The Protestant Independent Labour Party
of NSW, 1923-1929

Tony Laffan

The Labor Party split of 1916-1917 has generally been examined for its impact on the careers of politicians. However it also reveals much about the rank and file Labor voters, both those who stayed and those who switched.

The first major electoral test came in the March 1917 State election. While Labor recaptured many seats from pro-conscriptionists and emerged with much of its voter base intact, there were areas where it was not particularly successful. There were large scale desertions by past Labor voters. The inner Newcasde seats, for example, which had voted against conscription elected three ex-labor parliamentarians.’

Several generalisations can be made about the defecting voters. They were generally protestants such as Methodists, Baptists, Congregationists and Presbyterians. Often their political views were expressed through the Loyal Orange lodges which could draw thousands to their Sydney and Newcasde processions and rallies. In general the defectors could also be described as wowsers. They were unimpressed with the past attitude of the Labor Party on temperance and gambling. During the war they had a partial victory in the 1916 NSW referendum to shorten hotel hours. Likewise they wanted racecourses and boxing to be cut back for the duration and they were hostile to theatres. There were fiercely patriotic. Individual churches which boasted of the numbers of the recruits they had produced. 2

Throughout most communities in NSW there were large numbers ofworking people whose primary loyalty lay with their religious affiliations but who were active in organisations such as unions, benefit societies and consumer co-operatives. The changed Labor Party, with its hint of disloyalty through its opposition to conscription, was no longer a congenial home for a high proportion of the protestants. This state of affairs was to be reinforced by the 1917 General Strike and Labor’s growing acceptance and support for Irish self-government.

In the sectarian form that electoral politics took in the early 1920s the Nationalists started with the advantage of identification. It was the Nationalists who had tried to introduce conscription, who deported disloyalists, and who sought to put Archbishop Mannix into the same category. Irish independence, of course, was seen as a threat to Empire. The 1920 election of a Labor State government produced decisions that horrified some in the ‘God, King and Empire’ brigade. Over 100,000 turned up to a rally in the Domain to defend the Union Jack which Labor wished to replace with the Australian flag, while satanic revolutionaries wanted the Red Flag and the fenians the Green. 3

Yet the Nationalist Party was not necessarily a safe haven for these working class protestants. The Employers’ Federation had a stronger say inside that party than did the Methodist conference. Even a basic concept such as arbitration was at risk as was to be revealed in the 1929 dispute between W. M. Hughes and S. M. Bruce which brought down the Nationalist Federal government. The Nationalists could not be trusted with the basic wage, minimum hours, public service rights and many other key issues affecting working Australians.4 By the early 1920s, the 1917 alliance between a swath of protestant labor voters and the anti-Labor coalition was under considerable strain.

It was during the initial stages of the 1922 New South Wales State election that Walter Skelton announced his intention to stand as an independent protestant candidate for the Newcasde electorate. Skelton was a ‘big man’ in the Loyal Orange lodges and in the Protestant Federation. He had worked throughout the 1917 Great Strike, his union had not called its members out, he was a supporter of the ‘loyalist’ volunteers, and he enjoyed sufficient popularity to be elected employees’ representative on the railway superannuation board.s Skelton was a lay preacher based at the Boolaroo Methodist Church. He had excellent contacts throughout the area through district conferences of his church and was one of the most frequent main speakers at protestant rallies in the Newcasde area throughout 1921.

The electorate that Skelton sought to represent was a five member seat elected on a proportional representation basis. In 1920 it had returned three Labor, one ex-Labor independent and one Nationalist. Skelton had a fair chance of election given the sectarian atmosphere buthe had to differentiate his political supporters from Labor. In this process he was ably assisted by the Reverend J.J. Willings, a Congregationalist minister and a past Grand Worshipful Master of the NSW Loyal Orange Institute who was to be the Nationalist candidate for the Newcasde federal seat in November 1922.

Willings went straight for the jugular. The ALP had endorsed two clear protestants among its five candidates: Major Hugh Connell and ex-Senator Dave Watson. Connell and Watson depended on the same type of support as Skelton, for all members of affiliated unions could vote in ALP preselections. Willings argued that even though Watson was a paid agitator for the prohibitionist NSW Alliance he had signed the caucus pledge and sold his soul: ‘A good man gone bad’. 6 Willings sermonised about the evil of campaigning on Sundays, even though he had been totally silent on the issue during the War, and played upon general sectarian fears of a link between Rome, Labor, liquor and disloyalty. In one public statement Willings claimed Watson knew he was doing wrong7; in his next he declared that there should be ‘no breakers of God’s law in parliament’.8

Not only did Willings rally to Skelton’s aid, but many ‘Worshipful Masters’ of Loyal Orange lodges also spoke at, or chaired local meetings. Supporters included A.V. (Bert) Watson and J. Goodchild (from New Lambton LOL 279), and J.H. Batey (Adamstown LOL 28), as well as J. Baggs and W. Stevens (from Wallsend LOL 258). On the last Sunday before the poll, Skelton was guest preacher at a special service held for Loyal Orange District 4 members at the Newcasde Central Methodist Mission.

Skelton topped the poll and was first elected.9 Connell, also successful, gave thanks to his electors by means of a fierce attack on sectarianism, 10 and it must clearly be understood that many in the protestant community supported him, but clearly the ALP ticket vote had fractured with many crossing the box next to Skelton’s name. The sectarian approach had worked. Throughout the state the Nationalists had an easy win and school students were soon to be caned for not saluting the flag and honouring the English king. 11

Soon after the election, signs of trouble emerged in the ALP. J.H. Catts, the Federal member for Cook, resigned from the party claiming that Irishism, Bolshevism and Tammanyism had cost the Party the election. He set about organising a Majority Labor Party to contest the forthcoming federal election. In late Maya branch was established at Morisset. Skelton gave his apologies but the new party claimed him as an executive member!2 The batde lines were being drawn, and in July 1922 the ALP proscribed the Loyal Orange lodges and the Protestant Federation. However the Majority Labor Party received votes only in the order of five per cent for the five seats other than Cook, and even there Catts, as sitting member, only got 13 per cent. \3 While the Majority Labor Party staggered on for some time Skelton had other ideas about his future.

Rather methodically, Skelton was putting together a political party. He was using his organising skills, parliamentary travel pass and extensive loyalist rail worker contacts to gather enough supporters together for a conference. As a lay preacher in the Methodist Church he knew many co-thinkers from preaching in their own churches. As a frequent speaker for Loyal Orange and Protestant Federation functions he knew many from other denominations. The constant batde to protect the ‘loyalist’ rail and tram workers from the ALP/Labor Coundl push to restore pre-strike seniority provided Skelton with a state wide constituency base in the thousands. As a parliamentarian, Skelton had a prominent position in the Methodist Church’s Men’s Own Movement (MOM) which distributed thousands of copies of its paper, the New Man, on the coalfields. The MOM was organised by the Rev F. T. Walker whose pamphlet ‘Towards Industrial Peace’ gives a clear exposition of the industrial policy favoured by Skelton. While the MOM was stricdy non-partisan, it contained the very people Skelton was seeking to organise. .

It took two conferences, involving 130 delegates, to establish the Protestant Independent Labour Party. The PILP was launched publicly at Hamilton in June 1923. The party was to be ‘free from the intrigues of Rome and Communism while standing for character, Protestantism and Empire.’ Membership was restricted to protestants and the platform called for resistance to ecclesiastical interference in politics and no state aid for church schools. The PILP wanted the cultivation of a true Australian national spirit as an integral part of the Empire. Class warfare was condemned qS negative and destructive. In its place the PILP put forward a Christian brotherhood ‘all for each, each for all’, which would deliver a livable basic wage, the 44 hour week, paid holidays, safe working conditions and unemployment insurance. The platform committed. the PILP to encouraging co-operatives and using nationalisation where needed. 14

After the launch, Skelton set off on a state tour along the rails. Late in August he claimed to have set up a Sydney Metropolitan Council along with a branch of 60 in BathurstlS, a major rail service centre. Branches at Merewether, Waratah, New Lambton and Adamstown soon followed. Two aldermen, J. Bailey and R. Coote, were among the Adamstown members. By March 1924 a State Electorate Council was functioning for the original Hamilton plus the new branches and those at coalfields centres such as Weston. Reporting to the Merewether branch in May,Skelton claimed sixty branches and talked of holding the balance of power, in favour of the ALP, after the next election. 16 The formation of a branch at Wallsend in September brought the branch total to seventy. What of the members attracted to the PILP? A significant recruit was J.E.Pendlebury, of the Cessnock branch. Pendlebury was a Methodist lay preacher and President of Colliery Mechanics Association. 17 Another union official, George Batey, joined the Kurri branch. Batey Was Secretary of the Colliery Staffs’ Association. 18 W.H. Masters, of the Waratah branch, was a long time delegate from the Amalgamated Engineering Union to the Newcastle Trades Hall Council. Other members with a strong tradition of union activity included Henry Hollingworth (Weston) and J. Baggs (Wallsend) who were lodge activists in the Miners’ Federation. Hollingworth served on management committees for the Kurri Kurri Co operative (consumer issues), the Kurri Kurri Hospital (industrial safety issues) and the Grand United Independent Order of OddFellows (provision of medical insurance etc).

The PILP also attracted a number of rail workers. W. C. Witt, the station master at Wallsend, was a supporter. Witt established the Railway and Tramway Funeral Fund, on whose committees served fellow PILP members F.J. Williams and A. Howell. Howell, from the Boolaroo branch, was a committee member of the Boolaroo Co-operative and president of the local public school P&C. W Baxter, secretary of the Railway and Tramway branch of the Protestant Federation served as a frequent chairman and was later a parliamentary candidate.

In addition, a significant number of recruits came to the PILP from the Loyal Orange lodges. R.T. Creek (Hamilton branch) and A.V. Watson both served as Worshipful District Masters (N04), F. Buckley was WM of LOL28, J. Goodchild WM of LOL279, and J Roberts WM of L0L132. F Snushall, secretary of the Newcastle district Protestant Alliance friendly society, also joined.

Newspaper reports of the formation of the PILP branches also mention women as branch officials. Mrs M Dorman was president of Waratah/ Mayfield branch and Mrs Waddington treasurer of Merewether branch. However, the bulk of the membership is reported as being male. Perhaps to balance this, and to make use of the enormous talent latent in the ladies Loyal Orange lodges, a Women’s Propaganda Committee was established in June 1924.19 The PILP also used ‘popular lady’ competitions for branch fund raising purposes. The PILP reflected widespread community attitudes towards gender and work. It was in favour of a ban on married women working as teachers. Most mining communities had defacto policies like this for retail jobs, Broken Hill being the best documented. Nonetheless the PILP also advocated equal pay for equal work. 20

As the 1925 election loomed the PILP was well established, with seventy branches. The PILP was confident. Their sectarianism differentiated them from Labor and a controversy with the Nationalists had enabled W. Masters, the PILP organising secretary, to equate that party with capitalism. The PILP stood nineteen candidates in thirteen electorates and Skelton personally spoke at ninety two election meetings.

But the reward was meagre. Skelton was returned but the ALP’s J.M. Baddeley topped the poll with Labor taking four of the five seats. In the adjoining electorate of Maitland G. W. Batey received over 5 per cent but elsewhere the PILP did not thrive.21 Significantly, in June 1924 Connell had defied Caucus by voting for the ‘Ne Temere’ law, a key sectarian issue. 22 Connell was returned easily. In Parliament Skelton indicated general support for Labor.

Skelton secured his own future and stabilised his base by becoming Manager of the Railway and Tramway Employee’s Service Agency. This was a ‘sane’ alternative to the Australia Railways Union and sought to provide a negotiating service for unionists and non unionist alike as well as providing a friendly society. The office holders were mainly former members of the PILP. Skelton continued as a lay preacher and as an activist for the Loyal Orange lodges.

Meanwhile, the rhetoric continued. Skelton attacked Queensland railway strikers as reds. 23 At the 1925 coalfields Battle of the Boyne celebrations the Rev V. Clark-Duff described the red flag as ‘the symbol of the renegade, the sign of the traitor and the emblem of disloyalty’ whose ‘followers comprised the scum of society’ .24 J.E. Pendlebury, who had stood as part of the PILP ticket in Newcastle, said, of the Miners’ Federation, which was attempting to force the Colliery Mechanics Association to amalgamate, that it would be ‘like joining the Third International’ .25

Throughout 1926 the PILP continued to function. In April a special conference was held in Newcastle with 35 non-Newcastle delegates present. In July Skelton claimed that there were sixteen country branches. The annual conference was held in October with the party planning to appoint a full time organiser in 1927. The conference passed resolutions opposing migration from Mediterranean countries and requiring migrants to speak English. But conference met knowing that proportional multi-seat electorates were being replaced with single seat constituencies.26 The PILP now faced a significant threat to its sole parliamentarian.

The PILP endorsed three candidates in the October 1927 State election. Skelton for Wallsend, Pendlebury for Hamilton and W. Baxter for Newcastle. Sectarianism no longer produced magic results. Skelton, unopposed by the Nationalists, received 42 per cent, the other two approximately ten per cent each.27 The PILP now faced a grim future. Connell had easily won preselection and held Kahibah comfortably. Clearly there were many protestant workers who looked to the ALP to defend working conditions.

Yet Skelton was soon to be presented with another opportunity to demonstrate the strength of his support. David Murray, Labor member for Hamilton and supporter of Irish independence, died in August 1928. In the subsequent by-election, standing for the PILP, Skelton received a primary vote of 40 per cent. After the distribution of Nationalist preferences he came close with 48.75 per cent.28 Not lingering for a moment, he nominated for the forthcoming Federal election in the Newcastle seat. Here there was an incumbent and Skelton, again unopposed by the Nationalists, received just over 42 per cent. 29 Although a solid base of support, it was inadequate to deliver the seat. As such, the PILP now had no parliamentarian, and no prospect of success, and the organisation soon collapsed.

The PILP was a significant political expression of a constituency that existed in substantial numbers throughout NSW. Its activists and supporters went various ways. In the short term some of them appear to have supported the Australian Party formed by W.M. Hughes in 1929. Some continued as independent activists in local government and local community organisations. Some returned to the ALP where politicians, such as Connell, were able to consolidate their electoral support.


  1. Newcastle Morning Herald, 26/3/1917 p4, & 2/4/1917 p4
  2. NMH, 22/6/1917, p3.
  3. NMH, 9/5/1921, p4.
  4. NMH, 21/7/1922, p4.
  5. NMH,3/10/1922,p7.
  6. NMH, 14/3/1922, p3.
  7. NMH,9/3/1922,p7.
  8. NMH, 11/3/1922, plO.
  9. NMH,27/3/1922,p5.
  10. NMH,8/4/1922,p7.
  11. NMH, 7/6/1922, p4 & 6/7/1922, p5.
  12. NMH, 22/5/1922, p5.
  13. NMH, 18/12/1922, p5.
  14. NMH, 28/6/1923,p3.
  15. NMH,27/8/1923,p5.
  16. NMH, 28/5/1924, p3.
  17. NMH, 26/6/1922, p4.
  18. NMH, 11/7/1925, p16.
  19. NMH,2/6/1924,p5.
  20. NMH,8/10/1924,p8.
  21. NMH, 21/6/1925, p5.
  22. Nairn, Bede (1986): The ‘Big Fella’. Jack Lang and the Australian Labor Party 1891-1949, Melbourne University Press, p.80.
  23. NMH, 5/10/1925, p7.
  24. NAlH,20/7/1925,p6.
  25. NMH,10/12/1925,p6.
  26. NMH, 7/10/1926, p4.
  27. NMH, 10/10/1927 pp4&5.
  28. NMH, 12/9/1928,p8.
  29. NMH, 19/11/1928, p5.