The years of frustration, defeat, and sorrow

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, Part 5.

On his release from prison, Holland, Barlow and Batho evaluated the experience of producing The Socialist for the last few years, and concluded that the most responsive readers of the paper had been the coal miners of Newcastle, about 120 kilometres north of Sydney. The second major consequence of the Newcastle coal strike was that they decided to shift production of the paper to that city, to tie it closer to the lives and thinking of a powerful contingent of the working class.

Annie writes, “The two men [Holland and Batho] then departed with their type ­– all that they possessed – in a carpet bag” and produced the paper from “a one-room galvanised iron shack” in Newcastle, in which they also slept, to save on rent. “They were a couple of days without food while setting up the paper – but both of them had been hungry before, and they knew that there were thousands of others going hungry too. Because of this they were prepared to face the hardships that were entailed in building up the Socialist movement which they felt would someday emerge triumphant. They called the paper The Northern People.” Barlow remained behind in Sydney, actively supporting the new paper from there.

The Northern People banner

Once a week “Harry went out canvassing in the mining areas for subscriptions, Tom Batho staying in the set the type. Quite a number of sympathisers paid their subscriptions in advance, enabling the printer to be paid in more than just promises… The circulation of the paper increased sufficiently to enable the two men to pay a low rent and bring their families from Sydney.”

The two families moved into adjacent cottages facing the railway coal yard. They ate all their meals together, using an upturned packing case as their dining table because it could not be repossessed, and heated their cottages with coals that fell off the rail wagons. After a few more months the paper became more financially secure, and they acquired the means of doing their own printing. Annie Holland and Mrs Batho folded and wrapped the paper for mail subscribers, often working into the early hours of the morning. “We were young then and could look on the lighter side of our troubles,” Annie Holland wrote later, “and although we often felt we could eat a good meal, they were amongst the happiest years of my life.” With job printing from the Miners Union and advertising from local businesses providing a little more revenue, their financial situation gradually improved.

Despite a conscious shift towards presenting itself as “advocating the cause of the People as against that of the Classes” the Northern People was a more serious and substantial newspaper than The Socialist. Later issues had the words “The Miners’ Paper” under the banner, and carried reports of miners’ union disputes and activities, including reports from Broken Hill. Holland often shared a platform with Newcastle miners’ leader Peter Bowling in public meetings. The People serialised long articles such as White Slaves of England which detailed the conditions of workers in various branches of industry, in the tradition of Engels’s book Condition of the Working Class in England. Later it serialised Engels’s pamphlet Socialism Utopian and Scientific.

Towards the end of the century the widely-scattered British colonies on the Australian continent, which by this time had penetrated and settled the interior at the expense of its aboriginal inhabitants, moved towards federation into a single Australian state. Holland spoke on the subject of Federation from the balcony of Mason’s Hotel in Newcastle in January 1897, arguing that at the root of the call for Federation lay a militarist drive. The labour movement generally opposed federation, seeing in the various layers of federal government only a deeper entrenchment of rule by the wealthy minority and greater restrictions on working class organisation. They dubbed it ‘fetteration;’ the Commonwealth of Australia that was its outcome they christened the ‘Privatewealth.’ “Today the people of Australia are their own rulers; under the Federal monstrosity their rulers will be a small minority – the wealthy exploiting class of today, in fact, who will practically monopolise the Federal Parliament,” Holland wrote.

Anti-Chinese cartoon shows ‘Federation’ being raised as a barrier to ‘the Chinese pest’ threatening white women

In order to win workers to support federation and its associated militarism, a new wave of anti-Chinese propaganda was launched in the capitalist press, arguing that a stronger federal state was needed to protect Australians against the yellow peril.  Chauvinist anti-Chinese sentiment had long been rife in the colonial labour movement.

The People took its distance from this anti-Chinese campaign, seeing it as a demagogic and false argument for federation – while at the same time including in its chat columns some overtly racist jokes mocking the accent of Chinese workers speaking English. [See for example “The Chinese and Federation,” in Northern People 20 February 1897, page 5]. The Australian labour movement was still emerging out of a process of colonisation, and this anti-Chinese prejudice, together with a complicit silence on the question of the dispossession of the indigenous Australians, revealed that it had not yet shaken off the shell of its infantile phase. Even as late as the early years of the twentieth century, the Socialist League included in its list of demands “Exclusion of races whose presence under present competitive conditions might lower the standard of living of Australian workers” and argued in favour of the White Australia policy. (see, for example, the article signed by Karolus in The People, 23Feb01). While the antagonisms within the ASL and the wider Labor Party movement were sharpening, there was not yet any corresponding political differentiation and clarity in the militant camp.

Proclamation of Commonwealth of Australia in Brisbane by the Governor of Queensland, Lord Lamington, 1901. Photo: State Library of Queensland

The Australian ruling class achieved its federated state, proclaiming the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. This represented a significant consolidation of capitalist rule, with the White Australia policy at its very heart. An Australian Navy was soon created; Australian control over Papua was consolidated. In Brisbane the town hall balcony from where the Governor announced the Commonwealth was bedecked with the Union Jack. An illuminated banner on the Sydney town hall proclaimed “One people, one destiny.”

Sydney Town Hall during inauguration of Australian Commonwealth, 1901. The benner reads, “One people, one destiny” Photo: State Library of New South Wales

The ‘one people’ clearly excluded Australia’s aboriginal inhabitants, who were not considered people in any sense, as well as its Chinese residents, who were part of some ‘other people.’ Whether the Germans, Slavs, and other non-British Europeans resident in Australia – and in many cases born in Australia – were included in the ‘one people’ was moot. Events in 1914 proved they were not.

In August 1897 the People carried extensive reports of the Sydney and Newcastle meetings for Ben Tillett, leader of the 1889 London Dock workers strike, who toured Australia and New Zealand. Holland also spoke at the Sydney meeting, welcoming him to “on behalf of the class-conscious socialists of the district.”

Ben Tillett

“On behalf of the English Dockers [Tillet] thanked Australians who had helped to brighten the homes and strengthen the manhood of the London dock labourers. Unfortunately there was a tremendous reserve army of surplus labour in England which was always a source of weakness…He wished to see and know the Australian workers and to judge of their solidarity.” This visit was a taste of things to come.

In 1897 the ASL militants renewed their interest in participating in Labour Party affairs, when they succeeded in getting the 1897 conference of the Political Labour Leagues to adopt a goal of socialisation of the means of production. In the 1897 elections The Northern People threw its support behind a slate of ten socialist candidates, which included Holland’s friend and former ASL leader William Holman, George Black, and future Prime Minister Billy Hughes. Holman was elected to Parliament, and later visited Holland at Newcastle, addressing a series of public meetings in support of the Northern People. He also made offer of financial help with the newspaper from his parliamentary salary. Holland and Batho refused the offer, for fear that it would compromise their position if they ever had need to criticise Holman. The Sydney ASL had meanwhile produced their own paper called the Collectivist. Since both were struggling to survive financially, it was agreed to merge them, with Holland as editor of the merged paper, called the People and Collectivist, in 1898.

When the right wing of the Labor Party threw out the socialisation clause at the 1898 conference, the militants, including Holland, walked out in disgust. Holland denounced “the thieving of the capitalist class, and the doings of the filthy, lying contemptible creatures who are in the Parliament of the country.” In the pages of the People and Collectivist, Holland reminded the Labor representatives in parliament – including Hughes and Holman – on more than one occasion that “You have been known as Socialists, but we recognise that you did not enter Parliament solely as Socialists, but you did enter Parliament as independent representatives of the working class.

Harry Holland (right) and Ike Askew on ‘agitators’ holiday’ in 1899 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

As soon as circumstances allowed, Holland accepted an invitation from socialists in Richmond River, in the far north of New South Wales near the Queensland border, to do a speaking tour. He set off on a horse and buggy with timber worker Ike Askew, a co-thinker who later joined him on the People and Collectivist. “One is almost startled to find so much genuine socialist thought thriving in the very midst of “cocky” [farmer] conservatism,” Holland wrote in one of a series of reports on his ‘agitator’s holiday’.

Holland and Batho returned to Sydney in December 1900, continuing to produce the combined paper under the title of The People. In 1901 the ASL constituted itself as the Socialist Labor Party in opposition to the official Labor Party, which had taken firmer shape around a pro-capitalist programme very similar to that of the Liberal Party in New Zealand. Holland stood for election on the SLP ticket in the first Federal election, winning 4,771 votes, including over a thousand from Newcastle. (Billy Hughes, a former member of the Socialist League, was elected to the first Federal Parliament in that election as the Labor member for West Sydney.) Holland stood again in the state elections a few months later, in a seat already occupied by a Labor Party member, and won a disappointingly low number of votes.

Hard times and legal harassment continued. Holland had an article written exposing the fraudulent nature of the ‘industrial insurance’ operation he had witnessed in the early 90s. The insurance company offered him £100 if he would print a retraction and apology. Holland refused, instead offering them space in the paper to refute the allegations made against them. The company rejected that offer and instead brought another libel suit against Holland. Batho respected Holland’s principled decision to refuse the bribe, but couldn’t help wondering wistfully about what they might have done with the £100. Holland’s close friend and co-worker on the People, Charles Barlow, fell victim to tuberculosis at this time, and died a year later at the age of 30. Holland wrote later that this loss was  the greatest blow to the development of the socialist movement in those years.

Later that year Holland was approached by some women clothing workers who wished to form a union. Women workers were among those whose union organisation had been largely neglected by the Trade Unions organised in the Trades and Labor Councils, and worked in sweat-shop conditions for very low pay. Holland agreed to help them. In July of that year the Tailoresses Union was constituted, and in November 850 members of the union struck, with Holland addressing a series of rallies in their support. The strike had the backing of the Sydney Labor Council, but in December, in the midst of the strike, the Council withdrew its support, when the Union insisted on what the Council considered “impossible conditions.” Holland protested the “cowardly treachery of the men you call your executive” at the next meeting of the Council, following which “the deputation, including the tailoresses, retired from the council room amid a scene of disorder.” The strike was an unprecedented success. Years later, Holland recalled: “So great was the success of that strike that the Strike Committee was able to pay the girls the full wages they were demanding – not the wages they were receiving – all the time they were on strike; and when they returned to work it was with an all-round increase of wages that ranged from 10 percent to 100 percent.”

While Holland was preoccupied with the Tailoresses’ strike, his opponents within the Australian Socialist League saw an opportunity to strike a blow. A complaint was raised against Holland for spending too much time on the Tailoresses Union and neglecting his duties as editor of The People. Sensing that this complaint reflected bigger disagreements, and perhaps offended that his sacrifices and hard work in establishing the paper were unappreciated, Holland resigned his editorship.

Holman was still making great efforts to win Holland over to the parliamentary tendency of the Labor Party, and Holland did not reject these overtures outright. After several years of dogged propaganda work and great personal sacrifice, Holland was at this point isolated politically and frustrated by setbacks, especially in socialist propaganda and electoral work. The road to Socialism was proving to be longer and more difficult than he had anticipated. Through these experiences he had gained a sharper appreciation of the obstacles thrown up by the treachery of the elected Labour politicians and the cowardice of most of the leadership of established unions, but as yet he had no strategy for overcoming these obstacles other than to denounce them. Perhaps it was simply a matter of electing representatives of greater integrity and moral fortitude?

Holman’s next offer was to invite Holland to take over editorship of the Grenfell Vedette, a Labor Party newspaper in the rural town of Grenfell which Holman had managed until his election as a Member of Parliament. Holland accepted and moved to Grenfell in 1902. “A more barren and desolate place, I could hardly imagine,” Annie Holland wrote. A seven year drought affecting most of New South Wales had taken an especially heavy toll in this region.

Stock dying during the seven-year “Federation Drought” which affected all of the Australian colonies.

Grenfell was a town on the tablelands west of Sydney. Originally a gold-rush boom town, in the late 1860s it had boasted the richest gold seam in New South Wales, but the gold was exhausted quickly. Wheat was planted in the 1870s and it became a farming service town. The railway reached it in 1901, the year before Holland arrived.

This small town had three newspapers, one supporting the line of each of the three parliamentary parties – Free Trade, Protectionist, and Labor. The Grenfell Vedette which he took over was perhaps the least interesting newspaper which Holland ever produced, a small provincial paper mostly filled with advertising and gossip, all but indistinguishable from the other two, except for an occasional serious political article, written by Holland, which seemed oddly out of place in the context of the rest of the paper. For all the political compromises Holland accepted in producing this newspaper, it still failed to fly as a commercial enterprise, and was constantly on the verge of bankruptcy.

Holland maintained his commitment to the Tailoresses’ Union in Sydney. When the union took its case to the Arbitration Court, and could afford neither a legal advocate nor even to pay Holland’s train fare from Grenfell, he made the 300-kilometre journey on a pushbike in order to represent them in court, leaving production of the Vedette to his young sons.

In September 1904, the Hollands’ youngest son, Edmund, who was five years old, fell ill with pertussis (whooping cough), and died eight days later. Harry was deeply affected by this. In a letter he wrote in 1930 from Wellington to his wife on the West Coast, he describes being brought to tears by watching a film about a young boy which reminded him of his own son, and “recalled so much of the greatest sorrow that has ever come into our lives… It is more than a quarter of a century since he died, but I feel as I did when I looked  upon him lying silent and still.”  The family left Grenfell within three months of Edmund’s death.

Holland’s next venture was a newspaper in Queanbeyan, the town where he had done his apprenticeship. The Queanbeyan Leader was produced in partnership with another Queanbeyan newspaperman, under Holland’s editorial direction. Although it didn’t flinch from taking a stand in support of coal miners and other workers in struggle, most of its columns were filled with articles about health matters, local wildlife, sports news and horse racing, local civic matters and advertising.

Queanbeyan was growing in size and importance, since nearby Canberra had been chosen as the site where the new Australian Federal capital would be built. Still, the town had neither the solid base of coal miners which had been his core readership in Newcastle, nor the fighting traditions of the Sydney working class. The economic and political pressures to accommodate to the strictures of a popular provincial newspaper were strong, and the Queanbeyan Leader soon resembled the Grenfell Vedette.

Holman made one more concerted attempt to awaken Holland to parliamentary ambitions, offering him the candidacy for the Monaro seat, and enlisting the help and persuasion of a trusted mutual friend in order to maximise the pressure on him. Holman was now the Deputy Leader of the Labor Party; the promise of influence at the highest levels of the party must have been tempting to Holland. But the political gulf between himself and Holman was now too wide, and once again he declined the offer.

Like the Vedette, the Leader also carried a few political articles and news, mostly from Holland’s pen, interspersed with the local trivia and advertisements. One of these was a report of the 1905 Bloody Sunday massacre in Russia and the revolutionary strike movement that it triggered. “…Then 10,000 Putiloff strikers gathered at the union headquarters, and revolutionary pamphlets were thrown from windows. Incendiary speeches from the leaders foIIowed. They protested excitedly against an armed force having been called upon to suppress them, adding that it was characteristic of the Czar’s attitude towards the people. Cheers greeted the speakers, and a great shout arose — ‘ Down with the Monarchy!’”

Barricades in Moscow erected by revolutionary workers, December 1905

For the first time since the Paris Commune of 1871, the oppressed and exploited masses of a major European country had risen up in insurrection against their oppressors. Though it failed to topple the czar, the 1905 revolution shook Russian and European capitalism to its core; the revolutionary socialists emerged from it re-awakened and re-energised. So too did socialists at the other end of the earth.

By 1905 political isolation and defeat had pushed Holland to the point where his future course was an open question. He could have gradually settled down in the role of an irascible provincial newspaper proprietor. Less likely, but not totally excluded, was a parliamentary career.  Ultimately, it was the world-changing upheaval in Russia, and its chain of consequences in other countries, that barred those possibilities to Harry Holland, and drew him back into the working class political struggle. In 1906 he returned to Sydney, with his wife and family of seven surviving children.

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