Dawn To Dusk, E. H. Lane 1939
It is a far cry from the old worn-out beliefs of the conservativism and reactionary political policies of 50 years ago, to the virile working class movement that is to-day insistently smashing down the gates of capitalist imperialism and exploitation. Yet with countless others I have travelled that road, and, in the journeying, have had many and varied experiences.
To record this pilgrimage, which may be of interest and value, also throw a badly needed light on some dark and nauseous corners of the Australian Labour Movement as misinterpreted by many of its so-called leaders, is the principal motive of these memoirs. Since my first participation, in early youth, in the working class movement, I have undeviatingly adhered to the Socialist or Communist philosophy, and from that angle and none other herewith review and comment upon the outstanding epochs and events of the past 50 years.
Consequently there is of necessity a scathing and uncompromising condemnation of those who, for place and power or other ignoble motives, have debased the Labour movement and sold the pass to the enemy. There can be no toleration for this “legion of the lost” that has brought the workers to their present parlous and humiliating position, but only righteous scorn and contempt.
It was suggested to me by the late Vic. Smith, bohemian and book lover, that in imitation of Frank Harris I should write a book entitled “Men I have Known.” I replied that if I wrote such a book I would term it “Men I Thought I Knew.” But bitter experience has taught me and others, and I know them now, and the knowing is a revelation of betrayal of principle and unscrupulousness that leaves one aghast.
Reverting to my childhood and early training, unlike some, I have no Chartist or rebel ancestors or traditional progressive background. The youngest of five brothers, William was the eldest, I was steeped to the neck in idolatrous worship of Church and State, British infallibility, and justice, and shuddered with childish horror at the mere thought of radicalism and Atheism, the two bogies of those days. Our father had emerged from a peasant environment in Ireland to that of a humble member of the petty bourgeoise, and that was the orbit round which the whole family revolved in glamourous abasement. Disraeli and Queen Victoria were our god and goddess, while Gladstone and John Morley symbolised all that was evil and destructive. Socialism, to us and millions of others, in the seventies of last century, was utterly unknown. Though very young I was precocious, due chiefly to father being an active Tory politician, strongly supported by my eldest brother Will, and at seven or eight years of age was primed with political wisdom (?) obviously extremely conservative. My greatest delight was to get a talk started on England’s history and naval and military heroes. I knew no others. I once said that I would rather have a talk on great (?) men than a piece of cake.
Our mother died when I was nine years of age and six years later a move was made to Australia. My brother Frank, 16 years of age, and I were the first of the Lane family to arrive in Brisbane in 1884. We landed penniless and without a friend. I was engaged for 12 months by Andrew Wagner, a milk farmer at Nundah, then known as German Station, at 7/6 per week.
For twelve months I had to start work at 1.30 a.m. Sundays and holidays included. But the experience was not altogether wasted.
The following year my brothers Will and John arrived in Brisbane, and to my horror I discovered that Will had evolved into a radical or worse. When he had left England for America some years before he had given me as a parting gift a Church of England prayer book in the fly leaf of which he had written “Fear God and Honour the King.” That was the very foundation of our material and spiritual life. I reminded him of this. He had forgotten, and I said sadly “Don’t you believe that now?” He laughed and replied “No! And you won’t some day, when you know better.” Shocked, I repudiated this blasphemous prophecy, which, however, was fulfilled to the uttermost in the course of two years, when I was seventeen years of age.
So in 1886 I had shed my swaddling clothes and became a passionate rebel against all those sacred things that in my earlier years had been held inviolate and unassailable. Undoubtedly my brother Will’s influence hastened this dramatic change of heart and outlook, but my own experiences, reading, and temperament would undoubtedly have quickly shown me the evils and fallacies of my childish beliefs and compelled me become a Socialist, or rather Communist.
Temperament is one of the most potent factors in the make-up and making of a rebel, and lacking the rebel temperament is a serious handicap to the revolutionary who with a thorough knowledge of the economic basis strives to impart Promethean fire to his agitational work.
Of course, the rebel temperament alone is unstable as water and shifting as sand. It leads to anarchism and other vague and vain strivings to find a way out of the present slough of universal misery. But, plus a sound understanding of the materialist foundations of society, the born rebel is the cream of the working class movement.
In relating my emergence from darkness to light, from the soul destroying philosophy of capitalist individualism to the inspiring humanitarianism of Communism, one or two points may be noted.
Although at first I had little knowledge of the sound economic basis of the Socialist theory, having read very little at that time, its ethical appeal to me was overwhelming in its intensity. There was born within me an instinctive and passionate love for the workers of all lands, a scorn of the cowardly expediences which have wrecked countless brave endeavours. Happily, through weal and woe, down the long, often heart-breaking years, this passion for my fellows has never deserted me and has been a dear source of comfort when all else has failed. While the purely ethical phase of the Socialist movement does not meet with much enthusiasm from the Marxian dogmatist, is even regarded as “suspect,” I am absolutely convinced that it is the corner stone of any bona-fide Socialist or Communist Society. Such a society must axiomatically be based on a solid economic foundation. The Communist theory unquestionably supplies that, but the ethics or religion of Communism is an integral part of the whole and any attempt to establish a Communist Society without a proper realisation of this position will inevitably fall.
My own personal experiences serves to emphasise this very fixed opinion on this subject, and although I have no desire to further dilate on this important phase of the working class movement, I would reaffirm this declaration. No Communist State could live on a purely ethical basis, neither, just as surely, could it do so lacking that spiritual realisation of Communistic ethics.
I must confess that largely through life I have been guided by my emotions and that hard materialism has not appealed to me or given me that courage and inspiration so essential in fights during times of crisis. Some of the harder headed and less temperamental comrades may condemn this attitude, or question its wisdom. I can, however, say without fear of denial, that this emotionalism has never played me false. It has never lead me wandering up blind alleys to betray the workers into a defeatist position. Under all and every circumstance it has brought me to the true haven, and has ever strengthened, not weakened, my attachment to the workers and their dearest ideals. Based fundamentally on a sound economic background, emotion, temperament, ethics, call it what one will, will never lead one to betray or desert the workers cause. Can as much be said for the undeviating materialist leader?
With an irrepressible love of poetry from my earliest youth, I naturally looked to the poets at this stage of development. Nor did I search in vain, but discovered a wealth of inspiration that has never since deserted me, and has been a never-ending solace in life’s darkest hours. Burns, Byron, Walt Whitman, William Morris, Swinburne’s earlier poems – and Shelley. How I devoured their revolutionary thoughts and aspirations, and indeed felt comradeship with all the great ones of the earth.
I ascribe to this poetic exaltation the enthusiasm and inflexibility of purpose that has ever made it impossible for me to abandon or betray the Communist path I so passionately pursued in my youth. No other path, however tempting or seemingly fair, has caused me to stray, and to-day, for all who have eyes to see, the end of the road is in sight. Therefore in sketching the foundation and background of my life, this record would be sadly incomplete if I did not, with deep thankfulness, remember and note my unpayable debt to humanities poets. Neither is it too much to assume that there are countless other good comrades, who have fought, and are still fighting, the good fight, who have found similar strength and inspiration through life’s journey.
Of all these seers and prophets of the Future’s Day, when “All will be better than well” – Shelley was the greatest – and the best beloved. I have more to relate of him later on.
My reading in regard to economics during my embryonic existence was scant, chiefly because books of a radical character were rare. At the present time there is a superabundance of Communistic and radical literature. Of the making of books there is no end, so that it is impossible for anyone to read and keep pace with the ever increasing number. In the early eighties of the last century the publication of a worthwhile book of a revolution nature was hailed as a heaven-sent gift and eagerly procured and diligently digested.
Outside of the poets mentioned, Morrison Davidson’s “Old Order and the New,” “Gospel of the Poor,” “New Book of Kings,” with Morris’s “Dream of John Bull” and “News from Nowhere” and “Story of an African Farm” and “Dreams” by Olive Schriner, provided me with much enlightenment and joy. These, and a few other radical books, were the highlights that served to keep all those who ever engaged in the Labour movement in touch with the growing progressive thought that was emerging from the long dark night of ignorance and despair. Thus did I, like many others, find the light and embark upon a lifelong crusade against the capitalist exploiter.
The outstanding feature of this period of my development was the influence and magnetic personality of my brother Will. As far as I was concerned all else in life was completely overshadowed, and with many other I sat enraptured at his feet and eagerly drank from the cup of inspiration which poured from his soul.
Lloyd Ross, in his recently published book, “William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement,” brilliantly and truthfully records Will’s amazing work and influence during this period.
I could add but little to that invaluable history of Will’s genius in the moulding of a rejuvenated Labour movement that swept a continent, and ,brought hope to many thousands of weary searchers for a new world.
It is impossible for the present generation to more than dimly vizualise the power, beauty, and uplifting influence that W. Lane exercised over the minds – and destinies – of men and women throughout Australia. The time was indeed ripe for a new faith whereby to point the way out of a brutal and soul damning system of society. Will gave that message, translating it into language and deeds that spurred men into action.
When he died in 1917, his death evoked grief and appreciation of his life work from those who never forgot his work and self sacrifice for the workers he loved so dearly.
I received many touching letters of condolence of which the following from a life-long battler in the Labour movement is typical, giving some indication of the love and comradeship Will had created in the hearts of many who had never personally known him:
“I used to read his work in the “Boomerang” And they were grand and inspiring. Ah! Those were the days to live in, and there is only a few of us who have kept true and never wavered. Your dear brother was a great man and one of the greatest journalists who ever struck Australia. But that was not all. His writing breathed of life and soul and lifted one right out of the mud and made one look up and see that there was such a thing as a blue sky overhead. I can remember how he used to lift my weary sad soul out of the mire of selfishness and self-pity, so that I began to live a man’s life without whimpering and stand on my feet up to anyone. Vale William Lane!”
As a brother of the man whose name was ringing throughout Queensland and also in the other States, I received a full share of reflected glory. This was all I was entitled to, as my part in agitation or any sort of work relating to the working class movement was practically nil. There was little opportunity in Brisbane in the middle eighties of the last century for one to become associated with any radical organisation (none existed) or the few craft unions and waterside and seamen’s unions, unless working in these occupations. I worked in a grocery store and it was undreamt of that a shop assistants’ union was in the realms of possibility. So, although seized with a hot revolt against the established order of things, my rebellion was of a somewhat vague and indeterminate character, obviously lacking the knowledge and experience that came quickly in later years. I was only seventeen years of age and I was content to adore Will and enthusiastically agree to all his growing revolutionary pronouncements.
I well remember a forgotten page of Labour history in Brisbane (1887). My brother started a “Bellamey” society. “Looking Backward” was just then in the boom. We met regularly on the closed-in balcony of George Marchant’s hop beer factory in Bowen Street, and there were about a dozen of us used to attend. Mr. Marchant became a very wealthy man and has devoted his money to charitable institutions, with a special regard for crippled children.
Another remembrance of that period is Francis Adams, the poet, and his wife who were close friends of my brother. Heated arguments sometimes arose on various aspects of revolutionary thought and I found myself actually closely in sympathy with the extreme rebelliousness of Francis Adams, who was impatient of Will’s more demure methods. I still retain a very loving remembrance of Adams, who, young as I was, had a magnetic appeal to my then unformed and unbalanced mind.
At the age of nineteen I felt the urge of travel and with a severe attack of wanderlust went to Sydney. It was then that I first met A. G. Yewen, a remarkable and intriguing personality who had been closely associated with the early history of the British Socialist movement. A stonemason by trade, Yewen was quickly repudiated by his family when he became an active member of the Social Democratic Federation. A personal friend of William Morris, Yewen assisted him to form the Socialist League (1884) in a breakaway from the S.D.F., whose high priest was H. M. Hyndman, on account of the growing parliamentarianism of that body. Owing to ill health Yewen was ordered to go to Australia. He had a letter to W. Lane in Brisbane and Will sent him up to Umbiram, Darling Downs, where my brother John was school teacher. Yewen stayed with John for six months and in improved health, went to Sydney. There he threw himself into the work of the Australian Socialist League, of which McNamara was secretary.
Socialism in those days was indeed a maligned and hated creed, and its few expounders and adherents were subject to every form of social ostracism and persecution, which it is hard for the present generation to realise. To be branded as a Socialist was to incur untold penalties, victimisation, and scorn. The old Socialist rooms in the back premises of a shop on Brickfield Hill were, it must be admitted, redolent of the untidiness and squalor with which it was always credited by its enemies. “Mac” and Yewen used to sleep on a mattress on the floor, where I joined them on occasions. There was a very good lot of Socialist and Radical papers from all parts of the world, and ‘as there were German, Austrian, French and Italian members, the League was often of an international character.
Yewen was a widely read man and his Socialist dogma and practice was of an intense character. Over a period of years, on many occasions he literally starved in propagating the truth of Socialism. In 1891 he became sub-editor of the Queensland Worker, under W. Lane as editor. Two years later he returned to Sydney, and with two other enthusiasts they sold and mortgaged their entire worldly possessions to establish a Socialist weekly paper, with the particular object of securing the election of W. M. Hughes, M.H.R., to the New South Wales Parliament. Hughes was an avowed Socialist and largely through Yewen’s paper was elected as a Labour member. However, as soon as he was elected, this chameleon of politics repudiated his Socialist principles – and friends – and viciously kicked away the ladder whereby he had clambered into parliament.
This brutal betrayal of principles and friends alike had a devastating effect on Yewen. He told me that the Hughes experience had altered his whole outlook on life. He (Yewen) was now convinced that, owing to the perfidy and unreliability of Labour representatives, no permanent progress on those lines could be made. The movement, he said, would evolve in the course of time and irrevocable events, and was not worth anyone’s personal sacrifice, nor would such sacrifice be of any advantage to the cause.
So one of the results of Billy Hughes’ renegadism was the loss for all time to Australian Labour of A. G. Yewen, a man who had proved his worth by many searing tests. It always appeared amazing to me that a man of Yewen’s intensity could thus abandon the cause he had so unselfishly devoted his life to.
But he did, and until he died, some years ago, never took the slightest activity, and very little interest, in the Labour movement. However, whenever he happened to meet Hughes in the streets of Sydney, Yewen would stop him and say in a loud tone to Hughes for public hearing: “Hughes, you rat!”
After a hard struggle Yewen secured a job as sub-editor of the “Stock and Station” journal, and although at that time he did not know a sheep from a lamb, within a few years he was recognised as one of the greatest wool authorities with regard to compilation and finance, in Australia. He was appointed editor of “Dalgety’s Review” and wrote the weekly wool column article in the “Sydney Morning Herald” for years, as well as the Smithfield market reports.
Yewen, shortly after abandoning the Labour Movement, married, and purchased a large block of land right on the headland at Newport, where he built a delightful stone house. Whenever Mrs. Lane and I visited Sydney we always spent our Week-ends at Yewens and enjoyed their warm hospitality; but Socialism was not one of our topics.
One of the most epochal events in all Labour history, the trial, conviction and execution and life imprisonment of the so-called “Chicago Anarchists,” at the latter end of 1886, deeply stirred me and profoundly accelerated my rapidly growing revolutionaryism.
There have been many famous, or rather infamous trials of working class leaders, whereat in desperate endeavours the capitalist class by “frame-ups” and other devious methods have crucified those who have dared to challenge the power of the workers’ exploiters. With the possible exception of the trial of Dimitrov and his comrades in Berlin on a charge of burning the Reichstag, the trial of the eight Chicago “anarchists” is the most dramatic in all Labour history. Arising from the nation-wide strike for an eight-hour day in which the workers were apparently going to win, a bomb was thrown at an open air meeting at Chicago. Several police were killed and the most “dangerous of the workers” were charged with murder. Like the Tom Mooney “frame-up” there was no bona-fide evidence to show that any of the eight men charged had any knowledge or connection whatever with the outrage. But their doom was sealed before the trial began. Five were condemned to be hanged, three to life imprisonment. After their conviction these martyrs in speeches from the dock, with the shadow of death over them, placed the whole capitalist system in the dock, and with burning words gloried in their agitational work and defied their blood-thirsty persecutors.
These speeches have an immortal place in working-class history. After a lapse of over 40 years their message – an echo from the grave – still rings true, irrefutable in their scathing exposure of capitalist society. One of them said: “There will come a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle to-day.” Standing on the scaffold, Parsons said: “Let me speak, Oh men of America, will you let me speak Sheriff! Let the voice of the people be heard. Oh –” but the hangman immediately silenced him. In his speech from the dock Parsons, for eight hours and a half, analysed the capitalist system and gave a brilliant exposition of Socialism which will stand for all time. The three who escaped the hangman were pardoned in 1893 by Governor Altgeld, who, in the face of the bitterest opposition of the capitalists and their press, bravely declared that the Chicago “anarchists” had been the victims of a judicial outrage.
The passage of years, the ever-changing kaleidoscope of world affairs, inevitably brings forgetfulness of the dead past. But there are some events, some deeds that must, and will, be remembered for all time. That of the Chicago martyrs of 1886, their heroic stand in a world then indifferent and bitterly hostile to all revolutionary changes, has earned for them a proud niche in the Pantheon of Humanity.
A vivid, gripping record of this epoch in the development of the working-class fight against capitalist domination is contained in Frank Harris’s novel of revolt and passion, “The Bomb.” It is the most powerful product of his prolific and trenchant pen. He truly says, in the preface, that the cause for which the Chicago martyrs died, though hopeless to-day, must sooner or later be victorious, if humanity is to grow in pity and love.
I have dwelt on this event in working class history because it became for years the rallying centre for the revolutionary Socialist movement – a shrine where one found inspiration and hope for a better realisation of the immorality of capitalism and the inevitability of Socialism.
With the Paris Communists of 1871, the Chicago Martyrs were a beam of light to many weary souls in these far off days.
From that starting point I became a convinced revolutionary and have found no reason since to change my attitude. To the contrary, my experience of men and life makes it impossible to visualise any honest, intelligent, individual repudiating revolution. It was in a speech of one of the Chicago Martyrs, Fielden, that I first read that great poem “Revolution,” by Freiligrath. It embodied all my restless aspirations, my searchings for expression and solace. This inspiring poem covers the whole gamut of revolutionary thought, action, and ultimate. To me nothing as fine has been written on this pre-eminent phase of working-class progress.
It has never yet failed to bring me hope, exaltation, and certainty of ultimate victory. As one of the earliest factors guiding my life, then, and all through the years down to the present day, no memoir of my life would be complete without it. Here it is:
And though ye caught your noble prey within your hangman’s sordid thrall,
And though your captive was led forth beneath your city’s rampart wall;
And though the grass lies o’er her green, where at the morning’s early red,
The peasant girl brings funeral wreaths – I tell ye still – she is not dead!
And though from off the lofty brow ye cut the ringlets flowing long,
And though ye’ve chained her ‘mid the thieves’ and murderers’ hideous throng,
And though ye gave her felon fare-bade felon garb her livery be,
And though ye set the oakum task – I tell ye all – she still is free!
And though compelled to banishment, ye hunt her down through distant lands,
And though she seeks a foreign hearth, and silent ‘mid its ashes stands;
And though she bathes her wounded feet where foreign streams seek foreign seas,
Yet – yet – she never more will hang her harp on Babel’s willow tree!
Ah no! She strikes it stronger yet, and bids its loud defiance swell,
And, as she mocked your scaffold erst, she mocks your banishment as well,
She sings a song that starts ye up astounded from your slumbrous seat,
Until your hearts, your craven hearts, your traitor hearts, with terror beat!
No song of plaint, no song of sighs for those who perished unsubdued,
Nor yet a song of irony at wrong’s fantastic interlude –
Your “Beggar’s Opera” that ye try to drag out through its lingering scenes,
Moth-eaten though the purple be that decks your tinsel kings and queens.
Ah, no! The song those waters hear is not of sorrow or dismay –
’tis triumph’s song – courageous song – the paeans of the Future’s day –
The Future – distant now no more – her prophet voice is sounding free,
As well as once your Godhead spake: – “I was, I am, and I shall be!”
“Yea, yet shall be, and once again before my people I shall go,
Shall plant my foot upon your necks, and lay your thrones and kingdoms low!
Shall free the slave, and right the wrong, with sword unsheathed and flag unfurled,
And strong with outstretched arm of might cry
Freedom’s birth to all the world!
Ye see me only in your cells; ye see me only in the grave;
Ye see me only wandering lone beside the exile’s sullen wave –
Ye fools! Do I not live where ye have tried full oft to pierce in vain?
Rests not a nook for me to dwell in every heart and every brain?
“In every brow that boldly thinks, erect with manhood’s honest pride –
Does not each bosom shelter me that beats with honour’s generous tide?
Not every workshop, brooding woe? Not every hut that harbours grief?
Ha! Am I not the Breath of Life that pants and struggles for relief?
“Day dawns apace; yet once again before my people I shall go,
Shall plant my foot upon your necks, and lay your crowns and kingships low!
It is no boast – it is no threat – thus history’s iron law decrees
The day grows hot, O Babylon! ‘Tis cool beneath thy willow trees!”
About this time I met Henry Lawson, who was then having a hard struggle to eke out an existence. A member of the Social Democratic Federation in London, G. Chandler, where he had known Yewen, was a painter, and through him, Lawson, Yewen and W. A. Holman, also struggling for an existence, secured a few painting jobs round Sydney. It was mostly sub-contract work at the munificent wage of sixpence per hour.
Lawson had inspiringly written “Faces in the Street,” a revolutionary poem that thrilled every rebel and marked this poet of the common people of Australia as a vital force in the fierce battle of life which was to rage fiercer than ever. His mother, Mrs. Louisa Lawson, was a woman of strong personality, and, as an uncompromising advocate of women’s rights, was a dour pioneer of the feminist movement in Australia, then in its infancy.
While her son was of a dreamy, gentle nature, Mrs. Lawson was particularly fitted to lead a hard and bitter fight against an indifferent or hostile public who regarded women as chattels and rightly subject to man.
After experiencing the hellish search for employment which is one of the inevitable prices the workers have to pay for the luxury of living in a capitalist society, I obtained a job at a store at the Glebe. The wages were low and the hours long. Three months later I went to Newcastle in the course of my desire to adventure to other parts. I worked my way on a sailing ship to San Francisco, and whatever romantic ideas I had regarding the exhilarating joys of a sailor’s life were rapidly dissipated. The romance of the sea exists only in the pages of books, and the beauty of the white sails that has inspired countless writers, is far removed from the hardship and monotony of the sailor’s life.
Leaving ‘Frisco, I worked on a wheat ranch in the Sacramento Valley, on a fruit ranch in the foothills of the Coast range, and then took a long hop to Texas, where, after the usual heartbreaking search I got a job on a cattle ranch. While there I received the tragic news of the death by drowning in the Brisbane River of my elder brother, Jim. The shock upset all my pre-arranged plans to go to Europe before returning to Australia, and I decided to return to Brisbane. Staying at El Paso at a boarding house overnight I had a young fellow as room-mate. Retiring to our room early we chatted for a couple of hours until it was time to go to bed. I thought, “Well, I had better keep my money (50 dollars) under the pillow or my room-mate might rob me.” Instantly I called myself a contemptible cad for suspecting such evil from an innocent man, and asked myself how I would like him to be thinking the same of me. So as a penance I deliberately left the money in my trousers pocket and dropped them on the floor between the two beds and went to sleep. I awoke at daybreak to find that my friend and my money were gone.
I relate this incident as indicative of my attitude towards my fellows. It involves a phase of life that we all have to face. In our social relationships and contact with people, one must follow one or other of two policies. Either accept the bona-fides of the other fellow, giving him or her the credit of being as decent and honest as yourself, or regard every man as a rogue – until you find them to be innocent. Well, I have always followed the former course. I have through life accepted people on their face value and shall continue to do so. True, as in the related instance, I have often been deceived and disillusioned, but far better to meet this result than to suspiciously regard every unknown as a scoundrel and a potential criminal.
So here I was stranded penniless and 1200 miles from my destination, “ ‘Frisco,” or rather California, where I intended to work for a mouth prior to leaving for Sydney. In a desperate position I determined to “beat my way” on the trains and carry out my plan to be back in Australia within two months. So I set out on this new and wild adventure. I have many times thanked whatever gods there be for that robbery which compelled me to have a most interesting experience which I should never otherwise have had. Across the Arizona desert, to Santa Barbara and Los Angeles in Southern California on the top of wagons, on the brake beam under trucks, even on an engine over one section, it was an adventure well worth encountering. I developed during that journey a resourcefulness and pertinacity that amazed me and brought me to a triumphant journey’s end in quick time. Utterly fatigued for want of sleep, I was fortunate enough to at once strike a job driving the horses on a travelling hay-press. Stayed a month, went to ‘Frisco and secured a job on the Zealundia, one of the mail boats running between ‘Frisco and Sydney. On arrival at Auckland, August 1, 1890, we found the great maritime strike in full swing.
Two or three years previously the Sydney Waterside Workers and Seamen’s Unions had, by direct action, compelled the owners of the Sydney – ‘Frisco mail steamers, (Sprecles, an American company), to discharge their Chinese crews and employ members of the Californian Seamen’s Union. On the way over to Sydney from Auckland, the seamen on the Zealundia decided that on arrival in Sydney they could not scab on the Australian unionists by unloading the cargo. The boat berthed at Wooloomooloo and the men refused to “turn to” and work the cargo. The captain immediately sent for the military to take action and as I walked off the wharf, as I was not signed on, three of the “ringleaders” of the seamen were marched off to Victoria Barracks or Darlinghurst gaol under a military escort with fixed bayonets. Thus was I welcomed back to Australia!
As I was proceeding to the Socialist League rooms in George Street, the first lot of “scab” wool was on its way from Darling Harbour railway station to Circular Quay via George Street. It was an historic event and Sydney seethed with excitement and dread. The lorries loaded with bales of wool were heavily guarded by mounted police, with special constables riding on the lorries and on the tops of the bales. Many thousands of angry workers demonstrated against this blatant show of force and the feeling ran high. The first lorry in the procession was challengingly driven by Lamb, one of the most bitter squatters fighting the unions. On the way to Circular Quay stones were thrown and at the corner of George and Market Streets the police arrested a man and rushed him into a waiting cab. In a minute the crowd had smashed the cab to splinters and the police were fleeing in terror. The hostility of the crowd was accentuated and became alarmingly threatening when the wool arrived at the Quay. The Riot Act was read by a magistrate standing on the gangway of a wool store, but had no effect in dispersing the people. The mounted troopers then furiously charged and by this means law and order triumphed and another defeat administered to the workers.
The failure of the maritime and shearers’ strikes brought in their train a stern realisation to the defeated workers of the power and callousness of organised employerdom. With the unrestricted support of all the State governments, the entire machinery of the law was eagerly placed at the disposal of the squatters and shipping companies to crush the unions and teach the workers a lesson.
Scabbery was exalted by the blatant capitalist press as the sacred duty of every freedom-loving Australian worker. To Queensland, where the fight raged most fiercely, shiploads of “scabs” were brought from Victoria and Tasmania. Military and police were used to protect the “right” of employers to do as they desired with their ill-gotten gains. Union officials were arrested, oft-times chained like convicts and viciously sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
Such was the treatment gleefully meted out to the workers of Australia throughout the nineties, when, with a newly-awakened determination to obtain a place in the sun, unionists united their forces and vainly attempted to break through the ring of steel that surrounded them. The stark reality of the unceasing and inevitable conflict between capitalism and labour was, in the strikes of the nineties, brought into the full knowledge of all who dared to face the truth.
To-day, that inescapable battle of the two divergent forces of capitalist society still rages as bitterly as in the historic nineties. Neither Arbitration Courts nor subservient Labour politicians can alter that fact one iota, or turn from its course the rapidly approaching climax of a revolutionary change in the whole economic system.
Living in that period of storm and stress, of capitalist brutality and scorn of the workers, I came seized with a burning hatred and detestation of the evil system that has remained unabated through all the long years. It is this knowledge, is undying hatred, that makes me intolerant and impatient with those Labour leaders who, forgetting or ignoring the history and wrongs of the workers, have betrayed their trust. These supporters and apologists for the capitalist system might, with advantage, delve into the history of the Labour movement. Then they might (though this is extremely doubtful) gather a gleam of light and inspiration to shame them into some action in the interests of the workers.
The aftermath of the strikes resulted in unemployment and all-round gloom. I was unable to secure any permanent work in Brisbane and in May, 1891, returned to Sydney. Prior to that, on Saturday afternoon, A. G. Yewen and Henry Lawson, who were both employed on the “Boomerang,” then owned by Gresley Lukin, father of Judge Lukin, and I used to “hike” into the hills round Brisbane. It was on one of these walks that Lawson read the “Cambaroora Star,” which he had just written. One Saturday we walked to Mount Cootha. Yewen and I desired to wait and see the sunset, but Lawson, the poet, strongly objected as it would mean missing the bus at the foot of the hill and a long walk back to Brisbane. As Yewen and Lawson were boarding at Spring Hill they would be too late to get any tea. However Yewen and I were obdurate, and Lawson, with a very bad grace, had to submit and do without his tea. But it was a glorious sunset.
On April 7th, 1891, the foundation stone of the Old Trades Hall, Turbot Street, was laid by the Chief Justice, Sir Charles Lilley. Annis Montague, from the Montague-Turner Opera Company, sang the “Marseillaise” the then international revolutionary song of the world’s workers. Defeated, but not subdued, in the strikes, the Brisbane workers rallied to this function, with hopeful hearts that the future would see the ultimate victory of the working class.
Despite the fact that unionism and all appertaining to the Labour movement was anathema to the Government, and to employers generally, Sir Charles Lilley and Annis Montague gladly identified themselves with this workers function. It would be very difficult to conceive later operatic prima donnas, Melba, Florence Austral, or High Court judges, Detheridge, Lukin, Beeby holding out the hand of fellowship to the workers and participating in laying the foundation stone of Trade Union Building.
The Trade Union leaders often met at my borther Will’s house and it was there that I first met Dave Bowman, whose winning smile and genial personality I never forgot.
W. P. Colborne, secretary of the Printing Industry Union, Queensland Branch, with others also came under the magnetic influence of Will and with enlarged vision, helped to lay the foundation of a newer and better unionism. Colborne was one of the first Labour candidates for Parliament (the Valley electorate), but under a property franchise was badly defeated.
With the shearers’ and maritime strikes raging and almost a civil war prevailing, Will was threatened with all the dire penalties of an outraged capitalist society. The Brisbane “Daily Telegraph’’ howled for his arrest as the head and front of the whole strike activities. So when he left home in the morning to go to the “Worker” office, we never knew whether he would be a free man to return at night. During this period I taught Will chess and he was seized with the fever and became a chess fiend. I, with my brothers John and Frank, were inveterate chess devotees. Acting as a necessary relaxation from the serious responsibilities he bore, Will found chess playing with me during the midnight and early morning hours entertaining and soothing.
At the Ballarat Interstate Trade Union Congress, the Australian Labour Federation Scheme as drafted by my brother, was the outstanding feature of the conference. It was adopted, but, unfortunately for the welfare of the Australian ‘Workers, was never put into operation. If it had been, the whole of the unions throughout the Commonwealth would have been consolidated and had a basis and revolutionary outlook altogether absent in most unions to-day.
The delegates from Queensland and New South Wales formed the left wing of the congress, in contrast to the Victorian, South Australian and Tasmanian representatives. It was the custom in those days to toast “The Queen.” At the Ballarat social function it was arranged that Charlie McDonald, who was known in Queensland as the “Fire Eater,” should jump up and propose “Not the Queen, but the People!” When the tense moment arrived, H. Trenwith, Labour member of the old conservative school, rose to toast “the Queen.” McDonald, with one foot on his chair. the other on the table, lifted up his glass, trembling with excitement, and shouted, “Comrades, not the People, but the Queen!” His comrades looked at him aghast and called him harsh names. It was half a minute before McDonald realised the error he had made. He quickly rectified it and the toasts of “The People” was drunk enthusiastically. It was an historic congress in which the ill-starred toast had its worthy part..
On returning to Sydney, I met E. J. Brady, who was then secretary of the Australian Socialist League which was the centre of the revolutionary movement in Australia. We were both young (21 years of age), overflowing with enthusiasm and ideals of human emancipation and brotherhood, and a deep friendship was formed, which still remains. Brady, with a charming and magnetic personality, attracted me and I cherished an almost idolatriness for him which left a lasting impression.
With the real poetic fire, Brady wrote at that time some of the finest revolutionary poems ever written in Australia – not excepting Lawson. At varying times they appeared in the Sydney “Bulletin,” “Sunday Times” and “Truth,” but have never been published in book form.
Brady’s family and social circle, all bourgeoise, had repudiated and ostracised him because he was a Socialist. Refusing to be sworn in as a special constable during the strike, he was immediately “sacked” from Dalgety’s. Such was the common fate in those days of any who dared to champion the cause of the workers.
Brady and I roomed together in a back street in Wooloomooloo where we quoted poetry to each other and dreamt wonderful dreams of the future triumph of the workers over their age-long oppressors.
Alas! The dreams of my youth – where are they? and echo answers “Where?” but still some at least of the dreams are taking shape and the dreams of yesterday are becoming the realities of to-day. Boyle O’Reilly said truly, “The dreamer lives forever, but the toiler dies in a day. And the dreamer ever striving to make his dreams come true never ceases to toll inspired with the belief that out of the dreaming emerges the substantial.
As a result of the industrial turmoil a revolutionary situation undoubtedly existed in Eastern Australia at this period. Some of us, of course, anticipated its early triumph, but the time was not yet. Sydney then, as now was the centre of this revolutionary urge, although the activities and results in Queensland due to the enthusiasm and genius of my brother Will, placed that State in the forefront of Socialist thought. But there was already being born in the revolutionary movement of Sydney that creeping paralysis of moderation that in all countries alike, betrayed, destroyed or hindered all bona fide working-class progress. Without going back 40 or 50 years, recent events have blazingly revealed how the moderatists could be more truthfully termed defeatists, and have consciously or unconsciously played the game of Labour’s enemies.
So a fight for control of the Socialist League arose, resulting in a victory for the “moderates,” whose chief champions were J.D. Fitzgerald, a kid glove socialist, who shortly afterwards was elected as a Labour member to parliament, and S. A. Rosa, previously one of the outstanding revolutionaries. Rosa, years later, became editor of Sydney “Truth,” and later of the “Labour Daily.”
Brady and the left wing of the Socialist League, resigned, and although as the years went by the League carried on good Socialist propaganda work, it never reverted to its revolutionary policy of the hectic strike days.
An outstanding figure in the Australian revolutionary movement at this time, J. A. Andrews, philosophical anarchist, poet and rebel, was a regular talker in Sydney Domain on Sundays. Clothed in an overcoat to cover his sometimes shirtless body and tattered clothes, Andrews would proceed to the Domain. Tying a long pole with a small black flag attached to an overhead tree, he would deliver a two or three hours’ exposition of the tenets of philosophic anarchy, to the proverbial crowd of two men and a dog. Much more is known now by people of the principles of anarchy, but Andrews obviously spoke right over the heads of the crowd who never understood him.
Andrews was a man of exceptional ability, He published a book of poems, “The Temple of Death,” and was a fair linguist. With true anarchist fervor, he issued irregularly a little paper, “Revolt,” printed by type he cut out of wood. While his anarchial doctrine did not appeal to me, his rebellious activities most certainly did, and I, with one or two other kindred spirits on occasions prowled the streets and parks of Sydney in the early hours of the morning posting up anarchist mottoes and slogans.
Another anarchist, an Austrian, Joe Shellengberg was a fine character and was one of t he who assisted to sow the seed of revolt against the capitalist system. Shellengberg had a selection at Smithfield, then a farming district, which the rendezvous of many good rebels. On one there, a local vineyard was explored and E. J. Brady was overcome by the wine and lay down on a stretcher by the window to sleep. However, he took part in a barricade revolution in his dreams, as was natural, when with a shout of “Fire!” he flung his arms up and smashed the window. Andrews, with primitive faith, gathered sprays of gum trees to cover Brady’s body. Andrews died in a hospital in Melbourne some years later, lovingly remembered by all those who had the pleasure of his comradeship.
Disillusionment and disappointment are the inescapable lot of all who set out with brave ideals, and, of course, Brady and I encountered them. A resultant reaction affected him, and he ceased to take any part in the Labour movement. This was a bitter thing to me who had idolised him, and we drifted apart although I remained in Sydney for two years.
Thirty years later I received a letter from Brady saying that he had been thinking lately of the days of our youth when we both had the same ideals, and urging me to reply and tell him how life had fared with me and if I still retained the faith of my youth.
Over a gulf of years, this voice from the past from my old comrade stirred me, and I wrote a necessarily brief resume of a vanished thirty years. Brady’s reply to me I here quote (inter alia): –
“Your letter was a mental tonic, such as I have not enjoyed for years. It is delightful to know you again, to hear the matured voice of youth, grown into growling, obdurate, but delightful-refreshingly-consistent middle age. Your cynicism is but the ripeness of the fruit of life’s experience. Your faith in your faith redeems the whole movement. You are biblical-patriarchal -a prophet, too, I fancy. Man alive! You should thank your gods they left one rose blooming in the garden of your griefs – consistency. And further, old comrade, you are still in the ranks! Think of it! With armour dinted by many blows, bearing the marks of countless wounds, you are crying your war cry still, while a sardonic philosophy has led men like myself to nowhere in particular.”
After recalling many of the experiences of the hectic days of our youth – “Of the days when the world was wide and hopes were high” – Brady wrote: “I am a glad man to-day to be reminding you of those things long buried in the past. And we have lived to see Ireland a nation once again! To see the Romanoffs, Hohenzollerns and the Hapsburgs tumbled from their thrones! To hear Eugene Debbs still talking! And we can still go back to Nature and find peace.”
This voice from the past! – This loving greeting from my dear old mate, what a rush of memories it invoked! What ghosts of the Past! And despite many heart-breaking experiences and disappointments, it was good to feel that life was not in vain – that the dawn of a brighter day for suffering humanity was appreciably nearer. Yes, it was worth while and one always had compensations that no-one – nothing – could rob one of! Nature with all her varying moods! Music with its surging uplift, art in all its inspiring forms – and the love of good comrades, home, and all that implies.
With a pagan love of the beautiful, in the darkest hours – when the eternal struggle for existence – when the hopeless outlook became almost overwhelming, I never failed to find solace and surcease from pain from Nature’s glory. The soft mantle of night with all its beauty swept into forgetfulness the sordidness of a callous world.
“Oh, holy night! From thee I learned to bear
What man has borne before;
Thou layest thy fingers on the lips of care
Till they complain no more.”
This refuge from the toil and turmoil – from the big or petty trials that are the common lot, has never failed me. With Byron I felt that Nature’s appeal was, and still is, irresistible, and is indeed the greatest gift given to man.
“There is a pleasure in the pathless woods, there is rapture in the lonely shore,
There’s society where none intrude by the deep sea and music in its roar;
I love not man the less but Nature more,
In these our interviews from which I steal from all I may be or have been before,
To mingle with the universe and feel,
What I can ne’er express but cannot all conceal.”
And to-day, in the eventide of life, I can in the quietude and beauty of our gully embowered in trees, “the world forgetting – by the world forgot” – find that peace which is Nature’s greatest boon. This digression on the part that Nature has played in my life, its beneficient influence, arose from the resurrection of the past through Brady’s letter. It could perhaps more appropriately have been expounded earlier in these memoirs as from the beginning, when I emerged from childhood, nature, an intense heart – catching love of its beauties has been an integral, passionate part of my life. And it has all been to the good.
Brady came to Queensland shortly afterwards and we renewed a comradeship that had been born in the most critical and exciting period of our lives. He has since re-entered the ranks of Labour’s army and contributed many articles, under a nom-de-plume to the “Labour Call,” Melbourne. Brady is the only instance I can recall of anyone, after an absence of 35 years, returning to the passion of his youth and taking up the fight again.
A vivid recollection of this period in Sydney (1891) is that of the New South Wales Parliamentary elections. Following the defeat of the unions in the big maritime and shearers’ strikes, the workers turned to political action to curb the arrogance and brutality of the employing classes. What an election! Suffering the bitterness of defeat made inevitable by the gross partisanship of the capitalist government, the workers of Sydney rose in their righteous wrath and gave no quarter to their triumphant enemies. The election meetings of the anti-Labour candidates were scenes of the wildest disorder. It was impossible for the speakers to get a hearing and fierce riots invariably resulted which the police were helpless to subdue. A meeting held at West Sydney was typical of the workers’ indignation and determination to express their detestation of the government and its representatives. Dan O’Connor, one of the Ministers, was the sitting member and candidate. Dan was famous throughout Australia for his penchant for receiving distinguished visitors with extravagant language and obsequious welcome. He had a long white beard and was quite an imposing figure when dressed in his black evening suit. Just previous to the elections, Dan had “received” Sarah Bernhardt on her arrival in Sydney. As soon as the meeting started pandemonium broke loose, and in a few minutes Dan was white from head to foot, smothered with flour thrown in small bags by the infuriated audience. He was a pitiable yet humorous spectacle. A wag in the crowd shouted, “What would Sarah say if she saw you now, Dan?” and the crowd hilariously yelled with delight. They were getting some of own back. Eggs were also a popular missile showered at the speakers. One of these hit the eye of a reporter from the “Sydney Morning Herald” who had made himself particularly obnoxious to the workers during the campaign by his reports. The reporter doubled up and fled from the platform amid derisive cheers. Dan, with courage worthier of a better occasion, shouted to the audience that he would make them hear him if he stopped there all night. “No you won’t, Dan” the crowd retorted. And he did not. They sang with great gusto, “We’ll hang Dan O’Connor to a lamp-post in the street,” and finally Dan gave up the hopeless fight and left under a strong police escort.
West Sydney had four members at that time. On nomination day, the platform erected in front of the Sydney Town Hall collapsed. No-one was seriously hurt and the function was then held on the stone balustrade overlooking Druitt Street. It was an unforgettable and moving sight. About 15,000 workers packed the street, men and women who had suffered exploitation and degradation at the hands of the four anti-Labour candidates and the class they represented. With the searing memory of the recent strikes burnt into their hearts these workers determined to silence for one day at least the voice of their enemy. And they carried out their determination most thoroughly. Directly the nominators of the Tory candidate attempted to speak, the crowd sang, jeered and rendered futile any speechifying. When the Labour nominators spoke complete silence prevailed, broken only by wild cheers and shouts of welcome. Many fine things were spoken on that memorable occasion and at long last it seemed that the workers were to come into their own in the near future. How these hopes have been shattered, largely through the betrayal of workers representatives, history, alas, has recorded.
George Black, one of the Labour candidates, especially, gave a thrilling speech. Inspired by the faith and enthusiasm of that wonderful crowd of the dispossessed and down-trodden, Black foretold the early triumph of the workers. He told them that he, too, had been in the gutter, had gone through the bitter mill that was the lot of every worker. That he was one of the working-class and would never leave or forget them. I saw men as well as women weeping in that crowd while Black was speaking, and looking back one wonders what evil power or influence seduces the workers representatives from their fellows, throwing the workers to the wolves.
West Sydney triumphantly elected the four Labour representatives, 18 Labourites being elected for Sydney, altogether. Although George Black for many years remained true to the class to which he belonged, eventually he, too, succumbed to the call of Labour’s enemies and joined the ranks of deserters.
To the generation of to-day it is impossible to visualise the actual position existing in Australia in the early nineties of the last century. There was undoubtedly a revolutionary situation existing, its extent none could gauge. We of the rebel army quite sanely thought it was wider spread and deeper than it actually was. As a result we thought we could sense a drastic change in the whole system of society. Fired with this belief many impossible schemes of hastening the overthrow were seriously discussed and often bright hopes entertained of at least some material results. But the time was not yet, and to-day those enrolled in the army of the night are still desperately fighting to materialise the dreams we had 45 years ago.
I have made very little reference to the work and influence of my brother Will throughout this eventful period. That he was the outstanding figure in Australian Labour at this time no-one will deny, and the chief actions and policies of the various sections of the industrial and political movements were directly interlocked with Will’s activities. But Will’s work has been fully covered in the biography of Lloyd Ross’s, rendering any emphasis on it by me superfluous.
As a brother of Will Lane, I was always welcomed with open arms by the active spirits in the New South Wales Labour movement, and the reflected glory of Will surrounded me like a halo. Naturally I was very proud of this relationship, but I was myself only a “Jimmy Higgins” of the Socialist movement, a hewer of wood and drawer of water. Strike protests, unemployed demonstrations, I was in the thick of them all – one of the rank and file – but steeped with a burning and inextinguishable urge to press ever forward towards the goal of human freedom.
It was most significant and fitting that my first excursion into the (then to me) charmed circle of press publicity was inspired by Shelley. I had “discovered” Shelley and drank deeply at the fount of his revolutionary outpourings. This supreme poet of revolt was an inspiration to me as thousands of others. Throughout my life and to the present time Shelley has been with me not only as a great revolutionary poet, but as a dearest friend and comrade.
My brother Will, also a great lover of Shelley, and who had rightly criticised Bobby Burns by saying, “To think that he (Burns) who could have done so much, did so little,” said to me, “Why should you prefer Shelley, because he sings as a gentleman?” I retorted, “I don’t worship Shelley because of that, and it is all the more honour to him that as a gentleman he steps down from his high estate to champion and voice the wrongs of the poor and friendless. Anyway, why should anyone give preference to Burns because he was a ploughman, and because of his class and personal knowledge could and should have devoted far more of his genius to voice the peoples’ cause instead of an outpouring of drinking songs that mean nothing in comparison with other phases of life.”
The centenary of the birth of Shelley was marked in Sydney by a meeting at the School of Arts, presided over by Edmund Barton, K.C., Attorney-General of the N.S.W. Tory Government. Associated with him at this audacious “celebration” were other “intellectuals,” members of bourgeoise society. At this period strikes were frequent, with a major one at Broken Hill. As Attorney-General, Barton ruthlessly used all the brutal forces of the capitalist state to bludgeon and terrorise the revolting workers into submission. Arrests, imprisonment and starvation were mercilessly applied and the cry of the oppressed ones were stifled in the orthodox anti-Labour manner. And these people who battened and fattened on the sorrows of the common people had the brazen effrontery to meet and hypocritically extol the poet of humanity who had devoted his life and genius to the cause of the masses. Scorned and hated by the Bartons and his coterie of the day, Shelley was hounded from his native country, pursued by the venom and slander of his and the workers’ enemies. The author of that great triology of protest and revolt against the system of society that ground the faces of the poor, and savagely suppressed all freedom, “Queen Mab,” “Revolt of Island,” and “Prometheus Unbound,” as well as “Men of England,” “The Mosque of Anarchy’’ and many other similar revolutionary poems was butchered to tickle the corroding appetites of bourgeoise intellectuals!
The sordid hypocrisy and indecency of this violation of the memory and life of Shelley roused within me a white heat of resentment. I wrote a passionate letter of protest to the Sydney “Daily Telegraph.” Needless to add it was not published. I thereupon took an article on the subject to the editor of the “Workman,” a Trade Union weekly printed by Higgs and Townsend, the former later to become editor of the Queensland “Worker,” and Labour Parliamentarian. The editor, a young man, Fox, published it and asked me to send along any further articles. I had earlier in life imbibed the Byronic fountain, so I wrote an article on that poet, stressing his radical poems commencing the quotation:
“Yet freedom yet – thy banner torn but flying
Streams like the thunderstorm against the wind;
Though broken now thy voice – and dying,
The louder still the tempest leaves behind.”
I was immensely elated and sent the articles to my brother John, school-teaching at Umbiram, on the Darling Downs. He evidently saw that I had some literary talent and urged me to go and stay with him and write and send my copy to the Sydney “Bulletin” until it was accepted and I got recognition as a writer.
The “Bulletin” was at that time encouraging young writers and was the means of discovering a number of same. Not having any confidence in my literary ability, also disinclined to leave Sydney and its revolutionary activities to be buried in the bush, I did not entertain the proposition.
Some time afterwards Will was in Sydney and I told him of John’s proposal. In a flash – though not to my dismay – he said most emphatically, “You can’t write!” I meekly and readily replied, “I know I can’t.” In the light of my later years’ literary effusions this little episode is interesting and humorous. Truly a prophet or an embryo writer has no honour in his own family circle.