Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, Radical Sydney: places, portraits and unruly episodes

Desmond Moore

Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, Radical Sydney: places, portraits and unruly episodes, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2010. RRP $39.95.

Labour historians will welcome this long overdue book. Both Melbourne and Brisbane have had their radical histories which deliver a people’s political history – Sydney now has its own which outlines challenges to the ruling class from Lieutenant William Dawes disgust with Governor Phillip’s armed excursions against local Aborigines to the 1998 MUA picketing against Patrick’s attempts to de-unionise the Australian waterfront.

The authors follow a simple but effective formula. For each of their 47 chapters they give the location of the event that they are discussing, a background to the event and an outline of the actions that took place.

If the location of the event has been altered by Sydney’s on-going process where “the present annihilates the past .. .” then the authors have also reconstructed the sites of their political struggles.

This history of Sydney does away with the warm fuzzy feeling approach to Australian History. It shows that there was an almost continual dynamic of conflict between the ruling class and those they endevour to suppress –usually in the interest of increasing profits by restricting wages and conditions of their employees.

Not that all of the radical actions in Sydney are directly work related. There were other challenges to those in authority whether they are concerned with the siege of Union Street in Erskineville during the Depression of the 1930s or the draft-dodging escapades of Michael Matteson in the 1970s.

The early history of political surveillance which began during World War I with the throwing of the “Warwick egg” at prime minister Hughes, is dealt with in Chapter 20 where the authors look at Rawson Place (near Central Railway Station) which was a popular meeting and organising area for left-wing militants in the 1920s. This concentration of the Left made it easier to spy on them.

I am old enough to remember 6 o’clock closing – or the 6 o’clock swill with hotels closing at six. This book explains how it came about in 1916 as a  reaction to a military mutiny at Liverpool. Many of these soldiers moved on to Sydney but the mutiny only lasted 24 hours. Much of the damage done by the soldiers, particularly around Liverpool was alcohol fuelled (even though the soldiers did have some serious grievances) hence the introduction of restrictions on the sales of liquor ­which continued until 1955.

There was an increase in militancy in the 1920s as Australia’s war­-induced economic buoyancy waned. 1921 saw many of the unemployed attack police who blocked their attempt to present their demands to Jack Lang, the NSW Treasurer. One of the reactions to this was the creation of the King and Empire Alliance, a secret paramilitary organisation of businessmen and former World War I officers, led by Major-General Sir Charles Rosenthal, which aimed to attack Bolsheviks and Sinn Feiners if they attempted to stage a revolution.

The 1920s never held great interest for me as, apart from the advent of the Country Party and the Communist Party and the soldier settler schemes and the policy of “men, money and markets”, nothing seemed to catch my imagination. Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill have changed that – and I have a much better understanding of this decade than before.

Of course we all know that secret pro-fascist armies returned in the turbulent times of the Depression of the 1930s. However I wonder how many knew that one member of the New Guard’s General Council was a Captain James R. Patrick, owner of Patrick & Company – the same firm which precipitated the 4 month’s Maritime Union of Australian (MUA) dispute by trying to bring non-union wharfies and balaclava-clad club wielding guards onto the Australian waterfront?

One weakness of this book is its lack of footnotes. This is most clear in chapter 45 which has a detailed description of a brutal, thuggish police bashing of one of the participants in the first Gay and Lesbian demonstration in June 1978 ( a fore-runner of the annual Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras). However the strengths greatly outnumber this weakness and there is an extensive reading list to help overcome this particular short-coming.

Both the authors are respected labour history academics with years of activism and research behind them – and this experience shows in this book. In addition there are eight other labour historian contributors who have written chapters on their own specialty fields. The sub-title of Radical Sydney is “places, portraits and unruly episodes” – this is exactly what we get with this book. .

Desmond Moore is a retired history teacher and a long-time member oJ the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. This review was first published in August 2010 in ‘Education’, the journal of the NSW Teachers’ Federation.