The Defiant Anti-conscriptionist by Helen Hennessy and Patricia Booth

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

Gawler is a small town on the Adelaide plain, on the main road to the vineyards of the Barossa Valley. As the oldest country town in Australia, it was still very much a frontier settlement when Harry Coombe was born in 1859, his parents having met and married in the district a few years earlier. Among his many achievements, Harry went on to write a history of the town in 1908, by which time it was a thriving commercial and population centre.

Ephraim Henry (“Harry”) Coombe was a very busy man throughout his life. Apart from a wife and children and eventually grandchildren, he was a business man and parliamentarian, in touch with the heart of life in Gawler. This biography is a meticulously detailed chronicle of his entire life, which alone would give it pride of place in Gawler’s  local history annals.

Yet the theme that provides a more universal appeal, is the way in which his strong and principled stand on anti-conscription during WW1 not only damaged his standing in public, but culminated in two court trials and ultimately a conviction. Despite never having questioned his country’s support for the war, he was labelled as a coward and a traitor.  Before the war ended, he collapsed and died while speaking at a public rally.

Harry proved adept at so many things – storekeeper, journalist, historian, editor, to name a few. Allied to his ability to make friends and business contacts, he seemed destined for a future full of promise. But he did not take the easy route. Advocacy of controversial principles like women’s suffrage and anti-conscription took him inevitably into political battles, where only one side can win. When a good and capable person enters politics, there is a certain inevitability because,  “Politics is such a dirty game, you got a heart they make it bleed” (Graham Lowndes’ song, “Loser”).

Coombe was forced to leave his hometown during the war in the face of political in-fighting and after his death in Adelaide “it took many years for a fulsome and lasting memorial to be raised, and then not in his hometown of Gawler” [p.141]. This book is a belated endeavour to “bring to the attention of a larger audience the life and times of Harry Coombe” (p.ix). Helen Hennessy and Patricia Booth have crafted a book that is authoritative in its content while offering a perspective on the character of the man. No, not a historical giant, but a person of laudable values and a willingness to fight for them.

“Helen Hennessy ….devote[s] her time to researching and writing history. In 2019 she was awarded the title of South Australian Regional Historian by the History Council of South Australia.

“Patricia Booth is the great-granddaughter of E.H. Coombe and she spent her early years with his second son James Bright and his wife, Alma (nee Sauer)…… Even as a child, it was obvious to her that her great-grandfather’s tragic death had changed the course of her grandfather’s life”.

The Defiant Anti-conscriptionist. The curious life of Ephraim Henry Coombe

(January 2023)

by Helen Hennessy and Patricia Booth

Wakefield Press

ISBN: 978 174305 961 6

$34.95 (paperback); 320pp

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