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. That copy includes reproductions of original documents held by New South Wales State Archives and Records.

Below is essential background for context and further in the passage are the specific notes to the critique.

Essential background for context

Much of what is in the above paper, in my notes on the same and in my book, “The O’Neills of Queanbeyan”, is new to Australian history or goes against incorrect material that has been in circulation for more than fifty years.

Even before there was Canberra, Queanbeyan was one of the most important electoral districts in New South Wales. Consisting in turn of united Counties, then the Southern Boroughs and County Murray until the electorate of Queanbeyan was established in 1860, from 1843, the district was represented on the Legislative Council and then, with the establishment of responsible government in 1856, in New South Wales parliament, by some of the foremost people in Australian politics. These included Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, Minister for Lands and Public Works, later Speaker of the Legislative Assembly from 1860 and President of the Legislative Council from 1862, and William Forster, Premier, Colonial Secretary and later Minister for Lands. Murray and Forsters’ liberal politics spear-headed the introduction of reforms in New South Wales. Murray led campaigns for the abolition of the law of primogeniture and of capital punishment. Murray and Forsters’ support for National Schools and then Public Schools under Murray’s close friend, Sir Henry Parkes, was pivotal to their establishment. Nominated by Arthur Affleck on condition he introduce electoral reform, in 1858, Forster put to the House his Electoral Reform Bill, the move that extended the franchise to all men over twenty-one without property restriction and introduced the secret ballot in New South Wales.

Before 1853, Queanbeyan was wild country. Violence and gruesome murder were common and major issues existed with the police. In 1853, however, William Gregg O’Neill became Chief Constable and with his coming, everything changed. Born into the Irish constabulary, after an exemplary career as a police officer in New Zealand and Sydney, O’Neill both brought law and order to the district and essentially established the social structure of the town. With J. J. Wright, who was to become the town’s first mayor, O’Neill’s relatives by marriage, the staunch Presbyterian Afflecks, the local coroner, Dr Andrew Morton, and big landowners such as the Campbells, the De Salis’, and the Rutledges, O’Neill led public works projects, housed schools – private, secular and denominational, in his own buildings or supported them, and although a devout Anglican, established and/or supported all the churches, C of E, Catholic, Presbyterian, Wesleyan, Chinese faiths and others like, as a unifying impartial centre, his aim being to bring social order to a district formerly notorious for lawlessness. With O’Neill’s encouragement, in 1860, ex-Wesleyan Minister, John Gale, founded the town’s first newspaper, the Golden Age, rechristened the Queanbeyan Age in 1864.

From the 1860s, the politics of the district was dominated by the battle for free selection, led by William Affleck, John James Wright, William Gregg O’Neill and John Gale, supported by the relatively reformist De Salis family in parliament, starting with the return of William Redman to support Sir John Robertson’s 1861 Land Bill, with its all-important Clause 13 – the “free selection before survey” clause. In 1869, William Forster was returned in an election led on his behalf by William Gregg O’Neill, who also successfully campaigned for Thomas Garrett of Shoalhaven and Daniel Egan of Monaro, when O’Neill was credited with almost single-handedly securing the Robertson Ministry in its battle against the “squattocracy” that had threatened to undo Robertson’s 1861 Land laws.

Local disputes over the roads and the railway spurred fierce in-fighting between the leading individuals of the district from 1864 until in 1880 all of the Afflecks, the O’Neills, Wright and Gale united to support J. B. Thompson against “avowed” protectionist, Percy Clement Hodgkinson, in the 1880 NSW parliamentary election.

However, unlike the liberally progressive Afflecks and O’Neills, John Gale was an ultra-conservative right-wing religious extremist who sermonised his beliefs through his newspaper, the Queanbeyan Age. While the O’Neills espoused free trade/labour principles through their newspaper, founded in 1879, the Queanbeyan Times, by the early 1880s, while Affleck and O’Neill maintained their liberal free trade/labour principles, John Gale had become a fully-fledged protectionist. With Gale’s support, fierce ultra-conservative right-wing protectionist and traditionalist Catholic, Edward William O’Sullivan, was elected as Member for Queanbeyan in 1885. From that time, the battle between the “squatters” and free selectors was superseded by the war between free trade and protection, during which time the district was definitively politically and socially split in two.

Under Sir Henry Parkes, New South Wales was generally a free trade colony. The concept of free trade in the 19th century was very different from what it is today. This was before the introduction of direct taxation according to wealth, before wage regulation and prior to legislated regulation of working conditions. The Free Trade and workers’ movement, the latter materialising as the Labour Party in the early 1890s, advocated along those lines. By the 1880s, a right-wing protectionist movement had emerged, opposing direct taxation and demanding government revenue be raised through an extensive system of sales taxes and import duties. The Free Trade/Labour movement resisted the protectionists’ demands for regressive taxes which would impact most on the lower and middle classes. Under protection, as in Victoria, the working class was expected to bear the burden of sales taxes and import duties in exchange for supposed job protection the taxes and duties would guarantee through protection of local industries. However, before the introduction of direct wage and job protection, workers were seen as commodities, whose jobs or wages were fluid, with employment terminated or wages lowered according to supply and demand to maintain the bottom-line for business owners. In New South Wales, under free trade leader and Premier, Sir Henry Parkes, few such indirect burdens were imposed and policy progressed toward a system of pay-as-you-earn direct taxation and legislated preservation of working conditions. Free trade principles also tended against the closed borders policy of the protectionists which, in the form ferociously advocated by O’Sullivan and the Queanbeyan Age, translated into comprehensive race-based immigration restriction, come to be known as the “white Australia” policy, with O’Sullivan claiming to have fathered its name.

However, with aggressive strategising and support from John Gale and the protectionist Queanbeyan Age newspaper, joined in 1886 by J. J. Wright, O’Sullivan held his seat in Queanbeyan for nineteen years against a procession of liberally reformist Free Trade and Labour candidates, whose main aim was to introduce an equitable direct taxation system based on ability to pay. Although previously O’Sullivan had been involved in the workers’ movement, after his election in 1885 and his singular spear-heading of protection and conservatism, the relationship between O’Sullivan and the workers’ movement and Labour Party descended into mutual hostile enmity.

While the Queanbeyan Age, under Gale family ownership until 1891 and then mainly Skelton Brothers and Cox until 1901, promulgated the conservative protectionism of O’Sullivan, John Allan “Jack” O’Neill’s Queanbeyan Times, established in 1879, embraced the principles of free trade/labour and gave rise to the careers of the liberally progressive John Farrell and Harry Holland, who were to go on to be leading figures in labour politics. Farrell helped found the Labour Party in Sydney and his colleague, future Prime Minister, Joseph Cook, became the first Labour representative in NSW parliament in 1891. Farrell was an advocate of Henry George’s land nationalisation principle and organised George’s visit to Australia in 1890. After an extensive career as a journalist, including as editor of the Worker, for which Labour leader and future Prime Minister, William Morris “Billy” Hughes, also wrote, Harry Holland established the Labour Party in New Zealand in 1917 and led it in Parliament until his death in 1933. Holland advocated native rights throughout his political career.

Along with prominent free trade/labour advocate and colleague of Sir Henry Parkes, William Affleck, the O’Neills’ politically free trade/labour but more journalistically impartial Queanbeyan Times and Queanbeyan Observer newspapers supported liberal candidates against O’Sullivan, among them, the popular and technologically innovative, George Tompsitt, who introduced electricity to Queanbeyan at his wool-washing works and as Mayor in 1889, unsuccessfully attempted to introduce electric street lighting to the town against strong opposition, led by the Queanbeyan Age, at the time still managed by John Gale.

Under the new management of George Tompsitt, George B. Lillie, Edward Dornbusch and Arthur Ernest Kennedy from 1888 to 1892, the Times continued to support free trade/labour, as did Jack O’Neill’s Queanbeyan Observer newspaper, established in 1889, until it was bought by John Gale’s son-in-law, Edward H. Fallick, in November, 1894, and came under John Gale’s management, at which point Gale turned its direction to protection.

With the folding of the Times in 1892 and O’Neill’s sale of the Observer in 1894, there was no longer a voice in the local Queanbeyan media for free trade/labour, but in 1894, locally-based William Affleck was elected as Free Trade Member for Yass, in Government for five years with George Houston Reid and alongside his friend, Labour leader, William Morris “Billy” Hughes, while Sydney-based Member for Queanbeyan, O’Sullivan, and the Protectionists were in opposition. The introduction of the Land and Income Tax Assessment Act in New South Wales in 1895 under the Reid Free Trade Government, with much contribution by Affleck and the full support of the emerging Labour Party under McGowan and Hughes, when for the first time, the people of NSW would be taxed according to wealth, rendered the fiscal battle between free trade and protection obsolete. From 1899, Affleck, still Member for Yass, was then in opposition until 1904, while O’Sullivan became Minister for Works under the Lyne Government in 1899.

Throughout that time, Free Trade/labour man, Affleck, and fierce Protectionist, O’Sullivan, were determined political adversaries. Affleck was an adviser to Sir Henry Parkes, who held personal and political antipathy toward O’Sullivan, the most aggressive conservative Protectionist in the House. O’Sullivan’s fear of Affleck was well-based. In 1891, Affleck was the endorsed candidate of the Labour Electoral Lobby and in 1894, he won the seat of Yass for Free Trade against Protectionist, Thomas Colls, in direct confrontation with O’Sullivan, who led Colls’ campaign on his behalf due to Colls being ill. Against fierce pummeling by O’Sullivan, Affleck held his seat for Yass through several elections until 1904. 

With then only the pamphleteering protectionist Gale/Fallick family papers, the Queanbeyan Observer and the Queanbeyan Age, as the local media, Queanbeyan, however, remained politically conservative until in 1904, Gale turned on O’Sullivan, who severed his connection with the district and stood for Belmore instead. The Gale/Fallick Age and Observer then supported the Liberal Reform Candidate, Allan J. Millard.

From 1895, the main local political focus was on Federation, followed by the establishment of the Federal Capital Territory, largely due to William Affleck, and the selection of Canberra as the site for the nation’s capital city, the result of a united effort within the district, with Federal parliament transferring from Melbourne in 1927. Federally, in 1901, the protectionists gained dubious victory with the election of the  first Prime Minister, Andrew Barton, a convert to protection and under whom the first federal restrictive immigration policy was introduced.   

The 1908 “fusion” changed the political party structure in entirety. From 1906 to 1910, General Granville De Laune Ryrie led the electorate as a representative of the newly formed “Liberal” Party  until J. J. Cusack then secured the district for the newly-worked “Labour” Party. The last election for the division of Queanbeyan was held in 1910. With the establishment of the Federal Capital Territory, Queanbeyan lost much of its electorate to the new Territory. For the NSW general election of 1913, a major redistribution saw what was left of Queanbeyan absorbed into the district of Monaro.

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 characters 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. The calibre of Distaff (1972, 1983) is indicated in the introductory statement that, essentially, ‘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 the politics of their husbands and fathers or dismiss those standing up for their rights as “pouting”, ‘rich bitches’ or hillbilly savages in stick-figure depictions lacking substance.

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

O’Sullivan was, in reality, an ultra-conservative right-wing misogynistic white supremacist, who spear-headed the campaign for a “white Australia” policy from the 1880s, 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 Europeans, a significant aspect to Gale that it would be difficult to ascertain from Lea-Scarlett’s depiction of him. 

There is no question that Gale and O’Sullivan were significant figures in Queanbeyan’s history, but for Lea-Scarlett to portray them as liberal reformists is inexplicable. In their own time, it was well understood that Gale and O’Sullivan were white supremacist, misogynistic, ultra-conservative right-wing religious extremists and that both were determined in their politics by their religion. Gale denounced secular schooling, claiming that ‘the Bible was the only true source of education’. While the Afflecks 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’. Such was O’Sullivan’s extremist Catholicism that his own Protection Party had to introduce special resolutions to keep him in check. O’Sullivan claimed Henry George to be the greatest thinker of the time until the Pope published an Encyclical interpreted as opposing George’s land nationalisation scheme, when he suddenly claimed that George was a ‘nobody that no-one had ever heard of’. O’Sullivan frequently declared that “next to his religion he was a protectionist” and on that basis he blocked or attempted to block political reforms in the House. While William Affleck advocated Sir Alfred Stephen’s progressive Divorce Bill in 1886, O’Sullivan personally blocked its passage 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 it’! 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. To Affleck’s surprise, 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 questioned 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. 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.

In their own time, Gale and O’Sullivan were 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. Gale and 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. Commentators have taken O’Sullivan’s support of writer, Miles Franklin, as O’Sullivan supposedly being supportive or womens’ rights, when in reality he personally blocked passage of Stephen’s Divorce Bill on conservative grounds and 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.    

Several histories of the Queanbeyan district reflect personal or politically protectionist bias. In the acknowledgements in D & P, Lea-Scarlett notes that John Gale’s grandson, Mr R. J. S. Fallick, played a prominent role in the production of the book and among Lea-Scarlett’s collaborators were those with strong protectionist-aligned family antecedents. Canberra historian, Mr Lyle Gillespie, whose grandfather was the voracious protectionist writer, James Gillespie, also reflects a distinctive, politically protectionist position in his extensive work on the history of Canberra. While Gillespie’s work is of a generally higher standard than Lea-Scarlett’s, spoiled to a lesser degree by his blatant protectionist bias, alignment with Lea-Scarlett’s incorrect work is evident and that, along with a prejudicial editorial position, results in similar unreliability and suppression of significant information.

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 I appraised those maintaining the website of the errors some time ago.

A direct line can be drawn between people Lea-Scarlett venerates and those he slathers. Some of the latter, notably, were opposed to the extreme right-wing and protectionist politics of Gale and O’Sullivan, enduring their hostility during their life-times because of it, with Lea-Scarlett, writing supposedly as an historian, fifty to a hundred years later, doing the same, almost as Gale and O’Sullivan did in their time and in almost direct mimicry. 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. Among those undeservingly denigrated or misrepresented by Lea-Scarlett, whether as errors or with political or personal prejudice, are William Gregg O’Neill, William Affleck, Sir Terence Aubrey Murray, police Sen-sgt Thomas Moran, George Tompsitt, Emma Tompsitt, Father James McAuliffe, Abraham Levy, Harold Mapletoft Davis, Emmeline Davis and the Queanbeyan Times newspaper, in turn managed by John Allan O’Neill, George Tompsitt, George B. Lilly, Tompsitt’s step-son, Ernest Dornbusch, and finally, Arthur E. Kennedy.

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 Two, 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”. Suddenly, the “white Australia policy” was no longer popular, which would 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 supposed ‘backwardness’ 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 is, in reality, one of the great histories of the world, the suppression of which is in itself therefore 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 directed. They would also be unaware of the material that is missing, the omission of which makes Lea-Scarlett’s skewed histories nothing short of incredible.

I recognise that some of the people derided by Lea-Scarlett are my relatives. However, being descended from four prominent families of the district, my connections are of a very broad base, covering almost all religions, politics and persuasions. Ironically, my direct ancestors, my great-great-grandparents, James O’Neill and Mary Ann Affleck, are among the few people Lea-Scarlett does not denigrate, but even writes of in commendable terms. Two of the most prominent of my relatives, my great-uncles, William Gregg O’Neill and William Affleck, although sharing the same politics, ferociously fought in public, making any personal bias on my part impracticable. O’Neill was brother to my great-great-grandfather, James O’Neill, and William Affleck, brother to my great-great-grandmother, Mary Ann Affleck O’Neill. While Gale and WG O’Neill were closely associated until O’Neill’s death in 1886 and after a final dispute and reconciliation in 1872, Gale and Affleck never again fought in public, O’Neill and Affleck were the most pronounced opponents of and threats to O’Sullivan’s conservative protectionism.

I am not related to the Davis’ of Ginninderra and Queanbeyan, although ironically, Mr Lea-Scarlett and I are [very] distantly related by marriage through the Davis’ of Parkes, through which the connection is formed with James O’Neill and Mary Ann Affleck. 

Note that the political protectionist emphasis in his work is Lea-Scarlett’s introduction. My critique of his work merely notes this and addresses this imbalance. Lea-Scarlett made the basic mistake of subjectively making history personal and current. There is no place in history for misapplication of the past to influence the present or the future. Fortunately, the current general surge in family history research is underlined by a mature approach whereby all sensitivities and prejudices of the past have no relevance to the present and non-judgemental interest replaces churlish censorship.

My original work on the history of the Queanbeyan district in The O’Neills of Queanbeyan and The Boltons of Ginninderra, as well as Politics in Queanbeyan from the Counties to Federation and The Afflecks of Gundaroo to come, is merely objective presentation of the facts.

It is not surprising that the errors in Lea-Scarlett’s work have not have been noticed until recently or that it took myself, a direct descendant of four significant families of the district, to notice them. With Prof. L. F. Fitzhardinge, head of history at ANU, prominently connected with Lea-Scarlett’s works, there may have been reluctance to question its integrity. 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 been ignored or commandeered into oblivion.   

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. I myself know how precarious that situation can be.  One writer credited me with proof-reading their book, when I hadn’t even seen the manuscript, a manuscript which contained errors I would not have allowed to pass had I known of them. Several months ago  when I was informed that there may be a reprinting of Lea-Scarlett’s D & P, I rushed this paper to the heritage librarian at Queanbeyan Public Library to forestall any further, assumedly unwitting, compromise of the publisher and those touting Lea-Scarlett’s work. Other relevant parties were also advised of specific errors some time ago. This way, also, questions regarding my work, based on reading of Lea-Scarlett’s histories , can be answered in advance.      

I can assure that, unintentional errors aside, for which I apologise in advance, my observations are correct and while not peer-reviewed, where significant discrepancy exists with previous accounts, great 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.

I plead truth as absolute defence and right of critique. Any work, especially such as mine, which goes against accepted scholarship of more than fifty years, should be subjected to and able to withstand rigorous scrutiny and I welcome questions and observations.

Joanna Davis