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Harry Marshall: A Fremantle larrikin in politics

Geoffrey Bolton

Bolton, Geoffrey 2005, 'Harry Marshall: a Fremantle larrikin in politics', Fremantle Studies, 4: 1-7.

On 18 July 1894 Winthrop Hackett, the normally discreet and measured editor of The West Australian, penned an editorial seething with dismay at the result of an election for the Legislative Council seat of West province, based on Fremantle. He wrote:

The Fremantle Province election has been converted into what can only be described as a disgrace to the entire colony. The disgrace which a certain party has put upon the West electorate does not stain Fremantle alone but will be felt as a disgrace on every individual who claims Western Australia as his birthplace or the country of his adoption. When the result of the Fremantle election was known on Monday night it is no figure of speech to say that it brought a sense of intolerable shame to every respectable person in the community. [1]

Worse still, it had not been the democratic Legislative Assembly which brought this disgrace on Western Australia, but the Upper House elected by propertied householders. Some of the editorial’s readers may have thought that the outburst was provoked because Harry Marshall, the subject of Hackett’s diatribe, was the first son of an ex-convict ever to be admitted to the respectable company of Western Australia’s parliamentarians; but, as we shall see, there was rather more to it than that.

Thomas Henry Marshall, usually known throughout his life as Harry, was the son of Edward Marshall, a 23-year-old knife grinder, literate and Protestant, who was sentenced at York in 1852 to fifteen years’ transportation for uttering forged promissory notes. He arrived in Fremantle on the Ramillies in August 1854, stayed out of trouble, and was granted his ticket of leave in June 1856 and a conditional pardon in August 1859. He found employment as a timberworker and sawyer on the Toodyay road and was living at Bailup in 1862 when Louisa Harris, to whom he was not formally married, gave birth to their son. 2

Young Harry grew up in Fremantle among the sons of ex-convicts and pensioner guards, a rough and ready lot whose activities provoked the passing in 1880 of an act of parliament popularly named ‘the Larrikins Act’. Western Australians were in a mood of moral panic, caused as so often by news of delinquencies in Sydney, giving the authorities power to arrest, fine, and if necessary imprison adolescent youths making nuisances of themselves in the streets. The Superintendent of Police complained of ‘knots of young lads who collect in different places and insult passing females by offensive language’, and in 1883 an editorial in The West Australian complained of ‘the intolerable nuisance occasioned by troops of young larrikins perambulating the town, rigged out as a sort of mock musical band, with penny whistles, concertinas, drums etc, making night hideous with their horrible din.’ 3 Harry Marshall however went to South Australia in 1883 to work as a clerk, returned next year to Fremantle with a job as a shop assistant, but then went back to Adelaide where on 7 April 1886 at Trinity Church he married Clara Wilhelmina Ohlmeyer. Three days later his father in Fremantle died of what was described as ‘heat apoplexy’, and the young couple returned to live permanently in Fremantle.

While in Adelaide Harry Marshall absorbed two of the abiding interests of his life. One was politics. Western Australia in the early 1880s was a slow school of politics, with a government still responsible to Downing Street and a Legislative Council of men of property elected by men of property. In Fremantle the regime of the ‘merchant princes’ such as William Marmion, William Silas Pearse and James Lilly was at its apex. 4 South Australia on the contrary was in the vanguard of democracy, with manhood suffrage — soon to be extended to women — and a parliament in which factions contested vigorously. Some of these attitudes evidently rubbed off on Harry Marshall.

But Adelaide was also a stronghold of Australian rules football, or as it was then called ’the Victorian game’. In the early 1880s members of the Burt and Bateman families who had been to school in Adelaide returned to Western Australia as enthusiasts for the new game, and in 1885 a league was formed of three teams, one of them a Fremantle club. 5 In 1885 Arthur Diamond, a founder of the Norwood club in South Australia, moved to Fremantle where he set up as an importer, customs and shipping agent. By 1890 he was president of the Fremantle club. 6 Marshall certainly knew him in Fremantle and probably in Adelaide, and he too became a keen supporter of the Fremantle club, although I have not yet found evidence of him actually playing any games.

Football was seen as a means of containing the energies of working-class youth, but in Fremantle it was also intimately bound up with the emergence of the early trade union movement. Western Australia’s earliest industrial organisations were craft unions of limited influence or radicalism, but in 1889 the waterside workers of Fremantle formed themselves in a lumpers’ union which is usually considered the first significant body of its kind. Harry Marshall, who had become a Fremantle town councillor in 1888, was involved in its formation and Arthur Diamond, although an employer, became the first president. The political horizon widened in December 1890 when Western Australia achieved responsible government with John Forrest as its first premier. Of its two houses of parliament the Legislative Assembly was comparatively democratic, with a franchise including all adults except the poor, bankrupts, clergymen, women and idiots. The Legislative Council was to be nominated by the government until the population reached 60,000, and then voting would be restricted to householders with property worth at least twenty-five pounds.

There was greater excitement in football in Fremantle. In those years it was a low-scoring scrambling game, thought to require less skill than rugby. The spectators were not fenced off from the play, and at one game in June 1890 ‘there were more spectators inside than outside the flags’. 7 Later in the same year after a series of wins Fremantle suffered its first defeat of the season in a home game. A serious riot ensued, which Marshall was accused of encouraging. Another figure in the melee was the Perth coach, Walter James, a publican’s son who was also a sporting hero, and who having qualified in law was elected to the Perth City Council in 1890. He was seen as trying to control and calm the crowd, a proper attitude for one who was later to become a State premier and doyen of the legal profession, but Marshall was arrested, fined, and imprisoned for twenty-four hours. On his release he was greeted by supporters with a band.

Marshall’s wife died in Adelaide in April 1891, leaving him with three small children, and probably for that reason he withdrew from the Fremantle Council. However, he remarried in October 1891 at the Fremantle Congregational Church, his second wife being the 18 year old Jane Ann McLean, and in 1893 re-entered the Council. His one and only surviving portrait, taken around that time, reveals a thickset young man in smart and sporty clothing with a rosette in his lapel. He has grown a moustache slightly drooping towards the walrus angle. It looks like a convincing picture of the up-and-coming proprietor of an importing business with civic ambitions.

Trouble came in December 1893.8 The Customs authorities, alleging that Marshall had failed to pay duty on imported goods, seized a quantity of his stock and demanded to see all his bills and invoices for the year 1893. Marshall replied that he could not produce them, since his invoices were regularly destroyed. He was brought before Chief Justice Alexander Onslow who, after a hostile summing up to the jury, imposed the heavy fine of £750 on the accused. The Chief Justice had convinced himself that Marshall had forged letterheads to create fake invoices, an ironic accusation against a man whose father had been transported for forgery. It was a huge sum, which Marshall could not pay, and he was held in custody.

Harry Marshall was not discouraged. Because of the growth in population resulting from the gold rush the Legislative Council was now to become an elected house of parliament. When nominations were called in June 1894 Marshall was one of six candidates for the three seats for West Province. Because he was in custody he could not take part in the customary public meeting at Beaconsfield when the candidates met the voters and set forth their policies. He had to rely on his standing as a popular sportsman. As the Daily News commented: ‘Mr Marshall will rely upon the football vote but no doubt the bulk of the electors will remember that they are not called upon to discuss and formulate rules and laws in the interests of sport.’ 9 It seemed a bad omen when his ally Arthur Diamond failed to wrest the Legislative Assembly seat of Fremantle from the sitting members, Marmion and Pearse.

The election campaign coincided with a time of increased turbulence in the football world. Violence was still a problem, although the press gave publicity to the popular clergyman, the Reverend GE Rowe, who preached that ‘When the game of football was properly played there was no more danger in it than in anything else that developed a man.’ 10 At the end of June 1894 the Fremantle club was brought before a tribunal for fielding three disqualified players, and when their explanation was not accepted the club threatened to quit the Football League, even if it were to collapse as a result. 11

Harry Marshall was also having trouble with tribunals. On 3 July his case was heard on appeal. His counsel, the popular lawyer Richard Haynes, argued that the verdict against his client should be set aside because the Chief Justice should not have instructed the jury. But Onslow, who sat on the Court of Appeal, was still intractable, and although his brother judge, Edward Stone, was milder and agreed that Onslow should not have directed the jury, he still found the verdict justified. So the fine stood, although Haynes commented that ‘The penalty means practically imprisonment for life.’ 12

Many of the voters must have considered Marshall hard done by. When the poll was declared a few days later, it was found that the leading candidate was Daniel Congdon, pharmacist, draper, and ally of the ‘merchant princes’, and a politician of seven years’ experience, and the second was Edward Davies, an estate agent and moneylender who also enjoyed a connexion with the Fremantle football club and other sporting organisations; but the third seat went to Marshall, well ahead of his rivals. Voters were entitled to choose two candidates, but of the 256 who supported Marshall, eighty-seven voted for him alone. The poll was declared at the Fremantle Town Hall at 10.15pm. A reporter described a scene of ‘indescribable excitement’:

... on the doors opening hundreds of people rushed into the building with yells and hootings ... Loud yells, cheers, counter-cheers, hooting and hissing greeted the declaration of the poll, and when Mr Marshall’s name was called the scene was one of indescribable confusion, cheers, groans, hisses, and interjections continued for fully three minutes and it was with difficulty that Mr Marshall could obtain a hearing.

He told the crowd that they could not frighten him with their hissing: ‘Being as he had been for some time dead to the world (a voice: ‘Never mind about that, old son’) his success was all the greater.’ There was no question of him remaining in custody, and his enthusiastic supporters piled him into a buggy and paraded down the High Street. 13

Despite the forebodings of The West Australian Harry Marshall’s political career resulted in anti-climax. His maiden speech in the Legislative Council was mild and brief. expressing support for Sir John Forrest’s government. He asked a few questions about local Fremantle affairs, and then ceased to attend parliament. Because of his fine he was obliged to declare himself bankrupt, and his seat accordingly became vacant in June 1895. 14 As this had never happened before this created some small procedural difficulties for the members of the Legislative Council, among whom Hackett was especially vocal, but eventually Alfred Kidson, who had been an unsuccessful candidate in 1894, replaced him.

Harry Marshall was already making a new life for himself elsewhere. He went to the Murchison goldfields and in 1895 was publican at the Excelsior Hotel at Cue. He built and managed the Excelsior brewery, and was also in business as a cordial manufacturer. In May 1898 he was convicted of the larceny of part of an aerated waters machine and sentenced to twelve months imprisonment at Geraldton. Nevertheless, he bounced back.

He was a member of the Cue water board and patron of the local cycling club, and by 1906 he was serving on the Cue municipal council. In 1907 he moved to Day Dawn. a few kilometres south-west of Cue, becoming licensee first of the Great Fingall Hotel and then of the Day Dawn Hotel, and continuing to serve on the council. He died suddenly on 28 December 1909, leaving three sons by his second wife as well as the three children of his first marriage, and was interred in the local cemetery. 15

His departure from Fremantle had not immediately improved the tone of local football. At the end of 1895, according to Brian Stoddart:

The season ended on a low note when the final match between Fremantle and Rovers tumed into one of the roughest matches on record. Feelings ran high from the outset, and a large section of the crowd invaded the field late in the game when a Fremantle player felled an opponent behind the play. There were reports that the Fremantle team had been instructed to play roughly, the implication being that premeditated violence was abroad ...The Fremantle player whose actions provoked the crowd invasion was charged with assault by the police. In sentencing him to a five pound fine and fourteen days in jail, the judge remarked that he was alarmed by the amount of verbal and physical violence induced among the general public by football affiliations. 16

The player was banned from the ground for life, and enclosed fences were built to separate the spectators from the play.

From that time on football was gradually institutionalised and gained respectability. The Fremantle club failed to survive the turn of the twentieth century, and is generally considered to have been succeeded by South Fremantle, but it was East Fremantle who dominated the game during the first decade of the century, which was the last decade of Harry Marshall’s life.

By that time the trade union movement had taken on a life of its own, strengthened immeasurably by the influx of tradesmen and workers attracted by the gold rushes. There would be Labor members of parliament by 1901 and a Labor State government by 1904. With the growth in sophistication there would be no room in public life for a maverick like Harry Marshall, except in the rough-and-ready municipal politics of a goldfields community already in decay. But he deserves our interest because he links so many of the elements which came together in Western Australia’s twentieth century working-class culture: convictism, sport, pubs, the trade union movement, and not least the staunch sense of local patriotism appropriate in a Fremantle lad.

Fremantle Studies Day, October 2003


1 The West Australian, 18 July 1894

2 R Erickson and G O’Mara, Convicts in Western Australia 1850-1887: Dictionary of Western Australians vol IX, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1994, p 378

3 The West Australian, 9 March 1883; P Hetherington, Settlers, servants and slaves: Aboriginal and European children in 19th century Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 2002, pp 75-6

4 P Brown, The merchant princes of Fremantle, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1996

5 A Barker, Behind the play: a history of football in Western Australia from 1868, WA Football Commission, Perth, 2004, chapter l

6 P Brown, ‘Arthur James Diamond: a gentleman of scarce renown’, in Early Days, vol 12, part 3, pp 221-230

7 The West Australian, 17 June 1890

8 The West Australian, 7 December 1893

9 Daily News, 25 June 1894

10 Western Mail, 30 June 1894

11 Ibid.

12 The West Australian, 3 July 1894

13 The West Australian, 17 July 1894; Daily News, 18 July 1894

14 Western Australia, Parliamentary Debates, new series, vol vi pp 23-24, 133-134, 569, 658-661; vol viii pp 227-230, 247-253

15 Murchison Advocate, 30 December 1909

16 B Stoddart, ‘Sport and society 1890-1940: a foray’ in CT Stannage, (ed), A new history of Western Australia, University of Western Australia Press, Nedlands, 1981, p 663

Geoffrey Bolton

Geoffrey Bolton is chancellor of Murdoch University, having retired from more than thirty years of teaching history at four Australian universities and the University of London. Western Australia forms the subject of many of his publications, including Alexander Forrest (1958), A fine country to starve in (1972 and 1994), Daphne Street (1997) and (with Jenny Gregory) Claremont: a history (1998). He is currently working on a short history of Western Australia and on a biography of Sir Paul Hasluck. He is general editor of the Oxford History of Australia and was ABC Boyer lecturer in 1992.

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