Humming in History Again

Judy Wing

The Hummer was a newspaper printed and published weekly in Wagga Wagga between 19 October The Hummer1891 and 10 September 1892, after which the name was changed to Worker. It was a ‘co-operative labour journal’ owned by the ASU (Amalgamated Shearers’ Union) which represented the interests of two Wagga Wagga branch unions. The ASU and the GLU (General Labourers’ Union). These unions were known as the Associated Riverina Workers and they later amalgamated to become the AWU (Australian Workers’ Union).

The paper was printed on its own premises using its own machinery and was circulated among the 5,000 members of the above two unions for an annual subscription of four shillings for members or one penny per copy for others. Officials of The Hummer included J. J. Mooney, chairman of the Wagga Wagga branch of the ASU, and the joint editors, Arthur Rae, MLA for Murrumbidgee, and W. W. Head, Secretary of the ASU, all of whom were, or had been, shearers.

The free trial copy dated Monday, 19 October 1891 set out the aims and objects of the paper: to provide ‘reliable information’ concerning the ‘progress’ of their own unions and labour organizations, and to promote unionism among workers and in politics. The paper’s socialist emphasis was demonstrated by its ‘assertion’ that a system of collective ownership of the means of production and distribution would be the ‘only solution’ to remedy the world-wide problem of labour.

The first twenty editions of The Hummer contain a wide variety of items ranging from political news and views, letters and contributions from readers, women’s issues and an increasing number of advertisements, to a personal column for missing friends. The language throughout was crouched in colloquial terms. This was consistent with the editors’ statement in the trial copy that The Hummer a style of its own which made grammar and spelling unimportant; appropriate to its name, the paper would ‘hum right along regardless of criticism from capitalists and many unionists who feared possible libel action.

The Hummer was a direct response by Arthur Rae (who wrote much of its political news and opinion as “Hank Morgan” to avoid legal complications) and Walter Head to the ‘Big Strike’ of 1890 and subsequent strikes which adversely affected shearers. Such events as the Jondaryan dispute, the financial crash of 1890, the 1891 elections at which Arthur Rae was elected as Laabor Member for the seat of Murrumbidgee, and the first National Constitutional Convention provided an Australian stimulus for the establishment of The Hummer. It was an isolated but significant attempt by a small group of Wagga Wagga unionists to rally local workers to the Labour Movement and the socialist cause.

The political policy of The Hummer, ‘Our Platform’, which first appeared on Saturday, 30 January 1892, reiterated in its first clause the trial copy’s call for a ‘complete’ labour federation from which an international federation would naturally follow – that is, labour would join “Hands across the Sea”.’ Co-operation voluntary, municipal and national – was seen as the way this political unity could be achieved, and to that end the editors promoted membership of both unions and the Labour Electoral League, as well as local self-government which would ‘improve’ residents’ ‘public spirit’1. When achieved, these policies would challenge the employers’ unions and their power to control conditions of employment.

The second clause pursued the fashionable notion of popular co-operation on local, municipal and national levels. The third clause was in part a reaction to the large number of non-British migrants, particularly Kanakas and Chinese, who had come to Australia to work in the Queensland canefields or to seek gold. By 1890 they presented a potential threat to labour by being in competition with Australian workers for jobs. The Hummer also campaigned against General Booth’s (Salvation Army) proposal to relocate a group of English paupers and reformed prisoners “for settlement in a country district in Australia because the editors believed Booth wanted ‘to make Australia a kind of safety valve for Great Britain’.2

Clause four referred to the 1891 Convention and the proposals for a national federation. The Hummer advocated a republic based on universal suffrage (that is, ‘one man, one vote’ instead of a plural or dual system of voting) with a provision for the referendum on questions of national importance (such as the fiscal question of free trade versus protection) by the whole population. It also proposed a voluntary union of states with the right of secession.3

There appeared to be an inconsistency in the document concerning the Upper House: clause five provided for a people’s Upper House, but opposition clause eight rejected ‘any kind’ of Upper House. This could perhaps be explained by the editors’ antipathy to the elitist membership of the Upper House which, if anything, should be a people’s house. Preferably there should be no Upper House at all; there should be only one House in any Federal parliament with membership on a population basis.4

Again, the name United Australian Commonwealth implied a monarchy, and thus seemed inconsistent with the political structure of a republic-. However, Hank Morgan explained the name was the ‘only real first-class thing’ about Federa tion proposals as it mean the ‘common weal ‘, which was for the ‘general good’ and ‘well-being’ of the society.5 Clause six referred to Premier Dibbs’s speech opposing taxation of land values, in which he supported taxation ‘through the stomach and back’. The Hummer naturally opposed this form6of taxation and supported taxation of land values.6

The seventh clause appeared to have been included in ‘Our Platform’ following parliamentary debate on military expenditure. One of the reasons for the move towards Federation and the 1891 Convention was a widespread fear of invasion in the eastern colonies as Germany, France and Russia made territorial moves in New Guinea and the Pacific. However, Hank Morgan took the view that military expenditure was ‘useless’ and that the army’s main task was merely to ‘escort toy governors’ while on official business. He believed that since the capitalists owned ‘nearly a11’ the land they should fight for it themselves.7 There should be no standing army as it symbolised the monarchy and the aristocracy, neither of which was acceptable in a socialist state.8

This anti-royalty and anti-titles sentiment might well have been highlighted by Arthur Rae’s stand in parliament in January 1892 when he opposed the Motion of Condolence which the NSW Legislative Assembly wished to extend to Queen Victoria on the death of her grandson. This occasion created something of a furore – Rae’s stand was endorsed by 4,000 people on the Yarra bank on 26 January, but received condemnation by many, including the Wagga Wagga Advertiser and the Wagga wagga Express & Murrumbidgee District Advertiser.9

Lawyers and monopolies were anathema to the officials at The Hummer. For example, there was a large proportion of lawyers at the 1891 Convention, all of whom were seen as wealthy and powerful and, since a socialist state embodies the principle of collective ownership, monopolies (even the privately-owned Shearers’ Record which had earlier been the chief workers’ newspaper) were not to be tolerated ‘on principle’.10

Manning Clark once said that Australian historians could be divided into those who had read and sympathized with the objectives and beliefs of The Hummer and those who had not. Certainly this radical regional paper, established at such a seminal time in the Labour Movement’s formation, is still worth reading for its heady rural radicalism and no-nonsense approach.


  1. The Hummer, 30 January 1892.
  2. Ibid., 7 November 1891.
  3. Ibid., 19 March 1892.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 5 December 1891.
  7. Ibid., 12 March 1892.
  8. Ibid., 19 March 1892.
  9. Ibid., 30 January 1892
  10. Ibid.31 October 1891.