Page 1: Biography
Journalist, socialist, racist, newspaper editor, militarist
This biography, written by Paul Goldstone, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.
William Lane was born at Bristol, England, on 6 September 1861, the son of Caroline Hall and her husband, James Lane, a gardener. William attended Bristol Grammar School, leaving at 14 to work as a clerk. He also showed an early interest in politics and journalism; the young William Lane was strongly conservative. At 16 he emigrated to Canada where he worked as a compositor on various newspapers. By 1881 he had become a reporter. On 22 July 1883 Lane married Annie Mary Errington Macguire at Algonac, Michigan; they were to have eight daughters and three sons.
In 1885 the Lanes moved to Brisbane, Australia, where William worked as a freelance writer. He quickly established himself as a leading radical writer, passionately advocating socialism and republicanism. In 1887 he and Alfred Walker founded the Boomerang, in which he wrote a virulently racist series entitled 'White or yellow? A story of the race-war of A.D. 1908'. In 1890 he sold his share in the Boomerang to Gresley Lukin, and became editor of the Worker, the first union-supported co-operative newspaper in Australia. He was now possibly the most influential labour writer in Australia.
In 1889 Lane was the leading figure in the formation of the Australian Labour Federation. His radicalism earned him the label of 'the arch-conspirator' from his opponents, but to his supporters he was 'a magnetic pioneer of Communism'. He was involved in the Queensland shearers' strike of 1891; following its defeat, he showed little confidence in the political labour movement, and became increasingly interested in utopian socialism. In 1892 he wrote The workingman's paradise, a romantic novel which eulogised the mateship of the working class.
In 1891 William Lane formed the New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association, with the intention of founding a utopian communist settlement. According to Lane, it would 'prove to the world that Communism is a practicable system of society' and be the foundations of a powerful communist state. Land in Paraguay was acquired, a ship bought, and in 1893 Lane and 220 other colonists sailed to found the New Australia commune. Lane's autocratic and even fanatical behaviour soon led to a schism. Less than a year later he and about 60 other settlers left New Australia and founded a new commune, called Cosme. However, Lane's vision of a sober, racially pure commune was to prove just as unattainable at Cosme. It was as a 'broken-hearted, disillusioned man' that he left Paraguay with his family in August 1899.
Lane's bitter disillusionment caused him to repudiate most of what he had once struggled for. He made a brief and unhappy return to Australia as editor of the Sydney Worker, where his ardent imperialist sympathies alienated his associates. In May 1900 he took up an appointment as leader writer with one of New Zealand's conservative newspapers, the New Zealand Herald. Written under the pseudonym 'Tohunga', Lane's sentimental and patriotic articles proved popular. Much of his writing was apocalyptic in tone and revealed an obsession with racial purity, religion and war; Lane argued that 'War is the natural, that is, the Divine process by which the inhuman is rooted out and the human given room to expand.'
By 1906 Lane, along with many other imperialists, was becoming increasingly anxious at the rapid expansion of German and Japanese power. In August 1906, with the support of W. B. Leyland, he formed the National League of New Zealand, later renamed the National Defence League of New Zealand. Its aim was the introduction of compulsory military training. Lane was the driving force behind the NDL as its honorary secretary and editor of its journal, Defence. He was a master of scaremongering, berating New Zealanders for being 'worthless and…unfit', and raising fears of 'the unnameable horrors of Asiatic hordes'. By 1908 the NDL had over 6,600 members, mostly in the Auckland area, and the support of most leading politicians, the main newspapers, church leaders and soldiers. Partly as a result of its campaign the government passed the Defence Act 1909, which introduced compulsory military training. The NDL went into abeyance in 1910, its task completed.
Lane continued to write in favour of compulsory military training and warn of the imminent danger of Asia, as well as urging the formation of a local navy. As an advocate of eugenics, he opposed breeding by the 'unfit'. He attacked the New Zealand Federation of Labour, describing its members as 'designing agitators, largely foreign and wholly incapable'. In October 1913 he became editor of the New Zealand Herald.
William Lane was an effective propagandist during the First World War. He warned of the terrible danger to civilisation posed by German 'Kultur', his anti-German rhetoric reaching a peak in mid 1915 with lurid stories of German 'frightfulness'. As the war dragged on, Lane's tone changed, optimistic predictions of easy victory giving way to appeals for greater and greater sacrifices.
On 26 August 1917 William Lane died at Auckland after a brief illness, survived by his wife and six of their children. He was a small, intense, bespectacled man, who walked with a limp caused by a deformed right foot. A leading militarist, he was an important shaper of public opinion in the years before and during the First World War.