Dora Montefiore

From a Victorian to a Modern

Socialist and Anti-Militarist Work in Australia

On the journey to Australia I came across many Australian landowners, who had for years been settled in England, but who were how hurriedly returning, as a Labour Party had just been put in power in New South Wales pledged to deal drastically and fundamentally with the land question. They were all very excited and anxious about their landed interests; but I noted that within a few months they most of them returned to England, quite satisfied that much of the Labour Party’s programme was eyewash, and that they could sleep quietly in their comfortable beds. I was, therefore, not surprised to find after a few weeks’ stay in Sydney that the Labour Party, led by Mr. Holman, was a very flabby one, and that the capitalists had nothing to fear from it. In January 1911, I attended every day the meetings of the Political Labour League Conference, and reported proceedings for The Call and for Justice. This Conference, though extremely tedious, gave me an excellent insight into Australian Labour politics, and made me all the keener to study what the handful of socialists in Sydney were doing to counteract the reactionary landslide of political Labour. I had already had an opportunity at the Science Congress at the Sydney University early in January of joining in some of the debates of the Social and Statistical Section, of which I was a member, and I had there, to the astonishment of a bourgeois audience, put the workers’ position towards reforms which led nowhere, except towards consolidating the position of the capitalists. I there made the acquaintance of Mr. Knibbs, the Commonwealth Statistician, and of several other university men, who were interested in what I had said and the restrained, but pointed, way in which they told me I had said it. So here also I had found a contact which helped me enormously in getting statistical and scientific data on which to bring my knowledge of Australian affairs up to date. When I was living in Australia before, my work was mostly of a political character, as I was working for the vote for women. Now I desired more especially to study the industrial question, and find out what the vote could or could not do for working men and women. So it was to the Party of International Socialists that I eventually drifted and soon found that in that Party. Harry Holland was the leading and most devoted worker. He was at that time editing the International Socialist, speaking in the Domain every Sunday, and frequently travelling between whiles to Newcastle, the centre of the coal mining industry, or to Lithgow in the Blue Mountains, famous for its coal mines and its blast furnaces. I was soon pressed into the service to write articles for the International Socialist, and later on, in March, to help in the Lithgow struggle between Hoskins, the owner of the blast furnaces, and the men who were striking against the terrible conditions which he imposed on them.

I must tell first about the gallant way in which the little International Socialist was being carried on, and how week after week it stood by the Lithgow strikers, though the Labour Party was doing its best to break the strike. In a little ground floor front room in one of the oldest and most derelict houses in Goulburn Street the paper was edited, printed and published. Along one side of the room Holland’s two sons, lads of eighteen and nineteen, were setting type, near the small window stood the editor’s table and chair, and on the opposite side of the room was the electrically-run printing machine, worked by a Dane called Jorgenson. On the days that printing was carried on, the noise was almost intolerable, and the door on the street was usually kept open for the necessary air and light. It was here I used to bring my articles week after week, and have chats with Holland about the way the various fights were going on. He was evidently very overworked and overstrained, though admirably seconded by his wife, who had for years fought shoulder to shoulder with her husband in his revolutionary attitude in the workers’ cause. She used to tell me how, when the children were coming (they had a family of six or seven), she would sit up at night helping him in the publishing with two babies near them asleep in a cradle, and another tiny tot scrambling about among the remnants of newspapers. These are some of the silent heroisms that have helped to build up the Cause of the People, and as such they should be recorded.

The moment was a very crucial one in the history of the Australian Political Labour movement, because Kitchener had lately paid flying visits to the Colonies and had let it be understood that Germany was the enemy of the British Empire, and that the various parts of the British Empire must prepare for a fight. Both the Commonwealth and the State Labour Parties had fallen over one another to prove their patriotism and their desire to defend British Imperialism as against German Imperialism; and promises had been made of training and arming the workers of Australia. The arming was not such a difficult job, and Lithgow was fixed upon as the spot for the small-arms factory, for both coal and iron were being mined in the district. By March, 1911, this small-aims factory had just been completed. But, in the interval it had not been so easy to get the Australian workers to train for war. They were not prepared at any price to be forcibly enrolled as food for cannon; so a compromise was suggested, and a Bill was hurried through Parliament, under which all Australian boys over 12 years of age were to undergo military training. I must point out here that women had the vote for the Federal Parliament which passed this iniquitous measure, and that little or no protest was made until the Act began to be put in force in March, 1911. Then, as it began to be realised what the real meaning of the Act was, and how insidiously militarism was being introduced into a country where up till then there had been no organised militarism, and no expenditure on munitions or warlike preparations, some of the people began to think for themselves, and in the International Socialist a lead was given and a stiff resistance was put up to this compulsory training in militarism of the youth of Australia.

There arrived at this time in New South Wales a young Socialist of the name of Crawford, from South Africa, who was travelling round the world to collect information on the development of capitalism in Australia and in the States, so as to get a better grip of the international situation as regards the class struggle in the various countries. Holland, who was much in need of speakers and workers, roped in Crawford for the period of his visit, and we all three spoke and worked together for the month or two that Crawford was in Australia, in the Socialist and Anti-militarist campaign, both in Sydney and in Melbourne. I found in the latter town that the Sunday meetings in the Gaiety Theatre, which had been originally inaugurated by Tom Mann and his wife, were still extremely popular and well-attended. An excellent choir led the singing, and Socialist speakers who were passing through were always assured of a good audience. Crawford left for Vancouver on 10th April, after which Holland and I continued for a few weeks our strenuous propaganda, but the strain was evidently beginning to tell severely on this devoted comrade, and before the end of the month he had to give up travelling for his speaking engagements, and finally in May he was taken to the Coast Hospital with what was believed to be tuberculosis of the knee. On 8th May Jorgenson called on me and asked me in the name of the Committee that ran the International Socialist to take over the editorship of the paper, as there was no comrade at that time free to do the work. Naturally I had to go into the whole matter, as Holland’s lead had been so personal and so ardent that I feared at first I might do the movement more harm than good by undertaking such a responsibility; but eventually, when I found I could not only help the cause, but also my comrade Holland, and his wife and family, I consented to undertake the work and thanks to the loyal co-operation of all my fellow-workers, I have never regretted doing so. The crux of the matter was that whoever undertook the work must be financially independent, as no salary could be given. I therefore had the privilege of being able to allow Holland’s salary to be paid over to his wife, for her use and that of the younger children, and thus relieved his mind of financial anxieties during the long months when he was at the Coast Hospital. This having all been satisfactorily arranged, I used to go down to the little room in Goulburn Street, where the editorship of the paper was carried on, and where I had the opportunity of meeting day by day many of the most revolutionary comrades from all over Australia, who would drop in for a chat and exchange of views, and who enlarged considerably my knowledge of industrial conditions in the various parts of the country. The excitement about the military training of all boys over 12 was at its height. Holland’s son, with over a thousand more, had been in prison for refusing to attend drill. Mothers were complaining that their sons, being compelled for a certain number of weeks every year to live in barracks, were suffering moral harm from the contacts there made, and what we socialists feared was that the whole agitation would run off the lines into middle class pacifism. Quite early, therefore, in my editorship I drafted a manifesto and submitted it to the Committee responsible for the paper, and received their permission to publish it. In it I pointed out to the boys and their parents that the working class had no enemies among the workers of other countries. That the enemy of the working class was the capitalist class, and that all workers and their sons should refuse to serve in any capitalist army, but should enlist in the ranks of the workers to overthrow capitalism. This, of course, was a seditious manifesto, and both Holland and I were prepared to stand by it should any trouble arise. Eventually there was a debate on the subject in the Commonwealth Senate, but the authorities had not the courage to prosecute, as they knew how unpopular the measure was, and what publicity a prosecution would give to the agitations against it. So the International Socialist went on its way week after week, I driving out occasionally to see Holland at the hospital, and he helping me with advice from the depths of his long agitational experience.

I may mention here that being a member of the Australian Writers’ and Artists’ Union, which was affiliated to the Trades Hall, Sydney, I was therefore a member of the Labour Party, besides belonging to the Australian International Socialist Party (corresponding in many respects to what is now the Communist Party); but there was then little of the bitterness between the Lefts and Rights, which is now too often to be found—though less in Australia than in England. Mr. Holman—the Labour Premier of Wales—and his wife were personal friends of mine and were very kind in helping me to see conditions in the Colony, such as prisons, the work of factory inspectors, etc. I also joined them in a most interesting three or four days’ trip in a special train to see the work being carried on at the Burranjuick dam, where a whole valley was to be flooded when the work on the dam was completed. This lake was being formed for irrigation purposes, and is now the centre of a large fruit-growing industry. The men (with their families) then working on the dam were housed in a little township on the side of one of the surrounding hills and from that spot it was pointed out to us how far the water was expected to rise when the dam was completed. The rivers in Australia are very rapid, and though there is a great volume of water in them during the rainy seasons, they run almost dry in the long hot summers. It is with the view of storing the water when in flood that this and similar dams are being constructed in the more remote parts of the Colony, and there is no doubt that when the conservation of water problem is solved the very fertile land of Australia will be able to carry many more successful settlers than it can at present. When we reached the dam itself we found we had to cross in a skip (such as took over the blocks of concrete) hung on a wire rope 300 feet up. This was in order to reach the further side of the valley, where some of the most interesting work was being carried on; and later on we had to return in the same way. The work of the electric drills as the men stood exposed to the full glare of the Australian sun and held the vibrating drill against the hard surface of the rock appeared to be terribly exhausting, and when we learned that the men worked seven days a week, and that the Labour Government had sub-contracted to a capitalist contractor, who was driving on the work for all he was worth, we realised that the Labour Government needed the weekly criticisms of the International Socialist, not only as regarded its militarist proclivities, but also as regarded its industrial policy.

On returning to Sydney I dined, as the guest of honour, with the Women Graduates of Sydney University in the Great Hall, being the only woman at the table who had not a degree. Years before, when I was living in Sydney as a young married women, I had helped to collect the funds for building the Women’s Hostel, and now on my return the Women Graduates desired to show me their gratitude. In my after-dinner speech I alluded to the fact that I was the only woman present without an academic degree, but added that my degrees were those of a mother and a grandmother; and then I gave them at their request a short sketch of some of our militant work in England (at the time I was speaking still unsuccessful). But I pointed out that though still unenfranchised, the long and hard fight which had been the lot of us English women in the winning of citizenship had, to a great extent, emancipated us more thoroughly and given us more self-reliance, than if we had obtained the vote before we were prepared for it, as had happened sometimes elsewhere. I considered from my observations that in many respects Australian women were backward in organising themselves, either politically or industrially, and that the salaries of educated women were grossly insufficient. I had talks with some of the graduates afterwards, and they quite agreed; and they told me how, although in some cases women had taken better degrees than the men, when it came to employment in the Civil Service, the woman’s salary was always inferior to the man’s, even though she might be doing quite s important, and sometimes more important work.

During June and July Holland was still in hospital lying night and day on his bed on the verandah of one of the wooden huts, forming the Coast Hospital; he was burnt nearly black with the sun, and seemed in general health much better, but his knee still gave him great pain, and the doctors seemed unable to pronounce what was the matter. So I continued with the editorship of the paper, and occasionally spoke at Lithgow and other towns, criticising the Labour Party, and stirring up the workers to a sense of class consciousness. On one occasion when in Lithgow I had been speaking from the balcony of one of the hotels to a large crowd assembled in the street below; and afterwards, while I was resting, a man who had been among the audience asked to see me. It appears that on board ship coming out, some of the steerage passengers who knew my name had asked me to come over on Sunday mornings to the steerage and give them a talk. This I did, once or twice, till the Captain told me he disapproved of first-class passengers going into the steerage, so I, of course, ceased my visits. The man who was waiting to see me was a blastfurnace worker travelling out as an emigrant to Australia, and he had recognised my voice, when he heard me in Lithgow. Later on he wrote me a letter which I now publish as a human document of some value.

Ince Street,
5th March, 1911.


Since meeting you here the other night, I cannot resist the very strong desire of writing to you. I was altogether unaware of your being in Lithgow, and when by chance I came up to the crowd and heard the sound of your voice, it was like coming across an old friend in the wilderness; my opinion being that it is a howling wilderness, as far as the workers are concerned; I mean Australia. Your visit here was most opportune, and in the right time, and will have far-reaching effect in the cause of socialism and industrial freedom; as steps are already being taken to form a branch in Lithgow, as I think you are aware. I was a member of the I.L.P. when I left the old country, though a strong socialist. But the action taken by the Labour M.P.s, Messrs. Carmichael and Co., in this strike of blast furnacemen against a notorious sweater, has opened my eyes; because I assert here as a furnacemen, with years of experience, that had the Labour Party M.P.s kept away Hoskins was beat to the world. But now the agreement is reluctantly accepted as a basis of settlement, the men, the entreaties, almost the threats of these leaders of Labour trampled on and flouted from the first day they returned to work by the employer. From what I have seen of the men of this Colony they are admirable, and if left alone would have taught the employer a lesson; they seem to me to be greatly in advance of my fellow workers in England, that is, as a whole they are keener, more intelligent and take a more comprehensive interest in politics, trade union matters and socialism than anything I have found at home; and once class-conscious, nothing will stop them. Although I am of opinion that this country is much better than England for a working man, yet, it is far from being a paradise; wages are higher, so also is rent, and almost all other things. But, worse than all, in almost every branch of industry work is harder. Now this is a fact that every working man from England will admit, and which every man least expects. Who would expect that in this Australia, where the temperature is more often above 100 than below it, where everything grows in such abundance (why even up here, over 3,000 feet above the sea level, grapes grow outside the houses), I say, who would expect in such a country to find men driven harder than beasts of burden? Yet under this baneful system of capitalism, such is the case; and I ask anyone, manual worker or not, in taking a walk through the streets of Sydney, let him or her stand a few minutes and watch the workers, and they cannot get over the fact that they have to work much harder than in the old country, bad as it is. So I say myself that the workers of Australia have to perform more work in their eight hours than we do in the old country in 12, notwithstanding the different climatic conditions. As I have said, I have a great admiration for the workers of this country. They are a fine body of men, and when their union vision becomes clearer, and they can see, they will make things hum. Let that be soon. Oh, the pity of it that in a country like this, where, given access to the land, the people could banish poverty for ever, we find that land locked and held up by the same band of robbers as in the country we have so recently left!

Now, my dear comrade, if you will allow me to call you so, I often wondered on board the ship how a lady so far removed from poverty and necessity could trouble herself about and among the workers’ classes, rough working men like myself, from whom you very often get even less than civility, instead of enjoying yourself like so many others in your station in life. I thought I should see no more of you after you left the ship, and I tell you I was really glad to meet you again, and that has set me pondering: Why does this lady come down to this hard and thankless task, and why do I trouble myself about socialism? And I have come to the conclusion that we can no more help these things than the smoke can help flying upwards; and I say, God speed you. It was the mission of Florence Nightingale to come down to the wounded and dying in the battlefield, and I think it is yours to come to the aid of the struggling on the industrial battlefield; and a glorious mission it is. It is strange that these things come to us. I will now tell you something about myself. Previous to the advent of the late, or I should say, our late comrade, Pete Curran, to the Jarrow Division, I never troubled myself about politics, and being a devout Roman Catholic, if I had a pet aversion, it was socialism. I was always a good trade unionist, and a member of the United Irish League. When Curran came into the Division, although a champion of Labour, and an Irishman to boot, he was attacked by the League, by the priests; and the poor Catholic workmen were led by the nose to vote for their employer, Sir C.M. Palmer, and against Curran. This was the turning point in my life. I stood up against League priests and everybody else, on the side of Labour, and pointed out to the priests the poor little children standing in the snow in their bare feet; but all to no purpose. This man was a renegade from the Church, and was to be punished. All this time I was still a good and devout Catholic. Being an ironworker, I had little time for reading and improving myself, but I happened to get hold of Blatchford’s God and My Neighbour. Then the trouble began. Being an R.C., and all my forefathers for generations, such a thing as doubting the truth of our religion never once crossed me. I read and studied socialism as well as I could. I understand now what a glorious thing it is for a lady like you to come into the good fight; and at the finish you can render up an account of your stewardship, if required, such as no priest or parson may ever hope to do. Well, I spent pounds that I could ill afford on books, which I have brought with me. But I never forget the shock I received when I had to question the truth of the religion which had been bred into me hereditarily, and I will pass over the time it took to dig myself out, and also my wife, without using any coercion. Now we are out of Christianity; and capitalism will have to be fought for the cause of socialism. Having now come to the conclusion that the education given to my children in the R.C. school was pernicious, I took them from it and then the trouble commenced, as they get so much per head, per child, which touched the pocket. The bye-election, in which Curran defeated Spencer L. Hughes, and Innes came on, which set them ramping, and when, of course, I was denounced as a double renegade, and held up as a warning to all good Catholics who meddled with socialism. Well, I grew tired of all this friction. My own brother would not speak to me for leaving the Church; my wife’s relatives shied clear of her; so I thought I would come to a country where I could at least claim freedom of conscience for myself and family; and, at my wife’s entreaties, eschew all politics. But, how is this? Immediately on coming from the infirmary, I find myself standing straight in the firing line again. No, my dear lady, your mission is to prepare the people for the campaign; you will have no pleasure anywhere else. As for me, my poor wife has been so disheartened by her reverses, that she has a haunting fear that the denunciations of priests are coming to take possession. However, if I go down, I will go the road of better men. Poor Karl Marx! And I am only an ignorant iron worker, who writes his first letter at the age of 45; but I can leave a boy and girl behind me for socialism.

Yours in the industrial struggle for freedom.

It is these passing contacts, these refreshing inspirations, coming from the very heart’s blood of the workers, that have helped me again and again, when the progress their cause was making seemed so slow; when I watched them being misled by Labour politicians, who were out for personal careers, and who used the sufferings and the patiences of the toilers as steps for their own personal aggrandisement. It is easy to scoff at the ill-arranged ideas and sentences of a letter such as this, but underneath it all we can feel the throbbing of an honest soul struggling towards the light. It is episodes such as these which give one a glimpse of the tragic beauty of the workers’ struggle, and which re-baptise one in the faith that their struggle will not be in vain.

On 28th September I brought forward at a branch meeting of the Artists’ and Writers’ Union a resolution (which, if carried, would have gone on to the Trades Hall) demanding the revoking of the compulsory training act. It was defeated, as I was sure it would be, but I wished it to stand on the records of the Union that the resolution had been brought forward. As we now know the Act was later on revoked. At the end of September, Holland was well enough to return to his home at Annandale, but was still very lame. With the help of comrade Winspear, who had also been my right-hand man, during the time I edited the paper, he was able once more to resume his editorial duties, and as I had decided to see something of the movement in South Africa, I was glad to be able to free myself of work in Sydney early in 1912, and took a passage in the “Themistocles” for Durban. Before leaving the Socialists gave me a wonderful reception at the Socialist Club, and presented me with a copy of Omar Khayyam, with a dedication page beautifully illuminated and written by one of the comrades. Holland made one of the kindest of speeches, acknowledging how I had been able to help him and his family, besides helping the cause which was so dear to both of us. He later on went down to New Zealand, where he has been ever since, and is now in Parliament, so that I did not see him when in Sydney in 1922; but his wife who came over to Sydney during my visit there, came to see me and gave me their news. Two periods of imprisonment in N.S. Wales had told upon him so seriously that he could not take up the burden of further active propaganda in that colony, and had to lead a quieter and less strenuous life. He was one of the best and most sincere comrades I have met in my journeyings.

Next: Chapter XI. Work in South Africa