P R Stephensen

P R Stephensen
P R Stephensen in Sydney circa 1934. Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/P._R._Stephensen (accessed 1 March 2021).

The most prominent of the members of the Australia First Movement to spend time behind bars was Percy Reginald (‘Inky’) Stephensen. Born in Maryborough in 1901, during his students years at the University of Queensland Stephensen became acquainted with a number of left-wing radical figures and then joined the Communist Party of Australia. He maintained his beliefs though his studies at The Queen’s College Oxford, to the extent that university authorities threatened him with expulsion because of his communist agitation.

In Britain and then back in Australia from 1932, Stephensen pursued a career in publishing while continuing to express his political views.  However, in the mid-1930s those views took a leap to the far right. The radical nationalism which Stephensen now espoused took on anti-British, anti-democratic and anti-Semitic elements. He also began to give voice to his admiration for Japan, which would eventually lead to his internment after Japanese entry into the war. He and other members of the Australia First Movement were accused of plotting to facilitate a Japanese invasion. Stephensen for his part maintained his innocence and blamed Attorney-General H V Evatt for his internment. Evatt, in Stephensen’s opinion, was too closely aligned to communist interests who resented Stephensen’s nationalist turn.

The internment of Stephensen and others provoked a great controversy in Australia, as such a treatment of ‘natural born’ Australians on the basis of their political views was regarded in some quarters as an infringement of human rights. While other Australia First internees were released, Stephensen remained behind barbed wire in Tatura.

At one point he wrote to his good friend Frank Clune: ‘I have sought not only release, but release with honour, which means full exoneration, and compensation for 3 ¼ years of ignominy. If the Judge’s report is adverse to me (which I do not expect) the consequences for me would be awful. If, however, the Report is favourable, I shall probably live quietly for awhile, away from cities, to recover from the ordeal which I have endured.’[1]

He was to be sorely disappointed. From the time of his initial internment on 11 March 1942, and after stints in Liverpool, Loveday and Tatura, he was not finally released until 17 August 1945, two days after the war in the Pacific ended.


While interned Stephensen wrote the following poem under the title ‘Barbwire Hallade’:


Outside the sentries come and go.

With surly tread day follows day;

And we, like zoo-beasts shut in, know

That nothing we can do or say

Will mitigate the captors’ sway.

Our lives are dimmed, our hopes are damp,

And vengeance sleeps on beds of hay

Within this concentration camp.


Time passes, like a tale of woe

Told with a stammerer’s delay.

Weeks walk with heavy boots and slow

And some internees curse, some pray,

Some scheme, some fear, some grind for fray

Like angry kangaroos at bay

Within this concentration camp.



NAA: D1901, S3164 STEPHENSON [sic] Percy Reginald [other persons noted as associates Cecil Murray and Reginald Hartley Thiele, Hugo Theodor Eime S3119, Carl Heinrch Brixner N1649, Rudolf Voss V2172, Karl Schober R36761, Fred J Xaver Scheyer V2189, Walter Krapkat Q272, Johan Heinrich SchmitzQ285, Robert Neilsen Q276 Karl Jurk Q136, RE Giovanni Q30312, Frank Clune, Alexander Mortimer N1506, Edward Cunningham Quicke W4100, John Thomas Kirtley N1638, Thomas H Gilhooley W4107. A poem Barbwire hallade is quoted]


Fitzpatrick, Georgina, ‘Inky Stephensen’s Internment Experience in Australia: Letters to his wife (1942-45), Eras, 9 (November 2007), http://arts.monash.edu.au/publications/eras/edition-9/final-pdf-versions/fitzpatrick-article.pdf

Peter Monteath, Captured Lives: Australia’s Wartime Internment Camps, Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2018.

Craig Munro, 'Stephensen, Percy Reginald (1901–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/stephensen-percy-reginald-8645/text15115, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 7 October 2016.

Craig Munro, Inky Stephensen: Wild Man of Letters, Brisbane: University of Queensland Press, 1992.

Barbara Winter, Dreaming of a national socialist Australia : the Australia-First Movement, Brisbane: Interactive Publications, 2007.

[1] Stephensen to Clune 26 June 1945, in Frank Clune Papers , NLA, Bib ID 1603388