LANE, William (1861-1917)

LANE, William (1861-1917)
social reformer
was born at Bristol, England, on 6 September 1861. His father was Protestant Irish and worked in a nursery, his mother was English. When Lane was born his father was earning a miserable wage, but later on his circumstances improved and he became an employer of labour. The boy was educated at Bristol grammar school and showed ability, but he was sent early to work as an office boy. His mother died when he was 14, and at 16 he went to America and supported himself doing odd jobs. In Canada he became a reporter at the age of 20. He married before he was 21 Annie Macguire and went to Australia soon afterwards. Between 1883 and 1885 he began working on the Brisbane Courier and the Observer, an evening paper with radical tendencies; there was then no Labour party. Lane had much influence in forming the Brisbane Trades and Labour Council, and soon 17 unions were affiliated. His "Labour Notes" in the Observer were read all over Queensland, and he used his column to advocate settling on the land as a remedy for social problems. In 1887 he started the Boomerang and emphasized the necessity for land reform. He created a sensation by persuading the premier Sir Samuel Griffith (q.v.) to write an article for his Christmas Boomerang, which said among other things that the main remedy for social ills was the recognition that the worker was entitled to an adequate and fair proportion of the new wealth produced by his labour. "It appears to follow that it is the duty of the state to undertake the task of insisting upon a fair division of the products of labour between the possessor of the raw material and the producer." Lane at this stage had been much influenced by Henry George, but it was not long before he made the transition to socialism. His form of government had, however, no place for coloured races, and he took a strong stand on the Chinese question, then a subject of agitation. Lane's chief fear was of course the possible introduction of a low standard of living. His paper became a great influence in Queensland, and Lane made many friends, not only in the labour ranks but also among highly placed people who held democratic or socialistic opinions. He was making an income of £600 a year as a journalist at the end of 1889, when the proposal to found a Labour paper was mooted. By March 1890 he had sold the Boomerang and taken a little cottage so that he might be able to live on his salary of three pounds a week as editor of the Worker. Lane wrote a large part of it himself, but among the writers of verse were Henry Lawson (q.v.), Francis Adams (q.v.), and John Farrell (q.v.). The success of the paper was immediate. It was read more and more widely, but Lane was still not content. He assisted in organizing the unionists, he founded debating societies, hundreds of pamphlets were written and distributed, and all the time his remarkable personality was drawing the workers to him so that "he succeeded in establishing the best organized band of workers in Australia".
Long years of strikes and industrial combat followed. By both sides Lane was regarded as the force behind the movement. On the whole he was a restraining influence, though he felt that a time always arrives "where tolerance of a wrong becomes itself a wrong, and where those alone have rights who dare to maintain them". In 1892, under the name of John Miller, he published his novel The Working Man's Paradise, an interesting statement of the socialistic position. But he felt that the movement had reached a stage when the difficulties would tend to increase and progress slow down. For a long time the possibility of founding a socialistic community had been discussed and Lane sent a friend, A. Walker, to South America to investigate the possibility of finding suitable land there. He wanted to prove that socialism was practicable; he had complete faith in his fellow-countrymen, and believed that they could succeed though similar ventures in the past had failed. The New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association was founded to which every male member had to contribute at least £60. Lane himself gave £1000, others contributed up to £1500, and in a short time it possessed a capital of £30,000. It was decided to start in South America rather than in Australia, because there they would be away from capitalistic surroundings, and would be freer to shape their own destinies. The financial depression was causing much unemployment in Australia and it was easy to believe that conditions might be better in some other part of the world. A ship, the Royal Tar, was purchased and fitted up, but there were delays, and it is not unlikely that the seeds of future trouble were sown while the members were waiting in uncomfortable conditions in Sydney. In the face of many difficulties the ship sailed on 17 July 1893.
The Royal Tar arrived at Monte Video on 13 September. There had been a good deal of grumbling and fault-finding on the voyage, but Lane had kept a tight hand on the members and was already being called a despot by some of them. The party transhipped to a smaller vessel and after travelling 1200 miles up the River La Plata they reached the site of New Australia on 4 October. Lane was given the powers of a magistrate by the government of Paraguay. The settlers stated their preference for particular kinds of work, their foremen were elected by ballot, and all set to work making adobe huts, clearing the land, cultivating vegetable gardens, and doing other work necessary in a new settlement. A few were early discouraged and departed, and just before Christmas 1893 a serious storm arose. Three men went for an outing to a neighbouring village and returned drunk. All had agreed to be teetotallers and Lane insisted on the expulsion of the three men for "persistent violation of the clause . . . relating to liquor drinking". Some of their friends stood by the men, but Lane brought Paraguayan soldiers to the settlement and his orders were obeyed. Factions began to spring up, work was neglected, there was a feeling that their leader had been unduly harsh, and there was much bickering and arguing. Another body of settlers arrived in March 1894 under the leadership of Gilbert Casey who soon was the leader of the insurgents. The two men talked the problems over but could not come to a compromise. Lane decided to leave and start a fresh colony, and 45 adults and 12 children went with him. They took with them a proportion of the implements and a few cattle. Those who remained gradually developed individualism, some prospered, and some returned to Australia. Lane and his followers travelled about 20 miles to a river ford called Paso Cosme and camped in tents. An attempt was made to get a further grant of land without success, but eventually some land was purchased. A friend gave them £150, belongings were sold, and the new settlement, started with a capital of £400, was named Cosme after their camping place, though it was some distance away. By working 10 hours a day for six months a clearing was made and planted with maize and beans. Gradually their stores were consumed, and in January 1895 for a fortnight there was no food but beans. Everyone worked without complaint and in complete comradeship.
Lane's brother John said that in spite of the privations it was the happiest time of his life. "There seemed to be absolutely no such thing as complaint, ill-nature or ill-feeling," said Mary Gilmore, afterwards to become famous as an Australian poet. But it was a constant struggle against nature, and it took them all their time to keep the 100 acres that had been cleared free of weeds and forest growths. Slowly the conditions improved. New members joined and others left. In September 1896 Lane went to England and organized a party of between 40 and 50 people, but the English recruits usually found the climate too hot, and the diet too monotonous. Lane had more than one illness and his wife also became ill largely as a result of worry. At the fifth annual meeting of the colony in 1899 he decided not to stand for office, and on 2 August 1899 he left the settlement. He was only 38 years old but his energy was exhausted. He became an honorary member of the community and determined to earn money and pay off the settlement's debts. He also set himself to repay all who had left Cosme and claimed amounts they had originally paid into the funds. He was still doing this at the time of his death. His brother John Lane remained at Cosme until May 1904 when the numbers had fallen from 131 in 1897 to 69, of whom only 33 were adults. That was the end of Cosme as a communist colony.
After leaving Cosme Lane went to England and then to New Zealand, arriving late in 1899. He was appointed editor of the Australian Worker, Sydney, in January, 1900, but resigned in the following May. He had a wife and several children to support, so he went back to New Zealand, and, after a few weeks on the Wellington Post, joined a Conservative paper, the New Zealand Herald, at Auckland as leader writer. In 1906 he was largely instrumental in founding the National Defence League, he also advocated compulsory military training in New Zealand, and he was heart and soul with Britain when the 1914-18 war came. He had been editor of the New Zealand Herald for nearly four years when he died on 26 August 1917. His wife survived him with a son and five daughters. Another son was killed at Gallipoli.
Lane was under medium height, of frail physique, and slightly lame from birth. He was completely altruistic and unselfish, and no man had higher ideals. His idealism, however, was not backed by a strong business sense, there was unnecessary muddling before the first party sailed for South America, and when he was given full authority there was a lack of tact in exercising it. But the cause of the failure lay deeper than that. His enthusiasm could so inspire his followers that they could sell all they had and put it into the common pool, but it could not give them new natures to enable them to bear patiently with one another in spite of hardships, monotony, unsuitable food, and the petty jealousies and rancours that infect people thrown much together without pleasurable distractions. The constant strain injured Lane's health and broke his spirit. What had seemed the most important thing in the world had proved a failure. He tried to put it out of his mind for the rest of his life, but occasionally his early hopes would rise again; in August 1914 he wrote: "We shall root out the slum and the slum conditions. We shall see that no child lacks in a civilization bursting with riches." Personally he retained his old charm and gave freely to all who needed sympathy and kindness, work or money. He was still a delightful talker, but could never be persuaded to speak of his South American experiences, and no one will ever know for certain what were his innermost thoughts during the last 18 years of his life. He was the greatest man in the early days of the Labour movement in Australia, and if his Utopia failed it failed largely for reasons he had no power to control.
Two of Lane's brothers, John and E. H. Lane, were connected with Cosme. Both were alive in 1938, still convinced communists; they had left Cosme in 1904 because they considered that communist ideals were no longer being carried out. E. H. Lane, "Jack Cade", had a long connexion with the Labour party in Australia, always as one of the militants, and in 1939 published Dawn to Dusk Reminiscences of a Rebel.
Lloyd Ross, William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement; Stewart Grahame, Where Socialism Failed; A. St. Ledger, Australian Socialism; C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty Years; The New Zealand Herald, Auckland, 27 August 1917.

Dictionary of Australian Biography by PERCIVAL SERLE. . 1949.

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