Merv Flanagan: The Australian Labour Movement’s Forgotten Martyr

Andrew Moore and Lucy Taksa

This special issue of Hummer is dedicated to the memory of Mervyn Ambrose Leslie Flanagan (1884-1917) appearing on Labor Day 1988 it is intended to contribute to other functions being organised by the Sydney branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History.

It is also five years since the labour history society was revived in Sydney. At a time when many historic gains of the labour movement are under attack, we need to ask ourselves about the proper roles of labour historians in this Situation. Is recalling historical possibilities enough? How can we work to build further bridges between the labour movement and academia? This special issue of Hummer and the activities that go with it are mounted as a political Intervention in the dialogue about such issues. We aim to popularise labour history further among progressive working men and women who, like Merv Flanagan, are somewhat distant from the PhD industry.

In preparing this monograph about the life and death of Merv Flanagan the authors would like to thank many people including Chris Cunneen of the Australian Dictionary of Biography, Father Victor Doyle of Mount Carmel Presbytery, Waterloo, ‘Johnno’ Johnson, president of the NSW Legislative Council, Alan Clarke, Drew Cottle, Malco1m Rimner and Charlie Ross. Australia’s best poet, Denis Kevans, was kind enough to contribute and Keonie White helped us with some artwork. Campbelltowo’s most skilful word processor operator, Vivien Raine, typed the manuscript. The Minister for the Arts continues to support Hummer.


The Australian Society for the Study of Labour History was formed in 1961 and committed itself to writing the history of ‘ordinary people’ (in as far, that is, as anyone could be called ordinary), rather than histories out of the ‘great men’ and ‘great women’ school. Merv Flanagan was one such ordinary man except that one day in the midst of the General Strike in 1917 a scab shot him dead. And that makes Merv Flanagan rather extraordinary.

Whatever the trauma this caused his loved ones the bullet which shattered Herv Flanagan’s chest should have brought martyrdom and a continuing place in working-class history. Norman Brown, the innocent bystander killed during the 1929 lock-out at Rotbbury, is a famous figure in Australian labour history. Merv Flanagan on the other hand has been largely forgotten.

We set out to correct this situation. Initially our goals were very ambitious. We wanted to capture the essence of Merv Flanagan. What sort of man was he? What were the principles which governed his political life? With a name like Flanagan surely he was an Irish rebel? Was he committed to ending British tyranny in Mother Erin? Did he fume with rage at the brutality of the British suppression of the Ulster uprising in 1916? Was he a supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World? When the ashes of Joe Hill were brought to Sydney in 1916 did he pay homage little knowing that within a year he too would lose his life for the cause of the working-class movement? What did the people who worked with Herv Flanagan, those who drank with him at his local, those who gossiped with him at the front gate of his house in Camperdown, those who perhaps went to church with him, what did all of these people make of the man, his family and the tragedy which befell them?

Of course it was entirely unrealistic to think that such questions could be answered. It has not been possible to put Merv Flanagan back together again. And yet this is instructive in itself. The ruling class know how to honour their dead, but Merv Flanagan, proletarian, tenant and family man is a victim of the selective amnesia which determines our knowledge of the past.

Our attempts to rescue Merv Flanagan from the condescension of history quickly assumed the proportions of a murder mystery. Take, for instance, the state of police records about the shooting and its sequel in the Archives Office of New South Wales. A thorough search of chief secretary’s, attorney general’s, police and premier’s department records suggests that all that remains is the result of a coroner’s inquest. This simply suggests that Flanagan died as a result of ‘a bullet wound of chest inflicted… by Reginald James Wearne while acting in his own defence’.

The depleted archival record promotes the suspicion that there may have been irregularities in the case. After all the brother of the man who shot Flanagan was W.E. Wearne, MLA for Namoi, a powerful conservative parliamentarian, with friends in high places. This sense of disquiet was increased by the strange case of a set of papers in the Mitchell Library. These belonged to Flanagan’s assailant, Reginald Wearne, a stock and station agent from Bingara, in north-west New South Wales.

The Wearne papers were restricted though the library catalogue suggested, tantalisingly, that they contained a great deal of information about Merv Flanagan’s death. To cut a long story short, representations to the deputy manuscripts librarian at the Mitchell Library led to the papers being released.

For the first time it was possible to see how events of 30 September 1917 and their aftermath appeared to one of the major protagonists. The Wearne papers proved to be significant in three ways.

Firstly they revealed the almost breathtaking brutality of, principally, Reginald Wearne’s supporters. A testimonial fund was established to offset some of Wearne’s legal expenses. Many of the State’s largest graziers, like F.B.S. Falkiner and pastoral firms like Pitt Son and Badgery were happy to contribute in recognition of Wearne’s ‘great pluck’. The bulk of the money came from A.M. Hemsley of the prominent legal firm, Allen, Allen & Hemsley who collected more than £56 from a whip-round at the elite Union Club. Many members of the ruling class felt that Wearne had taught the workers a salutary lesson about appropriate industrial relations – and perhaps he had – but the violence of their language remains disconcerting. Wearne’s correspondents felt that Flanagan was ‘scum of the earth’, ‘a parasite on the social order of … (the) State’ who deserved his fate. Even a vicar from Gunnedah and the headmaster of Annandale public school felt this way. One person felt that ‘all right thinking citizens’ were facing a serious revolutionary situation where they had to take a firm stand or ‘Better let the Blacks have the country’.

The second major item of interest in the Wearne papers was a newspaper clipping of unspecified origin (Wearne said that it came from an ‘I.W.W. paper’) describing Flanagan’s funeral procession. A moving account, we reprint this in full.

Yet the most spectacular find in the Wearne papers was a document which ought to be in the State Archives. This was Merv Flanagan’s police record.* The head of the NSW police provided it to W.E. Wearne in February 1918. Why it was collected and preserved is open to conjecture; the propriety of a police document being handed over in this fashion is very dubious. In all probability Reginald Wearne was trying to expatiate his guilt. Through establishing that the man he had killed was a rogue it was perhaps easier for Wearne to rationalise his actions. The death of a villain surely did not matter. The reality, however, is that Merv Flanagan’s police record establishes nothing of the sort. Merv Flanagan emerges as a typical inner-city proletarian of the turn of the century period, a man who enjoyed a few drinks, playing two-up and who was not averse to engaging members of the constabulary in fisticuffs from time to time. Merv in fact had only twelve convictions for notoriously working-class crimes like being’ riotous’. By the standards of his time and class this makes Merv a bit of a saint.

What follows in this little monograph is a tribute rather than a biography. We do not pretend to be ‘objective’. Our intention is to honour a forgotten martyr. We outline the strike that caused Merv Flanagan’s blood to be up. We describe his life from the sources that are available. We report on various versions of the circumstances of his death. We reprint a contemporary account of the funeral procession and stitch together something of the sequel to the Flanagan affair. For all of its deficiencies all we can say is: sorry Merv, you deserved better.

The General Strike of 1917

The General Strike has been referred to as – “the biggest industrial upheaval ever experienced in Australia”. Involving between 70,000 and 100,000 workers over ten weeks, it was accompanied by massive processions and demonstrations in Sydney and numerous other centres like Newcastle, Bathurst, Lithgow, Bourke, Maitland, Broken Hill, as well as south coast mining towns. Mass meetings were also held in the suburbs of Sydney and in country towns including Mudgee, Armidale, Junee, Bellingen and Lismore.

The strike began in the State’s Railway and Tramway workshops, at Randwick and Eveleigh, after the Railway Commissioners introduced a card system of recording work processes and times on 10 July 1917. Within a short time it spread throughout the labour movement to include, among many others, wharf labourers, coal lumpers, coalminers, seamen, firemen, gas workers, slaughtermen, butchers and trolley and draymen. Amidst a backdrop of ruling-class alarm about the activities of radicals like the ‘Wobblies’ the strike was portrayed as a revolutionary attempt to overthrow capitalism. The reality was less colourful.

The introduction of a new system of recording work performance results to the Railways and Tramways Department Workshops had been mooted in both 1915 and 1916 but on both occasions unions involved had successfully opposed the suggestion. Indeed, the government had agreed not to alter work practices throughout the duration of the war. However, on 20 July 1917 , contrary to custom and practice, the card system was introduced to the Randwick TramWay Workshops without prior warning to the workers concerned. The latter’s immediate response was to refuse to work. Pre-existing networks in the labour movement were mobilised within days. The NSW Labor Council organised a conference of unions and a number of deputations to the Railway Commissioners were initiated.

These generally focused on appeals for a withdrawal of the system and the appointment of an Independent Tribunal involving a Judge to inquire into the workers’ grievances. The State government elected in May of that year bore the scars of the conscription split and although it was composed of numerous ex-members of the preceding Labor government it had donned the mantle of conservatism. Hence, on 1 August the government rejected these proposals for the settlement of the dispute. As a result 5780 railway and tramway workers withdrew their labour on 2 August. At this point, the dispute involved 14 unions which covered the department’s workforce. Within days the strike spread to other occupations as workers were either prevented from performing their jobs by the lack of trains or they refused to handle goods or provide services in sympathy with the strikers. Such resources of co-operation also led the major unions to form a Strike Defence Committee and after this body declared coal ‘black’, that is to be boycotted, on 6 August, the strike spread to Newcastle, Broken Hill, Bulli, Wollongong, Lithgow, Bathurst, Goulburn and later Lismoore. By 8 August the strike had been joined by coalminers, coal lumpers, wharf labourers, carters, seamen, meat industry employees and gas workers.

Such action, however, tended to involve the rank and file of the various unions. Some union executives often presented a more ambivalent attitude toward the strike. Merv Flanagan’s union, the Trolley, Draymen and Carters, is a case in point. This union’s executive in fact did its best to keep its members at work; on 13 August its committee of management backed a policy of staying on the job and the union’s officials communicated with the carrying companies in an effort to further this policy. ‘Ironically many carters were locked-out by their employers, who engaged volunteer labour when carters refused to handle goods boycotted by black bans.

The spontaneity of the rank and file was not limited to the industrial sphere. In the first week of the strike, the Telegraph and the Herald reported that hundreds of thousands of men, women and children were gathering in the streets in the vicinity of Trades Hall, Bowen’s Buildings and Daking House, the rallying points for the picket brigades. Many stood in columns waiting for trams to pass by. The women were said to be the most vocal in hurling epithets like “SCAB” at ‘loyal’ drivers while the men raised their hats as if they were hailing the dead.

By the end of the first week of the strike these gatherings resulted ‘in a number of spontaneous processions to the Domain which were estimated to number between 3000 and 4000 people, while the spontaneous demonstrations at the Domain were estimated at 1000. At all these gatherings, like those which followed throughout the period, participants sang songs such as ‘Solidarity Forever’, ‘Rule Britannia’, ‘Hold the Fort’, ‘John Brown’s Body’ and the ‘Workers Marseillaise’ .

By 16 August striking railway and tramway workers had been dismissed and scabs were recruited on a mass scale from country areas by the Fuller government with the assistance of the Farmers and Settlers Association and the Primary Producers Union. The strike now also involved marine stewards and pantrymen, shop painters and dockers and employees of the Government dockyard at Cockatoo and Garden Islands. In addition, cement, wheat, flour, fodder, bread, meat and milk had been declared ‘black’.

The Government’s coercive responses to the strike were not limited to the introduction of strike-breakers. Trade union de-registration became a daily occurrence after 20 August and a concerted campaign of arrests of union leaders also commenced at this time.

In early September, railway and tramway workers still on strike were urged to return to work by the Strike Defence Committee. Although this created conflict among the strikers, most returned after having been ‘on the grass’ for over six weeks. Those who worked at Eveleigh marched in formation intending to sign back on as a group but their defeat had been total. Railway management would only accept those strikers who agreed to sign on individually. In addition, most strikers lost seniority and superannuation benefits. These were later restored by the Lang Labor Government in 1925 but a legacy of bitterness remained between workers who struck and those who had been scabs during the strike.

Not much of a life

Mervyn Flanagan was born on 27 November 1884 at George Street, Waterloo, eldest child of John Flanagan, a horse-driver and his wife Susan Laura McMahon. By 1893 John and Laura had seven children, two others having died.

Merv Flanagan grew up in Sydney’s inner-city. Suburbs like Chippendale, Camperdown and Darlington were then, as the historian Shirley Fitzgerald has remarked, ‘Industrial, working class and Irish’. Densely populated and polluted by industrial waste, disease was endemic. Narrow streets, mean jerry-built terraces and poverty predominated. When Merv was two years of age an awesome typhoid epidemic swept through the inner-city. When he was six the Depression hit, further undermining the material basis of Sydney’s working people.

In February 1901, as the wealthy and the powerful were celebrating the federation of the Australian States, Merv had his first brush with the law. Aged fourteen he was found guilty of ‘throwing stones’ and sentenced to seven days imprisonment or fined twenty shillings. Perhaps in the eyes of the conservative legal establishment he was already identified as a member of the ‘bog Irish’, ‘criminal class’. In March 1901 he was fined five shillings or sentenced to twenty-four hours imprisonment for playing two up. In 1902 he was found guilty of using indecent language and in April and September 1904 he had convictions for being drunk and disorderly and assaulting a police constable. What prompted these latter incidents can only be guessed at, but when he married Beatrice Stanton at St Pauls Church of England, Redfern, he stated that both his parents were dead so it is possible that bereavement caused him to over-imbibe in alcohol.

Mervyn and Beatrice, who was illiterate, nineteen years old, born at Newtown and the daughter of a sawyer, settled in the inner-city, living at various addresses in Redfern, Darlington and Camperdown. Merv took work wherever he could find it. In 1905 he was described as a groom, in 1909 as a general carrier’s carter, in 1911 a carrier’s clerk and in 1917 a horse-driver.

Marriage and children failed to dampen Merv’s appreciation of convivial libations with his mates. The ‘crimes’ with which Merv was charged increasingly said ‘riotous’ which is probably just another way of saying ‘drunk and disorderly’ and given that the Flanagan family lost at least one child, again there was probably good reason for Merv occasionally taking to the bottle.

In August 1917 it was more than five years since Merv had had any aggravation from the police. He and his family were living at 4 Marsden Street, Camperdown. Merv had been employed by W. F. Budd of Camperdown but he had been out of work for a month. Beatrice was taking in washing so that the family, Cecil aged eleven, Reginald aged nine, Stanley aged six and John aged two could survive. In the late afternoon of 30 August 1917, Merv Flanagan walked a few blocks from his house into Bridge Road where Reginald James Wearne from Bingara, a member of the ‘farmers army’ which the Fuller government had brought to Sydney to break the strike, was armed with a revolver in the course of defending ‘law and order’ and standing up for ‘God, King and Country’.

How Merv Flanagan died

As one might expect there are differing versions of how Merv Flanagan lost his life.


On 31 August 1911 the Sydney Horninq Herald reported that the incident began at 4.45pn in Bridge Road, when a group of striking carters began yelling abuse at two ‘volunteer’ carters.

“You…scab and ….” called one, as another jumped on one of the lorries being driven by a ‘volunteer’ and yelled, “You … I’ll get you” before hitting the driver, Reginald James Wearne, knocking him off his seat. Similarly, the driver of another lorry was attacked and knocked off his cart. He was then seized by the other strikers and taken to a nearby vacant lot where he was beaten. Wearne, drawing a revolver, approached the group of strikers. They responded by throwing rocks and stones at him. In turn, Wearne, shot at the group, hitting one man in the leg (Henry Williams) and another (Flanagan) through the heart.


Mervyn Flanagan’s brother, James Everard Flanagan, commonly known as ‘Darkie’, subsequently saw events rather differently.

He said that on the day of the shooting he had been with his brother throughout the afternoon leaving him only for a few minutes to go to the blacksmith’s shop. Upon his return he saw his brother on the ground. He stressed that not only had he never encountered Wearne before, but also that neither he nor anyone else had assaulted Wearne on that afternoon. He did, however, admit that he told Wearne what he thought of him in forcible language after his brother had been shot. Stones were not thrown until after the shooting.


Wearne’s recollection of these events in 1952 offered another interpretation. Wearne wrote:

He… [Flanagan] got shot by jumping on my back from behind while I had the gun pointed at his mate in front of me. He jumped too high, or I jerked him over my shoulder, but the first I knew I shot Flanagan was when I saw him stagger around in front of me and fall down. We did not know he had been shot or that he was dead until I forced his brother to cane with me on a horse sulky to … Hospital.

Amidst the discrepancies surrounding the circumstances of Flanagan’s death two things stand out. First, Reginald Wearne never denied firing the bullet which killed Flanagan. This being the case, the kid gloves treatment accorded to him by the law is shameful (see sequel). The second is that Kerv Flanagan’s proletarian instincts were very sound. He went to the aid of a mate who was being harassed by an armed man. His behaviour was extremely brave and he should be remembered as a hero of the class war.

Flanagan’s Funeral

The day after the shooting collections were taken up to provide a wreath for Flanagan’s funeral. The unionists organised a massive march from Trades Hall to the Mortuary Station which held up traffic for one hour. An eye witness described it in the following terms.

Last Saturday I stood bareheaded in the roadway of a Sydney suburb where thousands of unionists walked in solemn array before a four-horsed funeral hearse containing the remnants of a comrade who had been shot down two days before by a strike-breaker. The deep boon of a muffled drum came up from the head of the procession more than a mile off and full on the air fell the weird neets (sic) of funeral music, and the rhytbmetic (sic) tread of feet on the whitened roadway. Nearby a convent bell was tolling in measured pauses – the passing of the dead. I saw the polished casket emerge from the little clean-fronted cottage, borne on the shoulders of powerful men. I watched them lower the wooden casket containing the remnants of their comrade into the funeral hearse – gently and tenderly, as though it were a thing they prized and loved for the dear remembrance that it held. . I saw the pathetic figure of the dead striker’s wife, leaning on the arm of other mourners, her cries of grief stabbing like daggers into my own heart. And I watched her pause but a moment beside the hearse containing all that was dearest in life to her, a look of hopelessness and despair swept over her tear-stained face, as if she was parting with everything in life worth keeping – as if all the sunshine from her life had gone with the passing of the dead. And then I saw the little children, clothed in deepest black, their baby eyes reddened with tears of bitter grief for their loving father they had lost. I thought of other little children that I know, of other baby faces with large blank eyes – the sign of guileless happiness that only baby innocence can possess – each little face with its own peculiar charm and fascination. I thought I had grown hardened to the sights of sorrow and suffering. I have seen months of it in my time. But that time last Saturday – those weeping folk, that sorrowing wife, those broken men, little baby faces moved me in a strange way and brought home the tragedy of despotism now sweeping over our fair land gathering its victims one by one. The muffled bell of the near-by convent tolled its mourning message still, the measured tread of thousands of bare-headed unionists fell in unison to the deep notes of a far-off drum and the weird notes of a funeral air. Slowly the dead passed down the road.

Mervyn Flanagan was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Rookwood Cemetery. The service was conducted by a Catholic priest, R. McElligott.

The Sequel

The legal judicial system responded to Mervyn Flanagan’s death in a bizarre fashion, seemingly confusing assassin and victim. James Flanagan and Henry Williams, another striker who was with the Flanagan brothers at the time of the tragedy and was also wounded, were arrested on a charge of having used violence to prevent Wearne from following his lawful occupation.

Wearne was charged with both’ Felonious Slaying’ and manslaughter and was released on bail to his brother, the conservative politician. Wearne MLA assured the defendant, ‘You have played the game in a manner which makes your family feel proud. It may he bad luck for the striker which I very much doubt’.

Mr Love S.M. evidently agreed with such sentiments. He discharged Reginald James Wearne at the Rewtown Police Court of the ‘Felonious Slaying’ charge, following in the footsteps of the City Coroner who had come to similar conclusions. Intriguingly, there seems to be no record of Wearne every being tried on the manslaughter charge. As the Worker noted on 6 September 1917 the circumstances of Wearne being granted bail with such ease and speed were also highly irregular. The bail money was half that imposed upon strikers at Broken Hill.

By contrast, James Everard Flanagan (30), and Henry Williams (34) were convicted of their charges. At Rewtown Court in mid-September 1917, Mr Clarke S.M. concluded that the case had been proved ‘beyond any doubt’ and that the evidence brought forward by the defence had not been conclusive. He stressed that the offence was a serious one, punishable by a fine of £29 or in default six months’ imprisonment but as the case had cost the life of one man he would not impose a fine. Rather, both men would be sent to gaol for three months because he recognised ‘that a certain amount of punishment has already been inflicted. Williams has been wounded and Flanagan has lost his brother as one of the results of this most unfortunate strike’.

Kerv died leaving no property or assets. His union started a collection for ,Beatrice and a tidy sum of money was evidently forthcoming. One correspondent informed us, however, that Beatrice’s inexperience in handling money meant that it was soon frittered away. The Flanagan family continued to live in Gleba. Two of Kerv’s sons, John and Reginald, lived in adjoining houses in Queen Street for many years. Well-known local identities, they sometimes drank at the Friend in Hand Hotel at the corner of Queen and Cowper Streets.

Beatrice subsequently remarried but that is about the only happy note in this sad story. James Flanagan, Merv’s brother, also continued to live in the area, but he was blackballed by employers and found it extremely difficult to find any sort of work.

The 1917 strike must be seen in the context of a society already polarised into two ‘mutually hostile camps’ and the fatal shooting of Flanagan served to reinforce that division. However, it also reinforced the cohesion within the working class cOlll1lunity, as the mobilisation of working people for Flanagan’s funeral showed. The martyrdom of Mervyn Ambrose Flanagan is thus a final testimony to those working-class people who, by supporting the General Strike, lived out what H.E. Boote described as ‘all the triumphs and all the tragedies of the immemorial years’. Merv Flanagan does not seem to have an especially political animal but he would have agreed with Joe Hill’s immortal sentence ‘don’t mourn: organise’. Without the heroic sacrifice of men like Merv Flanagan there would no be no labour movement and no socialist advance. On Labor Day 1988 we should celebrate the tradition of proletarian militancy which Merv Flanagan represents, while remembering that the savage repression which his death epitomises also has a long tradition in Australian history.

* The police document spelt ‘Flanagan’, ‘Flannigan’. Nevertheless we take this to be a simple typographical error rather than evidence that the police passed on information about the wrong man.


  • Mark Bray and Malcolm Rimmer, Delivering the goods: a history of the NSW Transoort Workers Union 1888-1986, Allen & Unwin, Sydney 1987
  • Shirley Fitzgerald, Rising damp: Sydney 1879-90, Oxford University Press, Melbourne 1987
  • New South Wales Bicentennial Oral History Project
  • Lucy Taksa, ‘Social protest and the NSW “General Strike” of 1917’, BA(Hons) thesis, University of New South Wales, 1983
  • R.J. Wearne papers, Mitchell Library MSS 1351