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Book Review: “Murder In Tottenham: Australia’s first political assassination” by Rowan Day

The beauty of semester break is that I can finally turn my eyes from marking essays to some of the books and articles I’ve been meaning to read. One of the first I picked up was Rowan Day’s ominously titled, Murder in Tottenham. I was lucky enough to be at the book launch at Sydney’s historic Trades Hall. The sense of history was thick in the air and befitted a book dealing with the turbulent and often violent times when union clashes with the police and government were common.

Day presents a fascinating account of the revolutionary unionists, the International Workers of the World (IWW), popularly known as the Wobblies. The picture he paints is one of wild idealism and violent struggle for the mythical paradise for workers in the early days of Federation. He writes:

“The Tottenham Wobblies and their associates have been largely forgotten, despite doing everything imaginable to insert themselves into the history books. They rebelled against a economic and political structure they despised. They did this not only in Tottenham, but across Australia, New Zealand and America. The fact that some of them resorted to bullets and bombs shows just how fierce this struggle was” (p.159).

The focus of the book is refreshing. Rather than the heady political atmosphere in Sydney during World War I – ground well covered by historians of New South Wales – Day turns his attention to the small mining town of Tottenham. It was here that George Duncan, the only police officer in town was murdered by two Wobblies.

The book’s claim to cover Australia’s first political assassination is perhaps a stretch. Day reasons that Duncan was the highest symbol of state authority figure in the town and “For this reason, his killing can be seen as a political assassination” (p.159). Yet the evidence presented in the book does not really suggest the murderers were politically motivated. Indeed, the murder seems the only non-political event in the whole tale. Frank Franz and Roland Kennedy objected to Duncan’s heavy-handed policing. Kennedy knew he was wanted by Duncan and both he and Franz were intoxicated when they fired bullets into the officer’s back. There is little sense that the murder was on behalf of the Wobblies or to further their cause.

Whether the reader accepts this as a political assassination per se or simply a murder in a political climate – the throes of the Australian conscription debate and mass industrial action – the narrative is compelling.

Where Day really shines is bringing in the wider context of the global Wobblies movement. He shows the interconnectivity of the early twentieth century Anglosphere and the terror revolutionary unionism inspired not only for conservatives but the acceptable left and even political trade unionists. Indeed, it was Labor Prime Minister (later Labor rat) Billy Hughes who insisted the Wobblies “must be attacked with the ferocity of a Bengal Tiger” (p.82).

The Sydney Twelve trial, which found IWW members guilty of treason, was still in session when Franz and Kennedy were tried. The hysteria of the period is palpable in Day’s account. This fed into the most outrageous death sentence to be delivered in Australian legal history. Allegedly promised a reduced sentence and even a monetary reward for his family, Franz decided to turn Crown’s witness. His subsequent execution was unprecedented. As Day explains;

“Never in Australian history, before or since, has somebody been executed after becoming a witness for the Crown or ‘turning King’s evidence’” (p.115).

Such was the terror inspired by the Wobblies and the ruthless pursuit by the government and employer groups to destroy them.

Day’s book sheds a welcome light on rural politics in turn of the century New South Wales. He finishes with a poignant discussion if the Tottenham Wobblies belong in Russel Ward’s Australian Legend. The State’s fierce determination to suppress the IWW is also helpfully unpacked.

As Day notes:

“That a Cabinet in the process of preparing an anti-capital punishment bill would so firmly endorse two hangings … shows clearly that this was a time unique in modern Australian history” (p.126).

This book is well worth the read if for no other reason than it has some eerie similarities to many Western governments in the age of terrorism. Certainly in Australia, the state seems no more open to revolutionary groups or even counter opinions now than it was 100 years ago when Day’s story takes place.

In short, this is well written and superbly researched (as befits a book emerging from a PhD thesis). More importantly it is a good yarn and an exciting period in Australian history. Whether or not the murder was political – everything else in the book most certainly is.