Some WAC Radicals

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Many of the WAC’s first members had been radicalised years before the Depression put thousands out of work. Nellie Rickie was jailed at least twice under the War Precautions Act which banned the display of the Red Flag in public.

Already a symbol of revolutionary protest, the Red Flag aroused stronger passions after November 1917 when it became the background of the Soviet flag. The singing of its anthem at Communist Party functions in the Concordia Hall opposite Mark Foys provoked loyalist crowds gathered outside on the Elizabeth Street footpath. When audiences at Masses and Man drowned out “God Save the King” with “The Red Flag” questions were asked in parliament.

In Sydney’s Domain members of the Workers’ Defence Corps lined up to protect Communist speakers and there were bloody fights between carriers of the Red Flag and others waving the Union Jack, especially between those returned soldiers loyal to the British Empire and others disillusioned with their postwar lot. Visiting novelist D H Lawrence recalled such a brawl in Kangaroo:

men fighting madly with fists, claws, pieces of wood – any weapon they could lay hold of. The red flag suddenly flashing like blood, and bellowing rage at the sight of it.

After May Day marches in the 1930s violent clashes occurred behind St Mary’s Cathedral between the New Theatre League and the New Guard armed with bicycle chains. Indoors, tempers flared when some refused to stand for the national anthem.

During a prolonged timber workers’ strike in 1929 loyalists and the RSL were outraged on the King’s birthday when a burlesque lampooning the Royal Family was staged in the Communist Hall. A “dishevelled and uncomely person” impersonated the king, and for a penny a shot one could thrash Prime Minister Bruce, ACTU president Billy Duggan and arbitration judge Lukin. Russian confectionery was on sale. Master of Ceremonies was strike leader Jack Kavanagh. Four years later Kavanagh was typecast again, as a revolutionary leader in the Combined Workers’ Art Groups’ The Armoured Train before an audience of 600 in Transport House Central Station, a production marking the 16th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

Spence Barden was for decades on New Theatre Front of House duty every Sunday night, the first person the audience met at the top of the stairs and an expert in extracting the 2/- entry “donation”. As a young shearer Spence had been radicalised by meeting the Queensland strikers who had been jailed in 1894. Around a campfire he heard firsthand accounts of the unionists’ burning of the paddle steamer Rodney bringing scabs up the Darling River.

Charlie Reeve was one of the 12 anti-conscription Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) jailed in 1916 under the Treason Felony and Unlawful Associations Acts.

In prison he taught himself shorthand, read Jack London, and tried to get hold of a copy of Oscar Wilde’s De Profundis. Reeve acted in several NTL shows during the 1930s and members stayed in his Redfern terrace. His companion at the time of his death -- the Soviet flag was draped over his coffin -- was Ernest Guthrie, a self-styled “dramatic artist” who also acted with the New and brushed with the law. In 1933 on a charge of not paying for a stained glass window he had ordered, Ernest stated that he had wanted to put it in a church in memory of his wealthy English mother Lady Ward. Letting him off with a good behaviour bond, the magistrate commented that Ernest must have been looking at some of the stuff they put on at the pictures.

Merchant seamen and members of the Workers’ Defence Corps, "Shorty" Jones and Tommy Morrison dossed down in the WAC until 1935 after being deported interstate for their involvement in the April 1930 “Darwin rebellion” when 100 unemployed men, demanding to go on sustenance instead of the dole, camped outside Government House, raised the Red Flag and sang its anthem. At the WAC’s entrance Jones and Morrison kept guard against young street fighters from The Rocks.

Court-martialled in the First World War, Latvian-born Edward Janshewsky (his surname spelt variously as Janitski, Janisky, Janetsky and Janswesky) was one of many WAC players with no theatrical experience as either viewer or performer. A merchant seaman, Janshewsky in 1915 landed in Sydney where he was persuaded by the Russian consul to enlist. Maintaining that he turned to drink because of his unpopularity as a Russian, his period of service was marked by periods spent in hospitals, base depots and military prison. Despite his heavy accent and imperfect English he was given some big roles, including wordy parts in Shaw plays.

Another drifter who frequented 36 Pitt Street was Dick Whateley. After droving in Australia and picking up odd jobs in South America, he found himself stranded broke in France and joined the International Brigade in Spain. Frail, bronchial and shell-shocked, he returned to Sydney where he got some work on the waterfront. Terminally ill, he held on for months in the hope that he’d survive until fascism was defeated but died in 1943. Nettie Palmer referred to him as a deferred casualty of the Spanish Civil War, and prominent CPA member Adam Ogston delivered his eulogy.

By community standards the private life of WAC and Australian Railways Union member Tim O’Sullivan was unconventional. As a married man, he had a “Red wedding” with Nellie Rickie, crossing hands over the hammer and sickle flag and pledging sexual equality and duty to the Communist Party. After his divorce from his legal wife came through he had a regular marriage with Rickie in 1929 but things soon turned sour when he was bound over for punching her while drunk and breaking her glasses. The couple were divorced in 1938. By 1940 a disillusioned O’Sullivan wrote that it was hypocrisy that the Communist form of marriage would improve home life and equality of sexes.

Journalist John Hepworth also had a “Red wedding” with Oriel Gray’s sister Grayce, an exchange of vows in front of CPA General Secretary J B Miles.


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