Australia’s first Political Assassination

Book Review by Jimmy Yan

Rowan Day, Murder in Tottenham: Australia’s First Political Assassination, Melbourne: Anchor Books Australia, 2015.



The ongoing centenary of the Great War has been marked by a revival of historical interest in the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), a revolutionary syndicalist movement which stamped its influence not only upon Australian anti-conscriptionism but also upon the Irish labour radicalism of Connolly and Larkin in Ireland. Murder in Tottenham by Rowan Day provides the first localised study of the Tottenham Murder, a lesser-known controversy in the history of the Australian IWW which previously elicited only three pages in Ian Turner’s classic, Sydney’s Burning.

In September 1916, a 27-year-old police officer, George Duncan, was shot dead in Tottenham, a small mining town in the copper belt of western New South Wales. The perpetrators were Roland Kennedy and Frank Franz, two members of the IWW. Their subsequent trial and execution, which coincided with the highly publicised case of the Sydney Twelve, fuelled a political backlash against the IWW culminating in the eventual suppression of the movement. A defining, and unprecedented, feature of the affair was the execution of Franz, who had been called upon to testify as a Crown Witness in the trial. Day characterises the Tottenham Murder as the ‘first political assassination’ in Australian history, although the claim is later tempered with the qualification that the murder was a ‘nihilist, not a syndicalist action’ underpinned by no ‘serious motivation’. In any case, state harassment of the IWW was a primary contributing factor towards deepening tensions between the IWW and local state authorities.

Unlike Turner’s 1969 history of the IWW Twelve case, Murder in Tottenham offers more than a close narrative of the courtroom intrigue surrounding the trial and execution of Franz and Roland. The case itself occupies only three chapters of the book, forming a minor thread in a study otherwise devoted to situating the Tottenham IWW within its multiple social and political contexts.  Day has instead provided a rich and thoroughgoing sketch of the underlying conditions for the formation of the Tottenham IWW, from its transnational political origins in Chicago to the social backdrop of working-class life in the ‘copper belt’.

The work can thus be read as a ‘history from below’ of the non-urban IWW more widely. At its core, Murder in Tottenham is concerned with displacing a Sydney-centric emphasis in the historiography of the Australian IWW. Day convincingly repositions the interior of Australia as the centre of IWW activity, a setting in which the railway formed a physical and cultural conduit for the circulation of radical politics. A highlight of the book was a chapter examining the growth of the Tottenham IWW within the mobile, itinerant work culture of navvies, whose militants literally imported IWW traditions into the town during the construction of a Tullamore-Tottenham railway line. The tactics of ‘go-slow’ and ‘sabotage’ were integral to the appeal of the Wobblies on the railways, where insecure labour conditions produced a distinct form of industrial discontent.

Murder in Tottenham is not a specific study of Irish-Australian involvement in the IWW, nor does it purport to be one. Yet amongst the IWW Twelve were two Irish-born activists, Tom Glynn and Peter Larkin, the brother of Jim Larkin. Assessed from the perspective of Irish studies, the figure of Roland Kennedy offers an additional angle from which to observe Irish-Australian entanglement with the radical wing of the labour movement.  The fourth chapter of the book outlines a genealogical sketch of Kennedy, a second-generation Irish-Australian whose family immigrated to Australia from Galway at the height of the Famine. A far more formative influence on Roland’s political outlook than his Irishness per se was the globe-trotting activism of his two brothers, Michael ‘Herb’ Kennedy and Kevin Kennedy. Herb in 1912 was involved in the Waihi Strike in New Zealand during which he established contact with IWW members Tom Barker and Charles Reeve.  In 1916, Kevin travelled to the United States and became a prominent member of the Chicago IWW alongside ‘Big Bill’ Haywood and Elizabeth Gurley Flynn. Kevin remained in correspondece with Herb and Roland during a steelworkers’ strike in Duluth, Minnesota, and his reports of anti-IWW employer violence in the US may have affirmed the political violence of the IWW in Tottenham.

Kennedy’s frequently tense interactions with the local Chinese and Maltese communities provide a unique perspective on the complex relationship of Irish-Australian labour radicals to White Australian racism. A formative moment in Roland’s life was a fatal confrontation in 1904 between an uncle and a local Chinese man, Ah Chick, in the town of Peak Hill. Yet while Day details a backdrop of racial animosity in Tottenham, including between white and Maltese navvies in 1915, the formal opposition of the IWW and its newspaper Direct Action to the White Australia Policy does not enter the discussion. Further examination of the tension between the formal anti-racist principles of the IWW and the actual practice of the Wobblies could have strengthened the analysis of race in Tottenham.

The Irishness of the Kennedy brothers ultimately manifests in the book within a radical nationalist framing underpinned by implicit parrallels with the Australian bushranger legend. These comparisons are eventually made explicit within an observation by Day that Roland Kennedy’s final words, ‘good-bye boys’, were ‘not so different’ from Ned Kelly’s ‘such is life’. Elsewhere, Day locates a distinctly Australian ‘Larrikinism’ in the anti-authoritarian sociability of the Tottenham Wobblies, although the extent to which this working-class irreverence differed from that of the American IWW is not made clear. Yet far from dissolving the Tottenham IWW into an Australian nationalist mythology, Day notes that Kennedy and Franz could equally be compared to the characters of Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s Devils. Indeed, the story of the Tottenham IWW offers an insight into much more than the Australian ‘national character’. In pushing the bounds of Australian radical history beyond the urban centre, Murder in Tottenham adds texture to the local experience of one of the most significant transnational radical movements of the early twentieth century.

Jimmy Yan

Jimmy is enrolled as a Ph.D candidate in Irish Studies at the University of Melbourne.