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James Vance Marshall (1887–1964)

by Denis Kevans

James Vance Marshall, the "irrepressible leader of the social democrats in Sydney" ("The Socialist", Nov. 28. 1919) died at Oberon, NSW, last week.

Vance was 76 when he died. He was born at Casino in 1888, the son of a Minister of religion.

Vance was the first organiser of the Miscellaneous Workers' Union in NSW and their delegate to the Labor Council. Mr. Doug Howitt, the present Branch secretary of the MWU commented:

"The Labor Premier used to have regular consultations with the Labor Council executive at the Trades Hall.

This was changed by Lang. The Government respected Labor Council radical socialists, who would now be called Communists. They were welcomed as members of the Labor Party and encouraged to join it."

Vance once described his Union experiences to Mr. Howitt like this:

"They were really tough days. Fees were hard to collect as money was scarce, and with no union journal the organiser had the job of conveying union news to all members by word of mouth. "

Police were often called to assist in throwing out union officials from city buildings and did so with great pleasure.

"The law permitted this effective anti-union activity by the employers in those days."

During World War I Vance was gaoled twice (hard labour) and arrested a third time under the Crimes Act or War Precautions Act.

The first time it was for "making a speech likely to cause disaffection to his Majesty the King" when he said:

"So far as the working class is concerned, the colour of a flag matters not, so long as that class gets a share in the good things of life."

"Gaol couldn't silence him", says Doug Howitt, "he wrote his way out of gaol with his book 'Jail from Within', that caused an uproar and sold in thousands.

The second time he was gaoled for "making speeches likely to prejudice recruiting", when he said:

"Soldiers in this war are the blind tools of the capitalist class."

This time he wrote "The World of the Living Dead"— preface by Henry Lawson.

His third arrest was a charge "of having unlawfully incited persons to riotously assemble to disturb the peace" — during a farewell to Paul Freeman, another socialist, who was leaving the country. Vance was picked out of thousands to be arrested.

His books ruthlessly exposed the glaring injustice, ill-treatment and brutality in State prisons. Denied at first, his allegations brought a flood of supporting evidence in letters to "Truth", "Ross's" and ' "The Socialist" from former prisoners. These exposures forced reforms in prison conditions.

In his copy of Gaol Regulations and General Orders, Vance has pencilled in the section on meals:

"Our idea is to keep you alive at an absolute minimum of expense", and he heavily underlined the section qualifying possible "gratuities" of 3d and 6d a day to model prisoners: "It must be clearly understood that the gratuity is not a right, but is a reward for and an incentive to, meritorious behaviour and industry."

Political prisoners were lumped with criminals in gaols, Mr. T. Mutch, Labor Party Minister of Education said in September 1918.

Mr. Mutch, on behalf of the Labor Government, announced a few years later that Vance Marshall's anti-war colleague, the Minister for Justice, had ordered that his anti-war and anti conscription convictions be expunged from the police records of the State, and that he be made a Justice of the Peace.

Said Vance of the Labor Party of those days: "World War I did strange things in and around politics. All members of the Labor Party who expressed the slightest approval of conscription (Billy Hughes included) were expelled from the party without further ceremony. The Labor Party was an anti-war party and became strong because of it."

Witness the anti-conscription vote of the two referendums:

1916— "No" majority 72,476
1917— "No" majority 166,588

His latest books— "Children" and "The River Ran Out of Eden" have been published in many languages. Walt Disney has bought rights to ' "The River Ran Out of Eden".

In his own foreword to "The ? he wrote:

"After reading a proof copy of ? a leading publisher said to me, 'It's good, but, in places, too raw — too creepy — too real. From a business point of view the sordid truth is not always the most acceptable'.

Vance then says he didn't write it from a business point of view but to tell the truth however it hurts. He goes on:

"The influence of Henry Lawson has long been upon me. In the days of tribulation "One Hundred and Three" (Lawson's famous prison poem) ran hauntingly through my troubled brain and soothed it with the memory that the thorny path I trod already bore the footprints— of men."

The footprints of Vance and his comrades have helped guide the Australian working class along the road to socialism.

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Citation details

Denis Kevans, 'Marshall, James Vance (1887–1964)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

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