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Henry Leigh (Harry) Denford (1887–1968)

by Susan Saunders

This article was published:

Henry Leigh Dustin (‘Harry’) Denford (1887-1968) tramway employee, trade union official, Communist and Socialist activist

Birth: 4 May 1887 at Kent Town, South Australia, son of native-born George Denford (1854-1894), manager of Myrtle Springs cattle station, and Alice Eliza Chasney, née Pratt (c.1866-1949), born in Norfolk, England. Marriage: 27 January 1917 at St Peters church, St Peters, New South Wales, to Alice Maude Frese (1891-1966), a tailoress. They had a daughter and a son. Death: 6 September 1968 at Bankstown, NSW. 

  • Started work on the Adelaide trams aged 12½. At 14 was dismissed for trying to organise a strike by the conductors to demand higher wages.
  • 1904 at Renmark, SA, worked as farm labourer. From June 1905 to December 1906 tramped through South Australia and Darling District. Worked as shearer and doing station work while, at every job he recruited for the Australian Workers’ Union.
  • Whilst working in a railway construction gang in the Ninety-mile desert he was sacked for helping to organise a strike for the right to travel to and from work in the bosses' time.
  • Returned to Adelaide. In 1907 went to Port Pirie, where he worked on wharves and led the unemployed. Started work at Port Pirie Smelting Works on the directions of Labor Bureau.
  • Became an active member of the Barrier Branch of Amalgamated Miners’ Association at Broken Hill. In 1909 — during the five months of the Broken Hill lockout — was placed in charge of his shift in the picket line. When he resumed work Broken Hill Pty Co. blacklisted him. Blacklist caused him to be sacked from his job before he had received a full pay.
  • Returned to Adelaide in July 1909, and became Secretary of Adelaide Socialist Group where he led a demonstration, against the government, by the unemployed. Took work on sewerage construction. Became prominent in United Laborers Union (ULU) and helped to make it “the most militant union South Australia has ever known".
  • 1910 delegate for Socialist Federation of Australia. Attended conferences in Sydney and Melbourne. Toured Queensland with swag and in the company of F. J. Riley. Held meetings in every large town from Brisbane to Mt Morgan. Sometimes having to fight police and councils for the right to speak. At Mt Morgan, found the mine and smelter workers unorganised — Denford and Riley formed a union to cover all workers. This union eventually linked up with the Australian Workers Union.
  • 1911 suggested formation of a branch of the Industrial Workers of the World and became first Secretary of Sydney Branch. Harry left this organisation because he disagreed with their ban on members who belonged to trade unions and socialist parties.
  • In 1912 was a member of the International Socialist Party, then secretary of Australian Socialist Party (ASP).
  • Became union delegate on Adelaide Labor Council, but was expelled for opposing a motion of sympathy on the death of King Edward VII. ULU threatened to withdraw from the Labor Council and withdraw its' support from Labor Press, for the attacks made on him, unless his expulsion was lifted. Labor Press sent a written apology and the expulsion was lifted.
  • To Sydney, found work as trimmer and joined Coal Lumpers Union. Became General Secretary of ASP. Obtained a job as tram conductor — helped to abolish casual work on tramways, by obtaining a 96 hour fortnight for all casual conductors. Organiser of the Amalgamated Railway & Tramway Association.
  • 1916 elected vice-president of Tramway Union & its delegate to Sydney Labor Council. He was one of the first on Labor Council to raise question of fight against conscription. Left ASP joined Social Democratic League & then Socialist Labor Party. Jailed five times in the free speech campaign. Dismissed from Tramways as a result of 1917 strike.
  • Joined Federated Ironworkers. Elected to Labor Council as its union representative. Became Vice Pres of Ironworkers Union then member of the Labor Council Executive.
  • 1915-1917 member International Socialist. 1917 alternative executive member of Australian Labor Party. Member Political Labor League of NSW. 1918 member Australian Workers’ Union. Member of Executive ALP. Expelled from ALP. 1919 member United Laborers Protective Society of NSW.
  • 1920 Foundation member of Communist Party of Australia. 1920-25 — member of Central Executive of CPA and editor in chief of the party’s official journals. 1921 honorary secretary of Newtown branch of the CPA. 1922 general secretary and Treasurer of CPA. Sacked by Sydney Steel Company for being member of the Council of Action (communist concern).
  • 1923 in Melbourne. Editor of Workers Weekly and party secretary. Branch delegate Sydney Labor Council. Member of ALP while General secretary of Communist Party. "During his term of office as the Communist Secretary he showed his quality and viewpoint to the full. He was the instrument by which decrees from Moscow were accepted."
  • 1924 elected Sydney branch secretary of Federated Ironworkers Assoc. He was the only communist to hold an important trade union position outside the NSW Labor Council. 1926 left CPA (when Jock Garden was expelled.) 1927 Communist candidate for Botany in NSW State election. Joined ALP and lost links with Communist Party. 1928 organiser Ironworkers Union. Worked there until 1942.
  • 1942-1952 consumer representative for Milk Board. 1949. Trustee NSW ALP. At 80 years of age Harry was still making headlines. His attempt to send a telegram to the then Labor leader, Mr Calwell describing Vice-marshall Ky "as an Asian ratbag dictator", made the daily newspapers.

Photo and profile, Workers Weekly (Sydney), 8 May 1925, p 1; John Arthur Merritt, History of the Federated Ironworkers’ Association of Australia, PhD thesis, Australian National University, 1967; Malcolm Henry Ellis, The Garden Path, (Sydney, 1949); Stuart Macintyre, The Reds: The Communist Party of Australia from origins to illegality (Sydney, 1998), pp 91 and 96; information from Susan Saunders, née Denford, 2003.

Additional Resources

  • profile, Workers' Weekly (Sydney), 8 May 1925, p 1

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Susan Saunders, 'Denford, Henry Leigh (Harry) (1887–1968)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 18 July 2024.

© Copyright People Australia, 2012