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William Paisley Earsman (1884–1965)

by Ann Turner

This article was published:

William Paisley Earsman (1884-1965), labour movement activist, was born on 16 March 1884 at Edinburgh, son of James McDonald Earsman, mason, and his wife Elizabeth, née Aitken. After education at a council school, Earsman completed an apprenticeship as a turner and a 'night-school' course. In 1908 he went to New Zealand. Two years later he came to Melbourne, and worked for the Camberwell Motor Works from June to September 1910, the Victorian Railways (to September 1914) and the Colonial Ammunition Co. (to July 1917), earning repute as a skilful tradesman.

In Edinburgh Earsman had been in the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, and he joined the Melbourne District branch—on its committee from March 1911, he was secretary in 1915-16 and was active in industrial disputes in 1917-19. A committed socialist and industrial unionist, from 1911 to 1916 he was a member of the Victorian Socialist Party, becoming director of the Socialist Sunday School (1912), acting secretary (1913) and trustee (1914-15). In 1913 he joined the Free Religious Fellowship and in 1915 the Anti-militarist and Anti-conscription League, being conspicuous in the referenda campaigns of 1916 and 1917.

In June 1917 Earsman initiated the Victorian Labor College, becoming secretary until mid-1919, when he moved to Sydney. He founded the New South Wales Labor College, acting as secretary and lecturer until April 1921. His pamphlet, The Proletariat and Education, was published in Melbourne in 1920.

A syndicalist with strong 'Wobbly' (Industrial Workers of the World) sympathies, Earsman appears to have been the single most important person involved in the formation of the Communist Party of Australia, and was elected secretary at its foundation meeting in Sydney on 30 October 1920. When the party split in December, Earsman led what became known as the 'Sussex Street' faction. Seeking recognition for his group, Earsman went in April 1921 to the third Congress of the Third Communist International (Comintern) in Moscow. He was also at the Congress of the Red International of Labor Unions in July. In Moscow he abandoned his syndicalist position for official Comintern strategy which advocated political as well as industrial weapons in the revolutionary struggle.

When Earsman returned in December his papers were seized by the Commonwealth security service which had tracked him since early 1918. He became embroiled in the rivalry between the two Australian Communist parties before leaving in May 1922 for the fourth Congress of the Comintern in Moscow. He gained official recognition for the 'Sussex Street' party, became a member of the Comintern executive, met Trotsky (whom he greatly admired) and Lenin, and was made an honorary member of the Red Army. In London in January 1923 he learned that he was barred from Australia. After a few weeks in Edinburgh he went to Moscow to teach English at the Red Army Military Academy. Back in England in August 1924, he tested British machine tools for a Soviet importing agency.

In 1914 Earsman had revisited New Zealand to marry, on 8 April, at Leeston Presbyterian Church, his cousin Alison Lockhead Aitken. She joined him in Moscow in August 1923 but died in Edinburgh on 16 April 1925. On 29 October 1927 at St Vincent of Paul's Catholic Church, Sheffield, England, he married Margaret Ellen Killelea.

About that time Earsman left the Communist Party. He wanted to re-enter Australia but despite the support of Maurice Blackburn and John Curtin, he was twice refused. In 1932 he returned to Edinburgh, joined the Labour Party in 1934, and in 1937-49 was secretary of the Edinburgh Trades Council. Now a moderate social democrat, he concealed his earlier affiliations. He was active in municipal affairs and a councillor of the Edinburgh Festival in 1946-62; in 1950 he was appointed O.B.E. He died of cancer in Edinburgh on 13 January 1965, survived by his second wife, their son, and the daughter of his first marriage. His widow believed that 'he was a man who wanted to leave the world a better place than he found it'.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Davidson, The Communist Party of Australia (Stanford, California, 1969)
  • K. D. Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920 (Canb, 1970)
  • Scotsman, 14 Jan 1965
  • Edinburgh Evening News, 14 Jan 1965
  • Australian Left Review, Oct-Nov 1970
  • Earsman papers (Special Manuscripts Library, Edinburgh University)
  • F. Hancock papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Melbourne District Committee, minutes (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Victorian Labor College records (University of Melbourne Archives)
  • Victorian Socialist Party records (National Library of Australia)
  • Military Intelligence and Investigation Branch records (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ann Turner, 'Earsman, William Paisley (1884–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 18 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


16 March, 1884
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


13 January, 1965 (aged 80)
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland

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