Rowan Day: Murder in Tottenham: Australia’s first political assassination.

Murder in Tottenham: Australia’s first political assassination. 

Anchor Books Australia 2015

Sue Tracey

The little known town of Tottenham (pop 299 in 2011) 500 km west of Sydney, was one of the copper mining towns in Western NSW which sprung up as the demand for copper soared in the early 20th century. In September 1916 a policeman, George Duncan, was murdered. The murder aroused fear in the community because the perpetrators were three members of the International Workers of the World (IWW), or Wobblies, which was viewed as a bunch of dangerous, often single and almost always male, fanatics, attempting to destroy industry and thus society.  They were often unskilled, and itinerant.

In 1908 the IWW split in two – the Detroit faction, and the radical Chicago faction which eschewed working through parliamentary means and favoured direct action. They also advocated the use of industrial sabotage.  It was this latter group that took root in Australia. The IWW advocated that unions should be industry based, not craft based, and they advocated the One Big Union (OBU). They forbad members to hold positions in craft unions, which they viewed as fragmenting the working class, but at times this rule was ignored.  The Wobblies were deeply suspicious of highly paid union officials, who they regarded as likely to sell out workers, and probably would not have been surprised by the recent conviction of the secretary of the Health Services Union for siphoning hundreds of thousands of dollars to himself and his family.

The IWW was organised as a series of Locals (Broken Hill was Local No 3 and Tottenham was Local No 9), where members organised in a free-wheeling fashion. Correspondence has survived between the Locals, and the police records of the IWW that have survived are a useful resource. IWW memberships were issued locally by the branch officials, not through the Sydney office.  At the time this was similar to the ALP, which continued with branch based memberships until 1983, when the membership system was centralised.

Day gives a clear word picture of Tottenham and district based on documents and statistics available on the area: petitions for schools, construction of hotels, getting the railway, accounts of floods and droughts, and the price of wool and copper.  There was also the nearby Woodlands Farm, a 50,000 acre wheat farm owned by the NSW government. Imagine no cars – it meant getting around by horse, cycle or walking wherever it was necessary to travel.  After the murder of Duncan, one of the investigating policemen travelled from Dubbo on the midnight goods train.

Australia was at war, and in 1916 we had lost over 5000 men on a single day at Fromelles. In October that year, a conscription plebiscite was held by Prime Minister Billy Hughes, who had been expelled from the Labor Party the previous month.  There were strikes in the mines as wages were being cut. Hughes dropped a planned referendum on giving the Commonwealth power to control the price of food, and it seemed to many unionists that workers had to sacrifice but capitalists did not.

On 26 September 1916, Sgt George Duncan was shot in the Tottenham police station, and Roland Kennedy, Herbert Kennedy and Frank Franz were charged with murder. There were attempts to link them to the Sydney Twelve, who were charged on 23 September with treason felony for plotting to burn Sydney down. Franz was of German origin, and every effort was made to link this ‘enemy’ with the Sydney Twelve.  The trial for two of those charged, Roland Kennedy just 21 years old, and Frank Franz, lasted just one day.  Both were convicted, and hanged before the Christmas 1916 – and there had not been a hanging in NSW for over twenty years.  Franz had given evidence for the Crown and it was expected his sentence would be less. Premier Holman and Attorney General Hall were opposed to the death penalty and yet they would not commute his sentence.

Herbert Kennedy was tried separately, though the reason for this is not explained in the book, and found not guilty. Kennedy, then aged 36 years, had lived in New Zealand for some years, where he was secretary of the Inangahua Miners Union, and took part in the great 1912 Waihu strike. The New Zealand newspapers followed his trial with interest. Day explores at some length the movement of the IWW members, such as Kennedy, through New Zealand, Australia, Canada and the US.  However, other than stating that Bert died in Ardlethan NSW in 1960, there is no further mention of him after the trial.

At the time, the regional and metropolitan newspapers covered this story quite fully, yet the episode has not attracted much interest in later years, apart from a small volume, The Tottenham Tragedy Roland Kennedy and Frank Franz published in 1997 by John Patten. The IWW had a third serious legal matter to deal with at the same time – in October 1916, members were charged with producing £25,000 of forged £5 notes.  In an article on the IWW in the journal Links, Verity Burgmann writes of her grandfather’s cousin, the engraver who made the plates for the forged £5 note, an episode that Day views as an ‘up yours’ to the system. It is generally viewed as an attempt by the IWW to gain funds for their activities, and perhaps to undermine the currency.

The response in the media to the IWW, and their links to Germans and revolutionary Russia, was not unlike the response in the media now to men of “middle eastern appearance” charged with crimes of violence or thinking about crimes of violence.  The law reflected this concern. The Unlawful Associations Act December 1916 provided for a 6 month gaol term for any member of the IWW who advocated any action, a term that was broadly defined, which would undermine the war effort.  By 1917, the IWW publication Direct Action could not be sent by post, and membership of the IWW later became illegal. Those convicted who were not citizens could be deported under the Alien Restriction order. Two US citizens were deported to America and refused entry travelling back and forth across the Pacific four times.

This book mentions many incidents and people, but the text has to be read with constant flipping to footnotes, or search for references, to fully understand the significance of many of them.  The philosophical parts of the book that deal with the Australian character and the IWW are written with passion and elegance.

The focus on the IWW in Australia has largely been on Sydney and the Sydney Twelve. Rowan Day, who comes from Tottenham, has taken on the task of shining a light on the rural based participants of the IWW.