William Burnett: Labour Electoral League Candidate for Patricks Plains (Singleton) 1894

Tony Laffan

For those unfamiliar with Singleton’s history and geography, the town is located in the Hunter Valley of NSW approximately 80 kilometres inland from the east coast of Australia. From the 1840s, the region was one of NSW’s most settled districts with the town being the service centre for a large farming and grazing area. In 1863, construction of the Great Northern railway was pressing towards the town from Newcastle on the coast. Among the men constructing that line was William Burnett.

Originally from Cornwall, in the west of England, Burnett was a tool sharpener. Failing to complete his apprenticeship as a blacksmith, and coming from a poor family, he had been working on construction projects for about 15 years before leaving England. Just before the railway reached Singleton, Burnett quarrelled with a supervisor, and decided to set up his own forge as a smithy in Singleton. He was a competent businessman and he prospered, eventually becoming a major building and construction contractor.

As a youth, Burnett was attracted to the intensity of the Methodist revival movement. By the time of his arrival in Singleton he was a convinced Christian. He was also a temperance advocate following an adolescent flirtation with alcohol. Throughout his adult life he was an active Methodist concerned for the welfare of his soul. In poor health from his mid-30s on, he was unable to continue the arduous work of blacksmithing. However, this meant that he was able to devote more time to administering his business investments and to involvement in civic affairs. In these respects, he was a significant contributor to the social and political life of Singleton from about 1870 until 1895.

His life and times were very different to our own; shaped by interests and motivations which to Burnett were basic but which to us are almost foreign. One of these, sectarianism and his membership of Loyal Orange Lodge (LOL) No 105, Star of the North, Singleton, is so central to his story – yet so invisible today – that I have to ask the reader to suspend judgement until we have examined the actual issues rather than being influenced by prior stereotypes.

From 1864 until his final infirmity, Burnett was an active lay preacher for the Methodist Church in the Singleton Circuit, an area stretching from Branxton to Warkworth – some 20 kilometres in either direction. During his mature years he represented the Singleton Circuit at the Maitland Synod. He also represented the Maitland Synod at the NSW State Conference of his Church. He served as an officeholder in both LOL 105 and in the Singleton Lodge of the prohibitionist Independent Order of Good Templars.

His first serious involvement in the political process came during the October 1868 election for the NSW seat of Patricks Plains. Burnett had a low opinion of the sitting member, believing him to be arranging to have public road funds spent in a manner that largely benefited a few of his rich friends.

Burnett backed James Hoskins for the local seat. Hoskins had been elected for the Northern Goldfields seat in 1866 as a ‘friend of labour’ and with a promise that he would receive £150 per year from his constituents (Members of Parliament being unpaid at this time). The money did not materialise and he resigned to develop his business but in 1868 Hoskins stood for Patricks Plains as a supporter of land reform and other causes. In his memoirs, Burnett refers to Hoskins’ supporters as the ‘Labour Party’. Hoskins, in fact, was backed by most of Singleton’s Roman Catholics. Burnett stood alone among his Methodist brothers and refused an appeal from his minister to change his stance. Hoskins won the seat very narrowly and it took several weeks before a formal reconciliation between Burnett and several church members took place inside the Methodist Church.

Continuing deterioration in his health, involving loss of motor function in his limbs, forced a by now wealthy Burnett to seek medical advice from Macquarie Street specialists. Yet Burnett appears to have experienced few doubts about the moral correctness of the values held by the majority of Methodists as he applied them to his life and his political involvement.

In 1873 he helped to form LOL 105. The Loyal Orange Institution (LOI), as represented by its lodges in the Hunter, was in the main made up of members of non-conformist denominations such as Baptists, Methodists, Salvationists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians. Anglicans, predominately of the Low Church – or evangelical – minority of the Newcastle Diocese, comprised about a quarter of the membership. Members of Orange lodges were initiated into and passed upwards through a degree system which fostered brotherhood. In their oaths, Orangemen swore to raise their children as Protestants, to vote for Protestant candidates in parliamentary and municipal elections, and to maintain loyalty to the British monarch, being Protestant.

The LOI had the potential to be an important political force and Roman Catholic historians such as Cleary (in his study of the LOI) have characterised it as a ‘cruel electoral machine’. However this proposition needs to be very heavily qualified. The non-Catholic majority was far from homogenous. There were large numbers who were basically secular in outlook and behaviour. There were also significant differences in attitude between Anglicans, in particular those of High Church persuasion, and the other Protestant denominations. Many Anglicans cast fond glances back to their role as an established church in England, and they were not as determined as the LOI majority in opposing any link between state and church. Within this non-Catholic milieu, the LOI was just one player; however in relation to the Catholic minority there were places and times when the LOI, along with others, could mobilise sectarian feeling.

The LOI was also not in detailed control of major events. In any real electoral struggle the leadership and direction lay with politicians rather than the LOI. Henry Parkes and his allies were able to appeal directly to the sectarian feelings of many electors without being Orangemen themselves, and without the LOI having any real hold over them. In addition Orangemen were not sworn to support any particular philosophy and, consequently, they were generally found on either side in major political divisions, such as free trade versus tariff protection.

It is also necessary to observe that, as with any large body of people, there were those who were less tolerant of their opposition and those who were more tolerant. Burnett, like many Orangemen, appeared quite able to work with Catholic aldermen on councils, and with Catholics in various community projects. None the less, there was considerable sectarian feeling in Singleton, with Roman Catholics having separate schooling, friendly societies, sporting teams and social functions. There is also direct evidence of sectarian bitterness in political campaigns, particularly Legislative Assembly elections.

Throughout the 1870s, one of the most divisive issues in NSW politics was that of public education. The debate centred on whether government should restrict itself to funding the ‘national’ schools, which provided infant and primary schooling, or whether it should also support denominational schools. The education legislation of 1866 had led to a swift reduction in Protestant denominational schools, with the Anglican school in Singleton closing during that year. The local Catholics had established their own primary school in 1868.

Burnett’s position on this issue was clear. In 1874 he was reported as being a member of the Public Schools League (PSL). The PSL spoke for those who opposed any state financial support for denominational schools. The members wanted separation between state and religion. The PSL combined secularists with members of the non-conformist churches and it included many labour movement activists. It also had support amongst Anglican and, albeit to a much lesser extent, amongst Catholics.

There were many PSL committee members throughout the Hunter who were Orangemen. However, where Anglican denominational schools existed – as in Maitland, Newcastle and Scone – the Church of England Defence Association and the Friends of Denominational Education also included Orangemen among their leaderships. For the LOI to be an effective electoral machine it had to be able to command unity, and it was generally unable to do this. In the Hunter, the Anglican Church – being High Church – was, in large part, collectively suspicious of the LOI, which, in turn, tended to be critical of ‘ritualism’ within the Anglican Church.

At the 1874 election, the Patricks Plains electorate returned W. Browne, a supporter of limited assistance to denominational schools. Burnett was not to get the better of Browne until 1880, but in 1874 Burnett was elected to Singleton Municipal Council. This was a position for which only male property owners could nominate and vote.

Meanwhile, Burnett had diversified and expanded his business affairs. In 1876, for example, he successfully sent a speculative consignment of 16 bullock teams, with provisions, to the newly discovered Gulgong goldfields. It is possible that these growing business activities diverted his attention, for he was not re-elected to Council in 1877. It is also likely that ill-feeling existed between Burnett and some in the Roman Catholic section of the community, because during the 1878 municipal election Burnett and his friend, Robert Jarman, were the subjects of an anonymous hate letter, the existence of which the Singleton Argus publicised during the election, but without disclosing the actual contents.

This was the immediate backdrop to the 1880 Legislative Assembly elections; an election in which Burnett played a decisive role – especially on the issue of state aid. The public education issue had apparently been resolved by Parliament in favour of no state aid but, in the process, Browne, the local sitting member, had voted for limited assistance to church schools. Burnett’s own journal describes the prevailing local state of affairs thus:

At this time there was a dissolution of Parliament and it was decided by our party that the sitting member must go for the following reasons. First – he was a Roman Catholic, second, he was allied to the publicans and he had assisted to pack the licensing bench in Sydney in order to obtain a licence for a brother Roman Catholic who built a public house almost adjoining a Presbyterian Church whose Minister at the time, the Rev John McGibbon, was a red hot orange-man.

The ‘party ‘ Burnett speaks of can be taken to refer primarily to either the IOGT lodge or the temperance section of LOL 105, both of which were indistinguishable in this context. Either way, the candidate agreed upon was John Brown a wealthy landowner from the Jerry’s Plains area. Burnett himself made the nomination speech; a speech that outraged Alexander Munro, one of Singleton’s wealthiest men, and an important civic activist. Munro was an Anglican and a Freemason; some of his friends were Orangemen and publicans. Munro also possessed one of the largest wine cellars in NSW. That Munro and his friends supported Browne made for a tight contest. Sectarian feelings ran high, and just prior to election day there was an attack on Burnett’s unattended, tethered horse. The unfortunate beast had its mane and tail close-cropped, a guarantees source of torment during an insect-infested summer.

On election day, voting closed at 4 pm, to enable the returning officers to ride into Singleton during daylight. After the first six booths had been counted, Brown had a tiny lead of four votes. The outlying Carrowbrook and Goorangoola booths had yet to report. Those with horses rode out along Bridgman Road to greet the incoming ballots. As they returned the cloud of dust coming down Obanvale Hill could be seen long before the actual cavalcade of some 60 riders, their agitated steeds and a fair mob of dogs came into view. Brown won by a total of eight votes!

That the vote was so tight in a community nominally 75 percent Anglican and Protestant shows that there were important issues dividing the non-Catholic majority. These divisions were always to limit LOL 105 to a relatively small number of issues – where it could safely be a ‘cruel machine’. However, the 1880 election demonstrated that the brethren certainly had strength whenever they could manage to unite. LOL 105 was to remain an important force in the political life of Singleton for another 70 years.

At the 1882 elections, Brown declined to stand and the successful candidate, Albert Gould, was more in line with the wishes of the Anglicans and Freemasons. Gould was a solicitor with a solid local practice – and he was also a supporter of Henry Parkes. He regularly attended LOL functions and did not contradict Burnett when the latter claimed, at the 1883 Battle of the Boyne banquet, that Gould was in Parliament because of LOL 105. Gould held the seat for almost two decades.

In 1881 Burnett was successful in being re-elected to Singleton Municipal Council. From about this time, he began to reduce his business activities, as his children began to marry. As a Good Templar, Burnett was involved in the various unsuccessful campaigns the IOGT ran from 1882 following the passage of a new law, passed in deference to the temperance movement, which provided for a concurrent ballot or referendum on local hotel licences to be held each year with municipal elections. These efforts, extending over many years, failed to achieve local prohibition, largely because the local non-conformists were divided on the issue. LOL 105 included publicans and drinkers, as well as the abstemious. Conversely, on issues where they had support from Anglicans and others, such as Sunday sport and Sabbath observance, the brethren were generally able to hold the line over many decades.

In 1885 Burnett was elected to the inaugural South Singleton Municipal Council. The site of rail yards and gasworks, South Singleton represented the most strongly working class section of the town This council represented a small electorate at a very personal level and even though a clear majority of the aldermen can be identified as members of LOL 105 it was a very argumentative body with a shifting majority. Divergent interests always made it difficult for LOL 105, or its Worshipful Master, to be a ‘cruel despot’. Burnett was re-elected to the South Singleton Council again in 1890 and 1893. He also served two terms as Mayor. After the death of his wife in 1890, and the marriage of his son in 1891, he sold his house and took lodgings with friends.

In 1894 he stood as the first Labour Electoral League (LEL) – or Labor Party – candidate for the Patricks Plains electorate. He signed the well-known pledge that year to vote in Parliament on important matters in a way directed by caucus. He also subscribed to the six point Platform of the LEL. The first two points concerned a land tax and the right of prospectors to mine on private land – and Burnett supported both. He had a long tradition of being against the squatter and was a keen advocate of closer settlement. These views resonate through his journal, and they can be traced back to his childhood in England where the freehold of the nation was held by aristocratic families who contributed little or nothing to the production process but lived ‘like lords’. Locally, he felt that the vast Australian Agricultural Company estate, between Stroud and Dungog, should be broken up, a fate he also wished on Ravensworth and several other large holdings. It is possible that Burnett was influenced by the American land tax advocate, Henry George.

The LEL platform also included abolition of the Legislative Council, the establishment of a National (or Central) Bank, the extension of the local government franchise to resident non property owners. It also promised the 8 hour working day ‘where practical ‘.

Given that Burnett was a successful businessman, and also linked by marriage to some of the town’s leading retailers, and given the stereotypes that have been accepted of early Labor Party candidates, his attitude to trade unionism needs some explanation. Such an explanation is also desirable because of the presence of many LOI members in the local Labour Electoral Leagues of the Hunter.

In order to establish a context it will be necessary to refer briefly to the distinction drawn by many labour historians between ‘old’ and ‘new’ unionism. ‘Old’ unionism involved high dues and a narrow qualification for membership such as having completed an apprenticeship. Typically these unions provided benefits such as unemployment pay, and often they supported ‘tramping’ networks – that is, job support networks for itinerant craft workers. Both of these measures helped to control the labour supply and, hence, to maintain local wages at what was seen as a fair rate. Both were perfectly legal and were totally consistent with freedom of association. The right of voluntary association had been the subject of much struggle in early-nineteenth century England. The ‘new’ unionism, by contrast, involved unskilled workers, low dues and a greater tendency to use of the strike weapon.

Burnett can be taken as a supporter of the first type of union. He supported ‘piece rates ‘as a determinant of wages and believed that wages should not be equal but he certainly did not believe that workers should be unable to defend themselves. He wrote in his memoirs that he believed labour should be free to seek the highest market.

In the election of 1894 there were three candidates for Patricks Plains, which included the coal mining centres of Greta and Branxton. Gould was the candidate of the Free Trade Party, and J Connolly, the President of Greta miners’ lodge, stood on behalf of the Protectionists. Burnett stood for the LEL, which was very much the third party, and which had experienced a number of parliamentary defections. Voting was ‘first past the post’, and Gould won with a plurality; that is, Connolly and Burnett combined outpolled Gould. Burnett finished third.

Even though Burnett was now just 60 years of age, his health was not robust and loss of function in his limbs meant he had to be driven by relatives to public functions in a buggy. He began to withdraw into Methodist Church activities and after his term on South Singleton Council expired in 1896 he made few forays into active politics. However, he continued as an Orangeman.

At the 1903 Federal election Burnett was a supporter, through letters and attendance at one meeting, of the successful Liberal (Free Trade) candidate, Dr Liddell. Like many others, he grew concerned over the warming relationship between Cardinal Moran and Parliamentary members of the Political Labour Leagues. Increasingly, he identified within non-labour politics as a Free Trader. During this latter part of his life Burnett found himself largely inactive politically but in general agreement with the values espoused by The Watchman, a journal published by the Australian Protestant Defence Association which was highly suspicious of the links between the Roman Catholic Church and the Labor Party.

Burnett’s health problems continued to plague him and he died in 1916. Nevertheless, throughout his life he retained many of the values of his youth, with its background of anti-Corn Law agitation and the Chartist movement; a fact revealed very clearly in his memoir written in old age. Of a quarrel between free selectors and squatters that had occurred near Singleton in the 1860s, Burnett noted:

This was the state of things before the advent of the Labour Party so there was a necessity for it to put a stop to this sort of thing.

Note on sources: A copy of William Burnett’s journal was kindly given to me by Dot Walker, a great grand-daughter of Burnett. I acknowledge also the help of Peg Richards in locating the journal. General information on political events, particularly the 1880 and 1894 elections, can be found in the Singleton Argus.