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Woods, Walter Alan (1861–1939)

by Marilyn Lake

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Walter Alan Woods (1861-1939), journalist and politician, was born on 28 December 1861 at Mulgrave, Victoria, and registered as Walter William, eldest of twelve children of William Head, a native-born storekeeper, and his English wife Ann Margaret, née Priest, both strict Methodists. Walter was educated in state schools at Oakleigh and Brighton. On 30 May 1883 at St Jude's Anglican Church, Carlton, he married Caroline Riley (d.1908); they were to have seven children. As a young man, he travelled through the Riverina, New South Wales, searching for work as a shearer, an experience which he commemorated in verse using the pseudonym 'John Drayman'. He quickly made a name for himself as a labour organizer and journalist. While secretary of the Wagga Wagga branch of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union in 1891, he helped to found and edit the Hummer which amalgamated with the Queensland Worker on 24 September 1892. Two months later he began editing New Australia, the journal of William Lane's New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association, of which Head became Sydney secretary; he resigned as editor of the Worker in November 1893.

A friend of Arthur Rae, Jules Francois Archibald, (Dame) Mary Gilmore and Henry Lawson, and one of Lawson's numerous creditors, Head published stories and verse (as 'John Drayman') in the Bulletin, the Critic and the Worker. With his wife and children, he intended to accompany members of the New Australia movement to Paraguay. His plan was tragically terminated in 1893 by the loss and presumed death of his son Rowland in the Gippsland bush, Victoria. His eldest son Walter left for Paraguay in the Royal Tar and never returned. Blighted by these events and by the false suspicion that Head had embezzled New Australia funds (he was probably liable for financial mismanagement), his marriage crumbled. He left Sydney for New Zealand about 1894.

Arriving at Launceston, Tasmania, in 1895, as Walter Ashe Woods he took over the editorship of the Tasmanian Democrat; next year he moved to Hobart and, as Walter Alan Ashe Woods, began working with James Paton, a Christian socialist and editor of the Clipper. Woods subsequently applied his talent for invention to marketing new products through his and Paton's Infallible Remedy Co. In 1901 they applied for a patent for 'An Improved method of removing marine growth from ship hulls while afloat'.

In 1903, as Walter Alan Woods, he became editor and part-owner of the Clipper, a post he held until 1909 when the journal was incorporated in the Daily Post. The Clipper was a Labor publication committed to the style of journalism made popular by the Bulletin. Literary competitions encouraged readers' contributions in verse and story. Woods saw his mission as educative, to inform readers about the 'truths' of socialism as espoused by such diverse authorities as Robert Blatchford and John Milton. He believed in the power of the word—to stimulate 'discussion preparatory to action'—and in the certainty of progress. Like a number of his contemporaries, Woods thought that the inevitable 'evolution of humanity' would lead to the 'glorious sunrise of socialism'.

Insisting that hard work was essential to inaugurate the new era, Woods exhorted workers to be 'earnest for reform'. His own efforts set a good example. When he took over the editorship of the Clipper, with David Balchen he convened the first meeting of the Workers' Political League, the forerunner of the Tasmanian Labor Party. Convinced by his experience in New South Wales that trade unionism was the backbone of the Labor movement, Woods organized workers into trade unions and lobbied for the re-establishment of a trades and labour council. In 1906 he won the seat of Hobart North (later Denison) in the House of Assembly. He was returned in elections in 1909, 1912, 1913 and 1916. In 1917 he resigned Denison to contest the Senate, but was defeated in that year of Nationalist triumph. He was elected again to the assembly in 1925 and 1928, but lost the seat in 1931. While never a minister, he was chairman of committees (1925-26) and Speaker (1914-16, 1926-28).

Woods had married Jemima Gourlay Watkins on 14 September 1910 in Hobart with Presbyterian forms. She was a strong and capable woman whose work of child-rearing made possible both her husband's parliamentary career and their children's academic successes. A well-groomed, dapper, stout, jovial and impish man, Woods readily joined in children's games at W.P.L. picnics. His almost bald pate became a target for detractors, some of whom jibed at 'Father Woods' and his patriarchal association with the Tasmanian Labor Party. Admirers were impressed by his uncompromising opposition to exploitation, profiteering, sectarianism and absurd class distinctions. Though talkative, Woods rarely spoke about himself. He maintained close links with many Tasmanian writers and enjoyed a valued friendship with Edmund Morris Miller, with whose assistance he helped to endow Tasmanian libraries.

In parliament Woods had focused on land reform ('the Labor movement must become the land Restoration movement') and on the abolition of the Legislative Council. Identifying the Upper House as the chief obstacle in the path of progress, in November 1908 he had moved for the abolition of the council; his motion was defeated. Between 1906 and 1909 Labor's vote in the State elections doubled and the first Labor government in Tasmania took office under John Earle on 20 October 1909. While Woods's dream of establishing a 'Cooperative Commonwealth' remained elusive, the Labor Party had, in the years of his association with the Clipper, established itself as a major political force. To Woods must go a large share of the credit. He died on 28 February 1939 at St Helen's Hospital, Hobart, and was cremated. He was survived by a son and daughter of his first marriage, and by his wife and their daughter and son who was a Rhodes Scholar (1934).

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, A Peculiar People (Syd, 1968)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • W. H. Wilde, Courage a Grace (Melb, 1988)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, Mar 1966
  • M. Lake, W. A. Woods and the Clipper 1903-09 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Tasmania, 1968)
  • Woods papers (Archives Office of Tasmania).

Citation details

Marilyn Lake, 'Woods, Walter Alan (1861–1939)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.online.anu.edu.au/biography/woods-walter-alan-9180/text16211, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 21 November 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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