No Sunlight Singing

Joe "Yorky" Walker, 1910 - 1971

Joe Walker

Joe Walker around 1960, from the dustjacket of No Sunlight Singing

Author's biography, from the dustjacket of No Sunlight Singing

Born in 1910 in Yorkshire—hence the nickname of 'Yorky' which has clung to him all around Australia. Arrived in Australia in 1928 with the depression hotfoot behind him. Has worked as jackeroo, station hand, drover, miner (silver, lead and gold mines); on buildings, on dam excavation, roads and railways; was a union secretary and editor of the Northern Territory's (at that time) only newspaper, a warfie and a ships' painter and docker; worked in a brewery, in a flour mill and a pottery; has been a barman, a storeman and a coremaker, and has crawled under houses, lifting and re-blocking them. In between times done a few jobs, carried the swag and jumped the rattler when things were not too good ...

The author of No Sunlight Singing based his novel on first-hand observation of the treatment of Aborigines in northern Australia, acquired during the years he spent living and working in the outback and Darwin. The biographical details from the book's dustjacket, reproduced on the right, give an idea of the varied life he led during that period.

During and after the Second World War, he was in Darwin. He experienced the Japanese bombing of the town and its aftermath. He became secretary of the North Australian Workers' Union and editor of the Northern Standard newspaper.

As a union leader, and later, he spoke out for Aboriginal rights. He wrote No Sunlight Singing in the hope of opening Australians' eyes to some of the cruel injustices perpetrated on the first Australians.

Early years

Childhood picture

Family photo from Harewood, 1914. Joe Walker is on the left.

Joseph Walker was born on 23 September 1910 in the Yorkshire village of Harewood. His parents were grocer's waggoner Alfred Walker and former domestic servant Agnes Walker, née Kitson.

He grew up in the West Riding of Yorkshire, and attended Ripon Grammar School in the 1920s. He did well at his studies, but chose to discontinue them, and set out in quest of adventure. In 1928, a few weeks short of his eighteenth birthday, he left home and set sail for Australia on the S.S. Benalla. He never saw England, or his family, again.

Through the years of the Depression, he eked out a living in the backblocks of the continent, surviving the hard times and harsh climatic conditions so graphically depicted in No Sunlight Singing. The name "Yorky" stuck to him, despite the mastery he acquired of the Australian vernacular — shown to good effect in the novel.

His views became increasingly radical. In later years he recalled a turning point in his life when, needing to lighten his load, he made an agonising decision about which single book he would keep in his possessions — The Bible or H.G. Wells' Outline of History. He kept Wells.

The outbreak of the Second World War found Yorky Walker living in Darwin, which would soon be in the front line of the conflict with Japan.


Darwin being bombed

Japanese bombs landing inland and along the foreshore of Darwin Harbour, February 1942.

(Public domain photo from Australian War Memorial collection.)

In 1940 Yorky Walker began working on the Darwin wharves. He was active in union affairs, and became chairman of the waterside section of the North Australian Workers' Union (NAWU). On 19 February 1942 Japanese forces carried out a major bombing attack on Darwin, killing over 200 people and sinking numerous ships in the harbour. Thanks to a last-minute rostering change, Yorky Walker's team was not on duty when the bombs started falling, quite possibly saving his life, as 22 wharfies died that day.

Yorky Walker's recollections of the bombing of Darwin appear in Australia's Pearl Harbour, Darwin, 1942 (1988), by journalist Douglas Lockwood, who describes Yorky as "a gruff but amiable communist who was as militant in fighting for the rights of workers as anyone had a right to be". (Yorky Walker made no secret of his communist politics, though it is not known whether he was ever a member of the Communist Party.)

Darwin bomb damage

Bomb crater and damaged house, Darwin February 1942.

(Public domain photo from Australian War Memorial collection.)

After the bombing, many civilians (and servicemen) fled south, expecting further attacks on the same scale, if not a Japanese invasion and occupation of the town. Yorky Walker was one of those who stayed in Darwin, and in the days following the bombing, he helped organise the provision of meals for civilians at a cafe, and compiled a list of unionists volunteering to work on the wharves (an offer that was not taken up — the wharves were manned by the military for the rest of the war).

Among those who left Darwin were most of the union leadership. Yorky Walker and the other two members of the union executive still in Darwin met and voted to suspend the union's operations, and its secretary, Mick Ryan, then in Tennant Creek. On hearing of this meeting, Ryan labeled Walker a "tropical anarchist".

The whole of the Northern Territory was soon under military control, and Yorky Walker was enrolled, along with thousands of workers shipped in from outside the Territory, in the Civil Constructional Corps (CCC), a body carrying out work in support of the war effort, under semi-military discipline. In 1943, he agreed to take up the job of NAWU secretary, but the authorities would not release him from the CCC, which had the power of "impressment".

Quotes from Yorky Walker's Union Circulars, 1944-45

[An acting magistrate] probably does not consider a sentence of four months in Alice Springs very severe, he himself has evinced a liking for Alice Springs ever since 19th. February, 1942. I have heard it queried whether a man who absented himself from his job in Darwin at the time of the Blitz is entitled to sit in judgement on absentees.

As I finish writing it is announced on the wireless that Japan is now prepared to surrender. That leaves only one friendly country yet to be liberated, the Northern Territory.

We regret to have to report that the people of the Territory are still lagging behind the 'backward' peoples of Indonesia and Indo-China, they have at least started in earnest their fight for liberty and democracy, while many Territorians are still dreaming pipe-dreams of a benevolent Government handing them these priceless gifts on a silver platter.

It is always well to remember what was the first recorded gift on a silver platter, the head of John the Baptist, and he was a battler for democracy. The 'powers-that-be' have one-track minds, and most of them still think the best ornaments for silver platters are the heads of battlers for democracy.

Anyway it all adds up to this, the bosses don't want union organization in the Territory, therefore we must need it, and the more they don't want it, the more we must need it.

The union's newspaper, the Northern Standard, had ceased publication, as the printing equipment had been taken over by the army. During 1944, while working in the CCC, Walker had access to a duplicator, and began issuing a series of circulars for Northern Territory workers, initially under the title Voice of the Exiles, and later, Territory Topics. The earlier title was a reference to the fact that most of the CCC men were conscripts from southern states. (Although he would write, in No Sunlight Singing, "in Darwin they all fancy themselves as exiles".) These bulletins carried no authorisation other than the signature "Yorky Walker", or, occasionally, simply "Yorky", and the author gave free rein to an idiosyncratic style of writing that combined egalitarianism, sarcasm, industrial militancy, literary and historical allusions and Australian slang, as in this passage:

The modern trend of thought amongst wage slaves is to consider themselves free agents when the wages cease to be paid, but the N.A. Railways evidently expect their employees to give 'The constant service of the antique world, when service sweat for duty not for meed.' ('Meed' meaning a spot of Oscar Asche).

You can't tell me there are no philanthropists left in the world as long as the N.A.R. can still get men to work as fettlers.

(The quote is from As You Like It. Oscar Asche is rhyming slang for cash, from the name of an Australian actor.) A few more extracts from these circulars are reproduced in the panel on the right.

In September 1944, facing a court charge of absenteeism resulting from his organising activities, Yorky Walker brought to a head his battle for the Minister for the Interior, Senator Collings, to release him from the CCC by issuing an open letter declaring that he resigned from the Corps, writing:

My stand is this, I am asked by the workers to do a job of work for them, Senator Collings says NO, I have to work for him. O.K. then, I say NO, if I can't work for the workers I refuse to work for Senator Collings.

I would rather eat burgoo and make big rocks into little ones...

If the workers of the Territory want union representation and the right to organize, there is no time like the present to say so.

For my part I will no longer work on a job where I can't have them.

While some other union officials felt this move was reckless, it was eventually successful. After a strike in support of the right to organise, Senator Collings agreed to release Yorky from the CCC and recognise the NAWU.

Yorky Walker in Darwin

Yorky Walker (with hand on hip) in front of the Darwin Workers' Club in 1946 or 1947.

(Photo from The Northern Territory’s One Big Union — see Further Reading for details).)

Yorky Walker was the secretary of the NAWU from November 1943 to October 1947. Once the war was ended, the union strove to resume normal operations, but Darwin remained under military rule for some time, and the union faced many material and bureaucratic obstacles. On the evening of 23 September 1945 (Walker's 35th birthday), the union held its first meeting in its own building since the Japanese attack. Members sat on the floor, relying on a truck's headlights for illumination. In the following months the union was able to resume publication of the weekly Northern Standard, the Northern Territory's only newspaper at that time. It also established the Darwin Workers' Club.

In December 1946 Yorky Walker married Bertha Laidler, who had recently come to Darwin to work in the union office. She had a solid left-wing background and had been a Communist Party activist in Australia and Britain. Offering her the job by letter, after she had been recommended by union contacts in Brisbane, Walker wrote, "Your work will be to organize this office. We can organize everything else in the Territory, but we need someone to organize the organizers, especially myself."

After the war, Aboriginal workers in the Northern Territory began demanding rights taken for granted by other workers, such as the right to money wages. A February 1947 strike by Aboriginal workers in Darwin was supported by the NAWU. The strike followed a conference on Aboriginal employment rights between Government officials and pastoralists, which had resulted in an "agreement" that the union argued was full of loopholes which would allow the continuation of semi-slavery conditions. During the public debate over this issue, Yorky Walker circulated accounts, based on reports from union organisers, of savage mistreatment of Aboriginals on cattle stations, similar to some of the brutality he would later depict in No Sunlight Singing.

At the northern end of the Northern Territory we have almost a sovietized State. The life of Darwin has been sovietized, and, if comrade Stalin decided to take it over to-morrow, all he would need to do would be to issue a commission of appointment to Mr. "Yorkie" Walker, the local union secretary, and send down a little ammunition for the first batch of executions of alleged Fascists like myself ...

Adair Blain, Federal Member for the Northern Territory

Hansard, 26 June 1946

Towards the end of 1947, with the NAWU once again a functioning workers' organisation, and an influential force in NT public life, Yorky Walker tendered his resignation as secretary. Soon afterwards, he and his wife left the Northern Territory.

For further information about the NAWU during the time of Yorky Walker's involvement, read Bernie Brian's thesis on the history of the union, The Northern Territory’s One Big Union (Chapters 7 and 8), and the reminiscences of Murray Norris, who succeeded Walker as union secretary, Rebuilding the North Australian Workers Union, 1942-1951 (both available online — see Further Reading for details). Both these accounts are full of colourful stories from those turbulent times.

After Darwin

Yorky Walker and family

Yorky Walker and family in Melbourne, early 1950s.

Around 1950, the Walkers moved to Melbourne, and were soon settled in suburban Coburg with a son, Alan.

In 1951, Yorky Walker was involved in the establishment of the Council for Aboriginal Rights (Victoria), which came into being initially in response to a strike at the Berrimah Aboriginal Reserve in Darwin, and in protest at the victimisation of strike leaders by the Government. Walker was one of the speakers at a protest meeting in the Melbourne Town Hall on 19 June 1951. Other speakers included Pastor Doug Nicholls and the writer Alan Marshall (after whom Walker's son had been named). According to an ASIO report in the National Archives, Walker attacked the exploitation of Aboriginal labour on Vestey's property at Wave Hill, N.T. and the use of native women throughout the Northern Territory for immoral purposes.

After working in a variety of jobs in Melbourne, he was employed as a technician by the Postmaster-General's Department, at the Moreland telephone exchange, where he remained until his death.

In the mid-1950s he completed writing the novel which would eventually be known as No Sunlight Singing, and then spent several years trying to get it published. A number of Australian and British publishers returned the manuscript. Eventually the work was accepted by Hutchinson of London, who published it in October 1960.

After the publication of No Sunlight Singing, Walker attempted a more popular work. The resulting novel, Y' Can't Win, was never published. He also developed an interest in sculpture, working mainly with concrete.

Yorky Walker in later life

Yorky Walker in 1969.

Although he did not play a leading role in any political organisation during the 1960s, he joined in many of the campaigns of the period, including the protests against the hanging of Ronald Ryan (the last person executed in Australia) in 1967, the gaoling of union leader Clarrie O'Shea in 1969 and the struggles over the Vietnam War and conscription, from the mid-1960s onwards.

Yorky Walker died in the Royal Melbourne Hospital on 19 January 1971, as a result of pancreatitis, and complications. A secular funeral service was addressed by members of the labour movement who had known him. An obituary notice in the communist newspaper Tribune on 3 February 1971 described him as "an uncompromising fighter for the worker and for racial equality."

No Sunlight Singing was reissued in a free online edition in 2010, fifty years after its first publication, and in the centenary year of the author's birth.

Further Reading

Bernie Brian: The Northern Territory’s One Big Union: The Rise and Fall of the North Australian Workers’ Union, 1911-1972, PhD thesis, 2001, Northern Territory University - available for download from

Murray Norris: Rebuilding the North Australian Workers Union, 1942-1951, a chapter in A few rough reds: Stories of rank and file organising, edited by Hal Alexander and Phil Griffiths, Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Canberra Region Branch, 2003 - available online at

Douglas Lockwood: Australia's Pearl Harbour, Darwin, 1942, Ian Drakeford Publishing, revised edition, 1988. (First published in 1966. Reissued in 2005 as Australia Under Attack: The Bombing of Darwin 1942.)