Labor and the Radical Tradition in South Australia

One and All

Labor and the Radical Tradition in South Australia

One and All
Labor and the Radical Tradition in South Australia

by Philip Payton


Much has been written over the years about Unions, Labor, and the Labor Party. This latest book by Philip Payton has as subtitle; Labor and the Radical Tradition in South Australia. According to Frank Bongiorno the book does justice to a political organisation (The Labor Party) that has exercised a remarkable and surprising influence over the making of modern Australia.

As it turns out the one group of people who were at the forefront of this radical tradition in the Labor movement were the Cornish who were among the first large groups of migrants to call South Australia home. Their story is well documented in numerous books by historians who have highlighted their long standing experience in hard rock mining, their humour, food, religion and political motivations. However Payton’s account is different.

In One and All he highlights the early struggles, both in Cornwall and South Australia of a passionate and hardworking group of miners, with a unique mixture of religion and politics who translated ideals into action and laid a rock-solid foundation for equality and social justice. One and All is also an alternative and distinctive narrative of the Labor movement in South Australia, shedding new light on its origins. Payton argues that it was the Cornish miners who made an overwhelmingly positive and disproportionately large contribution to our civic and political culture.

Among the many cultural traditions the Cornish brought with them was a deep devotion to the Methodist faith, a belief in education and self-improvement, a fiery attachment to radical politics, a dislike of public houses, dance halls and theatres, independence of mind and an inherent self-reliance. Examples of these traits are given by the inclusion of short histories of some of the main characters, not all of them Cornish, under discussion. Among them are Charles Cameron Kingston, Tom Price, John Verran, Henry Ayers, RS Richards, RS Guthrie, Captains John Rowe and Hancock and the Warmington brothers. Payton’s additional information about the Tribute and Tutwork system is highly enlightening.

The Labor Party was to a large extent shaped by a continuous Cornish migration, Methodism and mining. Henry Ayers, secretary of the South Australian Mining Association, was very suspicious of the Cornish miners. He saw them as lawless tinners and often drunk. But he also realised that they were the very best he could and should have if the Burra mines were going to be a success. His worst fears seemed to come through when in September 1848 the miners went on strike, which in one newspaper was reported as ‘Revolution at the Burra Mines’.

Emigration was caused not only because of the failure of potato crops or the closure of mines; it had been almost a way of life, for one reason or another, including religion. The early migrants went to South America and then Canada, South Africa, United States, New South Wales and finally after 1840 to South Australia. Opening of new copper or tin mines in Australia often resulted in the closure of such mines in Cornwall and even more migration to South Australia. They laid the foundations for early trade unionism and an emergent Labor Party.

Payton has pointed out that many people, even some historians, made Adelaide the centre where everything happened. Very little, if anything, came from the country. Nothing could be farther from the truth. In 1872 the Moonta Miners’ and Mechanics’ Association was formed. Copper mining and smelting at the mines were of the largest type in Australia. As late as the 1970s one historian erroneously had all copper mines closed by 1890. Burra finished copper production in 1877 but the Moonta-Wallaroo mines operated until 1923.

After the Maritime Strike of 1890 it became clear that trade unionists should be more intimately involved in politics and that this would be the way to lasting social reform. Most Union leaders elected after this date as representatives for Kapunda and the northern Yorke Peninsula mines were Cornish. In May 1891 Richard Hooper, a Cornish miner from Moonta was the first Labor Member of Parliament to be elected in the State Parliament.

Many other Cornish miners have subsequently been elected to parliament. Several Premiers were Cornish, or of Cornish descent; among them Price, Verran, who formed the first social democratic Labor government anywhere in the world, Dunstan, Bannon and Weatherill. Many members and supporters of the early Labor Party were Cornish, Methodists, the most potent religious movement in nineteenth century South Australia, and often local preachers. The Cornish helped craft the State’s distinctive radical tradition. The 1891 census listed 80% of the northern Yorke Peninsula population as Methodists.

Payton has given a comprehensive account of many issues related to the start of the early Labor Party, its Cornish-Methodist radical tradition, its battles with the Legislative Council, the splits within the Labor Party, caused by conscription issue, the Premiers’ Plan and later the Communist issue. The battle over the conscription issue was particularly hard-fought in Wallaroo where the miners, smelters and waterside workers were very much anti conscriptionists.

Cousin Jack may have been king, but only after permission of his Cousin Jenny. Women stood with their men – not behind them. Any strike breakers or those not in support had their minds quickly changed by the very effective women’s broom brigade. Cornish women were seen as uniquely equipped to confront the rigours of the frontier, bringing domesticity and order where lesser women might have failed. Cousin Jenny became a secret weapon, not only on Yorke Peninsula but also at Broken Hill.

Although living and working in their adopted country the Cornish never forgot about home. When there was trouble of any kind, including long lasting strikes, large amount of money were sent to Cornwall in an effort to help out. Another effect of the constant migration was the continual refreshment of Yorke Peninsula’s Cornish cultural distinctiveness and kept both sides abreast of developments in each other’s locality.

Cornish skills and technology were also pivotal in the rapid exploitation of South Australia’s copper deposits and northern Yorke Peninsula soon became a dominant force in South Australia’s history. Improvements in mining or smelting techniques were often suggested by the miners or smelters themselves or by their captains, not by the mine owners or management. Improvements in social and political issues were also often brought about or solved by Cornish representation.

After having been in the political wilderness for some thirty years Labor was ‘saved’ when Cornish descendant Don Dunstan entered politics in the early 1950s. It was Dunstan who finally achieved the long-standing aim of all radical governments since the days of Kingston to reform the Legislative Council. By the 1970s some people even wondered whether Labor was now the natural party of government in South Australia.

Labor history has often overlooked South Australia’s distinctive experience. Payton’s One and All offers an important corrective. Historians have often located the emergence of the Labor movement in the rise of trade unionism during the 1870s and 1880s. Payton shows that in fact it had its origins much earlier and wider in the religious radicalism of the early copper mining districts. In doing so he has made a distinguished contribution to Australian Labor history according to Professor Frank Bongiorno.

Review by Nic Klaassen

One and All by Philip Payton, PB 361 pp,
with B/W photographs, index and end notes is available at $39.95, from
Wakefield Press
Telephone 08 8352 4455


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