State Library Victoria > La Trobe Journal

No 47 & 48 1991


Frederick J. Riley and the Origins of the Riley and Ephemera Collection

IN 1956 FREDERICK JOHN RILEY, Secretary of the Manufacturing Grocers’ Union and staunch member of the Democratic Labor Party, made his first donation of Trades Hall pamphlets and papers to the State Library of Victoria. Over the next thirteen years until his death in April 1970 he continued to make regular donations to the Library about twice a year.
Each donation was a parcel of about seventy individual ‘ephemeral’ items, for instance, ACTU business sheets, ALP leaflets, THC policy statements, DLP voting cards, May Day Committee posters and single issues of union journals. All the items were duly listed in a letter of acknowledgment which the Library usually sent very promptly. On occasions when acknowledgment was not forthcoming, Riley would issue a stern reminder, questioning whether the Library valued his documents at all.
‘Riley regularly donated parcels of emphemeral items: ACTU business sheets, ALP leaflets, THC policy statements, DLP voting cards, May Day Commitee posters and single issues of union journals.’
Riley had earlier made donations to both the National Library in Canberra and the Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales. Some of these seem to duplicate the papers he gave to the State Library of Victoria, but others such as the Victorian branch records of the ALP and the Manufacturing Grocers’ Union, must have been carefully selected for the National Library on the basis of their national significance. The NLA now seems an odd choice, since it does not have a great strength in labour movement records; we must remember however that Riley's selection process was occurring many years before the Melbourne University Archives were established, and shortly before the Australian National University set up its Business and Labour Archive. It must also be said that the State Library of Victoria was not actively collecting labour movement records at that time either, although this field was later to become one of the Library's strengths.
Fred Riley was born in South Australia in 1886. His father, Fred Senior, was President of the Adelaide Trades and Labour Council and the Labor Party. Fred Junior left school when he was thirteen to work as a ‘billy boy and helper to a blacksmith’.1 Over the next twenty-three years he worked as a coal lumper, wharfie, trammie, shearer, miner, railway porter, builder's labourer, newspaper correspondent and finally union secretary.
Work took him all over the eastern states from Adelaide to Broken Hill to Brisbane. He stated proudly in his reminiscences published in Recorder that he joined the Australian Workers’ Union in 1904 and had never been out of a union since.2 As a member of the South Australian Socialist Party he became a practised public speaker, addressing S un-day crowds in the Adelaide Botanic Park.
His union and political activities saw him jailed, sacked from some jobs and banned from others. During World War I his public speaking against the war and conscription cost him his job in Adelaide; he accepted work in Melbourne as the Victorian Correspondent for the Brisbane Daily Standard, a Labor newspaper financed largely by the AWU.
In Melbourne, his anti-war work continued; he was a founding member of the Australian Peace Alliance and its secretary in 1916 and 1917. He spoke often on the Yarra Bank sharing the platform with other anti-conscriptionists like Adela Pankhurst. Bertha Walker writes in Solidarity Forever! that anti-conscriptionists were often attacked by soldiers as they spoke on the Yarra Bank or marched down Swanston Street past the Soldiers’ Club — ‘at the top of the stairs in the Socialist Hall Fred Riley stood guard over a large heap of blue metal which was kept as ammunition for defence against pursuing soldiers’.3 Riley was
a member of the Victorian Socialist Party throughout the war years.
After the war Riley worked on the wharves as a coal lumper and, as an executive member of the Waterside Workers Federation, was closely involved in negotiating a settlement to the nineteen-week strike by wharfies in 1919. In the same year he stood as the ALP candidate for Flinders in the federal election, losing to the National Party candidate and future prime minister, Stanley Bruce. Through the 1920s he stood several times for local government in Fitzroy. He was by then married to the former Mrs. A. Warburton who, according to the Socialist of 6 August 1920, was ‘well-known to the movement’.
Alice Warburton was indeed well-known to the movement. She had been secretary of the Women’ s Socialist League (a wing of the Victorian Socialist Party) throughout the anti-conscription campaigns. During the wharfies strike she became the chief organiser of the Women's and Children's Wharf Laborers’ Relief Committee. She was later appointed a special magistrate of the Children's Court and during the Depression worked for the Unemployed Girls’ Relief Fund.4
In 1921 the Federal Government held a Royal Commission into the basic wage, under Judge Piddington. Muriel Heagney and Fred Riley were the two investigators appointed by the union movement to gather evidence to support their claim for the basic wage. The following year Riley was coaxed into becoming Secretary of the Manufacturing Grocers’ Union, initially for a trial period of six months. He stayed for 39 years.
In 1923 Patrick Harford, artist and member of the Industrial Workers of the World, painted the ‘Yarra Bank meeting’, featuring Riley sharing the platform with Christian Jollie Smith who was a founding member of the Communist Party of Australia. By the early 1930s, Riley was President of the Trades Hall Council and Alice Riley was President of the ALP's Women's Central Organising Committee; they were quite distanced from the CPA. These were turbulent years for the labour movement with the Depression highlighting big divisions between the Labor Party-Trades Hall grouping and the CPA-Unemployed Workers Movement grouping, who considered the former to be reformists. May Day marches graphically illustrate this division: in 1931 and 1932 the THC and ALP speakers were heckled by the CPA and UWM revolutionaries in the crowd, but in 1932, after two separate marches to the Yarra Bank, the platform was stormed and several speakers, including Fred Riley, were punched and kicked. According to Charlie Fox, this was ‘the last straw for the “official labour movement”. It has never marched on May Day since.’5
Throughout the 1940s and early 1950s Riley's involvement with the ALP continued. He was a member of the State Executive, and its president in 1941–2. He gave weekly radio talks over the ALP-owned station 3KZ, often on topics related to the particular interests of his union, such as the need for government intervention in the meat, wheat and poultry industries. Other talks covered ALP conferences and Arbitration Commission decisions, and even such topical subjects as Melbourne's bid for the 1956 Olympics: ‘… when the fervour of the games has died and the little minded men have had their great spree the public may then realise the folly of spending so much to provide so little whilst there are thousands of sick people awaiting admission to public hospitals …’.6
Then early in 1954 he spoke over 3KZ of ‘the threat of Communist Party organisation within the working class movements’ and the important work of the Industrial groups formed within the ALP to wrest control of various unions back from the Communist Party. While acknowledging this struggle was bitter, he denied it was a sectarian one7 Riley was one of the two non-Catholics to remain on the old executive when it split about a year later, and within a few months he had been expelled from the ALP.8 He stood unsuccessfully as the Australian Labor Party (Anti Communist) candidate in the state elections the following month.
Riley remained committed to the DLP for the rest of his life, serving as Victorian president in 1960–61, and working on the executive until he died. Frank McManus (later to become a DLP senator) referred to Riley in an obituary as ‘a great and humanitarian worker for his fellow Australians’, ‘one of the pioneers who built the trade unions… of a kind no longer with us’.9 The Collection which bears his name is a small acknowledgment of his life's work.
Since his death the Library has added to his papers and documents building a collection which now spans 38 metres of files. The subject scope of the collection has also expanded: whereas Riley's own material was based firmly in the labour movement, items added since the 1970s reflect the range of activities organised outside trade unions and political parties, by environmentalists, feminists and peace activists.
The Collection is housed in the La Trobe Library. It is open to all members of the public. Material is accessible through the name of the issuing group and through its subject matter. Whilst attempts are made to collect from all points of view, the bias of the Collection is radical, reflecting the nature of the kinds of organisations that rely on publicity through leaflets and handbills. The Collection depends upon and welcomes donations from interested individuals and groups. Material can be forwarded to the Riley and Ephemera Collection, State Library of Victoria, 328 Swanston Street, Melbourne 3000.

One of the many voting leaflets from the Riley collection.


‘Biographical notes by Fred J. Riley’ Recorder: Newsletter of the Melbourne branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, No.65, p.3.




B. Walker, Solidarity forever! … a part story of the life and times of Percy Laidler — the first quarter of a century … National Press, Melbourne, 1972, pp. 114–115.


This information was kindly provided by Joy Damousi from her Ph.D. thesis, ‘Socialist women in Australia 1890–1918’, A.N.U., 1987.


Charlie Fox, ‘… and the fatman could take all the rest: May Day in Melbourne 1890–1987’ in May Day Exhibition Library Council of Victoria, Melbourne, 1988, p.8.


From files in Riley and Ephemera Collection, La Trobe Library, ‘Riley, Frederick John. Radio talks. 3KZ’, session no.73, 5 Feb. 1953.


ibid, session no. 185,27 Jan. 1954.


R. Murray, The split: Australian Labor in the fifties Hale & Iremonger, Sydney, 1984, p.216.


Herald, 1 April 1970, p.32.