Frank Anstey: Living History

Peter Love

Dr. Love has kindly given The Hummer permission to publish the following edited version of the text of the presentation which he delivered at the Sydney Branch’s seminar on Labour Biography held during History Week in September 2002.

After retiring from the Melbourne-based House of Representatives seat of Bourke in 1934, Frank Anstey moved to Sydney and bought a block of flats on Campbell Parade, Bondi. There, with his ailing wife Kate, he settled into the daily routines of life in a city that had been part of his youth. He supervised the flats, enjoyed an occasional drink in his local pub, attended Labor Party branch meetings and walked on the beach. He seemed, at last, to have reached a point in life where he might be able to cope with Kate’s illnesses and enjoy some modest repose in his declining years. But his yarns at the pub and branch meetings, even the quiet moments contemplating the sea reminded him of unfinished business with his past. In an effort to make peace with himself, he wrote his memoirs.

He started with the Scullin government, in which he was Minister for Health and Repatriation until March 1931 when he was dumped from the Ministry for supporting Jack Lang’s revolt against Niemeyer’s deflationary fiscal orthodoxy.2 The memoir began in his customary polemical style recounting significant moments in the Scullin government’s progress to political oblivion.3 There was a jaunty irony in the early passages along with a certain generosity to old adversaries like Stanley Melbourne Bruce and Ted Theodore, but with each episode in the government’s disintegration his voice modulated to a querulous, then increasingly bitter tone. Towards the end his language turned to rage, declaring that, among its numerous acts of political apostasy, in shifting its policy from inflation to defl.ation between November 1930 and August 1931, the government had ‘swallowed its vomit’, and that Scullin was ‘never anything more than [a] “pitiable cipher”, a mere jumping jack to the Bank Board’.4 By then, coming to terms with his past had become a settling of old scores, and he was not taking prisoners. Finally, railing against the ungrateful ‘crowds’ in his near defeat at the 1931 electoral landslide, his emotional roller coaster came to a halt in a mire of maudlin resignation:

There were many men in Parliament older than myself but I decided I was finished – not again would I be a candidate. The worldly hopes I had set my heart upon had turned to ashes and everything was sour in the mouth. There was no prospect that if Labor returned to office, with all-requisite power, it would be any different to its competitors. It was only the difference between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Both sides, when out of power, promised what they never meant to perform when in power nothing fundamental was changed. It was time to go. I had become an annoyance to all sane, sensible Labor men, so I selected obscurity and left the limelight and dollars to wiser and more saintly men.5

There was, after all, nothing that ‘an honest man’ could do but wait for the day ‘when forces more powerful than himself make for change’ because:

The forces of the world do not threaten – they operate. The great tides of the world do not give notice that they are going to rise and run – they rise in their might and those who stand in their way are overwhelmed. 6

But it was not just him. It was the melancholy fate of all mortals to be swept along on the tides of calamity, and it was ever thus.

At various times between 1935 and 1939 he scratched out a series of vignettes drawn from European history. 7 Henry V’s victory at Agincourt was not an heroic triumph, but a brutal slaughter in which more men died from disease and pestilence than in combat. Joan of Arc and Savonarola were religious fanatics who eventually succumbed to the treachery of popes and princes. The Franciscans began as a religious order but soon grew into a ruthlessly efficient business enterprise. The great medieval universities were not dignified halls of learning but refuges for ruffians and criminals. A contemplation on the two statues of Charles I and Cromwell in London was the occasion for an essay on the blind, reactionary violence of the mob in history. In Anstey’s usual way, these and all the other tendentious sketches that he wrote in the mid-1930s were constructed as political parables. At this stage of his life, however, they had lost the engaging didactic subtlety of his earlier works. The satire was rough and clumsy, the irony leaden, the wit bitter and raw. It was clear that his belief in the historical inevitability of social progress had slipped into a dystopian pessimism, and that his expansive humanism had given way to an acerbic misanthropy. Not all his ruminations, however, were suffused with such unrelieved despondency.

As Anstey looked across the ocean from Campbell Parade, his thoughts drifted back to a youth at sea in the Pacific and, from there, to his childhood in England. He wrote a brief memoir of both. 8 His recollections of childhood were particularly significant. There is an interesting interplay between the old man and the child in both the prose and the narrative structure of the memoir. Addressed to posterity under the title ‘Now I am Dead’, it began by locating his forebears in Devon with references to the origins of the family name in Roman times and, later, in the Domesday Book. It is there, in north Devon, near the town of Witheridge on a family farm that he recalled his first childish impressions of farms and family, animals and outings, of villages, landscapes bearing the eerie marks of antiquity and Anstey gravestones in the village churchyard. Although he was born in London, he had been given to relatives at an early age while his recently widowed mother re-established her life. When she reclaimed him after her marriage to a one-legged ostler he remembered the direct, sensory experiences of childhood during a trip north to join his new stepfather at a construction camp on the Settle to Carlisle railway extension. He recalled, in sharp, almost cinematic focus, episodic glimpses of childhood as the family walked from job to job throughout the North and Midlands. The rough life of railway navvies, the glories of the English landscape in summer, the privations and intimacies of working class life in a mining village, stealing apples from a picturesque orchard and the tempestuous personality of his step-father were all relived through the acute eyes of the child. The old man’s didactic, authorial voice, however, intruded more sombre allusions to the drab poverty and quiet desperation of itinerant working class lives. In recalling his childhood as he contemplated his death, he thought of England in all its gentle beauty, and its squalid misery; of a ‘green and pleasant land’ and of ‘dark satanic mills’. The old man who faced oblivion in the vast indifference of a secular universe contented himself with a memoir of childhood that was conjured by a romantic imagination. 9

His family finally settled in the London dock-side suburb of Silvertown from where, in an act of youthful rebellion at the age of thirteen, he stowed away on the clipper Melbourne, eventually landing at Millers Point, Sydney. From there, he was taken on as a cabin boy and began what his memoir later called ‘A Life on the Ocean Wave’ that took him around the south west Pacific.10 He later became a seaman, working mainly on the coastal trade between Sydney and northern Queensland. During this period he kept a commonplace book that charts the contours of his adolescent imaginative life and his dawning political consciousness. The works he chose to copy encompassed erotic verse, bawdy doggerel, stanzas of earnest Romantic poetry along with biographical fragments about heroic political figures from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Towards the end of the book he took a closer interest in the irreverent anticlericalism and truculent nationalism of the Sydney Bulletin and the emerging labour movement.11

In the middle of his political career he remade this period of his life into a series of ‘ripping yams’ that owed as much to his readings of his friend Louis Becke’s South Seas adventure novels as it did to his maritime experience. They became part of his public persona, reinforcing the aura of the dynamism and worldliness that he was so careful to cultivate as complimentary to his vigorous, quixotic political style. Some of the more extravagant stories were unlikely, but plausible, accounts of how he came close to death in raging seas, was assaulted by brutal officers or, in one case, sailed with the pirate Bully Hayes on his last voyage.12 But the accuracy of the stories he told in mid-career, or in his memoirs later in life is less important than the way in which, by the telling and retelling, were slowly absorbed from his public persona to his private identity. While he had always preferred galloping hyperbole to pedestrian veracity, towards the end it was difficult to tell whether Anstey could any longer distinguish between life and legend.

A similar process seems to have occurred in the case of his most famous work, Red Europe, his dramatic account of the Russian Revolution and the subsequent civil war.13It was a best seller in Australia. The Glasgow edition went well and there is evidence that many thousands were sold on the west coast of the USA in the early 1920s. He told the story of a seismic historical uprising and its brutal aftershocks across the vast expanse of Eurasia. He wrote the book in the same direct, passionate and engaging style that had made him famous as a parliamentary oratorand had drawn large audiences to his public addresses. One of the more interesting dimensions to his account of the revolution was the moral drama that drove the narrative. For Anstey, it was more than the long-awaited revolution of the toiling masses that many on the left had been predicting must eventually come. It was a desperate struggle between the terrible majesty of righteous insurrection and the barbarity of reactionary privilege. It was not only a great moral drama sprawling across the Eurasian continent towards its bloody resolution. Around the globe it fanned a smouldering working class grievance and delivered symbolic redress of every smallinjustice, gratuitous slight or petty tyranny embedded in the wage labourrelationship. It was that great historical moment when centuries of oppression were fmally beginning to crumble against the invincible power of an insurgent humanity. In writing of the revolution in 1919, in describing it to packed meetings during the ‘red dawn’ of the early 1920sand in defending it against its detractors when he wrote his fragmentary sketches in retirement, Anstey was affuming the historicaldestiny of the working class in making the world more equal and decent. An heroic conception of his role in bringing that message to Australian workers had defmed his persona, given meaning and purpose to his exertions and compensated for all the miserable defeats and sordid compromises of a life in parliamentary politics. But when the Labor Party so abjectly surrendered to the Money Power in 1931, and so many of his own people in Bourke at the December election had turned their backs on him, it was more than an electoral rout. It signified the apostasy of a cowardly, selfish mob. After more than thirty years representing them, they had turned against him. It was not just a political reversal, or a personal disappointment; it was the destruction of a faith and the collapse of an identity.

After Kate died he returned to Melbourne and went to live with Harriet Middlecoat in her Brunswick house where, at last, he did appear to find some solace. But it was not to last. Somewhere around 1939 he developed bowel cancer and as his condition worsened, and old comrades and adversaries came to pay their respects, he penned his will and gave his son Daron instructions for his funeral:

When I am dead give my carcase to the undertaker with instructions to have it cremated. There are to be no followers or flowers or praise, prayers or preachers. No burial, death or other advertisement in any paper. Any person who by advertisement gives publicity to my death does so against my wishes and their authority to do so should be repudiated. 14

In preparing for death, he took solace in a smaller, private history as his thoughts returned to the West Country of his ancestors where, with all the tragic resonances of Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge, his imagination fmally came to rest. 15


  1. This paper draws on the following: Peter Love, Frank Anstey: a politicalbiography, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1990; Peter Love, ‘Frank Anstey and the Monetary Radicals’ in R. T. Appleyard and C. B. Schedvin (eds.), Australian Financiers: biographical essays, Melbourne, Macmillan for the Reserve Bank of Australia, 1988; Peter Love, ‘Agents of Transformation: Frank Anstey, Tocsin and the Victorian Labour Federation’ in Jim Hagan and Andrew Wells (eds.), The Maritime Strike: a centenary retrospective. Essays in honourof E. C. Fry, Sydney, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 1992; Peter Love, ‘Frank Anstey and the Russian Revolution’, paper presented at the Australian-Canadian Labour History Conference, University of Sydney, December 1988; Peter Love, ‘Frank Anstey’ in Colin Mathew (ed.), New Dictionary of National Bioaraphy, Oxford, Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2004; and Brian Nugent, ‘Frank Anstey in Victorian Politics’, MA (Hons.) thesis, University of New England, 1973.
  2. There are, in fact, some suggestions that he contributed to the discussions that preceded the announcement of the Lang Plan. On 4 September 1930 the Adelaide Advertiser reported that Anstey was behind Jock Garden’s’repudiation’ motion at a NSW ALP-Union conference. On 7 January 1931 the Labor Daily quoted him as saying that Australia should ‘default and be damned!’ Immediately after Lang announced his plan the Age, Argus and the Sydney Morning Herald all reported speculation that Anstey was involved in its formulation.
  3. From internal evidence, they were written somewhere between August 1935 and August 1936.
  4. Peter Cook, ‘Frank Anstey: Memoirs of the Scullin Government, 1929-1932’, Historical Studies, vo1.18, no.72, April 1979, p.389.
  5. Ibid. p.391.
  6. Ibid p.392.
  7. They are in the Lloyd Ross papers, NLA MS 3939, box added 21 February 1979, folder A
  8. The memoirs are in the Anstey papers, NLA MS4636 and were published,with an introduction by David Potts, in Overland, no.31, March 1965, pp.31-37.
  9. For a more detailed exploration of this memoir see Love, Frank Anstey: a political biography, chapter 1.
  10. See Ibid. chapter 2 and Potts, op. cit.
  11. The commonplace book is in the Anstey papers, NLA 512/3.
  12. The Bully Hayes story is certainly not true. When Hayes was killed in the Pacific, Anstey was an eleven-year-old Sunday school scholar who won a prize for Bible recitation at Silvertown in London. The inscribed book that he was given as his prize is in the E. W. Peters papers in the University of Melbourne Archives. I thank Brian Nugent for pointing this out.
  13. Frank Anstey, Red Europe, Melbourne, Fraser and Jenkinson, 1919. The first edition of September quickly sold out and a second edition was published in November 1919. The Glasgow edition, published by the Socialist Labour Press in 1921, was the one that it was claimed sold so well in both Britain and the USA.
  14. Anstey file, Merrifield collection, Manuscripts, State Library of Victoria. 15. The wording of Michael Henchard’s Will can be found on the penultimate page in any edition of Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge.