Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Walsh, Thomas (Tom) (1871–1943)

by Susan Hogan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

This is a shared entry with Adela Constantia Pankhurst

Thomas Walsh (1871-1943), seaman and trade unionist, and Adela Constantia Mary Pankhurst (1885-1961), feminist, were husband and wife. Tom was born on 15 January 1871 at Youghal, County Cork, Ireland, son of Patrick Walsh, cobbler, and his wife Mary, née Murphy, who died soon after their son's birth. Raised by his aunts, Tom had little schooling, but read widely. He went to sea and in 1893 arrived in Brisbane, hoping to join William Lane's New Australia venture in Paraguay, but lacked the necessary £60. He joined the Social Democratic Vanguard and worked as a seaman in coastal ships. On 18 November 1899 he married native-born Margaret O'Heir with Catholic rites at Cairns.

Moving to New South Wales, Tom was agent at Newcastle in 1908 for the Federated Seamen's Union of Australasia. By 1909, when he backed the militant Peter Bowling and clashed with W. M. Hughes during the coal strike, Walsh was a polished platform speaker. He belonged to the union's federal executive in 1909 and was New South Wales branch secretary in 1912. Suffering from tuberculosis, Margaret died on 6 April 1914; their three daughters were cared for by Ethel and Robert Ross in Melbourne where Tom was based throughout the war.

Adela was born on 19 June 1885 at Chorlton upon Medlock, Manchester, Lancashire, England, third daughter of Richard Marsden Pankhurst, barrister-at-law, and his wife Emmeline, née Goulden. A liberal intellectual, Richard supported working-class self-improvement movements. Although he died when Adela was aged 9, his widow and daughters pursued varying goals in the belief that they were carrying out his wishes. Adela attended Manchester School for Girls, and the Disley Road school as a trainee teacher. Although she did not complete her training, she was moved by observing the effects of poverty on the children at the school.

Her mother and sisters, Christabel and Sylvia, were members of the Independent Labour Party (for which Adela distributed literature) and founders of the Women's Social and Political Union which demanded the franchise for women. Adela became a paid organizer for the W.S.P.U., operating mainly in Yorkshire where contact with working-class women developed her interest in improving conditions for them. She believed that, once women had the vote, children would not be allowed to suffer. Though less than five feet (152 cm) tall, Adela was a compelling speaker. She suffered from bronchitis and, after being several times imprisoned as a militant suffragette, withdrew from the campaign exhausted. After some training in agriculture at Studley College, Warwickshire, she accompanied Mrs Helen Archdale to Italy. Estranged from her mother and Christabel, Adela sailed for Australia with only £20.

Arriving in Melbourne in April 1914, she found work in the one area in which she was experienced and expert: she became an organizer for Vida Goldstein and remained with the anti-war and anti-conscriptionist Women's Political Association and Women's Peace Army. Adela Pankhurst was their best speaker. She also joined the Victorian Socialist Party and used the suffragette tactic of repeated questioning to disrupt her opponents' meetings. While living with her close friends the Rosses, she met Tom Walsh.

Both Tom and Adela campaigned actively against conscription: they hated the wicked loss of life and feared that the cost of the war would prove a barrier to future improvement in the workers' standard of living. For repeatedly defying the ban on public gatherings, Adela was treated with increasing severity. Sentenced to gaol after leading a demonstration in Melbourne against the high price of food, she was on remand when she and Tom were married in Melbourne by Rev. Frederick Sinclaire of the Free Religious Fellowship on 30 September 1917. Although it was later said that she married Tom to avoid deportation (which Hughes was considering), they were devoted to one another.

Having refused Hughes's offer of release on the condition that she not speak in public, Adela returned to gaol in October to serve four months. Despite a petition signed by thousands, she was not released until January 1918. With Tom, she moved to Sydney where their five children were born. Adela did some organizing for the Social Democratic League and wrote for the Seamen's Journal. General secretary of the Seamen's Union, Tom organized its 1919 strike and was imprisoned for three months in Melbourne.

The Walshes were foundation members of the Communist Party of Australia: Adela envisaged a new order (involving communal kitchens, architect-designed worker housing and free books) in which none would want. She ran a speakers' class and wrote and spoke at its meetings, but both she and Tom soon withdrew from Communist Party activities.

As federal president of the union from 1922, Walsh used the tactic of delaying a ship's sailing until the seamen's demands were met; as a result, his union gained improved conditions in Australian vessels. Its success led to moves by shipowners to have the union deregistered; the Commonwealth Government Line of Steamers chartered British ships and sailed under British articles to avoid paying Australian union rates and thus provoked strike action by waterside unions and the seamen. In an attempt to break the union, in 1925 the Commonwealth government had it deregistered, charged Walsh with inciting the Waterside Workers' Federation of Australia and passed special legislation aimed at deporting Walsh and Jacob Johnson. When British seamen went on strike later that year, the Australian union supported them and helped to arrange temporary accommodation for them. The government then moved to deport Walsh and Johnson: after the Deportation Board found against them, the two were arrested and held at Garden Island, pending an appeal which was upheld.

The events of 1925 had made it clear that depressed wages in international shipping endangered local standards. The Commonwealth government had threatened during the shipping strike to suspend the Navigation Act to permit low-wage shipping on coastal runs. Realizing that continued militancy would cost the union its recent gains, Walsh repeatedly clashed with Johnson over strategy and control of the union until Tom was finally defeated late in 1928. He then attempted, unsuccessfully, to form a new union committed to industrial peace and was not readmitted to the Seamen's Union until 1936.

Increasingly known as an anti-communist, in 1928 Adela founded the Australian Women's Guild of Empire which raised money to relieve suffering among women and children in working-class suburbs. She toured industrial areas, speaking at factories and workplaces on the need for industrial co-operation. In her view, the correct response to the Depression was to increase efficiency and raise productivity. The family increasingly depended on what Tom could earn from journalism (William Andrade, the bookseller, had named him as one of the two best-read men in Melbourne) and on Adela's income as speaker and organizer for the guild. Her administrative skill, eloquence and anti-communism attracted large numbers of middle-class supporters. The guild provided a motor car to enable her to extend her message to a wider audience. Braving picket lines to speak against strikes, she often met a hostile reception.

Tom's and Adela's internationalism led them to sympathize with Japan's efforts to industrialize and to secure a share of the China market; they also thought that Japan would make a better trading partner for Australia than the United States of America. As the likelihood of war in Europe grew, they increasingly urged that Australia negotiate a trade agreement with Japan. In December 1939–January 1940 they visited that country as guests of the Japanese government; it was the only holiday they had ever taken. On their return, they assured Australians that Japanese intentions were pacific.

Adela's following among the British Guild of Empire fell away. She was briefly drawn to an ill-omened association with the Australia First Movement, founded by W. J. Miles and another disillusioned ex-communist P. R. Stephensen. In the panic that followed the bombing of Pearl Harbour, Adela was interned in March 1942. She was prepared to sacrifice principle: Tom was dying and she wanted to be with him at home. Her appeal failed, but she was released on 13 October, two days after beginning a hunger strike. Tom's death in North Sydney on 5 April 1943 marked the end of her public life. Survived by three daughters of his first marriage, and by a son and three daughters of his second, he was buried in the Unitarian section of Northern Suburbs cemetery.

Adela maintained her optimistic outlook on human nature and her faith that human institutions could operate for equal benefit to all. Her naive generosity and trusting spirit brought affection and loyalty from her friends, and baffled distrust from her opponents. Survived by a son and two daughters, she died on 23 May 1961 in a Wahroonga hospital and was buried with Catholic rites beside her husband.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Mitchell, The Fighting Pankhursts (Lond, 1967)
  • B. Muirden, The Puzzled Patriots (Melb, 1968)
  • B. Fitzgerald and R. Cahill, The Seamen's Union of Australia, 1872-1972 (Syd, 1981)
  • People (Sydney), 9 May 1951
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 4 Apr 1914
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 Jan, 11 Feb, 4 Apr, 13, 15 May, 2, 3, 4, 7, 12, 15 Sept, 18 Oct, 7, 21, 27 Nov, 12, 19 Dec 1925, 1, 2 Apr 1926, 16 Feb 1940, 19 May, 26 June 1942, 8 Apr 1943
  • Seamen's Union of Australia papers (Australian National University Archives)
  • Imprisonment and release of Adela Walsh 1917-18, A456 item W26/148/239 part 1 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Walsh and Pankhurst papers (National Library of Australia)
  • S. Hogan, Stirring Times (manuscript, privately held).

Citation details

Susan Hogan, 'Walsh, Thomas (Tom) (1871–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/walsh-thomas-tom-8971/text15787, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 22 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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