Wowsers, the Church Crowd and the State Labor Party in Cessnock 1941-1944

Tony Laffan

That the State (Hughes-Evans) Labor Party could be of interest to those researching the role of religious affiliation in labour movement politics was brought home to me in an unusual way. I had been printing, from microfilm, a column of Newcastle local government results for my database when I noticed something in the next column. There was long time Labor Mayor of Cessnock, John Brown, blaming the ‘church crowd’ for the fact that he was now (1941) the only surviving Labor alderman. The election returned seven State Labor aldermen, all novices, together with Brown and one long term independent. As protestants are normally consigned to the Liberal or non-Labor parties, I was naturally interested in this unexpected outcome.

Research using the Cessnock Eagle quickly produced the preselection ballot results for the State Labor Party. According to the rules of the day, members of affiliated unions could vote and the top candidate had just under 800 votes, a very reasonable sample of the town’s coal miners. However, it was the name of the ninth selected candidate that grabbed my attention.

R C White I knew from earlier research to be an activist for the Protestant Independent Labour Party (PILP) during the 1920s (see The Hummer, vol 3, no 9). Given the experiences of Cessnock during the Great Lockout of 1929-1930 and the Great Depression, I find it perfectly understandable that White turns up on the Labor side of politics rather than in the United Australia Party. He knew that voluntary association could produce beneficial results for workers. From the Cessnock Eagle I was able to establish his community activities. These conform totally to he outlook of a person deeply influenced by the social gospel.

He was not a wealthy man and made his living as an electric meter reader. He was an active layman in the Presbyterian Church and an organiser of eisteddfods, being sometime NSW president of the Eisteddfod Union as well as secretary of the Cessnock Musical and Literary Society. I suspect that like many socialist autodidacts he was not impressed by Hollywood film culture. He was a long time board member of the Cessnock and Aberdare Co-operative Society, Cessnock’s largest retailer at that time. His preselection in a vote dominated by the coalminers’ lodges says something about those miners especially since White was among the most public of the opponents of Sunday sport.

The other preselected candidates were obviously going to be important in understanding the State Labor Party in Cessnock and there was at least one other who stood out. I recognised the surname Pendlebury. During the 1920s J E Pendlebury had been a PILP member, president of Cessnock Co-op, and president of the northern branch of the Colliery Mechanics’ Association. He was subsequently (1943) president of the Cessnock Old Age and Invalid Pensioners. Tom Pendlebury was to be ALP President of Lake Macquarie Shire. However, the preselected candidate was Edwin Pendlebury. Edwin was manager of the Cessnock Co-op. Many in this family were active in local protestant churches. Like White there was no contradiction between the belief in voluntary association and the need for state initiated socialism in the broader economies. Many protestants were revolted by the squalor brought on by capitalist distribution.

The candidate who topped the preselection was a small business owner. Robert Stanners operated a bicycle shop. A funeral notice for this period indicated that his father in law had the surname Otto. My database has M Otto as secretary of Cessnock Loyal Orange Lodge 392. The Rev Alan Walker, then Methodist Minister at Cessnock and deeply active in the politics of the town, wrote at this time an excellent sociological study entitled
Coaltown. In this study Walker characterised the State Labor Party as believing in the need for socialism above all else. Thus far, I had indications that three of the candidates were christian socialists.

Of the remaining candidates one – George Heery – was a high school teacher and president of the local teachers’ association while the remaining four were mine workers with most being miners’ lodge officials. This latter group was reinforced when White had to withdraw due to an accident and Di Williams, Aberdare Extended Miners’ Lodge president, was elevated. The incident that enables us to differentiate these miners did not take place until 1944. However, for now, we need to focus on the momentous 1941 election.

In July 1941 a significant dispute occurred over a decision by Cessnock Council to permit a Sunday Rugby League match and to allow a charge for admittance. Half of the proceeds were to go to the two football clubs/teams (Cessnock and Newtown), with the remainder going to the Comfort Fund for soldiers. Walker and the Ministers’ Fraternal protested strongly and a combined prayer service was held. The Methodist church overflowed on the day. White spoke as the lay representative to that service. Ald John Brown blamed the church crowd for the ALP’s defeat. Walker claimed that the regular protestant church congregation for Cessnock stood at over 400 adults and some 500 Sunday school students from a total population of 14,500. This number must be increased by a factor to allow for morning services, occasional attendees and family connections. In this context it is important to note that the town’s largest friendly society was the Rechabite lodge. The Rechabites required a pledge of total abstinence. The lodge had 290 members. Given the gender roles of the time this equates to at least 250 families. The president of Cessnock Rugby League was a prominent businessman and ALP council candidate. The margin between the State Labor and ALP candidates was not large and it is likely that Brown was 100 per cent correct in his claim. Given that voting was voluntary, a purposeful minority could have a powerful influence

In January 1944 George Heery was transferred and Robert White was asked to stand. At the same time, negotiations were underway for the amalgamation of the State Labor Party and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). The CPA hailed White as the ‘United Front’ candidate. Before the date of the election White made clear that he was not a CPA member nor ever likely to become one. He was elected unopposed. Heery received a glowing testimonial at which a major speaker was the Rev Alan Walker. Walker lauded Heery as an excellent roll model for his students. White celebrated his arrival on Council by moving that the Council support a campaign, led by Walker, against illegal gambling on the coalfields. On this issue Robert Stanners was a close ally, seconding White on several occasions. On the night the issue was first raised only six aldermen were present. Tom McDonald, as Deputy Mayor, was in the chair. He used his casting vote when the motion was tied three- all. As White was highly critical of Jack Baddeley, the local state member and Chief Secretary/Deputy Premier, Brown voted against. Independent Sam Horne did likewise. Rupert Peters, of State Labor, was sceptical about preventing SP betting and voted against the resolution.

Pendlebury quickly indicated his support for White but I have not seen anything on the position taken by the other State Labor aldermen. These aldermen were considering joining the Communist Party (although as far as I know they did not) and it is possible that they agreed with the line put publicly by local CPA organiser, Gerald Peel; namely that gambling was a social evil that did great harm but that it could not be beaten by force but only by removing capitalism and greed and by gentle persuasion as practised in the Soviet Union.

Tom McDonald replied in the Cessnock Eagle. He claimed that the Council provided ample recreational facilities and was keen to provide more in the form of community centres but that it was necessary to use the police with respect to gambling. He and his fellow State Labor aldermen lamented that many in the community would go to watch grown men kick leather balls between two sticks but would not attend meetings to ensure post-war industrial diversity and employment for the coalfields. Following the agitation the police were sent in against the two-up schools and SP bookies. Upwards of 100 were charged and fined. In February 1944 the State Labor Party and the CPA amalgamated but the seven aldermen went to the December 1944 elections as a team entitled the Municipal Progressive Labour Party but were eliminated by a resurgent ALP with two communists also elected.

Nowhere in the past have I seen discussion of those who actually peopled the State Labor Party. It is normal to stress that it acted as a cover for communists during the period of illegality and to point to the numerous examples of members, particularly teachers, who stayed with the CPA after amalgamation. It is not my intention to challenge this feature but to point to the existence of a distinct group inside the State Labor Party (and in post war union leadership battles) who while strongly Methodist/Protestant could be found frequently co-operating with communists but who generally stopped short of joining the CPA.

In an essay of this length it is not possible to explore the core values of these activists. I can, however, confidently assert that the wowsers had the numbers in the Cessnock State Labor Party.