STARTLER FROM FITZROY
£25 OFFER ALLEGED MAKING
BLACKBURN OUT A RED
These arresting headlines appeared in the Sun 3rd February, 1925.
The background to this story was that Maurice Blackburn had been selected out of 31 candidates to represent the A.L.P. in a State By-election on the death of J. W. Billson who had held the seat of Fitzroy for 24 years.
The campaign against Blackburn was already bitter before his selection. After it one Joseph Boell, standing as an Independent Labor candidate, spearheaded the attack on Blackburn with, behind him, the dregs of the Labor Party from Wren down or up as you see it.
Blackburn's politics were anathema to this gang. His simon-pure character was inexplicable to them and his honesty despised.
Victoria, being a wowser State, always had pressure groups working for liquor interests, gambling interests etc. i.e. Wren interests. For many years J. J. Liston who was prominent in the Labor Party, was a paid secretary for the Liquor Reform Movement which had unsuccessfully tried to get Harry Scott-Bennett, with his eloquent persuasive powers as a speaker, to work for them.
These bodies agitated for more liquor licences, longer trading hours; and the gamblers for more race days per week. They sought to influence the mass of voters through the Labor Party, and the rewards paid to politicians who voted for them were great.
Maurice Blackburn was a radical in politics, and he was also rigidly anti-liquor and anti-gambling, seeing evil in them that harmed the working class. No wonder he became the point of attack.
Jim Morley, a foundation and active member of the Communist Party in Melbourne was approached by a man who was unknown to him, and offered a bribe of £25 to sign a statement asserting that to his certain knowledge Blackburn was a member of the Communist Party.
The A.L.P. Rules stipulate that no member of the Communist Party shall be admitted to the ranks of the organisation. Had Morley signed such a declaration it would have been the basis to rule out Blackburn's candidature.
Donations received by the Communist Party from prominent people were recorded in the C.P. press as coming from nom de plumes. The statement Morley was asked to sign also asserted that Blackburn was "No. 64", a regular donor of large amounts.
Jim Morley was "jobless and flat broke" to use his own terms and £25 was substantial money to him but contrary to rumour all men do not have a price. Morley immediately came to see Laidler, told him the story and asked his advice. Laidler from the description and his knowledge of Fitzroy politics concluded that the contact man was "Sugar" Roberts, representing John Wren. Laidler telephoned Blackburn who came to the shop, and the three men worked out a plan.
Morley had made a further appointment with the contact man when he was supposed to give his decision. It was agreed by the trio that Morley would keep the appointment but that Laidler would go too, secrete himself in the vicinity and be in a position to identify "Sugar" if "Sugar" it be. The meeting occurred with Morley having to get into a car with the contact man and two other thugs in the back seat, in the best Hollywood style. It was a very uncomfortable time for Morley though Laidler carried a revolver. Laidler not only recognised Roberts but noted the number of the car as being 11-536. The trio had decided that Morley should stall for time on the grounds that it was a very serious thing for him to do and he would need more time to make up his mind. This all seemed natural to the thugs who took it for granted that Morley was trying to raise the price, which was in fact raised till it reached £100. Whilst in the car Roberts boasted to Morley of his friendship with gangster Squizzy Taylor, and told him Squizzy would do anything for him. Roberts was in the habit of proudly bragging "I've never read a book in my life". He started to read East Lynne but failed to finish it.
A further meeting was scheduled to take place at the Clifton Hill Railway Station, where the letter was to be brought for Morley's signature. It was felt unsafe for Morley to attend, but in his stead came not only Laidler but Maurice Duffy, assistant secretary of the Trades Hall Council, Tommy Richards of the Boot Trades Union and Bert Payne.
The same numbered car drove up forty minutes late and from it came a young man who turned out to be a son of Roberts. He asked a bystander if he was Morley (the by-stander's name and address were taken by Laidler as a witness). On the following Sunday night at 9 o'clock the son of Roberts came into the Communist party regular lecture, sought out Morley and asked him to come to the top of Bourke Street on the Monday morning, saying that the "old man" was sore about the Clifton Hill mix-up. Morley did not attend, but again Laidler, Duffy and Councillor Tunaley of Clifton Hill were there. The Vice-president of the T.H.C., passing at the time spoke to Roberts and twenty yards further along, when asked by Laidler who he spoke to, he said "That's young Roberts".
The exposure in the Sun and other papers was made on the day before the Poll. The real No. 64, a very prominent businessman, made it known that he was prepared to have his identity made public in order to clear Blackburn.
The election eve meetings were keyed with excitement helped by two brass bands playing "Solidarity for Ever" round the streets of Fitzroy. Blackburn was accompanied by a hefty bodyguard and the Wren thugs were there in force. Laidler shocked Blackburn by offering him a revolver and telling him he had one, himself. Blackburn remained his imperturbable self, but said the campaign had been marked by treachery and fraud, and that the forces behind candidate Boell were capable of anything. As he dealt with the bribery attempt, open warfare amongst the citizens was very close. Blackburn admitted his views were radical and said that it was no discredit to be connected with the Communist Party but the reports of his connections were fictitious.
The front page of the "Black Hand" pamphlet about the bribery scandal.
The election resulted in a 1517 majority for Blackburn. The Returning Officer, J. J. Denton, said that in his long experience he had never known such extraordinary conduct as had come under his notice and that he felt sure he had sufficient evidence to launch three or four prosecutions for impersonation. Morley lectured at the Temperance Hall on "The Facts of Fitzroy". Laidler got out a widely circulated leaflet known as the "BLACK HAND" leaflet, without imprint and under the name of "Labor Vigilante Committee". Actually it was printed at the Ruskin Press, owned by the brothers, Edmonds, who were members of the ALP, and the work was performed after hours by volunteer labour.
Bert Payne was secretary of the Collingwood Branch of the ALP and said Laidler took out a ticket for twelve months purely to further the fight against Wren. Collingwood was one of Wren's strongholds.
Roberts' statement to Morley that Squizzy Taylor was at his service was, probably, meant as a threat to Morley who knew damn well he was risking his life in crossing swords with this lot.
In fact he was "set up" for a doing over by Squizzy and a couple of his mobsters but was lucky enough to be tipped off, and escape the trap.
It was ironical justice that in a later year, when Morley was a journalist, he had the "pleasure" of viewing Squizzy's shot-up body in a Carlton cottage, before it was removed to the morgue.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2012.
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