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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McNamara, William Henry (1857–1906)

by Verity Burgmann

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William Henry Thomas McNamara (1857-1906), socialist agitator and bookshop-owner, was born on 18 March 1857 at Taradale, Victoria, son of James Macnamara, digger, and his wife Ann, née O'Bryan, both from Ireland. An enthusiastic secularist as a young man, he decided in 1886-87 that 'mere bible-smashing' was inadequate, and became the leading figure in the group of eight men who founded the Australian Socialist League on 4 May 1887 in Sydney. He later worked as an organizer of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia.

Within the A.S.L., which contained socialists of widely differing viewpoints, in the late 1880s McNamara espoused 'Modern Socialism': the belief that socialism could and should be achieved by workers voluntarily forming co-operatives, and gradually wresting control of society from private capitalists. An imposing figure, with dark hair and a large black beard, he became the league's most accomplished orator. His colourful rhetoric was characterized by satire and sarcasm. The industrial militancy of the early 1890s convinced McNamara that the way forward to socialism was now through the ever-expanding union of workers, with community control of production, distribution and exchange, 'thus doing away with, for ever, the inevitable starvation, crime and destitution'. McNamara organized the Amalgamated Navvies and General Labourers' Union of New South Wales, represented it on the Trades and Labor Council of New South Wales and was a director of the council's newspaper, the Australian Workman.

In 1891 McNamara left the Socialist League because it had adopted reformist state socialism as its official ideology and was supporting the new Labor Electoral League. He turned his attention to improving the morale and fighting spirit of the unemployed, by forming an unemployed executive committee which functioned both as an agitational and welfare organization. In Melbourne in 1892 he worked as a correspondent for John Norton's Truth, but not to Norton's satisfaction. He considered that McNamara wrote 'in too fiery a style' and that his work teemed with libels. At Collingwood Registry Office on 9 July 1892 McNamara married a widow Matilda Emilie Bertha Bredt, née Kalkstein.

On returning to Sydney, William and Bertha established in 1893 a bookshop in Castlereagh Street. Advertised as a 'Democratic Rendezvous', it became an unofficial headquarters for varied socialist and radical activity. They sold 'Socialistic and all kinds of advanced Literature', mainly from European and American publishers; the works of A. B. Paterson and Henry Lawson ('splendidly bound'); 10,000 novels by writers such as Dickens, Defoe, Rider Haggard, Balzac, Zola, Wilkie Collins, Twain, Hugo and Dumas; and stationery and tobacco. The 'Cosmopolitan Lending Library' contained 2000 volumes; and the 'International Reading Room' filed hundreds of newspapers, especially European and American socialist papers, which could be consulted for a penny. In the wake of the 1893 bank crashes, McNamara was imprisoned for six months for selling a newspaper, Hard Cash, produced by Arthur Desmond, which allegedly criminally libelled a financial corporation.

Late in 1892 McNamara had formed another socialist organization, the Social Democratic Federation of Australasia, which held daytime propaganda meetings in Parramatta Park and Sunday evening meetings on the corner of Bathurst and George streets. At the 1898 elections he stood for Sydney-Bligh as Independent Labor, using the opportunity to make socialist propaganda and attack the Labor Party for its conservatism, rather than to win votes.

On 11 May 1906 in the Sacred Heart Hospice for the Dying, McNamara died of phthisis; he had suffered from it and from heart problems for some time. He was buried in Waverley cemetery with Unitarian forms. His wife, his son William who later helped his mother to run the bookshop, and a daughter, Alice, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Social Democratic Federation, Manifesto (Syd, 1895)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • Socialist Journal of the Northern People, 19 Feb 1898
  • Australian Radical (Hamilton, NSW), 11 Aug 1888
  • Australian Workman, 1, 8 Nov 1890, 10 Jan 1891, 19 Mar 1893
  • Worker (Sydney), 4 Nov 1893, 24 Aug 1895, 16 May 1896, 17 May 1906
  • Socialist (Sydney), 11 July, 29 Aug 1896
  • J. N. Rawling papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Verity Burgmann, 'McNamara, William Henry (1857–1906)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 14 August 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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