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12. Chapter XII. Incidents of the Big Strike.

CAPITALISTS are great believers in law and order so long as they can control its administration. Having so long held the ruling power in every country, they rush to coercion whenever the workers show a determined front. During the maritime strike they were very anxious in Sydney to find an excuse for having the military called out. There had been no interference with the procession of 10,000 unionists who marched through the streets of that city on 6th September, 1890. Everything passed off in an orderly manner. This good behaviour on the part of the strikers did not suit the employers.

The Trolly and Draymen had joined the strikers, and had refused to carry wool or goods to be handled by blacklegs on the steamships. A number of squatters and their friends therefore arranged to drive the teams themselves from Darling Harbor to Circular Quay. They laid their plans in such a way as would, they hoped, provoke a riot and provide an excuse for having the military called out. Those who took on the job were the Hon. W. Halliday, M.L.C., and Messrs. Vincent Dowling, Harry Graves, H. Doyle, H. C. White, W. Cope, H. Cunningham, Irving Winter, George Maiden, Solling, and Allister Lamb.

On Friday, 19th September, 1890, these valiant men, safely guarded by special constables and


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mounted police, paraded the streets of Sydney in a lengthy procession of teams loaded with bales of wool. When they reached Circular Quay there were 60 mounted police, 200 foot police, and 200 special constables on the spot, selected for the hoped-for riot. Mr. Nugent W. Brown was in waiting to read the Riot Act, and at a given signal he came forward and is alleged to have read it. It was not clear to listeners whether he was too drunk or too nervous to make understandable what he was trying to read. He had no sooner collapsed, however, than there was a rush made by the police, and those who, out of pure curiosity, were quietly looking on, were surprised at being suddenly hustled about and charged by the troopers. There was no riot nor semblance of one, in spite of the efforts to produce one.

Following this up, the employers by deputation waited upon Sir W. McMillan, who was Acting Premier during Sir Henry Parkes's illness. They urged that more extreme action should be taken by the Government, and that the military should be called out. Sir William was entirely sympathetic with them, and would certainly have had the military brought into requisition had not Sir Henry Parkes at once intervened and disclaimed all sympathy with the utterances and promises of McMillan. The latter was hit so hard that he sent in his resignation as a Minister. It was not, however, accepted.

An incident occurred at this time which is known only to a few, and is worth recording. A fine, strong-charactered member of one of the unions


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concerned felt annoyed at the very evident desire of the employers to use force, so he said to some of his mates:

“D— them, if they want a riot, let them have it.”

The P.U. members had publicly notified that on the Monday following they were going to take the wool to Circular Quay in spite of everything. Our friend practically accepted this challenge, and carefully and with the utmost secrecy picked out about 100 men upon whom he could rely, and all of whom had been drilled in connection with the volunteer movement. These men were to muster at 6 a.m. on the Monday at the spot where the wool teams were to start from. They were to arm themselves with a keen-edged knife each. The knife was to be used to hamstring the horses in the wool teams, and those of the troopers likewise. This was to be done on a given signal from the leader.

The plot was only found out by one of the officers of the Seamen's Union late on the Sunday night. He came to me with the information, and I took steps at once by getting together the executive heads of the various unions and arranging for a demonstration to be called for in the Domain so as to draw off the union men. I inserted advertisements in the newspapers accordingly, and at the same time the leader in the hamstringing movement was persuaded to call his men off the job.

Our move was successful, as on the Monday morning the streets were practically deserted when the procession of wool teams paraded the streets,


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escorted by specials and foot and mounted police as before. The specials, being in plain clothes, and marching next the teams and between uniformed constables, had the appearance of being prisoners on the way to a lock-up. Some of the big squatters again made a display of themselves by driving the teams. The cavalcade proved a source of amusement to the few onlookers, and the girls in upstairs workrooms had an especially good time jeering the “Johnnies” who acted as special constables by asking them what they were “in” for. The drivers this time were Messrs. J. L. Hayes, W. L. Thompson, C. Brown, H. M. Deakin, Byron Baily, W. C. Jones, S. F. Walker, H. A. Podmore, and M. McMahon.

The Sydney “Daily Telegraph” said of it: “The whole affair, as it passed solemnly out of the station and marched slowly along the wretchedly muddy thoroughfares leading into George Street, looked more like a section of a State funeral than a purely commercial or business operation.”

In the city of Melbourne there was not so much cause for excitement. The numbers affected were very much fewer, and owing to the difference in the topography of the two cities were much less congested than was the case in Sydney. Nevertheless, the Government of the day took the most extreme measures, and did what was calculated to promote disorder rather than to prevent it. A special meeting of the employers had been held in the Atheneum on the 26th August, 1890, when a very strong attack had been made upon the workers


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and charges of boycotting levelled against them. The Committee of Finance and Control decided to call a mass meeting for the afternoon of Sunday, 31st August. They applied for the use of the Friendly Societies' Gardens, which practically belonged to the workers. A member of the Government (Dr. Pearson) blocked them, however, as he had some power as President of the Board of Land and Works. The Committee then arranged for the use of Flinders Park, adjoining.

The mere announcement of the intention to hold a public meeting of Victorian citizens struck the Government with panic. A special meeting of the Cabinet was held on Friday, the 29th; proclamations were issued; Mr. Shuter, police magistrate, was commissioned to read the Riot Act; and orders were wired to the different centres to call out the Mounted Rifles, the Horse Artillery, the Cavalry, Permanent Artillery, and Victorian Rangers. The city was placarded with proclamations and copies of the Unlawful Assemblies Act.

By Saturday evening there were about 1000 military in barracks. On the evening of that day Colonel Tom Price formed the Mounted Rifles into a hollow square and addressed them as follows:—

“Men of the Mounted Rifles: One of your obligations imposes upon you the duty of resisting invasion by a foreign enemy, but you are also liable to be called upon to assist in preserving law and order in the Colony. This latter task is now asked of you in the event of circumstances requiring your aid. Should the necessity arise, I have no fear that you will do your duty like men and soldiers.




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I do not think that your aid will be required; but if it is, let there be no half measures in what you do. To do your work faintly would be a grave mistake. If it has to be done, let it be done effectively. You will each be supplied with forty rounds of ammunition and leaden bullets, and if the order is given to fire don't let me see one rifle pointed up in the air. Fire low and lay them out—lay the disturbers of law and order out, so that the duty will not again have to be performed. Let it be a lesson to them. Treat any comment that may be levelled at you in the street with the silent contempt which it deserves. Don't lose your heads or your tempers. That you will do your duty faithfully and well I am sure of.”

Next morning the men were paraded in Victoria Barracks for divine service, and the blessing of the God of Battle invoked to help a set of warlike armed citizens to lay out another set of peaceful and unarmed citizens who dared to attend a public meeting. If certain statements made to me by members of the Mounted Rifles were true, it was a lucky thing for Colonel Price that he did not get a chance to give the order to “fire low and lay them out.” Knowing that a moving crowd is more orderly and more under restraint when in procession, the Committee of Finance and Control had intended to march from the rendezvous at the Burke and Wills Monument in Spring Street. The authorities, however, prohibited a procession, so we simply strolled along to the Park.

There was an immense gathering of 60,000 people—men, women, and children—well-dressed,


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orderly, and peaceful, but intensely interested in the utterances of the several speakers. A slight shower fell during the proceedings, calling up umbrellas, but not one person moved away. The vast sea of faces, as seen from our raised platform, was something to remember. Mr. W. T. Carter, M.L.A., occupied the chair.

Mr. (now Senator) Trenwith moved, and Mr. T. Porter, of Ballarat, seconded the first resolution, as follows:—

“That this meeting desires to express its indignation at the action of a section of the employers of labor throughout Australasia who, by their unjust and arbitrary action, have precipitated an industrial crisis which must necessarily entail a large amount of suffering and inconvenience on the entire community.”

The second resolution was moved by the late John Hancock, and seconded by myself:—“That this meeting expresses its surprise that the members of the Employers' Union, at their meeting at the Atheneum, should have declaimed so vigorously against the principle of the boycott, in face of the fact that they practise it daily.”

A third resolution pledging support, and a fourth conveying thanks to the workers of Britain, were also carried unanimously and amidst much enthusiasm and the waving of the British and Australian flags crossed.

Public feeling was at fever heat, but again it was proved that the best outlet for excitement is the right of free speech and public meeting—that the right to voice their grievances is the safety


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valve of the English-speaking race. Any interference is resented strongly.

The late John Hancock and myself had been specially asked to deal with the question of the boycott. We had such a fund of facts and details of typical cases showing how systematically and cruelly the employers had always used it, that we silenced the other side and turned public opinion against them. From that day to this they have not had a word to say about the boycott. It was one of those occasions where, by means of the press, public opinion was affected, and many previously adverse to union methods modified their views. Meetings similar in aim were held in the country towns afterwards, so that the attitude of the unionists could be placed before the people.

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