Michael Sharkey, from ‘The Best Hated Man in Australia’
On Good Friday, 25 March 1921, the outback mining city of Broken Hill, New South Wales, saw its greatest ever funeral. A rider on a black horse carrying a red flag led the march and immediately behind him were members of parliament, union officials and labour representatives. Almost every organisation in Broken Hill was represented in the official procession which included thousands of unionists and members of women’s groups. The undertaker estimated that between six and seven thousand men marched and said it was probably the highest percentage of a city’s men to march ‘anywhere in this country’.
The columns of marching men and women were eight to fifteen wide, and after them came 127 vehicles. Six black horses festooned with red ribbons pulled the hearse and the Workers’ Industrial Union Band played ‘The Dead March’. Fifteen thousand of the town’s twenty-four thousand inhabitants followed the coffin from the Trades Hall to the cemetery. At the graveside, the band played and a chorus of thousands sang ‘The Red Flag’ and then ‘Should I Ever Be a Soldier’. There were no public prayers at the funeral, instead a friend of the departed said:
I am today honoured with the sad task of saying these last words of him whom I believe to be the grandest man that ever lived … the greatest champion that the people have ever had … the dearest, closest friend I have ever had … His heart was the best that ever beat in a human breast. There was not a weak link in the great chain of manly principles … there was not a weak spot in his character.
When he finished his eulogy, the speaker wept uncontrollably and hundreds of men nearby did likewise.
In this way the notorious and popular New South Wales politician Percival ‘Jack’ Brookfield was buried. He had been shot three days before at the railway station in the South Australian town of Riverton.News of his death had gripped the country; eulogies came from friend and foe alike, from the Prime Minister, the Governor and the New South Wales Premier. Yet only six years prior to his great funeral, Brookfield had been an unknown miner working in the depths of the Barrier mines and living quietly in the town. Then, as his close friend Ernest Wetherell said, Brookfield ‘rose like a meteor in public life’.
Brookfield’s fearless, battling, public career was as colourful as it was short. In the few hectic years from his emergence as an outspoken miner to his dramatic death, he appeared from the lightless obscurity of the Broken Hill underground to take his place on the national stage. He was hated and he was loved, and then, quickly, at least outside Broken Hill, Brookfield was largely forgotten.
Growing up in Broken Hill I had heard of Percy Brookfield. I was aware that there was a Brookfield Avenue but I knew almost nothing about the man. Later, when I began to read about the controversial character, I realised that distance and happenstance had conspired to bring him to prominence and to allow him to slip from view.
Most Australian histories focused on the second decade of the twentieth century rightly concentrate on the terrible events centred in Europe, but this was a time of domestic political and industrial turmoil, and Brookfield was in the thick of it. He launched onto the national spotlight as a militant unionist and outspoken opponent of the Great War and of conscription. He fought on the streets of Broken Hill and Sydney, and on the hustings, and he became possibly the most radical anti-politician ever elected to parliament in Australia.
Brookfield was attacked by the press and was a favourite target of Nationalist politicians, including the Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, and the NSW Premier, William Arthur Holman. The extremist Broken Hill representative, however, became a powerful political advocate and when he was shot in the ‘sensation’ at the Riverton Railway Station he held the balance of power in NSW.
Brookfield’s myth echoed for decades after his passing in Broken Hill and in certain political circles, but elsewhere his memory receded rapidly. In fact, the extreme activist’s stellar but dramatically shortened story has never properly been told. A biography by Gilbert Giles Roper was published in 1983. As a boy, Roper saw Brookfield’s coffin leave Adelaide on the train for Broken Hill. Roper was moved by the story of Brookfield and his ideals, and was writing the biography of the militant unionist when he died, leaving two unfinished drafts. These manuscripts were edited together by Wendy and Alan Scarfe, and published as Labor’s Titan. The book, however, inevitably suffered because the author did not live to complete it.
A decade before Roper’s untimely passing, the NSW Minister of Education, Ernest Wetherell, retired from parliament and set about writing a history of Broken Hill’s industrial ‘stormy years’, in which he had played an important role. Wetherell wrote the manuscript because, he said, the ‘period produced Australia’s greatest strike and saw the advent of a fascinating political and industrial personality — Percival Brookfield, MLA’.‘In describing these hectic days’, Wetherell continued, ‘I am yielding to the pressure of many who feel that the story of Brookfield should be told’. The manuscript starts with Wetherell’s arrival in Broken Hill in 1911 and it ends with the death and funeral of Brookfield. Unfortunately, Wetherell died in 1969 leaving his work unpublished.
Wetherell’s personal recollections have been invaluable to me. He has provided a delightful feel for the time and the events, and of his great personal affection for the man. Roper’s book, in contrast, is full of admiration but more distant. It concentrates on the virtues and successes of Brookfield the radical unionist and politician. This publication is indebted to both works. I would like to think that by writing this political biography I have taken some steps toward the completion that death denied to Roper and Wetherell.