Category Archives: The rural working class

13. Individual ‘locals’ who enlisted prior to 21 Sept. 1914

The last post examined the characteristics of the large group of men who enlisted together on 16 September 1914 at Yarram, and then left for Melbourne by train on 21 September 1914. While this group was certainly the first such group from the Shire to enlist – and it remained the largest single group of recruits throughout the War – there were other men who had enlisted, as individuals, prior to this. This post looks at 22 men who enlisted outside the Shire, as individuals, sometime between the declaration of war on 5 August and the departure of the train from Alberton on 21 September. Once again, the research surrounding the lives of these men reveals the complex dynamic between the nature of work for the rural working class and the idea that personal identity can be tied to a particular location.

The first table here identifies the 22 men who enlisted, individually and outside the Shire, prior to 21 September 1914. The men have been identified via 2 main sources of evidence, which for present purposes I have termed ‘hard’ and ‘soft’.

The hard evidence relates to formal record sets. The most commonly referenced piece of hard evidence is the Alberton Shire Honor Roll (Shire Honor Roll) [HR]. This official record was drawn up at the end of the War and records the names of 447 men. The second piece of hard evidence in the Shire of Alberton Medallion (Shire Medallion) [Med]. This was presented to each man from the Shire who enlisted. The actual medallion is featured on the blog. The third piece of hard evidence is the relevant electoral roll [ER] from the time, which recorded the full name, occupation and place of residence for each registered voter. Lastly, for relevant cases, I have included reference to the Shire of Alberton War Memorial (Shire War Memorial) [WM]. The memorial is located in the main street of Yarram and records the names of 79 men from the Shire. Future posts will look in detail at each of these record sets, highlight any problems associated with their use and explore inconsistencies and gaps between them.

The soft evidence is anecdotal and relates principally to references in articles from the local paper, Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

On the table there are 15 men whose association with the Shire is tied to hard evidence and 7 where the link depends on soft evidence. The 7 cases are highlighted.

For 10 of the 15 locals linked to hard evidence, the key piece of evidence is their inclusion on the Shire Honor Roll. For another 2 it is their receipt of the Shire Medallion. For another 2 it is an entry in the electoral roll. And for the last man it is the inclusion of his name on the Shire War Memorial. Some men are linked to more than one piece of evidence, but only 1 man – William Newland – is linked to all relevant pieces.

A brief review of these 15 cases highlights a range of apparent gaps and inconsistencies. For example, it is odd that men who definitely did receive the Shire Medallion are not included on the equivalent Honor Roll. This applies to both Samuel Gay and George Silver. There is an even more striking omission involving Nathan Hepburn. He was born in the district but had obviously moved to Queensland. He enlisted in Bundaberg in August 1914 and was killed in action (28/6/15) just 10 months after enlistment. His name does not appear on the Shire Honor Roll and there is no record of him – or his family or relatives, on his behalf – being given the Shire Medallion. Yet, remarkably, he was regarded as sufficiently ‘local’ to be included on the Shire War Memorial. Then there were the 2 men who were definitely in the district when they enlisted but not recognised: Lancelot Matthews and Norman Davis do not appear on the Shire Honor Roll and there is no record of them receiving the Shire Medallion, yet both men, prior to enlistment, were recorded in the electoral roll as living and working in the district. It seems that one man outside the district could be considered local while two others in the district were not. On the face of it, the contradiction here seems to suggest that being born in the district was more significant, in determining the status of ‘local’, than moving into the district to pursue work. It is clear that subjective assessments were made; and some men were more ‘visible’ than others.

The following brief accounts cover the 7 men for whom there is anecdotal or ‘soft’ evidence to establish that they were local, even though they do not appear in the formal record sets. As indicated, most of the evidence comes from reports in the local paper.

James Gunn was the first to enlist from the district. On his enlistment papers his occupation was given as driver. There is no hard evidence to tie him to the Shire.  Yet, there were reports in the local paper (2 May & 13 June 1919) of his welcome home at Blackwarry where he was feted as one of the 13 men from the Blackwarry community to have served in the AIF. As part of the celebration all the men received a gold medallion, specially designed for the occasion, and donated by the members of the Blackwarry community. There is a picture below of the medallion presented. The particular medallion shown is the one presented to David Daniel, another of the 13 men from Blackwarry, who enlisted in 1916. James Gunn had undertaken military training in Traralgon prior to the War (1910-12) and it is possible that he was working in Melbourne when war started. After the War he become a soldier settler at Carrajung.

Herbert George was killed in action 25/7/16. Despite the fact that there is no hard evidence to link him to the district and his name is not on the Shire War Memorial, there are references in the local paper (12/5/15, 23/8/16) which note how well known he was in the Yarram and Port Albert townships. His occupation on the enlistment papers was given as grocer but the same newspaper reports suggested that he worked in a store in Yarram as an assistant.  Additionally, his name and death were recorded on the Port Albert State School Honor Roll.

The case of Walter Tibbs is similar to that of Herbert George. Even if others did not see the connection to the district, his family in England certainly did because when they completed the information for the National Roll of Honor (Australian War Memorial)  they gave Tarraville, Gippsland as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. His parents also reported on the same form that he was an ‘excellent violinist’  and that he was only 18 when he was killed at the Gallipoli landing. He had obviously put his age up (21) when he enlisted. His occupation on the enlistment papers was given as farm worker.

There was nothing to tie Milton Littlewood, another immigrant from the UK, to the district. Yet on the Embarkation Roll his address on enlistment is given explicitly as ‘Yarram, South Gippsland’. His occupation was listed as fireman.

Similarly, Thomas Hart, an immigrant from Ireland, gave his address at enlistment as the Yarram Club. However there is some doubt in this case because his sister as next-of-kin gave the same address, and it is possible that he did not have a permanent address and simply gave his sister’s address as his own when he enlisted. He could, for example, have been living and working in Melbourne while his sister was living in Yarram. He was a labourer.

Joseph Carlile was yet another immigrant from the UK. His occupation was gardener. He was wounded, repatriated and then discharged in late February 1916. In July 1917 he married a local girl (Margaret Marie Hopkins) in Yarram. However there is no evidence of any connection to the district before this; although there is one intriguing twist because in March 1916, just a couple of weeks after being discharged, he provided a witness statement to the Red Cross in relation to the death of a soldier from his unit – Keam (481) – and, at that time, he gave his address as Yarram. This was well before his marriage, and it suggests that there could have been a prior connection to the district.

Albert Widdon does not feature in any of the hard evidence, including the Shire War Memorial yet he went to school (Devon North SS and Yarram SS) and grew up in the district. His family was still living in the district. His death was reported in the local paper (2/6/15) and the article even described Rev Cox delivering the telegram to his mother. The same article noted he had enlisted in Queensland. Another article (17/5/18) noted his name in connection with a memorial service held to honour the dead from the district. He had many cousins from the district who also enlisted. In many ways his case is similar to that of Nathan Hepburn, except that his (Widdon) name was not included on the Shire War Memorial. His occupation was listed as farm labourer.

Clearly, it can be difficult establishing precisely what happened in relation to such individual cases; and contradictions and inconsistencies abound. However the more important observation from such research is that young men from a rural working-class background could easily disappear from the collective memory of the district. They were more ‘transient’ than ‘local’.

This second table provides more background information on the 22 men who enlisted as individuals and outside the Shire, and in some cases well outside the Shire. The first of these men – James Gunn – enlisted on 17 August in Albert Park, Melbourne, just 12 days after the declaration of war; and the last – Albert Edward Widdon – enlisted in Dalby, Queensland, on the same day the group of recruits from Yarram left Alberton on the train.

There appear to have been two distinct groups: there were men living and working in the Shire who went down to Melbourne to enlist – presumably they were not prepared to wait for any local recruitment drive to get underway – and there were men who were living and working well away from the Shire, who enlisted where they were then located. Thus Stanley Henry Hawkins, who was living at Yarram and working as a coach builder, went down to Melbourne and enlisted at Albert Park on 20 August 1914. An example from the second group is Nathan Walbourne Hepburn. He had been born in the district and went to school and grew up in the district. His parents were still living there. However, he had moved to Queensland by the outbreak of war and was working as a labourer. He enlisted in Bundaberg.

The table also points to the fact that overwhelmingly the first group of individual recruits from the Shire were from the rural working class. ‘Labourers’ and ‘farm labourers’ dominate. There is only one reference to a ‘farmer’ (Samuel Gay) – and given his age, the fact that he had just moved to Queensland and the fact that on discharge from the AIF he returned to the Shire of Alberton, he was more likely to have been a farm labourer than a farmer. Only William Newland, as a ‘mechanical engineer’ stands out as someone in a semi-professional occupation. In fact, Newland is an important person as will become obvious in future posts. At the time of enlistment, he was already in his mid-thirties and he was also the only one of all the men on the table who was married. He had served in the South African War from 1899-1902 and even before leaving for overseas service held the rank of corporal. He was wounded, severely, at Gallipoli and repatriated. Most significantly, he became the recruiting sergeant for the Shire in 1915 and 1916, and was later involved with the setting up of the local association of returned soldiers.

Another feature is the extent of mobility between birth and the time of enlistment. Less than half the men on the table were born in the district. Presumably they had moved in to the Shire for work. Equally, some who had been born in the district had clearly moved out of it looking for work, although possibly not on a permanent basis, by the time they came to enlist. Nearly one-third of the men had been born either overseas (5) or interstate (2).

The age profile of the men is only slightly different from that for the larger group of recruits from Yarram considered in the last post. There were very few men aged 30 and above, with the concentration in the 25 or younger age group. In this instance there were fewer in the very young – under 20 – age group. As far as the religion profile is concerned, the Church of England obviously dominates. There is only 1 Catholic in the group but it is hard to draw any significant conclusions from such a small sample.

Overall, the most striking feature of the group is the extent to which it is made up of single, young men from the rural working class. In this respect, it matches the profile of the large group of recruits – the ones who left for Melbourne on 21 September – analysed in the last post. Both groups show that for the Shire of Alberton the call to arms was met, initially at least, predominantly by the rural working class. The extent to which this trend continued or changed over time will be considered in future posts.

Blackwarry Medallion. Courtesy of Mrs. Margery Missen, Yarram.

Blackwarry Medallion. Courtesy of Mrs. Margery Missen, Yarram.

12. Recruits from the Shire, September 1914. Part 2

According to the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative, a large group of 52 recruits left Alberton for Melbourne on the afternoon of 21 September 1914. The paper published a list of the 52 names, on Wednesday 23 September, under the heading Recruits for the War. Farewelled At The Alberton Railway Station. The names were taken from the list of railway warrants, issued as per Army instructions, to men who had already enlisted. The list was compiled by the Shire Secretary, G W Black. Against each numbered railway warrant issued he recorded the name of the recipient and the date of travel. All the railway warrants numbered 1-52 were recorded as having been issued for travel on 21 September. The same 52 names also appear on another list compiled by Black to claim reimbursement for Drs Penn and Rutter for the medical examinations they had carried out as part of the recruiting process. Taken at face value, there is evidence for the claim that following the successful recruiting session held on Wednesday 16 September, 52 men, including many minors, left the Shire on Monday 21 September for service in the AIF.

However, closer investigation of the AIF records reveals that the number of men who actually commenced military service on that Monday was considerably less – only 35 of the 52 – and this discrepancy highlights the complexities associated with recruiting and enlistment practices and record-keeping, particularly in rural districts.

For a start, 7 of the men who appeared on the list of names in the newspaper article have no service record in the AIF. Nor are their names included on the Alberton Shire Roll of Honor. In other words, even though they were written up as having enlisted and left the district for training at Broadmeadows, there is no hard evidence that they ever joined the AIF. Moreover, there is evidence, based on newspaper reports, that some of them were still living and working in the district after 21 September 1914.

Jas. E Sherwood (James Edward Sherwood) is the most puzzling of this group of 7 men who never enlisted. He was listed on the electoral roll as an apiarist of Yarram. His name appeared in the local paper through to at least the end of 1915 as a champion bike rider in the local district, suggesting that he certainly did not commence service in the AIF in September 1914. While his name does not appear on the Alberton Shire Honor Roll it does appear on the Yarram State School Honor Roll. Further, a note on Black’s list of railway warrants states that he ‘re-enlisted’ on 9 November 1914. Presumably, he was rejected when he reached Melbourne on 21 September 1914 and then rejected again when he tried to enlist in November 1914. It is also possible that he only appears on the Yarram State School Honor Roll because that list was itself compiled, in part at least, from the various lists drawn up by the Shire Secretary. It was possibly a case of faulty records reproducing themselves.

E Chenhall (Edric Chenhall) was on the electoral roll as a farmer of Jack River and there was another note on the list of rail warrants that he ‘re-enlisted’ on 19 May 1916. However he could not have been successful, again. Similarly, T H Stephens (Thomas Handley Stephens) who was on the electoral roll as a labourer of Mullundung must have been rejected when he reached Melbourne because he tried to re-enlist at a recruiting drive in Yarram in July 1915, but was again unsuccessful. W H Beames (Walter Henry Beames) was on the electoral roll as a labourer of Stacey’s Bridge. His name appeared as an umpire in the local football competition in the paper on 2 May 1915. George Purtell was on the electoral roll as a blacksmith of Yarram. In early 1916 he was fined over stray stock. W A Rose, who was listed as one of the minors who enlisted in September 1914, appeared on a council pay sheet, published in the local paper on 9 April 1915. As a minor he would not have been on the electoral roll. Lastly, W W Haw (Walter William Haw) was on the electoral roll as a carpenter of Yarram but, as with the other 6 men,  there is no service record, and nor is his name on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll.

Unless some further information comes to light with regard to these 7 men it can reasonably assumed that even though they were written up as belonging to the first group of volunteers from the Shire they did not serve in the AIF. They took the train but they did not go to war.

Unlike the group of 7 who never served, there were 8 other men who definitely did serve in the AIF but their enlistment dates are recorded as later than either 16 or 21 September 1914. Even though they ‘enlisted’ on 16 September and left on the train on 21 September, the official AIF records have them as enlisting at a later time. Presumably they reached Broadmeadows but were then rejected – presumably at some follow-up medical – before they started training. Perhaps they did not make it to Broadmeadows; but the party did leave under the charge of ex-Sgt. Geo Davis and there was clearly the expectation that they had enlisted and that they would report. Perhaps they did not make the light horse and effectively ‘pulled out’, with or without proper approval. Whatever happened, all the men eventually did enlist, even though in some cases it was much later: T M Luke (Thomas Mickie Luke) on 15 July 1915; H Macdonald (Henry Macdonald) on 4 December 1914. F B Scott (Frederick Beecher Scott) on 26 January 1916; P T Quinn (Percival Thomas Quinn) on 28 August 1915; A E Gove (Arthur Edgar Gove) on 13 August 1915; L R Wallace (Leslie Roy Wallace) on 14 October 1914; P A Wallace (Percy Allen Wallace) on 8 January 1915; and S F Coulthard (Samuel Francis Coulthard) on 7 April 1916.

There are another 2 men – Jno. Riley and John Hollingsworth – on the list of 52 for whom it is not possible to identify the matching service record. That is, there were multiple enlistments in the names of Jno. Riley and John Hollingsworth but, without other evidence, it is not possible to make a definite match with someone living and working in the Shire at that time.

All the preceding gives some indication of the difficulties involved in interpreting, validating and cross-referencing the multiple sources of personal information in relation to WW1 service in the AIF. The difficulties remained throughout the War.

The table included in this post is built on the list of railway warrants compiled by the Shire Secretary ( G W Black). As mentioned, he issued 52 warrants for travel on 21 September. The order of names in the table is taken directly from his list. Age, religion, occupation and place of birth, taken from AIF records, have been added; and there is a brief note to identify the men killed in the War. There are no details recorded for the 7 men for whom there is no record of service in the AIF, nor for the 2 men who, currently, cannot be matched to service records. To give the most comprehensive picture of all the men who took the train to Melbourne on 21 September, the details for those men who actually enlisted at a later date have been included, with the qualification that their age has been adjusted to match what it was in September 1914. The 43 men with AIF service records who appear on the table were all single.

Some characteristics of the first group of recruits
While it is difficult to generalise from the relatively small sample of recruits that made up the first group of volunteers from the Shire of Alberton, there are some characteristics that do stand out. Obviously, the fact that every one of them was single is significant. As well, the age of the ‘men’ is certainly striking. 35 (82%) of them were aged twenty-five or younger and of this group, 15 were twenty or younger. Only 4 men were over thirty. It was definitely a war for young, single men.

The broad representation of all religions in the group is also distinctive, in the sense that there is nothing to suggest that Roman Catholics recruits were in any way under-represented. The 10 of them counted for 24% of the group. The situation might well have changed later in the War but at the start there was nothing to suggest that there was any sort of ‘religious boycott’.

Another striking feature has to be the class profile of the recruits. The most common description given for occupation was ‘labourer’ – or ‘laborer’ – and this appeared for no less than 13 of the group and when you add the 5 who gave their occupation as ‘farm labourer’ then you have nearly 50% of the group with just 2 job descriptions; and it is clear that most of the remaining men were employed in various manual or working-class jobs of more or less skill. The more distinctly rural designation of ‘family farm’ covers those recruits whose father appeared in the rate book as a farmer. In this the first and only mass group of recruits from the district there were only 6 definite cases where the son of a farmer enlisted. As many of these were underage and parental permission had to be given, the decision must have been taken that the son’s labour on the farm could be spared. But it was a small number of cases. In the great majority of cases, at that early point in the War, farming families were not prepared to give up their son’s labour on the farm.

The teacher in the group – L L Oliver – was the first of many local teachers to ‘answer the call’ and this sub-group will be considered in detail in a future post. In this particular instance, Oliver, as a teacher, is the only recruit from a professional background.

The last post argued that it was the professional-business class in the local community that presented the narrative of the War when it began and drove the initial recruiting process. This post makes it abundantly clear that at the same time it was the rural working class that provided the recruits. The relative roles of the 2 classes is rather striking. The bigger issue will be whether this dynamic was maintained throughout the War.

The question arises as to why the rural working class so dominated the recruiting numbers. The answer does not appear to have any ideological rationale to it, in the sense that it would be hard to argue that the rural working class in the district (Shire of Alberton) at that time was more pro-Empire than other class groupings and that the recruiting numbers reflected this strength of Imperial loyalty. Instead, the answer has more to do with structural realities. The distinctive feature of working-class employment was its ‘portability’. Young, single men working as labourers were not tied to a particular employer. In fact, their work meant that they had to move, looking for employment or better paid employment or better conditions. In other words, the very nature of their work life meant they were ideally placed to enlist. They were generally not tied to property – domestic or business – they were not tied to the family farm or family business and they were not constrained by the likes of professional licences, agreements or tenure. Nor were they tied to a particular location, apart from family ties. Traditionally they had moved to pursue work. In part, this is reflected in the table in this post, where many of the young working-class recruits were born well outside the district in which they were living and working at the time of enlistment.

Overall, the preponderance of rural working-class youth in the initial group of recruits is not surprising. They were the most able to enlist at short notice, and the attraction of permanent employment at competitive wages was very significant. Additionally, they were answering what everyone saw as a righteous and decent call. There was also the appeal of the working-class ‘mateship’ of the AIF.

One issue to be pursued over future posts is whether other classes in the local district came in time to match the initial enthusiasm of the rural working class in terms of volunteering to join the AIF.

There is also the complex issue of the status of the working class in the rural community. Again, there are signs of it in the table above. For example, consider the number of recruits who enlisted at Yarram – and who therefore were presumably working in the district – who are not included on the Honor Roll for the Shire of Alberton. Clearly they were not regarded as ‘local’ even though at the time, and certainly on the station platform at Alberton, they were feted as local recruits.

Two of the young men, both 19,  who enlisted at Yarram on 16 September but who are not included on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll, died on active service: P J Davidson (died of wounds) and T C F McCarthy (killed in action). Their names are also not included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. Davidson died at Pozieres on 5 August 1916. McCarthy’s case was particularly poignant. He was killed very late in the War, on 19 September 1918. This was just over 4 years from the day he enlisted in Yarram. At that time he was a 19 yo farm labourer who had been born in Melbourne. Ironically, he was killed at the very time veterans like him were being returned to Australia on special leave. For some reason he never got his leave in time. He seems to have missed out on many forms of recognition, and to some degree has been written out of the district’s history.


The hand-written list of travel warrants issued by the Shire Secretary ( G W Black) is held by the Yarram & District Historical Society. Black labelled his list, Australian Imperial Force. List of Recruits who enlisted with the President of the Shire of Alberton. 1914, 1915, 1916, 1917, 1918.

The list of medical examinations by Drs Pern and Rutter that Black drew up to claim reimbursement was dated 6 March 1915. It was included in the Shire of Alberton Archives:
Archive One.
File Number 703B.
Recruiting & Enlisted Men (Box 398).
Bundle of papers headed: Defence Department. Enlisting Recruits 1914-15-16.

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
‘Recruits for the War. Farwelled At The Alberton Railway Station’ , 23 September 1914, p.2

10. Rural workers and the federal election of 1914

War was declared in Australia on the morning of 5 August 1914 in the course of a federal election. It was less than a week after both houses of federal parliament had been dissolved (30 July) and four weeks before the scheduled election date of 5 September. The brief background to this situation went back to May 1913 when the incoming Cook Government (Liberals) found itself with a majority of just one in the House of Representatives and in minority in the Senate. It then set about to engineer a double dissolution, under S 57 of the Constitution. It became the first national government to exercise this provision. The Cook Government hoped to convince the electorate that its decision to force the double dissolution was entirely justified as an attempt to break what it portrayed as the ALP’s stranglehold over its legislative agenda. After the declaration of war and pledges of Imperial loyalty, the Cook Government presumably believed that it would win further support from the electorate or, at least, reasoned that the electorate would be reluctant to change government at such a momentous time. But the results of the 1914 election proved it wrong: the ALP was returned with a comfortable majority in the House of Representatives (42:33), with a vote of 50.9%, which to this day still represents the highest level of support ever achieved by the party. In the Senate the ALP gained 31 of the 36 seats. This was before proportional representation in the Senate (1949).

The results of the September election clearly demonstrated the nation’s confidence in the ALP at the most critical time in the young Commonwealth’s existence. The political landscape looked back to the time of the first Fisher Government of 1910 -1913 when the ALP had a clear majority in both houses. This first Fisher Government had been the very first national government since Federation that had been able to govern in its own right. It was also recognised for the amount of progressive or radical legislation – depending on people’s political philosophy at the time – that it passed, including the critical legislation on national defence (the universal training scheme). At the start of WW1, the ALP had a record for strong, socially-progressive and nation-building government. It had emerged as the single, most powerful political party in the nation and its success had effectively forced the opposing political parties (Protectionists and Free Traders) to combine in a single political entity – the so-called ‘Fusion’ of 1909 – and even copy its strategies. However, the apparently monolithic power of the ALP as the driving force in Australian politics in the early years of Federation was to shatter in less than 2 years over the issue of conscription.

The ALP relied on the cities and major regional towns for its support, and both the rapid rise in manufacturing, particularly in Victoria, and urbanisation prior to WW1 had strengthened this demographic base. But rural Australia was a very different proposition, particularly where towns were small, the population dispersed and manufacturing and other secondary industry limited. Gippsland, and more particularly the Shire of Alberton, were definitely not in the ALP heartland. In fact, the ALP did not even put up a candidate for the relevant House of Representatives seat (Gippsland). However, it did at least work to build or, at least, retain its Senate support and in May 1914 – well before the double dissolution – ALP Senator Russell gave a public address to a large audience in the shire hall at Yarram. It was a long (two hours) and lively meeting and it was reported in detail in the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative ( 20 May 1914). Senator Russell obviously knew he was in a Liberal stronghold and attempted to counter the claims most commonly made against the ALP: it didn’t understand or care about the farmers and rural industry; it struggled with financial management; it favoured preference for unionists in the workplace etc. There was a lot of (Applause) and (Laughter) noted in the paper’s report of proceedings and Russell obviously put in a good performance. He touched on many issues. He argued that the co-operative ventures of the farmers, particularly the dairy farmers, were a form of socialism. He attacked price fixing by monopolies like the Colonial Sugar Refining Company in Queensland. He accepted the need to fine tune the universal training scheme because it was interfering with the young lads’ football and other sporting commitments. He claimed that PM Cook was engineering the grounds for a double dissolution, and there were many passing shots at the Fusionists, including the then current member (J Bennett). However, the most significant comment came towards the end of his address when he claimed that the ALP had lost the 1913 election because of the ‘Rural Workers’ log’. Russell continued with a spirited defence of the industrial rights of the rural working class:

The Fisher Government lost [the] last election because of the Rural Workers log. A rural worker is a young man reared in the country district. One painful fact is that he clears out to the city to better himself, because he sees less opportunity in the country districts. The poor chap who looks round the factories and can’t get a job goes to the country. The men farmers want are those born and bred in the country. By all means help them in the country, and don’t sweat them. The farmer who gives decent conditions has nothing to fear. As to the Arbitration Court, the farmer has an equal right to state his case. Farmers be men! Don’t ask for the right of the three, four or five per cent who sweat their men. men, whether labourers or employers, had a right to be treated as men. No power could stop the Rural Workers going on. If they are checked, when strong enough they will strike – and at a time when the crops are ripe.

The Rural Workers’ Log was a set of claims drawn up by the Australian Wokers’ Union to cover pay and conditions for rural workers. The set of claims was an ambit one and the AWU could only put it up if there was an interstate dispute. Moreover, it would have proved very difficult to unionise the widely dispersed rural workforce in a district such as the Shire of Alberton. However, despite these qualifications, the very existence of such a log of claims was seen by farmers, and represented by anti-ALP forces, as an all-out attempt to unionise the rural work force. To the farmer, particularly the small farmer, and even more particularly the dairy farmer, the idea of a unionised workforce was anathema. Farming was based on family labour, supplemented by small-scale, casualised and itinerant labour. It was also looking to mechanisation to reduce its dependence on labour. Labour demands were driven by seasonal, climatic and a whole range of other variables. Unlike the factory, the farm did not see the absolute separation of home and work place. Nor was there any simple division of time and, for the individual worker, the range of work, and the skills involved, were more varied than in any factory setting. In short, Russell’s claim that the Rural Workers’ Log had cost the ALP the 1913 election would have rung true with his audience at Yarram.

Without even realising it, Russell was also being prescient because the Rural Workers Log was again put forward as the key issue in the 1914 election in the Shire of Alberton. As there was no ALP candidate even standing for the House of Representatives seat of Gippsland, the anti-ALP forces in the district needed both to limit the ALP vote in the Senate and ensure the victory of the ‘right’ anti-ALP candidate in the lower house. In this case, the right candidate was the then sitting member Bennett, a member of the Cook Fusion Government, as opposed to G H Wise who was standing as Independent Liberal. The basic strategy adopted was to talk up, again, the threat of the Rural Workers Log and thereby portray the ALP as anti-farmer and, at the same time, portray Wise as a tacit supporter of the Rural Workers Log. To see how this strategy played out it is necessary to look closely at the role played by the editor (A J Rossiter) of the local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative.

As future posts will show, Rossiter became one of the key players in the district to provide the narrative both of and for the War. He used his paper to push a particular line which, in brief, was unequivocally both pro-Empire and pro-conscription. At this point, September 1914, he had no qualms about pushing a very direct pro-Liberal and anti-ALP line for the federal election. On Friday 4 September 1914, the day before the election, he featured in his paper a how-to-vote card under the heading Federal Elections. The Liberal Vote. It stated, All true Liberals should vote thus and directed readers to vote first for Bennett in the House of Representatives and then for the six named Liberals in the Senate. Similarly, in the editorial on Wednesday 2 September, in the week leading to the election, Rossiter backed the six Liberal candidates for the Senate and expressed his ‘utmost confidence’ in them. He also backed Bennett and claimed with confidence that he would be returned. At the same time, his endorsement of Bennett was not overwhelming, noting that:

Mr Bennett has done nothing to forfeit the confidence of the electors. As a speaker he has vastly improved, and during his brief term as Gippsland’s representative no man could have worked harder for the good of the province. He has passed through two most trying sessions, which might have been productive of good but for obstruction by the Labor Party.

However, the direct public endorsement of the Liberal candidates was only part of the political game plan that Rossiter pursued. He also actively promoted the fear about the Rural Workers’ Log. Just two weeks after Senator Russell had claimed, at the public meeting at Yarram, that the Rural Workers Log had cost the ALP victory at the 1913 election, Rossiter published a detailed overview of the log of claims, on 3 July 1914. The headline he provided stated that the log was to operate from 1 October 1914 which implied that its implementation was imminent. The same article appeared in the paper on a regular basis throughout July and, as reported in the paper, the log of claims would have raised serious concerns. For example, dairy farmers would have been most concerned about the rigid approach to hours of work and the related provision for overtime:

… 48 hours shall constitute a week’s work, such hours to be worked as follows: – Half-past 7 a.m. to 20 minutes to six on five days of the week, with one hour for dinner; and five minutes past 7 a.m. to 12 noon on Saturdays, with two “smoke-ohs” of 15 minutes each, one in the forenoon and one in the afternoon. Overtime is put down as time and a half.

The basic strategy Rossiter employed was to highlight the threat of the Rural Workers’ Log and its impending introduction – to reduce the ALP vote in the Senate – and at the same time emphasise Bennett’s strong opposition to it, as opposed to what he represented as Wise’s lack of concern or ambivalence. For example, in an editorial on 24 July 1914 Rossiter began by highlighting the ‘grim ogre’ of the Rural Workers’ Log with its ‘preposterous demands’ that was hanging over and threatening all farmers. He accepted that its introduction might not be as imminent as some – including himself! – claimed, but he did urge farmers to be prepared to combine together quickly and contribute funds to a shared pool to fight the claim in the Arbitration Court. Against this effective ‘call to arms’, in the same editorial Rossiter featured comments made by Wise to the effect that it would be very difficult for the AWU even to get its log of claims before arbitration and that, in any case, by its very nature the log was exorbitant and it would never succeed in its present form. Wise was being portrayed as unconcerned or sceptical. Then, on 19 August, there was a detailed account of a speech at Alberton on 15 August by Bennett. The headline was ‘Rural Workers’ Log’. In the article Bennett challenged Wise’s claim that he, Bennett, had deliberately inflated the threat of the log and was employing it as a ‘scare’. In the article Bennett railed against what he claimed was the dire threat posed:

The Rural Workers’ Log is no scare. It is a far reaching piece of realism and if persisted in it will absolutely destroy primary industries, and the day you destroy agricultural progress that day you will hand the development of Australia over to some foreign nation which has more sense than to force the Agricultural Industry into or under an award of an Arbitration Court. To fix the hours of employment and the rate of wage for the farmers is an impossibility until you can fix the rainfall and the sunshine.

He continued in the same vein to argue that the arbitration system itself was set against the farmers and reinforced the claim that Australia’s agricultural future was threatened by the Rural Workers’ Log.

Wise also gave an election speech in the district at the same time – 14 August, at Yarram – which was also reported in detail in the paper (19 August). The thrust of Wise’s argument was that Cook’s Fusion Government had been a failure: rather than attempt to pass legislation it had contrived to bring on a double dissolution for political purposes. He even claimed that the ‘Fusionists’ exercised stricter discipline than the ALP, implying that they were not genuinely ‘liberal’. He did talk about the Rural Workers’ Log but he minimised the threat it posed. He claimed that the Fusion Party had used the threat of the log very effectively in the last (1913) election: At [the] last election one successful lie was told – the most successful and effective lie that was ever told at an election – and it won every country seat in the Commonwealth for the Fusion, that was the lie about [the] Rural Workers’ Log.

There was also a series of letters published in the paper at this time with claim and counter claim as to the real danger posed by the log and the extent to which talk of it was being used to scare people and influence voting. Overall, Rossiter managed to keep the issue of the Rural Workers’ Log as the key local issue for the election and he definitely tried to discredit Wise by suggesting that he tried to downplay the threat because he was sympathetic to the ALP. Wise was also alleged to favour preference for unionists in the workplace. In the last editorial he wrote before the election – Friday 4 September – Rossiter left no one in any doubt about his views on Wise:

As, therefore, Mr Wise, be he described as Independent or what not, has in the past so assisted the Socialistic Labor party in directions inimical to the interests of farmers, whom he seeks to represent, they should rise as one united band tomorrow and say with the overwhelming voice of an undivided poll, “we will have none of him.”

Two of the Liberal candidates for the Senate gave election speeches in Yarram. Senator McColl addressed 150 electors on 5 August (reported 7 August) and Mr McLean addressed a large number of people on 1 September (reported 2 September). Rossiter’s two newspaper reports on their speeches were extensive and the speeches covered the full range of claimed ALP failings – the evils of the caucus system, the poor financial management of the ALP in government, union bids to restrict immigration to keep wages high, preference for unionists in the workplace, the ALP’s abolition of postal voting, the ALP’s use of the Senate to thwart the power of the House of Representatives, socialism Vs liberalism and so on. They further touched on topical issues such as the East-West railway, the funding for the new national capital, old age pensions and national insurance, and the White Australia Policy. There was even a question from the floor on Home Rule. Tellingly, as reported, there was not a single reference to the Rural Workers’ Log; and, presumably, if either speaker had raised it as an issue Rossiter would certainly have reported it.

Rossiter’s campaign against both the ALP in the Senate and Wise in the House of Representatives would have to be judged successful. As far as the Senate was concerned, roughly 60% of Gippsland votes went to the Liberals. The outcome in the House of Representatives was less clear cut. In fact, it was Wise who won the seat – by some 600 votes – but, more locally, in the Shire of Alberton, Bennett outpolled Wise by 200 votes. It is interesting to speculate why, outside the Shire of Alberton at least, Wise was successful. In part, Wise was obviously a strong local candidate. In fact, he had won the seat in 1910 with a majority of some 4,000 votes but then lost it to Bennett in 1913 by 2,400 votes. Once Wise regained the seat in 1914 he held it until 1922. As well, the fact that Wise had not joined the Fusionists probably helped him. Certainly he was able to portray himself as someone who had remained true to his principles: someone prepared to stand as an ‘Independent Liberal’ rather than compromise his beliefs. In a farming community that saw unionism a form of coercion, was naturally wary of government, in any form, and valued individual effort above everything else, it was not surprising that the independent candidate, as a professed liberal, would attract support.

It was hardly understood at the time (September 1914) but the intense opposition to the proposed log of claims for rural workers, with its implied unionisation of the rural work force, would have a parallel manifestation in 1916 when Hughes tried to introduce conscription. Just as unionism was opposed because it threatened traditional farming arrangements, with the focus on family labour, so too would the push for conscription be seen as an attempt to ride roughshod over the individual farming family’s right to balance the tension between retaining the farm and serving the Empire. Both instances threatened to undermine the independence of the farming family and the viability of the family farm.

Finally, it was somewhat ironic that the pay arrangements being then determined for the the newly formed AIF – 6/- per day, including 1/- deferred pay – posed at least the equivalent threat to the supply of itinerant and casualised labour in rural areas as the much-hyped and over-stated Rural Workers’ Log.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

‘The Labor Party. Senator Russell At Yarram. A Stirring Address’ 20 May 1914, p.2
‘Federal Elections. The Liberal Vote.’ 4 September 1914, p.2
Editorial, 2 September 1914, p.2
‘Rural Workers’ Log. To Operate On Oct. 1st.’ 3 July 1914,  p.2 (Also 10, 15, 17 July 1914.)
‘Rural Workers’Log. Mr Bennett At Alberton’ 19 August 1914, p.4
‘Federal Elections. Mr G.H. Wise At Yarram’ 19 August 1914, p.4
‘Original Correspondence’ 2 September 1914, p.3 and 4 September 1914 p.2
Editorial 4 September 1914, p.2
‘Senator McColl at Yarram’ 7 August 1914, pp. 3-4
‘Federal Elections. Mr. McLean At Yarram’ 2 September 1914, p.2

Note: details on election results appeared in the edition of 9 September 1914, p.3