Category Archives: Conscription 1916, 1917

‘Adela Pankhurst: The Wayward Suffragette’ by Verna Coleman


1996, 176 p.

As I might have mentioned once or twice, I’ve been involved in a street opera project called Serenading Adela. This event commemorates the centenary of the march of about 300 women to Pentridge Prison on 7 January 1918 to sing songs to anti-war activist Adela Pankhurst, who was imprisoned there on charges arising from a speech given on the steps of Parliament House the previous year.  The Pankhursts were a well-known family involved in the fight for women’s suffrage in Britain, but Adela’s political history went beyond that in Australia.  She had been sent to Australia by her mother Emmaline in 1914 on a one-way ticket with twenty pounds, some woolen clothing and an introduction to Vida Goldstein, whom the Pankhursts had befriended back in 1911.

In Australia Adela Pankhurst was well-known  as a speaker against war and conscription, a member of the Victorian Socialist Party and a foundation member of the Communist Party of Australia. From that she moved to the Australian Women’s Guild of Empire, and from there to the far-right Australia First movement.  She was interned following the bombing of Pearl Harbour. for her pro-Japanese sympathies in World War II.  While this shift from the extreme left to the extreme right is not uncommon, it does seem bewildering.  Lives are rarely lived randomly, and biographers look for a unifying thread, some continuity in world-view that makes sense to their subject, no matter how inchoate it may look from the outside.  So how does Verna Coleman characterize Adela Pankhurst?

A clue can be found in the subtitle: “the wayward suffragette”. The first third of this book deals with Adela’s life in England, as part of an intellectual, politicized family dominated by her mother Emmeline and her eldest daughter Christabel.  According to Coleman, Adela became increasingly uncomfortable with the militancy, violence and extreme feminism of the suffragette campaign, even though she herself was involved as speaker and activist. After a physical and emotional breakdown, and ensnared within the jealousies of her sisters, Adela left the suffragette battlefield and acquiesced to her mother’s demand that she not speak in public in Britain again, and agreed to go to Australia instead- just about as far away as she could get.

Adela arrived in Melbourne in March 1914 and was immediately welcomed by Australian suffragists.  She spoke out as a pacifist right from the start of the war, and sympathized with Germany as the underdog dominated by Britain and France (p.63)- a rather dangerous stance at the time. She was welcomed into the pacifist socialist group that was drawn to editor of the Socialist, Robert Ross; a group which included Bernard O’Dowd, Jack Cain, John Curtin and unionist Tom Walsh.  Pankhurst was to marry Tom Walsh, and together they moved politically across the spectrum from communist to anti-communist. It is rather galling to see that Adela’s entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography is shared with her husband Tom Walsh, with his lifestory told first. One would have thought that she deserved a stand-alone analysis.

Many of the chapters of the book- but not all- start with a fictionalized, italicized word-picture of Adela. It’s an interesting touch, and I was disappointed that it was not sustained throughout the text. Coleman draws on Adela’s own autobiographical writing, letters in the Pankhurst-Walsh and David Mitchell archives, and newspaper articles.

Coleman’s book traces Pankhurst-Walsh’s  philosophical and political shifts, but although she recounts the trajectory, she does not very well explain it.  Analysis comes in a short chapter near the end of the book titled ‘Renegade, ratbag…or romantic enthusiast?’ In these few pages, she suggests that perhaps Adela tried to recapture the romantic fervour of her youth, constantly needing excitement as she shifted from one cause to another.  “Like many a reformer”, Coleman states “Adela was driven by egotism as well as by altruism”.  However, the adjective “wayward” in the title seems infantalizing and I don’t think that it does Pankhurst justice as a political actor in her own right.

In an article in Australian Historical Studies (25, 100 p.422-436) from 2008 called ‘The Enthusiasms of Adela Pankhurst Walsh’ Joy Damousi does a better job, I think, of detecting a coherent thread throughout Pankhurst-Walsh’s political journey. It was concern for children growing up in slum conditions, Damousi suggests, a concern that could be just as easily  (indeed, more) accommodated  in the politics of the right as of the left.  Once I read Damousi’s article, I saw that Coleman has in fact referenced this abiding passion of Pankhurst’s throughout. But by characterizing her as the ‘wayward suffragette’, Coleman highlights her deficits as a ‘wayward’ Pankhurst daughter rather than as a thinker of agency with a continuity of passion that took her from one extreme of the political spectrum to the other.


This will be my final review for 2017 for the Australian Women Writers Challenge.  I’ll be back in 2018 to start the challenge all over again.

‘The Conscription Conflict and the Great War’ ed. Robin Archer, Joy Damousi, Murray Goot and Sean Scalmer


2016, 210 p.

Today is 20th December, the centenary of the second referendum held in Australia over the question of conscripting men to serve overseas in World War I.   So it is “meet and right” (to quote the Book of Common Prayer) that I should post this review today.

The Conscription Conflict was released last year, in preparation for the centenary of the first of the conscription referendums. As is made clear in both the foreword and conclusion of this collection of essays, the concept of asking the people about conscription is unique to Australia. It was not undertaken in any other country, and when Australia did introduce conscription during WWII and again in the 1960s, it did not make the mistake (as a government intent on introduction might view it) of asking the people again.  Not only was seeking the agreement of the people exceptional, what is even more striking is that the people answered ‘No’, in the midst of wartime emotion and censorship, and against the exhortations to vote ‘Yes’ from the Federal government, the major Protestant Churches, municipal councils, chambers of commerce, nationalist organizations, conservative women’s groups and almost all of the press.

This book is similar in scope and content to the La Trobe Journal I reviewed earlier, with one author and themes in common. This book, too, emerged from an expert workshop held at the University of Melbourne in 2015, sponsored by the Academy of the Social Sciences. It takes a much more international and philosophical approach than many of the  analyses of the referendums in the past.

Part I of the book starts with an exploration of the concept of liberalism held in Britain, and the changing response to conscription by various political brands of liberalism: the Gladstonian Liberals, ‘New Liberals’ and Liberal Imperialists.  I found this chapter, written by Douglas Newton (who also featured in the first chapter of the La Trobe Journal) rather difficult as I am not particularly knowledgeable about the nuances of British liberalism. Chapter 2 by Robin Archer (the historian, not the actor!) explores the philosophy of liberalism in Australia among Labor anti-conscriptionists at the time (the terminology is confusing because our current opposing political parties are Liberal and Labor- even though the Liberal party is also conservative).  The unions feared that compulsory industrial service would be introduced alongside military conscription, with workers allocated to jobs where pay and conditions would be determined by the military.   Their fears were lent credence by the increasingly authoritarian environment and rhetoric introduced by Prime Minister Hughes. In face of criticisms of their loyalty, Labor anti-conscriptionists emphasized the British liberal tradition, thus taking us back to the argument of Chapter I.

Part II deals with the anti-conscription campaign and results. Frank Bongiorno explores the varied organizations which made up the opposition to the referendum  and their ideological positions. He addresses the two referendums chronologically, and picks up again on the argument in Part I of the book that anti-conscriptionists drew on the idea of liberty and freedom as  fundamental principles. I’ve been studying the conscription referendums as they played out in Heidelberg and Ivanhoe, and Bongiorno’s final paragraph rang true to me when I considered the program of meetings at a local level, both pro- and anti-, which existed alongside those larger Melbourne-based rallies.

The campaigns over conscription were imbued with the grief and anxiety of a society at war, yet they were also colourful and exciting, occasions for marching and singing, for rallies, concerts and torchlight processions, for compelling oratory, for the display of banners, placards and buttons, for the sporting of sandwich boards bearing clever slogans, and, among women were increasingly at the heart of the enterprise…Such occasions could sometimes be a little frightening; yet they contained the pleasures of joining with others in a common cause, and the frisson of facing a little but not too much danger while fighting for freedom and democracy (p. 91)

Chapter 4, by Joy Damousi deals with the pro-conscription side by looking at the contribution of the academics at the University of Melbourne, a staunchly pro-conscription organization.  As she notes, for some of the academics involved, this was the only political question on which they campaigned publicly throughout their career.  In particular she focussed on the prominent law professor, William Harrison Moore, who along with the classics lecturer, Jessie Webb, published a set of arguments in support of conscription. He also toured the suburbs and country areas, preparing leaflets and addressing meetings.  Both went on to work with the League of Nations after the war.

Chapter 5 by Murray Goot re-examines the statistical results of the two referendums, placing them alongside the results of the elections of 1914 and 1917. He emphasizes the importance of the turnout, which in both referendums was larger than a ‘normal’ election, but warns that aggregate data are of little use in weighing the behaviour of the individual voter.

Part III  makes comparisons.  John Connor’s chapter asks ‘Why was it easier to introduce and implement conscription in some English-speaking countries than in others?’ He argues that it was easier to introduce conscription early on in the conflict (as America did soon after entering the war), and that passing legislation was more effective than asking the people. In the case of Australia, the labour movement, both political and industrial, was more powerful than it was in other countries. He takes a chronological approach, tracing through the “conscription conversations” of Britain, New Zealand and Australia in 1916, with its varied outcomes; then the United States, Canada and Australia in 1917 where, again, Australia said ‘no’ when the other countries did not; and finally Newfoundland and Ireland in 1918.

In Ch.7 Ross McKibbin compares Britain and Australia in more detail. He concludes that Britain’s political, industrial and military situations favoured the adoption of military conscription, and that because of a trade-off that saw the introduction of a quasi-civil conscription, Britain enjoyed a higher degree of political stability than other conscripting countries in the Empire.  He notes that the Labour Party in Britain emerged strengthened from the war, where as in Australia, the Labor Party was much weakened. Although both countries were sectarian and racist, this took a different form in each; and in Australia the failure to introduce conscription opened up the bitterness between those who volunteered and those who ‘shirked’.

The book finishes with Part 4: Legacies.  I very much enjoyed Sean Scalmer’s chapter that challenges an interpretation by Jeremy Sammut, a critic of Labor mythology,  who has posited that the left and the ALP have developed the  myth that the defeat of conscription saved Australia from a military dictatorship. Scalmer shows that the victors of the conscription battles did celebrate their collective achievements in the years following WWI, but this ‘legend’ was undermined by the actions of later Labor governments. The battle over conscription came to be seen as a Pyrrhic victory that brought about disunity, bitterness and division. Scalmer, however, argues that the conscription campaign was an important episode in the history of Australian democracy, and notes that “[b]y the respect granted to popular opinion, the primacy of the democratic principle was confirmed.” (p. 210)

And so, how did you spend the Reinforcements Referendum Centenary? I spent it outside Brunswick Town Hall, along with the cast of the Serenading Adela street opera. It will be performed on 7th January  to celebrate the centenary of the women’s march to Pentridge prison to ‘serenade’ Adela Pankhurst, who was incarcerated there for her anti-war activities prior to the second referendum.  But more of that anon.


‘That Dangerous and Persuasive Woman: Vida Goldstein’ by Janette M. Bomford


1993, 226 p & notes.

Vida Goldstein is remembered as a suffragist, social reformer and pacifist. The picture on the front Bomford’s biography encapsulates what we tend to think of as the quintessential first-wave feminist, in her Edwardian clothing and earnest demeanour. It’s a photograph of Vida Goldstein, taken by T. Humphrey and Co Photographers, holding a placard dated 28 June 1912 about the English suffragist campaign. At this time, Vida Goldstein would stand in the Melbourne streets – a shocking sight- posters pinned to her skirt, selling the newspaper ‘Votes for Women’ and her own  ‘Woman Voter’ publication.

Vida Goldstein selling Votes for Women newspaper.

Vida Goldstein selling “Votes for Women” newspaper. State Library of Victoria, Maurice Blackburn, Papers, MS 11749,

Vida Goldstein’s internationalism was just one aspect of her life that Janette Bomford highlights for us in this biography. At a time when women elsewhere in the Empire were still fighting for the right to vote, New Zealand and Australian women (who received the vote in 1893 and 1902 respectively) were feted in suffragist circles as an example of the new world to come (similar I suppose, to the way that Irish pro-marriage equality campaigners have advised during the current wrong-headed same-sex marriage ‘survey’).  She travelled to America as Australian delegate to the International Woman Suffrage Conference Fed 1902, aged 32 and was the delegate from the NSW chapter of National Council of Women to the Conference of International Council of Women, held immediately afterwards. She was elected Secretary to the International Woman Suffrage Committee,  serving alongside the 82 year old American feminist Susan B. Anthony who was President. While in America she undertook research into youth justice and criminology, two interests that she was to pursue throughout her life.

Nearly ten years later Vida Goldstein travelled to England in 1911 as a guest of the Pankhursts and the Womens Social and Political Union, spoke to 10,000 people in the Albert Hall and organized a contingent of ‘overseas’ women in the Great Suffrage Procession in June 1911. As Bomford points out, her contact with the most eminent suffrage workers in the United States and Britain brought her a sense of sisterhood and camaraderie that she never quite felt in Australia (p.219)

Goldstein’s commitment to women as voters and politicians in their own right dominated much of her public career. Born in 1869 in Portland Victoria, her mother had been involved in the Victorian Womens Suffrage Society in 1884, and young Vida cut her teeth as a committee member and organizer with the United Council for Women’s Suffrage and the Women’s Federal Political Association.  It was this last group, later renamed the Women’s Political Association that proclaimed itself to be unaligned to any political party, a stance which probably cost Goldstein electoral support in her three attempts to stand for the Senate as a Victorian representative, and two attempts at the House of Representatives seat of Kooyong.  She was the first woman in the Empire to stand for political office, even though she was never successful.  During the election held between the two Conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917, she was accused (with good reason) of splitting the anti-conscription vote, even though she was herself an ardent pacifist.

Her commitment to pacifism split the Women’s Political Association in the early years of the war, when there was strong support generally for Australia’s involvement. It led her to split with the Pankhursts in England, despite her involvement in the suffrage campaign there  less than five years earlier. It brought her into the spotlight of public attention as she campaigned with the Women’s Peace Army, of which she was a founding and highly visible member (I’m sure that her selection of the same initials as the Women’s Political Association was no accident- and it made taking notes on this book a nightmare!) She was mainstream middle-class, stylishly dressed  and a very capable public speaker, and she spearheaded the ‘No’ case during the Conscription referendum campaigns.

In many ways, the different aspects of her political life often clashed up against each other: the support for militant suffragism and yet strong pacifism; her determination not to align herself with a political party, even though it hurt the left of politics to which she more naturally leaned. As Bomford explains, she was a strong but inflexible character. Her parents had given her a good education, first at home with a very capable governess, and then at PLC. However, in a foretaste of what was to come, the family split over the issue of women’s suffrage when her parents publicly took diametrically opposed views. Through her parents, she became involved in the Charity Organisation Society of which they were founding members, which took a ‘case study’ and causal approach to poverty, and championed dignity in work rather than handouts to ‘deserving’ cases as practised by the Ladies Benevolent Society.  It was to her family that she looked for emotional sustenance, living with her sisters and brother-in-law in South Yarra for the last thirty years of her life.  Despite her name (which she always pronounced with ‘eye’ in both her first and surnames) she was not Jewish. Her religious and spiritual life was nurtured through Rev Charles Strong’s ministry first at Scots Presbyterian and then the Australia Church, and increasingly through Christian Science, to which she devoted her passion post WWI.

As Bomford explains, with Vida Goldstein there is no cache of personal papers for the biographer to mine. Fortunately, her correspondents often did keep her letters, most particularly her friend Stella Miles Franklin.  As a result, Bomford has had to rely on newspaper reports, Vida’s own writing in her various newspapers and speeches, and the reports of the government censors and security organizations. The constraints of material have constrained Bomford to write mainly of Goldstein as a public figure.  Nonetheless, I think that Bomford does a good job in giving an internal logic and unity to Goldstein’s politics, even though her inflexibility so often worked against the causes she believed in, and cost her many allies.

This is an academic text, with quite a few initials for organizations, which is just as much part of the territory in discussing political activism today as it was at the turn of the twentieth century.  It takes a strictly chronological approach, and most of the character analysis takes place in the ‘Afterword’ that closes the book.  It is probably not widely available today, given the ferocious culling of texts in libraries and short shelf-life of books in bookshops, but Vida herself has taken on even more prominence with the recent interest in the conscription debates of WWI and the toxic politics around Julia Gillard’s Prime Ministership.  ABC’s Hindsight program had an excellent episode about her in 2009 which is available as podcast and transcript here . Claire Wright also discusses Vida on a Podcast from La Trobe University’s Biography series available at  (the text is similar to Wright’s entry on Goldstein at the Encyclopedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia).  She also wrote a very good essay ‘Birth of a Nation?’ in Griffith Review 51 available here.


I have posted this review to the Australian Women Writers Challenge 2017.






‘The Story of Conscription’ by Leslie C. Jauncey


1968 reprint with foreword by Patrick O’Farrell, 1935 original text, 365 p.

Even though I have an ambivalent relationship with the tsunami of commemorative activities related with WWI, there may be a little flurry of book reviews related to the 1916/7 Conscription debates over the next month or so. As part of my work with Heidelberg Historical Society, I write a feature in our newsletter that looks at the Heidelberg-Ivanhoe district a hundred years ago. In December 1917 the second ‘referendum’ about conscription was held, and I’m speaking to our December meeting about how this Australia-wide political event played out at the local level a hundred years ago. Hence, my interest in conscription over the last year or so though historic walks (see here and here), a conference and the books in which I’m immersing myself at the moment.

A year ago I attended the launch of recently-published The Conscription Conflict and the Great War, which I reported here.  I finally started reading it this week (books sit around on my desk for a long time!) In the introduction it was noted that there was little discussion of the conscription conflict as a distinctively Australian experience, and that “there has been no book length treatment of the conflict since Leslie Jauncey’s effort to document some of the key actors, development and sources in 1935″(p.6).  Well, I thought, I don’t know anything of what Jauncey said, so I shut The Conscription Conflict and chased down Jauncey’s book The Story of Conscription in Australia instead. After all, if a book is offering “new interpretations”, perhaps I should know what the old interpretations were first.

Jauncey? Where have I read that name before? Then I remembered that it was a section on the Honest History website, where various authors took on the mantle of blogging as Jauncey.  As well as writing The Story of Conscription, Jauncey also wrote about the Commonwealth Bank, visited Russia, lived in America and was of interest to the FBI as a possible (but unproved) Communist.  What is interesting about this 1935 book is that it was republished with a foreword by Patrick O’Farrell (historian of the Irish and the Catholic Church in Australia) in 1968, during the Vietnam war when conscription was again to become so controversial. This foreword, now itself nearly 50 years old, criticizes the book for its one-sidedness (a very valid criticism) but also for its downplaying of factors in 1916/7 that were seen in 1968 to be far more significant than Jauncey suggested: most particularly, the role of the Catholic Church, farmers concerned about their labour supply and the socialist and industrial movements.

I’m not sure that Jauncey dismissed these factors as much as O’Farrell accused him of doing in 1968, but it is certainly true that Jauncey’s approach privileged the religion-based groups who opposed compulsion, both in relation to conscription and to the Compulsory Military Training scheme which preceded it.  As O’Farrell points out, Jauncey draws heavily on a book published in 1919 by J. F. Hills and John P. Fletcher, members of the Society of Friends (Quakers),  called Conscription Under Camouflage. In this post-war book, Hills and Fletcher had compiled newspaper clippings, pamphlets and official materials relating to compulsory military training, which they and the Australian Freedom League (formed 1912) opposed, even before the commencement of WWI.

It is this approach based on document-collection that Jauncey takes up in The Story of Conscription in Australia. As Jauncey writes near the end of the book:

Those people in Australia who have during the past twenty-five years collected valuable data on militarism and suppression should pool their priceless information so that it might be available at a minute’s notice. To-day [i.e in 1935] this material lies scattered all over Australia, being in cellars, lofts, sheds, and other places. Every year some of it is lost. If this data is not soon gathered and catalogued, it will be lost for ever. (p.348)

It’s perhaps no surprise that, as O’Farrell points out, Jauncey’s book could easily be called ‘Selected Documents of the Anti-Conscription Movement’ (p. ix). Many of these pamphlets and letters are reproduced in full, and there is an emphasis on the manifestos and motions passed during meetings of anti-conscription and pacifist groups. There is, as O’Farrell points out, no ‘behind the scenes’ material, and “one is left with a host of questions about motivations and feelings and atmosphere”.(p. xi)

Nonetheless, even if this book is, as O’Farrell says, “a chronology of what happened rather than a detailed analysis of why”(p.xi), then it has to be said that it does the ‘what happened’ well. It is organized chronologically, taking its starting point from the introduction of Compulsory Military Training and the Defence Acts of 1903-1912. Pacifist groups opposed the compulsory nature of this training from the start, but their critique was muted in the early days of World War I, when there was almost unanimous support for the war. During the early days of publicity for the first conscription ‘referendum’ (a technically incorrect term, but in general usage), the ‘yes’ side was ascendant, but Hughes’ decision to issue a ‘call to the colours’ for all men of fighting age just prior to the actual vote shifted the sentiment, leading to a narrow over-all ‘no’ result.  Because of the closeness of the result, and  the pro-conscription Hughes’ election victory soon after the referendum, it was not surprising that a second referendum was foisted on the people in December 1917. In explaining the increased ‘no’ vote in this second referendum, Jauncey emphasizes the influence of the pacifist groups and their publicity of the plight of conscientious objectors in Britain and New Zealand under their conscription schemes. His treatment of the second referendum is relatively brief, comprising the final third of the book.

His closing pages, written in 1935, are interesting, knowing as we do what happened just four years later.  He celebrates the Peace Ballot, held in England in 1934-5 where supporters went door-to-door, polling 11.6 million people, 38% of the adult population, and half the number who voted in a general election five months later.

The results of the peace vote in England in June 1935 was a ray of hope in a European sky overcast with the threatening clouds of war and oppression. Over ten million people asked for continued affiliation with the League of Nations… By six to one voters in the peace ballot favoured the abolition of the manufacture and sale of armaments for private profit…Over 92 per cent of the ballots favoured economic and non-military measures against an aggressive nation, while the vote for military action against an aggressor was under three to one. (p. 351)

He noted the increasing expenditure on armaments, and the moves towards increasing the periods of compulsory military training in Switzerland and France, and English moves towards compulsory air-raid drills.  He predicted:

In general the peace movement today like all reform groups is waiting for something to happen that can be used to its advantage.  It is likely that actions of the militarists during the next few years will bring together large sections of the peace movement, resulting in an active organisation that will go further than ever before in the direction of removing the causes of war. (p. 355)

I wish he’d been right.

He ends his book with an affirmation in the faith of the ‘ordinary man’.

The anti-conscription movement in Australia showed that very little faith should be placed in the over-whelming majority of leaders as bulwarks against militarism. Archbishop Mannix of the Roman Catholic Church was the only authority in the Commonwealth who vigorously opposed conscription. Six out of seven of the Australian governments, together with almost all political, economic, and religious leaders, demanded compulsion. Yet against all this power and against the suppression and censorship of the time the will of the people prevailed against conscription. A determined people won. The “No” votes were those of the ordinary man and woman and of the ordinary soldier in the trenches.  The peace movement must concentrate on the ordinary citizen. After all, it is he who has to put up with most of the hardship of wars. A well-developed and organized public opinion against war and conscription can prevail. (p.353)

But it was not just Jauncey’s book that was overtaken by other events. In O’Farrell’s foreword, written in 1968, he notes that “…in 1943 or 1964, the conscription question did not become again a matter of such deeply divisive national passion” (p.xiv).  Although perhaps true for the introduction of conscription in 1964, the Moratorium marches of 1970 and 1971 eventually gave the lie to that statement, and perhaps vindicated for just a while, Jauncey’s more optimistic view of the power of mass political protests. Not for long though, when millions of protesters world wide were impotent to stop the Iraq war in 2003.  In the face of increasing expenditure on weaponry, and the sabre-rattling of ‘Little Rocket Man’ and ‘the Dotard’, I suspect and fear that we’re just as impotent today.