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Champion, Henry Hyde (1859–1928)

by Geoffrey Serle

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

Henry Hyde Champion (1859-1928), socialist propagandist and journalist, was born on 22 January 1859 at Poona, India, son of Major (Major General) James Hyde Champion and his wife Henrietta Susan, née Urquhart, who was of aristocratic Scottish descent. He saw little of his parents in his childhood: at 4 he was sent to England to attend a day school and at 13 to Marlborough, where his career was undistinguished. However Champion graduated from the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, was commissioned in the artillery and served in the Afghan War. He caught typhoid and was invalided home. A radical friend showed him the East End slums and accompanied him to the United States of America where he was impressed by the writings of Henry George. He read Adam Smith, Mill, Ricardo, Marx and others, resigned from the army on 17 September 1882, and next night 'was preaching Socialism on Clerkenwell Green', London. On 9 August 1883 he married Juliet Bennett (d.1886).

Champion bought a half-share in a printing-plant and started To-day, a monthly magazine in which he published work by Ibsen and Bernard Shaw. In 1883 he joined the Land Reform Union, then the Social Democratic Federation of which he became secretary; he was very soon a dynamic and notorious public speaker. By 1886 he was close to advocating violent revolution and, after a Trafalgar Square meeting which he chaired and which developed riotously, was charged with seditious conspiracy; he was acquitted after conducting his own defence. Champion had been forced to resign as secretary of the S.D.F., largely because of his tendency to act independently, financial lapses and maintenance of Tory associations; he founded the Labour Elector. His close associate Tom Mann admired his organizing and literary capacity. During the London dock strike of 1889 Champion was prominent in arranging strike-pay and picketing and in the successful negotiations with the employers.

Seeking relief from recurrent illness, Champion arrived in Melbourne on 12 August 1890. Introduced by a letter from John Burns, he was warmly welcomed by the Trades Hall Council. He announced himself a neutral observer in the developing maritime strike and spoke temperately at the mass meeting on the Yarra Bank on 31 August. A week later, however, he wrote to the Age suggesting terms of settlement including acceptance by unionists of freedom of contract. He believed the unions were heading for disastrous defeat and perhaps cast himself in the part of Cardinal Manning in the dock strike. The unions were outraged and refused him admission when he sought to address the Sydney strike conference. His gentlemanly manners, fashionable dress, silk hat, eyeglass and cigar contributed to the Australian workman's bitter resentment and his subsequent scapegoat-role. He continued to deride the union leadership in the Age, in October cabled Burns advising against financial support from English unions, and eventually described Australian unionists as 'an army of lions led by asses'. When the strike ended on 13 November he was denounced again as a 'traitor and capitalist stooge'. Champion returned to England and became acting editor of the Nineteenth Century. He resigned to stand unsuccesfully for Aberdeen and revived the Labour Elector; but by late 1893 he had been repudiated by the Independent Labour Party which he had helped to found and by most socialists.

Hyde Champion returned to Melbourne on 5 April 1894, determined to take the lead in the socialist movement. He nominated for Albert Park in the Legislative Assembly and conducted a campaign which attracted wide interest, but withdrew in favour of another radical candidate. He helped to found Fabian and non-operative societies and joined the committee of the Women's Suffrage League; 'the oppressed sex must needs make common cause with the oppressed class', he remarked. He published The Root of the Matter; Being a Series of Dialogues on Social Questions (Melbourne, 1895). He became secretary of the May Day committee for 1895 and, as a consequence, the T.H.C. refused to take part. Next year there was a similar conflict and the Trades Hall withdrew again and ran a rival demonstration. From the May Day committee of 1895 Champion had formed the Social Democratic Federation of Victoria, of which he was secretary from 2 June. On 18 October he futilely appealed for a fusion of the S.D.F., the Liberal Party and the Trades Hall. He was a founder of the National Anti-Sweating League and became a vice-president; with Samuel Mauger he helped to draft the 1896 Factories and Shops Act and was one of the league's representatives conferring with hostile legislative councillors.

In 1896 Champion stood for Melbourne South in the assembly, but polled poorly; again his campaign attracted wide audiences but his polished wit, sarcasm and name-dropping of 'men I have met' were marginal assets against unionist interjections. He was leading organizer of the appeal for funds, in support of female doctors, which led to the opening of the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1899. From 22 June 1895 to 29 May 1897 he conducted the Champion, a lively weekly full of exposés and propaganda for societies in which he was involved. Early in 1896 he was committed for trial for criminal libel arising out of his racing column, 'The quick and the dead', but the charge was withdrawn. From August 1897 to January 1899 he conducted a weekly society paper, the Sun, and in this period wrote many leading articles for the Age. All his attempts to find a base for a viable socialist movement and to convert Labor parliamentarians had failed, but in July 1898 he joined the Victorian Socialist League. He made a last parliamentary attempt at Albert Park in 1900, supported now by many at the Trades Hall; the campaign revolved round his personal reputation and he had the satisfaction of prosecuting Max Hirsch and extracting an apology and costs.

On 8 December 1898 Champion was married by his friend Rev. Charles Strong to Elsie Belle (d.1953), sister of Vida Goldstein. From 1896 Elsie had conducted the Book Lovers' Library, which she and Hyde were to run for over thirty years. In May 1899, in association with the library, he founded the monthly Book Lover. Champion suffered a stroke in 1901 which left him semi-paralysed, with his speech affected and a limp, and unable ever again to use his right hand for typing. The Goldsteins were Christian Scientists: Champion attended meetings of the sect and was converted at least to the extent that he rejected the advice of conventional physicians. Somehow, he kept the Book Lover going, largely writing it himself.

He recovered sufficiently to be prominent in the Victorian Socialist Party in 1906-09. Tom Mann's respect for him raised his standing, and he remained loyal to Mann. He was appointed to the executive, became treasurer and then president for a year. He was interested in party administration rather than policy, but spent much of his effort on the Socialist Co-operative Trading Society, the Socialist Savings Bank and a co-operative farming venture. He wrote much for the Socialist, usually under such pseudonyms as 'Tenax', and in Mann's absence in 1908 edited the journal. He became involved in bitter factional brawls and in January 1909, after further illness, ended his work for the party.

Champion continued to write occasionally for the Socialist and the Bulletin, but appeared only rarely in public. He had formed the Australasian Authors' Agency in 1906 and published two or three dozen books, including early works of Dorothea Mackellar, Martin Boyd and Marjorie Barnard. In 1911 he printed the sex-reformer W. J Chidley's The Answer and engaged Maurice Blackburn to defend him against the charge of obscenity. In 1916 Champion published in the Book Lover Frank Wilmot's 'To God from the weary nations'. The Book Lover appeared for the last time in August 1921; it had been a rare beacon of appreciation of international and Australian literature. He was declared bankrupt in 1922.

Survived by his wife, Champion died at South Yarra on 30 April 1928 and was cremated after a Christian Science service. Although over-confident in his judgment and lacking in tact and balance, he had great journalistic talent and a pleasant personality despite his capacity for making enemies: he had retained the affectionate esteem of Mann and many other pioneers of the labour socialist movement in England and Australia in which he played a leading part over twenty-five years.

Select Bibliography

  • L. M. Henderson, The Goldstein Story (Melb, 1973)
  • H. M. Pelling, ‘H. H. Champion: pioneer of Labour representation’, Cambridge Journal, 6 (1953)
  • Recorder (Labour Hist, Melb), Jan 1965
  • P. Kellock, H. H. Champion: the Failure of Victorian Socialism (B.A. Hons thesis, Monash University, 1971), and for bibliography
  • C. G. W. Osborne, Tom Mann: His Australian Experience, 1902-1910 (Ph.D thesis, Australian National University, 1972).

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'Champion, Henry Hyde (1859–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/champion-henry-hyde-5548/text9457, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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

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