaken to its core by a single ‘dynamite’ event, also not found in any Australian labour history, and that the fairground on which the Australian Labour Party ventured to pitch its first tents in 1890-91 was still reeling from the Haymarket explosion, Chicago, May 1886. Taking that longer, global view I suggest that what was going on was neither a war nor a revolution but what is called today a ‘counter-insurgency.’ The State was fighting back against perceived threats, and was doing so in new ways which left ‘the movement’ for change confused, divided and punching at adversaries who had already moved on. That part of it which played out in Australia had elements of farce and high drama, spectacular grand-standing and numbing tragedy. It was in part a mock-serious game and in part a fight to the death.