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Winspear, William Robert (1859–1944)

by Verity Burgmann

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

William Robert Winspear (1859-1944), socialist and journalist, was born on 16 February 1859 at Ferryhill, Durham, England, son of John Winspear, coalminer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Robson. Having migrated to New South Wales about 1874, Bob worked in the New Lambton coalmines where he developed radical ideas. At the Newcastle registrar's office he married Alice Maud Drake on Christmas eve 1885. A small inheritance enabled him to stop working as a miner and on 12 March 1887, with Alice's help, he published the first issue of the Radical from his home at Hamilton, near Newcastle; in August it became the mouthpiece of the Australian Socialist League. Renamed the Australian Radical in March 1888, the paper ceased publication in April 1890 after Winspear had differences with the league because of its growing support for state socialism: he believed that socialism marked 'the progress of mankind towards freedom' where authority and control should be decentralized.

In the depressed 1890s Winspear was forced to sell his printing plant and move his family to Sydney; there he was unable to support them. According to contemporary newspapers, he was imprisoned for house-breaking in a desperate attempt to provide food. After being refused help by several charities, 32-year-old Alice hanged herself on 30 October 1898, apparently in the hope that the government would be forced to provide for their five children. The children were dispatched to live with different relations while Winspear served his sentence. He eventually found work as a clerk and in 1910 published a volume, Poems.

Full-time treasurer of the Australian Socialist Party (1912-16), he often edited its newspaper, the International Socialist, to which he frequently contributed poetry, articles and 'socialist fables', sometimes as 'W.R.W.' In 1914 he analysed the inadequacies of recent Labor governments in his lengthy pamphlet, Economic Warfare, in which he argued that the working class was worse off than in 1910 and that Labor's nationalization proposals were 'state capitalist' rather than socialist. With his comrade Harry Holland, he wrote the party's 'Open Letter to the Conscript Boys of Australia', advocating resistance to the Labor government's 'compulsory militarism' for 'voteless lads'. Ironically, Winspear is best known for a poem he did not write: the 'Blood Vote', which became famous as anti-conscription propaganda, was written by E. J. Dempsey, a leader-writer on the pro-conscription Evening News, who asked Winspear to sign the poem.

After the war Winspear worked for the Torch, the local newspaper at Bankstown. He remained apart from all political parties, but in 1939 wrote and published a three-volume pamphlet, Essays and Rhymes of the System, which showed that he had retained libertarian socialist convictions. Survived by two sons and a daughter, he died on 20 February 1944 at Bankstown and was buried in the Presbyterian section of Rookwood cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • A.L.P. Golden Jubilee Committee, 50 Years of Labor (Syd, 1940)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘The Mightier Pen: William Robert Winspear’ in E. C. Fry (ed), Rebels and Radicals (Syd, 1983)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • B. James, Anarchism and State Violence in Sydney and Melbourne, 1886-1896 (Newcastle, 1986)
  • International Socialist Review (Sydney), Apr 1910–Sept 1916
  • Communist Review, 1 July 1937, p 51
  • People and Collectivist, 5, 26 Nov 1898
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 31 Oct, 1 Nov 1898
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1 Nov 1898.

Citation details

Verity Burgmann, 'Winspear, William Robert (1859–1944)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/winspear-william-robert-9155/text16163, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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

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