Viewing the monkey enclosure: perspectives left and right

Darragh Christie, 8 October 2016 · # ·

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 and political life in the early 20th century and beyond.

Society in crisis: 1916/17

Opening of Taronga Zoo, 7 October 1916

La Miserere: an opening programme, a mothers grief

After the Battle of Fromelles in July 1916, the Laing household of “Kaituna” in McLeod Street, Mosman, were told their only son William Laing was missing. He had gone to France with the 53rd Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force. After months of no news, his mother Sarah wrote in “great anxiety and suspense” to ask about her son.

The note, one of thousands of files of the Australian Red Cross Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau, was hastily written on the back of a pamphlet for the opening of Taronga Park Zoological Gardens, 7th October, 1916.

Sarah Laing’s letter asking after her son (AWM R149302)

Families from all backgrounds were affected by deaths and injuries of men at Gallipoli and on the Western Front. By 1916, thousands of Australian parents, wives and children were left in a ‘cruel state of suspense’ after learning their boys had gone missing or had been killed or wounded.

The program for Taronga Zoo’s opening, on display at Barry O’Keefe Library

Working-class households started to feel they were bearing the brunt of the war – and were facing growing hardship in an ever worsening economy as a result. For those affected, having their sons, fathers and uncles alive, food on the table and a roof over their heads, was more important than loyalty to England. The growing feeling – especially among Irish Catholics after the Dublin uprising – is that they had, in the words of Archbishop Mannix, ‘done enough.’

Australians also had a strong sense of democratic participation — voting rights for most men and women, free speech and press freedom. Attempts by Prime Minister Billy Hughes to manipulate and brow beat the public into a ‘YES’ vote in favour of conscription — by oppressing civil rights under the pretext of wartime ‘emergency’ — would cause a bitter divide, and ultimately backfire.

By the time of the ‘Great Strike’ of 1917 most Australians wanted to bring the war to a successful conclusion but were against compulsory military service. Those Australians who were pro-conscription however, remained uncompromising in their support for the war, and any dissenting opinion became target, including the Union movement and anti war groups.

Taronga’s other inhabitants, breaking the strikers’ resolve?

Strike-breakers on Taronga Wharf, 1917. Stanley R. Beer Studio (National Library of Australia)

After they were forced to move on from their billets at the Sydney Cricket Ground founding member of the Taronga Zoo board, Alfred Spain offered the zoo grounds as 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.

Strike-breakers at Taronga Zoo viewing the monkey enclosure, 1917. Their tents can be seen in the trees behind them. Stanley R. Beer Studio (National Library of Australia)

A humorous poem called ‘The New Exhibits’ by R.J. Cassidy appeared in the Journal of the AWU“The Worker”.

‘“Say, what are these exhibits called?”, the monkey asked her mate -
Those bipeds that the keeper has admitted through the gate,
A longing undeniable the problem to discuss
Have I – oh, tell me what they are, who come to live with us?”

“Your question is a poser, and my answer’s Humpty Do,
For I likewise am puzzled much”, said monkey Number two.
I’ve eyed them up, I’ve eyed them down, I’ve viewed them near and far
But twist me tail if I can guess, what brand of beast they are.

Then went the Ape inquisitive, behind a pile of rocks,
And put her question to a seer, to wit the ancient fox.
“Oh Mr. Fox” the monkey asked, “I come to learn from you,
Particulars concerning those new tenants at the zoo”,

The Fox he wunk a knowing wink, peculiarly a seer’s,
“Oh they,” he said, “are what are called, the rural volunteers.”

And curious folk they are at best, the cussedest of all,
God gave them legs and yet how strange, they each prefer to crawl.
God gave them eyes with which to see, but bitter facts remind,
My comprehension stubbornly, that most of them are blind.
God gave them each a brain to use, but this you wouldn’t guess,
They get their thinking done for them, by bulging bellies press.
“God gave to them a backbone each (but right against their wish) -
They much prefer to emulate the spineless jelly-fish!
God gave them strength with which to help the weak who call for aid-
It was, I think, the one mistake that ever heaven made!”

I thank you much the monkey said, I felt most strangely queer,
As though impelled to vomiting, whenever they came near.
It isn’t fair to our good name, to either fox or ape,
So when the night enfolds the zoo, I’m making my escape!’

S.C.E.G.S. pupils cleaning engines during the 1917 rail strike at Eveleigh (SLNSW)

The strike-breakers were recruited mainly from areas outside of Sydney and would have been used to fill jobs on the wharves or in essential industries. Some joined teachers and students from Shore, Newington and Sydney University in an attempt to keep trains and trams running from central station.

Old Erecting Shop. Eveleigh Workshops during the 1917 railway strike (State Records NSW)

The strike had begun when Sydney railway workers walked off the job after 3 years of diminishing wages and conditions. The introduction of a ‘card system’ to monitor productivity was the last straw.2

Organised by a variety of left wing organisations, from the Union movement which sought to enshrine fair pay and conditions to the “Wobblies” (who sought to create a more equitable society through revolutionary means), industrial unrest spread nation-wide.

Future Labour leaders Prime Minister Ben Chifley, working as an engine driver, and NSW premier Joseph Cahill, who worked in the Eveleigh Railway workshops-where the strike started-were both ‘laid off’ during the 1917 strikes.

The strike-breakers photographed at Taronga would have believed they were doing their patriotic duty as well as creating employment opportunities for themselves. They were being used however to break the resolve of men such as Ben Chifley, whose outlook was forged in the fires of this adversity. He later said

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.

Evatt (left) and Ben Chifley (middle) with Clement Attlee (right) at the Dominion and British Leaders Conference, London, 1946

Light on the hill: H V Evatt and the Chifley legacy

Ben Chifley’s philosophy and speeches resonated with future leaders and generations.

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

Amongst those future Labour leaders was H V Evatt who would later reside ‘on the other side of the tracks’, in Mosman.

‘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 Ray and Frank had signed up in 1915 and 1916. Ray was the adventurous outdoor type, keen to enlist. He survived Gallipoli, was promoted to lieutenant and awarded the Military Cross. Frank was a sensitive, bookish medical student, who 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. It was a great shock when Ray was killed near Ypres in 1917. Bert tried unsuccessfully to have Frank- who was convalescing- sent home. 6 weeks before the war ended Frank was also killed.4

Jeanie was understandably devastated at the lost 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

Both brothers are remembered in a memorial plaque at the family church; St Johns, Milsons Point, North Sydney.

Evatt at his home in Mosman

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

1920 was a busy year for ‘Bert’ as he also married Mary Alice Sheffer who had grown up in Mosman. They wed at the Congregational Church, on the corner of Belmont and Cowles Roads, on 27 November. The couple moved into 1 Methuen Street8, just up the road from Taronga Zoo, and lived there – off and on – until 1964.9

The age of extremes: 1920s and 30s

Spoiling the party – New Guards inside fortress Mosman

Mosman’s voters, by a majority, are and have always been for the Conservative side of politics. During the First World War they were amongst the most pro-conscription voters in the country and supportive of Billy Hughes’ split with the Labour Party.

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

After the 1914-18 war ended the world in the 1920s and 30s experienced the rise of Communist and Fascist dictatorships. Australia also experienced the influence of extreme left and right wing groups.

The New Guard — a militaristic organisation with Fascist tendencies — had a strong presence in the borough of Mosman. In 1932 the mayor, Cyril Camplin, and at least 2 other aldermen (including Wallace Fyfe Henderson and Eric Clegg) were members of the New Guard.

In 1932 New Guard Captain Francis de Groot famously upstaged the Labour Premier Jack Lang at the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening when he rode up and cut the ceremonial ribbon with his sword.

De Groot cuts the ribbon at the Sydney Harbour Bridge opening ceremony, 19 March 1932

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 which was carried 7-5 with the support of the New Guard councillors and the mayor on the 22nd of March:

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

De Groot arrested, 19 March 1932

In 1932 General Commanding Officer of the New Guard 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

Eric Campbell leads a New Guard rally in a fascist salute, 18 February 1932.

Gavin Souter, Mosman’s official historian, notes that some alternative views existed in the area despite Eric Campbell and his shadow 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

Few, however, could predict the cloak of darkness that was to descend over Europe and the rest of the world, from the 1940’s onwards.

Cold War: post-1950

Principles upheld: another referendum defeated

The enmity, suspicion and open hostility between left and right continued into the McCarthy, Menzies and Cold War era.

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 .

Gough Whitlam and Arthur Calwell in 1960, the year they took over as Leader and Deputy Leader of the Australian Labor Party (NAA: M155, B2)

That year Calwell spoke at a Vietnam anti-conscription rally at the Mosman Town Hall. As he left the meeting, a mentally disturbed man Peter Kocan with differing political views 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 visited the incarcerated and rehabilitating would-be-assassin, and forgave him.

Sydney Morning Herald

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. This meant that the state could no longer enforce military service through the unpopular birthday ballot. 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 1916 when it was closed to house the strike-breakers, Taronga has remained open to a fascinated public for 100 years.

Freda and Freddy take afternoon tea at Taronga Zoo

We can visit the monkey enclosure as many generations have, and see reflected in the simian faces the similarities and differences that make us human. What does that mean? The capacity to form sophisticated societies — the ability 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, with the tussle between labour and capital — to control “the means of production” and create a fair and free society — set to continue for some time yet.

Taronga Zoo did close once again on the 7th of October 2016 — but briefly, and for a special occasion: its birthday centenary. Barry O’Keefe Library marked the zoo’s 100th anniversary with a Local Studies exhibition.


1 ZOO’S PROGRESS. (1937, January 11). The Sydney Morning Herald (NSW : 1842 - 1954), p. 4. Retrieved September 6, 2016, from

2 Alfred Spain, architect and army officer National Museum of Australia retrieved 09/09/2016

3 Murphy, John Evatt : a life. Sydney, NSW NewSouth Publishing, 2016.p40

4 Ibid.p41

5 Ibid.p43

6 Ibid.p43

7 Bolton G.C. Evatt, Herbert Vere (Bert) (1894 – 1965) Australian Dictionary of Biography online retrieved 09/09/2016

8 Icons of the Labour Movement Australian Society for the Study of Labour History retrieved 09/09/2016. See also Mosman Memories of Your Street.

9 An interesting side note. Evatt’s eligibility to remain Labour leader almost came into question as a result of his lapsed registration and membership of the Mosman branch of the Labour Party in 1955. "NOT ELIGIBLE IN MOSMAN" (1955, April 5). The Times (ACT : 1926 - 1995), p. 1. Retrieved September 13, 2016, from

10 Souter, Gavin Mosman : a history. Melbourne University Press, Carlton, Vic, 1994 p.196

11 Ibid. p196

12 Ibid.

13 Ibid p195.

14 Ibid.

15 The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, H V Evatt and Liberty in Australia The University of Sydney St Andrew’s College H V Evatt Lecture 14 August 2008 retrieved online 29/09/2016 “

16 Ibid.