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17. Chapter XVII. Catching “Scabs.”

THE first organized effort to introduce “scabs” into the West of New South Wales was in 1891. Mr. Nutting, of Fort Bourke Station, was in charge of them. About seventy members of the Shearers' Union met them. They formed two lines between which the “scabs” were to pass, and it was agreed that moral suasion was to be used as they passed along to where they were to cross the river; but it was understood that in any case they were not to cross over to the station, which was about four miles down the river on the opposite side.

At that time there were twelve cabs in Bourke, and eleven owners out of the twelve had volunteered to give a hand in carting away the swags of those who consented to join the unionists. The unionist began by carrying the swag of the man he was interviewing, but ere he had gone far he passed it into the cab in anticipation of his success. Before the crowd had got half way to the river bank the unionists had been largely added to, and very soon the “scabs” and unionists were all mixed up together, and some lively work was put in, the cabs being kept busy carting away swags and “scabs” as well.

Finality was reached when the leader and his remaining “scabs” reached the river crossing. At the entrance to the punt, Mr. Nutting suddenly drew


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a pick-handle from under his coat and raised it to strike a unionist. But it did not reach the head it was intended for, as a blow from someone's fist came straight on the point of Mr. Nutting's jaw, and he went down unconscious and was counted out. When he fell, a revolver fully loaded fell out of his pocket. The “scabs” were all marched into camp. There were six constables on the ground, but they had enough sense not to interfere, and perhaps saw no occasion to do so.

Mostly the alleged capture and forcible abduction of “free men,” as the press usually put it, was in reality carried out in such a way that moral suasion was not exceeded. One case of a reported shooting is worth mentioning. The unionists wanted to get the “scabs” to leave a station called Ti-Tree, and had such a long ride to get there that their horses were knocked up or nearly so. Mr. Head, of Waterloo Station, showed his sympathy with them by lending them a full supply of horses, although he knew what game they were up to. They arrived at Ti-Tree, and whilst on their way to the hut to interview the “scabs” a shot was fired—no one knew by whom, but it is believed that it was by some constable. One of the unionists, who was previously noticed as being all of a tremble, fell down when the shot was fired out of sheer nervous fright. The man was reported in next day's press as having been shot.

It was often the way things were done that made for success without risk of being arrested for breaking the law. In 1889 there was a big camp of unionists at Walcha, N.S.W. One day it was known


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that a large number of “scabs” were to be brought through on coaches. There was a considerable body of police in the town under an inspector, and when the coaches were coming these were ranged up on each side of the road, the unionists crowding closely behind their backs.

A well-known character amongst the unionists— by name Ryan—squeezed his way inside the ranks of the police without being interfered with. Ryan was a big, powerful man, very strong in the arms, and so simple and good-natured that he was a general favorite. The coach containing the “scabs” was cunningly driven close behind the mail coach, with the view of deceiving the unionists. The squatters in charge of the “scabs” depended on the police for getting safely through, but the crowd became so great that the coaches had to stop in the centre of the two lines. No sooner had the coach stopped than Ryan calmly lifted the scabs out one by one, just as you would lift down a child, saying at the same time to the police:

“We won't hurt 'em; but they must come out, you know.”

No sooner had the surprised scab landed on the ground than he was hustled out amongst the unionists and lost. He was so bewildered at what had happened to him that he gave no trouble. In less time than it takes to tell it the coaches were empty. Before the coaches had arrived, a young constable, fresh from Sydney, drew his revolver and presented it at Ryan, saying “That is my weapon,” and ordered Ryan to retire. The latter coolly put his clenched fist alongside the muzzle of the revolver


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and said, “And that is my weapon.” The inspector at once ordered the constable to put away his weapon, and threatened to send him back to the city should he dare do such a thing again without orders. This incident probably gave Ryan more freedom than he might otherwise have had, as it made all hands laugh at the constable. In all, about thirty “scabs” were lifted out, and the man who had engaged them lost his money and his men.

In that same camp there was a man who carefully picked his men, and numbered each, he being “Number One.” When wanted, they would rendezvous in a quiet spot with covered faces, and in the dark proceed under the leadership of “Number One” to some hut in the neighborhood and rouse out the “scabs.” They had more than one narrow escape. On opening the door on one occasion, the constable stationed in the hut fired at random, but fortunately missed. The police tried hard to capture “Number One,” but he was smuggled away by one of the union organizers who had got wind of the danger, and was never arrested. His use of numbers was to avoid the men knowing the names of those concerned in each little raid.

Ryan's coolness with the constable reminds me of the raid made in the Queensland bush in 1891. A number of union men were peacefully sleeping in the open, sheltered by some scrub, when just at daybreak they were surrounded by a big body of police, who, levelling their rifles at the sleeping unionists, called upon them to surrender. One of the sleepers, who was nearest to the muzzles of the rifles, when awakened raised himself to his elbow


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and calmly opened his shirt front at the breast, at the same time telling the police to “Shoot away, you blanky blanks.”

In 1889 Mr. Wills-Allen, of Gunnible Station, near Gunnedah, N.S.W., made a great pretence of being anxious to effect a settlement between the Shearers' Union and the Pastoralists. He agreed to arrange for a conference between the pastoralists of his district and the A.S.U. on a date fixed. The date was for a Saturday, and accordingly the secretary of the local branch (Mr. T. Williams) and myself went to Gunnedah to meet Mr. Wills-Allen and his friends. We held a meeting the night before in the local hall. Gunnible was shearing with “scabs,” and there was a union camp alongside of the Namoi River, just across the bridge from the town.

With great parade of friendliness to the union, Mr. Wills-Allen had allowed his “scabs” to come on the Friday night to attend my meeting. About one-half his hands came in. They did not, however, turn up at bell-ring next morning. No special notice was taken until after breakfast, when on inquiry Mr. Wills-Allen found they had not come home at all. He had met us, but did so alone, and his real game was to get permission to “cut out” that year without interference, on condition that some agreement was arrived at for the future. He was very suave and very polished in his interview with us on the Friday, but it was a very different man who came in next day to complain of his men having been kept in the camp. I of course pointed out they were there of their own free will, and would not be detained if they wanted to go. He


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had seen them already, and they had declined to leave camp. He threatened all sorts of things, and wired to the Chief Commissioner of Police.

Meantime, whilst he was fuming in Gunnedah and complaining to me about the unionists' action, a posse from the camp went to Gunnible—which, by the way, was nine miles out—and captured all the rest of his men. The same Ryan before referred to was one of the leaders in that raid. When the gentleman who was trying to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds got home that night, he found that he had no “scabs” at all. The night before, as a visitor to the homestead was crossing the bridge over the river, he was accosted by Ryan, who was on picket duty, and was asked if he were a shearer. Almost at once, Ryan saw that he was not a worker at all, so he was allowed to pass. Ryan was arrested for it, but got off when the case was tried.

The capture of the Gunnible “scabs” was so cleverly accomplished that, whilst I, as President of the Union was giving orders that no man was to be kept in camp against his will, I could not help wishing that none would get away, even if some degree of pressure had to be used to retain them.

At Emu Creek, near Walcha, a strong log hut which was loop-holed for defence purposes, still stands. The owner was one of the many squatters who bitterly fought the Union, and in 1889 he armed his “scabs” and kept them in the hut ready for attack. He himself marched around on sentry all night, and caught such a cold that it led to his death.

Photograph facing p.216. Bicycle Corps, Strike Camp, Coonamble, 1902.






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As I have elsewhere shown, the shearers' strikes were carried out very much in military style, except that arms were not used. In 1891 a message came to Bourke, N.S.W., from St. George, Queensland, asking for volunteers in the shape of some good unionists to give the “boys” in Queensland a hand. One of the first to volunteer was a young man who stands inches over six feet in height—by name Donald Macdonell—whose Highland strain in blood, as well as his staunch union principle, made him eager for the fray. About a dozen others joined him; and, mounting their steeds, they rode away over the border, three hundred miles to do ere they reached the St. George camp. On the way they picked up other volunteers, and arrived about twenty strong.

One of the first jobs allotted the new contingent was to interview the “scabs” at Noondoo Station. As the police were about and on the watch, they had to take a roundabout course, but finally, by riding straight across country—cutting the wire fences where they met them—they got close to the place they sought. After making their horses safe, they waited till midnight ere they approached the hut containing the “scabs.” One or two of the unionists knew the place, and every detail of the interior of the hut. It was known that one of the “scabs” was a big, powerful man, and a great bully, who always slept with a revolver under his pillow, so our tall friend Donald, and another giant named Driscoll, who happened to know where the bully slept, were to be the first to rush the hut, so


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that they could safely disarm him. The raid was made at midnight, when they rushed the bully's bed, but it was empty!

Word had been sent to Noondoo, so that day the manager had sworn in seventeen special constables; and no sooner did he hear of the arrival of the unionists than he read the Riot Act. No notice was taken of his doing so, however, and a general argument followed, lasting until daylight, and resulting in the “scabs” being morally suaded to leave with the unionists. This made the party a very strong one, probably fifty or sixty at least. They rode away towards Doondi, another station belonging to the same owners. They were unaware that shearing was actually in progress, but as the first of the cavalcade was riding along the road, they came across two men who were passing just then, and on inquiry learned that shearing had begun. They at once made for the shed and invaded the hut, some of the “scabs” from Noondoo being the roughest in dealing with the Doondi “scabs.”

One man was sitting on the table quietly cutting an apple with his pocket knife. As he had nothing to say, big Jack Driscoll, one of the unionist leaders, put his hand on his arm to urge him to say what he was going to do, when the man suddenly made a dash at Driscoll with the knife, and actually drew blood, in spite of his efforts to dodge it. In a few seconds the man was removed from the table and landed outside, considerably knocked about. One of the converts from Noondoo lifted a nail-can and bashed the apple-eater on the head with it, cutting him severely.




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Amongst those in the hut was a constable in plain clothes. He was there in order to identify men afterwards. Having cleared these two stations of “scabs,” the party returned to St. George. They were camped there when word came out that the police were going to make a raid on the camp on the Monday morning following. A number of the active spirits who knew they were wanted left before daylight to go and look for their horses.

Our friend Macdonell did not, however, though he had been one of the most prominent in speech as well as in action. He lay in his tent asleep when the raid was made. On being awakened by the noise he sat up, and was just about to put on his trousers when the fly of the tent was thrown open, and the inspector, together with the constable who had been at Doondi in plain clothes, looked in. The constable was asked by the inspector if he recognised “this man.” The constable, after looking at him, said he did not; so the fly was closed, and Donald Macdonell escaped at least three months' imprisonment. Had he been dressed and stood up, his height would have put him away, as he and Driscoll were the tallest men in the crowd. Donald Macdonell, who was later secretary of the Bourke Branch of the A.W.U., and is now General Secretary and a member of the State Parliament of New South Wales, claims ever since his escape that sleeping-in has its advantages sometimes.

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