Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book two: Southern skies

XIV. Free speech fight

First published: 1923
Publisher: The Labour Publishing Company Limited, 38 Great Ormond Street, London WC I
Transcription, mark-up: Steve Painter


The success attending the propagandist efforts of the Melbourne socialists received further stimulus by the attempt of the authorities to interfere. In Prahran, one of the borough councils of Melbourne, public meetings were held by various bodies in side streets adjacent to main thoroughfares; for a considerable time the socialists likewise held meetings under similar conditions. Then a campaign of police persecution began. A socialist speaker, while addressing a small audience, was ordered by the police to desist. Declining to do so, he was arrested and at the police court was fined forty shillings, with the alternative of fourteen days.

This was the beginning of a series of prosecutions which resulted in many arrests and imprisonments (including that of myself). I recount the affair to show that the same reactionary spirit dominates the municipalities in new countries as in old ones. The magistrates, when convicting, said that those only who had permits from the council could be allowed to speak in the thoroughfares. The council refused to give a permit to the socialists, but the magistrate declined to consider this. He was, in fact, a councillor, and sided with those who refused to grant the permit.

We were determined to fight the matter out. The party agreed to give full support; it encouraged all who were arrested to refuse, on principle, to pay fines. During the three months that the struggle lasted, over twenty were fined or imprisoned; half of them refusing to pay the fine. Four of these latter were women comrades who showed as much courage and ablity as the men. When I was prosecuted I took the alternative of imprisonment, and was confined in Melbourne gaol for five weeks.

Seeing that I am recording the campaign for the benefit of Australian readers, quite as much as for that of Britishers, I propose to reprint some of the newspaper reports. It should be mentioned that the police, when forbidding us to hold meetings in the same places and under similar conditions as the Salvation Army and the temperance advocates, were kind enough to direct us to a piece of waste ground frequented by no one.

The following account is from the Melbourne Socialist of November 3, 1906, written by myself.

Ten socialists arrested at Prahran

Socialists toe the line

Instead of tamely backing down and getting shunted off to vacant land, away from the people, to talk to hoardings and old bottles or kerosene tins, the Socialist Party advertised that their speakers would, at 8 o’clock, be present to continue the struggle for free speech; and exactly on the stroke of eight the socialist contingent arrived at Chatham Street, corner of Chapel Street. The police were already on the spot in considerable numbers, and, naturally, their presence attracted a considerable number of persons, who otherwise might not have been interested. Of course, a number of socialists were there also, and the responsible group marched some 80 yards down Chatham Street from Chapel Street to just beyond Cato Street (the short thoroughfare running at right angles to Chatham Street), so that there should be no obstruction to traffic.

Ladies to the front

As had been definitely arranged beforehand, Miss Ahern was the first to mount the little stand. This was at two minutes past eight. The crowd cheered lustily, and the speaker, in very clear and firm language, proceeded to advocate socialism, making but brief reference to the cause of the special excitement. The inspectors, detectives, uniformed and plain-clothes police, marched single-file from the Chapel Street side of the crowd to the back of the speakers. They conferred for a minute or so, and then a half-dozen of them approached and the sergeant told Miss Ahern she must desist. As she declined, he arrested her, and our comrade was marched to the watch-house.

Immediately, Mrs Anderson (as pre-arranged) stepped on to the stool, and in a firm, strong voice, well under control, began to address the crowd. Up came the sergeant, and bade her desist. Our comrade replied she “would when she had finished — unless they made her before”. The defiant attitude resulted in arrest, and the second of the group was marched off.

With cheers from the crowd, in accordance with programme, W.J. Baxter mounted the primitive rostrum. Not many sentences had been uttered, when he too was assisted to the watch-house.

During the short time Comrade Baxter was on the platform, Senior Constable O’Loghlin paid special attention to myself for my activities in keeping the ring round the platform, and otherwise in helping to maintain order. The constable said if I didn’t go away he would arrest me for loitering. I scornfully pooh-poohed the loitering charge, and continued to supervise affairs. By this time Comrade Baxter was seized, and I mounted the pulpit, and began, a la mode, continuing for a minute or so, in spite of police remonstrance. I was then hauled down by Sergeant Williams and others, and, with more cheering, was escorted like the rest.

On arrival at the watch-house a fifth was brought in, Comrade Quaine, charged with offensive behaviour. He really didn’t know what he had done when charged by O’Loghlin, who told him he had “shouted and booed”. Quaine replied, “I didn’t boo at the police; it was at the mention of Councillor Miller’s name”, but apparently it was sufficient.

Shortly afterwards Councillor Miller came in. He shook hands with each of our little batch, one or two of whom extended the hand reluctantly, considering that this gentleman was the chief cause of the trouble that had arisen, including the gaoling of our members.

Councillor Miller at the watch-house

In conversation with me on the subject Councillor Miller expressed deep regret at the turn of events, and said, although he was credited with being a prime mover, causing action to be taken against us, “he certainly had no wish to see such action taken, and had not the remotest intention of calling for it”. Reminded that the press reported that he it was that had raised the question in council, Councillor Miller said that it was quite accidental that he had referred to the socialist meetings, being prompted thereto by another councillor, whilst he (Councillor Miller) was addressing the council on the subject of street obstruction by hawkers, and frankly owned that he did not wish to attack socialism, as he did not know sufficient about it, never having studied it.

All this may be quite true, but it does not absolve Councillor Miller from exhibiting hostility towards the socialists in Prahran Council, and as late as last Monday he exhibited a special vindictiveness towards us at the council; and when questioned at his South Melbourne meeting he continued to ride the high horse of the superior person, siding deliberately with the anti-socialists, and accepting the blame for having instigated proceedings, resulting in the imprisonment of Comrade Swebleses.

Had Councillor Miller exhibited the slightest regard for fair play to our people, or had he desired to explain his position if wrong conclusions had been drawn, surely there was ample time for him to do so during the fortnight Joe Swebleses was in gaol; and even if he had hoped it would blow over with the imprisonment of Comrade Swebleses when, the very day he was released from gaol four others were arrested and each of these sentenced to fourteen days imprisonment, action might have been taken by Councillor Miller to dissociate himself from these proceedings, but he did not.

Permission refused

It was on Monday of last week, October 22, that Comrades Marsh, Hyett, Beck and Summers were sentenced. Mr Witt, the presiding magistrate on the occasion, appeared to be under the impression that no application for permission to speak had been made by the socialists, although Frank Hyett told him such application had been made, and permission refused.

At the close of the proceedings, I personally made direct to the office, and, in the name of the Socialist Party, wrote again, asking permission from the council for the Socialist Party to hold meetings in the open air in Prahran, not making reference to any particular place. I took care to post this in time to reach the Town Clerk that afternoon, to be in time for the Prahran City Council, who I knew were to meet that night in committee.

I waited several days, and getting no reply, I went down to Prahran and called at the Town Clerk’s office, and enquired if there was any reply to my letter of Monday. The Town Clerk, very abruptly, and without an atom of courtesy, replied, “No; there will be no reply till after Monday next.” Comrade Fryer was with me when I called.

This left no alternative to the Socialist Party but to continue the fight without further overtures. It appears to have been thought by the authorities that, if they temporarily withdrew the permit from the Salvation Army, they would thereby remove the grounds of dissatisfaction. Therefore, let all concerned understand that, however many permits may have been granted and withdrawn, and however submissive the bodies so dealt with may be, our demand is the right to hold meetings, under reasonable conditions, in the open air, always having reasonable regard for pedestrian and vehicular traffic, and for the general convenience of the public.

This question has been fought out hundreds of times before in other countries. It has been fought and won by our fathers under British law hundreds of times, in Britain and elsewhere. I myself was arrested in Southwark (London) for addressing meetings in Tooley Street, within seven minutes walk of London Bridge, on the south side of the Thames. I was marched off to Southwark Police Station, and, when the case came on, I was able to show that, during the meeting, I had reasonable regard for keeping the thoroughfare clear for traffic, and the stipendiary magistrate dismissed the case.

On another occasion, for addressing a meeting in the neighbourhood of Queens Road W, I was summoned to Marylebone Police Court, but again the case was dismissed on the ground that, although a considerable number of persons were listening, there was ample room for pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

And this is the only logical position to take up in connection with the subject. As socialists, we have proper respect for municipal and other regulations made in the general interest, and administered fairly; but not only will we not submit to exceptional treatment, but, however feeble, half-hearted, and impotent other sections may be, we socialists, at any rate, will not show cowardly servility.

The authorities have taken up a wrongful position. There is only one way to get over the difficulty thus created, and that is, the authorities — the Prahran City Council and the police — must get back to a sensible attitude and leave citizens free to interchange opinions, always providing they exhibit reasonable regard for the general welfare.

Police court proceedings

The Prahran Court was crowded on Monday, when Comrades Lizzie Ahern, Mrs Anderson, W.J. Baxter and Tom Mann were charged with having wilfully obstructed a carriageway in Chatham Street on Saturday night, October 27. Four other comrades, John Quaine, Thomas Hart, Edwin Knight and Will Thorn were charged with behaving in an offensive manner to the police on the same evening.

The plutocrats were mustered in force on the bench, in the persons of Messrs Kent, Capt Panter, Major Clipperton Witt (chairman), Young and Hislop.

D.H. Herald prosecuted on behalf of the Prahran City Council.

Miss Ahern was first called on to plead, and, in a straight-out fashion, said she was prepared at all times to claim the right to give expression to her views and principles.

Sergeant Williams and senior-constable O’Loghlin gave evidence on behalf of the police. The defendant was addressing the people. They asked her to desist. She refused and they arrested her.

The Chairman: You are fined thirty shillings, with ten shillings and sixpence costs, in default ten days imprisonment.

Mrs Anderson was then called on, and declined to plead. The police evidence was the same as the previous case.

The Chairman: Do you wish to say anything?

The Defendent: Why are others allowed free speech and the socialists refused?

The chairman said that had nothing to do with it, and fined Mrs Anderson thirty shillings, with ten shillings and sixpence costs, in default ten days imprisonment.

Comrade Baxter was next charged, and at the outset took exception to the presence on the Bench of W. Maxwell Hislop. He considered it unseemly — owing to the peculiar relations that had existed between them formerly in Westralia.

The chairman announced that under the circumstances Mr Hislop would not adjudicate.

The police gave evidence as to the arrest, and the chairman fined our comrade forty shillings, with ten shillings and sixpence costs or ten days imprisonment.

Tom Mann was next similarly charged. He admitted the offence.

Sergeant Williams stated that when he asked defendant to leave he declined, and spoke over witness’s head.

Defendant: Before I spoke did you notice any special behaviour on my part?

Witness: You were moving about, and called out to the people to keep the footpaths clear.

“Did you hear anything offensive or unbecoming on my part?” — “No.”

“But you distinctly heard me appeal to the people so that the footpaths should be kept clear?” — “Yes.”

Defendent said that he had pleaded guilty because obstruction did take place, and he was one of the central figures. There was no real guilt on their part, because they never sought obstruction. Nor were they willing to obstruct. The direct cause of the obstruction was the attention and the excitement initiated and developed by the presence of the numerous police.

The Chairman: You know why so many constables were there on Saturday night.

Defendant: Yes; because of the differential treatment meted out to us as socialists. You stated last week that others had asked for permission and obtained it. We have asked for permission, and it has been refused. I ask that you will note that exactly similar by-laws are in operation elsewhere. There is a law which gives to every citizen the right of free speech in thoroughfares under reasonable conditions. That has been decided again and again, and that is the right we have been contending for, and the right I shall continue to fight for under all circumstances.

The Chairman: We have decided to fine you forty shillings with ten shillings and sixpence costs, in default fourteen days imprisonment.

Defendant: I tell you plainly that I certainly shall not pay the forty shillings.

A man in the audience: “I’ll pay the fine.”

Defendant (loudly): “Do nothing of the kind. I protest against its being paid for me.”

The fine was paid in spite of Mr Mann’s protest, and immediately on being released he went direct and advertised a meeting for the same evening in Chatham Street, where he had previously been arrested.

Re-arrest of Tom Mann

Prahran was far and away the liveliest suburb of Melbourne on Monday last. The proceedings at the police court in the morning, and the excitement attending the re-arrest of Tom Mann in Chatham Street, in the evening, the indignation meeting at the Town Hall, and the several overflow meetings in connection therewith, manifested an amount of life that agreeably surprised the old-time residents of the true sort.

Tom Mann imprisoned Tom Mann was actually locked up on Friday night, November 9, after the authorities had waited for a fortnight in order to muster up sufficient courage to do the dreadful deed!

It happened in this fashion. Tom Mann was wondering whether they had forgotten him, and so he decided to go to Prahran station and see if they knew anything about the matter, and gave them a gentle hint about the warrant. They told him at the station that the warrant was in the hands of the West Melbourne police.

Our comrade then visited the chief secretary, and made a few remarks about prison reform, etc, after which he interviewed the West Melbourne authorities and asked whether they had a warrant for his arrest. They replied that they had two, but that the sergeant had not yet given orders for their execution.

Tom Mann then asked: “When will they be executed?”

The reply was: “Some time on Saturday.”

“I’d rather go today,” replied Tom.

“Very well. What time would be suitable?”

“Oh, after tea!” replied our comrade.

And after tea it was, he being locked up at 7 o’clock on Friday, November 9, for the awful offence of trying to enlighten the people of Prahran on matters that concern the welfare of everyone.

At the trial I was sentenced to four weeks for causing an obstruction, and one week for resisting the police. These five weeks were spent in Old Melbourne Gaol. Here are some more extracts from the Melbourne Socialist:

Visit to Mr Tom Mann

Last Tuesday, having obtained permission from the Inspector-General, Mrs Mann and Mr J.P. Jones visited Tom Mann in gaol. He said he was in good health, and getting on nicely, and his spirits seemed in no way damped. About twenty minutes were spent in conversation of a general character, no bar being placed upon anything said, and Mr, Mann received a fair account of happenings in connection with the party since his imprisonment. He was exceedingly anxious to know whether the youngsters had a good time at the picnic, and asked Mr Jones to engage Zion Hall for Sunday afternoon, January 6, when he intends giving a special address to scholars and others.

He is allowed special privileges as regards reading matter, and has been forwarded a Shakespeare and several works of Dickens.

Yarra Bank and such gatherings threatened

We repeat here plainly what we have contended elsewhere, that if the Prahran by-law is valid, the rights of free speech and free assembly, except in hired halls, or other private property, are only exercisable in Prahran (and in every other part of Victoria which has a similar by-law) by the permission of any police constable who happens to be passing. For, if the contention of that council is applicable to orderly meetings in frequented public streets, such meetings, whether they actually obstruct anyone or not, are also, by the express words of the by-law, illegal in all public places whatsoever.

Our objective

As Mr Mann contended on last Thursday at the Prahran Court, as recorded in Hansard.

“He had done what he had, not with a view of causing any trouble, but with the object of contesting what he believed was his right, as well as the right of others, to hold meetings in public thoroughfares, providing that there was reasonable regard for the general convenience of pedestrian and vehicular traffic. He did not intend to do anything more than protest against what he considered unwarrantable behaviour in prohibiting meetings in the fashion they had been prohibited. He did not contend that he had any right to obstruct the thoroughfare. He only contended that he had the same rights as others to use the public thoroughfares for such purposes when they had reasonable regard for the convenience of others. He was not defying authorities except when he considered their decisions were not in accordance with good law or usage.”