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Boote, Henry Ernest (1865–1949)

by Frank Farrell

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

Henry Ernest Boote (1865-1949), by Appleby

Henry Ernest Boote (1865-1949), by Appleby

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-vn3546420

Henry Ernest Boote (1865-1949), Labor propagandist, journalist and writer, was born on 20 May 1865 at Liverpool, England, eldest child of Joseph Henry Boote, mercer, and his wife Elizabeth Hampden, née Jolley. He had left school by 10 and was apprenticed to a printer. He educated himself by reading in local free libraries and developed an interest in painting. An art-dealer engaged him at 20 as a copyist and later commissioned works for sale. Boote saved some money and in 1889 migrated to Australia, finding work as a compositor in Brisbane. He had a strong working-class consciousness, was a keen trade unionist and soon became closely involved in the affairs of the Queensland labour movement, displaying talent as a socialist propagandist and writer. He experienced a sense of being 'born again' and developed a lifelong belief in the moral righteousness of the organized working-class cause and the inevitability of socialism.

In 1894 Boote was sent to Bundaberg by the Australian Labour Federation to edit the Bundaberg Guardian, a twice-weekly paper noted for its opposition to the employment of Kanaka labour in the sugar industry. Two years later he moved to Gympie to found and edit the Gympie Truth for Andrew Fisher with whom he lodged. In 1902 he became editor in Brisbane of the Worker, to which he had long contributed articles. He established a reputation as an essayist and poet among fellow contributors such as Henry Lawson, (Dame) Mary Gilmore, R. J. Quinn and Norman Lilly. His regular articles under the pseudonym 'Touchstone' led to the publication of his first book of essays, A Fool's Talk (Sydney, 1915).

In 1911 Boote had moved to Sydney as leader and feature writer on the Australian Worker, the official organ of the Australian Workers' Union; he was editor in 1914-43. A close confidant and friend of Labor leaders such as E. G. Theodore, J. H. Scullin, Fisher, John Curtin and H. V. Evatt, he came to exercise a profound influence on the shape and direction of party policy as well as on the wider political and industrial scene. His regular editorials, signed 'H.E.B.', were closely followed by serious students of labour affairs. Often he tried to reconcile socialist idealism with the practical day-to-day realities of Australian politics, and to produce a guiding philosophy — radical but gradualist and Fabian in style — to which all members of the labour movement could subscribe.

When Labor split over conscription in 1916 Boote became probably the foremost Australia-wide publicist for the 'No' case in the referenda. The 1917 A.W.U. convention unanimously passed a resolution of thanks to him, with vociferous cheering. Ian Turner has remarked that no man at that time was 'more widely known and respected' in the labour movement. In November he was prosecuted under the War Precautions Act for publishing articles, notably 'The lottery of death', which were prejudicial to recruiting. Despite W. M. Hughes's promise that political matter would not be subject to censorship, he was fined £100 and costs. Late in 1916 Boote had begun to champion the cause of the twelve gaoled Industrial Workers of the World and in March 1917 was convicted of contempt of court. One hundred thousand copies of his pamphlet Guilty or Not Guilty? were distributed. He began his campaign largely from loyalty to one of the prisoners, his friend Donald Grant, but became convinced that none of the twelve should have been convicted. His sustained agitation was largely responsible for the N. K. Ewing royal commission of 1920 after which ten of the twelve were freed.

At first a supporter of the radical 'one big union' idea, which swept through the labour movement at the close of World War I, Boote later assisted conservative elements in the A.W.U. to defeat the proposal. Left-wing attacks on his employers' leadership made his support for them inevitable; but, to Boote, his about-face was justified by leftist excesses. Though an ardent internationalist he had been soured by developments in Russia after 1917; he also saw the coloured races excluded, by their numbers and underdevelopment, from real unity with the Australian labour movement, and was repelled by left-wing attempts to develop links with Communist front organizations such as the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat to which the new Australasian Council of Trade Unions was affiliated in 1927-30. He was also angered by the support given by left-wing unionists to J. T. Lang, whom he regarded as a potential dictator.

Nevertheless, with the rise of the Fascist powers in the 1930s and the adoption of a conciliatory united front policy by the Comintern after 1934, Boote moved back towards outspoken endorsement of some leftist causes. In the late 1930s he supported collective security and severely criticized the Australian Labor Party for its isolationism. In 1940 he threatened to resign from the Australian Worker when his article supporting the 'Hands Off Russia' resolution by the New South Wales branch of the A.L.P. was suppressed by A.W.U. officials. Despite increasing disenchantment he continued as editor until grave illness forced him to retire in March 1943.

In private life Boote was shy and reticent, known to his friends and acquaintances as a talented artist and lover of music. In 1926-42 he was a trustee of the Public Library of New South Wales and also served as a member of the Mitchell Library committee. On 6 October 1889 in Brisbane, with Roman Catholic rites, he had married Mary Jane Paingdestre; they had two daughters and a son. Boote separated from his wife just before he moved to Sydney in 1911, but they were not divorced. For the rest of his life he lived with the journalist and writer, Mary Ellen Lloyd (d.1967) at their home, May Day, at Rose Bay; it seemed to friends an 'idyllic existence — a living, warm, fragile, friendly serenity'. He remained in quiet retirement until his death on 14 August 1949; he was buried in South Head cemetery after a service conducted by the rationalist H. Scott Bennett.

Boote has been all but ignored by literary historians, yet he was one of the most prolific writers of his era; in old age he was granted a Commonwealth Literary Fund pension. His publications range across numerous straight political and social commentaries, mainly pamphlets, to political novels such as The Human Ladder (1920); a satirical allegory entitled The Land of Wherisit (1919); essays and sketches in Tea with the Devil and Other Diversions (1928); and several volumes of verse. All these works carry the stamp of Boote's socialist philosophy, but their didacticism is to some extent redeemed by his very competent and lively style.

Select Bibliography

  • H. E. Boote, Sidelights on Two Referendums, 1916-1917, M. E. Lloyd ed (Syd, 1952)
  • I. Turner, Sydney's Burning, 2nd ed (Syd, 1969)
  • D. J. Murphy, ‘Henry Boote's papers’, Labour History, Nov 1968, no 15
  • Worker (Sydney), 1 Apr 1911, 15, 22 Aug 1949
  • Australian Worker, 29 June, 17, 24, 31 Aug 1949
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Ph.D. thesis, Australian National University, 1975)
  • T. J. O'Sullivan, Saga of Events in the Trade Union Movement and Political Labor Party (1946, State Library of New South Wales)
  • H. E. Boote-T. J. O'Sullivan correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Boote papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Boote, Henry Ernest (1865–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/boote-henry-ernest-5288/text8919, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 26 October 2014.

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

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