The Big Fella and the New Guard 1932


It’s 19 March 1932 and one of those sunny, festive Sydney days that leaves the rest of the country mildly jealous. Crowds and officials are gathered to see the opening of that great span over the harbor that had been contemplated for decades and then built in eight years.

Jack Lang, the Labor Premier of NSW, has scissors in hand to cut the ribbon. The fact he’s openning the Sydney Harbour Bridge is controversial. It’s the sort of thing that the King’s representative is expected to do but Jack “The Big Fella” Lang wouldn’t have a bar of that.

Suddenly a uniformed man comes into view on a horse. He raises a sword, slashes the ribbon proclaiming his act was in the name of the decent and respectable people of New South Wales, and is then quickly dragged to earth and hauled away by the police. The ribbon is quickly repaired so Lang can complete the act and the festivities continue with no further trouble.

At first sight this exhibition of sabre rattling might seem to have been the act of a lone eccentric with an old school military fetish but a further reading of the newspapers of the 1930s tells a different story.

If we were to frame the period in contemporary terms, the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was preceeded by a vigorous degree of terrorist chatter and most of it was about Jack Lang. There was talk of poisoning him, kidnapping him or simply dumping him in the water and 1932 was a year when such vigorous considerations may easily have been translated into action.


The sword wielding horseman was Captain Francis de Groot. He was originally from Ireland and had served with the 15th Hussars on the Western Front during the First World War. He made a living, in Australia, as a furniture maker and, in the troubled era of the Great Depression, he found a political home with a group known as the New Guard.

Sydney’s Fascists – Loyalty to the Throne

The New Guard, an organisation which has for its main objects unswerving loyalty to the Throne, sane and honourable Government, and the suppression of disloyal and immoral elements in governmental, industrial, and social circles, is well established In Sydney.

It was learned from an authoritative source tonight that the New Guard has a membership of many thousands of responsible citizens, who are being organised with the object of maintaining law and order, and protecting life and property should their services be required. The organisation is claimed to be lawful, and assurances were given by office bearers today that it would not operate unless the constitutional forces of law and order failed to cope with a crisis.

The Mercury (Hobart) 2 May 1931

In an era of titanic ideologies, many placed their hope for the future in ideas ranging from a democratically driven socialism, embraced by the Labor Party of the day, through to the revolutionary agenda of communism. As the world and Australia lurched towards the bleakest economic years of the twentieth century, the Unemployed Workers’ Movement would become a political force that literally manned the barricades on behalf of families about to be evicted from their homes.

Those inclined to the political right looked on with horror, formed secret militia groups, stock-piled weapons and waited to take up arms to fight against any red revolutionaries. The major drama of the times played out in New South Wales after Jack Lang became Premier in 1925. As local and international economies began their decline, English banks applied pressure on the Australian Federal and State Governments to prioritise the repayment of their debts over any strategies designed to address unemployment and the social needs of the population. While the majority of the governments submitted to the fiscal demands of the English, Jack Lang made it clear that loan repayment was not going to be his number one priority.

The conservatives saw Lang as fiscally irresponsible and highly disloyal. He was labelled a “Red” despite his anti-communist rhetoric. Physical clashes between communists, fascists and others came to a head as the world lurched into the Depression and the openning of the Sydney Harbour Bridge was seen as the symbolic occasion where a clear message might be sent to Australian and the rest of the world.


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The Ugly Legacy Of Lambing Flat 1861

The following is one of the most vivid and disturbing accounts of racial violence that I’ve found in the time I’ve been immersed in Australian history. The notorious Lambing Flat is now known as Young and this instance of a “roll-up” was neither the first nor last of such acts. These passages from the Sydney Morning Herald of 13 July 1861 do not need a further commentary. The words are a mirror to the darker instincts that linger in the Australian psyche even today.


THE following extract from a letter of a native of the colony (who was an eye-witness to the disgraceful proceedings at the celebrated roll up), to his father and mother in Sydney, has been handed to us for publication :—

LAMBING FLAT, July 8th. —We have had a roll- up here on last Sunday, which I suppose you have heard of, through the Sydney Morning Herald, as yet the account given by that paper are not one half as bad as they are in reality.

On last Sunday, at about half-past ten a.m., a body of about two thousand men arrived on Lambing Flat from the new rush, Tipperary Gully, led by a brass band. They carried a large banner, with words ” Roll-up — no Chinese ; ” there were other flags, American, French, but not one English flag of any description.

They proceeded from the town to the first camp of the Chinese, and then commenced the work of destruction. The poor fellows ran in all directions, leaving behind their tents and all belonging to them. The mob set fire to the tents, and those of them that were on horseback rounded up the Chinese, and commenced cutting their tails off — cutting, you could not call it cutting, — they pulled them out by the roots, chopped off with hatchets, this they did by taking them by the tails and dragging them to the nearest log. I myself saw one man, an Irishman, in his hurry to cut off a tail, cut all the skin off the back of the poor fellow’s head.

They then proceeded to the main camp of the Chinese, at Back Creek, and there no pen can write with sufficient horror the brutality practised upon these poor harmless, but more persevering fellows— more honest and more persevering than many of those who were hunting them, and call themselves men.

Here they burned and plundered all they could find. riding them down, cutting their pockets out, and taking all they had. One instance of brutality I saw, it was that of a woman, the wife of a Chinaman, she had a poor little baby in a cradle ; they burnt the tent and even set fire to the cradle in which the poor little thing was asleep, and if it had not have been for the Chinese interpreter (a Mr. Henley), they would have even committed the same atrocities on her.

On Monday morning, there were twelve hundred Chinese out at a Mr. Roberts’ station, three miles   from the Flat ; they had neither tents, bedding, nor   even a mouthful to eat, and more than that, no means   of getting it. Mr. Roberts was kind enough to give  them meat and flour, and Commissioner Clarke has ordered them blankets, tents, and eatables from the  town, which, it is expected, will cause some disturbances. The roll-up mob have already threatened to burn down all the stores that dare to let the Chinese have anything. I heard it was to take place today. The Commissioners have taken every precaution against this ; they have sworn in about two hundred specials, and have now all the mounted police that have had time to arrive here.

Sydney Morning Herald 13 July 1861

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Hobart & the Californian Gold Rush 1849

Gold was discovered in California early in 1848 and, by 1849, the entire world, including the inhabitants of Van Diemen’s Land, was captivated by the story and its promise of a better life. Eight ships left Hobart for California in the first six months of 1849. Twenty five ships left Sydney in the same period. The newspapers of the day give a hint of the excitement on the streets of Van Diemen’s Land:

“The only item of interest is the news from the gold diggers — other matters receive no attention. The whole country is in a state of turmoil, and everybody is flying to the gold region to reap a fortune. All the seaport towns are deserted. Out of a population of nearly one thousand, San Francisco only contains about fifty or sixty souls, and these would leave were it possible. The news of the gold discoveries has spread with lightning-speed, and the minister, merchant, artizan, mechanic, farmer, labourer, and loafer, have all gone to seek their fortune. Farms and crops are deserted, and all branches of business are. at a stand. Up to the latest dates there was some thousand men, women, and children on the ground digging, and the roads were thronged with multitudes more pressing forward to obtain a. portion of the glittering treasure.”

Cornwall Chronicle, 13 January 1849

The passion of that first, great gold rush wasn’t confined to the charge of the 49ers across the continent of the United States. The promise of wealth was a topic of energetic conversation in Hobart where plans were soon afoot to charter ships and get to California as soon as possible to reap the benefits.

“CALIFORNIA -A meeting of the working classes took place yesterday evening at the Commercial Hotel, Collins-street, for the purpose of taking into consideration the news recently received in Melbourne relative to the mining operations in California, and deciding as to whether it would be advisable for them to adopt measures for securing their immediate passage to that locality.

There was a very numerous attendance, and the chair was taken by a mechanic named McCoy. The time of the meeting was occupied chiefly in a desultory conversation concerning the climate, productions, and Government of California, in which Messrs. M. Cashmore, Bernard, Reynolds, and Short, took a prominent part. A couple of sailors who had visited the country of gold mines, described the climate as being equal to that of Australia Felix, and particularly healthy.

Mr. Cashmore said he had no doubt if a sufficient number of persons offered, that a vessel could be   procured in this port, and laid on direct for California; and although not disposed to live there himself, he might try a little speculation, if he saw a chance of succeeding. Mr. Reynolds strongly advocated the necessity of taking steps in the matter immediately, and suggested that any person present wishing to proceed there should put down his name on a document which had been prepared for that purpose ; he was of opinion that even if there was no gold in California, the working classes, men like himself, could not be worse off than they were here.

Several persons in the room thought the suggestions of Mr. Reynolds rather premature, and one of them, with a view of carrying on business in a proper manner, moved that a Committee of three persons who intended to leave for South America, be appointed to make enquiries among the merchants as to the chartering of a vessel, and for the purpose of obtaining such other information upon the subject as they could learn.

This motion was seconded and adopted, and Monday evening fixed upon for another meeting, to receive the report of the Committee, which consists of Messrs. McCoy, Short, and Elford. It was calculated by one of the speakers, that upwards of one hundred persons would be ready to start in about a fortnight, and the Colina was named as the vessel likely to convey them to California Ibid.”

Colonial Times, 26 January 1849

There was something powerfully democratic about the Californian gold rush and the later Victorian gold rush. Wealth and independence were suddenly possible for individuals who had known nothing but poverty and limited opportunities all their lives. But in 1849, none of the excited crowds in Van Diemen’s Land could have imagined that even greater wealth was waiting to be found, not on the other side of the world, but on the other side of Bass Strait.

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Feminist Tasmania in the 1920s

The Tasmanian Women’s Non-Party Political League first met in January 1922. It’s striking to stop and consider the campaigns that were carried out by the women who gathered on that day. They battled for better and healthier communities on multiple fronts: doing whatever was necessary to have their voices heard on committees; continually lobbying politicians for a social safety net and for a range of measures which would ease the burden of families; pushing for greater educational opportunities for young women; running female candidates for political office; raising funds and educating and encouraging families that were often faced with great hardship.

The battles fought by these women, in the 1920s and 30s, had a more direct and lasting impact on contemporary Australian life than most military battles that were fought on foreign soil but these women are hardly known today and they have no place of remembrance and we are all diminished by that absence.

The newly-formed Tasmanian Women’s Non-Party Political League has declared that its objects are: (1) To put forward a woman candidate at the next election; (2) to obtain full civic rights for women; (3) to improve the conditions of education and public health and obtain firmer consideration of social and moral questions; (4) the immediate bringing into force of the Mental Deficiency Act.

Advocate (Burnie), 31 January 1922

The idea of a “non-party league” reflected their ideal that solidarity among women, in making their views heard and in gaining greater opportunities for civic participation, should have precedence over any party political allegiances.

The women of the league could be found, throughout the 1920s and beyond, lobbying state and federal ministers about a broad range of issues including: issues related to the plight of war widows and their children; the poor state of public schools and hospitals; the lack of resources for poor families; the need for a social welfare safety net and improved access to education particularly for young girls.

Their aspiration did not end with making their voices heard through lobbying. They wanted to see women in positions of power where they could be directly involved in the debates, judgements and legislative processes that had a direct bearing on the nature and direction of the Tasmanian community.

Mrs F. B. Edwards, who presided at the recent meeting in Hobart when the Women’s Non-Party Political League was formed, said they were not out to abuse men. They remembered that their fathers, brothers, husbands and sons were men. Men had given them the right to equal responsibility with them in the government of the State, a little slowly perhaps, but all the more appreciated for that. And they were already asking for more. They now wanted full civic rights, that was to say, the right to sit on Hospital Boards, the State Children’s Board, Charitable Grants Board, Municipal Councils, and to hold such positions as justices of the peace, especially in children’s and similar courts. All those positions were open to women in England long before they were allowed the right to sit in Parliament.

Advocate (Burnie), 31 January 1922

The league had a particular concern related to the composition of juries. Women were not included on juries, at the time the league was formed, and the women of the league saw that the entirely male judicial status quo resulted in leniency particularly in matters related to rape, domestic violence and men financially abandoning their families. Some of the prominent women in the league were also members of the Women’s Criminal Law Reform Association which was specifically focused on legislation to improve the situation for women and children:

Regarding the recent case of alleged indecent assault on a little girl, the president and secretary (of the Women’s Criminal Law Reform Association) interviewed the Attorney General pointing out the need for these cases being heard by a judge without a jury and the more pressing need for women being on juries.

World (Hobart) 28 March 1922

Mrs Edwards stated at the first meeting of the Women’s Non-Party Political League, regarding finding a candidate to run for the next state election, that they did not expect to find a candidate of some exalted type of superwoman, but rather just an average person, as the greater share of the work of the world was done by the average person.

Edith Alice Waterworth was the league’s first candidate. She may not have been a superwoman but she was certainly more than average. Edith was born in Lancashire in 1873 and emigrated, with her family, to Queensland where she was educated at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School. She and her husband, John Waterworth, moved to Hobart in 1909. While John unsuccessfully ran for parliament, Edith created her own forum, for communicating with Tasmanian women, in the Hobart Daily Post.

The first columns of “Woman and Home” in the Daily Post, in early 1911, were of a predictable nature: recipes were shared and advice was given regarding running a house well and attending to one’s health. The column was written by Edith under the pseudonym Hypatia. Hypatia was an Alexandrian woman was a leading mathematician, astronomer and philosopher, in ancient Alexandria, so taking her name as a pseudonym suggested an aspiration beyond simply sharing recipes and home hints. By July 1911, in the midst of those shared recipes and household hints, “Woman and Home” started engaging readers on the issue of women and politics:

Many estimable and well-intentioned women when asked why they do not take any interest in politics say they do not think women should mix themselves up in it, but leave it to men. One has a hazy idea that they desire to give the impression that there is something unbecoming and unwomanly in showing an interest in politics. I have heard some of the best of women speak thus, who in other respects fulfil their duties conscientiously and well. Now, to be a good daughter, sister, wife, or mother is a truly excellent thing, but whether a woman realises it or not, and whether she will admit it or not, the fact remains that she has a further duty outside her home— to the community of which she is a member, and to the race.

Daily Post (Hobart) 11 July 1911

“Woman and Home” provided updates on the suffragette movement in England and the Continent as well as introducing readers to contemporary ideas such as those expressed in Olive Schreiner’s book “Woman and Labour.” The column was not only a vehicle for Edith to express her views. It provided a forum for women, around the state, to engage with these ideas and express the impact it was having on their lives.

I have always read your column with interest and quite agree that women should take an interest in politics and social reform, as well as all matters pertaining to the wellbeing of the human race. I am pleased to hear others share the objection to corsets; without doubt, by discontinuing them, health would be greatly improved.

Daily Post (Hobart) 12 August 1911

Town Girl (Hobart) writes – I like your column in the Daily Post very much. It is so interesting and helpful. As to the question of greater freedom for women, it seems to me our age is the “between the stools age.” We are not content with the old order – dependence on men – nor yet can we find perfect happiness in independence. Yet I think we should have a much wider choice than even the present day system permits. Our intellect entitles us to an equal place with men, and when they recognise this with us, first as fellow-workers then as wives, surely our positions will be bettered.

Daily Post (Hobart) 16 September 1911

The writing of “Woman and Home” stands alongside other publications of the era such as Vida Goldstein’s “Woman Voter” newspaper which not only conveyed news of the European suffragettes but also maintained a strong and controversially pacifist agenda during the First World War.

The men who do not see that the day of women’s work in the world has dawned are wilfully or stupidly blind. When the fact is forced upon their notice they are irritated and retaliate by saying the most unpleasant things they can think of, “Woman is turning herself into a man” and “Only hysterical unmarried women take these matters up.” But the day has gone by when such observations can either ruffle or deter us.

The truth is that the scales have fallen from our eyes, and at last we see the world as it is. We are daring to think for ourselves, with the natural consequence that we are criticising and judging men’s management of the outside world.

“Hypatia” Daily Post (Hobart) 10 July 1915

Edith Waterworth was unsuccessful when she stood to represent Denison, in the Tasmanian Parliament, in both 1922 and 1925. Despite this lack of success her work continued both in the Women’s Non-Party League and, at an international level, in her attendance at the 1924 Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Washington and the 1929 International Alliance of Women for Suffrage and Equal Citizenship in Berlin.

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Revolutionary Tasmania 1931

This account of the Unemployed Workers’ Movement conference in the 2 July 1931 edition of the Mercury (Hobart) provides great insight into the passion that accompanied the onset of the Depression. As far as the gathered unemployed were concerned there was only one solution: the overthrow of capitalism.

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Commercialising WW1 in 1915


The lead up to the centenary of ANZAC day was accompanied by some understandable concern that rememberance would descend into a rampant frenzy of jingoism and commercialisation. Over recent months I’ve been exploring the day to day coverage of the First World War in various Australian newspapers from 1914 to 1918. I’ve found a range of advertisements, from the era, that would make current commercial inclinations seem mild in comparison.

At the outbreak of war, in 1914, most war related advertising focused on providing something special for the first wave of volunteers to take to the front. The Great Tesla Studio in George Street, Sydney, encouraged loved ones to come and have a portrait taken to give to the boys as they went off to the front. Kodak’s Vest Pocket camera was an ideal gift for a soldier who might like to “bring back pictures of the interesting places where he has served” and, before a shot was fired from an Australian gun, Australia had already replied to Germany through none other than Foster’s Crown Larger.

In 1915 a tailor, in Sydney, offered a genuine bullet shell from Gallipoli with every suit that was purchased. The virtue of various car tyres were linked to their performance on vehicles at the front. Possibly the crassest example of commercialisation was the extraordinary game “Trencho” which offered everybody a chance to play a game of trench warfare. The Grace Brothers advertisement, in the 12 September 1915 Sunday Times, even suggested sending the game to Gallipoli.

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