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Arthur Desmond (c. 1859–1929)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Arthur Desmond (c.1859-1929), agitator and author, was born probably in New Zealand, son of an Irish father and an English mother. Desmond may not have been his correct name. For a time he was sailor, shepherd, drover and musterer. In July 1884 and September 1887 he was an unsuccessful radical candidate for Hawke's Bay, against the squatters' man Captain (Sir) William Russell. Desmond proclaimed himself a follower of Henry George, demanding land nationalization and the establishment of a state bank. In February 1889 he appeared at Gisborne, where he took the platform in support of the Maori leader Te Kooti; the Sydney Bulletin in March published Desmond's poem, 'The song of Te Kooti', and other verses in the next two years.

By January 1890 Desmond was at Auckland, where, after a brief association with Henry George followers, he organized trade unions, being active in the Timber Workers' Unions. In October 1890 he began a radical newspaper, the Tribune, which closed after eight issues. A pamphlet of his, Christ as a Social Reformer (1890), was later shown to be plagiarized from an American magazine. By December he was in Wellington, where it was his practice to address workers on Sunday afternoons at the wharf gates.

About November 1892 Desmond came to Sydney, and soon gravitated to William MacNamara's bookshop where socialism was a staple. With his flamboyant style and striking appearance (red-bearded and red-headed) Desmond became a leading figure. He acquired a reputation in his group as a banking expert; in May 1893 there appeared the first issue of Hard Cash, which he is said to have edited. It attacked banks and exposed the self-interest of capitalists and clergymen. Although MacNamara and Sam Rosa were gaoled for publishing it, Desmond eluded the police; but he was fined for posting a notice 'gone bung' on a Sydney bank. From November 1893 to January 1894 he printed and published the iconoclastic Standard Bearer, edited by 'Hard Kash'.

In late 1893 the depression in Sydney had begun to bite and Desmond was prominent in the Active Service Brigade, an organization of radicals including Tommy Dodd and John Dwyer which aimed to disrupt meetings of conservative politicians. The brigade obtained premises in Castlereagh Street, where beds were provided for the homeless and workless for 3d. per night.

By the end of 1893 Desmond had left the Active Service Brigade and joined the Labor Party. At the unity conference in November, Desmond was one of those credited with authorship of the phrase 'undying hostility' in a resolution expelling four Labor parliamentarians. In June next year he was proposed as a Labor candidate for Durham in the general election but he declined to stand. Instead he helped to organize the campaign which secured the election of John Christian Watson for Young. He wrote poetry regularly in 1894 for the socialist magazine, New Order.

About 1895 Desmond left Australia, apparently for the United States of America. Reputedly he took a manuscript, which was published under the pseudonym 'Ragnar Redbeard' in Chicago in 1896 as the Survival of the Fittest, later retitled Might is Right. Denouncing women and Christianity, this was a vitriolic, racist hymn to the doctrine of force, apparently based on the ideas of Nietzsche and Stirner.

Desmond's subsequent movements are obscure. Reports claim he visited Britain, South Africa and even Manchuria before 1902. His death is reported to have occurred in Palestine in 1926, although other reports that year claimed that he was 'still alive and living in Chicago', conducting a bookstore. Probably his greatest significance in Australia was as an influence on Henry Lawson, Billy Hughes and on Jack Lang's concept of 'money power'.

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Journalists' Association, Copy, 1 Dec 1913
  • Ross's Monthly, 17 Apr 1920
  • New Zealand Monthly Review, Aug 1960
  • Overland, 38, Mar 1968
  • Tocsin, 17, 24 May, 21 June 1900
  • Bulletin, 12 June, 10 July 1919, 5 July 1923, 14 Aug 1924, 30 Dec 1926
  • Australian Worker, 14 Apr 1926, 16 Mar, 11 May, 22 June 1927
  • Windsor and Richmond Gazette, 8 Oct, 26 Nov 1926
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Desmond, Arthur (c. 1859–1929)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • Redbeard, Ragnar
  • Thurland, Richard

c. 1859
New Zealand


23 January, 1929 (aged ~ 70)
Chicago, Illinois, United States of America

Cause of Death

brain hemorrhage

Cultural Heritage

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Political Activism