2011 ASSLH conference – ‘Bastards from the bush’: forgotten IWW activists


Bastards from the bush’: forgotten IWW activists

Drew Cottle
Rowan Day



The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) have secured a place in Australian folklore as one of the most notable examples of class-conscious rebellion. For a time in the 1910s the State viewed them as public enemy number one, an insidious menace responsible for inciting the class conflict in Australia. While there have been scholarly studies of the IWW in Australia it has concentrated on ideology, the state’s reaction to the movement and the movement’s approach to the First World War. An accurate picture of who was an Australian ‘Wob’ has remained elusive, and there has been scant attention given to the work they were engaged in and thus how this work shaped their outlook. Virtually all analysis of the IWW has given undue emphasis to the Sydney ‘Local’. Consequently, that the IWW was composed mostly of men either from the bush or who ‘went bush’ from time to time in search of work has been ignored. In many ways they were the last expression of Russel Ward’s ‘nomad tribe’. Their work was of the kind to be found in the rural interior. They were generally engaged in tough, physically laborious work (where ‘the go-slow’ tactic can be quite tempting for a weary body) it was often seasonal work, and more often of a pre-industrial nature: hard rock mining, tree-felling, shearing.  

If one tries to imagine a typical Wobbly the mental image conjured up would quite likely be something of a ‘bum’, particularly of the sundowner variety. This image is neither a romanticisation nor a denigration. Rather, it reflects a fundamental truth about the Wobblies, that they were generally unattached young men quite inclined (or forced) to hit the track in search of work.

Analysis of the IWW has dwelt on the Wobblies’ ideology more than they themselves ever did. They were not theoreticians. They did not puzzle over dialectical materialism, but they knew the boss was a ‘blood-sucker’ and they took ‘direct action’. Their outlook was forged in the workplace. ‘Bossdom’ in the bush, whether it be the mine owner, squatter or foreman could be seen and hated, to a degree that was not possible with the city fat cat.

They rejected any notion of bourgeois respectability. The middle-class socialist was alien to their rough ways. The Wobblies were dirty, drinking, swearing tough young men and they were constantly on the move. Their lifestyle fuelled their politics and their politics shaped their lifestyle. Both were a horror to the settled comfortable class. The Wobblies were the bastards from the bush.

Drew Cottle is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Humanities and Languages at the University of Western Sydney

Rowan Day is currently doing a PhD at the University of Western Sydney on the IWW in rural NSW, centred on the western town of Tottenham where he grew up.



Lump, lump, lump
All day in the burning heat,
For two bob an hour
To lump bags of wheat
We sell labour-­power
Humping weevils and wheat

Stitch, stitch, stitch,
All day with an aching back,
But when we get wise,
We’ll all unionise
And give the boss the ‘sack’1

 Virtually all analysis of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) in Australia has placed an emphasis on the Sydney ‘Local’. While there is no denying the importance of city Locals-­-­the Sydney Local especially-­-­to the IWW in Australia, this paper will argue that the rural dimension of the IWW in Australia was no less important, and that in fact the majority of Wobblies in Australia worked in the bush.

Rural workers have long been identified as at the centre of the IWW in North America; there has been no similar attempt in Australia.2 Urban explanations of radicalism have overwhelmed the mixed experience at the turn of the twentieth century. Consequently, that sizeable section of the IWW composed of men, either from the bush or who ‘went bush’ from time to time in search of work, has been given little attention. In some ways they were the last expression of Russel Ward’s ‘nomad tribe’.3 Their work was of the kind to be found in the rural interior. They were generally engaged in tough, physically laborious work (where ‘the go-­slow’ tactic can be quite tempting for a weary body); it was often seasonal work, and more often than not of a pre-­industrial nature: hard-­rock mining, tree-­felling, shearing. The emergence of the urban occupational pattern, which eventually culminated in sustained full employment, was not complete until after the 1930s Depression. Before then the bush was still episodically important to the IWW narrative. This paper aims to shed light on the rural Wobblies in Australia.

The IWW was established in the United States of America as a movement dedicated to organising the working class along industrial unionist/syndicalist lines, rather than represented by parliamentarians or craft unions. As its name suggests, the IWW was not confined by national boundaries. It made its presence felt in Australia as much as anywhere else. Analysis of the IWW in Australia has centred on the Sydney Local and the globetrotting agitators who formed the core of that Local-­-­Tom Barker, J. B. King, Charles Reeve and Donald Grant, among others. These prominent agitators, in the main recent arrivals from other Anglophone countries, should not be seen as typical of the IWW membership in Australia. The Australian Wobblies were bush workers, to a far greater extent than has thus far been acknowledged. Wobblies who ‘lived’ in Sydney or Brisbane were generally not settled, permanent residents of those cities, and even to say that they were based there is misleading. Barker was clear on this point: while coming to Sydney `from time to time’, `most of the members worked in the country’.4 This work was invariably manual, pre-­industrial labour-­-­ mining, shearing, tree-­felling. Missing this point is more than an inconsequential oversight, as it was this hard laborious bush work that helped shape the IWW.

We had the Home Guard, from Sydney, but most of the members worked in the country, came into Sydney from time to time, took out their card, and would take a bundle of papers and sell them wherever they went. Often they worked as miners until the shearing season came, then went up to North Queensland, started to shear and followed the sun until they got to Victoria, which was quite a long time. They would come to Sydney to spend their money and see the lassies, then start and do the same again. The same applied to gold miners from the west. They’d come over and perhaps go to Broken Hill. Broken Hill was a strong IWW town. In North Queensland from Cloncurry to the copper belt the bulk of working people were indoctrinated or associated with the IWW philosophy.5

While Barker’s words here have been mentioned in passing before, his argument that the majority of IWW members worked in the country has not received any serious attention. Former Wobbly Bill Beattie agreed, stating that `the bulk of its membership was composed of bush and construction workers who travelled by necessity’;6  he talks of `a small army of swagmen’.7

The addresses on the Sydney Local membership lists which have been used to analyse the IWW’s make up can be misleading to say the least, (not even considering that most of the Wobbly persuasion weren’t formal IWW members8), a point which should be clear from the occupations given. It would take a fair leap of the imagination to consider the dozens of Sydney Local members listed as miner, shearer, or ‘rural worker’ to be settled residents of Sydney. It would be safe to assume that many of those listed as ‘labourer’ were `in the same boat’, such as the labourer Harold Wood of Forbes, in central-­western New South Wales, whose membership address was given as ‘Shepherd Street, City’.9 Or David Hinds and Patrick Browne, who in January 1917 were arrested for threatening a constable in the small southern NSW town of Oaklands; their membership addresses were both in Sydney. And, once again, this is only considering members of the Sydney Local.

While it is difficult to get a reliable figure, Rushton asserts that there were two thousand IWW members, of whom only five hundred weren’t from the Sydney Local, and Burgmann agrees with this figure.10 Five hundred non-­Sydney members appears a misjudgement when one considers Barker’s claim that most Wobblies were roaming country workers.11 The relatively small copper-­mining town of Cobar alone had 150 members.12 In light of all this, Beattie’s memory of around ten thousand ‘financial members’, the bulk from the bush, appears a more plausible figure.13 In such a loosely arranged movement though, in which one could be considered a ‘non-­financial member’, the number of members remains a difficult question.

Even the ‘leaders’ from the Sydney Local could not keep their feet tied down in the city. J. B. King travelled far and wide, including to Moree to agitate with shearers. When a Wobbly in western NSW wrote to Barker asking for speakers to come to his small town, Tottenham, Barker replied that King would go, or alternatively, `he may relieve me, and I will come over’.14 The casual manner in which he made the offer is telling. It took but the smallest hint for the Sydney ‘leaders’ to head to the ‘back blocks’. This would have been inconceivable from the leaders of any other sizeable movement or party. In the end, in this case, imprisonment would deny Barker the opportunity.

In 1914 Charles Reeve one of the IWW’s leading propagandists, who was later gaoled for treason, and a number of other Wobblies travelled to Port Pirie in South Australia, where they employed a Wobbly tactic that had often been successfully used in America-­-­that of flooding gaols with supporters. Reeve’s strategy (similar fights occurred elsewhere, including Newcastle) followed the standard ‘free speech fight’ template: refusing to follow police instructions to move on, then opting for gaol rather than paying a fine. The authorities were put on the back foot, by a surge of sympathisers following the same pattern, and the gaols became virtually unmanageable. As Tom McMillan recalled, in the Port Pirie instance `fellow workers… came by rail and boat, on bikes, tired legs and blistered feet to show to the world that our solidarity was not a vain empty boast’.15 Hundreds of people left from Sydney alone to pack the Port Pirie gaol.16  The IWW newspaper Direct Action rallied the troops:

We call upon all rebels and lovers of freedom to rally to the cause of Free Speech. Salvation Army ranters and fanatical sky pilots are allowed to make night hideous in the streets of the cities, because their teaching of the cowardly Christian `virtue’ of meekness and servility is calculated to keep the workers’ minds in bondage. But discussion on industrial and economic subjects, according to the magisterial abortion who is handing out justice in Port Pirie, is an interference with the principles of freedom. Contempt of Court! Bah! We spit upon you.17

IWW tactics such as this were as applicable, and as successful, in regional South Australia as they were in America’s west. And in both cases they were tactics best suited to footloose men with no strong ties to family or property in any particular location. A perfect example of this type of worker is offered by Humphrey McQueen when he discusses men who were nominally building and construction workers but who `might when contracts were scarce turn farm hand (at smaller pay), miner, perhaps shearer, wood-­feller…’.18  Peter Sheldon notes that construction labourers of the period were overwhelmingly male, unskilled and itinerant.19 This was an era when workers were far more willing to ‘head bush’ for work.

One such group of Wobblies heading bush for work left Sydney in early 1916 bound for Mildura. They rode the rails and raided the train’s stores of beer and cheese. When arrested at Junee, they plastered the officer’s bicycle and their cell with IWW stickers and ‘sabotaged’ the police vegetable garden. Their behaviour can’t have improved as they were arrested again at Wagga Wagga.20 Behaviour such as this by young, tough, brash, masculine, wandering Wobblies baffled and horrified the ‘respectable’ middle class and the middle-­aged urban socialist.21

Those anonymous Wobblies may or may not have made it to Mildura, but if they did, they would not have been out of place. This was precisely the sort of environment in which the Wobblies thrived. In that year a large number of `hobos’ had `picked up their homes’ and travelled there. While waiting for the `grape-­snatching’ work to begin, an IWW camp was set up about two kilometres outside Mildura and it `became the centre of attraction’.22 While Locals in regional and rural centres have received little attention from historians, temporary IWW camps like that in Mildura have been entirely ignored.23

In Solidarity Forever Bertha Walker contended that it was the rural and itinerant dimension of the IWW that led to the direct-­actionist, Chicago strand of the movement’s success in Sydney (and Brisbane) as opposed to Melbourne.24 NSW and Queensland had a mass of itinerant workers at the time, and obviously from time to time many of them would be drawn to their respective State capitals, perhaps to ‘spend their money and see the lassies’, as Barker put it. This put the northern States more in line with the conditions that allowed the movement to spread in America. `It is clear that “direct action” did not thrive on Melbourne soil as it did in Queensland and New South Wales…Victoria, the smaller state, did not have the same conditions [i.e. less itinerant workers]. The movement was much more of a family… and far more respectable’.25 Melbourne was better suited to the staid socialist than the wandering Wobbly. 

Given that most Wobblies were unskilled workers, it is natural enough that they would have been drawn to the rural districts, where such work was in higher demand than in the cities. Yet it was not just the tendency of members of the IWW to be either from the bush, or to head there for work, that gave it a rural flavour. There are also a number of instances in which the IWW in the bush used some peculiarly rural tactics. In the 1916 shearers’ strike, initiated by the Australian Workers’ Union, the Wobblies took the lead. A leading Wobbly, J. B. King, was campaigning with the shearers at Moree. The IWW gifted the striking shearers with thousands of stickers, with the labels ‘Give the warm weather and the blowflies a chance’ and ‘Don’t scab on the shearers-­-­Let the Blowflies win the Strike’.26 The same arguments were still being made a year later: `whatever [shearers in] NSW wants, they will have to get off their own bat, and they can do it easily with the assistance of the Blow Fly’.27 The urban middle-­class socialist would never have conceived of fighting a battle over wages with such a slogan— strike/flystrike. The stickers on which these messages were often carried were a favoured propaganda tool of the Wobblies. Direct Action routinely carried advertisements for `one of the most effective propaganda dodges that can be used’, which they sold in batches of 1000 for 2s 6d. or 10 000 for one pound. Another example of ‘bush sabotage’ included something that was continually (occasionally literally) a thorn in the farmer’s side: the prickly pear. King claimed to have been responsible for spreading this invasive pest to Queensland, where in the early twentieth century its spread reached plague proportions.28 While this boast may have had little basis in fact, it does demonstrate the avenues down which imaginative Wobblies bent on ‘direct action’ could travel in their battle against the `cockie’ employers in the bush.

Often the most effective Wobbly propaganda didn’t relate to mass strikes and spectacular sabotage but rather advocated ‘following the letter of the law’ and doing the job ‘carefully’. The shearing shed, familiar to so many Wobblies, was a particularly ripe location for this. As the Wobblies understood the intricacies of the work they could appeal to the workers in ways that others could not hope to. For any worker in the shed other than the shearers, working at one’s own pace was a rarity. The rouseabout would have appreciated the exhortation to:

[not] allow the board to get dirty; sweep it up carefully. Pick up all fleeces carefully. It takes time to do work properly as it should be done. If the wool tables are full, put your fleece on the floor or anywhere the boss may direct. Put it down carefully, so that you can pick it up again. Skirt every fleece carefully. Don’t tear it off anyhow as you have been doing or the boss will summons you for destruction of property. Pick all dags and second cuts out of all fleeces. If you do your work carefully it will take a long time to cut out… Be a careful slave and you can win’. 29

The go-­slow was ideally suited to bush work. For farm workers and stockmen ‘being kind to animals’ was one method (though this didn’t extend to the `large, paunched, purple-­faced distortion, known as the “motor hog’”):30

Animals `should never be hurried, rather should be encouraged to go as slow as possible? fast walking on hard roads not only tires the animal but injures the leg joints while hurry over soft ground produces premature exhaustion, and is likely to strain the animal’s internal arrangements…..sheep are timid animals… and should be approached gradually and their pace and yours accelerated as little as possible’.31

Direct Action understood that many Wobblies would be working in the bush at harvest time so it often carried advertisements specifically addressed to harvesters, urging them to arm themselves with propaganda before they left. ‘Shearing News’ columns were another regular feature. With all this discussion of bush work any reader would realise that there was a heavy rural dimension to the IWW. Yet despite all these references, Direct Action’s coverage of the movement’s rural dimension was still, in fact, an understatement. Locals in the bush believed they weren’t given enough space in their own Wobbly mouthpiece. The activities of the small bush Locals weren’t covered in Direct Action to any significant degree (though larger regional centres like Broken Hill did receive extensive coverage). According to Charles Reeve, the small Locals were jealous of Direct Action’s focus on Sydney IWW Locals from the bush and from outside New South Wales urged that greater space be given for their own content in the paper, to boost local sales.32 An October 1915 edition featured an article on the Local in the (now abandoned) bush town of Corinthian, yet when the same issue provided a list of existing Locals Corinthian did not feature on it.33 The Direct Action editors, with few resources at their disposal, couldn’t be expected to be, and weren’t, abreast of developments in the countless small towns and farms across the continent. It is perhaps not surprising that studies of the IWW to date have largely focussed on Sydney and the coastal fringe, when even Direct Action did not accurately reflect the rural nature of the IWW. The organisation of Locals didn’t help the Direct Action editors; John G. Brooks observed of the IWW that `no one uses the word “organisation” oftener or practices it less’.34 Where Locals existed, they were rather chaotic, with people coming and going all the time. They were the antithesis of the Bolshevik ideal of a disciplined vanguard. In many ways though, this fluidity was their strength. Whether it benefited them or not, it was always going to be this way: this was the nature of the membership.

Wobbly rhetoric was often quite incendiary-­-­they weren’t just flying the flag, they, ‘the slaves’, were looking forward to soon `holding the fortifications of the One Big Union’.35 In America the IWW was often engaged in violent struggles, even eye-­for-­eye killings, as seen by an Australian Wobbly during a strike in Minnesota in 1916: 

There has been one striker murdered by the thugs of capitalism, and two of those dirty contemptible blood hounds bit the dust in return. These are the tactics-­ and the miners swear by all the power they possess that for every striker killed there will be a repetition of the former occurrence’.36

In Australia there were isolated instances of Wobbly violence, some trumped up, some genuine-­-­the shooting of a police constable at Tottenham and the dynamiting of a newspaper office at Broken Hill are two notable examples.37 Importantly, both took place west of the Great Dividing Range. Sydney hosted fierce rhetoric in the Domain, but it was far removed from the fiercest of the struggle, which took place to the west. A case in point can be seen in the western NSW copper-­mining town of Cobar. Following weeks of IWW agitation in the town in early 1917, tensions reached feverish levels.38 There had been nightly violent quarrels involving Wobblies and craft unionists over a series of weeks in January and February, culminating in a bloody riot involving up to one thousand men.39 Many Wobblies were seriously injured. In the aftermath of that night’s violence police feared there might be a further showdown involving firearms.40 This outbreak has thus far been ignored in studies of the IWW. It is hard to see that being the case had it taken place in Sydney or Brisbane. The IWW was nothing if not persistent in these bush towns. Two months after the violence in Cobar, Wobbly soapboxer Bill ‘Hobo’ Jackson arrived in the town and managed to attract an audience that half filled the local stadium.

The success of such propagandists rested on their message. The labouring bush workers who constituted Jackson’s audience at Cobar weren’t likely to be enticed by intricate discussions on theory. His message was easy to digest: the boss class are parasites. Two decades later in The Road to Wigan Pier George Orwell gave an account of a rather unremarkable scene of two public speakers, yet his observation is revealing. `… [T]he technical jargon of the Communists… is as far removed from common speech as the language of a mathematical textbook. I remember hearing a professional Communist speaker address a working class audience… after him a Lancashire working man got up and spoke to the crowd in their own broad lingo. There is not much doubt which of the two was nearer his audience’.41 The IWW soapboxers were the Australian equivalent of that anonymous Lancashire worker, speaking to the workers in their own language. Their songs, posters and catchcries were simple and often humorous. They were suspicious of their fellow radicals who dwelt excessively on theory-­-­ they were of the opinion that the `scientific socialist’ could often be among `the worst enemies of the working class…. he had the theory of socialism down pat, but he lived the life of one of the boss’ stool pigeons’.42

That the direct-­actionist IWW was never beset by internecine quarrels over theory is telling. It is all the more notable because its loose structure and lack of internal mechanisms for asserting discipline would have provided the perfect environment for such disputes to arise. They did not because the IWW leaders were simplifiers and popularisers of the class struggle, no more. The Wobbly could never agonise over doctrine in the way that a respectable ‘ideologically sound’ middle-­class socialist could. While the Wobbly was firm in his belief in working-­class solidarity and opposition to the boss class, whether those convictions were categorised as anarchist, syndicalist, anarcho-­syndicalist, industrial unionist or socialist was of little importance to him.

These bush labourers have received little attention in histories of the IWW in Australia, yet the home of the Wobbly was the bush no less than Sydney. The Wobblies in the bush were engaged in manual work.  Their work was tough, so, too, was their view of the world. The boss in the bush, whether he be the mine-­ owner, the squatter or the foreman, could be seen and hated, to a degree not possible with a metaphorical `fat cat’, and the Wobbly in the bush certainly did hate him.


1   A. B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson, ‘Song of the Wheat’, The Lone Hand, 2 November 1914
2   See for instance Robert Tyler, Rebels of the Woods: the IWW in the Pacific Northwest (Eugene, Or.: University of Oregon Books, 1967).
3   Russel Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 1958).
4   ‘Tom Barker and the IWW’ Oral History-­ recorded and edited by E.C. Fry. West End (Queensland, 1999), 24.
5   Ibid.
6   Bill Beattie, ‘Memoirs of the IWW’, Labour History, no.13 (November 1967) 33-­39.
7   Ibid.
8   Ibid.
9   NSW State Records. ‘Harold Owen Wood, A member of the IWW at Forbes’, 9th December 1916, NSW Police, ‘Special Bundle’ Papers concerning the International (sic) Workers of the World, 7/5596.
10   P.J. Rushton, ‘The revolutionary ideology of the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia’, Historical Studies, 15 (October 1972) 424-­446. Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers of the World in Australia (Melbourne: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 126.
11   2000 also seems a tiny number when one considers 16,000 copies of Direct Action were being sold each week in 1916. Not all readers would have been committed Wobblies, but not all Wobblies would have been able to purchase the paper on a weekly basis, especially those in ‘the back blocks’.
12   Argus, 8 February 1917.
13   He argues the ‘financial members’ constituted only a fifth of the membership. Beattie, `Memoirs of the IWW’, 39.
14   Tottenham, is around 500 kilometres west of Sydney. No prominent Wobblies had cars, and Tottenham was not accessible by train.
15   P. J. Rushton, `The Industrial Workers of the World in Sydney 1913-­1917: A Study in Revolutionary Practice’ (MA thesis, University of Sydney, 1969), 169.
16   Ibid., 170.
17   Direct Action, 1 July 1914.
18   Humphrey McQueen, ‘Improvising Nomads’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, vol.10, no. 2 (2008), 223-­250.
19   Peter Sheldon, `System and Strategy: The Changing Shape of Unionism among N.S.W. Construction Labourers, 1910-­1919′, Labour History, no. 65 (May 1993), 118.
20   ‘On the Track’, Direct Action, 22 January 1916.
21   On the IWW and masculinity see Francis Shor, ‘Masculine Power and Virile Syndicalism: A Gendered Analysis of the IWW in Australia’, Labour History, no. 63 (November1992), 83-­99.
22   ‘Mildura’, Direct Action, 12 February 1916.
23   The Local in Broken Hill is a notable exception;? among the works discussing the IWW in Broken Hill are Brian Kennedy, Silver, Sin, and Sixpenny Ale: a Social History of Broken Hill 1883-­1921 (Melbourne: MUP, 1978) and George Dale, The Industrial History of Broken Hill Melbourne, s.n.,1918). Broken Hill was not a typical bush centre, the membership was far more settled and mirrors Walker’s description of the Melbourne IWW. As Kennedy notes there was a strong Victorian and South Australian flavour to the Broken Hill population.
24   Bertha Walker, Solidarity Forever: A Part Story of the Life and Times of Percy Laidler—the First Quarter of a Century (Melbourne: National Press, 1972), 128.
25   Walker, `Solidarity Forever’, 128.
26   Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism 165-­67.
27   Direct Action, 17 February 1917.
28   Walker, `Solidarity Forever’,129.
29   Direct Action, 15 January 1916.
30   That is, the boss. Direct Action, 18 December 1915.
31   Ibid.
32   Rushton, `The Industrial Workers’, 75.
33   Direct Action, 30 October 1915.
34   Salvatore Salerno, Red November, Black November: Culture and Community in the Industrial Workers of the World (Albany, N.Y.: State University of New York Press, 1989), 13.
35   Papers Concerning the IWW, 7/5590, Archives Office of NSW.
36    ‘Industrial War in the USA’, Direct Action, 26 August 1916.
37   Argus, 21 January 1918.
38   Mercury, ‘Getting Their Deserts’, 8 February 1917.
39   ‘Miners Attack IWW Men’, Argus, 8 February 1917.
40   Papers Concerning the IWW, 7/5590, Archives Office of NSW.
41   George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (London: Gollanz, 1937), 154.
42   Direct Action, 18 December 1915.