[Editor: This poem was a significant part of the anti-conscription campaign in Australia during the First World War. Published in The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW), 5 October 1916.]
The Blood Vote.
“Why is your face so white, Mother?
Why do you choke for breath?”
“O I have dreamt in the night, my son,
That I doomed a man to death.”
“Why do you hide your hand, Mother?
And crouch above it in dread?”
“It beareth a dreadful brand, my son:
With the dead man’s blood ’tis red.
“I hear his widow cry in the night,
I hear his children weep;
And always within my sight, O God!
The dead man’s blood doth leap.
“They put the dagger into my grasp,
It seemed but a pencil then;
I did not know it was a fiend a-gasp
For the priceless blood of men
“They gave me the ballot paper,
The grim death-warrant of doom,
And smugly sentenced the man to death
In that dreadful little room.
“I put it inside the Box of Blood
Nor thought of the man I’d slain,
Till at midnight, came like a ’whelming flood
God’s word — and the Brand of Cain.
“O little son! O my little son!
Pray God for your Mother’s soul,
That the scarlet stain may be white again
In God’s great Judgment Roll.”
Written by W. R. Winspear, St. Andrew’s Place, Sydney.
The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW), 5 October 1916, p. 19
Also published in:
The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW), 12 October 1916, p. 9 (includes artwork by Claude Marquet)
The Evening Echo (Ballarat, Vic.), 13 October 1916, p. 1
The Daily Standard (Brisbane, Qld.), 14 October 1916, p. 13 (Second Edition)
The Sunday Times (Sydney, NSW), 15 October 1916, p. 2 (3 stanzas, with critical comments)
The Guyra Argus (Guyra, NSW), 19 October 1916, p. 3
Portland Observer and Normanby Advertiser (Portland, Vic.), 19 October 1916, p. 3 (Morning edition) (under the title of “Remorse”)
The Camperdown Herald (Camperdown, Vic.), 21 October 1916, p. 3 (untitled poem)
Cowra Free Press (Cowra, NSW), 21 October 1916, p. 2
The McIvor Times and Rodney Advertiser (Heathcote, Vic.), 26 October 1916, p. 3
The Guyra Argus (Guyra, NSW), 26 October 1916, p. 3
The Westralian Worker (Perth, WA), 27 October 1916, p. 6 (under the title of “The Death Sentence”)
The World (Hobart, Tas.), 18 September 1919, p. 3 (under the title of “The Vote for Conscription”)
The Australian Worker (Sydney, NSW), 30 October 1919, p. 15
[Also published in various other newspapers.]
Whilst the poem is signed by W. R. Winspear, it has been claimed that it was actually written by Edward James Dempsey (1866-1935) — the story being that as Dempsey was employed by the Evening News, which was a pro-conscription newspaper, he was worried that he would lose his job if he signed his name to it, and therefore he asked William Robert Winspear (1859-1944) to have the poem appear under his name.
The poem was republished in The Australian Worker on 12 October 1916, along with some artwork to accompany the poem. The associated picture was drawn by Claude Marquet (1869-1920), an artist who produced many drawings for labour and unionist issues.
The poem was a popular piece of propaganda for the anti-conscription campaign. Not only did it appear in The Australian Worker, and various other newspapers, but it was also published as a leaflet for widespread distribution (many tens of thousands of copies were printed). The leaflet was authorised by John Curtin (1885-1945), who was secretary on the national executive of the Australian Trades Union Anti-Conscription Congress.
According to The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), 27 October 1936, the poem’s impact upon the conscription issue was significant:
“No cartoon published in connection with the campaign against Conscription was more powerful than “The Blood Vote,” which first appeared in “The Australian Worker” and which was republished in thousands in every State of Australia.”
“An epoch making cartoon”, The Worker (Brisbane, Qld.), 27 October 1936, p. 10
“The Blood Vote”, Austlit
““The Blood Vote””, Australian War Memorial
“The Blood Vote 1916”, Dictionary of Sydney
Geoffrey Serle, “Curtin, John (1885–1945)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
“Handbill – ‘The Blood Vote’”, Culture Victoria (Government of Victorian)
Vane Lindesay, “Marquet, Claude Arthur (1869–1920)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
Verity Burgmann, “Winspear, William Robert (1859–1944)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University
beareth = (archaic) bears
brand of Cain = (also known as the “mark of Cain”) an association of public disapproval or public disgrace over a crime or a perceived wrongdoing, sin, personal failing, or controversial action; to have been publicly labelled as an evildoer; a badge of shame, a sign of infamy; the mark of a murderer; derived from the Bible story (in the Book of Genesis) in which Cain (the eldest of the two sons of Adam and Eve) killed his brother Abel, and thus the word “Cain” became associated with murder (in Genesis, chapter 4, Cain is afraid of being killed in retaliation, and God gives him a mark to signify that no-one should kill him, or they would face severe retribution)
doth = (archaic) does
’tis = (archaic) a contraction of “it is”
’whelming = (vernacular) overwhelming
[Editor: Added a comma after “doom”, in line with usual punctuation usage and as per some of the published versions of the poem.]
Note: In some copies of the “Blood Vote” leaflet online, the third line appears to have a comma after “O” (“O, I have dreamt”); however, it seems to be that the apparent comma is merely a minor ink stain (there are many other minor ink stains on the leaflet). A copy of the leaflet held by the State Library of NSW shows that same section without an apparent comma (“O I have dreamt”), which is also the usage as seen in the first printing of the poem in The Australian Worker on 5 October 1916.
See: “The Blood Vote: poem by W. R. Winspear, illustration by C. Marquet”, State Library of NSW