Henry Boote and the Australian Workers’ Union

Harry Knowles

Only weeks before his death in August 1949, Henry Ernest Boote, Worker editor between 1914 and 1943, wrote that as a young man he had witnessed “the inevitable consequences of an almost uncontrolled system of capital

ist exploitation all around me” as he doled out the few shillings the St Vincent de Paul Society could afford to the slum-dwellers in the city of his birth, Liverpool, England. “My experiences there”, Boote recalled, “made a Socialist of me before I came to understand the theories and teachings of the great Socialist thinkers”.

Henry Boote was arguably the Australian labour movement’s greatest propagandist of the twentieth century. As well as being a staunch advocate of the rights of the worker, Boote’s advice was also sought by prominent leaders of the Australian Labor Party, including the likes of T.J. Ryan, Andrew Fisher, James Scullin and H.V. Evatt. In 1939, T.J. O’Sullivan said of him: “He has been and still is, the Guide, Friend and Counsellor of aspiring parliamentarians, trade union officials and students of the great Australian Labour Party”.

Boote was born into a reasonably well-to-do family of Elizabeth and Joseph Henry Boote in Liverpool, England, on 20 May 1865. His father, on leaving the Army, entered the business world as a clothier thanks to the financial backing of a generous stepfather who bankrolled his stepson’s ventures on two occasions (one thousand pounds each time). According to Henry, the business failed due to his father’s ‘convivial habits’.

Henry took his first job at the age of ten as a ‘printer’s devil’ to help make ends meet. It was at about that age that Boote began reading “serious books, scribbling himself and painting”. He later attended classes in art at the Royal Academy and the British Museum and by the time he was twenty, had sold some of his pictures to an art dealer. The dealer engaged Henry to copy pictures at the Walker Art Gallery and later sent him to Wales to paint “from nature”. The business partnership lasted for only a short time as the dealer left Liverpool for South Africa. As chief breadwinner for the family, Henry returned to his trade.

By the time Henry had reached his early twenties, his family had become less dependent on him and by 1889, he had accumulated sufficient savings to pay his fare to Australia. The day after his arrival in Brisbane, he went to the Trades Hall and presented clearance from his union in Liverpool to the then Secretary of the Queensland Typographical Association, Albert Hinchcliffe. His meeting with Hinchcliffe marked the beginning of a friendship that was to last for decades.

Before long Boote was contributing articles to the Queensland Worker and in 1894 he accepted an invitation to edit the Bundaberg Guardian and embarked on a campaign against the treatment of Melanesian workers which he saw not as an issue of racism but, rather, as a manifestation of class struggle. Within two years, Andrew Fisher, a future Australian prime minister, convinced Henry to become editor of Fisher’s newly launched
Gympie Truth which Fisher was keen to use to strengthen unionism and labour activism. By 1902, Boote had moved on to edit the Queensland
Worker where he remained until he accepted a position as a working journalist with the Australian Worker in 1911 and which he subsequently edited from 1914 until his retirement in 1943.

Somewhat ironically, Boote, a committed socialist with little faith in arbitration or in the effectiveness of parliaments to prevent capitalism’s exploitation of the worker, had become the editor of the official organ of the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU), an institution committed to arbitration and to cornering the market in parliamentary seats for its leadership. Nevertheless, despite periods of tension, the relationship proved a fruitful one for the development of the fledging Australian labour movement.

Boote’s commitment to his early socialist beliefs and individual liberty never wavered. The total support of the AWU leadership he enjoyed in leading the successful campaign against Hughes’ conscription referenda in 1916-17 was unceremoniously withdrawn when Boote initiated his Worker campaign in support of the Industrial Workers of the World and the Sydney ‘Twelve’. When the AWU withdrew its support for the One Big Union campaign a few years later, Boote continued his support through the Worker pages at the risk of dismissal. Tensions again arose in during the 1930s with Boote’s support for the Republican cause in Spain and for the ‘Hands Off Russia” campaign in 1940.

There is no doubt that the AWU leadership afforded Boote a far greater degree of tolerance than it did to others who dissented from union policy or leadership decisions. Throughout his editorship, Boote continued to proselytise his version of evolutionary socialism through the pages of the Worker, a journal owned and funded by an organization which once boasted that it did not believe in ‘isms’. Moreover, when Boote decided the time had come to retire, the then AWU general secretary, Clarrie Fallon, who had probably sought Boote’s counsel as many times as he had demanded his job, begged him to stay on longer.

In one way, Boote and the AWU proved strange bedfellows. In another, perhaps Henry Boote, journalist, editor, artist, poet and labour intellectual and propagandist without peer, was the conservator of institutional cultural values of the AWU and of the broader labour movement, the legacy of the likes of Spence, and Temple and the other founders of the union in the century before.

Boote died in August 1949, sanguine about the emergence of world socialism. Only days before his death he was exhorting the men and women of the coalfields to stand firm against the coercion of capital in the fight for social justice – a clear indication that the images of the slums of Liverpool remained with him until the end.


Spoken by a ‘youthful orator’ in an extract from ‘The Truth Teller’, in Henry Boote’s A Fool’s Talk, The Worker Trustees, 1915, Kindly supplied by Joan Simpson.