188. Valentine Crowley and the cost of disloyalty

Prior to the 1950s power throughout Gippsland was provided largely by private companies, with hydro-electric generation the preferred model. Many of these private electricity companies were set up during WW1. For example, the Yarram Hydro-Electricity Supply Company was set up in 1917. Local councils were generally reluctant to take on the significant financial costs involved in setting up the necessary infrastructure and the associated management and operating costs. Similarly, while local businesses and residents were keen on the idea of the new technology, they were as reluctant to purchase shares in the companies set up. There was also a raft of technical and engineering challenges involved in what was the new technology of the time.

Against this background, there appears to have been one individual who was critical to the success of setting up and operating these new ventures. Valentine J Crowley was an electrical engineer based in Melbourne who, as well as providing the engineering expertise, vigorously prompted the various schemes and sourced the essential capital – essentially from Melbourne backers – to set up the companies. At Yarram, in October 1916, a public meeting was held to present plans for the formation of the proposed electricity company. The meeting was reported, extensively, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 27/10/16. The report makes it clear that Crowley was the driving force behind the proposal and the chief spokesperson at the meeting.

At the meeting Crowley outlined the technology to be employed – hydro electricity generated from the Tarra River – as well as the arrangements involved in the transfer of the option for supply of electricity from the exisiting provider – the local butter factory – to the new company. Additionally, he detailed how the company would be financed – 10,000 shares at £1 per share – and his role in securing the essential backing of Melbourne capital. Under the proposal, Crowley himself was to receive 150 shares. Crowley also detailed the composition of the board of directors. As well, he spent a lot of time promoting the business opportunities that electricity would bring. He claimed it would support regionalism and decentralisation and maintain both population and employment in rural areas, such as the Shire of Alberton. There was considerable vision:

Mr. Crowley mentioned woollen mills for Gippsland, the climate approximating that of Bradford in England, where the best tweeds were made. Electricity meant decentralisation, for manufactories would start and keep men in the country.

Importantly, while on this occasion he was promoting the development of a power company specifically for the Shire of Alberton, Crowley emphasised how all the existing and planned Gippsland power companies could, in time, act as an interconnected system. It was a prescient vision. The report in the local paper noted his plan.

Eventually all the schemes in Gippsland would be linked up. The Toora scheme would be extended to Fish Creek and to Leongatha. The next line, at Warragul, would extend to Drouin, across to Korumburra, and connect at Yarram. North and South Gippsland would be linked up by electricity, and later East Gippsland would be embraced. The local scheme would extend to Alberton, and it is proposed to take Jack River in.

The reality of a single system across Gippsland would not not come until after WW2; and then it would be a public enterprise.

At the time, Crowley was himself heavily involved in all these separate Gippsland operations he mentioned. He had controlling interest in the Toora and Foster Electric Company Ltd. which had been formed in 1915. He was also heavily involved in the Warragul Hydro-Electric Company. Moreover, while he was the key player in the supply of electricity in Gippsland, he also had extensive involvement in the provision of other services – for example, water and electric trams – in other rural areas, such as Clunes and Werribee. He was also heavily involved in similar projects in (outer) Melbourne suburbs, including Ringwood, Croydon, Doncaster and Lilydale.

Overall, Valentine J Crowley was a very successful engineer/entrepreneur/company director/publicist. He was very well known and respected right across Gippsland and, specifically, in the Shire of Alberton.

However, neither his fame nor success could save him when, in mid 1918, he was charged with and convicted of the offence – under the War Precautions Act (1914-16) – of making statements calculated to prejudice recruiting.

The case held at Foster on 25/101/8. It was reported widely and, specifically, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 30/10/18.

The case related to remarks made by Crowley on a train trip from Foster to Meeniyan much earlier in the year on 31/5/18. On the day, he had been in conversation with 3 other passengers, one of whom was Constable Johnston of Meeniyan. It is probable that Crowley did not know Johnston was a police officer. Further, it must have been Johnston who initiated the charge.

The conversation on the War apparently started after Crowley revealed to the others that he had spoken to a returned Anzac. Crowley claimed that this Anzac had told him that McKie/McCay [the Gallipoli commander, Lieutenant General (Sir) James McCay] had been responsible for the slaughter of 9,000 men in one night [Fromelles, 19/7/16 when there were 5,500 AIF casualties]. Crowley was also claimed to have stated that German officers were superior to their British equivalents and that whereas people had been told that on the Western Front one British soldier was fighting 10 German soldiers, the reverse was true.

In the court case, the 3 men who were involved in the conversation with Crowley on the train that day, including the police constable, stated that they did not agree with Crowley at the time and that they had made this clear to him. One stated that he had explicitly told Crowley that he (Crowley) was disloyal. They also stated that they believed Crowley was wrong and that they did not believe that they had been influenced in any way by his comments. Further, they accepted that no other passengers on the train had overhead the conversation.

On the advice of his lawyer, Crowley did not give evidence.The lawyer did not dispute the general content and nature of the conversation that had taken place on the train but he argued that it was a private conversation between the 4 men and the others there had disagreed with Crowley’s claims and made this known at the time. He argued that the men had not believed the claims and nor had they been influenced by them. Crowley’s lawyer maintained that ‘the case had not been proved’.

However, Crowley was found guilty and fined £5 with nearly £10 costs and one month’s imprisonment in default.

Arguably, the guilty finding reflected the fact that a higher standard of behaviour and patriotic sentiment was expected of someone with Crowley’s social standing and high profile in the community.

In his opening remarks, the prosecutor had … contended that [the] defendant in making such statements had gone too far. He was an educated man, and knew such statements were likely to prejudice recruiting of his Majesty’s forces, and were weights on the minds of men who were thinking of enlisting. Had Crowley stood up at a recruiting meeting and delivered the comments then, in theory, they might have had a negative impact on the intentions of those there planning to enlist. Obviously, in such a case, under the legislation, he could have been charged. More likely – particularly if he had been a ’unknown’, lone individual – he would have been howled down and ejected from the meeting.

But this particular case only involved a conversation between several men. However, while it was an unplanned, limited, private conversation it could still attract the attention of the authorities. The law allowed the focus to be on what was said rather than the context in which the comments were made. Even though Crowley’s comments had not influenced the men involved – other reports indicated that none of them, because of either age or occupation, were even eligible to enlist – the court determined that Crowley’s claims by themselves, outside of any actual context, would have had the effect of discouraging enlistment. It was a very potent interpretation and a powerful reminder to everyone to watch what they said.

Nor was there any suggestion that truth was a defence. Admittedly, the claim that McCay was personally responsible for the ‘slaughter’ of 9,000 in one night men was an overreach. At the same time, the more pertinent observation is that by early 1918 there were many returned AIF men who were prepared to give a more accurate account of the disaster at Fromelles and who were highly critical of McCay as an officer. However, the real story of Fromelles did not emerge until after the War and in May 1918 the ‘truth’ was still contained. In Crowley’s case the claims he made about McCay – or more accurately the claims he made about what others had claimed about McCay – were simply taken as proof of disloyalty.

The other 2 claims – which side had the better (more intelligent) officers and what exactly was the numerical balance between the armies – apart from being essentially trivial in nature were both focused on criticisms of the British Army. Again, in the AIF by that point, there was a strong undercurrent of hostility directed at the British officer class: their leadership was problematic and they were the left-overs of a failed class system. It was part of the established AIF belief that had positioned the Australian soldier as better than his (conscripted) English counterpart. However, for Imperial Loyalists this style of (nationalist) criticism was not to be tolerated, and the War Precautions Act gave zealous Imperial Loyalists the chance to curtail such mischief.

Doubtless Valentine Crowley would have been shocked by the court judgement. Presumably he paid the fine and just hoped the matter was behind him. However, he was sadly mistaken. He had been publicly named as disloyal and with his significant profile he became an immediate target.

The first problem came with the Coburg Council. At the time – late 1918 – Crowley was involved in an ambitious plan for electric lighting in Coburg. The Age (28/10/18) had earlier written about the plan:

Coburg town council, acting upon the advice of Mr. V. J. Crowley, electric expert, has arranged to borrow £13,000 from the State Savings Bank, at 6 per cent, to carry out the electric lighting of Coburg in four sections.

Within one month of his conviction there was an orchestrated effort to remove Crowley from the project. The Argus reported on 22/11/18:

At a recent meeting of the Coburg Council a letter was received from the United National Federation calling attention to the fact that Mr. Valentine J. Crowley, electrical expert adviser to the Coburg Council in its scheme of electric lighting, had been convicted at the Foster Court by Mr. V. Tanner, P.M., on October 25, and fined £5, with £9 costs, under the War Precautions Act on the charge of having made statements calculated to prejudice recruiting. The federation requested the council to remove the stigma of disloyalty from Coburg.

The article also outlined how Coburg Council had then communicated with both the court at Foster and Crowley himself. In correspondence, Crowley acknowledged the basic facts,

He [Crowley] said he must admit having been indiscreet, but that he had merely repeated what had been said to him by a returned Anzac. In speaking to a constable of police and men ineligible from age or other reasons for enlistment, he had not imagined that he was in any way prejudicing recruitment.

At the council meeting one of the councillors … moved that no further action be taken. Whatever Mr. Crowley had done he had been punished for, and they did not want to persecute him. However, the motion failed and the matter was adjourned to another meeting to be held on 27/11/18. The follow-up meeting attracted considerable attention. It was reported in The Age on 30/11/18 and in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 4/12/18.

At the meeting there were deputations from the Coburg and Moreland Districts Returned Soldiers’ Club, the United National Federation and the Victorian Protestant Federation. The latter 2 organisations were vehemently pro-Britain and pro-Empire. They were strong backers of the Hughes government and had taken upon themselves responsibility for uncovering and attacking ‘disloyalty’ in the community. They ran under slogans such as ‘stamp out disloyalty in Australia’. They opposed ‘red raggers’, ‘bolshevists’, pacifists and anarchists. They were committed to the ‘one flag’ and believed that Australia’s pledge to help the Empire to the last and and the last shilling still applied, even though this was after the Armistice. This was exactly their sort of case.

The Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative gave a picture of the charged scene at the council meeting:

From shortly after 9 o’clock till midnight on Wednesday 27 ult., the proceedings in the Coburg council chamber resembled those at an excited meeting at a general election. There were cheers, bursts of applause, and loud shouts of dissent. The conclusion was the enthusiastic singing of the National Anthem.

Crowley had little chance and the vote to dismiss him from the position was passed 7 – 2. The 2 councillors who opposed the motion were … greeted with loud cries of “Traitors, traitors!”. At a subsequent meeting (23/12/18) reported in The Argus on 25/12/18, Crowley’s position was transferred to … Mr. A. J. Bassett, a returned soldier.

Condemnation of Crowley was not completely universal. At the second Coburg Council meeting (27/11/18), his representative – Mr. Claude Lowe – spoke to letters he had received from a range of people who testified… that they had known Mr. Crowley for a considerable time, and were convinced that he would never be guilty intentionally of any disloyal utterances or anything to harm the cause of the Allies. The same representative also stated that Crowley’s wife was an ‘ardent Red Cross worker’ in the Hawthorn branch of the Red Cross Society and that Crowley’s younger brother was serving with the AIF in France. The brother was Captain Arthur Herbert Crowley who had a commission in the Australian Army Medical Corps. He had enlisted in early 1918 as a medical practitioner and embarked for overseas service on 19/3/18.

One of the character witnesses was no less than G H Wise MHR (Gippsland) and then Assistant Minister For Defence. Two others who signed letters of support were A H Moore JP and Cr. Buckley, both from the Shire of Alberton. Moore was one of the directors of the Yarram Hydro-Electricity Supply Company Ltd.

However, impressive character witnesses were not able to save Crowley. Importantly, not only was his character being destroyed but his considerable business interests and his professional profile were also being damaged. And the damage was not restricted to Melbourne. Later that month (December 1918) the local shareholders of the Toora and Foster Electric Light and Power Company called a meeting … to secure the resignation of the managing director, Mr. V. J. Crowley. The episode was reported, again in great detail, in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 18/12/18.

The local Foster shareholders were not successful in their bid and, in fact, the meeting itself was … not a legally constituted meeting. The basic problem they faced was that they did not have control of the company. As noted earlier, as much as locals in rural districts favoured the introduction of a regular and reliable supply of electricity they were very reluctant to invest. In this case, Crowley and the Melbourne shareholders who were prepared to back him had overwhelming control of the company. Crowley had 500 shares himself and his Melbourne backers another 1700 +. There were only 675 local (Toora and Foster) shares. Crowley pointed out at the meeting that without his involvement in the company it would never have been established:

The Melbourne shareholders put their money into the show because I was running it, other wise they would not want to keep their money in it.

Even though Crowley won this particular battle it was clear that his reputation had been badly damaged and his chance of continuing his previous run of success with local government in rural and metropolitan areas had been fatally compromised. One conversation with strangers on a train in Gippsland had cost him dearly.

There was strong irony in this whole situation. Crowley had been undone by a casual conversation with strangers on a train trip in rural Victoria. He maintained throughout that he was merely recounting comments that he had from a returned Anzac. There is no doubt that returned members of the AIF were determined to relate the truth of Fromelles and other battles. Nor is there any question that throughout the War the Australian soldiers had been fashioning for themselves a distinctively nationalist – uniquely Australian – persona, and a key mechanism in the creation of this image relied on drawing distinctions, often in crude and over-hyped ways, between themselves and the British soldiers, particularly the officer class. Taken at face value, Crowley was not too far of the mark. However as things played out immediately after the War, when the conventional ethos of the Imperial War still dominated, and returned soldiers were keen ‘to settle the score’ with ’shirkers’ and all those identified as ‘disloyal’, he did not stand much of a chance. The fact that he was a very successful 34 yo who did not enlist would not have helped. Nor would his (Roman) Catholicism. Also, you would have to consider that some of Cowley’s rivals in the business world stood to gain by any damage done to his reputation and business interests.

Historical post script

It seems there was another whole chapter to the alleged disloyalty of Valentine Crowley. As far as I can establish, the same Valentine Crowley and another younger brother – Clarence Crowley born 1889 – were 2 of the 18 members of the Australia First Movement who were interned in early 1942 at the time of heightened fear of Japanese invasion. Both were living in NSW at the time. While the younger brother was eventually released and the authorities conceded that he should not have been charged, the same (military) authorities continued to believe that Valentine Crowley was a key ring-leader of the Australia First Movement. Certainly Valentine Crowley was a co-proprietor of the The Publicist, the publication most associated with the movement.

The Australia First Movement reflected a complex and contentious episode in Australian history. At the time of the internments in early 1942 the movement was presented as a group of ‘fifth columnists’ who were actively plotting to support the Japanese invasion of Australia. It was accused of plotting assassinations of prominent Australians and other acts of sabotage. It was said to be pro-fascist and pro-German. It was also stated to be anti-Semitic (anti-Jewish). Its own declarations portrayed itself as anti-USSR and anti-communist. The headline it used was – A Non-Party, Non-Sectional Organisation, pledged to uphold Australia First. I have included a link to a list of a so-called ’50 Points of Policy’ which the The Publicist advocated for an “Australia First” Party after the War. It was written in May 1940 and it appears in a group of papers from the National Archives (NAA: A6335,3 p.68) titled, Australia First Movement (The Publicist). Many of the ‘points’ of the list read like the drivers of the populism and nationalism that appear to be in vogue again in our own times.

The final line in the manifesto : Australia First and Long Live the King is intriguing as, at the time, the AFM was certainly portrayed as anti-British and anti-British Empire. It is generally accepted that the movement grew, at least in part, from the conviction that Australian nationalism had to be free from British influence and links. It wanted a distinctly Australian identity. Valentine Crowley for his part had called for severing links between Australia and Britain and he had even advocated the removal of the Union Jack from the Australian Flag. He was also accused – at least in intelligence reports – of having gloated over the defeat of British forces at the start of WW2.

It is interesting to speculate on the extent to which Valentine Crowley’s experiences at the end of WW1 influenced his move to the more extreme edge of Australian nationalist politics in the lead up to WW2.

References

The Argus
The Age
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

Australian Dictionary of Biography (online)

Adams, J 1990, From these Beginnings: History of the Shire of Alberton (Victoria), Alberton Shire Council, Yarram, Victoria

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