Critique of Errol J. Lea-Scarlett’s Histories of Queanbeyan

Errors, Inaccuracies and Misimpressions in Errol J. Lea-Scarlett’s Queanbeyan District and People (1968), Gundaroo (1972) and Queanbeyan in Distaff (1983)

J. Davis


The above paper (click on title to link) is a critique of select works of Mr Errol J. Lea-Scarlett  on the history of the Queanbeyan district.

N. B. The paper has been updated with minor corrections (22 April 2020).

A copy of the paper is also held by the heritage librarian at the Queanbeyan Public Library, Brigid Whitbred, to whom I extend my thanks. That copy includes reproductions of original documents held by New South Wales State Archives and Records.

Notes on Errol J. Lea-Scarlett’s histories of Queanbeyan 

Mr Errol J. Lea-Scarlett’s Queanbeyan: District and People, published in 1968, gives little indication of the true history of Queanbeyan. Along with his Gundaroo, published in 1972 and Queanbeyan in Distaff (1973 and 1983), Mr Lea-Scarlett presents an incomplete and altered history of the district and in many ways an almost complete inversion of it.

Between his works, there is much factually incorrect information, commentary frequently consists of license and presumption and the character of individuals is misrepresented, in some cases with explicit misidentification. There is little objective or critical analysis in Lea-Scarlett’s accounts. He tends merely to adulate John Gale and Edward William O’Sullivan and the protectionist politics they trumpeted. 

With flagrantly politically protectionist bias, Lea-Scarlett denigrates many people in Queanbeyan except, noticeably, John Gale and E. W. O’Sullivan, whom he presents as demi-god like heroes of humanity with, incredibly, no details as to the  politics for which they stood.

There is no question that Gale and O’Sullivan were significant figures in Queanbeyan’s history. O’Sullivan was the Member for the District for nineteen  years from 1885 to 1904, largely due to John Gale and the Queanbeyan Age newspaper, but for Lea-Scarlett to portray them as liberal reformists is inexplicable. In their own time, it was general knowledge that  Gale and O’Sullivan were ultra-conservative right-wing extremists and that both were determined in their politics by their religion.

O’Sullivan was the most extremist white supremacist in New South Wales parliament, spear-heading the campaign for a “white Australia”, claiming to have fathered its name, fully supported by John Gale and the Queanbeyan Age newspaper. From the 1860s, Gale had advocated that the solution to the Chinese in Australia was total exclusion and segregation – prohibition of Chinese entering Australia and complete separation of existing Chinese in the country from white society, a significant aspect to Gale that it would be difficult to ascertain from Lea-Scarlett’s depiction of him. While William Affleck said that those Pacific Islanders who had come to Australia honourably and wished to remain should be able to do so, O’Sullivan wanted to “clear all the blacks out of the country!” and believed that the place of Africans, even in  Africa, was under the foot of white rule.

Such was O’Sullivan’s zealous Catholicism that his own Protection Party had to introduce special resolutions to keep him in check.  O’Sullivan frequently declared that “next to his religion he was a protectionist” and on that basis he blocked political reforms in the House for many years. O’Sullivan personally blocked passage of Sir Alfred Stephen’s progressive Divorce Bill in 1886 on such grounds as that divorced women were ‘no good for anything but prostitution’, that ‘no man would want another man’s leavings’ and that under it, New South Wales would ‘end up like the United States’, apparently, ‘peopled by idiots and imbeciles due to the incest that would result from divorce’! When Nield tried again to pass the Bill in 1891, O’Sullivan again personally blocked it, drawing Sir Alfred Stephen’s condemnation for his hypocrisy as, at the same time, Henry Parkes was proposing votes for women and O’Sullivan ‘crossed the floor’ as the only Protectionist in favour of it. However, by simultaneously keeping women under the foot of their husbands, they would be inclined to vote with them so, technically, O’Sullivan was merely doubling votes for Protection. Gale initially supported Stephen’s Bill, but cynicism was justified in Gale’s practical responses to women. In one case,  when two men were convicted of rape, Gale denounced the Judge’s decision, stating that while rape was a heinous crime against anyone, the victim lacked credibility because she went into a hotel unescorted by her husband or friends. Gale denounced secular schooling, claiming that ‘the Bible was the only true source of education’. While others fought for the abolition of capital punishment, Gale sermonised through the Age that the death penalty was ‘the only form of punishment that the Bible allowed’ and he wanted boys even under the age of ten put to the lash.

In their own time, Gale and O’Sullivan were also criticised for being blindly politically identical. On most points that was correct. However, it should be noted that there was one distinct and significant difference between Gale and O’Sullivan. The Gale/Fallick family papers were anti-semitic, while O’Sullivan, ironically for his extreme racism, was not. O’Sullivan was actively supportive of the Jewish community in Sydney and spoke out against historical and modern Jewish persecution. Conversely, in 1866, Gale believed historical persecution should be left out of a lecture on Jewish history so as not to offend the good folk of Queanbeyan and in 1903, the Observer, which he had controlled since the O’Neills sold it to his family in 1894, reproduced as a leader an article circulating at the time that essentially blamed conditions in London on the Jews and certain continental Europeans.

A major flaw in Lea-Scarlett’s work is aggrandisement and generalisation on the basis of singular facts in altered context. Equally, other commentators have taken O’Sullivan’s support of writer, Miles Franklin, as O’Sullivan supposedly being supportive of womens’ rights when, in reality, as well as blocking the Divorce Bill, he supported the Typographical Association’s boycotting of John Allan O’Neill’s Sun and Louisa Lawson’s Dawn newspapers because they employed women compositors. Similarly, although both Gale and O’Sullivan were notorious for inconsistency and contradiction, Lea-Scarlett attempts to generalise Gale and O’Sullivans’ characters and politics with depictions turning on a single piece of information that may well reflect the opposite on any other given day.

The calibre of Distaff (1972, 1983), from a talk delivered to a womens’ business organisation, is indicated in the introductory statement that, ‘in this time of women’s lib’, Lea-Scarlett ‘supposes something should be said of the women of Queanbeyan’, upon which the lack of reference to such in D & P becomes particularly conspicuous. As his ‘nod’ to “women’s lib” Lea-Scarlett then proceeds to undeservingly savage the few women he has chosen to highlight as functions of their husbands and fathers in stick-figure depictions lacking substance or depth of recognition of the real issues affecting them.  As the best example of ‘equality’, he notes that the female ‘hillbilly savages’ were as vicious as their male associates , while dismissing a teacher standing up for her rights as “pouting” and defaming a woman of genuinely high standing and reputation as a ‘rich snob’, with explicit reference to her anti-O’Sullivan politics. The case of the ‘hillbilly’ girl he invokes is a glaring example of insensitivity. Apart from the factually incorrect information Lea-Scarlett states, it would have been more recognising of womens’ interests and valuable from an historical perspective to note how she had come to be in the circumstances she was in and that, in reality, a judge before whom she was brought for receiving, noting she was a teenager and pregnant, let her off, despite her obvious guilt, not wanting to ruin her with a criminal record at her tender age and advising her to move to an entirely different place, stating that this was her chance to get away from the unfortunate circumstances of her childhood and the people she had fallen in with, a network in the Jingerras who were to become the most vicious gang in Australian’s criminal history.

The adulatory approach toward Gale and O’Sullivan goes against even reputable scholarship, including the more realistic depiction of O’Sullivan by his biographer, Bruce Mansfield, whose reflections in both his biography and his article in the Australian Dictionary of Biography are more accurate, even if he downplays or ignores O’Sullivan’s defining racism. Distinctly different from D & P, Lea-Scarlett’s entry on Gale in the ADB reflects a slightly more balanced and critical approach, probably due to more responsible editorial oversight, but even that contains errors, the significance of which may not be apparent in detachment from the true history of the district. I refer to that entry in this paper and those maintaining the website have been appraised of errors in that entry.

Among those undeservingly maligned, denigrated, misrepresented or misidentified by Lea-Scarlett, are William Gregg O’Neill, William Affleck, Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, William Forster, Sir Henry Parkes, police Sen-sgt Thomas Moran, George Tompsitt, Emma Tompsitt, Father James McAuliffe, Abraham Levy, Harold Mapletoft Davis, Emmeline Davis and the Queanbeyan Times newspaper, established by John Allan O’Neill and later owned by George Tompsitt. Some of these figures, notably, were opposed to the extreme right-wing and protectionist politics of Gale and O’Sullivan, or are people Gale acted against for his own reasons, people who  endured Gale and O’Sullivan’s’ hostility during their life-times because of it, with Lea-Scarlett, writing as an historian fifty to a hundred years later, doing the same in almost direct mimicry and with no critical oversight.  Lea-Scarlett’s onslaught against W. G . O’Neill is particularly personal and somewhat inexplicable, as from the start of their relationship in 1855, Gale and O’Neill were intimately close friends, practically blood brothers, even if at times they fought like it.  Although O’Neill remained true to his anti-protectionist principles while Gale turned to protection from 1885, and O’Neill played a major role in his brother’s Queanbeyan Times newspaper from 1879, O’Neill died in 1886, only a year after O’Sullivan was elected and before the war between Free Trade/Labour and Protection took hold and divided the district. There are other instances where Lea-Scarlett defames individuals with a seemingly unaccountable personal prejudice. In some cases direct nepotistic influence or association is apparent, with Lea-Scarlett substituting members of his own family, Gale or O’Sullivan for the achievements of others.  Although I correct substitutions and misidentifications and, in the interests of objectivity, declare my own family connections, I have not been so ungentlewomanly as to identify Lea-Scarlett’s connections with those substitutions.

As either a private school history teacher or prominent member of the Society of Australian Genealogists, the unreliability of Lea-Scarlett’s work is evident in his statement that no political candidate held a meeting in Gundaroo until 1874, when, very importantly, they had been doing so since 1856, and he was unable to disambiguate between two women merely because they had the same name. The importance of the first is made all the more significant in that the reason that the revolutionary 1858 Electoral Reform Act was introduced, extending the franchise to all men over 21 and the secret ballot in NSW, was due to Arthur Affleck of Gundaroo’s proposal of William Forster for election on a mandate to do so. The added significance of the second is that Lea-Scarlett launched into a personally abusive denigration of a related man on the basis of that misidentification. It is alo unfathomable that Lea-Scarlett, who claimed and boasted a connection with Quong Tart, the most well-known and deservingly well-regarded Australian-Chinese man in Australia’s history, venerated people like Gale and O’Sullivan, the most offensive anti-Chinese campaigners in New South Wales, while also simultaneously bearing a very personal prejudice against William Gregg O’Neill, the leading voice against persecution of the Chinese in Queanbeyan, who himself personally shielded a Chinese store-keeper in his building when anti-Chinese sentiment in Queanbeyan became violent and allowing him to conduct his store under his protection, when O’Sullivan and the Queanbeyan Age even wanted existing Chinese storekeepers in Australia to be shut down.

Note that the political protectionist emphasis in his work is Lea-Scarlett’s introduction. My critique of his work merely notes that and addresses the imbalance.

I, of course, cannot answer or account for Mr Lea-Scarlett. I can say, however, that by the mid-1960s Australia had been under conservative government for many years and the times really were “a’changing”. World War II, the ’60s mining boom and the need for workers had prompted the strict federal immigration policy to be relaxed. The First Peoples of Australia were being recognised for the first time with the 1967 referendum and the atrocities of the Vietnam War were changing attitudes toward “Asians”. The “white Australia policy”, which had dominated Australian immigration policy since Federation, was no longer popular, which may have been inconvenient for those in Queanbeyan’s history who had contributed to its introduction and even, perhaps, for the general conservative political regime, members of which were then defending their perspectives and framework and resisting change. Lea-Scarlett’s work served to distance the conservatives from their role in Australia’s history, while deflecting all appearances of prejudice and obstruction of progress onto others, specifically those opposed to Gale and O’Sullivans’ right-wing protectionism.

It is this that makes Lea-Scarlett’s work so offensive. Demons were made of people who were genuinely heroic in their time and my work in revealing the true history of Queanbeyan is as much a matter of justice to them as it is to Australian history in general.  

Lea-Scarlett’s work omits the greater history of Queanbeyan, which in itself is an injustice, both to the district and to Australian and international history in general.

Those unaware of the true history of Queanbeyan would not be aware of the issues with Lea-Scarlett’s work or in what manner Queanbeyan’s history had been misdirected. They would also be unaware of the material that is missing, the omission of which makes Lea-Scarlett’s skewed histories all the more of issue.

Being descended from four prominent families of the district, several members of which were at the forefront of nearly everything that ever happened in the district, and my research being original, independent, untainted and drawn directly from primary sources and documents, I can state that my work carries considerable authority and is a brutally factually accurate account of the history of the district, bearing neither fear nor favour to anyone. 

I am the great-great-great-grand-daughter of Arthur and Ann (née Skinner) Affleck, the great-great grand-daughter of James and Mary Ann (née Affleck) O’Neill and the great-great grand-daughter of Joseph and Mary Ann (née Griffiths) Bolton, all of them pioneering and prominent families of the district.

I am not related to the Davis’ of Ginninderra, nor any of the Davis’ of the Queanbeyan district. The Davis name is derived from my grandfather’s side, being the Davis’ of Parkes.  Mr Lea-Scarlett and I are very distantly related by marriage through the Davis’ of Parkes, by which Mr Lea-Scarlett had a distant connection with my great-great grandparents, James O’Neill and Mary Ann Affleck. James and Mary Ann are among the few people Lea-Scarlett did not denigrate, despite they being directly related to William Gregg O’Neill, Jack O’Neill and William Affleck, a connection which is not made evident in D & P.

It is not surprising that the errors in Lea-Scarlett’s work have not been publicly aired until now. With Prof. L. F. Fitzhardinge, head of history at ANU, prominently connected with Lea-Scarlett’s works, there may have been reluctance to question it. Prior to open access policies with material now generally available that was not under previous restrictions, it was difficult for all but a select few to be able to sight historical documents, which would have made checking material difficult. Prior to online databases, such as Trove, being easily accessible, manually checking newspaper articles was a laborious task. Lea-Scarlett’s many incorrect and incomplete citations also would have presented a major obstacle to checking content. I hasten to add, however, that there are indications of questioning having taken place previously, but these efforts seem to have fallen into oblivion. Scepticism may be reflected in Prof Fitzhardinge’s cryptic comment in his Foreword to Queanbeyan Pioneers – A First Study (1983) that “Critics of Queanbeyan [Pioneers?] might note that this book has been written, printed and published in Queanbeyan”. Rex Cross and Bert Sheedy, who produced Queanbeyan Pioneers, reproduced material by Lea-Scarlett and the book contains much material credited to him. Cross and Sheedy state that several families of the district declined to take part in the book, which, personally, I do not find surprising, given the manner in which people were treated in Lea-Scarlett’s District and People

Although prominent people helped with or presented Lea-Scarlett’s work, I doubt that they would have been aware of the issues associated with it. Perhaps my work on the district and this paper may forestall any further, assumedly unwitting, compromise of the publisher and those touting Lea-Scarlett’s work. 

Unintentional errors aside, for which I apologise in advance, much effort has been taken to ensure accuracy and while not peer-reviewed, where significant discrepancy exists with previous accounts, effort has been made, including  by staff at State Archives and Records of NSW and the State Library of NSW, to verify information. References are extensively and accurately cited, making verification easy.

Any work, especially such as mine, which goes against an accepted version of more than fifty years, should be able to withstand rigorous scrutiny and I welcome questions and observations. (Please see the Contact page for the email address.)  However, a note of caution – I am happy to make corrections of genuine errors in my work, but please do not claim, as one person has to me privately, that Mr Lea-Scarlett supposedly knew of the issues with his work, as that would merely constitute a statement of intentional publication of incorrect material. I make no such comment. Mr Lea- Scarlett died in 2019 and it is not for others to make unauthorised comments on his behalf. I merely noted in reply to that person that since the publication of District and People in 1968 and following the publication of further material in 1972, 1973 and in the 1980s and 1990s, no indication of issues was made or corrections noted. Mr Lea-Scarlett’s work was cited throughout academic scholarship and, prior to my paper, it was still being touted as the authoritative history. Several years ago, when I first detected the discrepancies, I asked several relevant people if they were aware of issues with his work and if anyone had raised issues with it and all said they were not aware of issues and that no-one had raised any questions about it. As indicated above, I do not believe that people who wrote forewords to, presented or cited Mr Lea-Scarlett’s work were aware of issues with it. In fact, it was when I was informed of an intention to reprint District and People, before my Politics in Queanbeyan was ready for publication, that I rushed this paper to Brigid Whitbred at the Queanbeyan library to forestall any further unwitting compromise of others and to spare embarrassment to the Queanbeyan Council as the publisher.

When I first released the paper, I was uncertain of how my work would be received. However, I am very glad to say that, to myself directly, at least, the general response has been encouraging and supportive. Among that response, I was very glad to receive a phone-call from the great grand-daughter of an early, very prominent, Solicitor-General of Australia, applauding my paper, and there have been several responses from people happy the corrections to be noted and themselves now encouraged to produce their research.

Fortunately, my work is being produced in a time when the general public, and even académe, is more receptive to the fact that history and, Australian history, especially, has for many decades, lain in the eye of the beholder. With correct information in the public domain, genuine history can now be done and meaningful analysis can take place.

Joanna Davis