Thomas Walsh: Ireland to Australia

Thomas Walsh (1871-1943), seaman and trade unionist, was born on 15 January 1871 in Youghal, Co. Cork, Ireland. Son of Patrick Walsh, a cobbler, and his wife, Mary, née Murphy, his mother died soon after their son’s birth. He was raised by aunts, received little schooling but read widely.
Ireland to Australia
‘Tom’ Walsh went to sea and in 1893 arrived in Brisbane hoping to join William Lane’s New Australia venture in Paraguay largely influenced by Robert Owen (1771-1858), industrialist and social pioneer, known as father of co-operatives. He lacked the necessary £60 so joined the Social Democratic Vanguard working as a seaman on coastal ships. He became involved in the Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA). With a long history dating from the 1880s, it was the forerunner of maritime trade unionism.
Inspired by British seamen who served on Australian vessels in the late 1870s the SUA was a loose federation of federated seamen of Australia. In 1873 the first seamen’s union was formed in Sydney and Melbourne. In 1878 it organised the maritime strike against the use of cheap Chinese labour by the Australian United Steam Navigation Company. From 1906 for almost eighty years it successfully improved the wages and conditions of its members by negotiations with employers and governments or by taking militant industrial action.
Considered a polished platform speaker, in 1908 ‘Tom’ Walsh moved to New South Wales as agent for the federated seamen of Australia. As General Secretary of the seamen’s union, he organised the 1919 strike and was imprisoned for three months in Melbourne. In 1922 he became federal president of the union when he was known to use the tactic of delaying a ship’s sailing until the seamen’s demands were met.
Under his leadership in the period following WW1 the SUA gained a reputation as a militant union. During WW2 it was instrumental in ensuring the supply of civilian seafarers for the war effort. The SUA also took part in a wide range of social and political issues such as campaigning for Aboriginal rights, opposing apartheid in South Africa, and opposing the Vietnam War and a number of other causes associated with their political and social beliefs.
In 1899 he married Margaret O’Heir who died in 1914 from tuberculosis. In 1917 he married Adela Constantia Mary Walsh-Pankhurst (1885-1961). Her father, Richard Marsden Pankhurst, was a barrister and liberal intellectual who supported working class self-improvement movements.
The youngest of three sisters, Adela was nine when her father died and with her mother and sisters she followed his social activist leanings before arriving in Melbourne in 1914 with £20. Although she never qualified, she was much affected by the neglect and suffering of poor children from her time as a trainee teacher in England.
A compelling speaker and political, social and women’s activist in her own right, Adela used suffragist tactics in her campaigns to establish political and social rights for workers. She wrote extensively including for the seamen’s journal and toured industrial areas speaking at factories and workplaces on the need for industrial co-operation.
Known as the Conscription Crisis when in 1918 the British Government decided to impose conscription in Ireland but finally backed down, Tom and Adela were part of a wider movement who actively campaigned against conscription. They hated the wicked loss of life and feared that the cost of war would prove a barrier to future improvement in the workers’ standard of living.
The Walshes founded the Communist Party in Australia. Adela envisaged a type of new order in which no one would want. She ran a speakers’ class and spoke at meetings. She and Tom soon withdrew from Communist Party activities. Accused of dangerous activities and other Commonwealth offences, they both served time in prison. On the last occasion Adela was released after two days of hunger strike.
Thomas Walsh died on 5 April 1943, survived by three daughters from his first marriage and by a son and three daughters from his second. He was buried in Sydney’s Northern Suburbs cemetery. Adela died on 23 May 1961 and was buried with Catholic rites beside her husband.
Currently, the Maritime Union of Australia covers waterside workers, seafarers, port workers, professional divers and office workers associated with Australian ports. It is an affiliate of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF).
There is an extensive collection of literature and bibliography about Thomas Walsh and his wife, Adela, who are documented as anti-conscriptionalist, communist, journalist, prisoner and trade union official. Papers and documents on the Seamen’s Union of Australia are held in the archives of Australia National University and National Library of Australia.
Ita Marguet, April 2011
Note: Acknowledgement is given to biographical and other sources used in preparation of this text.