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Samuel Albert (Sam) Rosa (1866–1940)

by Verity Burgmann

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Samuel Albert (Sam) Rosa (1866-1940), socialist and journalist, was born on 31 January 1866, at Bethnal Green, London, England, son of Mary Elizabeth Henshaw, and registered as Henry Thomas Henshaw.  He was baptised Samuel Albert Rosa at Trinity Church, Marylebone, on 10 October 1869 after the marriage of his mother to Alexander Rosa the previous year. Educated at St Andrew's School and the Polytechnic School of Art, Regent Street, at 18 he was an executive-member of the Social Democratic Federation. From 1886 he worked as a freelance journalist in the United States of America, where he joined the Socialist Labor League and the Knights of Labor.

Arriving in Melbourne in 1888, next January Rosa helped to establish the Melbourne branch of the short-lived Australian Socialist League. On 20 July 1889 with Dr W. R. Maloney and W. D. Flinn he formed the Social Democratic League. In his 1890 pamphlet, Social Democracy, he argued that society was evolving in the direction of 'universal co-operation': the 'co-operative commonwealth' would be a direct democracy with every citizen voting on every law, of which there would be few, and electing recallable officials to administer these laws; industry would be run by workers and there would be greater equality between the sexes. A leading open-air orator for the league, he was imprisoned for a month for making 'inflammatory' anti-Sabbatarian speeches.

In 1890 Rosa became well known in Melbourne as a prominent leader of the unemployed, whose demonstrations and mass deputations were arousing fear, thereby achieving some concessions. He was described by the Bulletin as 'a piratical looking cuss' with 'a big Punch-looking nose, with terrific red hanging mustachios … matching his shock of red hair', but contemporary photographs reveal his gentle and scholarly appearance, with a delicate nose, neat moustache and receding hairline.

Late that year Rosa moved to Sydney, working as a navvy, canvasser and freelance journalist. He quickly became secretary of the Australian Socialist League but was deposed in January 1892 as the league came to espouse the kind of state-oriented socialism that he opposed. At Paddington on 14 June he married a widowed dressmaker, Mary Henrietta Williams, née Evans. In September Rosa sued Truth for libel, conducting his own case before Justice (Sir) M. Henry Stephen, who found Truth's allegations 'absolutely false and unfounded'. Rosa was less fortunate in 1893 when he was imprisoned for three months for selling Arthur Desmond's Hard Cash. In 1894 Rosa published a brief novel, The Coming Terror, republished next year as Oliver Spence. As a Labor candidate he was defeated for the Tweed and the Barwon in the elections of 1894 and 1895.

At odds with most other socialists in this heyday of state socialist ideas, Rosa attended the People's Federal Convention at Bathurst in 1896, then devoted his political energies to lone pamphleteering against Federation: he stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1901. Despite the litigation between them, he became friends with John Norton, who appointed him leader-writer and editor of Truth in 1901. Rosa worked for Truth until 1923, and often acted for Norton when he was overseas or inebriated.

When part of the labour movement lurched leftward during World War I, Rosa was chairman of the Industrial Vigilance Council. In July 1919 he, J. S. Garden and A. C. Willis were expelled from the Labor Party for denouncing the State executive as corrupt and useless. A breakaway Industrial Socialist Labor Party was formed in August 1919 with Rosa chairing its foundation conference. In 1923 he became managing editor of the Australasian Coal and Shale Employees' Federation's Common Cause. He took over as a leader-writer and literary editor on the Labor Daily when the papers amalgamated in 1925. In the 1920s Rosa was 'grandmaster' of I Felici Litterati, a group of impoverished writers and artists that met regularly in cafés. He rejoined Truth in 1934 as a writer of leaders and special articles and in 1937 was president of the Society of Australian Composers and Authors.

Survived by his wife, Rosa died on 25 May 1940 and was cremated with Anglican rites. His tendency not to suffer fools and reformists gave his adversaries scope to accuse him of having an 'unsocialistic temper'. A frequently maligned character, he described his attackers as generally persons who 'have parasitically fastened themselves upon organised labour and have long been in receipt of absurdly high salaries'.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Pearl, Wild Men of Sydney (Melb, 1965)
  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • B. James, Anarchism and State Violence in Sydney and Melbourne, 1886-1896 (Newcastle, 1986)
  • Justice, 30 Aug 1890
  • Bulletin, 13 Sept 1890
  • Tocsin, 9 Feb 1899
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 28 Mar 1901
  • Australian Workman, 10, 24 Jan, 14 Feb, 31 Oct, 7, 21 Nov 1891, 6, 27 Feb, 12 Mar, 3 Dec 1892, 21 Jan, 18 Mar 1893.

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Citation details

Verity Burgmann, 'Rosa, Samuel Albert (Sam) (1866–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 14 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


31 January, 1866
London, Middlesex, England


25 May, 1940 (aged 74)
St Leonards, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.