Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Fleming, John William (1863–1950)

by Bob James

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

John William Fleming (1863-1950), by F. B. Mendelssohn & Co., c1899

John William Fleming (1863-1950), by F. B. Mendelssohn & Co., c1899

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H89.109/1

John William Fleming (1863?-1950), anarchist and agitator, was born at Derby, England, son of an Irish father; his English mother died when he was 5. Both his father and grandfather had been involved in militant worker movements. At the age of 10 he went to work in a Leicester boot factory; as a youth he attended free-thought lectures by Bradlaugh and others. Invited by an uncle to come to Melbourne, Fleming arrived in 1884 and obtained work as a bootmaker. Known as 'Chummy', he soon embarked on a career of agitation for freedom of choice in industrial and personal spheres, acting as an irritant to conservatives and reformers alike. He joined the Victorian secular movement, and in October 1884 attended the second Australasian Freethought Conference in Sydney. In early 1885 he was arrested for speaking on the North Wharf and taking part in an unemployed demonstration. Discharged, he worked in Ballarat for a few months as a bootmaker and became secretary of the local branch of the Australasian Secular Association.

Fleming joined the Melbourne Anarchist Club, becoming a close friend of J. A. Andrews. In 1889, after the break-up of the club, he helped to establish the Melbourne branch of the Australian Socialist League, its successor the Social Democratic League, and the semi-secret Knights of Labor. He agitated for the Sunday opening of libraries and museums and for free speech, and supported the single-tax movement; he is credited with arranging the first Victorian collection for the London dock-strikers in August. He was often in gaol or threatened with arrest.

As a bootmaker, 'Chummy' campaigned for better work conditions and the right to organize. He was elected as delegate of the Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union to the Trades Hall Council in 1890. Next year he was president both of the bootmakers' union and of the Fitzroy Progressive Political League. His union activities were important to him but it was only in the early 1890s that he was not considered an outsider by the dominant protectionist group of union officials. In 1890 he helped to organize the first Victorian May Day meeting and in 1892 chaired the first public May Day meeting. For his part in the growing militancy of the unemployed, Fleming was beaten up by paid thugs and isolated from mainstream politics. He continued to support co-operatives and the village settlement movement.

Particularly after the death of Andrews in 1903, Fleming publicly emphasized his anarchism. No theoretician, he left few written statements, but corresponded with overseas journals until late in life. In 1904 he was expelled from the T.H.C. for his attacks on Labor politicians. He was active in the anti-conscription movement during World War I but afterwards his public activities declined.

Fleming continued to march on May Day and to address the public from his Yarra Bank stand. A gentle man, affectionately regarded by later generations, he looked forward to a millenium in which happiness and brotherly love would prevail. He suffered from a duodenal ulcer before his death some time on 25 or 26 January 1950 at his home in Carlton, where he had carried on his own bootmaking business for many years. He was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Walker, Solidarity Forever (Melb, 1972)
  • Historical Studies, 5 (1952), no 19, p 258
  • Recorder, 1 (1964), no 1, p 3
  • Tocsin, 17 Oct 1901
  • Age (Melbourne), 25, 26 June 1902
  • People's Daily (Melbourne), 25 Feb 1904
  • Daily Telegraph, 4, 9 Apr 1904
  • Argus (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1945
  • Freedom (London), 23 July 1977, 16 June 1979
  • F. B. Smith, Religion and Freethought in Melbourne, 1870 to 1890 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1960)
  • K. J. Kenafick, Life of Maurice Blackburn and John Curtin (manuscript, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Bob James, 'Fleming, John William (1863–1950)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/fleming-john-william-6189/text10637, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 24 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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