Ernest (Ernie) Lane and Mabel Lane (née Gray) were socialist activists, centrally involved in the trade union and peace movements in Brisbane during the First World War.

Ernie Lane (born 26 Dec 1868, died 18 June 1954), was a committed socialist activist from an early age. From 1913, he was a leading member of the Australian Workers’ Union, at the time Australia’s largest union, organising shearers, miners and a wide range of other occupations. Though prominent within the AWU, Lane was usually more radical than its leadership. He clashed with them on a range of issues.

During the War, Lane was industrial editor for the Labor Party affiliated newspaper The Daily Standard which was the most popular newspaper in Brisbane at the time. Under his pen name “Jack Cade,” Lane would provide detailed reports on the activities of Brisbane’s union movement, its socialists and peace activists. Often, he would use his column as a platform for his left-wing beliefs:

The workers will discover that, though apparently fighting to-day for freedom and justice, and after successfully waging this war, his real enemy is still unconquered, still the same oppressor, as of old, and that the real war, the war that is indeed a matter of life and death to him and his class, has still to be fought and fought against the very men who to-day are hailing him as the salt of the earth. (Daily Standard, 7 October 1915, p. 3)

Lane was a founder of the Anti-Conscription and Anti-Militarist League in August 1915, alongside other union representatives and socialists as the threat of conscription loomed. After Prime Minister Hughes announced the plebiscite on conscription for October 28, 1916, Lane was prominent in the production of dozens of leaflets that outlined the anti-conscription case.  One of the most infamous and potent of these leaflets was “The Blood Vote”, a poem written by William Winspear which beseeched women not to cast a vote that would condemn a man to death:

They gave me the ballot paper,

The grim death-warrant of doom,

And I smugly sentenced the man to death

In that dreadful little room.

Wartime censorship banned the poem. Even so, Lane distributed 50,000 copies in leaflet form. Lane’s columns and reports in the Standard would often fall afoul of the censor, who sought to suppress anti-conscription arguments in a blatantly partisan manner. Lane defended anti-war activists who were charged under the War Precautions Act for “prejudicing recruitment,” a charge that saw several people imprisoned in Brisbane’s Boggo Road Gaol. Lane also defended the revolutionary syndicalists of the Industrial Workers of the World (I.W.W.), who came to prominence as anti-war activists during the debates around conscription. From late 1916, the I.W.W. were increasingly repressed by state intervention, primarily in New South Wales and by the Unlawful Associations Act federally.

Lane’s time as industrial editor of the Standard coincided with an uptick in strike action in Queensland, which reflected increasing cracks in the pro-war consensus. During the war, unemployment skyrocketed, and prices rose precipitously as markets for goods were destabilised and severed by the front lines and naval blockades. Queensland, as a centre of primary industry, was particularly badly hit, with unemployment reaching 17.9% in the first three months of 1915. Even though employment levels improved as the war dragged on, wage increases flagged well below inflation, which increased nearly 50% in 1915. Lane articulated the increasing disaffection felt by workers, who felt they were being forced to bear the burden of the war while capitalists continued to profit. In many respects, the defeat of the two conscription plebiscites can be put down to the disillusionment felt by workers who felt they had sacrificed enough, even though outright anti-war sentiments remained a minority.

From 1916 until 1923, Lane served on the Central Political Executive (C.P.E.), the leading body of the Queensland Labor Party. Here, he helped commit the party to oppose conscription and carried out the bitter split with the Prime Minister Hughes after the defeat of his conscription plebiscite. On September 13, 1916, the C.P.E. voted to refuse Labor Party support to any parliamentarian who voted in favour of conscription. In the Standard, Lane bitterly welcomed the expulsion of Hughes from the Labor Party, arguing that the “Labor movement cannot, if it is to be true to its ideals and principles, consent to be swallowed up by the treacherous swamps toward which Mr Hughes is so gaily dancing and beckoning for others to follow.” (Daily Standard, 4 Oct 1916, p. 3)

While Ernie was prominent in the union movement, Mabel was no less so within Brisbane’s feminist and peace movements.  Before meeting Ernie in 1893, Mabel worked as a milliner, a women’s hat maker, and was involved in the Early Closing Association which pushed for limiting retail hours. Along with Emma Miller, Mabel split from more conservative feminists in 1894 to establish a Women’s Equal Franchise Association, which fought for equal votes for all women regardless of their class or race.

During the War, Mabel was a foundation member of the Women’s Peace Army (W.P.A.) in Brisbane, led by Margaret Thorp. Mabel served as Vice-President, but in a sneering article for the conservative Truth newspaper, she was lambasted as being the real force behind the organisation, manipulating the W.P.A. as a “political weapon… under the direction of a discontented coterie of would-be political bosses.” (Truth, 14 May 1916, p. 7)

Despite the sexist and dismissive attitude of her opponents, who could only see in her organisational abilities the hidden hand of unknown, shadowy men, Mabel was publicly recognised for her work in leading the W.P.A. during the first conscription referenda. Her comrades lauded her “tireless zeal for the peace and socialist movements.” (Daily Standard, 27 June 1917, p. 3)

Together, Ernie and Mabel Lane were central to the defeat of conscription in Brisbane. Their work illustrates the overlapping between the politics of the radical left, the union movement, feminism and the struggle to end the war altogether.

By Duncan Hart.

References and further reading:

Rickertt, Jeff. The Conscientious Communist: Ernie Lane and the Rise of Australian Socialism. Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016

Lane, Ernest Henry (‘Jack Cade’). Dawn to dusk: reminisces of a rebel. Brisbane: William Brooks and Company, 1939