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Olaf (Michael) Sawtell (1883–1971)

by Jill Roe

This article was published:

Olaf Sawtell (1883-1971), by unknown photographer, 1955

Olaf Sawtell (1883-1971), by unknown photographer, 1955

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 06667

Olaf (Michael) Sawtell (1883-1971), socialist agitator and Emersonian, was born on 20 August 1883 in Adelaide, second son of Charles Sawtell, optician, and his Indian-born wife Florence Arabella, née Hooper. Educated at the Collegiate School of St Peter, where he won the McCulloch history scholarship (1898), in 1899 Mick chose adventure as a drover's boy with (Sir) Sidney Kidman over further study.

By 1900 Sawtell was at Annandale station, on the Georgina River in Queensland. He then worked the Birdsville Track, with forays into the Simpson Desert to reclaim stray cattle. Exhilarated by the life and delighting in campfire culture, he also learned much from Aboriginal boys his age, the knowledge resulting in lifelong respect for Aboriginal spirituality.

On Kidman's recommendation, in 1904 Sawtell left for Western Australia, where he was employed on Obagooma station, north-east of Derby. In the Northern Territory by 1907, he tried tin-mining and lived for a time at Humpty Doo, undertaking droving trips for a Darwin butcher and taking a six-month 'study holiday' at Borroloola. Here he read his way through the outpost's remarkable library and encountered the writings of the American transcendentalist Ralph Waldo Emerson, his guiding light thereafter.

In 1908, droving cattle overland from Darwin to Derby, where he had taken out a lease at Trent Creek, Sawtell happened upon Robert Blatchford's Merrie England (1895) and was converted to socialism. He engaged in 'poddy dodging' (cattle rustling) and read Plato's Republic and theosophical books delivered monthly by a missionary. Despite learning the dialect of the 'Munjongs' (local Aborigines), their cattle spearing and grass burning drove him out, and in 1910 he headed south, calling on Daisy Bates at Carnarvon en route. Now an itinerant labourer, in Perth he attended meetings of the Theosophical Society and joined the Socialist Party. From 1914, with Montague Miller, he was a stalwart of the Industrial Workers of the World.

A persuasive speaker, Sawtell urged workers that sound organization, direct action and education would usher in the co-operative commonwealth by peaceable means. After some success as an organizer on the goldfields, in October 1916 at Gascoyne, during the first conscription referendum campaign, he was arrested with Miller and others for seditious conspiracy. On a separate charge of 'threatening with intent', Sawtell was gaoled for six months in 1917.

Released, Sawtell moved to Broken Hill, New South Wales, as a paid organizer for the I.W.W. In August he was arrested for belonging to an illegal organization and sentenced to six months hard labour, subsequently attracting a twelve-month sentence at Deniliquin in December for having led a demonstration at the North Mine. Sawtell served seven of eleven months of the sentence in solitary confinement at Parramatta, then returned to Perth early in 1919. Boycotted by employers, he devoted himself to advocacy of the One Big Union. By August he was in Adelaide as an organizer for the South Australia Socialist Party. There he helped to establish a new version of the I.W.W. and on 2 September 1919 at the registrar-general's office married Elizabeth Pole, a teacher, with whom he had corresponded while in gaol.

The marriage ended in divorce. After writing Job Control, or the Industrial Basis of the New Society (Adelaide, c.1920) he was a self-described 'bush worker cum socialist organiser'. He argued against the violence of the Bolshevik Revolution with the Melbourne communist Guido Baracchi in 1921 and later contributed to Sydney newspapers. Another pamphlet, An Apocalypse of Labor: A New Interpretation of an Old Movement, and his prose poem The Wisdom of a Vagabond were published in Sydney in 1926, when his address was William Street Post Office, Kings Cross. By 1929 he was working in a Sydney paint factory.

In 1930 Sawtell experienced romance with an English-born chiropodist Elsie Vanda Grant, née Idenden, whom he was to marry on 2 May 1964 at the registrar-general's office, Sydney. They opened a health food shop in the Victoria Arcade, where Sawtell long presided over the Emerson Society. He spoke in the Domain and was arrested during a demonstration against war and fascism in 1934. The appeal of socialism, however, had faded. He now advocated reason and Emersonian individualism. Reading more widely than ever, he practised vegetarianism and yoga and, as a student of the Vedanta, in 1938 joined the Theosophical Society—he resigned in 1949, rejoined in 1957 and his membership lapsed in 1960. Numerous contributions to theosophical publications in 1936-49 indicated a prior association with Sydney's breakaway Independent Theosophical Society.

Sawtell regarded the Aboriginal cause as a 'stern social duty'. He introduced Jack Patten to P. R. Stephensen and as president of the committee of Aboriginal Citizen Rights, formed in 1938, mobilized support for reform in New South Wales. In 1940, when the Aborigines Welfare Board replaced the discredited Aborigines Protection Board, he campaigned with Pearl Gibbs for Aboriginal representation and later joined the A.W.B. himself. Serving some twenty years as a government nominee, he went 'walkabout' annually to obtain information, and claimed to have directed 60,000 letters about pension rights to (Sir) Robert Menzies. Resented and criticized as an opponent of detribalization, which he deemed destructive of crucial Aboriginal beliefs, Sawtell resigned in 1962, having opposed lifting the ban on the sale of alcohol and believing that the board had outlived its usefulness. He has since been seen as paternalist, but his experience and dedication were exceptional, and as a friend of Albert Namatjira he knew there could be no quick fix.

During World War II Sawtell lectured for the Army Education Service and to disaffected leftists at the Hasty Tasty Café, Darlinghurst Road. In later life, he was a prodigious contributor of letters and articles to the press, made radio broadcasts, and in 1946 participated in an Australian Broadcasting Commission forum of the air opposing British weapons tests in Australia as 'evil business'. Short, sprightly and fresh voiced, he lectured several nights a week to community organizations, his favourite topics being Emerson, the Aborigines and, after meeting the engineer J. J. C. Bradfield in 1938, water for the inland. He lectured throughout the State on 'The Ideal for Australia'—Lake Eyre as a great food-producing area and Alice Springs as the national capital.

Towards the end Sawtell felt the only hope of converting his fellow Australians to his theories was 'a costly catastrophe'. His tenacity was admired nonetheless. An idealist rather than an eccentric, he died on 1 October 1971 at Kings Cross, Sydney, and was cremated with Catholic rites. Childless, he was survived by his wife. His will specified that, instead of flowers, donations be made to the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Turner, Sydney’s Burning (Melb, 1967)
  • J. Horner, Vote Ferguson for Aboriginal Freedom (Syd, 1974)
  • J. Roe, Beyond Belief (Syd, 1986)
  • F. Cain, The Wobblies at War (Melb, 1993)
  • V. Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism (Melb, 1995)
  • H. Goodall, Invasion to Embassy (Syd, 1996)
  • Amalgamated Engineering Union, Monthly Journal, Sept 1948, p 19, Jan 1955, p 16, June 1955, p 19
  • New Dawn, Jan 1972, p 13
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 26 Dec 1928, p 4, 20 Apr 1929, p 13, 7 June 1960, p 1, 22 Sept 1961, p 4, 2 Oct 1971, p 8
  • Sun (Sydney), 11 Jan 1961, p 9
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 15 Nov 1971, p 26
  • D. Huggonson, Michael Sawtell (typescript, 1995, copy on ADB file)
  • oral history interview with M. Sawtell (no date, State Library of New South Wales)
  • Union Index of Theosophical Articles (Theosophical Society Archives, Sydney)
  • St Peter’s College, Adelaide Archives.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Jill Roe, 'Sawtell, Olaf (Michael) (1883–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 21 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Olaf Sawtell (1883-1971), by unknown photographer, 1955

Olaf Sawtell (1883-1971), by unknown photographer, 1955

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 2 - 06667

Life Summary [details]


20 August, 1883
Adelaide, South Australia, Australia


1 October, 1971 (aged 88)
Kings Cross, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.