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William Lane (1861–1917)

by Gavin Souter

This article was published:

William Lane (1861-1917), journalist, trade unionist and Utopian, was born on 6 September 1861 at Bristol, England, eldest son of James Lane, an Irish Protestant, and his English wife Caroline, née Hall. His father was a landscape gardener whose drunkenness impoverished the family and made the boy a lifelong abstainer.

After proving himself a gifted pupil at Bristol Grammar School, William worked his passage to Canada at 16. At Montreal his right foot, deformed since birth by talipes (club-footedness), was operated on with partial success. In that time of widespread strikes and brutal repression, Lane worked at odd jobs and as a linotype operator, discovered the social thought of Henry George and Edward Bellamy, and by 24 was a reporter in Detroit, United States of America. On 22 July 1883 at Algonac, Michigan, he married 19-year-old Anne Mary Macquire, born in Edinburgh. In 1885 the Lanes and their first child sailed for England, only to re-embark for Australia with Will's 19-year-old brother John. Two younger brothers, Frank and Ernest, had preceded them.

Lane's luggage included copies of Smith's Wealth of Nations, Marx's Das Kapital and Gronlund's Co-operative Commonwealth. With this foundation he became one of Australia's foremost radical journalists, addressing himself mainly to the bushworkers of Queensland, whom he idealized. Settling in Brisbane, the limping reporter with 'a slight Yankee twang' — a delicate-looking man with drooping moustache and clear blue eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles — wrote under the pseudonyms of 'John Miller', 'The Sketcher' and 'Bystander'. He was also an active participant in Queensland's developing trade union movement. In 1887 he helped to launch the weekly Boomerang, which he co-edited. His first novel, a racist polemic, entitled White or Yellow? A Story of the Race-War of A.D. 1908, appeared in the Boomerang as a twelve-part serial by 'The Sketcher'.

Lane was largely responsible for the formation in 1889 of the Australian Labour Federation, an organization of Queensland unions which replaced the Trades and Labor Council in Brisbane. In 1890 he became first editor of the Worker, which was financed by the A.L.F. and other Queensland labour bodies. He covered the Rockhampton conspiracy trial during the 1891 shearers' strike, though some Brisbane newspapers said he should more properly have been charged as 'the arch-conspirator' and 'the man behind the curtain'. His ironically titled novel The Working Man's Paradise (Brisbane, 1892) was written by 'John Miller' to raise funds for the families of the convicted Rockhampton prisoners. While the defeat of the shearers and other strikers helped to turn the labour movement towards the political action from which the Australian Labor Party emerged, it turned Lane into a Utopian by-road.

As early as 1889 he had corresponded with a communal settlement in Mexico, Topolobampo, and he was familiar with the North American Utopian community, Icaria, founded by followers of Robert Owen. On 2 May 1891 the Worker announced that the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association had dispatched an agent, Alf Walker, formerly business manager of the Boomerang, to seek in South America the suitable land which the association had been unable to obtain in Australia. Lane and his friends chose remote South America in order to discourage the weak. His hypnotic speaking style was a factor in attracting more than 600 subscribing members.

The promised land, 463,000 acres (187,000 ha) unsettled and free of charge, was found in Paraguay. Under Lane's leadership a first batch of 220 colonists, including Lane's wife, their four children and John Lane and his wife, sailed from Sydney on 16 July 1893 aboard the Royal Tar, bound via Cape Horn and Montevideo to Asuncion. New Australia, 109 miles (176 km) south-east of Asuncion, was bound by rules of temperance and racial exclusiveness with which some settlers refused to comply. Lane would not compromise. His puritanism contained no tact, and little human sympathy; for him, New Australia's articles of association were 'the Code of the Medes and Persians'. He was autocratic, and under pressure his simplistic communism and mateship developed a non-denominational but distinctly religious tinge. The result, after the arrival of a second contingent, was schism. 'The crooked ones will have to go', he wrote.

On 7 July 1894, sixty-three settlers loyal to Lane made, as he said, 'a quiet, safe start on bedrock' at a new site called Cosme, 45 miles (72 km) south of New Australia. They were joined by other true believers from Australia and a few families recruited by Lane during his strangely protracted visit to England in 1896-98. Cosme's bedrock was not as sound as Lane had hoped, though the collapse occurred more gradually there than at New Australia.

As the colony never became more than barely self-sufficient, a growing number of settlers sought a better standard of living elsewhere, or were expelled for breaches of communal practice. Lane felt betrayed. Weakened by illness and hardship, and disillusioned by human nature, he resigned as chairman in June 1899. Leaving Cosme with his family on 1 August, he sailed for New Zealand. The colony retained some of its original character and then, like New Australia, became increasingly Paraguayan.

Lane revealed nothing of his feelings about New Australia and Cosme in later life but his career on Auckland's conservative New Zealand Herald, from 1900 as leader writer and from 1913 as editor, clearly demonstrated a political volte-face. The radical of the 1890s had become a conservative Imperialist. His writings under the pseudonym of 'Tohunga' (the Maori word for prophet) made almost as big an impression on New Zealand as those of 'John Miller' had made on Queensland, though in very different vein. He denounced industrial lawlessness, advocated the introduction of universal military training, and when war came showed himself a master of patriotic rhetoric.

Lane died on 26 August 1917, as the result of bronchitis and a serious weakness of the heart, and was buried in Purewa cemetery, Auckland. He was survived by his wife, a son and five daughters. Three other children had predeceased him; one son had been killed at Gallipoli.

Lane's obituaries in Australia's labour press were a mixture of loyalty and recrimination. The Brisbane Worker excused his failure in Paraguay and said that the memory of his earlier days in Queensland would last as long as the labour movement. The Australian Worker, which Lane had edited briefly in 1900, found him guilty of egotism and arrogance in Paraguay, and Ross's Monthly lamented: 'Billy Lane is dead — dear old Billy Lane. And he died in the camp of the enemy!'. Although by going to Paraguay Lane in one sense opted out of Australian history, his essay at Utopia remained part of the national experience. Lane appeared as a character in two theatrical works, Vance Palmer's play Hail Tomorrow! (1947) and George Hutchinson's musical drama The Ballad of Billy Lane (1982).

Select Bibliography

  • L. R. M. Ross, William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement (Syd, 1937)
  • E. Lane, Dawn to Dusk (Brisb, 1939)
  • G. Souter, A Peculiar People (Syd, 1968)
  • New Australia and Cosme (newspaper and manuscript material, Series 9, May 1965, held by National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Gavin Souter, 'Lane, William (1861–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 19 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (Melbourne University Press), 1983

View the front pages for Volume 9

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Miller, John
  • The Sketcher
  • Bystander

6 September, 1861
Bristol, Gloucestershire, England


26 August, 1917 (aged 55)
New Zealand

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