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Garden, John Smith (Jock) (1882–1968)

by Bede Nairn

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

John Smith (Jock) Garden (1882-1968), clergyman, trade union leader and politician, was born on 13 August 1882 at Nigg, Kincardine, Scotland, second son of Alexander Garden, whitefisher, of Lossiemouth, and his wife Ann, née Smith. Both his parents came from fisherman stock from the north of Scotland. He went to the state school at Lossiemouth, was apprenticed as a sailmaker to his cousin W. Cormack and read evangelical literature. His elder brother James, also a sailmaker, migrated to Australia in the 1890s; the rest of the family joined him in Sydney in 1904.

In 1906 Garden was a Church of Christ minister at Harcourt, Victoria. Next year on 6 May in Melbourne, with the forms of that Church, he married Jeannie May Ritchie, from Leith, Scotland. By 1909 he was a member of the Labor Party and was a Baptist preacher at Maclean, New South Wales; at the 1910 State elections it was reported that he would contest the local seat, Raleigh, as an independent Labor candidate against the official Laborite, who labelled him 'an Orangeman' and a 'member of the “no-licence” party', but Garden withdrew. He was in Sydney for the 1913 elections and was mentioned as the Labor candidate for Petersham, but again did not run. Next year he was living at Paddington and working intermittently at his trade; he became the president of the Sailmakers' Union and its delegate on the Labor Council of New South Wales, which was to be his power base until 1934. In 1916 he was elected assistant secretary of the council, and in 1918 became its secretary. He failed as a Labor candidate at Parramatta in the 1917 State elections.

In the meantime 'Jock' Garden was employed from 1915 by the Department of Defence at its ordnance store at Circular Quay. In 1916 he was fined £10 for improperly accepting a gift from a supplier to the department; he was dismissed on 14 March next year after admitting that he had destroyed an important voucher. Garden was an ardent fundamentalist, who remained attached to Christianity as a deacon of the Church of Christ, at least to the early 1920s. His belief in the 'lowly Nazarene' was a vital part of his populist radicalism, and in 1918 he defended 'the workers' against Presbyterian charges that they were 'steeped in infidelity and disloyalty'. His early opposition to gambling and smoking decomposed but not his aversion to drinking. His oratorical style, seasoned by a ripe Scots burr, ranged from beguiling to ranting, adaptable to the pulpit, the Trades Hall and the Sydney Domain: often his speeches were incoherent harangues, but seldom ineffective. He was a great reader of non-conformist and radical writing, including Marx and Lenin especially after the 1917 Russian revolution. He was courageous, generous and romantic. His ideas reflected his enthusiasm and eclectic longings, and nourished his determination to succeed; it he could not make people pious, he would make them better off. The unfriendly John Bailey called him 'an addle-headed Pommie'.

The times were propitious for Garden on the Labor Council in 1916-18. The Labor movement was deeply split over World War I and conscription. In 1916 the Labor Party premier, William Holman, and other politicians were expelled and formed the conservative National Government; the victorious industrial wing, led by the Industrial Vigilance Council, became more radical. In the ferment some moderate unions left the Labor Council, and the Industrial Vigilance Council attempted to make the Labor Party the political creature of the One Big Union—a grandiose, revolutionary scheme. The Australian Workers' Union exacerbated the turmoil by seeking to make itself a non-revolutionary O.B.U. with some co-operation from politicians, moderate unions and conservative Labor groups.

At the 1919 Labor Party conference the A.W.U. faction, led by Bailey, had the numbers to expel the extremist proponents of the O.B.U.; John Storey, leader of the parliamentary Labor Party, took every opportunity to condemn Garden in 1919-20. But he consolidated his position on the truncated industrial wing, and at the Labor Council led an activist majority of its executive, soon known as 'The Trades Hall Reds'. He was a member of the Socialist Party of Australia and of the Industrial Socialist Labor Party. In November 1920 he announced the formation of the Communist Party of Australia, which he had initiated with William Earsman. Garden was prominent in 1921 at the All-Australian Trade Union Congress in Melbourne, which wanted to impose a positive socialist policy on the Australian Labor Party.

In 1922 the Labor Council was affiliated with the Red International of Labor Unions (Profintern). That year Garden attended the Second Profintern and Fourth Comintern congresses in Moscow, and euphorically claimed that '1000 Communists were influencing 400,000 members of Australian trade unions, and could even direct the Labor Party'; less imaginatively, he said that 11 out of 12 executive members of the Labor Council were communists. He was elected to the Executive Committee of the Communist International (Comintern). While overseas he provoked his European communist comrades by taking an active part in a Christian revivalist meeting in Scotland.

In Sydney in April 1923 Garden said that he was not impressed by 'the slow Slavonic mind', and argued that 'Australia must formulate a policy to suit her own needs'. He said that Lenin and Trotsky were well informed on the country, and that the former wanted unity in the Australian Labour movement. Following Lenin's advice, Garden and other communists rejoined the Labor Party in order to 'whiteant' it, and at the June State conference the balance of factional forces saw him elected to the executive. Next month he discussed the theme that the Labor Party was 'rotten, corrupt and bourgeois', which annoyed the party's president, Albert Willis. But Garden kept his militant reputation intact by serving fourteen days in gaol in August 'for the right to free speech'.

Jack Lang, the new parliamentary Labor leader, also resented Garden's attacks on his colleagues, and in October alleged that he 'had been nearly everything in turn, and nothing very long, and those who know him best regard him as a rather exotic brand of political mountebank'. The Labor Party executive ruled that no communist could be a member of the party and in November expelled Garden. The 1924 State conference confirmed the ban. He continued to meddle in the party's kaleidoscopic factional disputes, weakening the Labor Council (affiliations fell to 42 in 1926), and diluting his own ideals. Lang remained the butt of Garden's frustration, with Sir George Fuller, the National Party premier, taking advantage of the crossfire. Garden organized a special trade union conference in September which proposed to run industrial Labor candidates at the 1925 State elections, a decision which was compounded in December 1924 when the Communist Party resolved to run separate candidates. The end of machinations was his humiliating defeat as a Communist against Labor in the seat of Sydney in May 1925. Labor won the elections and Lang became premier. Garden had become a conspicuous target of the Nationalists, as personifying the 'red menace' of the Labor movement. Prime Minister Stanley Melbourne (Viscount) Bruce used him astutely in beating Labor at the 1925 Federal elections.

By 1926 Garden could appreciate the advantages of coming to terms with Lang, who was not so enthusiastic, but could see him as a trade union ally in his leadership troubles. In January Garden praised the premier for his work for the forty-four hour week. In September, living at Maroubra, he announced his resignation from the Communist Party and his application to rejoin the Labor Party—his religious feelings had always made him an imperfect communist, and he had concluded that the party had little political future. Lang loomed as a replacement for Lenin in his pantheon. He remained associated with the Pan-Pacific Trade Union Secretariat, the executive of the Red International of Labor Unions and was editor of the Pan-Pacific Worker. More then anyone else, he was responsible for the foundation of the Australasian (Australian) Council of Trade Unions in Melbourne in 1927.

Edward Theodore increased A.W.U. pressure on Lang as his caucus disputes with Peter Loughlin, Thomas Mutch and V. M. Goodin intensified: but a conference in March in 1927 adopted the so-called 'Red rules' which effectively excluded the A.W.U. from controlling the Labor Party. Lang reconstructed his cabinet in May, and next mouth the central branch of the union withdrew from the Labor Council. The Lang-Garden front was consolidated, while the A.W.U. added to conservative propaganda that the Labor Party under them was revolutionary and anti-Australian.

On 13 June 1928 Garden was arrested and charged with incitement to murder. It was alleged that in a speech on tactics in the marine cooks' strike he had said the 'scab cooks … may lose their balance. In which case the water is damp, the sea is deep, and dead men tell no tales'. He was acquitted in August. In January 1929 he rejoined the Labor Party. At a Labor Council meeting in February an attack on Garden by communists was frustrated when a girl rushed to play 'The Red Flag' on a piano and they all joined in singing. He was active in the timber strike that year and debated trade unionism with barrister Richard Windeyer at the University of Sydney; he also spoke on the strike at the Constitutional Club, 'with sirs on the right of me, sirs on the left … and sirs in front of me'. In July he was accused of conspiracy in connexion with the strike, but was discharged. He was granted continuity of membership in the Labor Party in April 1930 to enable him to contest the Sydney Municipal Council elections; he won and sat for Flinders Ward in 1930-34. At the 1930 State elections he committed himself further to Lang; he said that 'There is one man, and only one man, who can save you and that men is John T. Lang'. Lang's win tightened the shackles.

In March 1931 he was 'counted out' by communists at a meeting of the unemployed in the Domain. He was in the thick of Lang's struggle with the Labor prime minister James Scullin to enforce the half-baked 'Lang Plan' which Lang's devotees saw as a nostrum to cure the Depression: Garden debated it with David Hall in August. In April his absence from a meeting of the Labor Council, because of his political work for Lang, was criticized. In June violence broke out at a council meeting when unemployed factions demonstrated. Next month he ran as the Lang Labor candidate for the Federal seat of Cook, but lost narrowly. On 6 May 1932 he was assaulted at his home by eight men, and was rescued by his two sons and two dogs. His attackers belonged to an unbalanced group, known as the Fascist Legion, within the New Guard; they trained in black-hooded gowns. In November the communists made another unsuccessful attempt to defeat Garden as secretary of the Labor Council.

Labor politics in the early 1930s had become even more Byzantine than in the 1920s, with State and Federal factions in conflict. Garden's vision of a strong industrial movement, aware of its international obligations, was fading fast. Lang's 'inner group', including Garden, was in control of the 1933 State Labor conference. He was Lang's hatchet man in the demolition of the party's 'socialisation units'. After quoting Lenin on the nationalization of banking, he said 'Our leader (Lang) is ahead of the God they bend their knee to. Our report goes further than the policy advocated by Lenin. Mr Lang is the greatest leader the country has ever produced'. This has come down the years as Garden saying that 'Lang was greater than Lenin'. Early in 1934 he was campaigning interstate for the Lang group to take over the Australian Labor Party. In another debate with Windeyer, his style was still described as 'fervent, declamatory, thunderous'.

In May 1934 there were signs that some Sydney trade unions were waking up to Lang, and Garden again had the job of pulling them into line. His influence had waned, but he was still secretary of the Labor Council and through it controlled radio station 2KY. Lang was now losing elections. In the 1934 Federal elections the United Australia Party prime minister, Joseph Lyons, used Garden effectively as the communist-red spectre haunting the Labor Party. Garden won Cook for Lang Labor. He resigned from the Labor Council, received a gold medal and became a life member; but he left a vast rehabilitation task for his successors. From Canberra Garden had a clearer view of Lang's defects. He could see the advantages of Labor unity and worked for it as he became an efficient and popular parliamentarian. His relations with Lang deteriorated, exacerbated in 1936 by a struggle to control 2KY and, as Lang was still in command of the State Labor machine, Garden was once more expelled. He was vulnerable in a variety of ways. His black hair, brushed back, was now greying, his face was lengthening and a dewlap was forming.

In 1937 John Curtin, the new Federal Labor leader, intervened to seek unity in New South Wales. Garden was readmitted, but Lang arranged that he should lose pre-selection for Cook. In October he became a tariff consultant and began a business, Dengar Publications. He ran again for Cook in 1940 as an official Labor candidate, but the Lang Labor man beat him. In 1942-47 he was employed, at the instigation of Edward Ward, the Federal minister for labour, as liaison officer between him and the trade unions. Garden had known Ward for a long time as a fellow participant in the frantic Labor politics of Sydney. He also took up racing, running horses under the name of 'Mr Leo', after his zodiac sign.

In January 1948 Garden was charged with his son Harcourt and others, with forgery and falsification in connexion with certain 1944-45 financial dealings in New Guinea timber—£50,000 was involved. He was found guilty on one charge and was sentenced to three years. In November Garden, Harcourt and others were charged with conspiracy in connexion with the affair. Garden implicated Ward and alleged that Harcourt Garden was his dummy in the transaction. In December all were acquitted, and in June 1949 Ward was exonerated by a royal commission. In March 1957 Garden and his son were charged with fortune-telling; they were joint proprietors of the astrology weekly magazine, Review; the case was dismissed after it had been said that a client had paid £3 3s. for a horoscope he had not received.

Garden died in hospital on 31 December 1968. Cremated with Church of Christ forms, he was survived by his wife, one of his two sons and one of his two daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics (Canb, 1965)
  • A. Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia (Stanford, USA, 1969)
  • R. Cooksey, Lang and Socialism (Canb, 1971)
  • J. Robertson, J. H. Scullin (Adel), 1974)
  • M. Dixson, Greater than Lenin? (Melb, 1977)
  • H. Radi and P. Spearritt (eds), Jack Lang (Syd, 1977)
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 21 Jan 1920, 21 May 1921, 16 Apr 1923, 8 Sept 1924, 27 May 1927, 29 Aug 1928, 25 Apr 1930, 24 Feb 1933, 27 Apr 1937, 17 Sept 1940, 13 Apr 1946, 29 Jan 1948, 6 May, 23 Dec 1948, 4 July 1950, 7 May 1957, 5 Jan 1969
  • I. Young, Conflict Within the New South Wales Labor Party 1919-1932 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1961) and The Impact of J. T. Lang on the N.S.W. Labor Party, 1929-1943 (M.A. thesis, University of New South Wales, 1963)
  • Labor Council of N.S.W., Minutes, 1916-34 (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Garden, John Smith (Jock) (1882–1968)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/garden-john-smith-jock-6274/text10811, published in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 31 August 2014.

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

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