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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Graham Alcorn on the Free Speech fight against Fascists in Perth After World War Two by John Tognolini

Graham Alcorn

Below is part of my interview with Graham Alcorn, who died on August 9 1998. Graham was a Wartime leader of the Communist Party in West Australia during World War Two and the Painter & Dockers delegate at Sydney's Cockatoo Island Dockyard in the the 1950's and 60's. He also worked at the Blue Mountains Hydro Majestic Hotel and was later in charge of over 200 kilometres of walking tracks in the Upper Blue Mountains. This is extract is from a book I've nearly completed, this section of the interview is with Graham talking about the Communist Party in Perth during World War Two.

John: How big was the Communist Party in Perth back then?

Graham: I was never sure but it wasn't very big. We were pretty active. Those depression years produced a lot of militants and they were really good militant people. A militant core of the left movement that made an impression beyond the numbers involved. For example the communists were so dedicated and such capable people that in the trade union movement that many communists came to the leadership of trade unions. Jim Healy in the Waterfront Workers Union, Edgar Ross in the Miners Union, Paddy Troy, who was a great mate of mine. A wonderful man Paddy Troy, Freddie Weymouth who led a big demonstration of unemployed and there were these splendid people and they had an influence far beyond their actual numbers. They had the answer that nobody else did.

John: Can you tell me a bit about your mateship with Paddy Troy?

Graham: Well Paddy Troy was one of the ones sent to jail. He was not a full time worker for the party. He worked on the waterfront in the Docks, Rivers and Harbours Union and that became a branch of the Painter and Dockers Union. Paddy came from the Goldfields where he'd been a militant in the struggle there. He was a great man Paddy Troy a really outstanding person, Irish of course. Escaped Catholic. With these outstanding individuals. The effect they had in an atmosphere. The soil was ready if you could say so. People couldn't get jobs and the Labour Party didn't seem to have the answer.

John: What did you think of the Labour Party at that time?

Graham: I thought they were capitalist serving and opportunist. During the illegal period I joined the Labour Party branch in the district I was living in. They had all sorts of people with the different ideologies like the Henry George League. They had some idea I never really understood. They had all these different types in the Labour Party but they had this opportunist streak which was very evident. I used to move motions through the branch but they never do much about it. They didn't have that real total dedication. If you became totally dedicated in those days with Communist Party you faced the question of jail. Even your life because there were these basher gangs who used to attack us personally. They came after the War when Churchill started the Cold War and the leader of them was an exmember of Mosely's New Guard [British Union of Fascists] in England and the name of this fells was Cushier.

John: He came over to Perth did he?

Graham: Yes he was an immigrant from England and there was quite a few blokes who had jail records and a publican who used to fill them up with grog and send down to bash up our Esplanade meetings. I became a regular speaker down the Esplanade we had quite good crowds there. There were other stumps with different ideas. I developed a speech which I explained the nature of socialism and how it could solve all the problems of mankind and it was a very popular speech actually. During the War we were enormously popular, membership of the party leapt tentwenty fold but then it started to shrink again after the War and then there was the Miner’s Strike which we since considered a great mistake. The party should have never given support to it while there was still a Labour Government in office. It split the country in half the Miner’s Strike. There used to be a lot of people come to the Esplanade to hear about the Miner’s Strike. Anyhow during this period in which there was a drive to make the party illegal again and in which the Chifley government was defeated largely a result of the Miner’s Strike. Menzies was put back into power and there was an atmosphere created by Menzies of virulent anticommunism and the usual political stunts of blaming the communists for everything which they pulled out of the bag again. They were very good at it. So there were continual attacks on us in the paper, radio and this publican in the main street of Perth. He organised this gang of thugs. There was about a dozen of these blokes. One Sunday they attacked. They used to come along and heckle. And every Sunday they get more vicious until they charged the stump.

A stump is a sort of a platform and you go up about three steps and then you've got a rostrum/table top to lay your papers on. You stand on the stump and talk down to the crowd. So their idea was to rush the stump and tip it over which they tried. In the meantime we organised a defence squad and we had some pretty tough fellows. There was a chap called Jim Kelly an exseaman. He was about six foot four. He only had one eye and could fight like a thrashing machine and there was a Dr Jolly who had a doctor’s practice out in Midland Junction. A railway workers town. He was a great boxer too. These two Kelly and Jolly organised from among the workers a gang of twelve or so who would be trained in fighting and defence. So every time the blokes attacked which was nearly every Sunday they got done.

John: You'd start off and they came at you.

Graham: There's the stump and I'm standing on it introducing the speaker. Our fellows formed a semicircle. There was a tennis court or bowling green, it had a wire nets about six foot high so we used that as a backing. Then there was the big lawn of the Esplanade 2030 acres or lawns that led right down to the Swan River. Perth is a beautiful city. It has the Swan River just at the foot of the business area is all this lovely water. It's a tidal river. We had this background of the fence which was very handy because they couldn't get behind the stump so we just had a semicircle of the defence squad with their arms folded and then the speaker would be on the surrounds the stump. And all these bloody fascists would be shouting and yelling, every now and then they'd charge and get repulsed. Knocked back.

It worked to a crescendo. I think they were all filled up with grog by this publican. They would finally get themselves so worked that they would charge. They never overthrew the stump. They never got through our defences but they came pretty near to us. Some good fighters amongst them. I hate violence and hate fighting and it took a lot of courage for me to take part in this. Thank goodness they made me the chairman so I didn't have to take place in the fighting.

What would happen then was the police would be there and they would stand back. It was a Liberal state government in office and they backed these bastards. So the whole of the state was on the side of these drunks and criminals. The police would stand off until the fascists looked like being nearly defeated. It was every time just about. We used to get huge crowds of two thousand watching.

John: How many fascists were there?
Graham: About a dozen.
John: So there be two thousand people listening to you and other speakers and these fascists would attack?

Graham: Well you know, people like a bit of violence. They started coming along to see the scene and in the meantime they got good lectures from me on socialism, good talks from Paddy Troy and various other speakers and we were protected by the semicircle. In the end it became almost a pattern every afternoon the fascists would rust the stump.

When I say fascists they were fascists. When they looked like being defeated the police would step in arrest the leaders from both sides and take them away and charge them with creating a disturbance. The first time they did it they put them all in the same paddy wagon.

John: That would have been fun.

Graham: So they had a terrific fight inside the paddy wagon bashing into one another. So the next Sunday they bought along a red paddy wagon and a black one. They put the communists in the red one and the fascists in the black one.
It was a very tense time. The state government which was on the side of the fascists banned the use of loudspeakers on the Esplanade. So previously all speakers on the Esplanade had been allowed to use amplifiers and the state government for no reason. Oh, the reason was obvious to put us at a disadvantage banned the use of loudspeakers and so we just had to throw our voices. I was pretty good at that and most of our speakers were used to speaking at union meetings. Say the meeting started at two o'clock the crowd would all be gathered around waiting for us to appear and on one occasion we hired a launch. We had a loud speaker with battery power and everything and I was the chairman, Paddy Troy was the main speaker and Kevin Healy the three of us on this launch. It was right across the other side of the river which would be three quarters of a mile away. We met over there in the launch and picked up the equipment from one of our feller's cars and put it in the launch. We anchored from the shore and all the people were waiting on the other side. We yelled out through the loud speakers, "Over here folks." and they came over about two thousand of them. The police couldn't interfere because we were on the river.

The bloody fascists were wandering up and down tearing their bloody hair out, absolutely furious. Finally they went and hired a boat and they started rowing out towards us.But they must have decided they didn't have enough men so they rowed back ashore and put a couple more in it, this row boat. By this time we talked for about an hour and a half. What the people did not know was that the boat had a motor in it. It was anchored. Paddy Troy being a seaman was in charge of all that.

As these blokes came closer and closer with their row boat. Obviously intending to board us and tip us out into the water. The tension mounted up you see. With perfect timing Paddy Troy pulled up the anchor, I was speaking at the time and he said well thank you ladies and gentlemen for your attention and started the engine, it was inboard he must have just had to press a button and away we went. The bloody roar that went up from the crowd was tremendous because no one expected that would happen. For all they knew it was a row boat we had because they hadn't seen it arrive and it was only a small boat but it had a inboard motor. It was a great triumph.

Shortly after that the Bishop of Perth. I think he was Church of England. A man of considerable influence who often wrote to the papers, quite a big public figure wrote a stinging letter to the Herald condemning the state government for allowing this bunch of hooligans to disrupt a meeting that was supposed to be free. We were entitled to it. It was such a good letter I suppose they couldn't very well ignore and not publish it. Then the heat was taken off. So we won a victory and we made inquiries about the members of the gang. Several of them were criminals. They had criminal records, petty sort of records for bashing up people and robbing them of what was in their pockets. They even bashed a bloke up in the lavatory in the Esplanade and stole nine pence off him or something ridiculous like that. They were just the scum of the earth.

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