Jack Henry, a Communist Leader in Australia’s “Deep North”

Queensland is often viewed as a hopelessly conservative state. But the story of Jack Henry, the Australian communist who organized the Far North, suggests that this stereotype is far from the truth.

We need to preserve the memories of Australia’s communist militants, unionists, and organizers — and to make their experience relevant to a new generation of leftists.

Jack Henry was a lifelong Communist Party of Australia (CPA) member and a key party leader in the nation’s “Deep North,” Queensland. A gifted organizer, he won respect among both CPA members and nonparty workers for his work as a union militant, a steadfast internationalist during the heyday of the White Australia policy, and a selfless, indefatigable comrade who faced hardship in a spirit of solidarity and friendship.

Today, Queensland is regarded as an inherently conservative region. But in the first part of the twentieth century, this was not the case — the Communist Party built an impressive and powerful movement, winning victories on the picket line and at the ballot box. And at the heart of these efforts stood Jack Henry.

Jack Henry

A Queensland Red During the Great Depression

Jack was born John Clyde Henry in 1904, in Coramba near Grafton, in the Northern Rivers district of New South Wales, where his father worked as a farmer. At eighteen years old, Henry arrived in Queensland. He worked as a laborer in the state’s Southeast until 1925, then traveled north to the newly opened Tully district, south of Cairns, in Far North Queensland.

Having been part of the labor movement since the age of thirteen, as a cane-cutting “new chum,” Jack soon joined the Australian Workers’ Union (AWU). At the time, as Australia’s strongest union, the AWU dominated Queensland’s Labor government. Yet the union was notorious for its association with the Right of the labor movement and its support for the commercial interests of the sugar industry. Henry’s tireless efforts at democratizing the AWU caused workers in his district to elect him as their delegate time and again.

During the cane-growing season, cane cutters were laid off for six months of the year, leaving many searching for work in Brisbane or elsewhere. This is where, in 1931, Henry encountered Marxist ideas. At twenty-seven years old, he joined the CPA. In just one year, he became widely known in North Queensland as a talented public speaker and an energetic worker for the communist cause.

Organizing Australia’s Deep North

By 1933, the CPA had grown enough in Queensland to divide itself into two districts. The new third district covered Brisbane and Queensland’s Southeast. Jack Henry led the party’s new ninth district, which stretched north from Brisbane to the Torres Strait Islands. Although it is an enormous area, Jack’s organizing made inroads among mining, railway, shipping, sugar, dairy, and meat workers. His name was known from Torres Strait Island’s pearling industry to the vast camps of unemployed across the state.

The CPA maintained its ninth district headquarters in Innisfail, close to Tully, where Jack had worked as a cane cutter since 1925. It was not an easy industry. Cane workers lived in primitive barracks, usually corrugated iron sheds with holes for windows. The tropical heat made it necessary to prop iron window coverings open — with the drawback that rats, snakes, spiders, bats, and mosquitos were free to come and go as they pleased.

The more “upmarket” barracks sported bunks with thin mattresses stuffed with coir, the fibrous outer shell of coconuts. A fortunate few bought themselves sheets and mosquito nets. But most slept on bare canvas camp beds. We don’t know which type of bed Jack slept in, but he did recall later that he ruined his eyesight by reading Marxist literature in bed at night, with a candle balanced in a saucer on his chest. After a grueling day harvesting cane by hand in the blistering Queensland sun, reading Capital in those conditions was no small feat.

A self-educated man, Jack’s efforts did not go unrecognized. Years later, in the Cairns Post, unionist and communist Cecil Sharpley described Jack Henry as “a bookish man steeped in Australian industrial history.”

In 1934, Jack stood for election in the federal electorate of Herbert and won 8.3 percent of the vote. The following year in the state poll he won 18.3 percent, the highest vote of any communist in Queensland up to that time. Although he was never elected, Jack’s experience was crucial to the victory won by CPA member and barrister, Fred Paterson, in Queensland’s 1944 election.

To date, Paterson remains the only communist elected to an Australian parliament. When Paterson was censored by the CPA’s Central Committee for advocating that the party direct voting preferences to the Labor Party — a breach of party policy — Jack Henry intervened, preventing his expulsion.

This was indicative of Jack’s popularity and influence in the CPA, and partly explains why he was elected, initially to the leadership of the ninth district, and then, in 1937, as Queensland state secretary. He subsequently joined the CPA’s Central Committee as a political organizing secretary, after which he moved to the CPA’s national headquarters in Sydney.

An Outstanding Organizer

Those who knew Jack considered him a man to swear by. John Sendy, one of Jack’s comrades, described him as “a gun canecutter and an expert timber-getter, a magnificent figure of a man, a fighter, a gambler, a drinker, a good mate and an outstanding organizer.” His leadership (and charm) won him influence in North Queensland. The communist author Jean Devanny recalled that he was “a universal favorite with housewives . . . [he] could be left to mind the children; and he always helped with the washing-up.”

Both Doug Olive and Carmel Shute refer to Jack as something of an early feminist. Doug Olive notes that Jack Henry was supportive of women’s and youth movements and that he opposed male Communist Party members interfering with their organization or their decisions. Under Jack Henry’s leadership, the region was home to the first women’s progress movement in Queensland.

Jack’s support for class militancy won the respect of workers across the state. As Sendy wrote, the CPA won “great prestige” in North Queensland during the 1935 sugar strike, with Henry “playing an outstanding part”: “Support was not only won by the espousal of militant industrial policy but by the anti-racial attitudes of the Communists among the large Italian population on the cane fields.”

The sugar workers’ 1934 and 1935 strikes against the Commonwealth Sugar Refining Company were bitter, and the 1935 strike was protracted, lasting from August to October of that year. The strikes were called in response to the deadly Weil’s disease, a severe form of leptospirosis that was, at the time, incurable and caused by plagues of infected rats in the sugar cane.

Clarrie Fallon, then secretary of the AWU, told the Industrial Court that in the space of a few weeks, the disease had infected 130 of the 800 field workers in just one mill district, overwhelming hospitals and leading to six deaths. Weil’s disease was endemic to the whole industry and over decades had killed thousands of sugar workers.

Measures were only taken to stamp out the disease after strike action. This, in turn, was made possible in part by Jack, who organized workers to sidestep the AWU’s conservatism, to take the fight directly to the powerful sugar industry.

Although Clarrie Fallon blamed Jack Henry for instigating the unauthorized strikes, he was powerless to stop them. Indeed, without support from the AWU, strikers — as well as their families — relied on Jack’s organizing and fundraising skills to get by.

An Internationalist in White Australia

Jack was also a committed anti-racist. At that time, the labor movement, including the AWU, was shaped by the racial divisions enshrined by the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 (known as the White Australia policy). This was compounded by Queensland’s history of Indigenous genocide and indentured labor — called “blackbirding” — which was slavery by any other name.

By the 1920s, systemic racism extended to immigrants from Southern Europe, and in 1925, a Queensland Royal Commission found that many were not fit to be considered “white.” Newspapers and magazines like Smith’s Weekly demonized immigrants and referred to them as a plague or as terrorists. From the 1920s on, in North Queensland’s sugar industry, Italians in particular were subjected to extensive racism until after the war.

The Depression-era scarcity of jobs and resources often led the labor movement to prioritize white workers. The AWU, for example, negotiated with the sugar industry to exclude Italians and other immigrants from work they had carried out for years.

Jack Henry’s work building working-class unity helped to challenge these attitudes. Indeed, this spirit of solidarity led Henry to organize united struggles that included Labor Party members and, as Diane Menghetti describes in her 1981 history of the Popular Front in Queensland, the Ingham anarchist group.

The patient work bore fruit: as labor historian Carmel Shute observes, under Jack Henry the North Queensland communists won the greatest support for the CPA anywhere outside Sydney, with membership of the party growing rapidly. Still, it wasn’t all grim determination — by organizing social gatherings, parties, picnics, and dances, Jack’s district raised more money for the cause than any other in Queensland.

Australia’s Red North

Today, Far North Queensland is stereotyped as a conservative backwater: as Belinda McKay and Patrick Buckridge observe, it is seen as the “home of redneck reactionaries and gun nuts, as well as crocodiles, dolphins and cane toads.” If this reputation is undeserved today, it was even more so in Jack Henry’s time.

Thanks in part to Jack Henry’s leadership, Queensland has a radical history. In a time when jobs were scarce, wages were decreasing, and politicians and union bureaucrats alike fostered racism, communists like Jack understood that society’s “useful people” could only improve their lot by standing together. By organizing his fellow workers, Jack taught them in practice to recognize their exploiters and the capitalist system behind them.

Although Jack won many skirmishes in his lifetime, his fight is not over. And neither is his leadership. Behind every radical and militant building a red Queensland today, there Jack Henry stands, smiling and saying, “It was not lost; no — nothing is ever lost.”