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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dickinson, Edward Alexander (1903–1937)

by Ray Broomhill

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

Edward Alexander Dickinson (1903-1937), newspaper editor and political activist, was born on 21 April 1903 at Grimsby, England, son of Edward Dickinson, fish merchant, and his wife Mary Cormack, née Ross. Ted came to Melbourne with his family as a small child. His father was killed soon after and his mother remarried and moved to New South Wales. In 1923 he returned to Melbourne, studied with the Workers' Educational Association and became friends with Charlie Reeves, one of the Industrial Workers of the World leaders who had been gaoled in 1917. Dickinson became a leading figure in the I.W.W. in Melbourne and later in Sydney, where he became known as a Domain orator: he was a stirring, enthusiastic and fiery speaker.

In 1928-29 Dickinson was in Adelaide to revive the I.W.W. newspaper Direct Action. He was extensively involved in political activity with those out of work. Especially concerned with attempted evictions, he tried to organize unemployed workers who gathered daily at the Adelaide Labor Exchange. During the 1928 waterfront strike Dickinson was active both in Adelaide and the Port. On 1 October 1928 he was arrested as 'one of the leaders' of a 'riot' which had occurred on 27 September when 5000 unionists drove scabs off the ships at the Port. Dickinson was charged with 'unlawfully taking part in a riot' and 'seditious libel' for several articles in Direct Action. He received six months imprisonment for sedition and three months for riot and was fined £50.

On 19 October 1929 at Holy Trinity Church, Adelaide, Dickinson married Myrtle Ellen Ankers, tailoress. At the end of that year he was employed as the representative of an oil company which sent him to England. There, again unemployed, he set up a fish stall at Battersea markets and survived the Depression. Politically active, he went on hunger marches and spoke regularly in Hyde Park. He helped form a broad organization to oppose Sir Oswald Mosley's Fascists and the Chamberlain government's appeasement policies. In 1935 when the Labor Party leader Clement Attlee condemned the Italian invasion of Abyssinia, Italy's foreign minister challenged him to a duel. Shortly after, speaking at Hyde Park, Dickinson accepted the challenge on behalf of the peace movement; he added that he had spent many years in the Australian bush and was familiar with firearms though he preferred boxing gloves.

At the end of 1936 Dickinson went to Spain to fight with the International Brigade against Franco. He became a lieutenant, second in charge of a machine-gun company of the British Battalion. Reports emphasized his abilities as a 'born leader' and organizer. His commanding officer described him as 'a brilliant man with a dynamic personality'.

Dickinson was captured by the Fascist forces on 12 February 1937; after two comrades were shot, he is reputed to have said: 'If I had a bunch of Australian bushmen here we'd have pushed you bastards into the sea long ago'. He was immediately taken aside and shot. As the order to fire was given, he called to the other prisoners: 'Keep your chins up, boys. Salud!'.

Select Bibliography

  • T. Wintringham, English Captain (Lond, 1939)
  • N. Palmer et al, Australians in Spain (Syd, 1948)
  • L. Fox (ed), Depression Down Under (Syd, 1977)
  • Direct Action (Adelaide), 5 May, 20 Oct, 17 Nov 1928, 9 Feb 1929
  • Mail (Adelaide), 11 Feb 1939
  • R. N. Wait, Reactions to Demonstrations and Riots in Adelaide, 1928 to 1932 (M.A. thesis, University of Adelaide, 1973)
  • private information.

Citation details

Ray Broomhill, 'Dickinson, Edward Alexander (1903–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 15 August 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

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