Late “Billy” Lane [4 October 1917]

[Editor: An article regarding William Lane. Published in The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), 4 October 1917.]

Late “Billy” Lane

A Reminiscence and a Tribute.

Writes R. S. Ross in “Ross’s Monthly” for September:—

“Billy” Lane is dead — dear old “Billy” Lane. And he died in the camp of the enemy! There the infinite tragedy of it. Nevertheless, peace be to his ashes!

During the last week of August the sad tidings reached Australia from New Zealand. It was hard to accept the fact of Lane’s death. He was so much to so many of us . . . . years ago. Never phrase-maker so magical, nor personality so picturesque, nor preacher so magnetic, nor propagandist so mighty— to us of the 90’s. How to describe his wondrous literary work and power baffles me. He caught as in a vice and held you . . . heaving, passion-swept, tumultuously near the Most High. Those who came under his influence were stirred to the depths, mentally and spiritually. He made all things New. He gripped — and across all these years he grips. He was prophet, priest and king.

My memories are rocking and shouting as I think of Lane — “Billy” Lane, of, by and for the people, man of the mob, soul of the cause, lever of the movement. We shall not look upon his like again. And he died in the camp of the enemy!

It was in 1883 that Lane came to Brisbane, and to the evening “Observer” contributed a series of shaking sketches on working-class conditions. The sketches were soon in everybody’s mouth. Lane remained on the “Observer” for several years, and then in 1887 started the “Boomerang,” to us a miracle among newspapers. I am proud to own its first volume. Later, the “Boomerang,” after almost throttling “Figaro,” a rival cartoon paper, changed hands and Gresley Lukin became its editor — and in time it died. Why I could never understand. We dreadfully need such a paper in Melbourne.

But Lane’s crowning journalistic achievement was founding the Queensland “Worker,” Labor’s first Australian union-owned journal. There never was such a paper — there never will be such a paper. On the table as I write are the first two volumes of Lane’s “Worker,” . . . and I stand up and raise my old house hat to them. I would not like to part with them for the golden calf.

It was on Eight Hours Day, March 1, 1890, that with many others I purchased in the streets the first number of the “Worker.” I wish I could quote some of the burning words Lane addressed to us. Thereafter each number of Lane’s message bearer was meat and drink to me. A 17- year-old apprentice to the printing trade, I shamefully chronicle that Lane’s Printed Word was so “pulling” and “calling” that I would actually sneak out during working hours and purchase a pen’orth and read it under the “frame:” No wonder that from a capitalistic point of view I am diddled, damned and done for!

Jesus! — this sketch is growing more of me than “Billy,” whom I used to adoringly watch walking down a Brisbane street — and longingly I wished he’d speak to trembling me. Lane’s work is thus treated in Anthony, St. Ledger’s interesting if bigoted book, “Australian Socialism” (St. Ledger, by the by, is commendably generous and suggestive in his chapters on Lane and his, colleagues):

“He wrote, he preached, and he stormed at the trades unions. He did more. He organised them in preparation for action, infecting, if not the rank and file, those whose services were the more effective, the leading officials of the various branches and trades, and the trustees of the Central Boards of Control directing the affiliated trades unions; . . . . He showered pamphlets in thousands amongst them. He had agents in every centre of population. His weekly paper circulated in every mining camp and shearing shed in Queensland, giving expression to his views and objects. He founded debating societies and reading clubs amongst the workers, furnished them with leaflets and pamphlets containing the pith, and often the whole text, of such writers as Marx, Bellamy and Bax. His genial magnetic personality drew hundreds of young workers, artisans, clerks, and many of the restless, discontented enthusiasts in every walk of life around him. He succeeded, to the very letter of his purpose, in establishing the best organised band of workers in Australia, and probably in the world.”

Whilst on the “Worker,” Lane conceived the star-tinted idea of the New Australia Co-operative Settlement. Curiously enough, not that so many were drawn into the celebrated experiment in communism but comparatively so few is the marvel historians must not forget. Ere long, Lane resigned the Editorship and devoted his shining talents to organising recruits for Paraguay, South America. In the yellowish little paper, “New Australia,” he wrote at his captivating best. In 1893 Lane left Queensland, never to set foot again on its soil. For six years he labored in ‘‘New Australia’’ and “Cosme,” thence returning to Australia . . . an altered and beaten man. Pathos supreme!

In Australia once more, Lane for a brief time edited the Sydney “Worker,” but was not at all at home in the post, and soon went to New Zealand, where on the chief daily, the “Auckland Herald,” he strove to forget his disappointment and to bury the past; strove to obliterate Lane the reformer, remaker and revolutionary. He became a Sphinx, a Silence. He seemed never to speak to Australia thereafter. If he did not write as of yore, he still wrote outstandingly, and as “Tohunga” was widely read. I happened to be in Auckland in 1911, and called on Lane, seeing him with difficulty and then but briefly. I shall never forget that he began his conversation by informing me he was in the dry-dock. What did he mean? . . . I think I know. Ultimately Lane became editor of the “Herald,” the combined “Argus” and “Age” of Maoriland — and what that implied and meant the veil shall never by me be lifted.

While Australian Democracy lasts and lives William Lane’s remarkable record of force, fraternity and progress in respect to the birth-pangs of the liberating Labor movement will last and live too. His literary and other work in Queensland (and he has industrial deeds to his glory as well as scaring, beautiful and indelible words of daring, determination and comradeship) are parts of progressivist annals, and will be “purple patches” for posterity. In the never-to-be-forgotten maritime, shearers’ and miners’ strikes of his vivid editorial term, “Billy” was a very Beacon of blazing utility and lightning splendor. Actionist superb, inspirer colossal, he was a tremendous Citadel of hope and strength. He was working class Sword and Trowel. He was as versatile as he was earnestly on fire for righteousness. As “John Miller” his “Editorial Mill” ground like the Mills of God; as “Sketcher” his rivetting realism rolled away mountains; as “Lucinda Sharpe” he was more of a feminine factor in womanhood’s uplift than any woman writer of his continent. Among the famed stylists I have read and tested on the world’s Labor press, none excelled Lane. Robert Blatchford has won wide celebrity, but, in his own ways and graces, Lane was his superior.

William Lane entered the everlasting quietnesses at 56, where the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest. He would, I doubt not, welcome Death with wide open arms. Dead! . . . In the camp of the enemy, Billy . . . Billy . . . Billy . . .

The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), Thursday 4 October 1917, page 17

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