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Siebenhaar, Willem (1863–1936)

by Edward Duyker and Naomi Segal

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Willem Siebenhaar (1863-1936), writer, public servant and socialist, was born on 28 July 1863 in The Hague, son of Christiaan Siebenhaar, a sergeant-major in the Netherlands army, and his wife Geertruida Johanna, née Frölich. Willem graduated from the University of Delft in 1882, having studied philology and literature. The Christian anarchist and socialist Ferdinand Domela Nieuwenhuis (1846-1919) possibly influenced him. Siebenhaar left in 1884 to work as a teacher in England.

Seeking a freer political environment, he reached Western Australia in the Ormuz in June 1891. Siebenhaar taught briefly at Perth High School, became a clerk in the Land Titles Department on 1 January 1892 and was naturalized in November 1894. On 7 March 1899, while on leave in Britain, he married Lydia Bruce Dixon in the Church of St Peter and St Paul, Bromley, Kent. He probably met the Russian anarchist Prince Petr Alekseevich Kropotkin (1842-1921), who lived a few streets from the Dixon family at Bromley. Willem and Lydia honeymooned in Italy. Back in Perth, Siebenhaar helped to form the Civil Service Association and was elected vice-president in 1904. Compiler and sub-editor of the Western Australian Yearbook until October 1906, he was deputy government statistician and deputy registrar-general from 1908. He enjoyed the support of his immediate superiors, but was not favoured by Liberal governments, doubtless because of his socialist views.

About 1895 Siebenhaar had begun translating the Ongeluckige Voyagie (1647), Jan Jansz's account of the 1629 Batavia shipwreck and mutiny on the Western Australian coast. Siebenhaar's 'Abrolhos Tragedy', published in the Western Mail in 1897, later inspired the work of a number of Western Australian historians, writers and marine archaeologists. He also wrote poetry, including a patriotic collection (with Alfred Chandler), Sentinel Sonnets, a eulogy to Montague Miller and an unpublished narrative poem, 'The Further Pilgrimage', and contributed articles to newspapers and magazines in Western Australia and overseas. In 1910 he founded and co-edited the short-lived literary magazine Leeuwin.

Interested in chess from the age of 15, Siebenhaar had won a divided 3rd prize in the Dutch Chess Federation's annual tournament in 1881. He continued this pastime in Perth and became the unofficial Western Australian champion following a match with Ernest Hack in 1892; he took over Hack's chess column in the Western Mail. In 1894 he lost his honorary champion's title but remained an active player. Suffering from ill health, he again visited Britain and attended the Scheveningen chess tournament in the Netherlands in 1913.

In October 1916, during the bitter conscription debate, the State government suspended Siebenhaar and H. M. Leighton, a clerk in the Registrar-General's Department who was president of the Anti-Conscription League. A press release described Siebenhaar as a 'German' in the civil service, linked to the Industrial Workers of the World and a vocal anti-conscriptionist and Labor Party identity. Both men were accused of improper or disloyal conduct. An inquiry was set up to establish whether he had manifested sympathy with the 'illegal methods' of the I.W.W. and had collected money to provide a legal defence for his friend Miller, who had been arrested. The latter charge Siebenhaar readily admitted. The inquiry examined his character and political views, including those expressed in his long narrative poem 'Dorothea' (1909). Though exonerated—he had in fact raised money for the Allied war effort—and restored to his civil service position with all salary arrears paid, he remained bitter about his treatment.

A libertarian socialist and theosophist, Siebenhaar was also an advocate of women's suffrage. Friends knew him as 'Seeby'. His romantic and polemical literary style was anathema to Western Australian 'shirt-sleeve' poets such as 'Dryblower', with whom he had conducted a running debate. He retired from the public service for health reasons as from July 1924, but only worked until 28 February, leaving Australia shortly thereafter to settle in Findon, Sussex, England. In 1927 he published an English translation of Eduard Douwes Dekker's Max Havelaar. This included a preface by D. H. Lawrence, whom Siebenhaar had met in Western Australia in 1922 and who reputedly based a character in his novel Kangaroo ('Willie Struthers', a left-wing organizer) partly on him.

Three weeks after being struck by a motorcar, Siebenhaar died of chronic kidney disease and complications on 29 December 1936 at Littlehampton, West Sussex. His wife survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • J. S. Battye, The Cyclopedia of Western Australia, vol 1 (Perth, 1912)
  • H. Drake-Brockman, Voyage to Disaster (Syd, 1963)
  • R. Darroch, D. H. Lawrence in Australia (Melb, 1981)
  • E. Duyker, The Dutch in Australia (Melb, 1987)
  • N. Segal, Who and What Was Siebenhaar (Perth, 1988)
  • Bromley Record (London), Apr 1899, May 1899
  • Australian Chess Lore, vol 1, 1981, p 38, vol 3, 1984, p 55
  • Australian Literary Studies, 21, no 1, 2003, p 3
  • W Siebenhaar personal file, Colonial Secretary's Office, 2033 1919, Cons 752 AN24/2 and Premier's Dept, 865/30 AN2/10 Acc 1704 (State Records Office of Western Australia).

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Citation details

Edward Duyker and Naomi Segal, 'Siebenhaar, Willem (1863–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/siebenhaar-willem-13193/text23885, published in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 23 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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