When Australian Wobblies fought the law
Murder in Tottenham is not the crime thriller its title suggests. The subtitle, Australia’s First Political Assassination, is the nub of Rowan Day’s book, which covers a little-known aspect of the famous labour movement Industrial Workers of the World, known as the Wobblies.
In 1916, in Tottenham, a small town west of Dubbo, NSW, two of its members shot a policeman in the back.
Day argues the significance of events at Tot- tenham has been overlooked. ‘‘The Tottenham Wobblies and their associates have been largely forgotten, despite doing everything imaginable to insert themselves into the history books.’’
The Tottenham Wobblies, notably the Kennedy family, were involved at a local, national and international level in the IWW, which was founded in Chicago in 1905 but quickly became a global movement.
Kevin Kennedy, the oldest of five brothers, was a leading Wobbly in the US until deported in 1917. Michael ‘‘Herb’’ Kennedy was prominent with other IWW leaders in radical industrial action in New Zealand which culminated in the Waihi miners’ strike in 1912. During the strike he was elected president of the Waihi Miners Union. Day says he returned to Tottenham publicly identified as ‘‘one of the most ac- tive, influential radicals in the southern hemisphere’’. The youngest brother, Roland, was an active Wobbly in Tottenham. As a trumpeter in the brass band he was at the heart of their stirring songs.
Tottenham was a hotbed of mainly unskilled labourers constantly changing jobs or passing through in search of work at the mines or laying the fast-approaching railway track. Industrial disputes involving militant navvies and members of the IWW increased in the area. Other occupations, too, were prone to frequent strike action. Miners often instituted a go slow or stopped work completely, most notably in 1909, when a strike lasted more than two months.
In 1916, 80 workers walked off the government wheat farm in the district. The itinerant workforce, Day notes, continued a longstanding tradition of flocking on payday to town pubs where copies of the Wobblies journal Direct Action sold ‘‘like hot cakes’’.
Their public meetings and singalongs were enthusiastically attended. The IWW eschewed trade union processes of arbitration or political power, instead putting its faith in direct action against capitalism by ‘‘violent and destructive sabotage’’. When arson destroyed the Mount Royal mine at Tottenham, they were the prime suspects.
In mid-1916 the town’s restive, radical culture escalated to murder when a new police constable, George Duncan, arrived with instructions to ‘‘clean up the town’’.
He immediately pursued an existing warrant to arrest local Wobbly Frank Franz for ‘‘riotous behaviour’’. As Day records, although born in