Saturday, 5 November 2016

Ballarat’s crusading labour paper; the Evening Echo

This week we have a blog specially written for us by Anne Beggs Sunter - one of her favourite subjects, Ballarat's evening newspaper The Evening Echo, unique because it was the only daily in Victoria to oppose conscription during World War 1.

This Ballarat evening newspaper began publication on 12 February 1895, published by Alfred H. Powell, in Camp St. Its motto was ‘Fearless, Truthful and Just’.

In July 1903, the newspaper was floated as a company of 160 shares, as  Powell & Co. Ltd., a consortium of Ballarat business and professional men with Powell holding a half interest. Powell remained as managing director until the Australian Workers Union (AWU) began to increase its investment in the company through individuals like John Barnes and D.C. McGrath, and from early 1912 the Echo became a strongly labour paper.

It was published daily, with two editions – early and late evening. It was a four page broadsheet in the early 1900s, and published a sought-after annual Christmas supplement. A souvenir illustrated edition was published in December 1904 to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Eureka. 

The Cyclopedia of Victoria (1904) carried a flattering article on the Evening Echo. It noted that the Echo was the first provincial daily to have a rotary press. The article noted that the paper had a large circulation in Ballarat, and was distributed to 52 other towns in Victoria.  The paper was noted for the rapidity with which news was published, and for its illustrated line work Saturday page, and its annual special supplement. Powell and Co. Ltd also produced from 1907 an annual publication called  Ballarat the Beautiful, an illustrated book for the Ballarat Progress Association (see for example advertisement in Evening Echo,  7 April 1911.) 

The Ballarat grocer and AWU member James Scullin was appointed editor by the Board of Directors on 6 June 1913. He had been a grocer at 322 Skipton St. Ballarat, working for McKay McLeod Pty. Ltd. before gaining the seat of Corangamite for the Political Labour Council at the 1910 election. When he was defeated in May 1913, the AWU looked around for a job for him. In later life Scullin said that he was appointed an editor without any journalistic experience, and a prime minister without ever having been a cabinet member.

In 1916 and 1917, the Echo played an important part in the conscription debate. It was the only daily newspaper in Victoria that opposed the idea of compulsory military service. It covered the dramatic news of the Dublin Easter Rising with front page headlines throughout May 1916, then the news of the arrival of the ANZACS in France and the bloody battles of the Somme. Its reports of the statements of Prime Minister ‘Billy’ Hughes became increasingly critical, especially after his announcement on 30 August 1916 of a referendum to seek support for compulsory military service. 

Throughout September and October, the paper advertises meetings organised in halls all over the district, with speakers from Ballarat Trades Hall, parliamentarians like Senator John Barnes, and Scullin and local school teacher Tom Carey. Often these meetings would be outdoors, with the Galloway Monument in Sturt St. a popular meeting place. Scullin’s great oratorical skills, honed at the South Street debating competitions, would have been much appreciated. For Scullin and his associate Jordan at the Echo, the attack on capitalists and profiteers came through strongly, as well as the theme that Australia had done more than its share in defending the Empire.

On 30 October1916, the Echo proudly announced that conscription had been rejected in the Ballarat electorate, and that it had been narrowly rejected nationally. The strongly labour areas of Ballarat East and Sebastopol returned a resounding ‘no’ vote, as did the Irish-Australian farmers of the Warrenheip division the so-called ‘savages of Bungaree’.

The Echo’s contribution had been vital, as the only daily newspaper in Victoria taking a firmly anti-conscription stance.  60,000 copies a day were sent to Melbourne for distribution.

Hughes was expelled from the ALP, and joined with the conservative Nationalists to form a new Government in 1917. He tried again to win national support for another conscription referendum to be held just before Christmas in 1917. The collapse of the Russian front meant that the Allies were sorely pressed in France and Belgium, and casualties continued at a high level.

Again the Echo and Scullin went into battle, producing a number of ‘No Conscription’ special issues. The government harried the newspaper with its strict War Precautions Regulations limiting what could be printed, and the government limited the supply of newsprint, so that the paper was sometimes reduced to a single sheet. 

But the second referendum was even clearer in rejecting Conscription, and this time Victoria voted no by a small majority. Once again Ballarat returned a ‘no’ vote.

During 1918, the Echo was charged under the War Precautions Act with publishing statements prejudicial to recruiting after an article on 2 May 1918 headed ‘Peace- Is it for Ever Banned?’ 

Then came the longed-for announcement on 12 November 1918 that an armistice had been signed and the war was ended. The Echo had received the news by Reuters just before 8.00pm last night, and immediately conveyed the news to the Town Hall. Huge crowds gathered, and the City band, conducted by Percy Code, played patriotic songs and hymns.

On 18 February 1922 Scullin was elected to the safe labour seat of Yarra, and at a Board meeting of the Echo the following week Scullin was replaced as editor by his brother-in-law John Kean. 

The Echo struggled on in debt until its liquidation in February 1926.

In 1929 the Ballarat (and Family) Mail began publication from the same address, 6 Camp St. This was published until 1966, followed by the free paper, The Ballarat News.

The State Library of Victoria has a complete set, but it is in a fragile condition and has not been microfilmed. The Ballarat Mechanics Institute used to have a full set, but now only holds a broken set including 1895, 1907, 1908, 1911, 1920 and 1923. The Australiana Collection of the Ballarat Library has some bound copies, including 1916 (13 April-30 June) and 1918 (1 Oct-31 Dec). It has just one of the annual Christmas supplements.

The  Evening Echo is a unique newspaper, in that it was the only daily to oppose conscription during World War One. It has not been microfilmed, and is not digitised as part of the national project to digitise all newspapers published between 1914 and 1918.

Anne Beggs-Sunter, 2016

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