When Aus­tralian Wob­blies fought the law

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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