25 November 1923 was Australia’s first ‘Clan Day’.
Concluding a Protestant Truth Society meeting in Sydney’s domain that afternoon, Captain-Chaplain James Wilson - prominent former member of the AIF and sitting member of the New South Wales Legislative Assembly - announced the formation of the ‘Anglo-Saxon Clan’. With that, the KKK had arrived in Australia.
‘The Anglo-Saxon Clan is adapted to Australian conditions from the Ku Klux Klan of America,’ Wilson asserted by way of explanation to the crowd. He noted that only Britishers could join, and that among other things it stood for ‘patriotic immigration laws’. Under the guise of an argument about the separation of church and state, the Anglo-Saxon Clan also pitted itself against Catholicism. And, rationalised by its own ostensibly religious underpinnings, the organisation was closed to prospective Jewish members.
Having claimed a trifecta of prejudice against Jews, Catholics, and Immigrants, Wilson also outlined the central irony of a secret organisation devoted to ‘freedom of speech and Press’. He described how the first series of initiation rites would be conducted in various ‘Secret Places’ in Sydney:
…the qualified men will be summoned to the first secret meeting place of the Clan, at some secluded spot where, before the Burning Fiery Cross they will take the covenant and become the Clansmen, thus passing the first degree of Clansmanship.
The speech ended, membership application forms were circulated, and ‘pamphlets of Clancraft were sold’. In the days that followed, the story was circulated throughout Australia to general bafflement, widespread derision, and frequent condemnation.
The story of the Clan’s founding soon disappeared from the pages of the newspapers, but the organisation itself survived. This is most clearly evidenced in the pages of The Watchman, whose own banner identified it as ‘The Protestant Champion of Political and Religious Progress’. In April 1926, for instance, it ran an advertisement calling for prospective Clansmen to make their membership enquiries via “91”, care-of Empire House. This came only a few weeks after printing a large photograph of the Grand President of the Anglo-Saxon Clan, W. H. G. Perkins, J.P, wearing a fancy outfit. Something like an apron at the bottom sported a Union Jack, squarely and perhaps purposely placed where the moustachioed gentleman’s genitals must have been. Surely there is an academic paper to be written here on the penile semiotics of patriotic immigration?
I became intimately familiar with The Watchman a few years ago while researching my great-great grandfather the Reverend William Marcus Dill-Macky. In my first major foray in Australian history, Kin: A Real People’s History of Our Nation, g-g-grandfather Dill-Macky was one of the best documented of the ‘real people’ that structured a book deliberately designed to break the usual politico-nationalistic narrative mould of national histories. The Reverend starred as an exemplar of the old world’s divisions in a chapter partly addressing our rich history of free-ish speech and its deployment for the purposes of prejudice. Fortunately, however, he was dead before the foundation of the Clan, so at least I could draw the ancestral bigotry line at the Orangemen phenomenon, already in decline by the time of his demise. Unfortunately, I rather suspect that some of his extreme views may have fertilised the minds of some of the early Anglo-Saxon Clansmen. Prejudice does seem to beget prejudice.
But secretive political groups are not only a small part of our history; they seem to be an increasingly visible part of our present. In recent years I’ve watched belligerent patriotic organisations repeatedly flock together to protest things they generally neither like nor understand (especially mosques). They’ve now apparently branched out into statute protection. As recently as the past week I’ve even seen photographs of supposedly Australian arms raised in fascist salutes. Such images of individuals concealed by cartoonish white masks seem to capture perfectly the ludicrous possibility of a chapter of the Anglo-Saxon Clan still existing circa 2017. It makes me wonder: is this a persistent thread of Australian nationalism? Are we doomed to be in constant dialog with our looniest elements?
Undoubtedly every society has its fringe mentalities. And the grand sweeps of history certainly make it is easy to see how the rise and fall of certain ideologies have fostered various forms of Australian extremism. But while it is tempting to just laugh off extremist views spouted by people wearing national symbols in great proximity to their privities, as most commentators did with the Anglo-Saxon Clan back in the 1920s, we seem a little afraid of tackling the central question that mainstream nationalism itself may play a role in fertilising such attitudes.
Take Captain-Chaplain Wilson, for instance. Before he founded the Clan, this New Zealand-born Methodist preacher had served time abroad and brought his war experiences to the Australian public on many occasions. In early 1915 he arrived in Australia from a tour of Europe, where he had visited hospitals and towns directly affected by the war, bringing with him accounts of German atrocities, the devastation of France, and the distant sounds of cannon fire on the Western Front. He framed the conflict as a ‘holy war’. Within a year he had joined the Australian Imperial Force and been sent to Europe, attached to the famous Mining Corps. Due to ill heath, he was on his way back to Australia within a year of enlisting. He soon turned to the public lecture circuit again, reporting on the war for Australian audiences, and was very pro-conscription.
He was also witness to a unique moment when wartime nationalism, patriotism, and propaganda all neatly coalesced. This occurred in Sydney on 4 August 1918, ‘the fourth anniversary of Great Britain’s entry into the war’, at a public meeting held ‘to inaugurate the King’s Men movement’. This was a new organisation intended to patriotically support the war and help silence dissent:
This movement will give every loyal, healthy-minded citizen an opportunity of combining to combat the disloyal pacific-ist [sic] and seditionist. The King’s Men will also pledge themselves individually and collectively to stimulate recruiting, and will endeavour to eradicate the evil wave of disloyalty enabling eligibles to live in a clearer and more patriotic atmosphere, so that they may the more clearly see their obligation to fight alongside their fellow-Australians, in the cause of freedom and civilization.
Captain-Chaplain Wilson was one of the advertised speakers.
While some 12,000 people reportedly attended the combined patriotic events in Sydney that day, the King’s Men meeting really reveals flagging enthusiasm for the war. Grouping pacifism and sedition together was part of an all-or-nothing argumentative tactic, an apocalyptic view of history, further expounded in follow-up meetings by figures called ‘Commonwealth Directors of War Propaganda’. The King’s Men movement basically pitted itself against 1918’s any form of internal dissent about national identity and purpose by advocating a singularly loyal and enthusiastic brand of nationalism. Sounds a little familiar, doesn’t it?
Curiously, I didn’t learn this stuff about Kings Men and Clansmen in school, I mostly learnt the part about the initial wartime enthusiasm and the glories of Australians in combat. Perhaps someone needs to write a bestseller about that band of Anzacs who bravely came back and bullied the public and then formed the Clan? There may not have been masses of them, but there were a few, and really, aren’t they part of our history too? Don’t these guys speak to the very core of our tortured debates about historical identity? Forget Captain Cook, let’s talk about Captain-Chaplain Clan.
With a loyalist profile that helped leverage him into a political career, and in turn gave him further profile than he otherwise may have had when he publicly turned to ‘clancraft’, Captain-Chaplain’s vision of Australian history and progress was out of step with common sense, and deserved the ridicule it attracted. But while 25 November best not be a replacement Australia Day, perhaps it could become ‘Anglo-Saxon Clan history day’, as a constant reminder to question the received logic of some versions of our national story, and not to long too hard for that ‘clearer and more patriotic atmosphere’. Politicians should stop telling us not to revise history; it only encourages us, and they may not like what we’ll find.