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The right wing won't write [1]

By Greg Patmore

The first issue of Labour History, then called the Bulletin of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, appeared in January 1962. There were to be two more produced in 1962, one in May and one in November. This commemorative note looks at these first three issues and the circumstances surrounding their publication. Bob Gollan and other labour historians established the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History in a lecture room at the University of Queensland in Brisbane in May 1961. The meeting was held against the background of a Congress of the Australian and New Zealand Association for the Advancement of Science (ANZAAS). British labour historians formed a similar society in 1960 and the visit to Australia of its inaugural president, Asa Briggs, encouraged the Australians to form their own society. Australia's political and intellectual environment also assisted the foundation of the Society. The conservative ascendancy in Australian postwar politics heightened the need for historians to assist the labour movement by examining the "lessons of history" and highlighting the positive contribution of labour to Australian society. Further, the decline of the Communist Party in Australia and Britain had resulted in the disarray of the Left. The weakening of ideological divisions also encouraged dialogue between Marxist and non-Marxist labour historians. The Australian society provided a focal point for labour historians and drew in political scientists and industrial relations practitioners.[2] As Robin Gollan later noted, "the Labour History Society was a kind of popular front, politically and intellectually".[3] While the use of "labour" rather than "labor" in the name of the Society reflected a preference for the English rather than US spelling, there was a desire avoid the Society being viewed as an "offshoot" or "adjunct" of the Australian Labor Party.[4]

The Society was based at the Australian National University (ANU) and published the first issue of its journal, the Bulletin of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, in January 1961. An important objective of the Bulletin was to combat the "yawning chasm" of writings on Australian labour history. The founders of the Bulletin did not see it as a rival to established journals such as Historical Studies, but as covering an underdeveloped niche in Australian history. The Bulletin also provided an important medium for information on the Society's activities. There was an interest in developing a bulletin for Society news and a separate academic journal, but this was viewed as beyond the Society's resources. Eric Fry, from the History Department at the ANU, was the editor of the first three issues.[5]

In the first issue of the Bulletin, Gollan, the inaugural president of the Australian Society, reviewed the state of Australian labour history. He expressed concern about its narrow limits — the emphasis on biography and political history. However, he noted that there was still work to be done even here. For example, there were no suitable biographies of trade union leaders. Gollan called for a broader approach that included the social history of the working class, class relations, the history of popular culture and histories of major trade unions.[6]

Given Gollan's call for a broader approach, what did the first three issues contain? Excluding Gollan's review, there were 12 articles, the focus of which was generally on the history of the Australian labour movement. Bede Nairn looked at the labour movement in NSW in the 1870s, while Joe Harris provided a brief sketch of the labour movement in Queensland before 1920. Ian Turner examined socialist political tactics from 1900-20, and J. Robertson looked at the internal politics of state Labor in WA 1911-16. Sam Merrifield, Victorian Labor parliamentarian and labour history stalwart, examined the Melbourne Anarchist Club 1886-91. Echoing the contemporary interest by Australian labour historians in local labour history, Geoffrey Bolton looked at the arrival of the labour movement in Charters Towers, Queensland, during the last two decades of the nineteenth century. There were three biographical pieces looking at George Beeby, George Foster Pearce and Peter Tyler, the "first known trade union secretary" in Australia.[7] Bill Wood, whose father, Professor George Wood of the University of Sydney had taken a controversial stance opposing the Boer War, examined the antiwar movement against the Sudan contingent of 1885.8 Fred Wells explored the King Street Riot, which occurred in Sydney during the 1949 Coal Strike. Len Fox provided a cultural dimension by examining the early Australian May Days. There were bibliographies drawn from Historical Studies, The Economic Record and the Royal Australian Society Journal and Proceedings. Labour History was a male domain at that time: men wrote all the articles, while Miriam Dixson, a research scholar in history at the ANU, Jill Eastwood, a history tutor at the University of Melbourne, and Mollie Lukis, a librarian at the J.S. Battye Library in Perth, contributed bibliographical material. Of the authors of the thirteen articles, seven were academics and six non-academics.

The early leaders of the Society were concerned that the Bulletin should achieve a political balance, and a balance between academics and non-academics. There were concerns that to maintain the "popular front" underpinning the Society there had to a balance between the Left and Right. The Society had always to be "broad" and "open to all strands in the labour movement". Eric Fry, the first editor, noted that the political balance was difficult because the "right wing won't write". Despite this, Fry argued that to ensure neutrality it was necessary to create a forum to canvass debates and replies. In order to achieve this, the early editors were prepared to accept material written by non-academics, as some members of the Society perceived academics to be drawn largely from the Left. There was an informal understanding that the Bulletin would receive 50 per cent of its material from non-academics. The early editors were not in a position where they could pick and choose and they had to make the best of what they received. There were few scholars around then researching labour history and the editors had to scout around for people doing interesting research. This meant "painstaking" work to ensure that non-academic authors were brought up to a "useful standard of scholarship".[9] This care helped the Society and its journal survive accusations of being a Communist front in 1964 by the Crucible, a publication of the ANU Labor Club,[10] and the resignation of Bruce Shields, its first Secretary, "who used the cry of anti-communism to justify his dissension".[11]

There were other problems with the early issues, including financial and publication concerns. Individuals gave donations to get the journal started, and while the ANU assisted with postage costs for the early issues, this dried up at the end of 1962. There were complaints from libraries and bibliographers that the Bulletin's full title was too clumsy. Eric Fry suggested the shortening of the title to Labour History, which was adopted for the fourth issue in May 1963. Volunteer labour was used for the first three issues, which were roneoed and collated by hand. There were no satisfactory printers in Canberra and the local Canberra Times printers produced little confidence because of continued typographical errors in each issue of the newspaper and issue no. 4 of the journal was printed at the Richmond Chronicle in Melbourne.12 Despite these early problems, the optimism of the journal's founders was to be rewarded as the journal in 2002 celebrates its fortieth year with the publication of Labour History, no. 82


1. Letter Eric Fry to Bruce Shields and Bob Gollan, 21 February 1963, Noel Butlin Archives Centre (hereafter NBAC), Australian National University, p 132/15/9

2. E. Fry, The Labour History Society (ASSLH): A Memoir of its First Twenty Years' Labour History, Labour History, no. 77, November 1999, P. 83; Bob Gollan, Recollections of foundation of Lab Hist Soc, Typescript, 9 March 2002 (in possession of the Society); G. Patmore, Australian Labour History, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne, 1991, p. 6.

3. R. Gollan, Australian Labour History, in G.S. Kealey and G. Patmore (ed), Canadian and Australian Labour History. Towards a Comparative Perspective, Australian-Canadian Studies, Brisbane, 1990, p. 8.

4. Interview by author with Eric Fry, Canberra, 6 March 2002.

5. E. Fry, The Labour History Society, pp. 84-5; Interview by author with Eric Fry, Canberra, 6 March 2002.

6. R. Gollan, Labour History, Bulletin of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, no. 1, January 1962, pp. 3-5.

7. J. McDonald, Australia's First Trade Union Secretary, Bulletin of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, no. 3, November 1962, pp. 44-52.

8. R.M. Crawford, A Bit of a Rebel: the Life and Work of George Arnold Wood, Sydney University Press, Sydney, 1975, chs xi-xiii.

9. Interview by author with Eric Fry, Canberra, 6 March 2002; Letter Eric Fry to Bruce Shields and Bob Gollan, 21 February 1963. NBAC, p 132/15/9; Letter Bob Gollan to Barry Smith, 4 March 1963. NBAC, p 132/17.

10. Woroni, 23 June 1964. The particular copy of the Crucible can be found at NBAC, P132/15/27.

11. E. Fry, The Labour History Society, p. 87.

12. E. Fry, The Labour History Society, p. 86; Interview by author with Eric Fry, Canberra, 6 March 2002; Letter Bruce Shields to Eric Fry, 19 April 1963. NBAC, p 132/15/12. Letter Eric Fry to Bruce Shields, 7 May 1963. NBAC, p 132/15/13; Society News, Labour History, no. 4, May 1963, p. 51.

First published in Labour History, magazine of the Australian Labour History Society, 1962.

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