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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Barker, Tom (1887–1970)

by Eric Fry

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Tom Barker (1887-1970), was born on 3 June 1887 at Crossthwaite, Westmorland, England, eldest child of Thomas Grainger Barker, farm labourer, and his wife Sarah, née Trotter. As a boy he worked on farms, ran away to Liverpool, then enlisted in the army, under age. Discharged as medically unfit after three years service, he migrated to New Zealand in 1909. In Auckland he was a tram conductor, active trade unionist and secretary of the New Zealand Socialist Party, working with future leaders of the Labour Party, such as H. E. Holland, Michael Savage, Peter Fraser and Robert Semple. Attracted by industrial unionism he became an organizer for the Industrial Workers of the World. In Wellington during the violent strikes of 1913 he was arrested, charged with sedition and released on a bond.

Early in 1914 Barker arrived in Sydney where he was soon editing the I.W.W. paper, Direct Action. After August 1914 the I.W.W. was the most determined and vociferous opponent of the 'capitalist war'. Barker, who had escaped gaol on a technicality in 1915, was sentenced to twelve months imprisonment after his arrest in March 1916, but released in August after an aggressive campaign to free him. Meanwhile the deep and bitter divisions over conscription were coming to dominate Australian life. The I.W.W., glorying in its stance of vanguard opponent to conscription, attracted militant and radical support; Prime Minister W. M. Hughes branded it as a set of vicious traitors. Barker, still at liberty after the arrest and imprisonment of twelve members on charges of treason, personified the I.W.W. propaganda which continued defiantly after the organization was declared unlawful in December 1916. His most-famous anti-conscription poster, the subject of a serious charge, read: 'TO ARMS!! Capitalists, Parsons, Politicians, Landlords, Newspaper Editors, and Other Stay-at-Home Patriots. Your Country Needs You in the Trenches! Workers, Follow Your Masters!' He and the remaining members were arrested next year at the time of the general strike in New South Wales and before the second conscription referendum in December. Barker was held in gaol until deported to Chile in 1918.

In South America he organized seamen; in Moscow he was enthused by Lenin to work for the Kuzbas project of industrialization in Siberia and recruited technicians for it in the United States of America for five years to 1926. Later he worked for the Soviet petroleum export organization, visiting Australia briefly in 1930-31, and settled in London. As a member of the Labour Party, councillor and in 1959 mayor of St Pancras Borough, he was energetic in political, welfare and cultural fields until his death on 2 April 1970. He was survived by his wife Bertha, a Polish-born ballet-dancer.

Barker roamed the world as a worker and organizer, basing himself on the simple tenets of class struggle and socialism. In Australia, a time of crisis thrust him into prominence. Elsewhere he served the cause at hand selflessly. He was a slightly built man, lively in speech and manner, fighting his battles with laughter.

Select Bibliography

  • L. C. Jauncey, The Story of Conscription in Australia (Lond, 1935)
  • E. C. Fry (ed), Tom Barker and the I. W. W. (Canb, 1965)
  • I. Turner, Sydney's Burning (Melb, 1967)
  • Labour History, May 1970, no 18.

Citation details

Eric Fry, 'Barker, Tom (1887–1970)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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