Social reformer and journalist.
A new biography of Lane, William appears in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography on this site.
William Lane was born in Bristol on 6 September 1861. His father, a converted Protestant Irishman, was a gardener. Lane was educated at the Bristol Grammar School. At the age of 16 he went off to western Canada, where he worked as a compositor and later as a journalist. He married at the age of 21 and, in 1885, left for Brisbane to join his brothers. His experiences in North America had converted Lane to socialism. In Brisbane he worked on the Courier and Evening Observer until, in 1887, he established his own weekly paper, the Boomerang. Lane quickly became a power in Queensland Labour politics. He helped to form a Labour Federation; he raised funds for the London dockers' strike of 1889; and was active in the maritime and shearers' strikes of 1890–91. In March 1890 Lane sold the Boomerang and founded the Worker, which bore the motto “Socialism in Our Time”. A novel, The Working-man's Paradise, which he wrote under the pseudonym of John Miller, was published in 1892.
The defeat of the strikes convinced Lane that neither political nor industrial action could bring about socialism. His mind turned towards the establishment of a socialist community in some far-away country. Friends were sent to South America to look for suitable land. The New Australia Cooperative Settlement Association was formed, a ship was purchased and fitted out and, on 17 July 1893, Lane and his followers left Sydney on the Royal Tar for Paraguay, where the colony of New Australia was to be established. A number of New Zealanders were among Lane's colonists. Sir George Grey and Professor Bickerton sent messages of encouragement to New Australia. But already on the voyage out disagreements arose. At Christmas 1893 there was an upheaval when Lane expelled three men for getting drunk. His despotic behaviour as leader of the colony split the settlers into rival factions and, in 1894, he was forced to resign. With 45 adults and 12 children, Lane left New Australia for another part of Paraguay, where he established a second socialist community, called Cosme. After great hardships, conditions there slowly improved. Lane went to England in 1896 to recruit more colonists, particularly single women, but in August 1899 he resigned for good and left for England and, later, New Zealand. Within a few years Cosme ceased to function as a communal settlement.
The New Zealand Herald offered Lane employment as a leader writer but in January 1900 he left for Sydney to become editor of the new Worker published by the New South Wales Labour Council. His changed views, as shown in his support for the war in South Africa, quickly led to disagreements with his colleagues. In May, he resigned and returned to Auckland and the Herald. But the collapse of the New Australia and Cosme experiments had broken Lane's spirit. For the rest of his life he paid off the debts of Cosme but never spoke about his experiences there. “He passed”, says his biographer, “into the silence of the petit-bourgeois life of Auckland, New Zealand.” His weekly articles in the Herald, which he wrote under the pen name of Tohunga (a selection of these writings was published in 1917), showed his ability as a journalist and his mastery of the English language, but in content they were far removed from his fiery revolutionary writings of the nineties. In October 1913 Lane became editor of the New Zealand Herald. He had helped to found the National Defence League in 1906 and, on the outbreak of war, he took a great interest in soldiers' welfare and the Returned Soldiers' Association. He died in Auckland on 26 August 1917.
Frail, short sighted, and slightly lame from birth, Lane was an absolute idealist. It was his personal tragedy that he should have led the Australian Socialist movement into the blind alley of utopian colonies in South America.
by Herbert Otto Roth, B.A., DIP.N.Z.L.S., Deputy Librarian, University of Auckland.
William Lane and the Australian Labour Movement, Ross, L. (1937); Hail Tomorrow – a play in four acts, Palmer, V. (1947).