‘Instil this Motto into Your Mind, “Me for the Railroad”, and Help Mankind’: Poetry, Politics and Journalism in the Australian Railways Union, 1920-1940

Peter Kirkpatrick

This is the edited text of an address delivered at a Sydney Branch seminar held on Sunday, 7 September 2003.

The couplet which forms the main title of this paper – “Instil this motto into your mind / ‘Me for the Railroad’ and help mankind” – comes from a poem called “A Sum Up” by Mrs R. Evans of 158 Carrington Avenue, Hurstville, and it won a ‘Special Prize of £1″ in 1931 from the paper in which it was published. The paper in question was the Railroad, the journal of the NSW Branch of the Australian Railways Union (ARU). I am interested in the ways that poetry was used in trade union journals in the inter-war period, and the manner in which it highlights not only changes in the political climate of the times, but also changes in the technology of journalism, and the role of journalism in creating union identity. This is part of a wider, on-going research project into the relationship between poetry and Australian popular cultures during the twentieth century. I’ll only be scratching at the surface of these issues here. My main aim is to introduce readers to the extraordinary range of verse published in the Railroad. This is wonderful stuff. A longer version of these comments can be found in my article in the electronic Journal of Social Change and Critical Inquiry, number 2, August 2000 (

I should emphasise that I am not a labour historian, and I have no specialist knowledge of union history. My background is in literary studies and cultural history, and I find it interesting, but also dismaying, to consider how the study of working-class poetry has fared in the academy. In English departments twenty-five years ago poems such as these would have been dismissed as not being “Literature” with a capital-L. These days, with the rise of cultural studies, they’re in danger of being considered too literary, and any print-based study is, in some quarters, looked at with a degree of suspicion. We should all be reading shopping malls and Big Brother!

I won’t be making what might be called a “folkloric” argument for the poetry in Railroad. I think there are problems in seeing these works as somehow unmediated, “natural” or untutored expressions of working-class consciousness. There are certainly vestiges of older, pre-industrial traditions of verbal art in some of the poems – the frequent use of the ballad form, for example – but they belong to a very different world: a world whose dominant modes of transport run along steel rails rather than cart ruts. The poems are acts of reconfiguring that bright and often bitter new world delivered by industrial technology, making sense of it in terms of workers’ experience and, in so doing, recasting it in terms of personal desire and political outrage. They and the newspaper they appear in allowed union members to more fully realise the collective strength they possessed; in effect, Railroad served to produce the ARU as what Benedict Anderson has called an “imagined community”. The ARU membership was a real community, sure enough, but I would argue that Railroad offered a means of more fully conceptualising that collectivity – of modelling it, so to speak.

In the early 1920s the NSW Branch of the ARU was struggling to assert its claim to represent all grades of both rail and tramway workers – permanent-way, traffic and workshops – against the sectional claims of both craft unions and the so-called loyalist unions. Loyalist unions were management-sanctioned scab unions that had been formed in the wake of the disastrous eighty-two day strike of 1917, which saw the deregistration of the ARU’s predecessor, the state-based Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association (ARTSA), and the arrest of its leaders. Those strikers who were allowed to return to their jobs automatically lost seniority to loyalists, thus creating divisions within the industry that lasted for many years. In his book Working Lives: A History of the Australian Railways Union (NSW Branch), Mark Hearn writes, “If any good came out of the 1917 strike for the ‘lilywhite’ [i.e., striking ARTSA] rail worker, it was the realisation that, if all-grades unionism was to survive on the railways, it would need to be more broadly based than a single state union”.

The national Australian Railways Union was formed in Melbourne in September 1920. In December the same year its NSW Branch was registered under the Arbitration Act, and in the following year, 1921, it launched its newsletter, the Railways Union Gazette. In its first four years, however, the ARU leadership in NSW was riven by factionalism, in part fuelled by the lingering effects of 1917, and then by a scandal over ALP branch stacking.

Three Secretaries preceded Earnest Arthur Chapman, who was appointed in 1924 because he had no factional affiliations, nor indeed any history within Australian unionism. Born in Lincoln in the UK, where he trained as an engineer and draughtsman, Chapman had worked in various editorial roles on the Independent Labour Party’s Lincolnshire Democrat, the Shop Steward Movement’s journal Solidarity, as well as the
Metal Workers’ Record. He was a founder and the first chairman of the West London Trades Hall, was involved with the Central Labour College and, before the war, had been a delegate to Syndicalist conferences in Berlin and Paris. After the war, in 1929-21, he was deputised to investigate labour conditions on the Continent, a mission that took him to the fledgling Soviet Union, which impressed him mightily. Given this international background, it’s hardly surprising that Chapman was unanimously selected out of a field of fifty candidates to fill the role of Secretary of the ARU’s NSW Branch.

Chapman’s impact on the ARU can, in part, be measured by the changes he wrought in its newsletter, where his experience as a journalist and his understanding of the evolving role of the press transformed a fairly stolid record of union affairs into a genuine working-class paper which, as well as reporting industrial and political developments that affected railway employees, also catered for some of the “lifestyle” interests of its readers.

The Railways Union Gazette was the name used by the union’s journal until the end of 1926. A notice appeared in the December issue advising that, from January 1927, it would be called the Railroad:

“The Railroad” will endeavour to voice the aspirations of railway and tramway workers generally, it will expose tyranny on the part of departmental officers, and will be used as the medium for conveying information as to union activities to the members.

There is room for vast improvement, but members themselves can render assistance in this connection by sending along items of interest, humorous or otherwise.

In 1926, the paper increased from the mostly sixteen-page page format (plus wrap-around cover) it had developed since 1921 to twenty pages; then, in June 1927, it expanded to thirty-two pages. The growth in size also signalled an expansion in scope, so that by 1930 Railroad had the look of a mainstream tabloid. Commencing in September 1926, the paper carried a gardening section and a do-it-yourself radio column called “Radio Ripples”. October of that year saw the introduction of a poultry section, and November a sport section and a women’s page “Conducted by Caroline”. A women’s page had been trialled inside the back cover in late 1923 and 1924, but the change in the name of its editor from “Angelique” to “Altruist” implies the spirit in which it had been maintained. Further improvements took place in 1927 with the addition of “Children’s Corner” in April and a “Footlights and Flicks” section in June.

Interestingly, in response to the sensationalism of Smith’s Weekly and its Daily Guardian, in 1927 a committee of the New South Wales Labor Council decreed that “modern journalism’ should not infect the Labor Daily, which had begun in 1924. In his history of the NSW press, Yesterday’s News, R.B. Walker notes that “In practice it was not so puritanically proletarian and catered for its readers’ interests in sport, crime, violence and, more discretely, sex, and indulged in circulation gimmicks”. Because it was a daily, sport was the Labor Daily’s particular métier. When it competed with mainstream papers, clearly the union press adapted to the market. I’ll come back to this point.

Chapman’s call for members to “[send] along items of interest, humorous or otherwise” recalls J.F. Archibald’s practice in the Bulletin of asking readers to become contributors, but it also represents the desperation of an editor with no journalistic staff. In July 1928 Chapman complained to his readers that

The paper is produced under considerable difficulty, as it is a spare-time effort. Nevertheless, if all members played their part, its influence would be much more effective than what it is today.

This suggests that Chapman produced Railroad on top of his normal workload as ARU Branch Secretary. Despite this burden, the very same issue marked the introduction of bigger pages together with the dropping of the journal’s Bulletin-like pink cover. Chapman used this fact to assert the principles under which it operated:

The pink cover which has been used for many years is now discarded.

Some have accused us of being “pink” in outlook, whilst others state we are bloody red.

We steer no middle course, but endeavour to present working-class problems in clear and simple language. We also try to teach railway workers that they have equal responsibilities to their class, in common with other workers.

The various lifestyle sections arguably assisted this aim, engendering the sense of a broadly-based working-class culture that embraced not only the needs of the (mostly) male breadwinners, but of their wives and children as well. Besides the struggle for better industrial conditions, the Railroad’s “imagined community” is also interested in football, cricket, boxing, racing – and even, by 1928, wrestling. In all likelihood it keeps chooks in the backyard to supplement the family’s diet. Mum does all the cooking and housework, dad looks after the garden (and the chooks), at least one family member is building a radio, and everyone goes to the movies or live shows. Interestingly, opera is reviewed alongside musical comedy and vaudeville, demonstrating that high culture was not necessarily – or not inextricably – linked with class enemies. On one level, this is not such a different community from that imagined by the Railroad’s conservative mainstream contemporary, Smith’s Weekly. Many elements of this kind of lifestyle were shared by a large section of the middle classes, suggesting that the rise of mass culture was overriding older, more exclusively class-based cultural values. By March 1929, bundles of the Railroad began to be delivered to railway bookstalls, and were sold out within hours, indicating that the paper could attract wider public interest.

One difference between Railroad and the mainstream popular press in the twenties was in the level of homespun practical advice that’s offered: men were instructed on how to build a better henhouse; children were encouraged to make their own toys; while women on a tight budget were encouraged to cook “mutton duck” for Christmas when real poultry is unaffordable.

Another distinction is in the explicitly political nature of its commentary. “Uncle Toby” in “Children’s Corner” doesn’t hesitate to inculcate socialist values by including such original verse as “Lucky Dorgs” by “Ida Nough’, which shows the influence of C.J. Dennis’s The Sentimental Bloke and its sequels:

I only wisht I was a dorg,
Like lots o’ dorgs I’ve seen.
Them dorgs what has a shoffer,
An’ a great big lemerzeen.

Yer see my pop ain’t got no car:
It’s all that he can do
To keep us kids in grub an’ clo’s –
Now I’m a-tellin’ you.

An’ I ain’t never had no ride
In any kind of car,
Becos yer see I ain’t a dorg,
I’m just a kid, but Ma –

She sez, some day perhaps
That pop may have a car. An’ gee!
Yer bet I won’t take dorgs to ride
An’ let kids walk – not me!

Nursery rhymes are also given a new twist, as, for example, in the “Song of the Miners”:

Sing a song of sixpence,
Capitalism’s fine —
Four-and-forty hours
Working down a mine.

Coming up at night
Like goslings in a cage-
What an occupation
For this enlightened age.

Though mainstream newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald might only publish one poem a week, the Railroad and its predecessor usually printed at least a couple of poems per issue, although some months might be leaner than others. In the days of the Railways Union Gazette most of the poetry was taken from outside sources, either from other journals – including Smith’s Weekly and the Rhodesian Railway Workers Journa – or from collections of verse. Works by well-known writers such as Bernard O’Dowd, Robert Service and Siegfried Sassoon appeared, as well as those by less well-known figures such as the Irish “Navvy Poet” Patrick MacGill. After Chapman took over the editorship, and particularly after the Gazette expanded into
Railroad, however, the amount of original verse increased. Much of this was produced by the paper’s readership themselves and, as the twenties progressed, the paeans to the coming revolution that were a standard of union journals at this time gave way to topical poems emerging more directly from the experience of rail workers. This is marked by a change in linguistic register.

This is the opening of “Bolchevism” by W.H. Levey, which appeared in the Railways Union Gazette for October 1924, and it’s typical of the genre of revolutionary hymn:

A sun’s aflame in the eastern sky
With promise of wond’rous day,
A song’s athrill in the bushland nigh
With note of a wond’rous lay.

The clank of a million chains awakes
The echoes of rock-scarred Time,
As the gathered might of an aeon breaks
The fetters that bound in grime.

Though written in proletarian ballad form, the images are Shelley-like abstract clichés. While the presence of pieces such as this suggests that the appreciation of a “higher” poetical register was not unavailable to Chapman’s readership (not any less than a liking for opera was), the fact that they became less common also suggests that they were less favoured compared to other, more vernacular modes. Compare the language of “Bolchevism” to the melodrama of “The Scab’s Dream” by “H.J.L.” from 1927:

Last night I lie [sic] asleeping,
I had an awful dream;
I dreamt that I was back again in 1917.

I saw the drivers and firemen
And thought it the greatest sight
To see such a body of workmen
Staying out for their rights.

So I came out on strike with them,
But the boss came to me next day
And appointed me a driver,
With a rise of four bob a day.

And when I saw my old mates,
Men that always lent me a bob,
They turned their heads and whispered,
“He took an old man’s job.”

And when I look at my little boy,
So happy, young and gay,
He doesn’t care if I scabbed it,
But I wonder will he some day.

Then in my dreams I wander to 1937.
My boy has grown to manhood,
He is the pick of an Australian XI.

He came to me one evening,
With a look I had never seen,
And said, “Dad, what did you do in 1917?”

For a moment I was dumbfounded,
He had taken my breath away.
Then I answered,
“I stuck to the Government and worked 16 hours a day.”

Not another word was spoken,
He left me with down-bowed head.
Next morning when I went to his room,
I found him lying dead,
And there a note was written:
“I love you deary [sic] Dad;
I could not live to be happy
To think I am a son of a Scab.”

Then I woke with the consolation,
It was only a silly dream,
I would give all I possess in the wide, wide world
To live again through 17.

“The Scab’s Dream” harks back to Victorian popular ballads. Indeed, since the practice of parlour recitation continued well into the twenties, it could have been a poem intended to be spoken aloud. The comparison between the scab father and the sporting hero son serves to celebrate those still disadvantaged men who struck in 1917 and remained lilywhite.

In his chapter in A History of the Book in Australia Martyn Lyons insists that in the period up until 1945, “[t]he frequency of reading aloud should not be underestimated, whether it occurred at school, or in the family. This represented a hangover from an era when literacy was less common, and reading aloud was bound up with moral improvement as much as entertainment. Lyons notes that “public recitals and reading performances were popular and frequently advertised and reported in the press”. In their oral history of Australian reading practices, Australian Readers Remember, Lyons and Lucy Taksa describe the generation that grew up before and during the First World War as “The Poetry Generation”. “This was not just a generation of poetry readers“, they write, “they recited it, they quoted it, and they wrote it. This was a golden age for the amateur poet.”

It was also an age that felt the first impacts of mass media. In The Uses of Literacy, Richard Hoggart famously observed the changes to British working-class life during this period, and the erosion of an older, largely oral culture. In “The Scab’s Dream” we see traces of an oral, indeed folkloric consciousness at work. These elements are even more pronounced in another Railroad of 1927, “Your Tool Box Will Be Raffled By and By”, which was published “By request”, suggesting that it may have been in oral circulation for some time before:

I must shortly leave the banker,
For my card is long exempt.
The fire of youth has vanished from my eye,
And the saddest thought to-day
Is when I have passed away
That my tool box will be raffled by and by.

Chorus: I have roamed around the country,
But am getting stiff and old;
And now I am travelling home again to die.
Though you’re young and strong to-day,
Yet the years pass away,
And your tool box will be raffled by and by.

When I was but a ’prentice lad,
Just starting at the trade,
Some chump would make me mad enough to cry,
But I heeded not his chaff,
For this saying made me laugh,
That his tool box would be raffled by and by.

When I became a journeyman
And started on the road,
With pockets light, but spirits always high,
I was never known to shirk
From the hardest kind of work,
But my tool box may be raffled by and by.

Sometimes I thought it hard
When I struck a stranger’s yard,
And a rumper worked with malice in his eye,
But I merely used to grin,
As I said, “My boy, go in,”
But your tool box will be raffled by and by.

You may often meet a sneak,
Who with manner soft and meek,
Will do his best to do you on the sly.
Keep your eye on the lad,
Let this saying make you glad,
That his tool box will be raffled by and by.

I must end my little song,
And be jogging right along,
My journey’s end is drawing very nigh;
Take my advice, be fair,
Act the man, upon the square,
For your tool box may be raffled by and by.

As I noted at the outset, these are not true folk poems; they have authors and they’re published in a mass-produced journal – a journal, moreover, that was rapidly changing with the times and with technological and journalistic innovation. If modernity can be regarded as the condition of modern life, then modernism can be defined as the aesthetic response to it. As a term, “modernism” is often used to describe those experimental
avant-garde movements in the art and literature of the early twentieth century: cubism, imagism, futurism, dada, surrealism, expressionism, etc. The problem with regard to a clear and absolute definition, however, is that the term doesn’t – indeed shouldn’t –only apply to the avant-garde. There is modernism in popular culture and, I would argue, in the Australian context, that’s where the strongest impact of modernity was felt- and, at the textual level, most notably in journalism. It is no coincidence that Australia’s first truly modernist poet is Kenneth Slessor, who made his living as a journalist on the stylistically innovative
Smith’s Weekly.

The “Darlinghurst Nights” series of poems by Slessor and illustrated by Virgil Reilly began in Smith’s Weekly in February 1928. In
Railroad in October that year, there appeared the first of several full-page self-illustrated ballads by “Johnson”, a ticket collector on the Illawarra line platform at Central station. His second appearance, “The Gates of 23” from November, is typical of his style:

Have you ever stood for hours
On a cold, wet concrete floor
Clipping tickets as they pass you
Till your hands are stiff & sore
And when you roar out “Show em”
All the flappers murmur “Gee’
That’s the way we put our time in
Underneath on 23.

The stools are just to look at
Never dare to take a seat
Even tho’ your legs are weary
And you feel “all in” & “beat”
For orders are you must not sit
It seems all wrong to me
So we stand & clip the tickets
Underneath on 23.

The lights seem placed to trick you
And your weary downcast eyes
Glance at the rushing tickets
As they swiftly pass you by
And a sleek haired sheik from Carlton
Roars out “Lets get home to tea”
As he shoulders past a flapper
In the rush to 23.

Of cranks there’s always plenty
Abuse -we get the lot
The ladies call you “nuisance”
And the drunks are pretty hot
For they always seem to wander
When they’re full of beer & glee
Down to where we punch the tickets
Underneath to 23.

But the trains will still be roaring
And the crowds still pushing past
When I’m old & aged & pensioned
And a seat I have at last
When I sit in my old armchair
By the fire, I’ll always see
The portals that are always rushed
The gates of 23.

Johnson didn’t take long in adapting the style of “Darlinghurst Nights” to ARU purposes. Although he never attempted the pyrotechnics of Slessor’s more flashy feats of rhyme and rhythm, sticking to variations of a plainer ballad metre (his model is probably Henry Lawson), he had complete control over the visual design.

Publication of verse in the Railroad had declined by the end of 1930, and continued to do so the following year-a trend that can be observed in a number of union journals. By mid 1930 Johnson was drawing cartoons rather than writing verse. A few poems in the early thirties refer to the Depression, but in November 1933 there was a vivid return of the decorated poem in George Finey’s full-page illustration to Geoffrey Cumine’s “The Crimson Path”, a bitter meditation on Armistice Day:

We thought-so credulous is youth- That we might do a deed To bear aloft the torch of truth Before a world in need.

We thought-and laugh to think we thought- That men might go their ways In hope and peace when blood had bought The prize of quiet days.

Aye, so we thought. It is not sweet To think again, to-day, Of all that made the price complete- The lives that went to pay.

But ponder it, ye elder-men Who lead the nations now: Think-of the maudlin speeches then, Think -of each broken vow.

Remember such as set the path Whereon the soldier died: Unheedful of the aftermath- They lied, my Lords, they lied.

By this time examples of free verse began to appear, and these, together with poems in more traditional forms, are also sometimes accompanied by striking artwork. A long way from Johnson’s gentle, rather crudely illustrated reflections on railway life, in an international context of ongoing economic Depression and the rise of fascism these are propaganda pieces that storm against their targets. For example, “Men on the Dole Queue” by “B.O.C.”:

Man on the dole queue Standing Staring Starving A miserable crust From charity’s skinny paw Gives him scarce enough belly To strap his belt around.

Men on the dole queue Steady Alert Prepared The spirit of revolt Knowledge of their own power Give them gutz [sic].

Man on the dole queue Lost Forlorn Despairing Heaps of blue papers And sickly-red cards Neatly ruled Bluff him into servile submission.

Men on the dole queue Awake Confident Revolutionary They see- Through the blue papers Behind the red cards Between the ruled lines-

Men on the dole queue Slavery Hunger Capital The history of the proletariat The upsurge of the masses The classless society The progress of man.

Militarism and unemployment became constant themes, along with a more internationalist tone. Lloyd Ross, who became NSW State Secretary and
Railroad editor in 1935 after Chapman’s untimely death, published his own agitprop text for chorus, “Release Thaelmann”, on the front page of the October 1935 issue, calling for justice for the imprisoned German communist leader.

This takes us some distance from the homespun poetry of the late 1920s and early thirties. The impact of Zhdanov’s cultural policies in the USSR was possibly being felt, but it is as though the union’s need to respond to the decade’s escalating global crises simply overrode those local expressions of class-consciousness rooted in the everyday literary cultures of workplace and parlour. The struggle against fascism, in particular, was now a major focus of class solidarity (Chapman himself had been General President of the Australian Council Against War). Perhaps, too, the enhanced professionalism of Railroad, with its high production values brought about by Chapman’s innovations, tended to exclude the amateur versifiers, or at least dissuade them from contributing.

Chapman had drawn from his readers a surprising range of poetic responses to both the culture of their own workplace and the rapidly changing modern world that its trams and trains serviced, as well as to the broader international struggle for workers’ rights and social equality. The variety and humour of the poetry in Railroad in fact argues against a folkloric view of working-class culture. Instead, it represents the effects of its readers’ engagement with a range of distinctly modern experiences embodied in the diversification of Railroad’s own contents in the late 1920s. In their attempt to describe modern life, ticket collector Johnson’s poems – as much as Kenneth Slessor’s light verses – also celebrate the world that has been delivered by technological change. While Slessor takes jazzy Kings Cross as his metaphor of the modern, for Johnson it’s the “The Gates of 23” and the mass commuter culture that passes through them.