Adela Pankhurst Walsh

Adela Pankhurst Walsh (1885-1960), political activist, was born on 19 June 1885 in Manchester, England, third daughter of Emmeline (born Goulden) and Richard Pankhurst, barrister. Adela arrived in Australia from England in 1914 already a veteran of public campaigning in the militant demand for women's suffrage. In Melbourne she joined Vida Goldstein (q.v.) and Cecilia John in the Women's Political Association; she was assisting Vida's campaign for election to the House of Representatives when war started. The Women's Political Association opposed war, and evolved into the Women's Peace Army. Adela transferred her English suffragette tactics to the service of Australian pacificism. She was a compelling stage speaker, although barely 150 cm tall and speaking rapidly in a light voice.

Adela had come to Australia after disagreements with her mother and sister Christabel about the political aims of the Women's Social and Political Union. Adela favoured concrete goals of social improvement. The Women's Peace Army in turn proved too theoretical, and she left it to work as an organiser for the Victorian Socialist Party. There she met Tom Walsh, a recently widowed seaman, whom she married on 30 September 1917, between terms in gaol. She had been convicted several times under the War Precautions Act - for incitement, offensive behaviour, holding an unlawful meeting - the most recent arrest following a huge and somewhat destructive procession through the streets of Melbourne, and fiery speeches against conscription. Prime Minister Hughes had been considering deporting her and some thought she married to avoid this, but she and Tom were devoted to each other all their lives, each admiring the other enormously. Tom had come to Australia in 1893 hoping to join the New Australia venture in Paraguay, but not having the 60 pounds needed to buy a share, stayed in Australia working as a seaman. He was a unionist and a socialist and had joined several socialist organisations before he and Adela became foundation members of the Communist Party of Australia in 1920. By then he was general secretary of the Seamen's Union, and a leader in the paralysing 1919 strike, which won substantial benefits for seamen. During the course of the strike when he was imprisoned, Adela campaigned in his support with characteristic style and energy.

Adela and Tom were soon disillusioned with Communism as it was evolving in Russia, but the militancy of the seamen's union obscured this from conservatives, who continued to regard them as the vanguard of the Red Revolution in Australia. In 1925 the Bruce-Page Government amended the Immigration Act to permit deportation of immigrants convicted of an offence under industrial law. When Tom organised support for striking British seamen held up in Sydney, proceedings against him were commenced, but appeal to the High Court prevented his deportation. His time in detention, however, cost him the leadership of the union.

They sought to remedy the harm they felt they had done misleading people about communism. Adela could have retired into domesticity, having three stepdaughters and four children of her marriage to Tom, but she continued a public life, starting an Australian branch of the British Guild of Empire, which dispensed charity and the anti-communist message to workers. Tom started an 'industrial peace' seamen's union, promoting negotiation rather than confrontation. They were both disillusioned about union militancy, and convinced improvement in the living standards of the workers would come only by increased productivity, for which industrial cooperation was a prerequisite. They were responding also to recent shifts in communist strategy whereby a further deterioration in the workers' conditions was anticipated. Neither Adela nor Tom could accept that workers should be considered pawns in an imperialist strategy, yet that appeared to them to be the message from the Second International. Finance for their organisations came from conservative sources, and they were denigrated by erstwhile associates.

The Guild of Empire however was strong and vigorous. It had a large membership in Sydney's middle class suburbs, and ran card afternoons and luncheons to raise money to help families in industrial suburbs. Adela addressed factory meetings, spoke in the Domain and organised sewing circles, teas and children's leisure centres.

The Walsh attitude to war never changed. As war threatened Europe, Adela and Tom regarded the League of Nations as neither able to prevent it, nor to protect Australia's interests. They mistrusted America's colonial ambitions in the Pacific. Australia's best protection, they believed, lay in establishing strong trading links with Japan. These were not popular views. In 1937 Adela was awarded a Coronation Medal for community service, but shortly afterwards her Guild of Empire following dwindled. With another disillusioned ex-communist, P. R. Stephensen, her handful of followers combined to form the Australia First Movement. It was anti-imperialist, and its patron, J. W. Miles (father of Bea (q.v.)), admired the dash of the European fascist leaders.

While war approached, Tom's health was failing, but he was writing spirited letters to one-time pacifists urging them to avoid the folly of war for Australians. Speaking from the Australia First platforms, Adela warned against American imperialist intentions and urged Australia to negotiate a trading pact with Japan. Tom and Adela toured Japan in late 1939, as guests of the Japanese government, and on their return assured Australians Japan's intentions here were pacific; but they were regarded merely as propagandists for Japan. After Pearl Harbour, Adela and other Australia First members were interned on dubious evidence of a traitorous plot.

In October 1942 Adela was released on the personal order of the Attorney-General. She had accepted virtual house arrest to be with Tom, who was dying. His death on 5 April 1943 marked the end of her public life. Her naive generosity and trusting spirit always aroused strong affection and loyalty from her friends, and baffled mistrust from her opponents. To her death in May 1960 she maintained an optimistic outlook about human nature and a faith that human institutions could be arranged to operate for equal benefit to all.

Susan Hogan