Richard Proctor: Potato Farmer, Autodidact, and Christian Socialist Activist

Tony Laffan

For the sheer volume of his publications Richard Proctor should be better known than he is. Also as an example of the many Christian socialist activists that were widespread throughout the labour movement he and his kind should be better understood by labour historians.

Richard Proctor, for the greater part of his adult life, was a potato farmer at Bolwarra, near Maitland in the Hunter Valley. As a farmer, Proctor felt that he was less involved in competition with his fellow man. For Proctor economic competition was evil.

In the late 1880s Proctor had another dimension added to his Christian beliefs. Not only did he abandon the retail trade; he also came to believe that merely tithing himself was inadequate. He felt that he had to accept the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ in full (Matthew 6, 19-21) or ‘Do not store up riches for yourselves on earth … for your heart will be where your riches are’; ‘Sell all your belongings and give the money to the poor’ (Luke 12, 33). As a deeply committed Christian, Proctor felt that defiance of these instructions was the prime cause of misery on earth. His solution was a form of Christian Socialism in which the state would ensure a satisfactory standard for all, co-operative work, with high minimum wages.1 It was a critique of orthodox political economy that could be shared by many.

Having reached the conclusion that competitive capitalism was fundamentally evil Proctor first sought to convince his church and its ministers to alter what they preached. He gave several papers at the Congregational Union (NSW) and submitted articles to its press.2 In these debates an ally was the Rev Thomas Roseby, author of a pamphlet on village settlements published by the Australian Socialist League. However, in the main, Proctor had to be a self publicist.

By 1891 he had written and published The New Evangel, a 141 page book which he partly sold and partly distributed free to newspaper editors, protestant ministers of religion and political leaders. He called on men of goodwill to co-operate together to overcome economic deprivation, the evils of alcohol, prostitution and militarism. He denounced existing land laws as being based on theft and, in the process, received several friendly book reviews.3 The book was subsequently republished at least twice in slightly altered form.

Locally the Greta and Branxton Gazette allowed him a series of articles. These Proctor republished as an eight-page pamphlet entitled
Darkest New South Wales And The Only Way Out during his campaign for the state seat of West Maitland in 1894. On this occasion he received a mere four percent of the vote. Undaunted, Proctor stood again in 1895. Maitland, as a farming market town, was a free trade stronghold although as the only opposition candidate Proctor polled just over twenty percent. During the electoral process he addressed several meetings and had his views reported at length in the Maitland Mercury. He also published at least two eight-page pamphlets: The Epistle of Richard and The Second Epistle of Richard.

In 1899 Proctor joined the Australian Socialist League (ASL) and contributed a full-page article to its paper, The People.4 For a period he also advertised his pamphlets in The People, as well as lecturing for the ASL. However, his political activities paralleled those of the ASL rather then being subsumed by them, and soon after the turn of the century he produced a series of Christian socialist tracts, including
Christ’s Socialism, Is It Ours ? In 1901 he again stood as a Christian Socialist candidate for West Maitland, spoke out in support of an aged pension and woman’s suffrage, among other causes, and again attracted approximately twenty percent of the vote.5 While his electoral performance was far stronger than the other ASL candidates, Proctor’s lack of success appears to have altered his attitude to the Labor Party. In 1903 he was expelled from the ASL/Socialist Labor Party for chairing a Labor Party rally and for the remainder of his life Proctor advised his audience to vote Labor.

Proctor continued to be involved in public meetings, publishing tracts and books as well as writing letters to the editors of various papers. During the Peter Bowling Strike of 1909-1910 he advocated the nationalisation of the coal mines as a way of ending exploitation and securing industrial peace, airing these views in the Newcastle Morning Herald.6

Proctor was a consistent opponent of militarism and during the post-World War One period there are letters in The Industrialist, published by the Newcastle Industrial Council calling on protestant religious ministers to abandon the Loyal Orange ideas of hostility to Bolshevism and Irish independence and instead to preach the evils of personal greed and the necessity for urgent social reform.7

Proctor’s 1891 opus, the New Evangel, was republished as The New Religion in 1922. Soon afterwards Proctor moved to Melbourne to spend his old age with his daughter. In 1926 he had published a pamphlet entitled Reform or Revolution which argued that it was only the lack of serious social reform that filled people with despair and drove them to violent acts. At this time he also wrote letters to union journals advocating adequate workers’ compensation legislation, a key issue for the first Lang Labor government, elected in NSW in 1925.

Barely eighteen months before his death Proctor greeted the election of the Scullin Labor Government in 1929 with an open letter to the Labor members urging action to nationalise credit. He warmly recommend two books to the Labor members: Frank Lock’s Nationalisation of Credit and Frank Anstey’s Money Power. Proctor argued that credit at two percent was the only way to bring employment and end the downward drift. He had his open letter published in The Union Voice. He also incorporated this and some additional material into pamphlet form as Darkest Australia And The Only Way Out.

During the 1929-1930 lockout on the northern coalfields of NSW Proctor also published letters to various newspapers calling for the nationalisation of the coal mines to overcome the greed of the employers and to provide decent living standards to the miners.8 Shortly afterwards he had The New Evangel republished for a third time.

Richard Proctor died in Melbourne in late 1930.9 While Proctor left a substantial body of published material, little is currently know about his personal life. The one reference to his wife refers to her opposition to boxing and blood sports. In old age he lived with a daughter. His obituary refers to a son living at Maitland and a brother who was a financial journalist with the Sydney Morning Herald. Even so, Proctor’s public career is well worthy of note. While he had achieved no public office he had for forty years consistently argued his social critique. Proctor was one of the many socialist autodidacts who helped define labour movement values in early twentieth century Australia.


  1. Richard Proctor, The New Evangel, self published, Maitland 1891.
  2. Richard Proctor, The Greatest Evil In The World, self published, Maitland, 1890
  3. Richard Proctor, The New Religion, self published, Sydney, 1922.
  4. The People, 20 May 1899, 14 October 1899 & 20 April 1901.
  5. Maitland Mercury, 26 June 1901 & 4 July 1901.
  6. Newcastle Morning Herald, 17 November 1909.
  7. The Industrialist, 14 April 1921 & 27 October 1921.
  8. Newcastle Morning Herald, 21 January 1930.
  9. Newcastle Morning Herald, 26 November 1930.