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Harry Hooton on Monty Miller and Annie Westbrook: The IWW in Australia

Industrial Worker, Chicago, 1945

The IWW in Australia by Harry Hooton

(Ed Note: Our boys in Australia are getting back into action. In recent months letter after letter has been received from 'down under' and all tell the story of renewed activity, renewed hope.

Gladly therefore we turn over this space to the man whose poems (Jan 6th and June 30th) created so much interest.

The following was written rather as a private letter than as an article for publication. Its intimate style but adds to its value as 'background' to an area which may - in the near future - be the scene of a re-awakened labor movement.)

This title is misleading. Even a rough outline of the history of the IWW in this country would take several pages, and it would take a more competent historian. This is just a short notice of two great Australians who were intimately connected with the movement. I have given it the above heading to indicate the importance the IWW had here to suggest that someday the subject will have to be investigated and to reassure readers of the Industrial Worker that their great union is still worldwide, that it lives for us down under.

If any fellow worker notices omissions of names, of errors in times or places, that is due, not to bias but to ignorance. The records of the IWW are scattered from Perth to Brisbane, in rare publications, letters..... There is far too much talk about "living by the spirit, and not by the letter of the law." I feel with most wobblies that is too easy. We must be scientific, accurate - not spiritual and evasive. We must live by letters, concrete words, and not by spirit whatever that is. So I plead guilty. I have unbounded respect for two great 'spirits' - Monty Miller and Angela Westbrook. These people were foundation members of branch locals of the IWW in this country.

'Ma' Westbrook:

I first met Mrs Westbrook in 1934. It was the time of the bleakest depression and when Wobbly theory and practice was at its lowest ebb. At the end of the first "great" war the ideals of the IWW had swept the world, including Australia, and the movement had been savagely suppressed. In 1934 there was to my knowledge no IWW local or group functioning anywhere. It was illegal. Mrs Westbrook fought singlehanded to keep the ideals alive. For a quarter of a century - from 1920 to 1934 - when I met her and from then to this year of disgrace, 1945, Mrs Westbrook WAS the IWW so far as the Eastern States were concerned. She is now 76.

Her house was the centre of very libertarian hope. While the comrades marched their dupes back and forward, round and round, in true Duke of York tradition, she proclaimed without ceasing - job control, to hell with politics, democratic unionism, direct action.... It was against the stream all the time. She never wavered an inch... I remember mentioning her to an 'advanced' back-to-front Lenin-Trotskyist acquantance. "Ma Westbrook" he said, "Oh she's no good, won't move with the times, shes a wobbly and they're hopeless. Once a wobbly, always a wobbly." He little knew how true he was.

There's too much virtue made of this 'elasticity' - this ability to 'change one's mind.' It's too easy. We want the integrity of stubborn men who chart a course early, and stick to it. Ma Westbrook took her cue from Monty Miller, Australia's first and greatest Anarchist.

Monty Miller:

Monty Miller fought in the Eureka Stockade at 18 and was imprisoned with the IWW on a no-conscription issue at 80. That looks like a record.

(The Eureka Stockade, 1854, Australia's first fight for Democracy. 15,000 goldminers revolted against Government licensing. In a pitched battle over 20 were killed.)

Monty Miller of course, is claimed by every one here - Stalinists, 'Labourites", Democrats - he's a national hero, now. But he was an Anarchist. Not loosely labelled - a name he gave himself and kept for 70 years ...... Mrs Westbrook was converted from the old Slowcialist Party - sat at the foot of the grand old man when she was a girl. He inspired her with disgust of all politicians and other vermin... The two between them are a century of Australian history. She is a living link with the best man in the 19th century.... very few remember Monty in the flesh today.

Mrs Westbrook was living with Monty in West Australia when the IWW came over from the Eastern States. About 1910, '11, '12, American seamen had spread the flames of discontent in the southern continent. Locals had been started in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide. In 1912(?) Westy became a foundation member of the first West Australian local in Fremantle.

No Conscription!

In 1916 12 men including Monty Miller were arrested in the west and served prison terms as IWW members - on no conscription issues, etc. In the East, Sydney, 12 others (a more celebrated case) received sentences up to 10 years on cooked up charges of arson, sabotage, etc. Westy came to Sydney to assist in their defence.

In 1917 Australia was convulsed by its greatest strike in history. The 12 men became the live issue of all sections of the labour movement. In that year the IWW was declared an unlawful association. For the next two years presses, papers, were confiscated, members arrested time and again as groups tried to function. The name was changed, or milder bodies were formed ("Industrial Union Propaganda League" etc) but reaction won - on the surface. And there followed the bleak period I have mentioned.

What the future of the IWW is here I can't say. Isolated groups recur at intervals. In Sydney and in Perth WA attempts have been made to resuscitate the organisation.

Of course there is the adulteration of its dows hear so much of the OBU since Stalinism became fashionable. But the Trade Unions made the most of it - for their own ends. In his old age Monty Miller professed regard for the Soviet Union - was capitalized and limelighted somewhat by the Coms. But he wouldn't have fallen for any more if he'd lived to see more of it.

As far as I am concerned individuals do not make the movement. There are only the plain, unadorned, ordinary workers. Just human beings - husbands, fathers, fighters, lovers. But there is room for some hero worship..... I wanted to give my mentor and friend Mrs Westbrook my tribute before she becomes, with Monty Miller, a memory. I want now simply to assure readers of the Industrial Worker of the inevitability of their union becoming world wide. We are with you, American fellow workers in this sector of the world front.

Harry Hooton

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