James Normington Rawling Collection

James Normington Rawling Centenary Seminar – 17 Apr 1998

This seminar was co-hosted by the ASSLH and the Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC) to celebrate the centenary of the birth of James Normington Rawling (1898-1966) returned serviceman, pacificist, rationalist turned CPA functionary, expelled from the CPA in 1939, flirted with Trotskyism, became chief informer at the Victorian Royal Commission on the Communist Party in 1949, was subsequently connected with Catholic Action and the Congress for Cultural Freedom. Rawling was a literary historian, a pioneer labour historian and unrivalled collector of Australian radical manuscripts, pamphlets and ephemera.

The Rawling Collection in the Noel Butlin Archives Centre documents aspects of Australian radical politics from 1869 to 1945.  In particular it focuses on the CPA and its fraternal organisations. Rawling’s unpublished history of communism in Australia has been seminal in subsequent studies of the Party.

The seminar included a presentation by Ewan Maidment, formerly of the Noel Butlin Archives Centre, who discussed the importance of Rawling collection and its relation to other collections at the NBAC and elsewhere. His presentation follows:


 James Normington Rawling Collection held in the Noel Butlin Archives Centre

Ewan Maidment

Custody of the Rawling collection

The papers were purchased from Rawling by the ANU Library in 1963 at the end of the year he spent as a Visiting Fellow in the Department of Politics, RSSS, where he was working on his “Communism Comes to Australia” and continuing to collect documentary material for his research. The purchase agreement was for all Rawling’s “‘political’ and similar material, including pamphlets, leaflets, journals, newspapers, cuttings, letters, notes, drafts, and other papers, but excluding books” (Sheilds to Daphne Rawling, 31 Mar 1966). One batch of records was transferred to the University Library early in 1963, which Rawling spent a week arranging and listing (though no list of it has ever been discovered). Following Rawling’s death another batch was transferred to the ANU Library in June 1966 by Rawling’s daughter, Daphne Rawling’s daughter. They were in 8 large cartons, several smaller ones and two suitcases. “I am afraid they are in no order,” Daphne wrote to the Librarian J. J. Graneek, “I don’t envy whoever has the task of sorting it out” (31 May 1966). In 1976 Daphne Rawling added the typescript drafts of “Communism Comes to Australia” to the Rawling papers held in the Library. The papers were held unarranged with other archives in the Library’s strong room where they were intermittently consulted by researchers. Frances de Groen surveyed the papers in 1979 reporting that they were held in seven cardboard boxes and two suitcases: “history and political science students may find that the papers conceal a wealth of original source material languishing amidst the plethora of original disintegrating newspapers and unsorted notes.” (Notes & Furphies, No.3, Oct 1979).

The papers were transferred from the ANU Library to the NBAC in March 1982 for arrangement and description. I was given the job. Although the position as cataloguer of printed materials had not been replaced following Pat Barnard’s retirement, at the time staffing levels in the Archives were high, and it was possible to devote a fair amount of time to the task. It took more than one year to arrange and describe the Rawling papers, along with other duties. The work was a great priviliege and the most enjoyable archival task I have undertaken. The wealth of the papers made the task a pleasure. Not only is the Rawling collection one of the strongest single collections of Austalian radical publications, it also holds documents which trace in detail most Australian radical organisations up to World War I (from the Australian Branch of the First International, singe taxers, land leagues, Knights of Labour, Henry George Societies, anarchists, ASL, VSP, ASP, SFA through to the formation of the CPA, the operations of its fraternal and front organisations – for example, the LAI, FOSU, WIR, Workers’ Art Club and unemployed workers’ organisations – as well as records of anti-War and anti-conscription campaigns, starting from the Boer War and records documenting the development of Trotskyist opposition to the CPA). Further the collection includes personal papers of radicals and biographical notes on them, down to the level of gutter gossip. Following completion of the listing, in December 1984, Colin Steele transferred the custody of the Rawling Collection to the Archives where the papers have remained till now, though their future in the Archives may be in doubt as the current management’s “down-sizing” of the Archives involves a review of the holdings with a view to retaining only “core” materials.

Provenance of the Rawling Collection

The collection at the NBAC is not the only group of Rawling’s records. His literary archives were transferred to the Mitchell Library (the NLA which had also shown some interest in his papers lists); these papers do include some political material. Furthermore John Pomeroy’s, “The Apostasy of James Normington Rawling”, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol.37, No.1, 1991) refers to diaries, correspondence, pamphlets, leaflets and press cuttings, which he calls the “Rawling Collection”, still in the hands of Daphne Rawling. (Perhaps these should more properly be called the “Rawling Papers”, as opposed to “Collection”, as they appear to be predominantly personal papers.)

Apart from Rawling’s natural collecting propensities which were very powerful, at least some of the specific origins and uses of the political papers which he collected can be identified:

  1. As CPA Research Officer he collected documents for his research and publications on the Australian radical tradition. Cf. Stephen Holt’s jaded note that from 1934 onwards Rawling “published a wide array of historical articles which were dedicated to the curious notion that the CPA had inherited the mantle of Eureka, the 1890s and the anti-conscription movement.” (“The Case of Jim Rawling, Ex-Communist”, Quadrant, nd). It appears very likely that Rawling may have inherited documents held by Jack Ryan’s Labor Research Department – there are very good runs of the Pan-Pacific Worker in his papers. He also was proactive in collecting papers at this time: Tom Wright wrote to Graeme Powell that “many years ago when J N Rawling was associated with the Communist party and was doing research work on its behalf I deposited a substantial amount of my collection with him dealing with the communist movement here and internationally. Subsequently he ‘defected’ and carried off all of the material deposited with him. I have no knowledge regarding its final disposal.” (Wright to Powell, 27/6/78)
  2. As a witness at the Royal Commission inquiring into the Origins, Aims, Objects and Funds of the Communist Party in Victoria, 1949, where as a chief witness against the Party he tabled several hundred exhibits, though there is no evidence that he sought new material for this purpose.
  3. As Visiting Fellow at the ANU writing the history of the CPA and in subsequent years when he reworked the text. During this period Rawling embarked on a new round of approaches and contacts, collecting much new material as well as making tape recorded interviews.

Arrangement and content of the Rawling Collection

The general arrangement was imposed on the collection. Most file titles were retained and their contents held intact, but loose documents were added to files where it was felt appropriate and some new files were created. One file series was dismantled, but the documents were listed in their original order and their new locations are noted in my working files. A weakness in the description of the collection is that not all the documents are calendared; this followed the Archives’ processing practice at the time, but weakens control and security as well as ease of access.  The collection is divided into two parts:

  1. Personal papers of Rawling and his mates, Esmond Higgins and Guido Baracchi, consisting of Mss, correspondence and research notes
  2. Papers of and relating to Australian radicals and radical organisations.
    a. pre 1887
    b. papers of and relating to the ASL and other 1880/1890s, anarchists, CPA & fraternals,  peace and anti-conscription organisations, MAWF, Trotskyist organisations, workers educational organisations, Victorian Royal Commission into the Communist Party
    c. Mss and roneoed papers on the above
    d. press cuttings and journal articles arranged by subject
    e. pamphlets (nearly 1,000) arranged by organisation
    f. leaflets and handbills
    g. serials (235 titles) arranged by organisation
    h. maps
    i. posters, placards & broadsheets
    j. photos (120 items)


There a some interesting gaps:

(a) Rawling’s correspondence indicates that he had stronger original material from the 1890s radicals, particulaly correspondence of W H McNamara; there are some transcripts of correspondence from this group for which the originals cannot be located. It is possible that Henry Mayer, who had close relations with Rawling for a period in the 1960s may have some of this material.

(b) There are references to a strong series of correspondence between E M Higgins and Harry Pollitt of the CPGB, but only a few items held in the collection. To my knowledge this correspondence is not held in the Higgins Papers at the Mitchell Library.

(c) Not directly related to the Rawling Collection, but documented in it is a very large seizure of CPA records from Marx House in George Street in Sydney in July 1949 by Commonwealth Investigation officers. There is no indication that these records have ever been sighted in Australian Archives.


Despite these gaps the Rawling Collection is reputed to be one of the most systematic and extensive documentary sources for the history of Australian radicalism to WWII. It ranks along side the May & A.T. Brodney Papers and the Sam Merrifield Collection at the La Trobe Library and supplements the Party’s own archives for the period and Barabara Curthoy’s microfilms of the Comintern archives relating to Australia both held at the Mitchell Library. The only other comparable major source are the ASIO and predecessor organistions’ files held in Australian Archives.

The printed material in the Rawling Collection complements pamphlet collections by Ian Turner, Tom Wright and many others, including the trade unions, to give the NBAC one of the strongest collections in Australia.

Rawling’s manuscript history of the CPA is, however, a major and unique aspect of the Collection. Drafted in 1963, extensive rewriting under Professor R S Parker’s editorial eye in 1964. When submitted to Cheshire in 1965, Fabinyi demanded a 70,000 word reduction. Publication stalemated by Rawling’s death. Subsequent consideration to publishing has been foiled by the absence of some of the footnotes and disparity of others. The latest rejection by UQP in 1985 also indicated that the work had become a period piece and that there would be market forces inhibiting publication as well as the footnote problem. There are three drafts of the history. Footnotes are held and match-up for chapters 7-11, 12-14, part of 15 and the last chapter, 16. It is possible that footnotes for the early chapters could be discovered in either the Archives or among the papers held by Daphne Rawling. It would be a very painstaking task to work from the Ms to the archives and rebuild the footnotes, but not impossible. Nevertheless it is very unlikely that the work will ever be published and its influence will be confined to the students and scholars who work through the primary sources.

The Rawling Collection is one of at least 30 collections of personal papers of individuals associated with the political left and industrial politics in general at the NBAC. The neat correlations between these records and the records of industrial organisations which make problematic the notion of a “core” group of archives to be identified and retained while archives extraneous to the core can be discarded or transferred out. In fact the Rawlings papers came to the ANU when the University in various forms were pursuing records of the Australian People. There is good sense in disturbing this construct as little as possible in order to maintain the integrity of the holdings of the Archives and the relations between the documents in it.