The Loyal Orange Lodges and the Newcastle
Labour Movement

Tony Laffan

Tony Laffan is a social science teacher at Singleton. He has written two books on Labour History in the Newcastle region: Good Work at Westy, on the Socialist Labor Party from 1901 to 1922, and The Freethinker’s Picnic, about Newcastle’s Secular Hall of Science, 1884 to 1893. Both are available for $10 posted from PO Box 235 Singleton.

In 1891, when the Labor Party was formed in Newcastle, the Loyal Orange Lodges (LOL) had about 1000 members. Ten years later, at their peak, there were 30 lodges and close to 2000 members.1 The Loyal Orange Lodges played a conspicuous role in the politics of the region for over half a century. How did they relate to the emerging Labor Party? How did they impact on its goals, on its membership, and how did they influence the behaviour of Labor parliamentarians in the region?

Firstly, taking 1899-1909 as a guide, there is a significant overlap between the lodges and Labor Party membership. Richard Tyson, the president of the Adamstown Political Labor League (Labor Party; PLL) and of the Kahibah PLL Electorate Council2, also served as Worshipful Master (WM) of LOL 28 Adamstown.3 James Dart, as well as being president of the Newcastle PLL4, was Deputy Master of LOL District No. 4 (Newcastle).5 Alderman R Webber was president of Wickham PLL6 while also being WM of LOL 132 Tighes Hill.7 Senator David Watson, originally from Wallsend but later a resident of Kurri, had been Deputy Master of LOL 258.8

If we take union and miners’ lodge personalities we find the following links. George Cornish, secretary of the Newcastle Society of Carpenters and Joiners9 was also a member of LOL 26.10 Thomas Allanson, delegate for the Sea Pit miners’ lodge and vice president of the Newcastle Eight Hour Committee11, was a Sir Knight in Royal Black Preceptory (RBP) 66612 and hence a member of the Loyal Orange Institute (LOI). W Littlefair, president of the Ebbw Vale miners’ lodge13 and a member of the Delegate Board, was also a Sir Knight from RBP 557.14 Frank Parsons, checkweighman for Dudley miners’ lodge15, was a member of LOL 249.16 Charles Steadson, trustee for the Eight Hour committee17 was a member of LOL 177, Hamilton.18 It was not for nothing that the annual July 12 (Battle of the Boyne) procession formed up at the Trades Hall.19 Indeed LOL 26 used Trades Hall as their lodge room.

These examples are far from exhaustive. They are based on newspaper reports, not membership lists, and can only represent a fraction of the cross links between the LOI – the Loyal Orange state body – and the Labor Party. The two organisations were in intimate and continuous contact for many years. Before examining that contact it is first necessary to background the LOI in Newcastle.

The Loyal Orange lodges were the political expression of the evangelical non-conformist Protestant churches. In Newcastle almost 60% of the population gave these churches as their denomination on census forms.20 In Newcastle the LOI emerged during the reaction to the attempted assassination of the Duke of Edinburgh by an Irishman at Clontarf Park Sydney in 1868. It drew further strength from the 1870s controversy over ‘free, compulsory and secular’ state education in NSW. Around 1898, women’s lodges were formed.

Lodges met monthly, and in a women’s lodge this was often a social night with parlour games in the temperance tradition. Lodges also held degree raising meetings, an annual religious service and an anniversary tea, as well as participating in district events such as the July 12 procession and a picnic sports day for the King’s birthday. Each of these permitted speech making as well as ample opportunity for co-ordinated political campaigns in the community.

Within the lodge, Masonic forms were used. Upon joining, the member passed the 1st degree. Later a Royal Arch Purple (RAP) degree was granted. Those men with RAP degrees could join a second organisation, the Royal Black Preceptory, and become Sir Knights. They claimed that their organisation originated in the Scottish chapter of the Knights of Malta, which had been captured by protestants during the Reformation. The RBP had a more developed Masonic style ritual with many degrees.

From time to time, the LOI endorsed political candidates. They were zealous in their safeguarding of the Protestant religion and clearly saw Australia as part of a British Empire headed by a Protestant monarch. They believed that it was not only possible but desirable to legislate for ‘virtue’. Among their favourite causes were temperance, local option and anti-gambling as well as a firm commitment to Sabbath observance with no paid sport on Sundays. In regions such as Newcastle, with an overwhelmingly working class electorate, they also counted as virtuous causes: a compulsory eight hour day; state enforced safety conditions in coal mines; and early closing on Saturday night for shops. Orangemen were frequently identified with these causes. Likewise they were conspicuous in the benefit societies and retail cooperatives of Newcastle and the northern coalfields. Many members saw no contradiction between the new Labor Party and their previous allegiances and were enthusiastic supporters of the PLL. Indeed large-scale state ownership was consistent with legislating for virtue.

In 1899, however, the PLL parliamentarians voted, by a narrow margin, to displace the Free Trade government led by George Reid and replace it with a minority Protectionist government. As the Protectionist party was generally supported by most Roman Catholics and by the ‘liquor interests’ the Labor Party now became an enemy for some in the LO lodges. They felt that the PLL was clearly no longer legislating for virtue but had sold out to dangerous elements. However this was a story that the Free Trade or Reform Party Orangemen had difficulty in selling to the local rank and file in the lodges.

The Reid government had failed to deliver on a wide range of reforms that were widely supported in the local community. These issues ranged from safety in mines legislation through to old age pensions. Clearly, to many working class Loyal Orange members, Reid was not legislating for virtue either. The local parliamentarians had read their electorates well. In most cases there was no doubt about the MP’s personal commitment to causes supported by the LO lodges. David Watkins, MLA for Wallsend, and soon to be MHR for Newcastle, was an active member of the Independent Order of Good Templars21, a leading temperance group. John Estell, MLC and soon to replace Watkins as Wallsend MLA, was for at least part of his adult life in the LOI22 and always remained on good terms with the organisation. Alf Edden, MLA for Kahibah, attended events such as the Loyal Orange annual picnic where he gave firm assurances as to his attitude on public education.23 Even if Alf enjoyed his ale there was enough in common to retain the support of the bulk of LO members. They stayed in the PLL and fought to shape it to their ideas.

An early test came with the Boer War and here the clash was with Arthur Griffith, MLA for Waratah. Griffith was the only local Labor parliamentarian who was not an ex-coal miner. He had been a school teacher and an active member of the Australian Socialist League in Sydney prior to serving in Parliament. As with his friend WM Hughes, he advocated a ‘nationalist’ as distinct from ‘imperialist’ concept in defence. He was also heir to a radical tradition of support for a citizens’ militia in contrast to a permanent army available to the state. Griffith was a fierce critic of the British in South Africa. His support of a pro-peace petition in January 1902 infuriated many Orangemen and women. Richard Tyson presided at a protest meeting of 150 PLL members from the Kahibah electorate.24 Alf Edden MLA and Dave Watkins MHR publicly condemned Griffith during a series of district wide protests.25 Griffith fought back. He published an anti-Boer-War pamphlet written by the British radical John Hobson. His supporters also rallied and at the Northern District Assembly of the PLL the numbers were very even. The assembly voted to condemn the petition by seven to five26 but also declined to be involved in the public meetings called to censure Griffith. This vote was also seven to five.27 As the Rev R.M Bowles, sometime district chaplain to the LO lodges, was very much involved in these protests we can see that the LOI was not without influence inside the PLL on this matter.

Obviously there were some issues where the LO lodges could not speak as a voice for the local majority and others where it could, and one of these was craft unionism. Two incidents serve to illustrate this. Firstly throughout 1907 the miners’ lodges voted on the adoption of the IWW preamble for a new state-wide miners’ union then being formed. Peter Bowling, the district president and militant socialist, spoke at many lodges for this proposal. His opponents included many LOI members who were unhappy with this new concept of industrial unionism and its emphasis on class warfare. Among the most vocal critics was Dave Watson who argued that arbitration and state legislation were crucial to the miners and who maintained the continuing validity of the slogan ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’.28 The industrial unionists lost the district vote by 3,900 to 2,154.29

The second incident was the Peter Bowling strike of 1909-10 which revealed just how much a part of the local labour movement the LOI members were. This strike involved some 10,000 miners for upwards of three months. It was one of Australia’s major industrial disputes and as such it is often wrongly characterised as a radical-inspired initiative. Under a series of management assaults on working conditions in an industry facing increased competition from oil, the mine workers fought a defensive general strike. While the strike was defeated, the sheer degree of solidarity displayed by the miners meant that the employers could not carry their agenda. Such a defensive strike could ensure the full and active participation of LOI members despite the fact that Northern miners’ leader Peter Bowling was a Roman Catholic.30

There was no evident sectarianism during this strike. At Adamstown, William Littlefair, a Sir Knight of the RBP and member of the miners’ delegate board, moved the strike resolution. Littlefair did so with regret but pointed to the near unanimity of the delegate board.31 Like Bowling, Littlefair went to gaol for his part in the active leadership of this strike.32 At Kurri, Dave Watson provides another example of an Orangeman in the local union leadership. Watson was also on the delegate board. He helped organise local relief committees, he raised funds and he spoke at rallies, as did his wife. Late in January 1910, ten weeks into the strike, the combined Loyal Orange lodges of Kurri and Weston marched in a ‘strike procession’ with full regalia to a local park where a free picnic was provided for the children of striking miners.33 These examples can be multiplied throughout the miners’ lodges.

While many of the Protestant clergy were cool and cautious towards the strike there was still no lack of solidarity. Alderman R. Webber (LOL 132) was vocal in moves to have local councils organise relief for strikers’ families.34 In the local cooperative stores there was no question of withholding aid. At least two directors of the Newcastle and Suburban Cooperative were LOI members. Both voted to give credit to the miners through their union lodges.

The strike’s defeat had a devastating impact on Bowling’s career. Dave Watson was judged to be a better leader for difficult times. He was elected President of the district union by a rank and file vote in December 1910. He stressed the legal possibilities open to the miners, namely arbitration and electoral success for the PLL. Dave went on to become a PLL Senator in 1914. Watson was a Baptist lay preacher and frequently used the words ‘come let us reason together’. The central demand of the Bowling strike had been for an open conference with the employers to discuss grievances while the men remained on strike. Watson and many lodge activists, who had no trouble with that aim, did not accept that the workers and the employing class had nothing in common. Both Watson and the LOI members continued to argue their case and to participate in the factional disputes of the labour movement.

The subsequent influence of the Loyal Orange lodges is another story. However I would suggest that it is impossible to understand how the Labor Party in Newcastle handled the challenges of World War I, conscription, the Irish Rebellion, the 1917 Railway Strike and the Russian Revolution without paying some attention to the Loyal Orange lodges, their origins, traditions and methods of operation.


Newcastle Morning Herald (NMH), 15/7/1907.
NMH, 16/4/1907.
NMH, 21/8/1905.
NMH, 16/5/1908.
NMH, 25/4/1904.
NMH, 18/7/1907.
NMH, 30/3/1907.
NMH, 22/8/1903.
NMH, 27/10/1906.
NMH, 25/4/1904.
NMH, 30/10/1906.
NMH, 24/8/1906.
NMH, 16/7/1907.
NMH, 5/7/1905.
1904 Electoral Roll.
NMH, 15/12/1905.
NMH, 10/5/1907.
NMH, 20/4/1907.
NMH, 15/7/1907.
20.McEwen,E., ‘The Newcastle Coal Mining District of NSW 1860-1900’, PhD thesis, University of Sydney, 1979.
NMH, 23/2/1893.
NMH, 12/6/1886.
NMH, 27/12/1902.
NMH, 11/2/1902.
NMH, 20/2/1902 & 24/2/1902.
NMH, 3/3/1902.
NMH, 17/2/1902.
NMH, 21/8/1907 & 23/11/1907 & 3/12/1907.
The People, 14/3/1908.
Nairn, B, & Serle, G. (eds.), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol.7, Melbourne University Press, 1979, 364.
NMH, 8/11/1909.
NMH, 5/4/1910.
NMH, 7/1/1910.
NMH, 27/11/1909