Edgar Ross and Broken Hill

John Shields

The son of socialist journalist, S. R. (Bob) Ross, and younger brother of union leader, Lloyd Ross, Edgar was, without doubt, one of the most significant and controversial Australian labour movement intellectuals of the twentieth century. My purpose, though, is not to reflect on the totality of Edgar’s life of activism – for I cannot claim to have anything other than a rudimentary knowledge of the full canvass of his life. Rather, I want to reflect on the one phase of his life about which I do have some understanding, namely the decade which he spent working as a labour journalist and activist in the mining town of Broken Hill between 1925 and 1935. For both Edgar and Broken Hill, this was a decade of remarkable significance.

For Edgar, it was the decade of his ‘20s, with all that that signifies in terms of emotional and political maturation. For Broken Hill, the decade from 1925 marked the final passing of the era of syndicalist militancy (which RS Ross had helped to usher in twenty years before) and a turn to militant economism and localism overseen by union moderates and the increasingly powerful Barrier Industrial Council (the BIC), formed in 1923. For both Edgar and the Broken Hill labour movement, it was a decade of tension and transition. In a very real sense, they changed together during these years – though, as it happened, their political trajectories diverged dramatically. I’d like to explore this decade-long relationship, firstly by giving you a brief narrative account of Edgar’s 10-year odyssey in Broken Hill; and then by offering an assessment of the relationship: What impact did Edgar have on Broken Hill? What impact did Broken Hill have on Edgar? As he remarked in the opening lines of his autobiography:

The place – and its people – which undoubtedly had the greatest influence in determining the outline of my life, politically, socially, and in character building was … Broken Hill…

How did person and place shape one another’s identity, outlook and agency at this moment in time?

A Broken Hill Childhood
This, of course, was not Edgar’s first sojourn in Broken Hill. He spent the first four years of his life there with his parents and elder brother Lloyd between 1904 and 1908. In fact he should have been born there, but wasn’t. He was born in Brisbane – on 20 November 1904. The year before, Bob Ross had relocated his family to Broken Hill when he had been appointed editor of the local labour movement newspaper, the bi-weekly Barrier Truth. But his mother, Ethel, had apparently baulked at giving birth in such a primitive place and ‘fled’ back to the security of her native Brisbane to give birth to her second child.

Presumably, though, Edgar was conceived in Broken Hill – and this may have been the reason why his parents decided to call him Edgar Argent – since Argent (French for silver) was the name of Broken Hill’s main street and its main thoroughfare for union street processions.

It was an eventful infancy! RS’s tenure as editor of the Barrier Truth was short-lived. The paper was owned by the Barrier Branch of the Australian Labor Federation and its biggest shareholder was the local branch of the Amalgamated Miners’ Association (AMA), the largest of the Broken Hill mining unions. Ross was ousted from the editorship in late 1905 on the vote of the AMA rank-and-file. At that stage, the AMA membership was predominantly Methodist and the cause of his removal was his advocacy of birth control and the violation of the Sabbath by holding pubic political meetings on the day. His outspokenness triggered a joint campaign against him by the Protestant Ministerial Association and the Catholic clergy.

But there were successes as well: RS helped found the Barrier Socialist Party and the Barrier Social Democratic Club. He published the Club’s paper, The Flame, positioning it as a more radical alternative to the Truth (which in 1908 became the nation’s first daily labour paper.) Perhaps his greatest contribution to local consciousness-raising though was his work as local municipal librarian. The shelves of the town’s free lending library were stacked with thousands of radical works.

In November 1908, the Rosses left Broken Hill for Melbourne where RS was to take up the secretaryship of the VSP and the editorship of its paper, The Socialist. Edgar was just four years old, so the influence of this first encounter with Broken Hill must be seen as largely vicarious – that is, internalised indirectly via the other members of the family. What we can say is that for Bob Ross himself, the pre-war Broken Hill experience left an indelible mark. According to Edgar’s biography, RS:

Had an enduring love of the Barrier, not only its militant industrialism but the very atmosphere of the city, with its easygoing hospitality that became legendary. He loved, too, the sprawling outback … the rolling saltbush plains, invaded here and there by red sand-dunes, cut by dry creek beds sprouting majestic swamp gums, the stark gorges that frames the landscape.2

A Melbourne Education
After a two-year stint in New Zealand in 1911-13 (where RS edited the
Maoriland Worker), the family returned to Melbourne. There, Edgar attended Fairfield Public School, then to the selective University High School, where he edited the school paper and displayed a penchant for debating, music and the stage. He dabbled in the theatre and music, but politics was never far from centre-stage. He enrolled in the People’s Conservatorium (run by Annie and Dr Stuart Mackay), attended the VSP’s Socialist Sunday School, and rubbed shoulders with Adela Pankhurst, Dick Long and others on Yarra Bank during the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916 and 1917. He also wrote book reviews for The Socialist (Melbourne) and serving as sporting editor for the Geelong Industrial Advocate, both of which were edited by his father. By now the political die was well and truly cast.

During the war years, the Rosses maintained their links with Broken Hill. RS returned briefly in 1915 to act as relieving editor of BDT. This was the year in which the underground miners won the first of two extraordinary industrial victories – a 44 hour week. The second – a 35 hour week – came as consequence of the 18-month long ‘Big Strike’ of 1919-20.

Rather than follow Lloyd into university, though, Edgar decided to take up journalism full time and in 1922 became a cadet journalist at the conservative Melbourne Argus, where he joined the Australian Journalists’ Association. Sacked at the end of the cadetship in 1924, he worked briefly on the staff of Will Smith, the left-wing Secretary of the Victorian Branch of the Australian Railways Union, and then, equally briefly as a journalist and printer’s offsider for Webb’s Reporter(Footscray).

Back to the Barrier
Then, in 1925, aged 20, he accepted a position as a sub-editor of the
Barrier Daily Truth, now owned and published by the AMA’s successor, the Barrier Branch of the Workers Industrial Union of Australia (WIUA).

The Broken Hill to which he returned was a very different place to that in which the Rosses had moved 20 years before. The ‘Big Strike’ of 1919-20 had delivered the miners their greatest ever victory – a 35 hour working week for the underground miners and a generous compensation scheme for all mine workers affected by industrial disease. But, for the WIUA syndicalists, victory came at a high price. George Kerr, undoubtedly their best strategist, lost the presidency to a moderate. His charismatic associate, Percy Brookfield, was shot dead in 1921. The 1921-22 recession stalled underground re-employment and gutted union membership, leaving the radicals’ old adversaries – the craft unions – in a much stronger position. Forced to compromise, the WIUA joined with the largest of the craft bodies, the Engine-Drivers, to reinstitute a closed shop on the mines by means of quarterly badge show days. Then in 1923 the craft unions invited the WIUA to join their own peak body, the Broken Hill Trades and Labour Council, on their terms. This the WIUA eventually did, but only after the forced absorption of its underground rival, the Trades and Trades Labourers Union. The absorption of this moderate union served to undermine the WIU radicals further still. The new peak body, with the WIUA on board was known as the Barrier Industrial Council.

By mid-1924, the BIC had consolidated its authority within the local union movement, and under the leadership of Paddy O’Neill had begun a process which would see economism and extra-arbitral peak level collective bargaining become the defining features of local union strategy. O’Neill himself was an ex-miner, a night soil carter and the leader of the local Municipal Employees Union. He was militant and strategically savvy but staunchly Catholic and anti-socialist. In early 1925, under O’Neill’s guidance, the BIC finalised a triennial mines agreement with the mining companies – the first of many to come. Emblematic of the turn to economism, the 1925 agreement also provided for a profitsharing scheme in the form of a bonus linked to the global lead price – the so-called ‘lead bonus’.

At the same time, O’Neill’s BIC moved to unionise the town workforce – and along the way to reshape the local working population in the image of O’Neill’s own brand of Catholic social conservatism. Married women were removed from all paid employment and the ideal of the male breadwinner enshrined in local union policy.

This was the Broken Hill to which the young and idealistic EAR returned in 1925. In farewelling him, RS’s advice was to beware of the town’s predatory women who, he said, had a reputation for ‘aggressiveness’!

Working for the Barrier Daily Truth

It was the wrong advice altogether. Edgar would have been better advised to be alert to the fact that his appointment to the staff of the BDT had made him the object of an intense political and personal squabble.

There to meet him at the station was his sponsor, Paddy Lamb, an old friend of Ross’s father. Lamb was a founding member of the Communist Party. He was also a WIUA delegate to the Central Council of the Miners’ Federation and had actually championed the WIUA’s reluctant move to closer unity with the local craft unions via the BIC. He was also brother-in-law of WE Dickson, manager of the BDT. Lamb had engineered EAR’s appointment in the face of opposition from the paper’s editor, one-time IWW activist Ernest Wetherell. To add fuel to the fire, Dickson and Wetherell were evidently rivals for the hand of Lamb’s activist sister-in-law, Alice Cogan. (The Cogan’s were one of the blue-blood families of Broken Hill radicalism). Wetherell himself had a formidable intellect and, to Dickson’s dismay, simply revelled in the possibility of liable action by those he targeted. Wetherell was also a stayer and survivor- editing the paper until his entry into State parliament in 1949.

When Ross arrived at the BDT office, Wetherell accused him of being a plant to usurp his job and showed him the door. Despite the inauspicious beginning, the two eventually settled into a business-like and even close working relationship, but with Ross cast firmly in the role of subordinate and subaltern. For the first few years, he spent most of his time on court- and race-reporting and writing theatre, film and book reviews.

As a denizen of town doings, he witnessed first hand the BIC’s drive to unionise the non-mine workforce and to impose a closed shop, using the weapon of the blacklist and the consumer boycott. He also witnessed some of the more ham-fisted efforts to enforce union rules in town employment. For instance, the town was almost bought to a stand-still when the owner of a local dance hall (the Palais de Danse) refused to sack a banjo player who he had employed in contravention of the Musicians Union’s seniority list. On another occasion, while standing in for Wetherell, he was hauled before the WIUA for refusing to publish a decision by the local unemployed organisation declaring a pub ‘black’ because it employed a married women in contravention of union policy. The union found in his favour, arguing that only unions could impose such a ban.

‘Agitprop’ – the Militant Minority Movement & WEA
Under Wetherell’s influence, Ross’s political affiliations were directed towards the Labor Party, of which he became a member automatically on taking out membership of the WIUA. He held dual membership of the AJA and the WIUA.) From about 1928 on Ross also assumed a greater role in producing BDT editorials, standing in when Wetherell was otherwise occupied.

This, though, was also the period of the Ryan-Kavanagh leadership in the CPA, with its solidarist approach to the Labor Party and its emphasis on agitprop-agitation and propagandising within the existing labour movement. Ryan, Norman Jeffery and other CP activists visited Broken Hill in 1927-28 and encouraged the formation in 1928 of a local Militant Minority Movement. Ross was a willing adherent. He joined the local MMM, became one of its principal public speakers and served as president in 1929. He seems to have forged a good working relationship with the Movement’s main local militant, Harry Kelly. Like Paddy Lamb, Kelly had deep roots in the Broken Hill labour movement. He was an old Wobbly and had been a close associate of Percy Brookfield. Like Lamb, he seems to have been something of a mentor to Ross. Initially, the MMM also enjoyed good relations with the local unions, and had persuaded the BIC to sponsor local May Day celebrations. At Lamb’s urging, Ross also became active in the WEA, serving as local secretary and earning the epithet ‘WEA Ross’. He also played a part in getting the BIC to support the International Class War Prisoners Association.

Taking on the Splitters
Between 1927 and 1929 the WIUA itself also came under serious challenge from within. While the exact motives for this internal challenge remain unclear, its chief public instigator was one Richard Gully. Gully had arrived in Broken Hill from SA about the same time as Ross, was a Boer War veteran, had links with the Nationalist Party, the Returned Soldiers Association, and (it seems) with the owners of Broken Hill’s anti-labour paper, the Barrier Miner. Ross himself refers to Gully as an ‘agent provocateur’ and the circumstantial evidence suggests that this is a reasonable assessment.

Gully worked on the mines, joined the WIUA and proceeded to build a support base among the rank and file by running an anti-foreign labour line directed mainly at southern European immigrants. Gully made two unsuccessful attempts defeat the incumbent WIUA president, Dick Quintrell. Quintrell was of the Labor left and is, in my view, one of the unsung heroes of the Broken Hill labor movement. In was in the context of this anti-foreign fracas that Ross made his debut as a pubic speaker in Broken Hill, supporting a determined effort by Quintrell and Wetherell to stave off the racial exclusionists. In the end, Gully made a tactical blunder in calling for a complete closure of the mines until all ‘foreigners’ were sacked.

Gully, though, made two further attempts to destabilise the WIUA. When the union imposed a 12.5% levy in support of the coalminers during the lockout on the Northern coal fields in 1929, Gully and his supporters mounted a campaign of opposition to the levy, but were again rebuffed. Again, Ross and his comrades in the MMM rose to the challenge, and on this occasion they, rather than Quintrell and company, made the running. Significantly, Ross was of the view that Quintrell and company buckled under the pressure and that it was the MMM which won the day. This may be rather too self-congratulatory a reading of the episode, but it is not without foundation.

Gully’s final grab for power took the form of an attempt to drum up support amongst the local unemployed. Gully had figured in the formation of a local unemployed organisation in 1927 and in 1930 he attempted unsuccessfully to take control of the organisation from Labor moderates.

Third Periodism and Beyond
The rise of Third Period separatism in the CPA under Moxon-Miles-Sharkey posed a major dilemma for Ross. Between 1930 and 1933 he walked an ideological tightrope between the new dispensation in the MMM and his ties to the local unions and the Labor Party.

By 1930, the amicable relations which the MMM had enjoyed with the Broken Hill unions had collapsed. In late 1929 the BIC, at the instigation of the craft unions, declared that the MMM had no place in Broken Hill. In 1930 CPA militants and the BIC organised rival May Day celebrations. Significantly, Ross and Kelly chose to speak at the BIC celebration.

By this time, there was a new group of hard-line CPA cadres on the local scene – W.J. Thomas, S.J Coombe, W. Axelby and others – supporters of the Moxon-Miles-Sharkey leadership. There is some evidence that this group may have been orchestrated by Herbert Moore (aka Harry Wicks), now known to have been an intelligence plant.) The Thomas group made their own bid for control of the local unemployed movement, but the Labor moderates, backed by the BIC, retained the upper hand. Thomas also used allegations of sexual impropriety in an unsuccessful effort to discredit the leadership of the largest of the town sector unions, the Town Employees Union.

Ross, though, remained true to the Labor moderates, publicly attacking the communists’ sectarianism. In reality, he had little choice but to adhere to his union connections. The WIUA was, after all, his employer! For his trouble, Ross was denounced by Thomas and company as a ‘social fascist’ in the CPA paper Workers Weekly. Thomas was a very shadowy and erratic figure. A one-time socialist journalist from Brisbane, he was expelled from the Australian Socialist Party in 1921 and, in 1923, made the improbable allegation that he had been offered a bribe by a prominent anti-Labor politician to fabricate evidence that the Communist Party was plotting violent revolution.

Incidentally, one of their most successful tactics was the so-called ‘breaking into gaol’ campaign. This involved acts of civil disobedience by the unemployed designed to flood the local lock-up as a protest against the parsimonious treatment of the unemployed by the newly-elected Stevens-Bruxner government.

However, Ross and his colleagues were powerless to stop one of the most fateful decisions ever made by the Broken Hill unions – the WIUA’s decision in 1931 to close its books permanently against ‘outsiders’. The introduction of a residential qualification for union membership (and hence a local job) signalled the town’s final retreat from the wider solidarity and internationalism which the syndicalists had once championed. The miners has rejected Gully’s blatant racism but embraced another, more subtle form of social exclusion.

With the fog of Third Periodism lifting, Ross finally joined the Communist Party as an ‘undercover’ member in 1933. With the end of Third Periodism, he launched out on a new round of local broad-left activism. With teacher and future communist activist, Bill Gollan, and brother Lloyd, he injected new life into the local scene. Amongst other things, the group organised ‘Summer School’ on local Aboriginal culture at Mootwingee. He was prominent in the formation of a local Anti-War Council. This included progressive members of the local clergy, though the relationship was not without its tensions. There was his involvement in the Movement Against War and Fascism. As elsewhere, the MMM provided the basis for the emergence of rank-and-file job committees in 1933-34 and Ross was a significant part in this process. He edited the CP’s local rank-and-file bulletin, The Line of Lode, also called The Plod. By 1935 there were underground job committees at all of the major mine sites, with the committees looming as a serious alternative to the existing union structures and a direct threat to the power of the BIC. This involvement brought Ross into contact with the leading figures the local job committee movement, including AR (Floss) Campbell.

With Wetherell showing no signs of relinquishing the BDT editorship, Ross’s journalistic career prospects in Broken Hill remained extremely limited. It was logical, therefore, that Ross, now with a young family to support, should seek out a larger role elsewhere. His opportunity came in mid-1935, when he was invited to edit the revived version of the Miners’ Federation journal, Common Cause by the Federation’s newly elected communist leaders, Bill Orr and Charles Nelson. The other front-runner for the post, Esmonde Higgins, had equally solid labour movement credentials, but Orr favoured Ross, while Communist Party leader Lance Sharkey was also evidently impressed by Ross’s editorialising in the BDT. Ross accepted, relocated his family to Sydney to take up the post and held the position until his retirement in 1966.

1935 was a turning point for Broken Hill as well as for Ross. In his final months in the town, the BIC negotiated a new agreement with the companies which reversed the losses which the mine workers had incurred during the depression and introduced a far more generous lead bonus. At the same time, the BIC moved to co-opt the burgeoning job committees by incorporating them into the agreement as adjuncts of the existing unions.

Ross’s parting observations indicate a strong unease with these developments – and remarkable prescience:

Lack of action industrially, the absence of struggle, the getting of things too easily, have lulled the workers of Broken Hill into a feeling of security which one day will stand starkly revealed as false. Attributable largely to past militancy, the comparative success in maintaining conditions in the worst trough of the capitalist crisis has been at the expense of present militancy…. The business of unionism to-day is being carried on by a mere handful … Unionism has become institutionalised as a formal part of the daily routine instead of being a live, aggressive, expanding force, while the policy of closed books … give it the aspect of a sort of free-masonry and lull its leaders into a false idea of solidarity.3

And this:

Did we force from the mining companies recognition of unionism to make or unions mere formal machinery for the collection of union dues and to facilitate class-collaboration? Did we see non-union labor crushed merely to guard unionism so zealously as to erect barriers between members of the working class and create scab armies? Can it be that in militantly rejecting open Mussenism we have allowed a more insidious welfarism to creep into our industrial relationships? Can it be that in crushing, reactionary attempts to raise national and racial barriers we have allowed the self-same principle to become part and parcel of our union’s life?4

It was not a wholly amicable separation!

The Private Sphere
Amid all of this, though, Ross still found time to pursue other, more intimate interests. On these counts, at least, his years in Broken Hill were wholly felicitous. In 1928 he became publicity office for a newly-formed repertory group. Here he met Patricia Josephine (Tess) McLauchlan. A miner’s daughter and dancer, Tess was herself from an activist family, her mother having been a Labor Volunteer Army activist with Brookfield in WWI. The pair married in 1929 after an 18-month courtship, honeymooning at Mootwingee. With Tess and others, Ross also formed The Realist Players, staging several successful plays, including an adaptation of Thressall’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. Broken Hill was also the birthplace of their two children: Robert (1931) and Fleur (1934).

Despite Broken Hill’s remoteness, family links were maintained. Brother Lloyd visited in 1928 and again in 1933. Bob Ross also kept up his links with Broken Hill until the end. He revisited in 1928 as relieving editor of BDT. He returned in failing health in 1931 to bid farewell, dying in Melbourne that September. Edgar also entertained an unlikely taste for speed, buying a succession of fast cars, one of which he rolled on a return trip from Melbourne – with wife and mother aboard.

Person, Place and Moment: A Summation
So what conclusions might be drawn about Ross’s ten-year relationship with Broken Hill?

In terms of his impact on Broken Hill, it must be said that he was not a main player in the local labour movement. He was essentially a gifted (and perhaps frustrated) subaltern. He was, after all, only 30 when he left Broken Hill. What can be said of his time there is that he supported the cause of union solidarism against both the racist splitters and the Third Period sectarians. As an editorial understudy, he freed the more experienced Wetherell to take on the splitters in public. He maintained his father’s emphasis on literary pursuits and consciousness raising, especially via his interest in drama and the WEA. He also assisted in the emergence of job committees.

How was he himself affected by his Broken Hill experience? Clearly, the experience reinforced his militancy, informed his Marxism and drove his eventual move into the Communist Party. There was also the benefit of three activist mentors: Paddy Lamb, Ern Wetherell and Harry Kelly. And then there was his marriage to a local and the birth of his children. However, it is clear that the Broken Hill experience also fostered disillusionment with Laborism and union economism and narrowness and it was this which finally propelled him into the Communist Party. Broken Hill radicalised Ross at the very moment that the town itself appeared to be turning away from radicalism and turning in on itself. Why, then, did he persist for so long? A series of historical feature pieces on Broken Hill unionism which he published in the BDT in 1933 and 1935 may hold the answer. One remark, in particular, may explain his lingering attachment to the place:

the militant outlook in Broken Hill has been more influential than in most places, and the moderate outlook probably more militant…5


  1. Ross, E.A. (1993) ‘Edgar Argent Ross. His Life’, unpublished typescript, p.1. Much of the information in this piece is drawn from this document.
  2. Ross, E.A. (1988), These Things Shall Be! Bob Ross. Socialist Pioneer – His Life and Times, Mulavon Publishing, West Ryde, p.68
  3. Common Cause, 9 Nov. 1935
  4. BDT 18 Sept 1933
  5. BDT 8 Sept 1933