The Great War at Branch Level: the Minutes of the Parramatta Labor League, 1916-1918

Sue Tracey

In early 2000 a thick yellowing exercise book turned up on the desk of John Johnson MLC in Parliament House, Sydney. It was the minute book of the Parramatta Labor League for the years 1916 to 1918. This was an exciting find, since very few branch minute books prior to 1940 have survived the tyranny of time.

The minutes of the branch begin on 28th March 1916 in the month following the Parramatta by-election occasioned by the death of the sitting Nationalist member. The Nationalists retained the seat, with an increased vote, against Labor’s Frank Walford.

The minute book reveals that the Branch was convulsed by two major issues at this time: firstly, the bitter debate over conscription and, secondly, an ongoing dispute between the secretary, Eva Tuckwell, and two other league members, Frank Walford and Bill Ely (later MLA for Granville). Ely and Walford were the proprietors of the Cumberland Times from 1913-1918. The only surviving copies from this paper are the strike editions from October 1917. The League minutes indicate that the Cumberland Times was critical of the League and its executive, and on occasion even refused to publish branch notices. Frank Walford accused secretary Tuckwell of circulating a letter in 1914 which was damaging to him and could have had him called before the bar of parliament. Tuckwell denied having circulated any letter and the contents of the alleged letter are not disclosed.

Ructions over Referenda: Conscription and Early Closing
The carnage of the Australian soldiers in 1916 resonates through the minutes. In August/September 1917 the league sends letters of condolence to Mr Chippendale, Mrs Raymond, Mr McKenzie and Mrs Morris. The latter’s son, Private Jack Morris, was 18 years old, Christian Brothers educated and a “Cooee” recruit.

It is the conscription issue which evokes the most interest. Parramatta, then a town surrounded by a number of small farms, voted yes in the referendum. In July 1916 the League was certainly less than whole hearted in its opposition to conscription, as this motion indicates:

That this league while being opposed to the conscription of human life does not agree with the proposed action of the Executive in with holding endorsement to any candidate who advocates conscription. That although conference decided by a large majority for the Executive so to act, we hold that such resolution being an alteration to the pledge should have appeared on the agenda papers according to rule (62) whereas such resolution was carried by a suspension of standing orders for same. (Carried)

At the request of the Central Executive, on 26 September 1916 the branch held a special meeting to launch the anti-conscription campaign. Bill Ely and Eva Tuckwell spoke against conscription and when the vote was held four members supported conscription. Mrs Gallagher, who addressed a public meeting at Lane Cove in support of conscription, tried to resign from the Party but the branch would not accept her resignation and expelled her instead. She tried to have Head Office overturn the expulsion. Mr Shea, Mr Vernon, Mr Colbert and Mr Doe were also expelled over the conscription issue. Mr B J Doe said he had to support conscription because he had a son at the front, while Bill Ely said he had four brothers at the front and ‘that the solidarity of the Party depended on the will of Conference being adhered to’. Shortly afterwards Mr Doe moved to Broken Hill and the League wrote to Barrier Daily Truth explaining that Ald J B Doe who was standing as a Nationalist had been expelled from Parramatta PLL over the conscription issue.

Over the ensuing months, the Parramatta branch’s position on conscription hardened and by December 1916 the League wanted anyone who had been expelled over conscription forever excluded from the leagues and union affiliation.

Temperance and early closing of pubs were also significant issues at this time. The Holman government’s referendum on hotel opening hours failed to resolve the matter and at least one member resigned over the issue. There was a move to have hotels sell non intoxicating drinks only between the hours of 6pm and 11pm. The Parramatta Labor League opposed this, declaring:

Such proposed action, thwarting outcome of referendum on closing times would cause such indignation amongst electors as to seriously endanger the prospects of the Labor Party at the next election.

The League and State Conference
The Party’s ‘Affirmative Action’ policy is reflected in the election of Eva Tuckwell as the ‘lady delegate’ to State Conference. An election debt of £1200 was incurred by the Party following the state and federal elections in 1917 and the General Secretary asked the branches to hold fund raising functions to pay off the debt.

The league sent eleven motions to the 1917 State Conference, including proposals relating to: no pensions for judges; parliamentarians to be paid according to their attendance at parliament; nationalisation of coal mines to be part of the Party’s fighting platform; Patriotic Funds to be more accountable; no parliamentarian to be a delegate to Conference; the permanent expulsion of those who had been expelled over conscription; and a tax to be raised on the unimproved capital value of land. Only three of these motions were debated at Conference and the only motion that was successful was the proposal to tax the unimproved capital value of land.

Meetings and Members
One old member, John Hulyer, claimed that the very first league was formed under a lamp-post at Parramatta and during the war the branch appears to have held its meetings behind a billiard saloon. The leasee charged no rent and, in appreciation, the branch took up a collection to buy him a silver cigarette case. The room was lit by gas and sometime in 1917 one of the members painted the meeting room in the colour of his choice. Towards the end of 1917 there was discussion as to whether more people might attend meetings if it was not necessary to walk through a billiard saloon! The meetings were held weekly except around the times of elections and referenda when it appears that branch meetings were put on hold while the activists campaigned.

Members organised a variety of social activities. They organised a debate on ‘Unification vs Federation’, while one member thought it educative to read a chapter each week of Robert Blatchford’s Britain for the British, a socialist publication written in a naive style. The branch held fund raising Saturday nights at the local picture show, Benningtons, where Mary Pickford starred in silent films and a number of Australian films were also featured. These occasions were not well attended and the league considered discontinuing them.

It is unclear how many members were in the branch. At one particularly well attended meeting there were 31 people present. The membership of the branch included four butchers, three journalists, a teacher, insurance agent, dealer, builder, accountant, labourer, wharfinger, carter, railway guard, signalman, and a reverser driver. Henry Rewell, the branch’s president during 1916, was a teacher, while the secretary, Eva Tuckwell, was a middle aged single woman living with her sister, Clara, and their father, a gardener at the Parramatta Mental Hospital. Both sisters’ occupations are shown as ‘home duties’. Why had they become involved in the Labor Party? Perhaps they had attended the worker self-improvement courses so popular at the time. When Eva and Clara resigned they said:

they had studied economics and political history and were able to put forth extra thought and effort to the problems of the workers.

Miss Tuckwell Declares War
In mid-1917 preselection was called for the State seat of Parramatta. Although there is mention of delegates being credentialled, there is no mention of the ballot, which the minutes report as having been postponed. By August 1917 Jock Garden was the preselected candidate. It appears from the positive way she wrote about him that Eva Tuckwell supported Jock Garden and was hostile to any attempt by Walford to run for the seat. Jock Garden polled 41.09 per cent of the vote, down from Frank Walford’s result in 1916, when he polled 44.13 per cent and in 1913 when he polled 49.02 per cent. At the post-election meeting, the lack of motor cars to deliver supporters to the booths, and the absence of a ‘fair deal’ from the local papers, particularly from the Cumberland Times, were identified as adversely affecting the result. Ely and Walford were asked to show cause as to why they had published anti-Labor articles in their newspaper. In April 1917 Ely stacked the branch by putting up 27 members, including members of his family. At a fiery meeting lasting till after midnight, Ely and Walford admitted to nominating Captain Strachan, the third candidate in the recent election, who polled just 26 votes. By a margin of 17 to 14 the meeting voted in support of what the Cumberland Times had done.

At the next meeting Miss Tuckwell successfully moved that the minutes of the meeting which supported the Cumberland Times not be accepted, because the newspaper’s attitude was really an issue for the Electorate Council. Ely moved dissent and Miss Tuckwell successfully argued that two members must rise in their places for a point of order to be accepted.

Moving not to accept minutes is a declaration of war. There are intimations in the minutes that the neighbouring leagues were talking about the conflict. Ely alleged that meetings planned to be held with Senator Watson were cancelled because no one could contact the local league. Ely also advised Head Office to refer all inquiries to him because the local league was dead. On 26 April a complaint was sent to Head Office. It is unclear from the minutes what was the substance of the complaint. At the branch elections in May Mr Ely refused nomination as president of the branch, for if he had accepted it would have signalled a scaling down of hostilities. By July 1917 the Central Executive had referred the conduct of the branch to the Disputes Committee.

On October 5 the Disputes Committee convened a special meeting of the Parramatta Labor League. There are no minutes of that meeting but clearly secretary Tuckwell lost the battle. On 16 October 1917, Eva Tuckwell, her sister Clara, father William Tuckwell and brother in law, Edward Boxall resigned from the Party, with Eva avowing to continue to work for the principles of Labor.

The Press Men’s Branch
The minutes resume in February 1918 as the Parramatta Branch of the ALP. The Ely/Walford dominated League moved that new standing orders be adopted. There were only two changes: one being that members did not have to stand to move a point of order. The new league continued the picture show fund raising evenings. At this time Labor League members frequently belonged to or ran groups which raised money for hospitals, set up Schools of Arts or agitated for public transport. The branch decided to run a carnival to raise funds for Parramatta District Hospital, Granville Cottage Hospital and St Josephs Hospital. The Parramatta District Hospitals’ Carnival committee was set up and after much discussion it was decided not to put Labor in the title of the organising committee. Mr Slattery, from the League of Wheelmen who had just raised £600 at Concord was given the task of running the event. Auburn, Granville, Lidcombe, Merrylands and Guildford branches were invited to nominate a queen candidate for the carnival. The Parramatta Hospital Carnival ran from 6-13th April. Apparently the government was not satisfied with the way the committee was to distribute the funds and threatened legal action (Walford’s Weekly 14/8/1918). The last item in the minute book is the announcement on 14 March 1918 that Bill Ely’s daughter, Sylvia, was Parramatta League’s entrant in the Queen competition.

In subsequent years, Frank Walford and Eva Tuckwell both became conservatives. Frank Walford moved to Katoomba in 1919 becoming the editor of a local paper as well as writing novels and poetry. During World War Two he served with W.C. Wentworth and came back to the mountains to excoriate his old friends in the ALP and Eleanor and Dr Dark. He was elected to Katoomba Council in 1941, later served on the Blue Mountains Council until 1965, and was mayor on four occasions. Eva Tuckwell became the secretary to UAP federal member, Sir Frederick Stewart, the first Minister for Social Security. She died in 1978.