Here is a talk given by Jeff Rickertt about Ernie Lane on the making of a Queensland rebel. Full transcript below. In his talk about the making of a rebel Jeff refers to a time when the early and tiny radical community in Brisbane saw both class and environment as part of the whole anti-capitalist project.
If you see any errors in the transcript below please let me know in the comments section.
18 Dec 2021
Louise Dunoon (State Library of Queensland), Jeff Rickertt
Louise: (Thanks for) coming on this chilly chilly July day.
My name is Louise Dunoon, and I’m the executive manager of Queensland memory at State Library. And I’d like to welcome you here today to the ‘Out of the Port, new perspectives on Queensland history and heritage’. This is a monthly series that we present in partnership with Cultural Heritage at the Department of Environment and Resource Management. So every month we come together for some reflection, some presentation, on a new aspect of research that’s being undertaken.
But before we begin, and I’ll do the introductions, I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land, the Turrubul and the Yaggera and pay our respects to their ancestors who came before them. So today, we are here today to pleased to be able to present the 2010 John Oxley library fellow, Dr. Jeff Rickertt. The JOL fellowship is an initiative of state library that encourages the research and documenting of Queensland history using sources from the John Oxley library and the State Library more generally. And the fellowship is made possible by the generous support of the foundation and we couldn’t offer it without them. So back to Jeff. Jeff is a respected historian, author and importantly, in this setting, a University of Queensland librarian, Jeff will be discussing his work and findings that he did as part of the fellowship on ‘The Making of Ernie Lane’. So after his presentation, there’ll be an opportunity for some questions. Please note that we’re actually recording today and make available the talk on the website. If you want to go back to points. Or if you don’t want to be recorded asking a question. Please be aware of that. So please welcome Jeff to speak.
Jeff: Thanks, Louise, and thanks to everyone for coming out this afternoon.
Well, for the better part of 50 years really, possibly longer depending on where you want to see his political career ending. But certainly beginning in the late 1880s. Ernest Henry Lane was at the forefront of progressive politics in Queensland. He was a militant trade unionist, a republican a ridiculer of privilege, a debunker of establishment cant, an opponent of war and conscription, and a thorn in the side of the moderates who came to control the Labor Party.
Above all, Lane was a passionate opponent of the wage labour system. Capitalism, Lane argued, not only impoverished people materially, it crushed them intellectually and spiritually, denying them the opportunity to realize their full human potential as reasoning, creative beings. Lane, in short, was a socialist. Friend and fellow radical Ted Brady, called him ‘a consistent, cultured and conscientious communist’. Labor Party historian Dennis Murphy, referred to him as a political romantic, a dangerous believer in pipe dreams. Alex MacDonald’s General Secretary of the Queensland Trades and Labour Council called Ernie, a staunch fighter for the Australian and international working class, a tireless activist, whose faith in the creative ability of the people and firm adherence to principle served as a splendid example to the youth of the labor movement.
Whatever version of Ernie Lane, the rebel, we choose to accept, and there are many on offer. We are left in no doubt that our propensity for rebelliousness was the defining characteristic of this man. And yet, in the actual life of Ernie lane, this was not always the case.
If we could travel back in time to the 24th of May 1884, and make our way through the journey weary crowd at the Brisbane immigration center. Until we found the quiet young migrant bearing the name, Ernest H. Lane, we would discover no hint of the radical that would emerge in coming years. Born in Bristol in December 1868 Lane was the son of an English mother and an Irish father of Catholic peasant stock, who had converted to Protestanism as he endeavored to make his way in the world.
Ernie grew up in a conservative household. His father James was a nursery man and florist, at one time employing up to 20 workers to service the landscaping needs of the region’s well-to-do. Along the way, James fervently embraced the ideology of conservatism, becoming chairman of the of the Bristol conservative workman’s club, a paul or guardian and a popular Tory speaker. Ernie’s mother Caroline had been in service to Dorset house, one of the grand residences in the Bristol district of Clifton. When the Lanes married, they settled into nearby Manila cottage, part of Manila Hall, a large estate established by Sir William Draper, and named to commemorate Draper’s role as a leader of the British Expeditionary Force that captured and brutally occupied Manila in 1762.
So William was the kind of figure Ernie grew up admiring. My greatest delight. Lane record in his memoirs, was to get a talk started on England’s history in naval and military heroes. I knew no others. I once said that I’d rather have a talk on great men than a piece of cake.
So it should come as no surprise then, that the young man who stood surveying the scene and the Brisbane Wharf in 1884, had no intention of launching a lifetime of struggle in the cause of working class emancipation. He arrived in Brisbane, carrying a Bible inscribed by his older brother, William, with the words, ‘Fear God and honor the Queen’. It was an exhortation that Ernie at that stage of his life took very seriously.
Less than five years later, however Lane was an anti-capitalist, anti-establishment radical of the first order. And my intention in this talk today is to examine how this happened. How did the intellectual and political transformation of Ernest Henry Lane come to pass? To answer this question? It’s useful, I think, to conceptualize what we might conventionally call biographical influences into three distinct categories for want of a better terms are called them, the influence of experience, the influence of close political voices, and the influence of public events. So let’s begin with experience. In other words with the immediate events and circumstances of Ernie’s life. I want to hone in on three distinct aspects of Ernie his formative years, childhood impoverishment, migration, and work.
In the 1860s, the Lane gardening business was thriving. By 1871 when Ernie was to the household was apparently prosperous enough to employ a 17 year old servant. But bad times looked around the corner precipitated, it seems by James’s fondness for the drink. As his drinking got the better of him, the family business declined, and the household fell on hard times. At the age of 14, and Ernie’s brother William was forced by poverty to give up a promising academic career at Bristol Grammar School. When their mother died on the 16th of December 1876, the boys only sister Gertrude or Gertie had to leave school to care for the family. By 1881, the Lane’s had moved to Sussex and James by then remarried, was trying to make a new start as a Master Gardener. Ernie would have been too young to remember the prosperous times. But he was old enough to notice and feel the psychological harm inflicted on the family and particularly on his mother, by his father’s drinking, and by the family’s shameful fall from grace .
Without wanting to psychologize too much, I think it’s reasonable to suggest that Ernie’s lifelong hypersensitivity to injustice and to what Richard Sennett has called the hidden injuries of class had its genesis in the hurt and shame he experienced as a boy. It was certainly one of the factors that motivated him to emigrate.
But emigration too was a traumatic experience for the young Lane. In 1893, Ernie and his brother Frank signed up for assisted passengers to Queensland, where they were told, work was abundant and opportunities abounded. The brothers were among almost 16,500 optimistic souls, who in 1884 alone would make the journey to Queensland under the colony’s immigration scheme. Many were escaping crippling unemployment convulsing the country districts and metropolitan centres of Britain since the late 1870s. Aboard the Lanes ship, the ‘Otago’ the assisted emigres comprised 50 married couples 36 Children 161 single men and 20 single women. Conditions on the Otago bore little resemblance to the picture painted by the immigration propaganda. The squalor, dusts and overcrowding in steerage was rivaled only by the scandalous quality of the food. Complaints to the ship surgeon, Thomas McDonald ,met with at best, small and temporary concessions, reprisals and favoritism formed the more usual pattern of official behavior. Now, to make matters worse, the ship had barely left side of the English coast when the captain announced that those in steerage were required to carry coal and pump and haul water for the benefit of the crew and the passengers in the saloon area. Those who who refused were denied fresh water and had their food restricted. Now passengers in mess groups numbers 8 to 17 responded to this edict with a strike. But as one of the number Thomas Williamson recorded, the consequences of this direct action, were dire. We tried hard at tea time to get some hot water, but they would give us none. I managed to get a little drop from number 2 mess, which made a mouthful of tea for some of us, Manning and I have eaten nothing for the last two days. On the 12th of April, he reported another strike by some members of the number 10 mess. Again, the men were punished with an enforced fast. Several recalcitrants were said to have been kept on biscuits and water for the greater part of the voyage, at least one of whom had paid his passage in full.
Now Ernie left no recollection of any of this. his memoir skips over the voyage. So we do not know precisely how he and Frank were affected by the shipboard conditions or by the behavior of the officers. We did not know if they were involved in the strikes or other forms of resistance that occurred. But we do know that they were there amongst that human cargo down in steerage treated little better than convicts. They could not have avoided the mistreatment they could not have avoided bearing witness to the acts of solidarity and kindness, the victims displayed to one another, much of which has been documented, they could not have failed to be privy to the belowdecks discussions about their common plight, and about the options for collective self help and resistance. It’s very difficult to imagine that in these circumstances, Ernie would not have asked himself some hard questions about a system of authority that would treat people so poorly. When actually faced with the callousness and pettiness of this form of class oppression, Ernie would have found that it could not easily be explained away or justified with the conservative nostrums of his youth. It is likely that on the voyage to Queensland injustice and solidarity registered for the first time as aspects of Lane’s socially lived experience.
Having survived the voyage, Lane then had to find work. By late 1883, the Queensland economy was entering a crisis. Drought struck during the year and unemployment in Brisbane began to rise. George Lansbury an older contemporary of Lanes and later the leader of the British Labour Party, described his impressions of Brisbane when like Lane, he arrived from the old country in 1884. The first glimpse of a friend’s face on shore, he wrote, sent our hearts into our boots. There was something so pathetic and far away in the faces of the people, the kind of wretchedness which disappointment stamps on the faces of those whose hearts are sick, and whose hopes are gone.
Lansbury soon discovered for himself the reason for this distress. We had come to Australia to get away from competition and to live a simple life. As a matter of fact, we had come into a very hell of competition. Lane observed this distress to but managed to avoid the calamity of prolonged unemployment by securing a job on a dairy farm at German station, north of Brisbane. The farm was run by Andrew Wagner, the son of Johann Gottfried Wagner, one of the evangelical German Lutherans, who had descended on the area in 1838. In the 1880s, German station still lay well outside the parameters of Brisbane. Adjoining Kedron was still a separate town in 1899. But the city’s residential reach was expanding and industry spreading. By the time Lane took up his position at Wagner’s, a railway line serviced Nundah and a railway carriage and wagon workshop was established in the area, attracting new residents and additional small businesses.
The farm supplied the dairy needs of this burgeoning local community and also extended into supply the needs of Brisbane itself. And Ernie’s siblings were all skilled farmers, having been trained in dairying from childhood. It was perhaps a sign of the farm success in these years that Wagner was compelled to look to a source of labor outside his own family. The young and vulnerable Lane was the dubious beneficiary of this decision, employed in the dairy for seven and six pence per week. At a time when bricklayers and carpenters for example, were receiving a weekly wage of 50 to 60 shillings. For his modest income Ernie was expected to start work at 1:30am each morning, Sundays and holidays included. It was a hard job made all the more alienating by its loneliness and isolation. While the Otago experience was made bearable by the solidarity of fellow sufferers, there was no such solace in companionship to be found at German farm. Though there is no suggestion that Lane was physically mistreated by the Wagner’s. Neither is there any indication that he formed any emotional bond with the family, the experience of 12 months of lonely toil for a pittance in pay he later wrote tersely and perfunctorily was ‘not altogether wasted’.
So we see that the migration experience did not break Lane in the way that Lansbury’s friends were broken, he endured. Nevertheless, he was not unaffected. Indeed, though, Ernie himself may not have been cognizant of it at the time, the events of 1884 and early 1885 set off a process that would soon shake his world to the core. All of these lived events were like blows raining down on Lane’s naive and flattering view of authority. While in a formal sense, he may still have been a conservative in 1885. With each new blow, it became more and more difficult to regard the existing arrangements of power and privilege as something to be defended, let alone celebrated.
His thinking was inevitably changing under the stresses of the class society, in which he found himself. His sensitivity to injustice grew. When, as he put it, he shed his swaddling clothes and became a passionate rebel, it was a germination from the soil of hard personal experience. It would be wrong to assume, however, that Lane’s sense of alienation and his developing consciousness of class necessarily took him to radicalism. It’s instructive, I think, to compare Lane’s intellectual development, with that of two of his contemporaries, Thomas Dobson, and William Morris Hughes. We know of Dobson through his diary that has survived from his first decade in Australia. Hughes, of course, went on to become a union leader, a prime minister, and an infamous labour rat.
Dobson a mill wright and patternmaker from England’s North Country. Someone that I’m sure Jim (Sharp?) here would admire, fell under the spell of the colonial immigration propaganda. When the British construction industry contracted in 1981-82. He secured an assisted passage to New South Wales, arriving at Sydney with his wife Sarah, and baby daughter Mary in May 1883. Over the next eight years, Dobson recorded his roller coaster ride on the Sydney labor market. precarious stints in work, were interspersed with frequent bouts of unemployment. By 1888, he was completely disillusioned.
‘I consider these last five years has been thrown away. I have made no progress at all.’ He confides to his diary. His diary conveys a smoldering anger at his plight. And he writes sympathetically, of the agitation of the unemployed But he kept his distance, and his diary offers no political solutions beyond a vague support for protectionism. The editors of Dobson’s diary Graham Davidson and Shirley Constantine, point out that Dobson’s narrative was not unusual for his generation. He represents they argue, an entire group of class conscious immigrant working men, who they write, remain largely isolated from formal politics, and whose beliefs as far as they took systematic form, formed around the essentially inward looking and defensive doctrines of populism protectionism, and racism.
With the wisdom of hindsight, Ernie insisted that he was bound to become a rebel. But Dobson story reminds us that a tough migrant experience was no guarantee of this. Despair or cynicism, or obduracy and endurance were equally possible outcomes. As Dobson himself pointed out, even suicide was not uncommon.
So in many respects, Lane’s story is closer to Hughes’s. British born Hughes was the son of a conservative tradesman too and, as a single man, had also arrived in Brisbane in 1884 as an assisted immigrant. He led a roving life for several years, holding down numerous jobs in rural Queensland and in Sydney, before settling down in Balmain, where in 1890, as he put it, ‘he found himself after years of strain, stress and adventure, carried on the crest of the great political and industrial upheaval that led to the establishment of the Labor Part’y.
Now the timing here is significant. If Lane and Hughes stand apart from Dobson in the overt embrace of radical politics. Lane’s narrative differs significantly from Hughes’s in that Ernie radicalized in 1886-87, a full three to four years before Hughes. Whereas Hughes was swept up in the tumult of 1890. Lane came to radical politics, when it was still only a barely discernible ripple on the surface of Brisbane civil society. By then, Ernie had left German farm and was employed in Brisbane as a grocer’s assistant.
But the colonial capital at that time, had no radical organisations to offer. So what made the difference? What was it that hammered Ernie’s general sense of estrangement into the radical political form that would soon materialize? The answer, I think, lies in the influence of what I call ‘close political voices’. It was, in particular, the close political voice of his own brother William, that played the critical role in Ernie’s conscious break from his conservative past.
When in June 1885, William turned up in Brisbane, accompanied by his family, Ernie was shocked to discover that his much loved brother and childhood mentor had renounced many elements of their conservative past and no longer feared God or honored the Queen.
In other circumstances or in another family. This might have caused a rift, but amongst the Lanes, the sibling bond was strong. Ernie moreover, for all his resilience, was isolated, vulnerable and needing support. While William was willing and able to take Ernie under his wing. Historian John Kellett has suggested Ernie may have lived with William and his family in this period. Though I’ve not been able to find any direct evidence of this. William was certainly easily accessible by 1887. He was residing in Quay Street in that little pocket of land between upper Roma Street and the river.
Ernie was evidently privy to many of Williams discussions and debates with members of Brisbane’s nascent radical community. As I said, these were the years of socialism infancy, before it was confident enough to declare its presence on the streets or parks or meeting rooms of the city. Another brother John recalled William meeting prominent radical sympathizers privately to discuss politics and literature. These rendezvous probably occurred at the Lane home, away from public scrutiny. Typically, William would invite friends and acquaintances to meet for a group discussion. Records of an exchange with writer Francis Kenna (Australian poet, journalist, and Labor Member of the Legislative Assembly in Queensland. He edited the “Brisbane Worker”) in 1888 reveals heretical isms emergence as a major force in Brisbane began at a molecular level in small private gatherings convened after work hours in homes, tea houses and offices across the city.
In October, Kenna wrote to Lane, who was by then editor of the Boomerang newspaper, soliciting a job as a regular correspondent on the paper. Sometime later, obviously after the two men had struck up a friendship Lane wrote to Kenna, ‘my dear Kenna, we’d like you to drop in here on Monday at 8pm. A few of us want to form a little social gathering for mutual instruction and encouragement, and I’ll be glad to have you come, fees nothing, rules none Yours W Lane’.
Though not necessarily an active participant, Ernie was present at many of these little events. He observed William’s heated arguments with a visiting radical essayist and poet Francis Adams, whose class struggle militancy was not to William’s taste. He was there when William formed the Bellamy Society to discuss and promote the socialist vision of Edward Bellamy’s utopian novel ‘Looking Backward’, and he joined the societies dozen members, who met regularly at George Marchant’s hot beer factory in Bowen Street,
Whether alone in Williams company, or together with other dissidents, gathered by the light of kerosene lamps in rooms around town, there was always opportunities for Ernie to listen to, and learn from these close political voices. And learn he did. Along with the Bellamy society, the Boomerang newspaper, launched in November 1887, with William as editor, nurtured and rallied the city’s tiny radical community. It was an outlet for radical ideas, and it provided employment for visiting socialists like Francis Adams, and this, in turn, helped prolong their stay in Brisbane and broaden the intellectual horizon for novice radicals like Ernie Adams, in fact, became one of the earliest most important influences after William. I found myself actually close closely in sympathy with the extreme rebellious pneus of it, or Francis Adams, who was impatient of Williams, more demure methods, and he wrote, basically, Adams was a class struggle socialist.
before emigrating to Australia in 1884. He had been a member of the Social Democratic Federation in London, which places him to use it with Thompson’s words, at the effect of birth of modern socialism in Britain. And we can say that Adams was present at the birth of the same movement in Australia. He helped introduce here the centrality of the labour theory of value, and Marx’s crucial conclusion that socialism would be created only by an act of working class self emancipation, a message Adams carried into his own poetry, as he put it in the poem to the sons of labor, grave this deep in your hearts, forget not the title of the past, never, never believe that any will help you or can saving only yourselves. Adams has particular combination of poetry and politics, proved to be an alluring mix for earning. He was also drawn in by Adams his status as a writer, who could be linked back to powerful British literary currents, starting with Adams, his erstwhile SDF comrade William Morris, and working backwards from him to the great lyric poets of the romantic tradition. And it’s hard to overstate how important such connection was for young radicals of the late colonial period. Literature and the literary. It occupied an absolutely central place in their movement, even more than folk and rock music would to a later generation of activists. Not only were books the lifeblood of mass radicalism, their limited availability in 1880s, Australia, ensured the reading experience was particularly intense, with a small range of texts being circulated widely serialized in the radical press, read again and again, and even committed to memory. Sourcing or producing affordable editions of canonical works, and disseminating them to a mass audience became one of the defining political tasks of the age. Ted Brady, soon to become one of the earliest closest comrades, and a lifelong friend gives a dramatic account of the role books played in his own radicalization in Sydney in 1890. And I quote, Hugo influenced me greatly. Velma keys Ramayana, intoxicated me, annals light of Asia half converted me to Buddhism and to Draper’s intellectual development of Europe. And when would read the martyrdom of man, I still remain indebted. I swatted German philosophy, studied Spinoza adored garota and wrestled with Spencer and John Stuart Mill Darwin how Actually Lindal and haikal burst upon me with cosmic force. At 20. I took Das Kapital from the library shells, and sat down to the most technical, coldest and most compelling task of my life. I stood up after renewals as socialist and a man. Now, in 1887, earn his literary path to socialism and manhood was less convoluted than Ted’s. For in Brisbane, the range of texts was somewhat smaller, particularly in the field of political economy and history. But he made the most of what he found. The publication of a worthwhile book of a revolutionary nature, he wrote, was hailed a heaven sent gift and eagerly procured and diligently digested.
Of the texts Ernie did did have on hand, the ones that had most impact, the ones that were the closest political voices were those that spoke to his personal experience of political transformation. They included John Morrison, Davidson’s ‘New Book of Kings’, published in 1884. Olive Schreiner’s 1883 novel, ‘The Story of an African farm’ and William Morris’s, ‘A dream of John Ball’, published in 1886. The new book of Kings was as its subtitle, declared ‘a Republican Counterblast’. Just the kind of anti monarchist diatribe, one would expect to delight a young man in the throes of throwing over his own childhood worship of Queen and Country. Ernie may have read the 1887 edition, deliberately published in the aftermath of the Royal jubilee celebrations. The British monarchy, it declared is perhaps the most colossal fraud and fast that ever existed in this world since man appeared on the face of the earth.
Olive Schreiner’s book, not surprisingly, is much subtler. Set in South Africa, the semi autobiographical novel narrates the transition from religious belief, to a form of spiritual materialism. In the character of Waldo, the son of a German farm overseer. As Waldos psychic journey unfolds, than a writer catches him at the moment of losing God. Now we have no God. We’ve had to the Old God that our fathers handed down to us that we hated and never liked and the new one that we made for ourselves that we loved. But now he had flitted away from us, and we see what he was made of … the shadow of our highest ideal ,crowned and throne. Now we have no God.
Now, there are obvious parallels here to Ernie’s own metamorphosis, a thoroughgoing rupture from religion, induced by the power of material reality, imposing on lanes rational self, for Waldo, and for Lane, what replaces God is a serene materialism. A little later, the same passage reads, ‘and so it comes to pass in time that the Earth ceases for us to be a weltering chaos. We walk in the Great Hall of life, looking up and round reverentially. Nothing is despicable. All is meaningful, nothing is small. All is part of a whole whose beginning and end we know not.’
These passages, not only allowed only the cathartic pleasure of recognizing and Waldos experience his own abandonment of religious belief. But Schreiner’s sensitive positioning of humanity in nature, registered earn his own affinity with the natural world, and affinity that can be traced back to earn his youthful times of wandering the countryside around Bristol with his brothers. And as you can see from this photograph, which may have come out a little bit dark on the screen here, this affinity was with nature was something that Lane never lost. Morris’s ‘A dream of John Ball’ also evokes a pre industrial world where humanity is less estranged from nature, set against the actual events of the English peasant revolt of 1381 led by excommunicated priest John Ball, Morris’s tale combines medieval ism with modern socialism. His fictional John ball encounters a character from the future than a writer with a decidedly Marxian worldview, who foretells a time when the labor shall be legally free, but condemned by material necessity to work for a wage and produce value for others.
Written after Morris had led a breakaway from the SDF, to form the more revolutionary Socialist League. ‘A Dream of John Ball’ is essentially a propaganda piece which uses a pre capitalist past as a bird’s eye view device to demystify contemporary class relations. While the new book of Kings an African farm helped Ernie deal with the shedding of old ideas, John Ball served to introduce him to the new in the form of a rudimentary Marxian analysis of wage labour. Morris was a seminal figure for William and Ernie Lane. John Kellett claims William took the pen name John Miller from the Dream of John Ball, because the John Ball character and in particular, Morris’s rendering of it invoked the utopian socialist tradition, which William was committed to continuing.
Now, this, in my view, is a misreading of Morris’s use of the character by both Kellett and Lane. Morris has is the narrator anticipate a day ‘when men shall have the fruits of the earth and the fruits of their toil thereon without money, and without price’. It would be wrong to interpret this as Kellett does, as conclusive evidence of millenarian politics on Morris’s part, any number of radical traditions could have produced such a vision. in Morris’s case, it is entirely consistent with the tenents of the revolutionary socialist movement, he was endeavoring to build through the socialist League.
Nevertheless, in drawing on a John Bull story as he does and more generally, in His abiding preoccupation with medievalism. Morris certainly left himself open to misinterpretation by utopians like William Lane, having been a disciple of Carlisle and Ruskin, and a member of the pre raphaelite brotherhood, Morris stood it should be remembered as a bridge between the romantic revolt and modern socialism.
William could never reconcile these two positions, and was more attracted to Morris, the romantic medievalist, than Morris the revolutionary Marxist. Ernie, on the other hand, drew from both worlds and recognized the intellectual path linking the two. In a sense, Ernie was on the same journey as Morris, whereas William was stuck in the futile millenarian traditions of the past.
We can see this fusion of the romantic and socialist in Ernie’s admiration of the lyric poet, Percy Shelley. As important as the pros of Davidson, Shreiner and Morris was to Lane’s intellectual growth it is the poets who stood above everyone else in the literary world as early as inspiration. Byron, Burns, Whitman, the early Swinburne and at the pinnacle, Shelley, the Lane’s generation Shelley was Bob Dylan and ‘Rage Against the Machine’ rolled into one. This great singer of democracy and prophet of the future people’s day of liberation, as Ernie once described him, expressed in verse of intense lyrical power, the rage against class society, which Ernie himself felt as he went about his daily routine, working as a grocers assistant, wandering the dirty streets of Brisbane, taking in the latest news of the world, and gathering with like-minded comrades to discuss what was to be done.
Consider how in the poem Queen Mab Shelley describes the predicament of those condemned to work as wage slaves, ‘hardened to hope, insensible to fear, scarce living pulleys of a dead machine, mere wheels of work and articles of trade, that grace the proud and noisy pomp of wealth’.
As a mere wheel of work himself a living pulley of a dead machine, Lane reveled in such imagery, and embraced Shelley as a poet for his own age. A voice of his own generation, ‘obedience’, wrote Shelley ‘makes slaves of men, and of the human frame, a mechanized automaton’.
One can picture the young Ernie Lane, taking a long puff of his pipe, and nodding his head in agreement when he read that passage. Politically, Shelley, was the most modern and radical of the great romantic lyricists. Lane could turn to Shelley’s ‘The Mask of Anarchy’, and contemplate the violence of power and privilege of his own time.
Conversely, and more importantly, Lane could recite passages from this poem, as an expression of enduring optimism in the revolutionary potential of the downtrodden of his own era. In this poem, the character of anarchy is eventually slain by hope who calls upon the crushed multitude to ‘Rise like Lions after slumber/ In unvanquishable number, /Shake your chains to earth like dew /Which in sleep had fallen on you – /Ye are many – they are few’.
Here in colonial Australia, meanwhile, the many were beginning stir. And I want to turn now to the influence of public events on Ernie’s thinking. The drought and economic downturn of 1884 notwithstanding the early 90s was a decade of economic expansion, sparking a renewed assertiveness amongst broad sections of Queensland’s working population. In 1882, after a lull of some six years, the campaign for an eight hour day was relaunched with the founding of an Eight Hours committee. While the committee’s results were fairly patchy, the wider push for reduced hours and other improvements made important gains, and had the lasting effect of disentangling the interests of labor and capital, especially in the trades.
The House Painters in Brisbane provided one of the best examples of this development. In March 1885, they met to form a union, which became the Operative House Painters and Decorators society. And as the Brisbane Courier reported, ‘the employers from the first, showed a disposition to join them in a most friendly spirit’.
This attitude quickly changed when the employers discovered to their dismay, that the union’s rules insisted on an eight hour day and overtime for work performed beyond the normal spread of 45 hour week. Relations cooled even further when the Union refused to compromise. A year later, the Painters took on the Masters a second time, demanding further improvements in wages and in overtime provisions. In March 1886, they down brushes across the city to force the employer or employers to come to terms.
With financial assistance from kindred unions in Sydney and Melbourne. And a levy on members whose employers had already conceded, the union was able to hold out until virtually all painters in Brisbane were on the rate demanded.
A similar separating out of the class forces was evident in the political arena when a Trades and Labour Council formed in September 1885, one of its aims was to send working men to Parliament, signaling a move away from the Liberal/ Labor Alliance of the early 1880s, which had in effect placed the local labor movement under the political leadership of the liberal section of urban Capital, led by Samuel Griffith. Out of the TLC’s Initiative, a workers Political Reform Association was launched at a meeting in Fortitude Valley in November 1887.
And these were all important developments, but it was the unionizing amongst workers without traditional craft skills, the so called new unions of the semi skilled or unskilled that did most to invigorate the labour movement in these year. Miners, seafarers shearers, rural labourers and railway navvies were all organizing in some cases beyond across colonial boundaries.
In Brisbane, wharf labourers and seamen formed unions in 1884. The builders labourers registered a union in 1887, while the Omnibus and tram operators and railway workers followed two years later, Brisbanes general labourers formed a union in November 1889.
The success of this working class mobilization shaped the kind of radical that Ernie became. Despite his personal difficulties, he came to politics in optimistic times, when it was easy to believe in the possibility and power of collectivism. Unity was the core message. He witnessed it on the ‘Otago’ he learnt at an intellectual level from his brother. He experienced it in a fraternal why, as a member of Brisbane tiny radical community, and he sought to succeed on the wider stage as workers around him unionized, won industrial victories and created Federation’s across colonial and industry boundaries.
A lesson sank deep into his bones, becoming the basis for his political resilience in the decades to come. And just as all this was happening, news of another sequence of public events far from colonial Brisbane, his Ernie was such force it set the seal on his passionate radicalism. On the fourth of May 1886, a bomb exploded in Haymarket Square in Chicago, as police were dispersing striking workers. Eight anarchist workers were subsequently arrested and put on trial for the bombing. All were convicted of inciting to riot. The prosecution having failed spectacularly, to prove that any of them was responsible for the bomb. Seven of the men was sentenced to death. Four were hanged on the 11th of November 1887, one of the condemned took his own life in jail, and the remaining two had their sentences commuted to life in prison.
The three imprisoned men were eventually granted clemency in 1892 by a new governor who declared the trial a miscarriage of justice. What you see here is a famous illustration of the Chicago Anarchist is drawn by the socialist artist Walter Crane. Commenting on the impact in America of the trial and executions, Howard Zinn has written that while the immediate result was a suppression of the radical movement, the long term effect was to keep alive the class anger of many to inspire others, especially young people of that generation to action in revolutionary causes. Zins point applied equally to Australia. Ernie was one of the Haymarket generation, the trial incarceration and execution of the Chicago Amicus, he wrote his later was remembered as an imperishable landmark on the road to freedom. He placed them alongside the Paris Commune ads as a source of inspiration, a beam of light to many weary souls, as he put it, even more emphatically, he claimed that from that point on, he became a convinced revolutionary. And here is the revolutionary Ernie Lane at the age of 25 in 1894, this is the earliest photograph of Ernie that I’ve been able to find and I want to thank, granddaughter ,Iris, for allowing me to use this image here today.
To sum up, then, the circumstances of childhood impoverishment, and an insecurity, the experience of migrant and working life, the insistent murmur of close political voices, both embodied and literary, and the effect of public events here and abroad, all conspired to point Lane towards the life of labour movement radicalism. By the end 1887 he was a socialist. His socialism at that stage was vague as a program and strategy but some things about it were clear. It was belligerently anti-capitalist, avowedly collectivist inclining towards revolution, and anxious for the day of reckoning to arrive.
Some of these elements which shade away over the years, but the anti-capitalism never would. Thirty years later, in 1917, in his column for The Daily standard, he would have this to say about those who would preach to workers about the dignity of labour. ‘So long as the fruits of labour are for the glorification and comfort of the capitalist class, instead of for humanity itself. So long as life remains as it is today, for the majority of mankind, a cruel and uncertain struggle for the means of livelihood, an unending fight for the right to live from the cradle to the grave. So long as the tools of production, the whole totality and short of the storehouse of nature, is held and controlled by a parasitical and exploiting class. So long is labor not dignified, but degraded’.
Central to this outlook in both 1887 and in 1917, was the notion of socialism as a creative act, beginning in the imagination of the working people, ‘where there is no vision, there the people perish’, he wrote, quoting from the Bible. He could have found a similar point equally well made in Shelley’s defence of poetry. ‘There is’ wrote Shelly,’ no one have knowledge respecting what is wisest and best in morals, government, and political economy, or at least what is wiser and better than what men now practice or endure. But we want the creative faculty to imagine that which we know; we want the generous impulse to act that which we imagine we want the poetry of life’.
From Shelley and Morris, from the workers of Brisbane and Chicago, from his own brother and his political circle, and from his own experiences, Lane got the poetry of life, … both of life as it was lived in life as it could be. Only certain moments in history have given rise to circumstances where the imaginative rupture envisaged by Shelley and Lane has become a mass event, a groundswell, a movement with the potential to transform society from the first kind of life to the second. In Australia. The intellectual ferment of which Ernie Lane was a part, marked out the late 19th century as one of those moments. It is to Lane’s great credit, that throughout his long life, that moment stayed with him, continuing to inspire him and mark him out as one of Australia’s most enduring and resolute labour rebels, thank you