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Larry Petrie (1859-1901) - Australian Revolutionist?

by Bob James
from Red & Black an anarchist journal
Summer 1978/79

Lawrence (Larry) D. Petrie (Larry de Petrie) (b. 1859, d. 1901) was a warm hearted, warm blooded man eager to match his life with his beliefs, impatient for change, and prepared to coax destiny along with direct action. He participated in the formation of the most significant radical groups in Melbourne and Sydney in the period 1889 - 1893, and in a number of other not so radical, but also important, organisations of the time. He was a participant in the New Australia experiment and throughout a turbulent life seems to have retained the respect and affection of most who knew him. He wrote little about himself, and most information comes from recollections of people who associated politically with him.

W.G. Spence recalls:

Jack Andrews:

"I have known many rebels," said Ernie Lane in Dawn to Dusk, "but Petrie, generous to an unbelievable extent, was in the super-class. (He) used to sing in a good, baritone voice The Marseillaise to gather a good crowd around him .... Raising his only arm when he sang 'to arms, my citizens' was always good for a laugh ..... In the Domain, on street corners and all the time Petrie passionately called on the workers of Sydney to take up arms and man the barricades. He would at the slightest provocation sing the Marseillaise, his eyes flashing, and his black moustache bristling. Both the cynical crowd and the police looked on Petrie as a joke, and he was allowed to go on with his revolutionary outpourings." (It will be argued elsewhere that Lane is mistaken in his sanguine view of the relationship between Petrie and the authorities). "Yet", continues Lane, "this wild rebel was appointed as Australian Workers Union (AWU) Secretary-Organiser in Sydney, and even then the AWU was certainly not a revolutionary body."


Larry D. Petrie

Petrie himself wrote in the 'Liberator' of 26 February 1888:

Kenafick comments,

Kenafick himself equates Communist Anarchism with the last and logical stage of Marxian Socialism, but it is clear that Petrie seems less concerned with ideological purity than with helping into being organisations that might just push on the work of social reform. It is in this light that the apparent conflict between Andrew's:

and Kenafick's above statement that: should be seen. Petrie was the sort of person who would remain agreeable to both sides of a dispute within the camp of what he would call socialism. The conflict will however bear further research, especially in the area of Petrie's and Rosa's relations with one another.

Petrie continued:

Personal History:

I have no information about Petrie's arrival in Australia. He describes the earliest part of his history this way:

This probably occurred in the late 1880's.

Petrie is apparently a late-comer to the Melbourne Anarchist Club (MAC), as Sam Rosa is, leading debates on 9th June 1888 on 'Anarchy', on 10 August 1888 'the Chinese', on 3rd November 1888 ("Individualism" the topic) and 8th December 1888 ("Equity"). He spoke frequently at the Queen's Wharf and 'travelled' in tea taking the opportunity to talk with his customers about social change, especially women in slum areas and prostitutes 'for whom he had great sympathy.'

Andrews again:

The period 1890 - 1893 is of vital importance in considering Petrie's anarchism, but there are still numerous gaps. It is possible that he came to Sydney on the demise of the MAC, possibly with Jack Andrews and helped organise the conspiratorial group which met for a period near where the southern end of the Harbour Bridge is now and which was broken up by a police raid or raids. He drifted to country NSW where, at Berry Jerry Station, in a fight with a non-unionist, his withered arm was broken again and "through the meanness and anti-union spirit of the squatter who refused him a vehicle" Larry had to ride a horse (lent by the shearers who bought it from a passing traveller) 35 miles to Wagga Hospital. A major operation was performed, the bone removed from the shoulder joint and since he had nothing else with which to thank his nurse, Petrie presented his 'angel' with the bone.

The Hummer records in early 1892 show that Petrie was doing 'good work' for the Wagga Branch of the General Laborers Union and 'Is down along the Corowa - Culcairn Line this week'. He later came to Sydney where he roomed with Ernie Lane, and worked with Rose Summerfield as secretary of the GLU. He is recorded as being at the Australian Socialist League (ASL) May Day meeting in Sydney and organising 'the women workers of Sydney, a good number of whom are joining the Women's Division of the AWU'.

Besides 'soap-boxing' from May to September 1892, he debated the relative merits of socialism and 'Georgism' with Bob McCook, a Henry George supporter, in the columns of The Hummer and the (Sydney) Worker.

When the GLU shifted Head Office to Sydney and became the AWU, Petrie's services were 'no longer required' and he went to the country with a mate, the latter doing odd jobs, sharpening saws, etc, while Petrie secured the customers. Petrie indicates that little if any work was found so he returned to Sydney, where he was engaged by the AWU. Thus, in September 1892, he donated as Organising Secretary for the AWU, a gold ring to the Union Prisoners Assistance Fund to be raffled.

Conspiracies and Direct Action:

The Sydney Morning Herald report of the May Day Demonstration (May 2, 1892), (led into with sensationalist cable items from France on bomb 'outrages' and alleged threats), is headed 'Revolutionary Speeches'. Included is the text of a motion moved by Petrie as Organising Secretary of the GLU:

The report then paraphrases what Petrie said in support of the motion:

Ernie Lane says that Petrie was of French ancestry on his father's side and accordingly had a supreme contempt for the stolid British worker whom he considered a slave. On one occasion when William Lane (influential labour journalist) was in Sydney, he and Petrie argued about the virtues (the militancy) of British and French workes. Lane said, "Anyway, if you believe in revolution why don't you put it into practice ...... go down George Street (Sydney's main street) and build a little barricade of your own?"

Petrie, according to Ernie Lane replied, "I will, I will. Within a year I will be in jail." (I don't know whether this is a comment on the efficacy as well as the need for direct action or not.)

Ernie Lane describes how he and Petrie used to multigraph, in the AWU office, leaflets and appeals to the workers, generally strikers, to take their courage in their hands and storm the capitalist stronghold. At night they used to paste these appeals around Sydney. Jack Andrews, Robert Beattie, Arthur Desmond and Joseph Schellenberg are others whose involvement in these nocturnal activities can so far be definitely established. Press notices provide the wording of some of the pamphlets:

1. "The following revolutionary document was distributed in the Sydney domain on Sunday last by somebody who evidently aspires to be an Australian Ravachol:-

Men of Australia !!

Why do we work and sweat and force ourselves into premature graves, that our masters may revel in blind luxury and pass their lives in idleness and splendour? We toil, not for ourselves, but for them, and while our children grow into slaves and lackeys, their children get all the riches of the earth, riches that are produced by our labour.

Fellow Workers Arise !!

Let us throw off our vile apathy, hurl defiance at our robber landlords, and throw in our lot with those who are fighting for Justice! The cursed robbers that grind us down laugh at our woes and prostitute our daughters. They are heartless, and when cold want comes home to us, they help our starving families by throwing a little charity at them, even as they would at a 'mongrel - yea, look upon us as mongrels. They despise us, and would not save us from damnation if it touched their interest in the least.

Agitate ! Organise ! Revolt !
Justice demands it for the sake of your wives and children.
Long live the Social Revolution !

2. "A Ravacholist, on paper, pasted on the Sydney wharves during the seamen's strike some manifestos to show Australian capitalists that like causes are going to breed like effects either side of the Line."

3. "Here is another blood and thunder circular with the red flag stuck glaringly in the centre, which has been distributed in Sydney. Lots of smoke may mean some fire:-
      "No. 2 Leaflet - Fellow workers: Again we urge you to rise from your apathy and fight hard for justice. Force, and force only, can strike fear into the hearts of our oppressors. Moral suasion and constitutional reform?
      - One is still-born, the other an abortion. Not the ballot box but the rifle and the -- alone can free us from our degrading slavery. Remember Broken Hill. Behold the force lawless law oppresses us with! !Prepare for the Revolution! Seize arms - buy arms. But not afraid! Be men! and organise ! Agitate ! Revolt !"

4. "The Queens' Statue, Chancery Square, Sydney is garnished with yellow placards running:
      "Anarchy is Liberty / Read 'News from Nowhere'".

I'm prepared to accept that these are the Lane-Petrie - etc. pamphlets. The question then becomes whether Petrie was prepared to practise what he preached. And if he was, and did, did he act alone or as part of a group? If part of a group, which group, and who were the other members of it?

Kenafick speculates that the strike years of the '90's brought out Petrie's excitability and produced a more violent attitude than he had in Melbourne. I'm inclined to the reverse of this idea, namely that the use of the strike was a sign that the moderates were already in the ascendancy, that the time had already passed when direct action could have been expected to produce significant change. For Andrews, Petrie was, in his Melbourne days, already an 'ardent revolutionist'. In Melbourne the Anarchist Club's the logical place to look for plots and conspiracies, but in David Andrade's hands it was always excessively open and moderate. (See biog.) Not that this rules out secret plots. It would appear in fact that the Club split over precisely this question, in the wake of the Haymarket affair. This is discussed elsewhere. At the moment I have no definite information to link Petrie with a 'gunpowder plot' before he reached Sydney.

In this context, the Knights of Labor is intriguing. Originally a secret industrial organisation of garment-cutters in the USA, its secret rituals and structure paralleled the Lodges which were spreading rapidly at the time. It may have been the conspiratorial nature of the K of L which appealed, or it may be a sign of the consciousness of the times.

In any event, I'm sure the following will bear closer scrutiny. The seal attached to the copy of Secret Work and Instructions for the K of L held in the Mitchell Library, Sydney, has:

Image: Knights of Labor Great Seal

There are no references in the text to sabotage, violence or industrial action. (See also p. 136, Labor's Pioneering Days).

In the Sydney of the strike period conspiratorial groups were doubtless widespread. In one such group Petrie is listed along with Ernie Lane, Ralph Baynham, (described as a 'revolutionary anarchist') Sousa, and 'enthusiastic' Rose Summerfield. The fictionalised group William Lane describes in Workingman's Paradise is probably based on this group but the characters are composites drawing on, as well as those already named, Henry Lawson, Mary Gilmore, refugees from the Paris Commune and Mazzini's Italy, the Rose Soleys, Phil May, E.J. Brady and Lane himself.

The Active Service Brigade is the most likely group to have produced the above pamphlets but in its early days, 1892 say, it was not a very coherent group at all. Later, Ernie Lane appears not to have been associated and neither was Petrie. A further section will deal with the ASB in detail.

Mary Gilmore, first woman member of the AWU and a member of its Executive provided insights into her views on direct action when she told (National Times, May 6 - 11 1974) of an earlier unsuccessful attempt to blow up Circular Quay involving Petrie. No date is given, but it's probably 1892.

After telling Ernie Lane he was off to blow up a non-union ship, Petrie booked a passage on the S.S. 'Aramac'. On board at midnight on 27 July near the entrance to Moreton Bay there was a tremendous explosion in the forecabin. "The funny thing was" said Petrie some years later, "that the moment the bomb went off my first and only thought was to save people's lives." Fortunately there was no need to save anyone. A pillar of flame shot through the roof of the cabin and two women nearby were slightly injured. Petrie's presence on deck immediately afterwards, especially since the companionway was blocked with debris, aroused suspicion, his 'fake' name did also, and he was arrested as soon as the ship berthed and charged with attempted murder.

Some of the significance of this explosion can be seen from the uses to which it was put. The Sydney Morning Herald editorialised on the 4th August 1893 that:

Attempting to set the scene, a week earlier the same paper had said;

Petrie was well-known to both Henry Lawson and Mary Gilmore was probably a good friend but his 'case' was additionally important to them. Dame Mary tells of writing a poem about an incident in Petrie's bush career while he was in jail, on suspicion of blowing up the 'Aramac'. This poem begins "The crows kep' flyin' up, boys!" and is the poem, according to the authoress (Adelaide Register, August 30, 1924) that Lawson was so affected by that he came to her house in City Road, "with a trembling lip". In his hand, he held the cutting he had torn from The Worker, 9 Sept., 1893). "You have beaten me on my own ground ..... there isn't room for both of us. One of us must give up ....." Although Lawson wished to give up for her, after a protracted argument, complicated by their emotional regard for each other, she finally convinced him that she would give up the style and content for him, but she also prevailed on him at this time to "cease writing revolution, and write Australia". Whatever else may be said about the reminiscence, Dame Mary had the wrong ship (she says The Warrego) and the wrong year (1890). Professor Roderick in his The Formative Years of Henry Lawson, where he says Lawson met Petrie at Leigh House, repeats the above story, but elsewhere in the same article refers to the boat as the 'Aramac' and provides the correct date of July 1893. Sylvia Lawson repeats the story in her biography of Mary Gilmore and provides many of the words.

Lawson, for his part, quotes the poem as 'an (anonymous) old bush song' in The Hero of Dingo Scrubs the plot of which bears marked resemblance to that of the poem.

The Government Analyst's report said that he examined tin and hair found at the scene (of the Aramac explosion) and 'found a soapy looking substance which proved to be gelatine dynamite.' A second parcel showed traces of tar as of a fuse. Gelatine dynamite consisted of gun cotton and nitroglycerine, also nitrate of potash and wood meal.

"All the prosecution needed was evidence of where Petrie had obtained the explosives," according to J.D (an anonymous contributor to Tocsin) "..... All the detectives seemed to be able to do was to go around the Sydney explosives stores and ask who had bought dynamite. As if a real anarchist would buy dynamite while Government blasting operations were in progress in half a dozen Sydney suburbs, and the storeman in charge o'nights could be enticed to an adjacent corner hostelry for a much needed drink." Despite constant postponements, apparently the best the government could come up with was a man called Fitzpatrick who was prepared to swear Petrie had offered him bribes for dynamite. Arthur Rae got wind of this, was able to show the Attorney-General that Fitzpatrick must be lying, threatened a public exposure of police malpractice, so the Attorney-General filed a No-True Bill and Petrie was discharged.

Whilst in jail Larry told those in charge that if the Premier of Queensland would come to see him he, Larry, would tell him who was responsible for the blowing up of the Aramac. The Premier was told and he visited the gaol and interviewed Larry who told him that it was he (the Premier) and his colleagues in the Queensland Parliament who wore responsible. By their attitude towards the working classes and their tyranny generally they drove men to anarchy, etc.

The (Brisbane) Worker editorialised that the evidence available in the Aramac explosion pointed 'to a put up job'. It then went on to quote Petrie, as interviewed on his release:

It is significant that Active Service Brigade (ASB) leaflets begin appearing in Brisbane upon Petrie's release. They are reported in New Zealand and in the (Brisbane) Worker of November 25, 1893, which reprints a pamphlet from the Brisbane Courier:-

"Bushmen, mates, whose joyless lives excite the sympathy of all true men, let me address you. The squatter kings, callous and brutal, intend to try to reduce your wages from the beginning of 1894 .... (moral suasion a fraud - continues - BJ) ..... you must strike - and with a 'little devil' make it uncomfortable for the squatter or his manager to live in the bush ..... How are you to do it? You know how. One man can do the work if he likes. It is not necessary to have a million. But do not take too many into your confidence ..... Finally, avoid injuring innocent people .....
By Order, Active Service Brigade, Queensland, 9th November, 1893."

The (Brisbane) Worker comments, that this suggestion is no surprise since the squatters' methods of blacklisting, victimising and the unjust reference system have intimidated men from combining openly and there is nothing left for some men but secret organisation ..... The (Brisbane) Worker advises the Courier and others to 'discourage grinding of poor, etc, in order to discourage Ravachol - type people from appearing.

Andrews later provided, in Petrie's defence, some further background:

Andrews then describes Petrie's defence and goes on "and as 3 or 4 people made precisely similar overtures to members of the ASB, Petrie's version bears the hallmark of exact truth ......."

"The last time I saw him was just prior to the Royal Tar's (second) departure." Andrews was just out of gaol after 3 months' sentence for not having the 'correct' information on his Handbook of Anarchy, and Petrie said to him as parting words, "You see, it's better to be prosecuted for something." This could be taken to mean he did blow up the Aramac but Jack Andrews sees it otherwise "....... as meaning that a serious charge cannot be so readily dealt with in a prejudiced manner, with out fair trial, or made the means of a prosecuting conviction as a trivial and technical one. He made no statement whatever as to what had occurred on the Aramac .... it could have been him, perhaps provoked by agent provocateurs or perhaps he didn't want to remove suspicion from himself because that would have meant someone else." Andrews' strenuous attempts to disassociate Petrie from the explosion are very interesting, as, if there is any substance to the police reports of secret organisational documents speaking of murder, etc. (see Andrews biography) he is the person most centrally involved. In the Tocsin of June 27, 1901, to J.D., he says,

J.D. had also contended that Petrie naturally lost many friends by his "posed connection with the outrage but this seems doubtful. It's clear from constant references in the labor press that he was a well-known and respected figure and that this regard preceded him to North America. Macarthur of the Coast Seamen's Journal, San Francisco, in his 'American Letter' for the Australian Workman, September 22, 1894 says "Larry Petrie not yet arrived, when he does I will do all I can for him." Judging from his letters Petrie was good friends with Mrs Cameron, Mary Gilmore's mother and in one letter he implies that she gave him a fortune-telling before he left Sydney. Souter recalls him singing 'con brio' in the McNaught's parlour at Hunter's Hill (Sydney) the song "The Men of the New Australia' written in 1893 by Mary Cameron (Gilmore) and A.E. Mason-Beatty. Petrie says he received a warm invitation from Cosme io join them when on his way there and there is no reason to dispute he received just that. He clearly retained Spence's affection and that of Sam Smith, Seamen's Union official.

According to J.D. he reckoned on losing friends ....... "If the ship had gone down, so would I; then my friends could only have shown their disapproval by refusing to wear mourning. I daresay my wraith would not have wept therefore."

J. D. appears to have the final say on the Aramac explosion, however. "He long afterwards calmly told (the writer) ..... that he expected the vessel to become a total wreck, but that the bomb (if it was a bomb) had partially failed because of the absence of weight on its top side."

Petrie came out of gaol approximately 11 October, 1893. Andrews again, "After this Petrie came to Melbourne where he had hard times with poverty and ill-health. He wandered about for a while and eventually made arrangements to join New Australia.

New Australia - An Anarchist Utopia?

That three of the above press reports of 'Anarchist' handbills appeared in the (Brisbane) Worker is just one of the links of this philosophy to William Lane. He had by mid-1892 resigned as editor to co-ordinate the New Australia, a settlement in Paraguy, but was still contributing items. Working Man's Paradise, published early in 1892, shows Lane's belief that anarchism is the noblest social philosophy of all, and through the novel's philosopher, Geisner, he relates his belief that society may have to go through a period of State Socialism to achieve the higher ideal of Communist Anarchism. Geisner is a refugee from the Paris Commune (Lloyd Ross says the father of one of Lane's friends was such a refugee - Kenafick chapter 9, p. xxvii). He has the following conversation with the hero Ned (partly based on Lawson, according to Kenafick) beginning by telling Ned 'Where The Evil Lies' and contrasting State Socialism to 'anarchical communism' based upon 'voluntarism and opposed to force whether of governments or otherwise'.

Ned: "Then Anarchists aren't wicked men?"
Geisner: "The Anarchist ideal is the highest and noblest of all human ideals. I cannot conceive of a good man who does not recognise that when he once understands it. The Anarchical Communists simply seek that men should live in peace and concord, of their own better nature. without being forced, doing harm to no one, and being harmed by no-one. Of course the blind revolt against oppressive and unjust laws and tyrannical governments has become associated with Anarchy, but those who abuse it simply don't know what they do. Anarchical Communism, that is, men working as mates and sharing with one another of their own free will is the highest conceivable form of Socialism in industry."
Ned: "Are you an Anarchist?"
Geisner: "No. I recognise their ideal, understand that it is the only natural condition for a community of general intelligence and fair moral health, and look to the time when it will be instituted. I freely admit it is the only form of Socialism possible among the Socialists. But the world is full of mentally and morally and socially diseased people who, I believe, must go through the school of State Socialism before, as a great mass, they are true Socialists, and fit for voluntary Socialism."

It is interesting to note that Mary Gilmore (used to model the heroine Nelly) wrote to Kenafick saying that 'the whole book is true and of historical value as Lane transcribed our conversations as well as those of others'. It is also interesting to note that Kenafick's equation of ultimate Socialism with Communist-Anarchism parallels that of Lane though Kenafick says Lane's knowledge of Marx is minimal and probably hadn't penetrated. Kenafick of course is the author of Marx and Bakunin and was very widely read in Socialist literature, in French as well as English. Just before Lane resigned the editorship to co-ordinate New Australia, the (Brisbane) Worker began to publish 'The Communist Manifesto'.

It is reasonable to speculate that Lane had an anarchist utopia in mind when thinking of and planning New Australia. Note that Petrie, Robert Beattie (see biog.), the two Lanes, Mary Gilmore and Rose Summerfield all went to New Australia. (Henry Lawson wanted to go, but as with Ernie Lane in 1893, had no money for the fare, and thought of stowing away.) A number of writers on New Australia have referred to the major ideological conflict in the settlement as being between a group they call anarchists and others.

Because of anarchists' anti-State view, the Paraguayan settlement is also important as showing the appearance of disillusion among certain more aware activists about the efficacy of the parliamentary road to social justice. Just as the labour movement and attempts to have labour representatives in the legislatures are part of a world wide phenomenon, the disillusion is also expressed at the same time in Australia as elsewhere. In Australia, just as the Royal Tar leaves for Paraguay, David Andrade leaves Melbourne for the Dandenongs to effect his communal utopianism (approximately 85 other groups in Victoria alone) while numerous other settlements are attempted around Australia including a remnant of the Barcaldine shearers' camp which is settled near the Alice River. Significantly, Lawson goes to New Zealand and Jack Andrews tries the hermit life on Bombira Hill.

Not all the disillusioned thought as Petrie did. In the same issue of the (Brisbane) Worker that carries Petrie's donation of a ring for a raffle, Gilbert Casey, later to lead a secession from the New Australia settlement, blasts the proponents of physical force:-

Whether this difference of opinion has any significance for events in South America is again speculation. Petrie describes Casey as having 'become quite an anarchist' in a letter to Spence, 4 August 1899. In any event no glory accrues to anarchism even should New Australia be validly claimed as an anarchist colony; the colony failed, Lane capitulated and hardly practised anarchist theory in any case.

Petrie travelled to Honolulu on the 'Royal Tar's' charter voyage (carrying coal) in 1894 and arrived in time to join (unsuccessfully) in a revolution, but escaped arrest and worked his way to San Francisco. Sam Smith, Secretary of the Seamen's Union had given him letters of introduction and these helped him to some extent, in both San Francisco and New York, but his own spirit was what counted. Riding the rattler, 'packed in among the merchandise on freight trucks and hairbreadth escapes from heavily booted and irate railway conductors were just some of the hazards of travel on the North American continent of the time. In a letter enclosing Petrie's to Spence because Larry had no money for a stamp to Australia, Macarthur said Petrie stayed some months in San Francisco .....

In New Orleans he was befriended by a church sexton and his family, and in New York after being hassled by non-unionists and the authorities and appealing to Spence for help, he obtained a berth on a ship going south.

In September, 1896, he was able to write to Spence from Cosme;

He rapidly became part of the work and social activities, e.g., he lectured to the Literary and Social Union on Fiji and Hawaii.

Mary Gilmore at this time was equally optimistic about the settlement but for her, Petrie, Rose Summerfield and many others, the charm didn't last. Fittingly, the point of contention was authority. Letters from many of the participants clearly show that the people disillusioned with William Lane expected a more democratic form of decision-making, in other words libertarian-communism.

When New Australia divided and William Lane and his supporters began again at Cosme, ostensibly over the expulsion of Sims and Pinder(?) for drinking in 1899(?), Petrie sided with the Gilbert Casey (?) group. He kept on good terms with some Cosme people, often being mentioned in Cosme News. He wrote letters to Australian friends which are among the most telling criticisms of the experiment:

J. D. concluded his reminiscences this way:

One day in March, 1901, he jumped onto the line to push a child out of the path of an on-coming train and was killed himself. His body was claimed by Mrs. Rose Cadogan (Summerfield).

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