This post provides an overview of the extent, nature and causes of the sectarianism that characterised life in the Shire of Alberton in the immediate years after the War. It is based largely on reports in the local media from the time.
Sectarianism in the local community was hardly new, and it has been covered in numerous earlier posts. Essentially, in terms of causes, there was the centuries old clash between Roman Catholicism and British Protestantism. There were significant differences in terms of dogma, the role and responsibility of the related clergy and fundamentals such as the significance of the Bible in the quest for personal salvation. There was also a long, bitter history between the two religions that had featured persecution on both sides.
There was also the vexed issue of Ireland. In part, this represented a religious clash between Irish (Roman) Catholic and British Protestant. But it also covered Irish nationalism and the fight – both political and military – for an Ireland completely free of British control. There was also the determination by Protestants in the north (Ulster) to remain within the United Kingdom.
Prior to the War itself, there had been the threat of civil war in Ireland. It was largely averted by the British promise of Home Rule after the War. This background was covered in Post 67. Ireland, Empire and Irish-Australians. However after the War and, more particularly, the Easter Uprising of 1916, there was a different political dynamic in play. The 3 years immediately after the War featured armed conflict between Irish nationalists and the ‘occupying’ British troops and Auxiliaries. Then, following the Anglo-Irish Treaty of 1921, and the realisation of a form of Irish independence, the conflict with the British was superseded by a bitter civil war between those who supported the treaty and those who opposed it and wanted a complete break with the UK. Overall, the political situation in Ireland in the years immediately after the War was dire and the obvious hostility towards the British In Ireland was inevitably reflected amongst the Irish Catholic community in Australia. Where in 1914, Australians, including those from the Irish-Catholic community had flocked to join the defence of the Empire, by the end of the War – after two divisive conscription referenda, the Easter Rebellion and the British campaign to crush the rebellion and execute the ring leaders – support for the Empire amongst the Irish Catholic population in Australia had softened considerably. The dynamic situation in Ireland in the years after the War compromised Irish-Catholic Australians’ support for the Empire even more, particularly when Protestant clergy in Australia declared, in effect, that Roman Catholicism itself and the Pope posed an existential threat to the Empire. In part, this argument was a reworking of the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917.
Beyond several centuries of religious differences, the ripple effects of the ever-present conflict in Ireland and the strident claims of Catholic disloyalty to the Empire, there were still further drivers to the increasingly bitter sectarianism that characterised post WW1 Australia. As noted in several previous posts, schooling was a constant flash point and, arguably, its effect was even more pronounced in rural communities. Catholic efforts to establish their own schools, operated by religious orders such as the Sisters of St. Joseph, were viewed negatively by others in the the local community. The negativity was not just because of religious differences or the view that the local Catholics were choosing to remove their children from the local state school and effectively set them apart from the other children, but also because of the challenge of providing schooling in rural communities where the issue of student numbers was always critical. Any new Catholic school made the challenge more difficult. The end of WW1 saw the push for increased secondary schooling in rural communities and, as the likes of Bishop Phelan pushed for Catholic secondary schooling in Gippsland, tensions increased over the impact of such schooling on equivalent state school initiatives.
The sectarian tension associated with schooling went beyond the issue of its provision, because there was also a very significant background issue round the question of Bible or Scripture study or lessons in the state school. For a long time there had been a push from the Protestant Churches for some form of ‘non sectarian’ religious instruction, based on Bible reading or study, in Victorian state schools, even to the extent that such instruction could be given by the teachers themselves rather than visiting clergymen. However, such a position was, in theory at least, at odds with the non-sectarian and ‘secular’ nature of the state school system which had been established in all the various colonies in the 1870s and 1880s. After WW1, in the midst of heightened sectarianism, Protestant groups accused the Romand Catholic Church of undermining their attempts to bring about such Bible instruction in the state school. From the Catholic perspective there was indeed an element of wariness about the motivation behind the push. Beyond issues of dogma and theology associated with Bible reading per se, the wariness stemmed from the degree to which during the War the local state school had been pressed to serve the British (Protestant) Empire. There was Catholic concern that Protestantism, as well as having been declared the ‘natural’ religion of the Empire, was also being proposed as the natural religion of the state school.
There were still more dimensions to the ugly sectarianism of post WW1. Interestingly, one emerging dimension concerned Australian nationalism. Throughout the War, such nationalism had been incorporated within the total commitment to the Empire. The true Australian was one, first and foremost, loyal to the Empire. However, in the sectarianism of post WW1 this simple equation began to unravel. Irish Catholics were increasingly concerned by what they saw as British repression in Ireland. For them, the Empire had become an oppressor. At the same time, on the other side, there were strident claims from some Protestants that Roman and Irish (Australian) Catholics, led by the anti-Christ Pope, were effectively ‘traitors’ to the Empire, and, in fact, had been throughout the War itself. Not surprisingly, the very idea of Australian nationalism came under great pressure and Catholics inevitably looked for an expression of such nationalism outside the (Protestant) Empire.
Another dimension involved national politics. Irish Catholics tended to support the ALP and, obviously, they had been largely identified with the anti-conscription cause – itself interpreted as an anti-Empire push – during the War. Politically, they were seen as left, even radical, and also definitely anti-Empire. On the other side, Protestant Churches were largely represented as politically conservative.
One final dimension worth noting concerned individual personalities. For both sides, the bitter sectarianism both threw up and was itself defined and driven by key personalities. As we will see, such personalities attracted intense interest and their individual appeal and actions definitely shaped what happened.
All these dimensions are evident in what follows.
Loyalty by numbers
One of the key background issues to the intense debates at the time covered the extent to which Irish Catholics had been ‘loyal’ during the War. For many, this question came down to numbers: the numbers of local Catholics who enlisted. Throughout this blog, I have attempted to plot enlistments relative to the religious affiliation described on the enlistment papers. I have also attempted to tie these figures to what we take to have been the levels of religious affiliation in the local community itself. None of this analysis is as simple or easy as it might appear. Take the case of the levels of religious affiliation in the local district. The 1911 Census gave a figure of 21,349 males who were identified as Catholic for the County of Buln Buln. This suggested a figure of 19% of the total male population for the county. We could extrapolate from this and assume the same level for the Shire of Alberton. However, there are some qualifications. First, while the Shire of Alberton is located within the county of Buln Buln, the county is considerably larger than the shire. There could well have been variations in terms of Catholic settlement density across the whole county that affected the precise figure for the number of Catholics within the Shire of Alberton. Second, the overall figures are not broken down by age-cohorts. Such information would help identify the numbers of men who were actually eligible to enlist at points throughout the War. There are also problems with the designation of religious affiliation on the men’s enlistment forms. True, virtually everyone identified with a religion, but there is no way of knowing the strength of the religious conviction or the commitment to the associated religious beliefs and practices. So, strictly speaking, the statistics refer only to ‘in-name’ affiliation. Also, sometimes with brothers you have different religions given and there appears to have been a tendency to use ‘Church of England’ as a sort of generic religion. With all these qualifications in mind, the following points can be made:
The complete list of men with a definite association to the Shire of Alberton who enlisted between 1914 and 1918 and who indicated a religious affiliation – there were only 13 cases where a religion was not given – was 807. Of this number, 109 men described their religion as ‘Roman Catholic’. This number represents 13.5% of the total Shire enlistments.
Previous analysis – in earlier posts – indicates that the percentage of Roman Catholic enlistments varied over time. For example it was at its highest in the first half of 1915 (17%) and it remained around 16% through 1916. It was lower from 1917, but it is difficult to be precise about the exact decline, principally because enlistments as a whole declined significantly from that point and the numbers are too small to be able to make definite observations. For example, whereas total enlistments in the Shire for 1915 were 302, there were only 31 enlistments in the first half of 1917, with 3 of these Catholic. With this significant qualification about the numbers involved, it appears that there was a drop-off in the rate of Catholic enlistments in the Shire from the start of 1917. This is hardly surprising given the background of the conscription referenda.
In a real sense, the issue here is not one of statistics but community perception. With more than 100 Catholic enlistments over the period of the War, the perception in the local community would definitely have been that the Catholic community had ‘answered the call’. It is also worth noting that the local Catholic priest, Fr Sterling, served as a chaplain with the rank of captain in the AIF over 1916-1917. In the local press at the time this service was noted and praised. It would have served as a very visible example for other potential Catholic enlistments.
Also in terms of perception, it is worth noting that of the 79 names on the cenotaph in the main street of Yarram – the memorial to the dead of the Shire of Alberton – 13 of the names are Catholic (16%). The fact might not mean much today, but 100 years ago locals would definitely have known the individual men and noted the significance of their religion.
Overall, in terms of enlistments and sacrifice, the Catholic community in the Shire of Alberton had proved its loyalty over the course of the War.
The following is an overview of episodes that illustrate the nature and extent of sectarianism in the local community in the first few years after WW1.
The test of loyalty and the increasing the number of Catholic schools in Gippsland
The first episode has already been covered in a previous post – 154. The start of the 1918 school year and yet more division – but it is included here because it touches on another aspect of the critical issue of loyalty. Throughout the War years, Bishop Phelan of Sale had pursued an ambitious church and school building program in Gippsland. He had enjoyed significant success with new churches at Bairnsdale, Maffra and Yarram and convent schools at Leongatha and Yarram (opened for the start of the 1918 school year). Further, his ambitious plan for a major Catholic boys’ secondary school – St. Patrick’s – at Sale was keenly promoted. It would open in 1921. Part of the motivation behind the ambitious program was clearly to lift the profile of the Catholic community in Gippsland and emphasise their right to exercise civic and political power. For example, Phelan was quoted – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, 26/4/18 – in relation to the proposed Catholic boys’ college at Sale:
My ambition is that the Catholic boys of Gippsland should have in their own province a college where they would receive such a secondary education as would equip them to take a leading part in civic and national affairs.
But in the same article, Phelan noted the challenges he had faced in his ambitious building program. He noted the inherent difficulties in the geography of the diocese where the Catholic community was spread thinly over such a vast area. He also noted the competition for funds and specifically mentioned … the innumerable demands made on the people on account of the most terrible war in history. He then stated:
But the greatest difficulty experienced was the wall of prejudice raised by narrow-minded people who endeavored to howl down every movement for raising funds except for Red Cross or Imperial purposes. But the stirling Catholics of Gippsland, like their fighting brothers at the front, did their duty towards all the demands of the Empire, and broke through every barrier that prejudice and bigotry would raise between them and their own field of labour.
The Catholic community in Gippsland was aware that fund-raising on their part during the War for their own parochial interests could be interpreted as an act of disloyalty to the Empire. An earlier post – 84. Schooling, religion & Imperialism, Part B: Secularism – considered the issue in more detail. It described how the proceeds from the St Patrick’s Sports Carnival, held in Yarram in March 1916, were passed in entirety to both the Red Cross and the Victorian Sick and Wounded Soldiers’ Fund. The amount was very significant – £720 – and it was to that point; and probably for the entire period of the War – the single most successful fund-raiser for the War effort. It was also significant that it came just 2 weeks after the official blessing of the new Catholic church in Yarram which itself had been funded by a far more parochial effort.
Clearly, throughout the War years, there was the perception on the part of the Catholic community that its loyalty to the War effort and the Empire was always under question. The loyalty itself was measured in a range of ways and the scrutiny was intense.
Fr Sterling’s ‘loyalty’ comes under question
The second episode involves a letter to the editor published in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 1/5/18. Again, this was obviously before the end of the War but it is important for setting some background to the hostility directed at the local Catholic priest – Fr. Sterling – in the years immediately after the War. Fr Patrick Sterling had been born in Ireland in 1882. He served as parish priest if Yarram from 1914 to 1949. As already indicated, he also served as a chaplain with the AIF. At the time he volunteered, his service received widespread praise in the local community.
The letter in question, signed ‘Returned Soldier’ wanted to know why Sterling had not been invited to a recent function for returned men. There was a clear inference that his absence was a sleight to the returned Catholics in the district:
Kindly allow me to inquire through your valuable columns of those responsible for the Returned Soldiers’ Smoke Night, why the Rev Father Stirling’s name was omitted from the invitation list. He is as much a returned soldier as any of us and his non-inclusion was keenly felt by at least the Catholics present.
The event had been held in the Shire Hall on Thursday 25/4/18 and the report in the local paper on 1/5/18 indicated that … nearly 100 local and district residents’ received invitations.
There was a letter in response from the local branch of the Returned Soldiers’ League published in the paper on 3/5/18 which argued that there had been a direction from the State Executive of the organisation that … troopship chaplains are not eligible for membership of the Returned Soldiers’ League and are not classed as returned soldiers by the Defence Department. The letter continued that as there were limited places it was not possible to include Fr Sterling. There are at least two possible interpretations here. One is that the local committee, acting neutrally, was merely applying the letter of the law. The second is that it was exploiting a technicality to exclude Fr Sterling from attending and, at the same time, intimate that his service with the AIF had not been all that significant. It, effectively, did not rate. The significance of the second interpretation will become clearer later. Certainly, there were some in the local community keen to minimise and denigrate Sterling’s service as a chaplain with the AIF
Intensified attacks on Fr Sterling
The third episode also involves Fr Sterling. From the end of 1918 through to the first part of 1919 there was an extended series of ‘welcome homes’ to local men returning from the War. They were written up in the local paper. Typically, they were hosted by a local dignitary, often the local councillor and invariably a recognised Imperial Loyalist. The conventional patriotic sentiments were always evident.
However, the welcome home staged at Stacey’s Bridge on Friday 10 January 1919 was definitely not in the normal style. It was reported at length in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 17/1/19. This report itself prompted a series of animated letters to the editor over the next few weeks. There were several highly divisive issues on show and the degree of hostility evident is revealing. It points to major fault lines in the local community.
The actual welcome at Stacey’s Bridge was put on for two sergeants – John Cantwell and Aloysius Cotter – and a stoker from the RAN named McKenzie. The two sergeants had survived the full war. They were part of the original group of 4 men from Stacey’s Bridge that left from the Alberton Train Station in September 1914. The original four men were Cantwell, Cotter and also Patrick Sexton and John Babington. Cantwell and Cotter made it through the War and were at this reception. Sexton was killed in April 1918. Babington was not finally discharged until October 1919. Of the four from Stacey’s Bridge who enlisted in September 1914, three were Catholics – Babington was Presbyterian – and it appears that this Catholic background was the distinguishing characteristic of the welcome home.
It was a very large community gathering. The paper reported that some 300 people attended the reception and there were at least 3 local councillors present: McLeod, McGalliard and Barry. The focus of the report however was on the comments made by Fr Sterling.
Fr Patrick Francis Sterling was thirty-seven at the time. As already noted, he had been born in Ireland – Thurles – and his mother as next of kin was still living in Borrisokane, County Tipperary. He had been serving in the parish at Yarram for two years when, in October 1916, he applied for and was given a commission as a captain in the AIF and served as a chaplain until April 1917. In that time he served on ships transporting troops to and from the UK. It was not a long period of service; but he obviously did have experience in the AIF and he could claim to speak with some authority.
Father Sterling’s speech is all the more interesting for what was not said, very deliberately not said. In fact, as reported by the paper, he began by stating that he regretted that he … could not do justice to the occasion by speaking exactly what he felt … because … if he did he ran a big risk of getting six months in jail.
By this point, Catholics had had to develop a particular perspective on the War. They were reluctant to support the claim that the War had been fought to preserve the integrity and supremacy of the British Empire. After all, as they saw it, the Empire was the core problem in Ireland. Yet uncompromising and total dedication to the Empire had been one of the constant themes hammered home in Australia throughout the War and well before it. In the popular mind, the defence of the Empire was a given – even a God-given reality. Moreover, 300,000 thousand Australians had enlisted in the AIF – including many from an Irish Catholic background – to defend the Empire. So there was this fundamental dilemma for many Catholics: how to bypass or downplay the issue of Imperial loyalty – and avoid being seen as pro-British – while at the same time honouring the achievements, sacrifices and unique character of all the Australians who had enlisted.
On this occasion, it is clear that Sterling opted for a pro-Australian and anti-British position. Of course, his comments are being reported to us by the local paper and they may have been coloured by the editor; but they certainly do suggest that Sterling was not being as pro-British and pro-Empire as the times demanded.
He [Sterling] reminded the audience that the credit of winning the war was due in one essential matter solely to the Australians. The British authorities have now admitted that on the occasion of the last big German offensive, every preparation had been made to transport back to England every British soldier in France. As a last resort, and as a desperate gamble, four Australian divisions were hurried up at a critical time, and at Villers-Bretonneux stemmed the German advance once and for all. In plain, sober fact the Australians on that occasion won the war, and saved the world’s freedom. (Applause.)
This idea that Australian troops had in effect ‘won the war’ was reflected in other articles at the time. While the claim was greatly overblown, it did at least reflect the high praise accorded to the AIF by various heads of state, newspaper editors, foreign generals etc. The more important observation here is that Sterling’s comments champion the Australian cause while at the same time questioning British efforts and character. Sterling went on to make other highly complimentary remarks about … that gallant fighting force, the A.I.F. which had earned for itself in deeds of bloody glory a monument “more splendid than gold and more enduring than brass.”
The event itself was taking place just 2 months after the end of fighting. To this point, most other welcome-home events or Armistice celebrations had promoted a conventional narrative of God’s grace in bringing victory, the final triumph of good over evil, the resoluteness of the British fighting spirit, the unvanquished greatness of the Empire, the final defeat of German militarism, the outstanding achievements of the AIF etc. But Sterling started to raise the more awkward questions to do with what, in the end, had been achieved. He argued that for a war that had been waged for … freedom and democracy, and a lot of other high sounding things … the outcomes were decidedly uncertain. He even suggested that the ‘four years of hell’ that the Australian boys had been through ‘to make the world fit to live in’ were currently being compromised by the actions of some of the Allied powers themselves. He singled out France for its determination to maintain conscription and the USA for its declared intention to create a navy which, as Sterling put it, … will make her boss cocky of the seas. Sterling also included an attack on the ‘repatriation scheme’, which he referred to as a ‘huge farce’. The criticism was that the boys had volunteered for war on the solemn promise that they would be looked after when they came home. But now the promise appeared false:
The departing soldiers were told that nothing would be too good for them on their return, and the best would not be good enough for them. And so on ad nauseam. If they wait until these promises materialise they had better make Rip Van Winkle their patron saint. (Applause.)
He then gave an account of a returned soldier who, only recently, had had to cadge from him the ‘price of a bed and a feed’. Coincidentally, less than two weeks later there was a detailed story in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on the plight of a returned soldier who had well and truly fallen through any repatriation safety net. It is not clear if the subject of the article on 29/1/19 is the same person with whom Fr Sterling dealt. However, it is very evident that both the challenge of repatriation and the implicit fear that the returned men were not being sufficiently supported were very much in the public mind.
Fr Sterling also could not let the occasion pass without mentioning that he had been … blackballed from the Yarram Club … and … passed over at Armistice celebrations.
There was singing – ‘Coming Home’, Mother Macree’ etc – and dancing at the function. But there was no mention of standard Imperial tunes, nor any mention of the National Anthem.
Unsurprisingly, the article on Fr Sterling’s comments at the welcome home at Stacey’s Bridge prompted a response. A letter appeared in the very next edition of the local paper on 22/1/19 by an anonymous correspondent who signed himself as ‘Loyal Australian’, with the clear implication that Fr Sterling on the other hand was not loyal. In fact, the gist of the letter was that if he – Fr Sterling- risked six months gaol for speaking his mind then, clearly, his sentiments must have been disloyal. ‘Loyal Australian’ also challenged the priest’s remarks about the British preparedness to evacuate from France and he suggested that no one would believe such a claim. He appeared to confirm that Fr Sterling had been banned from the Yarram Club and passed over for Armistice celebrations. He also claimed that Sterling had also been … turned down by the Returned Soldiers’ Association.
Fr Sterling responded in the next edition of the paper (24/1/1919). By now the debate was indeed heated. Sterling began by attacking ‘Loyal Australian’ for hiding behind the mask of anonymity. He argued that without any idea of the writer’s identity there was no way of testing his own loyalty. Sterling implied that the claimed loyalty might be fake. In fact, he suggested that the cloak of anonymity certainly pointed to a lack of courage. Sterling talked about varieties of loyalty and it is clear what he had in mind:
Loyalty… has so many meanings and ramifications. Loyalty to pocket and flag-flapping loyalty are common specimens. There is also the loyalty of the man who sools others on to fight for him, and who tells his substitute what a fine fellow he is, and what a lot of things will be done for him on his return – if he ever returns.
Fr Sterling continued his claim that the Yarram Club was selective and discriminatory by alleging that a sergeant involved in recruiting [presumably, William Newland] had also been blackballed; and he used this claim as a justification for questioning the very integrity of members of the Club. The criticism was full-on:
Did “Loyal Australian” resign from the Club when a recruiting sergeant was subjected to the indignity of being blackballed? They must be a hard lot to please in that exclusive club of aristocrats. Possibly the sergeant with his honourable wounds was deficient in the Club brand of loyalty. How many shirkers are on the roll call of the Club? Is “Loyal Australian” himself one of them? Is he in good health and physically strong, and as well able to endure the hardships of campaigning, as many others on the too-young-side and the too-old-side have done? Has he enlisted, or tried to do so, even for home defence? Let us wait and see if the boasted loyalty is merely camouflage for humbug.
Fr Sterling also attacked the ‘War Precautions Act’ and Hughes whom he referred to as the ‘livery P.M.’ Sterling referred to national politicians – Hughes, Cook and Pearce – as the ‘tin gods’ of the likes of Loyal Australian. He also made another specific reference, in the context of the repatriation system not working, to a returned soldier living in a tent at the back of newspaper office waiting for a job. The reference in important because the same theme – possibly even the same case – was taken up the paper itself in a major article the next week (29/1/1919).
Not surprisingly, given what he had said about the Yarram Club, there was a response to Fr Sterling’s letter in the next edition, 29/1/1919. It was long, over-written and pompous in tone. Once again the writer was only given as ‘Loyal Australian’. But this letter included a piece of doggerel, penned by another anonymous scribe, ‘Spokeshear’.
The effort was clearly intended to damage the priest’s reputation and image in the community and make him look a fool. Amongst other insults, it questioned both his military service and his religious life. It mocked his Irish brethren. Aimed at a highly public figure in the local community and penned anonymously it was a nasty effort. It is surprising that the paper published such anonymously vindictive attacks. Perhaps the editor believed Sterling’s ‘disloyalty’ justified the attack. The complete effort – under the title of ‘Cinderella’s Voyage’ – is included below. It is worth reflecting that while the Great War was over, longer and deeper conflicts that touched on issues of class, nationality and religion were still very much alive. Those from the land of ‘bogs and hogs’ would have been less than amused.
I’ll tell you of a brave, bold Sterling chap
Who was spoiling for a scrap,
And was soon on board a transport
On a fairly decent job,
With clothes and boots and tucker free,
And a daily one and twenty bob.
And when he reached the land of bogs and hogs
His cobbers came to meet him by the score
But they couldn’t sight his togs,
They seemed to make ‘em sore,
But chappy didn’t care a dam-
For sure those togs were only sham.
And bad luck he didn’t stay,
But he wasn’t sorry that he went,
For he had a bonzer trip,
And it didn’t cost a cent,
And we know this Cinderella chappy
Didn’t mix up in a scrappy,
And wicked people say
He didn’t even – pray.
And soon he reached Australia fit and well,
And if he didn’t fight like hell or pray too well,
He surely wasn’t qualified to be supplied
With bread and beef and beer at a patriotic club,
So now perforce he lines up at the “pub”
And soaks his beer and damns the Club.
And now, alas, this poor Cinderella youth
Declines to mingle with these men uncouth,
Whom you’ll find among the “angels” at the Yarram Club.
Formation of local branch of the Protestant Federation
The fourth episode worth attention involved the formation of a local branch of the Protestant Federation in Yarram in August 1919. The motto of the Protestant Federation was ‘For God, King and Empire’. It had been established in Ballarat at the time of the second conscription referendum in 1917. By the time the local branch was set up in Yarram the Federation claimed a membership of 100,000. In part, it was influenced by the Protestant revivalist movement of the time. It spoke out against moral decline and population peril, and it actively supported causes like prohibition and social justice initiatives such as social housing. Imperial loyalty was its very DNA. Lastly, it was stridently anti-Roman Catholic. Archbishop Mannix was a particular target, as was John Wren.
The local branch was formed in Yarram on 1/8/19 at a meeting held in the Shire Hall with about 50 people present. The local meeting was reported in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative on 6/8/19. The meeting was presided over by Rev W E Lancaster (Methodist). In his remarks Lancaster noted that the federation … had done a great deal to check different menaces to the country, and to prevent many things that did not tend to promote the welfare of the Protestant community. One particular ‘menace’ that Lancaster highlighted was the Roman Catholic Church. He quoted Gladstone to claim that … where the Church of Rome is weak it is crafty, and where it is strong it is tyrannical. He added:
The past of the Roman Church was dark with intrigue and red with the blond of martyrs.
Then he launched into claims that the Protestant Federation was promoting at the time. They were claims about Roman Catholic perfidy in the recent War. The Roman Church was an enemy of the Empire:
During the war evidence was available to show conclusively that the Roman Church had had a hand in the awfulness that had taken place. The speaker [Lancaster] advised those present to study the Rev. F. A. Hagenauer’s pamphlet describing the relationships of the Papacy to the Kaiser in the war. When Belgium was over-run and France was outraged no protest had gone out from the Vatican, nor was there any papal protest when the Lousitania (sic) was sunk. While Germany was busy submarining Allied and neutral vessels, ships flying the papal flag were immune from attack. While masquerading in the guise of a church the Romanish sect dishonoured the King and endeavoured to bring about the destruction of the Empire. Politically that Church was prepared to sell its influence to the highest bidder, and Protestants should be careful to combat its evil influence wherever and whenever possible. (Applause).
Also present the meeting were Rev M G Opper (Church of England) and Rev S Williams (Presbyterian). Opper spoke briefly about the aims of the Federation: … to substitute liberty for bondage, truth instead of error, and purity instead of corruption. He also mentioned threats to the Empire – ‘social unrighteousness’ and ‘industrial unrest’ – and, again, one such threat was the Pope. He noted that the Federation … wanted to rule out the supremacy of the pope. The first principle of Protestantism was loyalty to God and loyalty to the King.
It was resolved that the president of the local branch was to be George Bland (Methodist) and the 3 vice-presidents would be the three local Protestant clergymen: Revs Melchior George Opper (Church of England, appointed to Yarram October 1918), Samuel Williams (Presbyterian, appointed to Yarram November 1917) and W E Lancaster (Methodist, appointed to Yarram early 1919).
There had been earlier connections to Yarram for some of the influential figures in the Protestant Federation. Rev F A Hagenauer, who at this point (1919) was at Castlemaine, had earlier ministered in Yarram and, in fact, he had recently been relieving in the district when Rev S Williams had been on holidays. Rev G A Judkins, another key figure, had also served for a term in Yarram. He had left in 1904. As we will see, Judkins returned to Yarram to speak on behalf of the Protestant Federation.
The decision to establish a local branch of the Protestant Federation prompted a letter to the editor (8/8/19) from Fr Sterling criticising what he saw as the group’s anti-Roman Catholic bias. Sterling’s letter attempted to make fun of the allegations about the Roman Catholic Church working in concert with Germany. Essentially, Sterling dismissed the claims as nonsense. He also gave his version of what the real motivation was:
Now that the big war is over, and there is no sensational subject for the Sunday sermon, it is not unexpected that a local sectarian war will be dragged in to do duty. Anything to fill the empty pews. However, it won’t worry us. There will be mass at St. Mary’s as usual next Sunday, and the local annual collection for the Pope will most certainly eclipse all records this year. That is the best reply to make to the snuffling slanderers.
Sterling’s letter set off a minor war of correspondence with Rev F A Hagenauer. Hagenauer (13/8/19) challenged Sterling to shown where the Protestant Federation had given ‘false or unreliable’ evidence. He also added the allegation that Stirling, personally, had spoken ‘disrespectfully’ of the Prince of Wales.
In turn, Sterling replied on 15/8/19. It was clear that he was not keen to pursue a debate that he considered nonsensical. He also claimed that the debate was designed to boost sales of Rev Hagenauer’s book(s). Then Stirling tuned his attention to the claim that he had shown disrespect to the Prince of Wales
The Prince of Wales has proven himself during the war to be above all things – a man among men. He is no namby-pamby drawing-room fop, nor yet a tin god on a swirling piano stool. From what we have learned of his character he is not the type that wants grovelling slobberers running after him labeled as spittoons.
But as well as praise, there was also the clear rejection by Sterling of any sense of mandated servility. He continued:
His [Prince of Wales] manly character and his exalted position demand the ultimate expression of respect, but it is not necessary for me to stand on my head every time his name is mentioned.
On 20/8/19 Hagenaeur followed up with another letter but the debate with Stirling had effectively petered out.
Then in the local paper on 24/9/19, there was advice of an address by Rev G A Judkins on ‘The Papal Army in Australia’. It was to be held on behalf of the local branch of the Protestant Federation. The paper also noted that Judkins had previously ministered in Yarram, that he was key figure in the Methodist Church and that he was … held in high esteem in Protestant circles.
The meeting took place on 26/9/19 and was written up in the local paper on 1/10/19. The paper’s report was extensive and noted that it was the first, formal function of the local branch. The address took place in the Mechanic’s Hall and ‘there was ‘a very satisfactory attendance.’ The meeting began with the National Anthem and prayers. Rev Opper, vice president, presided and set the tone. It was the Empire against Roman Catholicism.
The speaker deplored the apathy manifested by Protestants in the fight against the influences of Roman Catholicism which was a great menace to the Empire and to Australia.
For his part, Judkins claimed it was the Roman Catholics not the Protestants responsible for the conflict. Again, the Roman Catholic Church was trying to destroy the Empire:
The conflict would never have come into existence had it not been for the wicked aggression of the Roman Church. Rome had promised faithfully to lay aside her weapons during the progress of the great war, but she had not done so. While they were giving their sons in order that the Empire might be saved and liberty preserved for themselves and heir children, the great organisation of Rome was doing its utmost to spoil the Empire, and praying that it should be beaten down to the very dust.
According to Judkins, there was a universal conspiracy:
A papal army existed in Australia, and not only in Australia, but in every other land; and its definite object wherever it existed was to bring that country under the absolute control of the church of Rome.
Amongst other wild accusations, Judkins claimed that because France had ‘thrown off the papal yoke’, Rome had been keen to bring about the defeat of France and had allied with the Kaiser. Rome was behind the War itself:
France was to be punished because she had broken away. The intriguing hand of Rome was responsible for the great war, just as it was responsible for some of the other greatest tragedies in history.
With such a shocking history, Judkins warned that the threat of Rome could not be taken lightly. Rome was the Devil’s agent:
People did not realise it but an organised minority was infinitely more powerful than an unorganised majority. People talked foolishly when they argued that Romans compromised only a fifth of the Australian population, and they could not do anything. Rome was one of the mightiest forces that the devil employed; and it was working to bring the whole world to the feet of the Pope. He [Judkins] appealed to those present to organise and to keep organising, in order to combat the great menace which existed in their midst today.
Judkins continued on about papal espionage, the Church of Rome as the ‘anti-Christ’, a papal plot for world domination and, specifically, the conquest of all Protestant lands, with England the chief target.
Specifically in relation to the situation in Australia, Judkins claimed that Mannix had been reported to have said,
If I had my wish there would not be a Protestant in Australia.
There were additional attacks on the local Catholic clergy as being under the control of Rome and … working to injure our country. The Catholic Church was also said to be in alliance with the ALP … which she was using as a tool to be cast side when it had outgrown its usefulness. Similarly, Rome was in alliance with ‘Sinn Feinism and Bolshevism’.
Judkins also argued that Protestant attempts to bring scripture back into the State schools were being undermined by Catholics. The Catholics had even deliberately left some of their students in State schools so they could oppose the introduction of scripture. The Catholic Church was also ‘… cramming our [State] schools with Roman Catholic teachers.
The local paper noted the applause at the end of the address.
It was hardly surprising that local Catholics were upset by Judkins’ attack. On 3/10/19, there was a letter from John W Biggs a local Catholic who had had 3 sons serve in the AIF: Robert Biggs (2616), Charles Ignatius Biggs (1313) and John William Biggs (427). All survived the War.
Biggs recorded his ‘disgust’ at Judkin’s address which he described as … a tirade of abuse of the Catholic Church and all belonging to it. He identified Judkins and his supporters as ‘pro-conscriptionists’ from the War who had tried … to force our young Australian youth (boys merely) to fight for the defence of the Empire. He rejected the claims of disloyalty and claimed 60,000 of the AIF had been Catholic. He claimed this figure of 60,000 was … their full quota according to population. Biggs asked … did ever a body get such abuse as the Catholic parents of such soldiers?
Biggs briefly revisited the conscription debate:
No doubt a good many Catholic young men did not join the army but could you blame them when the majority of the Press and the wowser parsons were abusing their religion right and left.
Biggs also claimed that many young Protestants had not wanted to join AIF and had also opposed conscription; but they had not had to bear the same level of abuse as the young Catholics.
Biggs also disputed many of Judkins’ historical claims and was critical of the conditions of the British working class – housing, wages, living conditions – under Protestantism. He suggested that Judkins should focus on substantial issues, such as the housing problem in Melbourne and ‘profiteering’ and ‘race suicide’. Biggs finished his letter:
I will now conclude by informing you, that being the father of three soldiers, I was very much hurt on reading the insults and abuse showered on Catholics by Mr Judkins, to which denomination my boys belong. I may state that the Catholic percentage of population of Australia is 20.68, and the Methodist 16.3. The percentage of enlistments of Catholics is 18.9 and Methodists is 13.8.
St Patrick’s Day processions
The next episode to highlight the bitter sectarianism evident in the local community after the War involved St Patrick’s Day processions in 1919 and then 1920. The first covered events in Sale, Gippsland and the second in Melbourne.
Sectarianism was strong in Sale where Bishop Phelan was based. Against this background, the civic authorities insisted that for the 1919 St Patrick’s Day procession through the town the Union Jack had to be carried at the head of the procession. The flag also had to be larger than any other flag in the procession. Additionally, no ‘Sinn Fein colours’ were to be worn or displayed by members of the procession. Lastly, there was to be ‘no allusion’ in any display in the procession to the ‘unhappy incidents of Easter, 1916, in Dublin, or any sequel thereof’. The organisers of the march agreed to the obviously ‘political’ terms, but when Phelan heard of the demands made by the mayor he railed against them. He described the mayor as a ‘petty tyrant’ and a ‘fool’. The local press – Gippsland Times, 27/2/19 – reported that Phelan called off the procession because of the demands and the manner of the local authorities:
We will not march to the grounds [where the associated St Patrick’s sports carnival was to take place] under the humiliating conditions which our local ruler would impose on us this year. (Tremendous Applause).
Phelan then organised an alternative garden fete. He invited Mannix to attend the event and it was clear that this was a definite strategy to raise the profile of the occasion, underline the perceived attacks on the Catholics in Gippsland, and encourage a large attendance. Additional trains were put on to bring people from Bairnsdale and Traralgon. Mannix arrived at Sale by train on 5/4/19 and was met by very large crowd. Led by a car carrying Phelan and Mannix, the large crowd then processed thorough Sale to the cathedral. There was no Union Jack. The Gippsland Times (7/4/19) reported on comments by Mannix:
His Grace expressed his great pleasure at being present. In Melbourne they had been hearing a good deal of Sale lately – (laughter) – and some of the trouble arose in connection with St. Patrick’s Day. Here, as in other places, obstacles had been placed in the way of celebrating St. Patrick’s Day. They wanted to prevent the people of Sale from marching in their own streets, but today a great part of Gippsland had marched in spite of them. (Great cheering).
After the ’procession’ or ‘march’, the mayor of Sale set out to prosecute the organisers, on the basis that clearly a march had occurred – a large one, led by Phelan and Mannix – but that the appropriate permission for the march had not been either requested or given. Some of the councillors saw the episode as an attempt to undermine local authority; and they were incensed by what they saw as Mannix’s gloating. The Gippsland Times, 10/419 reported one councillor:
Cr. Futcher said there was not the slightest doubt that there had been a breach of he regulations. What made matters worse was the fact that Archbishop Mannix went out of his way to gloat over the fact that they had marched in spite of the authorities. … Had it not been for the gloating that had been indulged in by church dignitaries, he would have been prepared to let the matter pass.
The council initially narrowly voted to institute a prosecution against the organisers and Mannix. The 5-4 vote was on sectarian lines. The vote saw all the Catholics on the council walk out and division in the local community reached new levels. In the end, the prosecution did not go ahead.
The following year -1920 – saw Mannix put on his own version of the St. Patrick’s Day procession in Melbourne. This time it was a far grander spectacle than the one staged in Sale the year before.
The St. Patrick’s Day Procession in Melbourne in 1920 was reported extensively in the press. The Argus, 22/3/20, detailed how the route started at St. Patrick’s and ended at the Exhibition Building (the interim Federal Parliament). The crowd watching was a record and the paper noted:
Long before the starting time people commenced to assemble on the streets. Soon after 1 o’clock there was a large crowd behind the barriers, and all available space on Federal Parliament House steps and the Post-office steps was occupied.
The route itself was lined with 400 police on foot and another 100 mounted police accompanied the procession. There were also plain clothes police in the crowd. On the day, there were no reports of any disturbances or problems.
It was a large procession. The paper estimated that 20,000 people participated in the actual procession and that it took an hour and 12 minutes for the procession to pass a given point.
The procession underlined how determined Mannix was to demonstrate not just the sacrifices that the Catholic community had made in terms of the War but how significant they were in terms of state and national politics. At its head, the procession featured the Australian flag, not the Union Jack. In fact, there was much press speculation about how the Union Jack would appear. The report in The Argus noted that it appeared about half an hour into the procession and … it came and went without many people realising it. At the same time, With the exception of one or two isolated individual cases, there was an absence of Sinn Fein colours or emblems. The dominant colours throughout the procession were green and gold.
First in the procession came 14 Victoria Cross winners on grey horses. Next was Archbishop Mannix in a motor car with several returned chaplains, with … a small body of mounted troops as an escort. Then there were 6,000 returned soldiers and sailors. More cars followed with nurses and returned men and other cars with clergy. There was also a long line of Catholic boys from Catholic schools and colleges. There were also Catholic societies and schools with banners and some floats. There were also various bands including the Melbourne Pipe Band. Finally, the paper noted that … the rear of the procession was brought up by a body of about 140 horsemen.
Mannix clearly sought to emphasise the martial character of the procession. He personally ‘took the salute’ in front of Federal Parliament House (Exhibition Building). He stood with the VC winners and was cheered by each section of the procession as it passed.
Following the procession, there was a major sports carnival on Exhibition Oval, which included 4,000 school children giving a physical culture display. Rain in the late afternoon forced the cancellation of the planned concert that night.
By any standard, it was an impressive turn out and certainly demonstrated the ability of Mannix to draw a crowd. It was also very much an expression of Irish-Australian identity.
After the procession, Mannix was quoted in The Argus (22/3/20) as acknowledging the opposition that had been raised. He was keen to state that those who had opposed the procession … will never prevent Irishmen showing their sympathy with Ireland, while yielding in none in their loyalty to Australia and to the Empire. But, clearly, this particular trinity – Ireland, Australia and the Empire – was a hard one to juggle. For Irish Catholics the actions of the Empire in Ireland were a real problem. In fact, the very next day The Argus again covered more of Mannix’s response to the procession. This time it was in relation to the 14 VC winners who had accompanied him on the day. He was keen to use them to boost the cause of Irish independence, or at least ‘self-determination’.
In the course of a long speech, Dr Mannix said that St. Patrick’s Day demonstration last Saturday would remain a memorable one as long as Melbourne was Melbourne. He also stated that the V.C. winners who supported him in the procession had unanimously agreed to a motion which they intended to cable to the British authorities, demanding that England should give to Ireland the self-determination which they fought for on behalf of other nations.
Scripture lessons in State schools
The sixth episode of sectarianism sees a return to Yarram and the activities of the Protestant Federation in the middle of 1920. Ostensibly, the issue was the push for a referendum – at state level – to determine the question of whether scripture lessons were to be taught in state schools. At the end of the meeting, the following resolution was passed.
That this meeting records its conviction that the great majority of Victorian parents desire Non-sectarian and Non-compulsory Scripture lessons in the school course, with equal opportunity for direct religious teaching by representatives of the various churches, under conditions that work smoothly in four other Australian States; claims that this issue should be placed before the Electors by a simple referendum question at the forthcoming elections; protests against a selfish minority [Catholics], largely hostile to national education, being able to continue to deprive the majority of the Non-sectarian Scripture instruction it deems beneficial to the community; and calls upon the Scripture Campaign Council to organise a deputation, at an early date, to urge Government and parliament to provide Referendum machinery for testing the mind of electors at the next general elections.
However, while, as indicated, the meeting was ostensibly about Scripture lessons, it was more remarkable for another full-on attack on the Roman Catholic Church. Judkins’ focus was on the threat the church posed to the Empire. As Judkins saw it, the church was openly and actively plotting to destroy the Empire. He worked from the proposition that the Empire itself was ‘God’s handiwork’. The Empire was also the bulwark against Rome:
God has not only established it [the Empire], but preserved it. This barrier [the Empire] between Rome and the realisation of her principles has been divinely built. It is because the Empire constitutes that barrier, that leaders of Roman Catholicism burn with so intense hatred against all that is British.
The link between the Bible and the defence of the Empire – and therefore the necessary push for the proposed referendum – came from what Judkins saw as the Roman campaign to undermine the Bible as a means of destroying the Empire. He described … two directions in which the energies of the Church of Rome are being exerted in an attempt to establish herself in a position of temporal and spiritual supremacy. She aims at the destruction of the British Empire, and the prohibition of the use of the Bible by the people.
For Judkins, the Bible and the Empire were fundamentally linked. The Bible had a form of geo-political significance:
We shall lose the Empire if we lose the Bible.
Judkins then gave another history lesson going back to the Spanish Armada and Rome’s attempt to subdue England and ending with the supposed alliance between the Pope and Germany in WW1.
Specifically in relation to the then current conflict in Ireland he claimed to see the hand of Rome involved and saw it as yet another attempt by Rome to overcome the Empire. He stated:
The happenings in Ireland, the endeavour to create a state [Irish Free State] close to the heart of the Empire have as their object the realisation of the long-cherished desire of Rome.
He then went further and claimed that the same plot was being played out in Australia:
Attempts are being made to make Australia another Ireland, and with the same object in view.
Whether it was the strongest attack against Roman Catholics made to that point, it was certainly extreme. Interestingly, some allies thought that the likes of Judkins had finally gone too far. One was Rossiter, the editor of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. As noted before, Rossiter was a firm Imperial Loyalist but, this time, apparently, Judkins had crossed a line. As editor, he would certainly have been aware of the impact this type of address – published in his paper – was having on the community and in particular on the level of sectarian conflict. It did not appear to have been such an issue for him in the past, but this time he intervened. In an editorial (2/7/20), he noted that the issue of Scripture lessons had hardly been covered in Judkins’ address and that it was more just an unbridled attack on Roman Catholicism. He stated:
If Bible lessons are to be taught in our State schools a scheme acceptable to all denominations will not be hastened by violently attacking the Church of Rome for acts done by her devotees hundreds of years ago.
If every Protestant clergyman held and enunciated views as does Mr. Judkins, what strife there would be.
On that very point, he singled out Rev Opper who had also been at the meeting. He claimed that Opper had been more ‘temperate’ and ‘constructive’ in his comments than Judkins.
And the apparent backlash against Judkins continued. In the local paper on 2/7/20 Rev Opper had a letter announcing that he had resigned his position as vice-president of the local branch of the Protestant Federation:
With your permission, I wish, through the medium of your paper, to dissociate myself from the violent attack upon the Church of Rome, made by the Rev. G. A. Judkins on Sunday night last, and published in your columns this morning. The meeting was arranged for the purpose of urging support for a referendum on Scripture Lessons in State Schools – a movement which has my fullest sympathy – and not for the purpose for which it was used. In order to avoid being placed again in a false position, I am forwarding to the secretary of the local branch of the Protestant Federation my resignation as president. Still remaining a good Anglican, and, I hope, a good Protestant. – I am …
Previously, Opper too had been a strident critic of the ‘Roman Church’ but perhaps, as a local minister, he had grown concerned at the impact that such wild accusations were having on the community.
But for any local disquiet about the level of sectarian conflict in the community and the impact of extreme accusations being made against Roman Catholicism, the local branch of the Protestant Federation continued the fight. In February 1921, Rev R Ditterich – president of the Methodist Conference of Victoria and Tasmania – addressed about 50 people in the Yarram Mechanics’ Institute. It was written up in the edition of 9/2/21. Ditterich was President of the Australian Protestant Federation and had been previously very involved in the Victorian branch. The talk focused on the question of ‘Why are we Protestants?’ He lamented that few people had a sound understanding of the history of Protestantism. The version of history he gave that night started with the persecution of Protestants by the Roman Church and highlighted the despotic power that Rome had over its faithful:
The Church of Rome exercised a power over the will of their people, who knew no liberty of thought, and no freedom, and they also tried to exercise a power over their politics and education, in fact, the Church exercised a power when and wherever it chose.
In terms of the recent War, Ditterich claimed that … Catholic France was saved by Protestant England.
Overall, Ditterich had nothing positive to say about Rome:
As Protestants they had no thanks to pay the Roman Catholic church for any single liberty which the people enjoyed today.
Perhaps the vote of thanks that night was more circumspect than usual:
Rev. Lancaster said they were deeply indebted for the address, which should inspire them, not in a spirit of hatred, but thankfulness for their freedom.
As noted, Rev Opper by this point had severed contact with Protestant Federation.
Local celebrations at the time Ireland gained ‘Free State’ status
The last episode to cover involved the Anglo-Irish Treaty of December 1921. The treaty was to provide for a measure of Irish independence and put an end to the three years of fighting between Irish nationalists and republicans and British troops and special units. The treaty had broad backing in Australia but, in fact, in Ireland itself it presaged the bitter civil war that was to follow very quickly. But certainly at the time, the news of the treaty – even with its qualifications – was received warmly in the Catholic community in the Shire of Alberton.
As an indication of just how close the political situation in Ireland was to Irish Catholics in Australia, the local community in the Shire of Alberton organised a special celebration for the announcement of the treaty. It was written up in the local paper on 23/12/21. There was a ‘large and enthusiastic audience’ at Thompson’s Hall in Yarram. The Yarram Band played before the concert started. Items at the concert included the songs: ‘Ireland I Love You’, ‘Come Back to Erin’ and ‘Irish Eyes Are Smiling’. There was no mention of the National Anthem. There was also dancing. It was a great success and … everything passed off without the slightest hitch.
The end of WW1 did not see the end of the sectarian conflict in Australian society which had been exacerbated by the conflict over the two conscription referenda. In fact, more extreme Protestant groups doubled down on the fundamental question of ‘loyalty’ (to the Empire) and routinely portrayed Roman Catholicism as inherently anti-British and anti-Empire. They even argued that the Church of Rome had sided with the Germans in the War. Additionally, Roman Catholicism was represented as a form of intellectual, political and spiritual tyranny. And, for good measure, the Pope was the anti-Christ. Similarly, the struggle for Irish independence was portrayed as an existential threat to the Empire itself.
In response to such criticisms, and constantly looking to the political situation in Ireland, the Australian Catholic community chose to become more assertive in their role in society and politics, and more determined to protect their religious and cultural identity. Most significantly, they moved to a sense of Australian nationalism that effectively sought to remove the previously core element of the Empire.
The sectarianism experienced in the local community was intense and often highly personal.
Synan. T 2003, A Journey in Faith: A History of Catholic Education in Gippsland 1850-1981, David Lovell Publishing, Ringwood Victoria
Various. 1992, Companions on the Journey 1892-1992, Centenary of St. Mary’s Parish Yarram 1892-1992, St. Mary’s Parish, Yarram
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
Note 1: for more background on the 1920 St Patrick’s Day Procession in Melbourne see the following article by Paul Daley in The Guardian 22/4/16: Divided Melbourne: when the archbishop turned St, Patrick’s Day into propaganda.
Note 2: Father Sterling’s name often appears as Stirling. The signature on his enlistment forms is definitely Sterling.