Photographs of strike-breakers at Taronga Zoo and a digitised image of a letter written by a Mosman mother enquiring about her son, give us a glimpse into Australian society in the early 20th century.
Society in crisis: 1916/17
La Miserere: an opening programme, a mothers grief
Following the Battle of Fromelles the Laing household of “Kaituna” in McLeod Street, Mosman, were told their only son William Laing was missing. After months without news, his mother Sarah wrote in “great anxiety and suspense” to ask about her son.
Her letter is 1 of 1000’s of digitised files with the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau. It was written on the back of a pamphlet for the opening of Taronga Park Zoological Gardens.
Sarah Laing, like many parents, wives and children was left in a ‘cruel state of suspense.’ Her boy was ‘Missing.’
Taronga’s other inhabitants
Many households became dissatisfied with the war, and government attempts to introduce conscription. The nation was divided. In August 1917 industrial unrest spread nation-wide.
In 1917, Taronga Zoo’s grounds became a campsite for strike-breakers.
A former employee of the zoo recalled:
The Government took over the new Zoo area as a camp for free labourers. At one stage 1000 men were living there under canvas. For three months the gates were closed to the public, nil costs of upkeep with salaries being paid by the Government.1
These ‘free labourers’ were also known as volunteers or ‘loyalists’. The 100,000 striking workers across eastern Australia had plenty of other names for them.
The men were recruited to fill jobs in essential industries. They included teachers and students from Shore, Newington and Sydney University who tried to keep trains and trams running.
The strike began when railway workers at Everleigh workshops walked off the job following years of diminishing wages and conditions. The introduction of a card system to monitor productivity was the final straw.2
A light on the hill
The strike-breakers photographed at Taronga were being used to break the resolve of men such as Ben Chifley. Chifley’s outlook was forged in the fires of adversity.
I should not be a member of this Parliament today if some tolerance had been extended to the men who took part in the strike of 1917. All that harsh and oppressive treatment did, as far as I was concerned was to transform me, with the assistance of my colleagues, from an ordinary engine-driver into the Prime Minister of this country.
I try to think of the Labour movement not as putting an extra sixpence into somebody’s pocket, or making somebody Prime Minister or Premier, but as a movement bringing something better to the people, better standards of living, greater happiness to the mass of the people. We have a great objective - the light on the hill - which we aim to reach by working for the betterment of mankind not only here but anywhere we may give a helping hand. If it were not for that, the Labour movement would not be worth fighting for…
— Ben Chifley, Engineman NSW Govt. Railways 1902 -1928, Prime Minister of Australia 1945 -1949
Ben Chifley’s philosophy and speeches resonated with future leaders and generations.
Sacrifice and Justice.
Amongst them was H V Evatt who like the Curlewis family would later reside ‘on the other side of the tracks’, in Mosman. Evatt’s philosophy and future career was inspired by men like Chifley, and driven by the same pain suffered by many families at the time.
‘Bert’ Evatt had originally supported conscription as a Law student at Sydney Uni. but turned against the idea as the war dragged on, especially as he and his family were directly affected.
His 2 younger brothers Raymond Scott and Septimus Francis had signed up in 1915 and 1916. ‘Ray’ was the adventurous outdoor type, keen to enlist. He had survived Gallipoli, and been promoted to lieutenant. ‘Frank’ was a sensitive and bookish medical student. He spent his time recovering from wounds in London by going to the opera and musical concerts.3
Frank looked up to, and wished to emulate Ray, a soldier’s soldier. Ray had been wounded 3 times, and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery. On one occasion he had stayed in his trench and fought on despite being wounded. His medical files describe a gun-shot wound exiting his right arm as ‘large and ragged.’ It was a great shock to the family when Ray was killed near Ypres on 20/09/1917. Unfortunately, like many soldiers, his remains could not be located.
Bert tried unsuccessfully to have Frank (who was convalescing in England after being wounded) sent home4. A few weeks before the war ended Frank died. His records record shrapnel wounds to the chest on 29/09/18 near Rouen. Frank’s effects were sent home. They included a pipe, photos, letters and a ‘Book of Verse.’ Septimus Francis Evatt is buried at Tincourt Cemetery, France.
Both brothers are also remembered in a memorial plaque at the family church; St Johns, Milsons Point, North Sydney and at the AWM.
Jeanie Evatt was understandably devastated at the loss of two sons; she shared the grief pervading Australian society. The story in the family was that she never recovered from the loss of Ray and Frank.5
Years later Bert Evatt wrote a biography of the pro-conscription N.S.W. State Premier W.A. Holman, he observed that
Holman failed to realize the tremendous strain and anxiety in every family from which a member was absent at the front. The burden was far greater than that of any politician. It was almost too heavy to be bourne.6
It was the anxiety and loss of loved ones that so influenced the Conscription referendum debates of 1916 and 1917.
By 1920, Bert Evatt was assisting with the Royal Commission into the victimization of the 1917 transport strikers. He was Junior Counsel for the State government in the Engineers’ case, where he “encountered the successful rivalry of Robert Menzies in the High Court of Australia.”7
Whilst his legal career was taking off his political career had humble beginnings. In 1920 he joined the Mosman Political Labour League. Founded in February 1920, the branch started with a handful of members, rising to 10 after Evatt’s membership acceptance on the 30th of April. Biographer John Murphy in Evatt: A life notes that
Among Evatt’s papers is the tattered exercise book recording the first 2 years of the Mosman branch. It shows that Evatt was a distinctly inactive member..8
Evatt resigned in 1925. As reported in the The Labor Daily justice for the 1917 strikers was an ongoing concern.
At the fortnightly meeting of the Mosman branch, Dr. Evatt tendered his resignation… Dr. Evatt spoke at some length. He was given an ovation. In an extremely interesting address he narrated the story of the elections in Balmain. He sincerely thanked members of the branch for their courteous co-operation with him during his four years association with the league. Dr. Evatt said that the problem of unemployment should be dealt with in a practical manner, and as speedily as possible. The victimised men of 1917 must be given justice….
The age of extremes: 1920s and 30s
Spoiling the party – New Guards inside fortress Mosman
Historian Gavin Souter notes:
The Australian Labour Party first contested an electorate containing Mosman in 1910, when its candidate won half as many votes as the successful Liberal in the Federal seat of North Sydney. During the next quarter of a century Labour contested North Sydney and Warringah five times, with its share of the vote dropping each time, from 30 per cent in 1913 to 16 per cent in 1934. The Federal seat of Warringah and the State seat of Mosman were and would remain, UAP (and later Liberal Party) strongholds.10
During the ’14-18 War Mosman’s voters supported Billy Hughes’ crusade for conscription. After the 1914-18 war ended, extreme political ideologies gained ground.
The New Guard — a militaristic organisation with Fascist tendencies — had a strong presence in the borough. In 1932 Mayor, Cyril Camplin, and at least 2 other aldermen (including Wallace Fyfe Henderson and Eric Clegg) were members of the New Guard.
New Guard Captain Francis de Groot dramatically upstaged the Labour Premier Jack Lang at the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening. He cut the ceremonial ribbon with his sword on horseback.
It was the subject of heated discussion by Mosman councillors [although] there was no difference of opinion as to the Bridge’s great benefit to Mosman11
Alderman Frank Pursell moved, and Alderman Leon Stevenson seconded, the following motion on the 22nd of March, 1932. It was carried 7-5 with the support of the New Guard Councillors and the Mayor
That this Council, representing the citizens of Mosman, emphatically protests to the Chief Secretary against the travesty of British Justice in the action of the Commissioner of Police or his officers responsible for the detention of Captain De Groot … This council, while not expressing an opinion on the rights or wrongs of Captain De Groot’s action, views with alarm the unprecedented steps taken by the police, which savour of biased political vindictiveness undermining the liberty of the subject and bringing the integrity and good name of the police into question.12
In 1932 New Guard Commanding Officer and occasional Fascist Eric Campbell after crushing internal dissent, held a meeting at the Mosman Town Hall. The venue was packed out. Those who could not fit inside got ladders to look through upper windows. Many of the 600 enthusiastic supporters, reportedly, became new recruits13
Alternative views existed in the area despite Eric Campbell’s shadowy army.
Mosman as yet had no branch of the Australian Communist Party, although a few members of that Party and the Movement Against War and Fascism met in Private Mosman homes from the mid-1930’s onward.14
Cold War: post-1950
Principles upheld: another referendum defeated
Emnity, suspicion and open hostility between left and right continued erupted after the ’39-‘45 The Cold War era brought new tensions between left and right.
The Hon. Michael Kirby (AC, CMG) recalled in a speech given at Sydney University — The Declaration of Human Rights, H.V. Evatt and Liberty in Australia — how he had viewed ASIO files kept on his step-grandfather Jack Simpson. Simpson was considered by the State to be another “Red under the bed”
In recent years, I have read extracts from Jack Simpson’s national security file. One such entry in 1950 records how he was closely observed at the Sydney Taronga Park Zoo, in company with three young schoolchildren. Perhaps those conducting the surveillance were concerned about the potential communist corruption of young minds. If so, they need not have been concerned. One of those schoolboys became a leading Sydney solicitor. Another is now a judge of the Supreme Court of New South Wales. And the eldest was myself.15
Evatt was instrumental in blocking the Menzies government’s attempts to ban Communist parties in the High Court. The issue was put to the people in a referendum (which failed) in 1951.
After Hungary in 1956, Jack Simpson came to question his political philosophy. But he was idealistic if misguided. And Australia’s highest Court and then the electors, upheld the principle that he was entitled to his political opinions, however misguided they might seem to be.16
The conscription debate re-visits Mosman
In the same year Taronga Zoo was opened and Australia had its first conscription referendum, future Australian PM Gough Whitlam was born. After moving to Sydney, his family lived in Mosman.
In 1966, following the Chifley and Evatt governments, Whitlam became Deputy to Labour leader Arthur Calwell .
That year Calwell spoke at a Vietnam anti-conscription rally at the Mosman Town Hall. As he left the meeting, Peter Kocan fired into the window of Calwell’s car. Luckily the bullet deflected, and Calwell incurred only minor facial injuries. He was patched up at Royal North Shore Hospital, and released the next day. Calwell later Kocan in prison, and forgave him.
After narrowly losing the 1969 election, Whitlam went on to win in 1972. A number one reform for the Whitlam government was to ban military conscription. Military service through the unpopular birthday ballot could no longer be enforced. The Australian armed forces have been recruited on a voluntary and professional basis ever since.
Taronga Zoo: 2016
With the exception of 3 months in 1917 when it was closed to house the strike-breakers, Taronga has remained open to a fascinated public for 100 years.
We can visit the monkey enclosure as many generations have, and wonder at our similarities and differences, reflected in the simian faces.
Humans have the capacity to form sophisticated societies To produce, consume and redistribute wealth. To house and provide education and health care. To use the highest potential of our minds to create, or to engage in organised warfare and destroy ourselves.
The human political zoo continues on in all its variety. The tussle between labour and capital — for control over the means of production to create a fair and free society — is set to continue for some time yet.Barry O’Keefe Library marked the zoo’s 100th anniversary with a Local Studies exhibition.