Australia’s Founding Fathers: William Lane

William Lane
Australian Nationalist & Unionist
Founder of Australian Newspaper ‘The Worker’

“What could we expect from the Chinese but contamination? what could we dream of getting from the hordes of the East in all its loathsome nakedness and shame? Is it a recommendation to us that a Chinese is rich, if, under the protection of his roof, Sodom and Gomorrah are put to blush, sanitation ignored and decency denied.” ( The ‘Observer’ )

William Lane, born in Bristol on the 6th of September, 1861 was a young lad raised in what his brother described as a ‘bourgeois’ British family; He as a young man was educated at the Bristol Grammar School and at the age of 16 ( two years after his mother’s death ) he went on to travel the world; first landing in Canada and the United States where he worked in the printing & newspaper industry. In the United States he met his future wife Ann MacGuire.

Lane in 1885 emigrated to Australia, and with his work credentials earned in the United States he went on in employment for ‘The Queensland Figaro’ and this would begin his career in journalism in which he would contribute to many mainline newspapers, most notably the Brisbane ‘Courier’ and The ‘Observer’; under the alias of ‘Sketcher’ his articles on public immorality and vice saw his position accelerated to great prestige.

William Lane’s ‘socialism’ was very ‘non-marxist’ to the extent that he was a utopian, who believed in gradualist change and racial nationalism. He once wrote: “Unless Australia is to be white, what does it matter to us what becomes of it?” ; some have argued he played a key role in the forming of the Brisbane Trades and Labor Council ; headed by Sir Timothy Coghlan. For more reading on what ‘Australian Socialism’ really implied; take a read of The Social Nature of Australian Nationalism by E. Saunders.

Trade unionism saw Lane thrown into the heap with a large movement for White Australia, the nationalistic fervor with working white families was unmatched, perhaps anywhere in the world. Lane would go on to publish his racial politics in mainline newspapers and eventually his own.

“The coolie is a cur, a poltroon, a miserable tinker of a sailor whose only commendation is that he is cheap and reliable. . . . The blacks in our plantations, the lascars on our coasts, the Chinese in our towns and on our squatterages all threaten the life of White Australia.”

Lane would continue to be a firm campaigner against Alcoholism, particularly amongst White working families; he writes:

It isn’t so much what drink does, it is what it prevents. It isn’t the money wasted, the sorrow directly caused, the direct humiliation of the boozy workman and the sotted drunk.

Labor should be noble and holy, should be filled with happy homes, laughing children and smooth-faced wives, and freed from the slavery that now lingers around it. Only men who think, can help make it that, and no man can drink and think too. Make England or Australia nation of teetotallers and in fifty years the social problem will be solved for ever.

In May 1890; he founded the Brisbane-based newspaper ‘The Worker’; surrendering his 600$ salary from an established newspaper to take a pittance of 3 pounds per week to edit and run the new, native-funded and developed newspaper. Today the ‘The Worker’ stands as a many decades-old testimony to what ‘True Australianism‘ means to Nativists.  Featuring endless articles in the support of the White Australia Policy, the defense of decency for Australian workers in all fields of employment, the advocation for large, temperate, moralist families and ultimately the defense of the Australian workingman’s paradise.  The workingman’s paradise being the very title of a book written by W. Lane which outlined many of his beliefs through the paradigm of the Australian shearers strike of the 1890s.

Essays of this length can hardly do justice to the causes of Australianism through which Lane fought for; Lane for better or worse saw that Australia’s advancement as a White man’s working paradise was however crushed with the defeat of many of the working shearers unions in the 1890s. Lane proceeded to draft plans for a new, White Australian, agrarian, prohibitionist and socialist colony in Paraguay.

Jack Lang, the fervent Australianist premier of NSW wrote an essay on Lane’s experiment in Paraguay calling it “Australia’s Experiment in Communism.” he wrote: “The particular brand of Communism which had its origin in the very fertile brain of an Australian journalist, and led to more than 500 Australians leaving their own country for what was to be a Communist Utopia in South America, had very little in common with Russian Communism.

He [Lane] didn’t derive his inspiration from the ponderous works of Marx. He owed more to the gentle philosophy of William Morris, H.M. Hyndman and other British Socialists. McNamara was all for Hyndman. Lectures on Socialism were given on Sunday nights at Leigh House by George Black, W.G. Spence, J.D. FitzgeraId, W.M. Hughes and W.A. Holman, and soon there was a group of followers who wanted to put their ideas into practice instead of merely talking about them. They were the people who found their dreams crystallised in the plan put forward by Lane.

Although believing in Socialism, Lane was also very color conscious. He was against black labor, and had helped to inspire the White Australia policy, which had its origin in the sugarcane fields of North Queensland, where Kanaka labor was introduced. He had to find a white man’s country for his settlement. He decided on South America.

When they had collected sufficient money, Lane sent three experienced bushmen across to South America to negotiate for a grant of land. He insisted that it must be well away from any settlement. The Argentine Government refused to have anything to do with the idea. It had enough problems of its own without encouraging any new-fangled Socialist ideas. If it wanted revolutions, it could manufacture its own without any aid from across the world. So the delegation next turned its attention to Paraguay, which was more broadminded. They were offered 500,000 acres of fertile country free of cost and without taxes. But it was a thousand miles up the River La Plate. 

Lane next purchased a barque of some 600 tons, which had been built at Nambucca and singularly enough it was christened the Royal Tar, a rather strange title for the first ship of the Communist Navy.

Lane was a Quaker by conviction. He was not only against all violence, but also against strong drink as well. Some of his followers were Bohemians. But Lane had no time for any Free Love ideas. He even objected to the men and women mixing on deck after lights out had been sounded. There were disputes before the Royal Tar sailed. There were many after it was on its way. When some of the Communists spent their money in port and became drunk, Lane was most irate and showed it. He insisted that they must bow to his discipline.

Lane was rather a small, insignificant figure, and also a cripple from birth. Many of his followers towered over him. They refused to accept the idea that he should be a dictator.  So even early Communism had its woes.

The Communists found that under Communism there still had to be overseers. It was agreed to hold a secret ballot. Then the foremen started ordering the rest around, just like capitalists. There was more trouble. There were stop-work meetings and family squabbles. Jealousy extended to the women folk.

On Christmas Day a number of the men went into a native village, drank too much liquor and started to fight on their return to the settlement. Lane called in the Paraguayan police and expelled some of the settlers for drunkenness because they had signed a teetotal pledge before sailing. There was trouble indeed in the Working Man’s Paradise.

Crops failed, and they started eating the stock they had brought with them for breeding purposes. Rations began to drop. Some of the settlers suggested that if it was to be a workers’ paradise, they should hire themselves some colored labor, which would be cheap. Lane objected and the proposal was dropped.

But the Communists still couldn’t agree amongst themselves. Instead of Utopia, New Australia was turning out to be worse than the old Australia.  Some of the original settlers returned to Sydney on the Royal Tar, minus their savings. Still a second contingent was raised. But faction fighting had started in earnest. Those who objected to Lane’s wowser ideas, and despotic ways were in the majority. So he was deposed from the leadership.

Photograph of a Town meeting of Lane’s ‘New Australia’

Lane then decided to leave New Australia, and start a Second Earthly Paradise a few miles away. He had 46 disciples still following him, and about a dozen children. They called the new settlement Cosme, and it was supposed to regain all the ideals that had been lost in the first venture. But the society that hated capitalism found that it didn’t have sufficient capital. At one stage they were literally starving. But they were the true idealists and Lane had undisputed sway over the new settlement. A few Socialists from Britain came out to join them.

Lane stuck it out until 1899 when he resigned his leadership. The settlement struggled along for a few more years. Gradually the settlers either straggled back to their homes in Australia, or married into South American families. Some of their descendants are still there. But they are no longer Communists. They are now firm believers in Capitalism, and according to reports some have become quite large landowners, employing labor. On his return to Australia, Lane became editor of the Sydney Worker, but soon drifted off again to New Zealand where he became a leader writer for an anti-Labor paper and an ardent conscriptionist. One of his brothers, Ernie, who was with him at Cosme, was a leading Communist and died quite recently in Brisbane, being a contributor to the Communist Press. ”

Regardless of what we might think about Lane’s kind of Paraguayan, Utopian Communism – there can be no doubt the many decades he spent in Australia, he was an enormously influential leader in the advancement of the Australian cause for racial purity, decent standards and a native cultural identity. He saw to the well-being of some Australian heroes like Mary Gilmore and Henry Lawson, using his influence in newspapers to give them an audience.

Lane is a controversial figure for Australianists, We bicker and argue about his character and form all the time – but none of us can deny, He certainly is- one of Australia’s Founding Fathers.


Nativist Herald