The Forgotten Lang

Mark Latham

History shows the difficulty children face in public life, when following in the footsteps of famous parents. Australian has been no different. While there are countless instances of electorates remaining in the same family name across generations, the offspring of party leaders have faced a much greater challenge. Not only do they struggle to establish their own profile and policies they also wrestle with the psychology of public attention and high expectations from an early age. These are very much questions of security and legitimacy.

James Christian (Chris) Lang, son of Jack, tells a similar story. From this modest home in Market Street, Moorebank, a ten minute walk from Liverpool railway station, Chris Lang recalls with great admiration memories of his father, but regret and lost hope from his own time in politics. This is an account of those disjointed but still insightful recollections. The story of a plain man, his sincerity and good nature untouched after 82 years, who lived in the shadow of a larger, notorious man 1.

For all the controversy and material recorded about Jack Lang, the best known Premier of New South Wales – in the words of his biographer Bede Nairn, “a human thunderclap” – no historians have sought out the story of his successor in business and as Member for Auburn, his son Chris. In Nairn’s The Big Fella, Chris receives just two passing references. In Jack Lang’s own trilogy of memoirs, details of family life are passed over. Outside the records of the NSW Parliament, Chris Lang has slipped from history.

Nairn’s research into the Lang family history offers an understanding of Jack’s attention to privacy throughout his life and even an insight to his choice of Chris as a successor. In March 1896 the 19 year old Lang married Hilda Amelia Bredt, aged 17, at the St Francis Roman Catholic Church, Sydney. The union of Hilda’s parents, Herman and Bertha Bredt, had failed, after which Bertha was re-married to W. H. McNamara, the left-leaning bookseller in Castlereagh Street. The bookshop gave Lang his introduction to politics and his future brother-in-law, Henry Lawson, who married Bertha’s other daughter.

Through the first decade of the 1900s Lang established himself as a successful real estate agent, local councillor and Mayor in Auburn, leading to his election to State Parliament in December 1913. His personal life, however, brought turbulence and tragedy, as Nairn records:

On 11 August 1908 Lang’s wife was a ‘petitioner for a judicial separation from her husband… on the grounds of his adultery with Nellie (Louisa) Anderson, Iceton Street, Burwood, with whom he has lived continuously as her husband’. The application was cancelled on 14 August, But Lang was still living with Ms Anderson, at Bridge Road, Homebush, when their child (Chris) was born on 25 March 1910. In either late 1911 or 1912 Lang returned to his wife; and they were living in a stately home (of which she was the recorded owner) at 102 Adderley Street, Auburn, nearer the station, when they had their sixth and last child, who had been born on 14 September 1913; she was named Nellie Louisa 2.

Nellie Anderson passed away in 1911, aged 28, forcing Jack Lang’s return home to Hilda. Their decision to name their final child Nellie Louisa was made more remarkable by Hilda having also been born on 14 September. These events, understandably, placed immense stress on the Lang family. One can only speculate as to how the marriage continued, for surely it relied on considerable devotion and patience from Hilda and perhaps more importantly, the bonding process and needs of their young children. The difficulty for Jack came not just from unfaithfulness to his wife, but concealing his double life and – for those days – scandalous standards from public knowledge, all this while continuing with the duties of high civic office in Auburn.

Lang’s problem was resolved through Nellie Anderson’s death but, as Nairn records, this ’embittered him almost beyond endurance. Lang did not recover from that terrible grief and domestic turmoil for very many years’ 3. All the evidence points to Chris being fully accepted into the Lang home, most importantly by Hilda. Today he speaks of ‘mother’ with genuine affection – an immensely loyal and caring woman who provided the ballast for their family life.

Chris Lang’s recollection of his father elicits insights hitherto absent from the public record. The private Lang matched the model of Australian working class men at the beginning of this century: strong willed and patriotic, even to the point of bitterness towards those things seen as threatening the Australian way of life – coloured migrants, imports and the power of the banks. Like most who have climbed from relative poverty to reasonable prosperity and status in life, Jack Lang never lost his resentment of privilege and the inherited elite.

This approach was part of an unwritten code of conduct: never revealing emotions or shortcomings and forever demanding of others impossible standards for discipline and loyalty. In politics, however, most found loyalty to Lang a one way street. Those who crossed him were treated without mercy. Much like Richard Nixon’s response to political crises, criticism seemed to bring new energy and determination. In Chris’s words: ‘he liked a bit of criticism, it was like giving a dog a bone.’

This, of course, is the way of the hard man. Not for Jack Lang any extroverted ways or generosity of spirit. His methodology was the relentless, straight forward approach, more concerned with results than the courtesies or trimmings of life. Chris recalls his father ‘as not a very good mixer; but God help you if you picked on one of the family’.

Family life itself was kept simple, not even troubled by celebrations as Jack became NSW Treasurer, ALP Leader and then Premier. His only real confidant and adviser was Hilda, seeking out her common sense views they filled out the evening with card games at the family table. Politics itself, however, was raised infrequently in the Lang home at Auburn.

For all his firebrand ways and capacity of stirring trouble within the ALP, Lang merely used the tools available to him to maximum effect as a politician. In public life it was ever thus. He made strong use of his nationalism and great ability as a public speaker to inspire devotion from his followers. Prior to the advent of radio and television as the popular media in Australian politics, oratory was the only public measure of capacity and leadership.

Lang knew that preparation as the basis for skilful speech making. Chris recalls how ‘it used to drive us mad around the house. Mother would tell everyone to be quiet as father was preparing his speech. He would have his notes, walking around practising, partly memorising, partly relying on cards and points.’ Like many fine speakers, Lang would build up great tension prior to speaking, then releasing this nervous energy in the passion and commitment of his oratory. Chris remembers ‘how father would get uptight and never have a meal before his speech. After the speech he would come home and eat in the kitchen and relax and be a totally different person’.

Tidiness and attention to detail were trademarks of Jack Lang, from the condition of his desk and private papers through to his neat dress standards 4. He cut an impressive figure at the lectern – a big, raw boned man, always well attired and relying on the relying on the symbols of patriotism to set the mood for his speeches. ‘He insisted that the Australian flag was on the table wherever he spoke’, Chris recalls, ‘and that the national anthem was played and sung beforehand. He was very Australian’. His delivery was well ordered and passionate when necessary – ‘the matter was good, everything followed and it was like reading a good book in which you become engrossed’.

After leaving school at age 15, Chris Lang entered his father’s real estate business in Auburn, Lang and Dawes, as an officer clerk. A push bike accident had prevented him from obtaining the leaving certificate from Burwood Intermediate High School. By this time, when Jack Lang had become NSW Premier and Treasurer for the first time, direct management of the real estate office had passed to one of the four Lang sisters, Hilda Junior 5. Groomed by his father, Chris quickly adapted to the skills of collecting rent, selling property and auctioneering. In 1930 he was appointed business manager, a position he held until the firm’s closure in 1958.

The business had open in 1901 when, following a two year tenure managing Harley’s estate agency at Auburn, Jack Lang formed a partnership with H.H. Dawes. The firm’s growth and prosperity reflected the opportunities for land development and property wealth on Sydney’s urban fringe – an enduring feature of economic development in the western suburbs. One suspects Lang’s prospects in real estate were not damaged by his election to Auburn Council in 1907 and to the mayoralty in 1909.

Through his life in politics, Lang’s detractors were found of targeting the double standards of “the Auburn Plute”. This was private Jack and public Lang – a wealthy real estate agent exploiting the homeless and working class, while posing as their champion in public office. Chris Lang rejects this argument, pointing to the modest estate following his father’s death in 1975 and the family style of selling on behalf of others, but not buying in real estate, thereby ruling out the prospect of large speculative profits. His conclusion: ‘If J.T. Lang had minded his own business and not buggered around in politics, we would have been a very rich family’.

In practice, the Lang real estate office doubled as an electorate office, a rare luxury in an era when all Members of Parliament were without staff, equipment or accommodation. While his father fulfilled the duties of party and State leader through the 19205 and 193Os, Chris Lang became a defacto electorate secretary for the people of Auburn. ‘I don’t know how, but I fell into the groove. It got to the stage where people knew Mr Lang would be in town, so they wanted to see “the little bloke” and I then took up their problems’.

During the Depression years the office saw much more electorate work than real estate business. Chris would taken notes from constituent interviews and then have the office secretary type a memorandum or letter for his father to taken to Parliament and make representations to the appropriate government authority. Each evening Lang senior supervised the work of the business. Sometime after six o’clock, having come from the city by train, he would walk straight from Auburn station to the office. Here he also maintained a daily dairy, handwriting a foolscap page from notes kept during the day. This diary and a copious scrapbook of newspaper clippings, which had been compiled by Chris, assisted with Lang’s memoirs 6. Unhappily, however, these diaries, certainly a treasure of labour history, failed to survive the two occasions on which Lang moved home in the 1960s.

Through their work together in business and politics Chris Lang saw more of his father than any of the Lang children. Hence the helpful insights of his reminiscences. Despite their close and lengthy association, the relationship rarely developed the emotions common between father and son. Jack Lang was plainly not that sort of person. His manner was business like – entering the office and home and, without the pleasantries or playfulness of many families, simply pausing to assess the mood prior to his perennial inquiry: ‘what’s doing?’ In his son’s memory, Jack Lang ‘was very dogmatic. I wouldn’t say he was unkind to me, but he spoke his mind’.

Lang demanded respect and loyalty and these traits defined his relationship with Chris. There is an aura, almost mystique, with which Chris recalls how ‘father had the gift to see around the corner. It was a gift given to him and he used it. He just knew what was coming up’. While modern history has torn apart any credit for Lang as a tactician, in his day the capacity to anticipate events – forged from years of experience and intrigue at the top of NSW politics – must have presented itself as a mighty talent.

Chris also emerged as the Auburn campaign manager, taking his father by sulky to public meetings across the electorate and bearing the repetition of all-purpose speeches, the unavoidable repertoire of all politicians. The memory of Lang’s crushing defeat in 1932, following his dismissal by Governor Game, stands out:

The big business houses and their influence pressured Game to dismiss my father. He knew he would be beaten, but saw it more of a panic election than a rejection of him personally. People came home with pay envelopes saying that if Mr Lang was returned they wouldn’t have a job. He told me ‘it was a panic vote and people were frightened. When you are frightened you are not responsible for your vote’. Father thought the people had run up the white flag. They had the leader to go on with the job, but they weren’t prepared to follow him at that point.7

Jack Lang never regained the confidence of the people of . NSW, losing heavily at the elections of 1935 and 1938. Following a decade of divisions and recriminations, each with Lang as their driving force, the State Parliamentary Labor Party passed its leadership to William McKell in September 1939. Within seven months Lang formed a break away group from Labor, his third since 1931, calling it the Australian Labor Party (Non-Communist). By early 1941, the year of McKell’s election triumph, Lang had rejoined the official party, continuing his agitation and turbulence until the State ALP Executive carried his expulsion in March 1943. At the 1944 State elections Lang candidates recorded just 8.9 per cent of the total poll, returning just two MPs – Lillian Fowler in Newtown and Lang himself in Auburn.

It is possible to use 1944 as a divide, splitting Lang’s life in politics into two periods of roughly equal duration: for 31 years from 1913 as a Labor Member of Parliament, actively seeking and using political power to give meaning to an explosive mix of demagoguery, nationalism and welfare justice; followed by 27 years to his readmission to the ALP in 1971, with power unobtainable, taking every opportunity to criticise the ALP and draw it back to the Holy Grail of real Labor values. Communism and coloured migration became enduring themes, both perceived by Lang as challenges to Australian nationhood. Labor Governments, State and Federal, were attacked as too conservative, reinforcing the Lang legend that only he could truly define good Labor policy.

Previously Lang had lived with an annoying contradiction: working within the union movement to diminish the power of the reds, while being attacked by the media as pro-communist. Now he could turn his frustration and the same contradiction into Curtin, Chifley and McKell. During the Great Depression, Lang had tolerated a sobriquet from his closest followers, attesting that he was ‘greater than Lenin’. He accepted the compliment but not the comparison. After World War two he used communism as a means for rejuvenating his relevance to the electorate.

Chris Lang, of course, followed faithfully. When his father, nearing the age of 70, won the Federal seat of Reid in 19468 Chris, against his own judgment, contested the November by-election for Auburn. He would have preferred to run for Parliament in his own right, after his father had retired from active political life. That way he could have avoided family comparisons and be seen to advocate his own views and policies. Nonetheless, J .T. Lang was a difficult man to turn down and after talking through the proposition with his wife, Chris entered the field for Auburn carrying the banner of Lang Labor.

While his father’s name was unquestionably an asset, the new candidate boasted credentials from his own public service. Years of attending to constituent matters in his father’s office had built a strong profile and reputation. The happiest and proudest memories of Chris Lang’s life are from his time assisting people in Auburn – ‘It was like the old family doctor, real personal contact. There would not have been one person in Australia in those days who helped more people f1II out old age pension forms than yours truly. I put more into politics and more into helping people rather than helping myself than anyone’.

On 9 November Chris easily won the by-election with 52.3 per cent of the vote against the ALP candidate’s 37.7. His time on the cross benches of the Legislative Assembly mirrored his father’s new life in Canberra. The “do-nothing” McKell and McGirr Governments were attacked as too close to big business, ignoring the demands of the working class. White Australia was a patriotic rallying ca1I, complemented by the socialisation of key industries to check the growth of communism and private monopolies.

Chris Lang enjoyed his period in Parliament, proud of being able to master the issues through time spent in the chamber. Relations with the ALP were strained, other than polite inquiries about his father. ‘I didn’t have much to do with the official Labor Party. They looked on me as a piece of dirt and I returned the favour, while Mrs Fowler was more inclined to be with them’. Chris recalls an embarrassing occasion on which he and Fowler disagreed on an issue and voted on different sides of the chamber. Returning from Canberra, Lang senior advised that thereafter he should abstain from voting rather than reveal to the ALP divisions and weaknesses in a party of just two.

Despite the limited and declining resources of Lang Labor, Chris restricted his efforts to the Auburn electorate. His father looked after rallies, meetings and recruitment outside the local area. The Langs maintained their own branch structure in Auburn and even organised their own Easter conferences to match traditions of the ALP. Attendances, in Chris’s memory, were never strong – averaging just 50. This was a sign of the inevitable: defeat by official Labor.

Before then, Jack Lang threw himself into the final parliamentary contest of his lengthy career. Nairn sums up the acrimony: “Lang relentlessly applied pressure on the Chifley Government throughout this term, tireless in attendance, impeccably prepared with barbed questions and derisive speeches. Probing and harassing at every opportunity, he inhabited the House like a huge monument of stone dug from a prehistoric quarry, alone, aloof, ignoring virtually all his past associates, cutting many of them dead’.9

Chris recalls his father, as tough and uncompromising as ever, relishing the story of how he ignored Chifley’s handshake the first time the two crossed in the corridors of parliament House. Only the demands of travel and staying overnight in Canberra diminished his appreciation of the broader canvas of Federal politics. Lang thrived on the attention of the press gallery and the challenge of discrediting the Chifley Government.

In the end, the bitterness of the Lang machine outran its popularity. Electoral redistributions finished off the parliamentary careers of both father and son. In 1949, the year of Labor’s Federal eclipse, Jack contested the new seat of Blaxland, polling just 25 per cent of the vote and losing to the ALP’s EJ. Harrison. He then failed in 1951 to win a seat in the Senate, recording just 3.5 per cent of the NSW vote.

At the 1947 NSW election Chris had been returned in Auburn with 46.2 per cent of the primary vote. By 1950, with the set re-drawn, he faced another sitting member, Labor’s Edgar Dring, whose country electorate of Ashburnham had been abolished. Lang’s vote collapsed to just 24.3 per cent, a swing of 21.9 per cent, while the ALP improved from 27.7 to 42.5 per cent of primaries. Chris attributes two factors to his defeat: the appalling wet weather on polling day which drove away his elderly booth workers; and the ALP’s advantage in presenting itself to the voters as the ‘Official Labor Party’. After 43 consecutive years of public office, the Lang name no longer represented the people of Auburn, living proof that no party or candidate can survive on nostalgia alone. Chris Lang was again defeated in Auburn at the 1953 and 1956 elections.10

The Langs now returned to real estate. In September 1954, alone in a decade of disappointment for Chris Lang, he enjoyed the good fortune of winning 12,000 pounds with a lottery ticket called “Our Lady of Perpetual Succour”. The name, and some would say the fortune, came from a lifetime of practising Catholicism. Jack Lang had been a regular at church during his early days in Auburn. After a dispute with the parish priest, however, and always one to hold a grudge, he never returned.

Jack’s formative years in Auburn also came to feature in the final years of his son’s business career. In 1906 he established the Auburn Starr-Bowkett, a co-operative building society for poor people hoping to purchase their own home, and also became its first secretary. In 1958, after the closure of Lang and Dawes, Chris Lang formed his own real estate business and soon after became secretary of the Auburn Starr-Bowkett Building Society (No.3) Ltd.

In this capacity in November 1962 Lang was charged with fraudulent misappropriation. At his first trial in 1964 he was found guilty on three charges but the Court of Criminal Appeal order a new trial because of a misdirection to the jury. At the second trial in December 1964, the judge discharged the jury before verdict. At the third trial in May 1965, the jury found Lang guilty of misappropriating from the Building Society amounts totalling 1,135 pounds. He was sentenced to two and a half years in Jail. In October the Court of Criminal Appeal dismissed Lang’s appeal.

Public life offers may delights, but also the long way down to failure and obscurity. Chris Lang had reached the bottom of the rollercoaster. After jail he found employment as a gardener at St Joseph’s Hospital, Auburn, where half a century earlier his parents had been active with fundraising activities.

Jack Lang also found in his life a certain symmetry. Driving to their Ebenezer farm in the 193Os, Chris recalls his father, who as a small boy had sold newspapers in George Street, Sydney, reflecting that ‘I started at the bottom of newspapers and I suppose I’ll finish at the bottom of newspapers’. Ultimately, he spent the years from 1949 to his death in September 1975 working on his own Century newspaper and refreshing the Lang legend with university and school lectures. In June 1971 the Member for Blaxland, Paul Keating, successfully moved at the NSW Annual Conference to re-admit Lang to the ALP. ‘He thought justice had at last been won’, in Chris’s memory, ‘because he was too proud to ask to re- enter the ALP. He would have been remorseful if his life had finished and he was still outside the Party. He always saw himself as a Labor man’. 11

Today we live with the unresolved contradiction of two memories of Jack Lang: one a genuine hero of the working class, the other a disruptive political careerist. Even now my grandmother will tell me, normally inspired by the sight of today’s political leaders on television, that ‘we will never see a man as great as Jack Lang someone who did so much for the worker’. For many of her generation – their family and friends who stood cheering Lang in the Domain or mounted his bust on their mantlepiece – Lang was ‘greater then Lenin’ and any politician since.

The contrary view, balanced by research and reflection, is best put by Nairn:

As a politician he achieved very little. The industrial legislation of his first ministry, 1925-27, was just and helpful; but he played only a support role in its preparation and implementation. His social measures were limited and only partially effective; yet he was emotionally involved in them, and he certainly proved an important legislative pioneer in the development of welfare policy in Australia. All his political work was crippled by his inability to hold his Party together. Conditions were extraordinarily difficulty in 1930-32. But, apart from his scanty legislation in late 1930, his attempts to control the Depression were reckless and finally disastrous.12

It is now 60 years since Jack Lang was Premier of New South Wales. Somehow it is hard to see the Lang legend fading from history. It remains a compelling undercurrent of Labor’s past, even for those who should know better.

I first met Chris Lang in 1988 when, as his local alderman at Liverpool City Council, he approached me seeking assistance for a claim to the pensioner rebate on his rates. At a subsequent Council meeting I was able to’ successfully move that the rebate be granted, concluding my speech with the declaration: “Lang is right”.

Notes

  1. For those not familiar with Jack Lang’s career, it is worth noting the following chronology: Auburn Alderman 1907.14; Auburn Mayor 1909-11; Member of the NSW Parliament 1913-46; NSW Treasurer 1920-22; ALP Leader 1923-39; NSW Premier and Treasurer 1925-27 and 1930-32; and Member of Federal Parliament 1946-49.
  2. Bede Nairn, The Big Fella, Jack Lang and the ALP 1891-1949, (Melbourne University Press, 1986), p 34.
  3. Ibid; P 2.
  4. Chris keenly recalls an incident when his father left his briefcase on the train, ultimately retrieving it from Parramatta station. Jack Lang knew, from the placement of his papers, that the bag had been opened and examined.
  5. The eldest of the two Lang sons, John Keith Lang, found a career in the Rural Bank until his early death from a heart attack induced from a burst appendix.
  6. Some have suggested that Lang’s memoirs were ghost written. Chris maintains that his father did all the drafting and then received assistance from others.
  7. Chris also recalls the threat to his father of assassination during his stormy second term as premier, 1930-32. Lang senior turned down offers of police protection and a guard in the school grounds next to his Auburn home, declaring that, “I don’t think I’ll live to see the day when one Australian will assassinate another”.
  8. Lang contested Reid in 1943 and lost on preferences to the ALP’s Charlie Morgan. Chris attributed this to a box of ballot papers which went missing at Granville Town Hall until 3.00 pm on Sunday after polling day. “The preferences from that ballot box were fatal’, in Chris’ mind, with a clear inference of foul play, ‘but in 1946 we kept an eye on all the boxes and father then won on the preferences’. In 1943 Lang polled 39.7 percent of the primary vote and Morgan 33.4. In 1946 Lang received 35.0 percent and Morgan 27.6
  9. Nairn, The Big Fella, P 312.
  10. In 1953 Chris Lang polled 38 percent versus Dring’s 62 per cent. In 1956 Lang recorded 26.2 per cent, running third to the ALP’s T.V. Ryan with 42.0 per cent of the primary vote and J.S. Steel, 29.4 per cent.
  11. Chris himself remarried to a widower in 1979 and moved to Moorebank in 1987. He had married his first wife Mary (nee Dowling), in February 1933 and together had one son and two daughters. Mary passed away from a heart attack on 21 September 1967.
  12. Nairn, The Big Fella, p 316.