Friday, 10 July 2015

Harold Swanson, a Coburg conscientious objector, comes under suspicion

A little while ago, I wrote about a local man, Harold Swanson, who came before the Coburg exemption court in October 1916 claiming he was a conscientious objector.

Age, Thursday 19 October 1916, p.8.

Since I wrote that blog entry, I have found out much more about Harold Swanson and about anti-conscription meetings in Coburg and Brunswick. The research goes on, but some interesting stories have begun to emerge.

Swanson's stance as a conscientious objector must have been well known to his local community, as the following newspaper clipping suggests:

Brunswick and Coburg Star, Friday 4 August 1916, p.3.

The newspaper article also makes clear that although Swanson's opinion of war was well known and clearly not supported by the St. Augustine's congregation, it was not considered an impediment to him taking the role of secretary of the vestry. It seems that although Swanson was anti-war, he still felt able to attend this welcome home to the St. Augustine's 'Anzac heroes'. So it wasn't a case of immovable object meets immovable object.

Whether this was still the attitude six weeks later, as anti-conscription meetings in Coburg and Brunswick met resistance from the local Councils, is unclear, but as the first conscription referendum drew nearer, there were signs of tension everywhere, as the following extracts from the local press reveal.

Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 15 September 1916, p.2.

Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 29 September 1916, p.3.

Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 20 October 1916, p.2.

And such times of great tension provide the perfect opportunity for neighbour to inform on 'suspect' neighbour, just as they did in the days of the Cold War. The World War One Intelligence files held at the National Archives of Australia reveal one such story from Brunswick.

On 20 October 1916, the very week that Harold Swanson appeared in Coburg Court, a report was filed at Brunswick Police Station on Otto Draeger, a 56 year old watchmaker of Sydney Road. Constable R.R. Dugdale was requested to provide a report on Draeger who was 'said to be a full blooded German canvassing for the Anti-Conscription Party.' Constable Dugdale found no evidence of this and said that Draeger was a 'quiet man and does not take any part in public matters'.  He went on to say that Draeger had been born at Emerald Hill in 1860 of German parents. He then listed some of Draeger's nephews who were away at the war. (National Archives of Australia, MP16/1. 1916/1273)

What isn't mentioned here is that one nephew, 33449 Driver Clarence Norman Draeger, 11th Howitzer Battery, 11th Brigade Australian Field Artillery, had enlisted the week before the report was written. An old boy of Coburg State School who lived in Bell Street, Preston during his school days, Clarrie Draeger was a resident of Blackburn at the time of his enlistment. He was killed in action in France on 22 June 1918 and is remembered on the Preston Cenotaph.

Uncle Otto, a quiet man from a respected family of local jewellers, a private man who 'does not take part in public matters', must have been mortified at being questioned about his loyalty. And he was just one of many.

Over six months passed before the tensions around Harold Swanson's anti-war stance re-emerged. A World War One Intelligence File dated 2 May 1917 reveals that Harold F. Swanson, of 98 Blair Street, Coburg, had been working as a munitions worker, but this appointment was about to be cancelled. (National Archives of Australia, MP16/1. 17/394)

The attack on Swanson was two-pronged. 

Firstly, the family's loyalty was called into question. It was said that Harold's father, A.E. Swanson, a patent attorney, had visited Paris 'and was known to travel towards the German frontier.' It was also claimed that 'his business was primarily to exhibit some patents; one being on a submarine ... This invention is now in use by the Germans, and since the return of Mr Swanson he appears to be much better off financially.' UK Inward Passenger Lists reveal that Albert Swanson did indeed travel to Europe, reaching London on 9 December 1911, three years before war was declared, so he could hardly be accused of selling secrets to the enemy.

Secondly, of Harold Swanson it was claimed that he was 'a socialist to the backbone' and 'states that he would not volunteer or be a conscriptionist, and would sooner be placed in front of a barrack wall and shot.' And just as bad - 'He helps break up recruiting meetings at Coburg.' Not only that, but the mother of the informant against Harold Swanson said that she had 'asked him before the referendum [the October 1916 referendum]  if he intended to vote for the KING or the Kaiser, and he said the Kaiser.' She had then asked him to leave the house!

None of this is new information, of course, but  the case against Harold Swanson was such that his appointment as a munitions worker was cancelled. Swanson's own voice is not heard in the files, but given his previous public statements, he probably did not protest.

Finally, in the week leading up to the second conscription referendum on 20 December 1917, the Swanson family re-appeared in the local press. 

This time it was Harold's older brother Albert, a Brunswick printer, who made the news.

Brunswick and Coburg Leader, 14 December 1917, p.1.

Both local men, Judd, of De Carle St., Brunswick North and Goding, of The Grove, Moreland, were both teachers and as such might be expected to set an example to others. Clearly the heat of the moment had got the better of Judd and his taunt of 'cold-footed rotter' moved Albert Swanson to action. He might have been an anti-conscriptionist, but he certainly was not averse to using force if he deemed it warranted.

It is here that I will leave this short exploration of a turbulent period on the home front. There is much more to be said about the anti-conscription movement and of the way those with foreign names, especially German sounding names, were treated.

There are over 7,000 files in the WW1 Intelligence Section Case Files at the National Archives of Australia, covering the time period 1914-1920. Only a handful of these files have been digitised, Otto Draeger's file being one of them. Here, then, is a relatively unknown source of rich information about Australians' attitudes to 'otherness' during a period of great tension and it's right on our doorstep!


  1. Thanks for your information about the Intelligence Case Files - I must have a look.

    I was interested at the mention of Rev William Caton. He was also mentioned in "Trooping to the Middle East, 1916: the trooping journals of Colonel John Evans", annotated by Marilyn Kenny. In this, while heading to the Middle East, Colonel Evans spoke to one of the sentries who told him that he was from Victoria. Evans asked the soldier's name, and he said "Caton". Evans asked, "Are you the son of the Revd. John Caton?" The soldier replied that he was. Evans recorded in his diary that "we had a chat for a full blown private who is also the Revd Caton".

    Caton resided in Coburg, but had been the Vicar of St Thomas', Essendon, the Colonel's home district.

  2. Isn't it interesting how one person's research intersects with another's! And I'm always amazed at how many servicemen and women at the Front met up with people they knew or knew people in common.

    I probably should have said that Rev William Caton was 1180 Gunner William Carus Clarke Caton, 2nd Field Artillery Brigade and 23rd Howitzer Brigade and that he left with the first contingent. Another brother also served - 25890 Gunner James Herbert Henry Caton, 14th Field Artillery Brigade. Yet another brother, Alexander, was a Boer War veteran. Their father was Rev. John Caton, Vicar at Holy Trinity, Coburg from 1888-1912.