Tom Mann’s Memoirs, 1923

Book two: Southern skies

XV. New South Wales; New Zealand revisited

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


While in Melbourne, I represented my branch of the Amalgamated Engineers on the Trades Hall Council, and on behalf of the branch I submitted a proposal in favour of the six-hour work day. This proposal was fully discussed, and was ultimately carried by a large majority. The secretary of the council was instructed to communicate with all trade unions in Australia, informing them of the resolution and urging them to take similar action.

When I was sent to Tasmania by the Amalgamated Engineers, I visited the Mount Lyell mining and smelting area and saw the devastating effects of the sulphurous fumes from the smelters at Queenstown. Every tree on the mountain side was destroyed. Nothing but the stumps were left and even these about once a year would catch fire, and the whole area would flame until it burnt itself out. The process was repeated as soon as new sulphurous deposits had formed.

I visited Hobart, Launceston, Zeehan, Strahan, Devonport, and other places. It was an agreeable surprise to find that the Launceston council was so go-ahead, particularly in its electrical department and in the facilities afforded to householders for the introduction of electrical appliances into their homes. The orchardists in the apple-growing districts of the Huon have won a deserved reputation for apple culture. The fruit is scientifically packed, so that it reaches England in good condition and we have the privilege of enjoying it. Nevertheless many of the growers find it difficult to make both ends meet. I find the following entry among my notes.

Apples are grown chiefly on the Huon River. It costs the grower three shillings and ninepence per bushel of forty pounds to place them on the London market; frequently he gets only three shillings and ninepence per bushel; sometimes he loses sixpence per bushel. The growers can make a tolerable living if they get five shillings a bushel, ie, one shilling and threepence a bushel profit. These apples sell retail in London at fourpence a pound. Apple growers are in some cases giving up the business on the north-west coast. There is no co-operation among the growers.

Undoubtedly a thriving business might be done in Tasmania, Australia, and elsewhere, in growing fruit for Britain. But what an irony when we think of the conditions that obtain here in the homeland! The English climate is well suited to the successful growing of the finest apples, and is as good as any climate for many other fruits. Yet what are our experiences now? Orchards going derelict. In Gloucestershire, Herefordshire and other counties, with moderate attention, taking averages, apples could be grown with good results to the producers, and might be sent to co-operative centres and sold (at a profit to the dealers) for threepence per pound retail. Instead, we have the pleasure of paying sixpence to one shilling and even more per pound for fruit grown six to twelve thousand miles away. Britain has been industrialised, but at what a sacrifice?

During the whole of 1907 I was occupied in Victoria, with the exception of a month in New South Wales, when I was working on behalf of the Sydney coal lumpers, who were co-operating with the miners of the Newcastle district of New South Wales in a labour dispute. At this time my old colleague, Ben Tillett, was paying a visit to Australia, and we were both in Melbourne when the miners of New South Wales, having vainly endeavoured to get their grievances rectified by negotiation, decided to strike. The immediate object of the strike was quite out of the ordinary. It was to “cause the employers to meet the men in open conference”. The miners were confident that if only they could meet the employers in open council where the press and the public were admitted, the justice of their claims would be universally recognised. For many months they tried to persuade the employers to participate in such a conference, but without success. Peter Bowling, a Scotsman, president of the Miners Union, and his fellow members on the executive recommended a strike. The rank-and-file endorsed this, and took action accordingly.

The bunker coal for most of the vessels trading to New South Wales was sent to Sydney and the ships were loaded there. This meant that there was a considerable number of coal lumpers employed at Sydney, who were affected immediately the miners’ strike began. The lumpers’ officials wired to Melbourne for Ben Tillett and myself to proceed to Sydney to help them during what they rightly anticipated would be a tough struggle. We needed no pressing to hasten to their aid.

The New South Wales government had in operation a comparatively new act known as the Industrial Disputes Act, the provisions of which were much more rigid than any act I had known. Arbitrary powers of arrest were given to the police if the subject of striking was being merely discussed. I was present at a meeting of the lumpers one morning when they were transacting the ordinary business and when a letter came from the miners’ executive at Newcastle, telling them of the position of affairs in the mining area, and expressing the hope that the miners would secure the sympathetic backing of the lumpers. The letter was read by the secretary, Mr O’Connor, a member of the City Council of Sydney, a quiet, steady-going personality. The chairman, Butler by name, simply said to the members:

You have heard the letter from the Miners Union. We have already on our own account decided to support them by refusing to work. I suggest we acknowledge the letter, and tell them we shall have pleasure in complying with their request.

This was formally moved and seconded without speeches, submitted and carried, and the next business was proceeded with. It was an interesting comment upon the freedom enjoyed by Australians that the two officials, O’Connor and Butler, were not only prosecuted but imprisoned for associating themselves with the carrying of the abovementioned resolution. The same policy was applied to the miners. The miners’ executive was summoned to appear in court for having carried the resolution favourable to resorting to a strike. The court decided to fine each member; the executive refused to pay, and imprisonment followed.

During this visit I addressed many meetings on the Sydney Domain (the “Hyde Park” of the largest Australian city) — a very fine place too, genuinely helpful for physical and mental growth. Sydney’s lovely harbour is also something to be proud of. Melbourne is, I think, a finer city than Sydney, but the approach to Melbourne by water is flat, dull, and uninteresting. In Sydney’s case it is positively charming. I had the pleasure of a good talk with Mr Percy F. Rowland, author of The New Nation. A patriotic Englishman, writing of Sydney in his book, he says:

In position, Sydney is conspicuously blessed. The proverbially noble harbour, round whose myriad “sunlit coves of peace” the city is built, has not, perhaps, that romantic loveliness that extorts immediate enthusiasm … but the longer one lives in Sydney, the more the harbour unfolds its charms … There is an unmatched glory in those endless bays of calm deep water, carrying the monsters of the ocean into the city’s heart; there is a splendour in the flashing turquoise, the regal robe of the great city, its background of countless streets, its edging of endless gardens. And when night comes, and the scores of gaily lighted ferries flit like fireflies across the noiseless waters, when the winds are sleeping with the waves, with quivering stars for sentinel, while the glittering lamps of the city, another starry host, send a thousand broken shafts of gold far into blue-grey depths; when every hue is harmonised, when every sound is lulled, when the fragrant air is soft as the breath of sirens; then who could resist the spell of this harbour of harbours, this snatch of unearthly music fallen from Paradise?

This high praise I consider entirely justified. Sydney, also, is fortunate in having at its very door so fine a sea front as Manly Beach, with surf-bathing galore, and the climatic conditions that make sea bathing delightful. For those who enjoy leisure and reasonable freedom from economic worry, many places in the world are delightful!

Mr Rowland comments forcibly upon the life of the shearer-cum-farmer:

The unmarried shearer, roaming, swag on back, from station to station, chasing summer down the latitudes, leads an active, pleasant life enough. His arduous work (for it takes a vigorous man to shear his hundred a day) is varied by days or weeks of leisurely tramp along bush-track and road; when he sets out, the scent of the gums in his nostrils, in the cool of early morning, and ceases with sunset glow, to boil his billy of tea by the precious creek. He is known at all the stations. Perhaps he has sheared for them for half a score of years; he knows his shearing mates; rough but merry is the life he leads with them — a temporary communion with one slave and master — the cook. And if, when the shearing is done, he betakes him to the next shanty, and drinks his whole cheque (or what portion of it seems good to the publican), he harms no one but himself, and, a few days after is on the road again, lighter of pocket and heavier of head, but otherwise apparently no worse.

But if he decides to marry, select and clear a holding in the backblocks, and keep a small sheep-run or grow such crops as the land will bear, he will have chosen a lot among the most arduous on the face of the earth — one which even Odysseus might have hesitated to change for. He will find his life a long and squalid fight against drought and the rabbit-plague, while his children grow up wild creatures, and his wife fades to a haggard drudge. Ten or twenty miles, perhaps, from the nearest neighbour, fifty or sixty from a doctor, beyond all reach of any church or school; nothing to see, nothing to think of, but sun and sheep and gums, gums and sheep and sun …

It will not be until the state governments listen to the voice of a minority with justice on their side, and extend more consideration to the country districts, assisting schemes of irrigation and affording cheaper and better railway accommodation for passengers and freight, that the life conditions of the average outback selector can be expected to improve.

I resumed my life-work at Melbourne. The work of the Socialist Party developed encouragingly, and it was deemed advisable I should revisit New Zealand. Nearly six years had elapsed since I left there, and many experiments had been made in what was termed labour legislation. I was to ascertain the trend of events, and to study actual conditions in the light of my previous experiences. Early in April 1908, I left Melbourne for a lecturing tour through New Zealand, and for general observation purposes.

I had completely lost confidence in various arbitration acts. As a result of the working of these acts, the unions grew in membership, but lost fighting efficiency. The whole of industrial negotiation was in the hands of the legal fraternity. It was clear that a continuation on such lines would result in the unions becoming virtually a part of the civil service. They would be dominated by the plutocratic forces of the state.

On arrival at Wellington, I met Professor Sviatloffski, of St Petersburg. I found him an exceedingly interesting man. I had observed, as carefully as I was able at such a distance, the happenings in Russia after the Russo-Japanese War. Sviatloffski gave me much information concerning Russian affairs during the years 1905-07.

I covered again practically the whole of the North and South Islands. Prior to reaching Wellington on this occasion, I read of a widespread butchers’ strike in New Zealand. They had not found the machinery of the Arbitration Court to their satisfaction. Heavy fines had been inflicted upon the strikers by the Arbitration Court, but very few would pay. The government hesitated to send the men to prison. I came across an old friend who had been a fellow member of the ASE. He was now a factory inspector in New Zealand. Part of his duties at the weekend was to catch the butchers who had been fined but had not paid, and to collect, where possible, instalments of the fines.

During the same trip I was in the coal-mining district of Blackball. The men had a grievance against the manager, and refused to work under the conditions he imposed. The men were subject to a court award; they had no means of redress short of striking. In course of time the Arbitration Court imposed a fine on the union as an organisation, but the members declared they had no funds. Next, the court imposed a fine upon the strikers individually. The men unanimously refused to pay. Thereupon, the authorities tried to set the law in operation by sending the sheriff to levy distraint. I happened to be breakfasting with this gentleman in the hotel when the order came. Later in the day I learned that his task had proved trying, not to say impossible. He went quietly to the houses of the miners, and when he saw a bicycle, a sewing machine, or anything else he counted worth taking, he marched off with it. Later he endeavoured to hold a public sale of these articles, but no one would bid for them. Result, the poor sheriff had to give up the attempt and to return to his quarters defeated. A general election was at hand, and the government could not face the consequences of imprisoning the refractory miners, so a declaration was made that, as soon as the new parliament should meet, an alteration would be made in the law empowering employers to deduct, by weekly instalments, from the wages of any person the amount of fines imposed by the Arbitration Court. This was actually done!

Of all the cases I came in contact with, showing the absurdity of referring to New Zealand as “a country without strikes”, that of the Wellington bakers was the most remarkable.

I had long known the secretary of the Wellington Bakers Union, an Englishman, Andrew Collins. He had the profoundest respect for the labour legislation of New Zealand, and particularly for the Conciliation and Arbitration Act. He was himself a member of the Conciliation Board under the act, and had been so since the act was passed in 1894. The members of the union had all along desired to get their hours reduced to eight a day and forty-eight a week. Mr Collins, the secretary, entirely agreed with them as to the necessity for this, and undertook to bring the matter before the court. This was done, but without success. On two other occasions, at three-year intervals, a similar attempt was made, by which time the bakers in many other districts of New Zealand had secured an eight-hour day.

But again, on both those occasions, the Wellington men failed to get the reduced hours they were striving for. They came to the conclusion that their failure was directly due to their having put themselves under the jurisdiction of the court. The union, therefore, decided to cut loose from the operation of the act, and to resort to direct action. I was with them during the strike. The secretary admitted that the court, as far as the Wellington bakers were concerned, had been an utter failure, and he entirely approved of the resort to drastic action. I was in Mr Collins’s office conversing with him on the subject, when another incident took place which sheds an interesting light on the methods of the court. A law officer called on Collins and handed him a document. It was the official intimation that he was held liable to a line of one hundred pounds for having identified himself with the strike.

I had always looked forward to visiting Rotorua, the hot-lake district, and to seeing the celebrated green and blue lakes. While in the North Island I was able to devote a few days to this expedition. I saw the Maori women place food in an ordinary box, put the box in a crevice on the rocks from which was issuing the steam as generated by nature, and thus cook their food. This was the regular method of cooking in a unique kind of kitchen. The heat is fairly constant, and rarely becomes unpleasant or dangerous. The strangest thing was that hot and cold springs were gushing forth within a few yards of one another. The arrangements of Mother Nature’s below-ground furnaces must be peculiar. Geysers were playing near Lake Rotomahana. Our launch was steered across a place where, with a mug provided for the purpose, one dipped and found the water cool and pleasant, though a few yards farther on the water in the same lake was warm.

This was in the immediate neighbourhood of where the famous pink-and-white terraces used to be, but were destroyed by volcanic disturbances a few years before my visit. Driving through the now deserted village of Tarawera, the coach reached a considerable-sized lake, the colour of which was said to be exceptional. At first I felt it was rather a “sell”; it seemed to me quite ordinary. But, after a few minutes drive, we reached another lake, with the first one still in sight. Looking from one to the other, it was obvious that one was of a pronounced green, and the other an equally pronounced blue. I did not learn the scientific explanation, but I was glad to have seen the renowned blue and green lakes of New Zealand.