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Anstey, Francis George (Frank) (1865–1940)

by Ian Turner

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Francis George (Frank) Anstey (1865-1940), politician, was born on 18 August 1865 in London. His father Samuel, of Devon yeoman stock, had died five months earlier. The boy was cared for on a family farm until his mother Caroline, née Gamble, married John Lank, a stableman. The family travelled through the Midlands and to London in search of work. Frank remembered a kind and warm stepfather, but John's hot temper and trade union beliefs cost him several jobs. Between times, Caroline, a school-teacher, supported the family; it was an unsettled and often a meagre existence. Frank's formal education was a few years at Board school—'more Bible than grammar, more fear of hell than earthly geography, more crawlsome obedience to one's “betters” than knowledge of how to fight the battle of life'.  

Aged 11, Frank stowed away on a full-rigged passenger vessel bound for Australia. He jumped ship in Sydney and signed on as 'bosun's boy' in a ship working the Pacific islands trade. For ten years he knew the brutality of seafaring life, and joined the Seamen's Union in 1883. He sailed to Asia and through the Pacific; what he saw of the coolie and Kanaka trades left him with a hatred of slave labour, a strong belief in White Australia, and a romantic interest in island life. He read widely, kept a common-place-book, and wrote sketches and verse.

Signing off, Anstey carried his swag in search of casual work. While driving a hearse in Sale, Victoria, he met Katherine Mary Bell McColl, daughter of a policeman, and married her in 1887; two sons were born in 1889 and 1891.

The Ansteys moved to Melbourne where Frank became a cleaner at the Working Men's College. He interested himself in the Knights of Labor, in David Andrade's Anarchists' Club, and in the Social Democratic Federation which supported the Trades Hall Council in 1891 in forming a Progressive Political League. He soon became a leading speaker and writer for the Labor cause. With fellow S.D.F. member Tom Tunnecliffe, in 1898 he founded the Victorian Labour Federation, a Rochdale-type co-operative, which prospered briefly. Its rules barred members of parliament as office-bearers; both Tunnecliffe and Anstey entered the Legislative Assembly within five years. Anstey helped found the Tramway Employees' Association and was its president for many years.

He served as member for East Bourke Boroughs (1902-04) and Brunswick (1904-10), his main interest being to attack monopoly in land ownership and banking and to advocate public ownership. John Curtin, a fellow member of the Brunswick Labor Party, became his friend and follower. In 1904, with his parliamentary colleague Charles McGrath, Anstey rode a bicycle on the first of several organizing tours through eastern Victoria. Admired for his oratory, he lectured regularly for Tom Mann's Victorian Socialist Party as well as for the Labor Party, and he wrote extensively for Tocsin and Labor Call, which he edited for some years. Suffering from a debilitating sickness which dogged him throughout life, he took a health trip to England in 1907; his expenses were met from a fund raised by his friends. He sent back perceptive reports of the British and European labour movements.

In 1910 Anstey became member of the House of Representatives for Bourke. His stand on public control of finance made him a strong supporter of the creation of the Commonwealth Bank. The outbreak of World War I caused a breach with his close associate W. M. Hughes. For Anstey, it was 'a war of rival capitalists … its inevitable outcome the enslavement of labour'. He conflicted with the Labor government over its budgetary policies and its use of war precautions regulations against opponents of the war. In 1915, he published The Kingdom of Shylock, the circulation of which was suppressed, in which he argued that 'this war makes the living worker a slave, and fills the treasury of Shylock to overflowing'. (When he revised the book for republication 1921 as Money Power, he deleted many of the anti-Semitic references). Having failed to convince caucus, he walked out and offered his resignation to the Victorian Labor executive, which refused to accept it.

Anstey was, with Frank Brennan, the first Labor parliamentarian to speak for the Australian Peace Alliance. When the Industrial Workers of the World leader Tom Barker was arrested for publishing an anti-war poster, Anstey sent his support and asked for copies; the police suspected him of conspiratorial activity. Although he was not against conscription for a people's army (a view which caused him some trouble in the labour movement), he campaigned prominently against the referenda of 1916 and 1917. In the 1917 election he condemned Hughes for having betrayed his party and principles to the 'Trusts, Combines and Monopolies, the Profiteers, Exploiters and the great vested interests of capital'.

In March 1918 Anstey sailed on his second trip to England, via the United States of America. In both countries, and in Europe, he met labour and socialist leaders. While he was in England, W. A. Watt, the acting prime minister, appointed him a member of an imperial press mission, in which capacity he visited the Western Front and met allied war leaders and publicists. On his return in 1919, he published Red Europe which welcomed the 'social revolution' in Russia and forecast the universal advance of the 'drum-beats of the Armies of Revolution'.

In 1922 Anstey became assistant leader of the Labor Party in the House of Representatives. He was appointed next year to the royal commission on navigation, which inquired into the use of non-Australian shipping in the coastal trade, a 'cheap labour' policy which he condemned. He was a trenchant critic of the Bruce-Page coalition, saying of Bruce that 'he delighted the masses with his unlimited promises, and the wealthy by the fact that he never fulfilled them'. In March 1927 caucus accepted his resignation as assistant leader and commiserated with him on his ill health; he said privately that he had acted out of disgust with the intrigues against his leader Matt Charlton, who was soon replaced by James Scullin for whom Anstey had worked in the 1906 election. He took a health trip to the Mandated Territory of New Guinea; on his return, he became a co-director with John Wren and a major shareholder of a New Guinea gold mining company, which failed to prosper.

Labor won a majority in the House of Representatives in October 1929. Caucus elected Anstey to cabinet and Scullin gave him the portfolios of health and repatriation. The Depression overwhelmed everyday administration, and Anstey led a fight within caucus for his financial ideas. He argued for a double dissolution to break the stranglehold of the Senate. He condemned the bankers and financiers as 'cormorants and vultures … whose sole aim is to devour the living standards of the Australian workers'. He urged that the government take direct control of the Commonwealth Bank and expand credit in order to reduce unemployment. In 1930 he published Facts and Theories of Finance to support his case. He moved successfully in caucus for the extension by one year of a maturing public loan but Scullin, then in London, overruled the decision. He had hoped for the support of E. G. Theodore but did not get it, and said the Labor ministers were 'mere Yesmen to the bankers'.

Anstey told caucus that he preferred the Lang Plan to the Scullin government's policies. Caucus dropped him from cabinet; he was, he said, glad to escape with his life. Now 64, he announced that the 1931 election would be his last. For the first time, he just scraped home. He served three last dispirited years and 'selected obscurity and left the limelight and dollars to wiser and more saintly men'.

In retirement, Anstey and his wife lived in Sydney on his scanty savings. In 1938 he met George Nicholas at a favourite place, the race-track. Nicholas thanked him for his help during the war in gaining a permit for the manufacture of aspirin and later sent him a cheque for £500, to which Anstey gave a 'hearty welcome'. After his wife's death, he returned to Melbourne, where he died of cancer on 31 October 1940. As a boy, he had gone with his father to hear the free-thinker Charles Bradlaugh; his will directed that there should be 'no followers or flowers, or praise, prayer or preachers' to mark the cremation. Wren named a colt for his 'great friend' Anstey, and the Victorian government named a railway station in his honour.

Frank Anstey lived his life in the memory of the poverty of his childhood and the harshness and inhumanity of his young manhood. He won his own education and way in the world. Like many self-educated men, he sought a simple explanation of social injustice—in his case, the depredations of private finance capital. His wit, love of words and sense of drama made him one of the greatest and most loved radical orators and writers of his time. He flayed his political foes, but with such style and grace that he made few enemies. He was generous to a fault and had little financial benefit from his long career. A free-thinker and a Freemason, he enjoyed the friendship and patronage of John Wren; but he never betrayed his deeply held beliefs. He was a better publicist than a politician; he ended his days in disillusion and disappointment, believing that his country and his class were as far away as ever from his early dream:

Man rises in his strength and looks around
While in his sight the dawn of reason breaks.

Select Bibliography

  • J. T. Lang, The Great Bust (Syd, 1962)
  • J. Robertson, J. H. Scullin (Perth, 1974)
  • Overland, no 31, 32, 1965, no 33, 1965-66
  • Labor Call, 25 Apr 1907, 7 Nov 1940
  • Tocsin, 15 Dec 1905
  • Anstey papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Ian Turner, 'Anstey, Francis George (Frank) (1865–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/anstey-francis-george-frank-5038/text8367, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 23 August 2017.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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