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Thomson, Andrew (1858–1905)

This entry is from Obituaries Australia

Andrew Thomson was born in Fifeshire, Scotland, September 1858, and would, therefore, have been 47 years of age next September. He arrived in Australia about 22 years ago, coming first to Queensland, but remained only a short time in the Northern State, when he made his way to New South Wales, and with the exception of a short residence in Brisbane a few years back, he lived, fought, and worked in this State. A stonemason by trade, as was his father before him, he worked at that trade until the end.

He became a member of the Stonemasons' Union, and soon became a virile force within that organisation, and first exhibited the force and vigor of his personality when he became a delegate from that union to the old Sydney Trades and Labor Council.

In 1890, when the idea of independent Labor action in politics was first introduced before the Council, which then represented the bulk of the organised trades of this State, he became one of its most earnest advocates, and supported the first resolution at the meeting called to bring into existence the Labor League, then called the Labor Electoral League of New South Wales. Shortly afterwards the great Maritime Strike took place — 1891 — the greatest strike in Australian history. As those who remember that stirring period know, the strike ended disastrously, the workers being beaten all along the line — though at one time it appeared that success was certain, and the 'general strike' throughout Australia was to become an active reality. But the capitalist forces were organised for the first time, and Labor went down; went down industrially, but rose politically, the Strike being only the birth pangs of a new order. The class feeling was roused and all the bitterness of defeat was felt by the workers in their industrial battle, and they used their ballots a few months afterwards and swept the polls in all the industrial centres by returning Labor members. Thus the first Labor Party was born in Australia and Labor became a distinct force in Australian politics. The failure of that party to realise expectations, its confusing elements and the lack of any definiteness in its programme, together with the lack of any real class-consciousness of the Labor movement, bred dissatisfaction.

In 1894, what was known as the 'Solidarity Pledge movement was inaugurated. A split occurred in the party, which was then led by Joseph Cook, now a Reidite henchman representing the 'freetrade section,' while Mr. McGowen and others stood for Protection. The pledge was a demand that all Labor candidates should be bound to vote solid on all questions of the platform, and affecting the fate of a ministry. With a reduced electorate and the principle of one-man-one-vote operating for the first time, the second Labor party was elected with a diminished membership, although in a reduced House proportionately as strong as wielders of the 'Balance of Power' as was the first party. Nearly all who refused to sign the pledge or had acted traitorously were opposed, and Andrew Thomson, after much pressure, consented to stand for selection in the Denison Labor League as a candidate, and was selected unanimously as the Labor candidate for that League, and fought against Andrew Kelly the 'Bogus Labor Candidate,' and one of the first men to break away from the original party. The contest was a bitter one, and proved the most sensational and exciting episode of the election. As a result of the light Kelly was defeated, and Thomson, together with those who fought with him, had the satisfaction of vindicating the spirit of Labor loyalty and solidarity as it was then understood.

Thomson knew that for him personally success was impossible, but he fought the battle with all his characteristic doggedness.

After all the effort and whole-souled enthusiasm by the militants throughout the State the pledged party failed to reach the requisite standard demanded by the left wing, though up to 1897, when the Federal Convention was elected and Labor in this State put out the full ticket of 10, these militants fought within the movement. The vote on this occasion proved a complete lack of class-consciousness or solidarity among the workers.

It was shortly after this event that Thomson and others then finally decided to sever their connection from the Political Labor League, and devote their energies towards building up politically the Australian Socialist League, with the ultimate object of bringing into existence a clear and definite Socialist Party.

The foregoing statement was necessary in order to trace the growth of the Labor and Socialist movement, and the part our comrade played therein. The Australian Socialist League was established in 1887, and met in an upstairs room in George-street, and while, no doubt, there were among its members some who understood the principles of Scientific Socialism, there were many who did not, most of whom were but mere sentimental Utopians. The League had a varied career and came into prominence during the '90 strike by its manifestos and literature. The labor ferment then readily accepted the Socialist teaching as at that time expounded, and when the League, after many stormy experiences, found itself established at Leigh House, Castlereagh Street, Sydney, as its Headquarters, became one of the most popular centres for labor, Socialism and all other 'isms'' under the sun. The large and artistic hall was crowded every Sunday night, the Socialist orators of the period are now in Federal and State Parties, but none are now members of the A.S.L.

In 1897 there was a general all round slump industrially and politically. Trades Unionism in the metropolis hardly existed and Labor Leaguesism was largely represented by officials and when in that year the Socialist plank was placed on the Labor platform, it was the signal of revolt from the official section which dominated the League and the resignation of the Socialists who, though few in number, were among the active workers who gave up the fallacy of boring from within. During this period the membership of the A.S.L. had dwindled to a fraction, the politicians and orators having no further use for it, and, besides, a big debt was left behind. At this juncture Thomson agreed to take the General Secretaryship and like everything he undertook, set to work with a will, with courage and determination to pull the League through. The debt was wiped off: the propaganda was regularly held in the Domain and Hall every Sunday, Thomson doing most of the speaking, not through choice but necessity.

After the severance from the P.L.L. a summoned meeting of all members of the A.S.L. was called together to consider the position at which it was decided to enforce a latent rule that no member of the A.S.L. could belong to any other political organisation. The result was the resignation of those who wanted the League to be a mere expression of Socialism and to remain connected with the P.L.L.

With barely 20 members, a big rent to pay and very few speakers, the work was carried on. What the League lacked in numbers was made up with earnestness and determination to succeed. The handful had to pay a weekly levy to keep things going aided by socials, etc. In the winter the latter method of raising finance was possible, but in the summer the revenue fell off, and a smaller hall was taken and the work went on. Propaganda was gradually extended to the suburbs, mostly on the street corners, Thomson taking his share of it. It was found necessary to have an official press, and with only £4 in the funds it was decided to establish a monthly magazine called 'The Collectivist,' the members pledging themselves to find the funds every month to keep it going. A Press Committee, which included Thomson and our late comrade, Charley Barlow, who had literary and technical experience, was appointed by the League to conduct it. The first Sunday on which our paper was for sale in the Domain Thomson introduced it with the characteristic remark: 'These fellows have printed a paper and we want you to buy it.' The paper lasted four months when it was amalgamated with the 'Northern People,' published at Newcastle, and through many vississitudes it developed into The People, now the property of the Australian Socialist League.

In the year 1898 a Conference of the League drew up the present Constitution, though in matters of detail it has since been altered, yet, fundamentally, it is the same. The same year saw the birth of the Socialist Labor Party. Andrew Thomson was selected twice as a Senate candidate and once for the State in 1901. About that time he gave twelve months' exhaustive consideration with an unemployed Committee in the endeavor to evolve some scheme for the amelioration of the workless under existing conditions, and the document still stands as one of the most important of its kind to try and solve the the unsolvable under capitalism. He labored under no illusions on this question, but sought to find some means to palliate the conditions which reduced men to want.

Last year he was one of the delegates appointed by the Stonemasons' Union to conduct their case before the State Public Board when the Day Labor system was on its trial. He devoted months of arduous work, night and day, and conducted the enquiry for his class in a masterly manner and fearlessly met the combined contractors. He was specially thanked by the Board for his valuable information and labors in connection with the enquiry. At the time the inquiry was in progress our late comrade was a Candidate of the Socialist Labor Party for the Senate, and he often invited the Board and the contractors to come and hear him from the stump. He never hid his light under a bush, and fearlessly proclaimed himself to be, what he was in word and deed, a SOCIALIST. Such in brief is the history of the working-class movements to which our late comrade. Andrew Thomson, devoted himself, and the labors of a life of strenuous activity in the interest of the class from whose loins he sprang — the Working Class.

As a man, he was a splendid physical specimen of the proud and independent Scotchman: rugged and brusque at times, yet beneath that rugged exterior there reigned a tender and gentle nature. Possessed of a keen, critical, logical mind, he never took anything for granted, submitting every question to scientific test and statement of fact. He possessed all the caution and prudence of his race, but, withal, was generous and magnanimous. Combined with many sterling attributes was a strong sense of justice, and he always impressed on the members of the League to act straight and honest in all their dealings — at least as far as circumstances would permit. The League and its work was part of his life of which he was ever proud. He was one of the best read men in Australia, all the economists from Marx downwards were familiar to him. Almost every work on economics and Socialism, besides philosophy and science, he could lay hands on he read. The result, was a mind filled with knowledge always up to date. Closely following the trend of Australian politics he analysed every proposal emanating from any source, especially those bearing on labor, with the strictest analysis, and his deductions generally when tested by occurring events proved unassailable. The present constitution, manifesto, and statements prepared by the League bear part of his impress. When some months back Socialism was a burning question in the daily press of this State, and the League decided to reply to the press and platform attacks, Thomson's aid was found invaluable in drafting the replies. The most striding, and without exaggerating, the most valuable ones ever issued in Australia as a scientific statement of Socialism, were the recent replies to the 'Daily Telegraph,' the first of which was published, the second — suppressed. In the compiling of those valuable statements the lion's share of the credit is due to our late comrade, A. Thomson.

We pay this tribute to his memory because we know how well it is deserved, how hard it was won: and while setting no mail — the living or the dead — upon a pedestal on which is inscribed the words 'Ecce Homo' the A.S.L. is always prepared to acknowledge worth. There was, perhaps, no man among his fellows with a stronger individuality than he of whom we write: there is no man among them to whom 'hero-worship' is a greater abhorrence than it was to him. To him it mattered not who spoke the word if it were spoken true: it mattered not who did the deed if it were but don well. Such was he who now lives within our memory, of which those who were his associates are a part. He wants no pulseless monument raised to the memory of his material self, hewn in cold marble by stranger's hand, for while in life he assisted in the erection of a pulse-beating, blood-flowing living monument not only to his own memory, but to the memory of all the pioneers of Socialism whom material death has silenced in the past and whom it will silence in the future: a monument of earnest men and women banded in one common cause, the cause of humanity, and represented in the Australian Socialist League. He was proud of that LIVING monument, and so are we.

And now Andrew Thomson is but a memory; he has paid nature's debt as all must do sooner or later, but he has left behind footprints on the sands of time, a career to be proud of, a memory to be cherished. It is not for us to mourn, great as his loss to the movement is, but to be up and doing, commencing the work where he left off. The epitaph we write to his honor is brief:

HE WAS A MAN.

Original Publication

Additional Resources

  • funeral, Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 10 July 1905, p 2

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

'Thomson, Andrew (1858–1905)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/thomson-andrew-32047/text39609, accessed 20 October 2021.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012