Dealing with scabs in the shearers’ strike
Burning the Rodney



Violent class conflict is invariably portrayed as alien to the "Australian way of life". The common consensus is that while in countries like Indonesia, China, Argentina or even the United States violent conflict may be understandable (if nonetheless regrettable), there is no place for it in "the lucky country". The use of force we are told is only supported by small groups of extremists who are disowned by the great majority of "decent" workers. Who can forget John Howard’s vehement denunciation of the 1996 storming of Parliament House as "un-Australian"? A mantra taken up by every media outlet in the country. The same cry was regurgitated in the Murdoch and Fairfax press to denounce the militant protests that played such a vital role in derailing Pauline Hanson’s racist bandwagon.

It is not just the Liberals and their supporters in the media that share this outlook. ALP and ACTU leaders rushed to dissociate themselves from the Parliament House "riot" and union officials even offered to dob in their members to police. These attitudes filter down to rank and file workers. So that when the management of the Gordonstone mine in Queensland in 1997 hired security guards to intimidate workers this was portrayed as bringing outrageous "American" industrial relations practices to Australia. Similarly, the training of mercenaries in Dubai to take on the Maritime Union and the subsequent use of balaclavaed security guards armed with attack dogs and mace to drive wharfies off the docks in 1998 was proclaimed as "unprecedented" in Australian industrial relations.

Yet there is a very long history of state violence against strikers in Australia. Waterfront workers, in particular, have repeatedly been on the receiving end from the military, police and right wing militias and there is no shortage of union martyrs killed by these strike breaking forces. The reality is that without actual and threatened violent repression it is inconceivable that capitalism could be maintained. Coercion is not only crucial as a means of exercising power; it diminishes resistance by inducing feelings of powerlessness and resignation.

Even the most cursory glance at Australian history reveals a litany of riots, baton charges, shoot outs, bashings of scabs, the violent breaking up of meetings, arson, police killings of strikers, the setting up of street barricades, sabotage, drilling by armed militias, the suppression of dissent by the state and the repeated use of the army to crush strikes. Virtually every serious workers’ struggle over the last 150 years was marked by such clashes – from the 1873 Clunes miners’ riot, to the great strikes of the 1890s, the 1917 NSW General Strike, the bitter struggles of the Depression years (with police shootings of waterfront strikers and of coal miners at Rothbury where two were killed and 40 wounded), Chifley’s use of troops against the 1949 coal strike, the 1975 Kerr Coup, the NSW BLF’s "vigilantes" who destroyed scab building work, the 1982 storming of the Melbourne Club by the unemployed, state suppression of the BLF, the Hawke government’s use of the RAAF to crush the pilots’ strike and more recently of course Patrick’s assault on the wharfies. The Parliament House "rioters" and the Dubai mercenaries are both part of a very long tradition.

Labour historians have documented many of these struggles. However, there has been a marked tendency to either understate the extent of violence, treat it as an aberration or dismiss it as the work of extremist minorities. Left wing historians have highlighted the use of state violence against workers but tend to be embarrassed by workers’ use of force. Workers’ violence is nearly always portrayed, even by sympathetic historians, as unfortunate, as spontaneous and poorly planned, as a product of workers being forced into a desperate corner. When workers hold back from violence, even after being attacked by police, their restraint is portrayed as a virtue. Even defensive violence is presented as being counterproductive and serving to discredit the workers’ cause – the result of a few "hot heads" getting out of control. Union leaders are commended for attempts to control their members from resorting to "extreme" measures.

Very rarely is it acknowledge that there has at times been mass support for the use of force and that it helped win important gains – whether it be the Eureka Stockade that ushered in major democratic reforms (and was massively popular on the goldfields and in Melbourne), the militant and disruptive tactics which were a key part of the successful World War I anti-conscription campaigns, the widespread use of grass fires and the burning of woolsheds which were important in victorious shearing disputes from the 1880s to the 1950s, the street battles which helped to halt the growth of fascism in the 1930s, the militant protests that spearheaded opposition to the Vietnam War and the central role of militant picketing, occupations of work sites and the tarring and feathering of scabs in maintaining innumerable strikes.

It is far from the case that all working class violence was spur of the moment or ill-planned. There are a number of cases where workers carefully weighed up the balance of forces and coldly calculated that only the well co-ordinated use of force had any hope of pushing back their enemies.

One of the ironies of the demonisation of violence by strikers as "un-Australian" is that so much of the imagery associated with Australian nationalism centres around the bush worker. For well over a hundred years whether it was the poems of Henry Lawson or Banjo Patterson, the paintings of Tom Roberts or Waltzing Matilda they have been portrayed as the archetypal Australians, the stuff of legends. Yet it was these very bush workers that have been the most prone to violence in their recurring struggles with wealthy pastoralists.

The 1894 shearers’ strike was one of Australia’s most violent industrial conflicts. This would be conceded by most historians who have studied the strike. However the violence is commonly portrayed as pointless – the odds were overwhelmingly against the shearers and there was no way that they could win. There is no doubting the desperate circumstances confronting the shearers: a co-ordinated attack by the state and the pastoralists at a time when scab labour was plentiful due to horrific levels of unemployment. Yet the scale of the militant resistance mounted by the shearers prevented the authorities and the pastoralists from having it all their own way. The outcome of the strike was far from a clear-cut victory for the shearers. However, the inspiring and sustained resistance they mounted meant that they did not suffer a total rout. Fighting very much against the odds they managed to inflict severe wounds on the pastoralists, which gave them pause to think. The following years were hard going for the shearers. Nevertheless, they were able to sustain their union and working conditions more successfully than most urban workers, for whom the defeats of the 1890s proved catastrophic.

Many of the violent clashes during the 1894 strike were "spontaneous". However, on a number of important occasions the shearers executed bold, well-planned attacks on pastoral properties or scabs that completely outwitted the police and the graziers. One of the most successful of the shearers’ actions was the burning of the riverboat, the Rodney, which was transporting scabs up the Darling River.

Militant rank and file actions like the burning of the Rodney did more to build the labour movement than the polite negotiations of union officials or the humbug of Labor MPs. Yet despite the 1894 strike being one of the most militant in Australia, no serious account of it has been published. The burning of the Rodney is mentioned in passing as some quaint or shocking incident in innumerable books but almost invariably the authors get even the most basic facts of the story wrong.

This is the first attempt to return to the primary sources and to try to separate fact from legend. For if historians have neglected the burning of the Rodney the legend has not died. On its centenary in 1994, according to locals, 5-600 people gathered near Pooncarie, a tiny hamlet in outback NSW, for a re-enactment and a stone memorial was erected on the banks of the Darling near where the Rodney sank. So far from the memory being obliterated as shockingly "un-Australia" even in the conservative bush this high point of militancy is still remembered as an inspiring part of working class history.

Burning and sinking

"Undoubtedly the most hideous of the many revolting crimes that distinguished the shearers’ strike of 1894"

By August 1894 the shearers’ camps along the lower Darling were in ferment. The strikers were well organised and had begun to assert their control over all movements along the river. Armed unionists, with widespread sympathy from the local population, had imposed a form of workers’ control over much of the area. There were numerous clashes with police. Near Moorara station a "sharp engagement" took place between union shearers "armed with half shears on long poles" and "the armed police". According to one eye witness, if at times a somewhat hysterical and right wing one, the Hon J Langdon Parsons, a South Australian MP:

The state of affairs at Tolarno is distinctly serious, and unless the Government act with promptitude and determination, bloodshed and practical revolution are imminent. The free laborers [scabs] who were landed at the station...[were protected] by first three, now by nine, policemen...there is a camp of unionists variously estimated at from 300 to 400 men.

All travellers up and down the river on whatever errand bound – work, business or pleasure – are stopped, escorted into the camp, questioned, and detained. An arsenal of bottles, whole or broken has been established on the bank, to be hurled at any marked steamer...The centres are kept advised from Wentworth of all steamers coming up the river with free laborers.

While according to Gwenda Painter:

steamers travelling along the Darling were attacked by bottles, stones and firesticks, a policy of self-defence was advised, not reliance on control of shearers by troopers. Coach drivers were advised to use arms, masters to protect their steamers by armour plates and squatters to turn their stations into forts and to safeguard themselves and their property by guns and ammunition.

Meanwhile the Rodney, a side paddle steamer of about 175 tons, was being made ready at the Victorian Murray River port of Echuca to transport 45 scabs up to Tolarno together with a barge laden with merchandise for Wilcannia. The Rodney, owned by the forwarding agents Permewan, Wright and Co and built at a cost of 5000 pounds (and unfortunately for them not fully insured), was probably the fastest and most powerful steamer engaged in the river trade. Its master, Captain Jimmy Dickson, notorious for transporting scabs in previous strikes, was reviled by unionists. The Rodney, however, was not the only steamer to carry scab labour or police to be used against strikers. In 1892 Captain Wolter, master of the Pilot, carried thirty-one police from Bourke to Wilcannia to "restore order". While the Pilot, Fairy and Florence Annie were engaged in the scab trade in 1894. Shearers from the union camp at Nelyancho station assailed the Florence Annie "with stones, bricks, glass bottles and all kinds of missiles. The lady passengers were terror stricken."

According to Langdon Parsons the initial plan to seize the Rodney was for a party of shearers to "lie in ambush near a wood pile, where it is known that the Rodney will a given signal the 40 men are to run from their concealment and seize...the 40" scabs. Other accounts list numerous schemes supposedly hatched by unionists to deal with the scab shipment. Sandra Maiden states:

Captain Bob Grundy was tied up with the steamer Tolarno at Polia station and the union men tried to pursuade[sic] him to block the path of the Rodney with one of his barges, but Grundy...refused...The shearers then decided to cut long lengths of fencing wire which they strung across the river as a trap for the oncoming steamer; the wire was tied to trees on either side, which the shearers had sawn half way through so that they would fall onto the boat as she put pressure upon the unseen wire.

A Broken Hill Age report of 30 August states "Rumors...arose that a barge had been sunk in the channel a few miles upstream from Moorara bend." The History of Pooncarie and District claims:

The Fairy [a steamer] was at Moorara...Station owner Charles Wreford and two others removed the firebox to prevent shearers from using the Fairy to blockade...the Rodney...[However] Polia shearers were able to position a barge across the river."

The Rodney arrived at Echuca in early August with a load of wool from the Murrumbidgee and rumours swept the large local shearers’ camp that its next cargo would be scabs. Only a week before at Echuca 45 scabs were unloaded from the Bendigo train onto the Pride bound for Lake Victoria station. When the Melbourne train arrived, with its windows heavily boarded, strikers were waiting at the railway station, but the train went straight through to the wharf. According to Ian Mudie:

The strikers raced after it, but, forgetting that the wharf had been built in storeys to accommodate boats according to the height of the river, they rushed the top level, and so missed the strike-breakers, who were hurriedly boarding the Rodney from a lower stage...Dickson wheeled his steamer out from the wharf under a hail of stones...

As they sailed up the Murray according to WG Spence’s colourful account: "At Swan Hill...there was a camp of Union men, and as the Rodney steamed past the ‘scabs’ hooted...They were very brave when out of danger..." Before Wentworth they met Captain Charlie Cantwell of the steamer Trafalgar on his way back from delivering a cargo of scabs. Cantwell reported that he had come through a barrage from unionists on the riverbank and the boat still carried an assortment of bricks, clubs, road metal and broken glass missiles hurled on board.

Cantwell warned Captain Dickson to expect Dickson sought police protection from Wentworth. However, the local magistrate was not sympathetic...and no police protection was given; Dickson also approached the police at Pooncarie, but met with the same result. At Moorara station the manager hailed Dickson and warned him that at Polia... there was a strong protest group organised to stop the Rodney. Dickson steamed on, all men at the alert for the least sign of trouble or movement along the river banks.

Bobbie Hardy states that "A friendly hail from the river bank warned him that the unionists had strung a wire entanglement across the river, and rather than come upon it in the dark he tied up for the night." She also claims a lack of police support for Dickson: "Alerted that the unionists at Polia were lying in wait he tried unavailingly to obtain help from the local constabulary..." However the Riverine Herald report contradicts this claim "The captain was strongly advised not to proceed that night as the police had been communicated with, and would be at the Polia shed to quell any disturbance on Sunday."

According to Mudie the Rodney’s "unique-sounding engine, recognizable far off" let the strikers know she was coming well in advance. At 9am on Saturday 25 August the Rodney passed Pooncarie, where the strikers camped there groaned loudly in derision. The steamer arrived at Syme’s woodpile that evening and took in sufficient wood for a ninety-mile dash to Tolarno. The Rodney steamed a mile further on and Dickson moored the boat for the night in a swamp 23 miles above Pooncarie and a few miles above Moorara shearing shed. The spot was surrounded by swamps and creeks, making it difficult for anyone to approach the steamer. But, unfortunately for Dickson, it was just across the river from Polia station where there was a large and militant shearers’ camp. According to The Riverine Herald:

Extra precautions were taken, full steam being kept on, while four watchmen guarded the barge and vessel all night. The barge, being well out in the stream, was not tied to a tree as is usual. Everything was made ready for a moment’s start, should the occasion arise...The night being cloudy, the watchmen kept a sharp look-out.

The Broken Hill Age was more sceptical on this score declaring that the watch "does not appear to have exercised much vigilance". In the early hours of Sunday morning (3am according to the Crown evidence) dark figures waded out of the gloom of the overhanging trees. By the time the watchman heard their approach and gave his warning it was too late. The unionists boarded the steamer, rushed to the wheelhouse, and dragged out the captain. One of the unionists took the wheel. The scabs were hustled from below, and driven over the side. The unionists rounded up the ordinary passengers and crew and set them adrift on the barge. The scabs’ swags were thrown over board and their owners forced at gunpoint to wade across to a small island. Finally the cargo of chaff in the hold was soaked with kerosene and set alight. As the flames rose, the shearers gave three cheers for Polia station. The burning boat then drifted downstream for several hours, scorching the gum trees as she went and sank in shallow water. The remains of the Rodney can be seen to this day at a low river about 8km downstream of Polia homestead. The stone monument erected by locals for the centenary celebration in 1994 among the river gums on the bank of the Darling marks the spot when the river hides the remains.

Captain Dickson claimed that on hearing the watchman’s warning he "sprang into the wheelhouse and endeavored to go full speed astern. At the same moment his fireman, who was untying the rope which held the steamer...was accosted by armed men who said they would blow his brains out if he touched the ropes." Accounts sympathetic to the shearers however, downplay the extent of violence against the crew or even the scabs.

Exactly how many men were involved in the attack is unclear. According to Dickson about 30 men initially boarded the Rodney and in total there was about 150 involved. Virtually all accounts agree that the unionists had camouflaged themselves by covering their faces with mud, while the Broken Hill Age claims the shearers "had been numbered, and addressed each other by their numbers". According to The Riverine Herald many of the assailants were in boats,

The first lot of men, after ill-treating the captain, held him whilst another lot numbering about 150, who worked in gangs, ousted the free labourers forcibly...Another gang pillaged the boat of everything portable, whilst a third gang poured kerosene on the steamer from stern to stern, saturating a quantity of chaff in the fore and after holds.

Everything being ready, the signal was given "All hands ashore". The steamer was immediately fired from both sides. The captain was released, and he had much difficulty in escaping. Seeing that it was impossible to scuttle the steamer, he made for the dinghy, which fortunately was at the stern of the steamer. Having such a large quantity of inflammable material aboard, the Rodney was soon burning fiercely. The captain made for the barge, where the crew...were located. The mob did not interfere with the barge, which drifted down to Moorara station, where the crew were taken off...

When the mob left the Rodney, the men scattered in all directions, leaving the free labourers on a small island till daylight. The Rodney burned furiously for several hours, drifting about the river from bank to bank and finally sinking. The free labourers reached Pooncarie on Sunday night, and are now camped with the unionists. The captain states that owing to the darkness and the miscreants being disguised, he is unable to identify any of them...A reward of 100 pound is offered...for information which will lead to the conviction of those concerned...A free pardon is offered to anyone informing on an accomplice.

Broken Hill working class leader George Dale praised the ingenuity of the unionists:

Whoever was responsible for this "job" had gone about it in a rather neat manner and had defied the vigilance of Detective Roach, and all his hordes of police and spies. According to the Crown witnesses the men after firing the boat marched away in a body, to the accompaniment of a concertina, playing the then popular air, "After the Ball is Over".

Virtually all accounts sympathetic to the shearers, such as The Bitter Fight, highlight this touch of bravado – marching off to the strains of "After the Ball is Over." In thumbing their nose at authority in this culminating defiant gesture the shearers added to the legend that soon came to surround this successful night.

The only detailed description of the attack on the Rodney from the shearers’ perspective is WG Spence’s highly romanticised account written years later, by which time the legend had overtaken actual events. Though containing numerous factual errors it nonetheless provides invaluable evidence as to how the shearers and their supporters viewed the events.

A number of men borrowed a boat from higher up the river, and quietly carried it on their shoulders along the river bank, out of sight of the watchman. With muffled oars they pulled across the river. Originally about twenty five men had agreed to join in the capture, but only about a dozen really did the work. Some of those who backed out wanted to batten down the "scabs" under the hatches and burn them, but the leaders refused to hear of any such terrible vengeance.

The men who formed the boarding party turned all their clothing inside out, and covered face, head, hair and clothes with mud until recognition was impossible...they waded through the mud-swamp to the side of the tied-up boat. The watchman on his beat soon saw a muddy head appear over the side of the steamer. He gave the alarm to captain Dickson, who cursed him because he had not tomahawked the head. The captain rushed aft and tackled the first man he met. This happened to be a good lightweight boxer, and science told, though he admitted that the captain was a tough snag.

The forty "scabs" who had been so bold at Swan Hill, played a different tune now. Roused out of sleep, they evidently thought their end had come. They fell on their knees and begged for mercy...Two of those who had boarded the boat were below on a hunt for more "scabs". They had finished their search, when "the means to do ill deeds", in the shape of many tins of oil and other inflammable material, caused one to remark suddenly to the other:

What say if we burn the blanky boat?

No sooner said then done. Quickly the reeds in the swamp glistened with the shimmer of flame; the water, the bank and the big eucalyptus trees reflected the unwonted glare; whilst on the river bank, opposite the burning Rodney, sat a young man with a concertina playing, "After the Ball is Over".

There was but one idea in the minds of the men at the start, and that was to capture the non-Unionists. The party had no hand in the burning, though the law would have held them responsible if it had caught them. One of the proprietors of the steamer admitted to me that, excepting for the loss of trade incurred before she could be replaced, the burning of the Rodney inflicted no injury, as she was covered by insurance. As it turned out, the insurance company refused to pay. The firm tried to induce the NSW Government to pay for the steamer. They did not succeed in the move however.

Amongst the men arrested...was a staunch unionist named Syd. Robertson [Sid Robinson]. He was a fine fellow, and the police could not find a pair of handcuffs which could close on his wrists, so they put him in hobbles and chained him to other prisoners. Apparently the police have not forgotten him, as they "ran him in" again when they made the recent attack on the peaceful citizens of Broken Hill.

The lead up to the strike

The 1880s saw the rapid growth of the union movement. Far from Australia being "a working man’s paradise" as it is often depicted, it was a time of contraction of opportunities for working class advancement. This fuelled increased radicalism and militancy. By the end of the decade the prospect of a showdown between an increasingly assertive labour movement and a capitalist class determined to reassert its authority in the workplace was very much in the air. The onset of a severe Depression at the start of the 1890s ushered in years of desperate struggle.

The initial crunch came with the 1890 Maritime Strike – easily the most far-reaching, long lasting and bitterly fought explosion of class struggle experienced till then in Australia. While the 50,000 Australian and 10,000 New Zealand workers who took part in the strike were defeated, it was far from the humiliating rout that it is often presented as being. In its immediate aftermath the unions continued to grow and a militant spirit was maintained. It was the deepening of the horrendous Depression with unemployment reaching perhaps 30% that led to a profound setback for the union movement.

Despite increased urbanisation and the rapid expansion of manufacturing industry between 1860 and 1890, the pastoral industry remained the largest single sector of the economy. Wool provided almost two-thirds of export earnings in 1890. This gave the shearing workforce and the transport workers that serviced the industry a pivotal role in the labour movement. In 1890 it is estimated 56,000 shearers and shedhands were employed in Australia. The proportion of workers employed in the pastoral industry and agriculture in NSW had declined from 34% of the labour force in 1871 but it still employed 21% in 1891. Australia-wide it was the largest employer – almost a quarter of the workforce in 1891. Moreover by the standards of the time, when the average factory in Victoria, the main manufacturing colony, only employed 17.6 persons, the shearing sheds were large and technologically advanced workplaces. In western NSW and outback Queensland, where the workforce was most proletarianised and union organisation strongest, shearing sheds could directly employ from 60 to over 250 shearers, rouseabouts, wool pressers, wool classers, cooks, mechanics and boiler operators at the peak of the season.

The Amalgamated Shearers Union (ASU), which covered shearers in all colonies except Queensland, emerged from the 1890 Maritime Strike with its funds deplenished and its membership reduced. The following year Queensland shearers were defeated in a bitter and violent strike against pastoralists’ plans to impose "freedom of contract" (scab labour). The pastoral unions were bloodied but they were far from destroyed. Wages and conditions had not been severely undermined. Indeed some Queensland pastoralists considered that 1891 had been almost a pyrrhic victory. They had to pay large sums to the pastoralists’ fighting fund and in many cases suffered losses through property damage and poor shearing. Given this outcome pastoralists outside Queensland hesitated about sharply cutting wages.

But as the Depression dragged on the ruling class went on the offensive driving down wages and conditions and breaking union after union. In 1892 Broken Hill mine owners repudiated their agreement with the union. Police were massed in the town and strike leaders jailed for seditious conspiracy. The miners went down to a severe defeat – wages were slashed and contract work re-introduced. In 1893 a seamen’s strike, which saw 150 workers arrested for picketing and assault, failed to prevent wage cuts.

In Melbourne and Sydney unions suffered harsh reverses. Unemployment reached unheard of levels even in many skilled trades – in 1898 half the Bakers Union membership was unemployed. The unskilled urban unions that had emerged in the late 1880s collapsed. Even craft unions were severely affected, some disappearing. In Sydney in 1893 the Stonemasons Union was crushed after a defensive strike to push back the relentless assault on wages. The Sydney Trades and Labour Council declined drastically. Even the relatively strong Seamen’s Union, by July 1894 the TLC’s largest remaining affiliate, saw its membership plunge from 2,000 to only 400. In 1896 after a three-month strike coal miners were starved into submission and forced to accept a further wage cut.

While the shearers’ unions were battered and bruised they weathered the early years of the Depression better than most. 1894 was to be the year they faced the onslaught. The 1891 shearing agreement stipulated that no changes were to be made to conditions and wages without negotiations. However in 1894, denying it until the last minute, the pastoralists moved to unilaterally cut wages and undermine conditions. The bosses’ assault provoked a bitter, defensive strike centred in NSW and Queensland. With their backs to the wall as the pastoralists enrolled abundant scab labour, the shearers fought a heroic battle to salvage some of the gains they had won in the 1880s.

Already in 1893 a number of pastoralists had cut shearing rates. By the end of 1893 wool prices in London had fallen to their lowest point since 1886. In November 1893 the Federal Council of the pastoralists decided to cut shearing rates and refuse a conference with the ASU. Shearing rates were to be cut between 10 and 17% and conditions severely undermined. Only in the western division of NSW and in central and western Queensland were rates unaltered. It was decided to keep the rate cut secret from the ASU until 20 March 1894. However some cash strapped pastoralists opposed the cuts. They were worried that an all out strike would be disastrous for their perilous financial position. Queensland Darling Downs pastoralists who were to be the first cab off the rank with the new rates refused to enforce them.

The prevarication in the ranks of the pastoralists was overcome at a special meeting in early April 1894, where a slightly modified version of the cuts was unanimously endorsed. A new clause 8 was added to the shearing agreement that gave total power to the employer over work arrangements, most provocatively over when sheep were declared "wet". In May 1894 the executive of the newly formed Australian Workers Union (AWU) – the ASU and the General Labourers Union which covered shedhands had amalgamated in February – issued a manifesto urging members to stand by the 1891 agreement. Even the moderate shearers’ leader, WG Spence, declared that "moral ’suasion was all humbug" and invoking the spirit of Eureka declared it was time to give capitalism a "lick in the lug". Spence acknowledged that "those who condemn strikes are generally strong upholders of things as they can only make capitalism think of or look at you at all by hitting it in the pocket".

The strike initially came to a head in Queensland where the union jumped to the defence of shedhands – demanding their wages be returned to 30 shillings a week. On 20 June, the secretaries of the three Amalgamated Workers Union of Queensland (AWUQ) branches, who according to RJ and RA Sullivan were under the leadership of "hard-core radicals", issued a manifesto urging members not to work under the pastoralists’ terms. There was some unease amongst the rank and file about all out confrontation but by 4 July shearers were demanding the 1891 agreement on Oondooroo station near Winton and within the next week there were boycotts and picketing throughout western and central Queensland.

By June after futile attempts by union officials to have the dispute arbitrated all out confrontation became inevitable in NSW as well. By August, when the bulk of the NSW central division sheds were to commence, the strike was on in earnest. In the western district strike camps were set up "at Torrowingee, Mordern, Grassmere, Tolarno, Pooncarie, Wilcannia and other places, for the purposes of keeping the members together and supplying them with food. Each day hordes of blacklegs were being dumped into the district; some came by train, via Adelaide, others came up or down the river by boat."

The course of the strike

The fact that the strike started later in the year than in the 1891 strike gave the unions some initial advantage, as they could not be starved back to work before the main part of the season commenced. However the desperate economic circumstances made scabbing a much greater problem. Thirty-seven people were officially reported to have died from starvation in Queensland alone in 1893; many more took their own lives or turned to prostitution or crime to avoid that fate. Whereas few unionists had scabbed in 1891, these harsh conditions encouraged many to do so in 1894.

Nevertheless Merritt argues: "The oversupplied labour market was a two-edged weapon; it gave the pastoralists...the opportunity to find shearers but it also helped produce the stubborn resistance that threatened their property and their shearings". Moreover there was considerable support for the strikers amongst the rural population. "In Wilcannia, Bourke, Walgett, Parkes, Hay and in many Victorian towns...the strikers won considerable support". Many business people feared the impact on local economies of the lowered shearing rate. Consequently the Wilcannia Council urged the Government to enforce a conference to settle the strike.

The AWUQ was the first to abandon the strike. On 10 September the Longreach branch conceded defeat: "we have not gained one shed belonging to the Pastoralists’ Association". This provoked a rank and file revolt against the radical branch officials, who were denounced as sellouts. Mass meetings at the main strike camps, including Winton and Tangorin, refused to accept the decision, and the branch secretary Bill Kewley was forced to declare the strike on again. The officials had to work hard to turn around the rank and file sentiment to fight to the bitter end. On 22 September, the Longreach and Hughenden branches made a joint recommendation for a return to work. The officials of the Charleville branch were not happy, but had little choice but to follow suit. The Hughenden branch called off its strike on 26 September. Charleville followed on 30 September. "The Hughenden executive put on a bold face and claimed that its members had done well (they had won five sheds) and were prepared to fight another day. But there could be no doubt that the AWUQ had been defeated."

In NSW things were very different. By early September, the right wing Broken Hill Age, which was solidly on the side of the pastoralists and initially confident the shearers would be routed, had completely changed its tune: "The shearing strike continues, and seems every day to be as far as ever from a satisfactory settlement". 150,000 sheep were reported to have been removed at great cost from the Wilcannia district unshorn because of the strike. It called for the union camps to "be forcibly disbanded as unlawful conspiracies and standing menaces to the peace of the community." The Pastoralists’ Review acknowledged that pastoralists were experiencing "great difficulty...through the interference of unionists" and that their operations progressed "tardily" or were at times brought to "a complete standstill." Much of the scab labour proved extremely inefficient. However, when shearing shifted to the eastern division the strike began to peter out. One shearer from Scone said the blacklegs could be readily identified as selectors "while the men who have nothing but their labour are holding out manfully".

In Victoria and South Australia there were a few disturbances, but nothing comparable with those in NSW. Numerous strike camps were set up in the Western District of Victoria from late September. The AWU did not officially call off the strike and in early November was still asking other unions for assistance. "Not since 1888 had conflict been so widespread and so prolonged." According to the official police estimate 16,000 workers gathered in strike camps in NSW alone. While the annual report of the Inspector General of Police declared half of NSW "disturbed districts".This clearly refutes the assessment of earlier historians, such as Brian Fitzpatrick, who described the strike as "ineffectual".

Violence and repression

The forces of the state intervened massively on the side of the pastoralists. A huge force of police was mobilised to intimidate strikers, guard shearing sheds and protect scabs. Police were stationed on innumerable properties and were used to convey scabs all over the country. In a typical case Sub-inspector Saunders and 35 troopers escorted 73 scabs from Sydney to Dunumbral where "200 men galloped up shouting and yelling like fiends, but they were surprised by confronting 35 troopers arranged in military style."

The government offered special rewards for the arrest of strikers and bounties to informers. Hundreds of unionists were imprisoned, usually for a few months, for "intimidating" scabs. Seventy-four were arrested near Wilcannia for participating in a strike camp, which a judge ruled, was an "unlawful assembly". Buckley and Wheelwright claim: "This particular shearers’ strike was marked by more violence than any previous dispute, with 175 people being arrested in New South Wales alone". A typical incident occurred in mid-August at Kallara station near Bourke:

The shearers who had refused to work, were camped upon the station to the number of 30, and during the night made an attempt to burn down the woolshed...they failed, but later on they rallied and made an effort to burn the shearers and laborers huts. The police were powerless until orders were given to fire.

According to a contemporary writer, Broken Hill working class militant George Dale: "hundreds of police were distributed throughout this western district, the Darling River, from Bourke to Wentworth, being practically overrun...arresting the Unionists on the most flimsy of pretexts." On Sunday 26 August there occurred

the fracas at Grassmere Station, about forty miles from Wilcannia...With the object of inducing the "free laborers" to join forces with the Unionists, some eighty men marched from the Wilcannia Union camp...the officer in charge...refused them the right of conversing with the "free laborers"...and fired a revolver shot...with a view of sounding the alarm to other constables camped in the woolshed...

This caused consternation, not only amongst the Unionists but amongst the blacklegs within their hut. Thinking that the shot had come from the men’s hut...a rush was made for the door, which was soon down. The first Unionist to pass in at the open door was poor Billy McLean, who was immediately shot down; Jack Murphy followed, only to meet a like fate.

Desiring to protect their wounded from arrest, the men slowly retreated...six constables followed...discharging their revolvers...this continued for some two hundred yards, during which time several arrests were made...Eight men in all were arrested and charged with riot...

Assault and riot were common charges during the strike, with some of those convicted receiving up to five years’ gaol. Of the 175 "apprehensions" listed in the annual report of the NSW Inspector General of Police nearly a half were for riot and riotous behaviour. A large proportion of the other "apprehensions" was for serious offences: arson, malicious damage, assault, obstructing persons following their lawful occupations. Violent confrontations were however nothing new in shearing disputes. According to Markey: the years for which statistics are available it seems that feloniously killing or wounding livestock and setting fire to crops may have been manifestations of industrial conflict in the late 1880s and 1890s. The peak annual number of charges for these offences, thirty five and nine respectively, occurred in 1887 when the Shearers’ Union was attempting to establish itself.

The novelist Joseph Furphy described NSW pastoral society as "despotism tempered by Bryant and May" (the match manufacturers). While the "hymn" of the Queensland shearers ran:

May the Lord above – send down a dove
With wings as sharp as razors –
To cut the throats of bloody scabs –
Who cut down poor men’s wages.


The famous "Brooking Station Riot" occurred near Wagga Wagga in 1888 when shearers invaded the scabs’ huts, brushed aside police on guard and abducted the scabs, who were held hostage for eight days in the strikers’ camp. Nine shearers received gaol sentences of one to three years for riot and assault. In 1891 52 scabs were captured by strikers at Dunlop station and held prisoner in the strike camp. Forcible government intervention to crush strikes was also a well established practice, especially on the coal fields where troops and cannon were sent during strikes in 1880, 1885, 1888, 1890 and 1896. During 1890, 3000 special constables were enrolled in NSW alone to suppress the Maritime strike. Nevertheless, the 1894 strike saw a qualitative increase in the level of violence. As Merritt argues:

...there was more destruction of property and more violence than there had been in 1891. At least eight woolsheds were burned to the ground in Queensland, a "free labourer" was shot at Coombemartin...two others were tarred at Hughenden and at the Dagworth shed police and unionists exchanged forty rounds of rifle fire and a unionist was killed...river steamers transporting "free labourers" were raided at their overnight moorings or pelted with stones, bottles and pieces of iron as they negotiated bends or jutting sand was a daily occurrence for men to be accosted on the open road and taken to union camps. Raids on huts were common, and when bands of "free labourers" entered towns scores of men were involved in fighting and brawling.

Nor did the bitterness subside at the end of the strike. Violent attacks on scabs continued long after the shearing season concluded. A report from Bathurst in April 1895 described an attack "on a man who had left the union and scabbed":

The men gagged him bound him hands and feet, and with his hands tied behind, fastened him to a stump, having previously stripped him of all his clothing. His assailants then burnt his clothing, swag, and papers...

The seriousness of some incidents

was greatly exaggerated. One example was the so-called Hay "riot"...the member for the Hay area...James Ashton, claimed that the "riot" was a newspaper creation...It is possible, too, as Spence alleged, that agents of the PUNSW [the pastoralists’ association] created disturbances to strengthen for more police protection. Nevertheless, unionists were in an angry mood.

Unemployment...contributed to the fierceness...There were men in all pastoral districts who wanted work but could not find it on any terms. Some were unionists, others joined union camps for food and companionship. Their resentment of the lucky ones who had found stands, or who had access to stands, gave determination, ingenuity and at times viciousness to their attacks on non-unionists and non-unionist stations.

An attempt to burn a woolshed at Coombing Park, near Carcoar, was typical. A watchman fired a shot over two men’s heads. He was shot in return fire. Forty unionists rushed the Mulurulu station near Hay and disarmed the manager who had fired at them. At Eroungella woolshed unionists overpowered a cop on guard, bound him, took him outside and burned down the shed. At Broken Hill railway station 30 scabs were surrounded by a large crowd of unionists and their sympathisers. In the melee that followed two policemen were assaulted, knocked to the ground and kicked. Only after the police drew their revolvers did the 300 strong crowd retreat. And Bobbie Hardy describes the notorious "Koonenberry kidnappings":

Four policemen from Yancannia were hurried to the relief of Salisbury Downs when unionists armed with sticks took possession of the men’s hut. Beaten back, they made a second sally...and captured seven blacklegs, making off south with them while the Salisbury Downs manager and nine policemen followed in hot pursuit. They were tracked to a cave in the Koonenberry Range where they were found guarding their captives and forced to yield them up. The jailers were themselves finally sentenced at Milparinka to six months’ hard labour.

From the start of the strike in Queensland police were present at roll-calls, and within two weeks several arrests had been made. James Martin, the AWUQ organiser for Hughenden, was arrested as a "person of ill fame", while seven men were charged with attempted murder of a scab at Coombemartin. In September the Queensland government passed a Coercion Act severely limiting civil rights. For a period of six months it removed the rights to refuse to answer questions on the grounds that you might incriminate yourself, and to trial by jury. It provided for arrest and detainment without trial for thirty days on a provisional warrant and for two months on a special warrant. However the strike was over by the time the Act received royal assent.

There was a riot by shearers at Oondooroo Station near Winton on 3 July 1894 and the following day the nearby Ayrshire Downs woolshed was burned after a "number of shearers suddenly produced firearms and ordered the manager and overseer to stand aside". The unionists then set the woolshed afire and prevented anyone from putting it out by covering "them with firearms." This led to wild fears of "insurrection" in the press. On Thursday 12 July the Broken Hill Age reported from Brisbane: "The Government will cope with all disturbances through the medium of the police, should an insurrection occur the military will be called out..." While on Monday 23 July under the heading "Anarchism Among The Shearers" it reported the circulation of leaflets issued by the mysterious, "Group No1", calling for shearers "to obtain better rifles and ammunition" and to unleash "guerrilla warfare" to "strike terror into the hearts...of the squatters...You must destroy property, sheds, fences...This is war and you must make your enemy suffer."

The attack on the Dagworth woolshed on 2 September was the last serious incident of the strike in Queensland. A constable had been stationed on the property for five weeks before the attack. Six sheds had already been destroyed in the district. The shearers opened fire on the station to cover the movements of one of their number who crept forward to fire the woolshed, which contained wool bales and 140 lambs. A major shoot out ensued with police and scabs. After burning the woolshed the shearers made a successful get away. Subsequently the police presence at Dagworth was stepped up and fortifications built. In December there was another, but this time unsuccessful, attack. The costs to the pastoralists were considerable. In the Winton district, the loss in sheds alone was 15,000 pounds.

Stuart Svensen in his detailed study of woolshed burnings in Queensland plays down the extent of violence by strikers. Svensen argues that while on his estimate eleven woolsheds were burned in Queensland in 1894 a number of these were lit by pastoralists either to obtain the insurance or to inflame hostility to the strikers, shore up waverers in their own ranks and justify stepped up police repression. In specific instances Svensen may be correct, but I see no need to apologise for the militancy of rank and file shearers. Even Svensen concedes that 1894 was a much more violent strike than 1891. Furthermore, Svensen confines his analysis to Queensland, where the strike was savagely defeated and does not address the important role that direct action played in securing a more favourable outcome in NSW.

The outcome

In Queensland the unions suffered a severe defeat. According to the Sullivans the number of registered trade unions fell from 55 in 1891 to 17 in 1894 and 6 in 1895, while union membership declined from almost 22,000 to approximately 250. However Kenway presents the outcome as being less disastrous for the AWUQ. According to him AWUQ membership declined from 5281 in 1893 to 3402 in 1894. However despite the union’s inability to pay fulltime organisers between 1893 and 1897, honorary delegates got the membership back almost to the 1893 level between 1895 and 1898, at a time when sheep flocks decreased from 19.5 million to 17.5 million.

In the immediate aftermath of the strike AWU leaders in NSW claimed victory. In mid-September local union leader Toomey told a Young branch meeting that there had been strikes at 113 sheds in the western and northern districts and the union had won 84. In February 1895, Spence claimed the union had won 75% of the sheds. In Victoria too, especially in the Western District, AWU leaders felt they had done well. Their claim rested not only on shed counts, but also on the belief that the strike had cost pastoralists so dearly that there was little danger of the second stage of the pastoralists’ strategy – which entailed further wage cuts – being introduced. The union leaders argued that the costs to the pastoralists of the poor quality work of scabs, the expensive delays, damaged property and expenditure on scabs had given NSW "pastoralists an experience they would not want repeated". The high level of resignations from the NSW Pastoralists’ Association is some confirmation of this claim.

While there was some justification for this optimistic assessment, it was overstated. In NSW one estimate was 16 million sheep shorn under the 1894 agreement and 11 million under arrangements more favourable to shearers. The strike had cost the pastoralists dearly but the union had also suffered deep wounds. So the overall outcome was inconclusive. The issue was not yet settled. The pastoralists were happy with their clear-cut victory in Queensland and their relative success in Victoria and South Australia. But as a NSW correspondent for the Pastoralists’ Review conceded "no one can claim to have gained anything. There have been losses on both sides". Many NSW pastoralists did not cut their rates. The union had held the line to a point but with the continuation of the Depression it was not able to maintain its position in subsequent years.

At its February 1895 annual conference the AWU leadership was defiant, promising that unless the pastoralists met them in conference there would be a renewal of "hostilities on the same lines as during last season". The militants urged the leadership on. But by May the leadership had backed down. This "aroused the anger of militants who sent indignant letters to the Australian Worker." However, Merritt argues that there was little desire to fight amongst most of the rank and file. Many union loyalists had suffered great financial distress during the 1894 strike and were prepared to work on the pastoralists’ terms. And AWU members were not renewing their subscriptions at anything like their usual rate.

In the following three years things got even worse and the union was "powerless to oppose further rate cuts". Membership fell significantly. By the end of the 1890s AWU membership, including shedhands as well as shearers, was around one-third of the ASU membership of shearers alone in 1890. The AWU held its numbers better amongst shearers than shedhands, for whom the union had done virtually nothing. Still with 7,700 members in 1899 the AWU was easily the largest union in the country and had survived the Depression much better than the urban unions. Moreover part of the membership fall off was due to a decline of employment caused by drought. Without the militant stand of 1894 the AWU could well have collapsed. Significantly the AWU’s most militant branch – Bourke-Western, where there had been the most sustained conflict during 1894, maintained its membership and fighting spirit much better than any other section of the union.

The trials

On Saturday 8 September 1894 the Broken Hill Age reported the arrest of ten men at Wilcannia charged with intimidation of the scabs aboard the Rodney. Four of them – James Evans, Robert Studholme, William Duncan and James Doherty – were also charged with "being concerned in the burning of the Rodney." At the Pooncarie Court on Friday 14 September all of the ten were discharged, except for Andrew Watts, the union rep at Moorara, who was jailed for four months. The main witness against him was the notorious William Storey who claimed that Watts had compelled the scabs to go to the Pooncarie strike camp.

Robert Studholme was re-arrested and charged with being an accessory in the Rodney burning. On Tuesday 18 September the Broken Hill Age reported that a hearing in Menindee returned an open verdict as to the burning of the Rodney. "In addition William Duncan, William Goodie, James Evans, Cox and James Pender on a charge of setting fire to the same boat were remanded until today. No bail was allowed." The Broken Hill Age went on to attack "the incomprehensible inactivity of the Government":

A week ago five gallant policemen and one mounted constable proceeded down the river detailed for the forlorn hope of withstanding the combined strength of the camps and resave the 45 men from capture. The police duly arrived at Pooncarie, but, probably because the 45 free men considered the escort insufficient for safety, they are still there...In the meantime, nothing has been done…to ascertain who burnt the steamer...

The police eventually fitted up seven men (with Robert Studholme thrown in as an accessory) to take the rap and on Wednesday 3 October Detective Brown and three constables escorted the prisoners to Broken Hill to stand trial. Large crowds of shearers gathered in the town to support their comrades, not just those charged with burning the Rodney, but also those arrested in a series of other confrontations. Six shearers were charged with riot at Tolarno on 14 August, while others were charged with shooting and affray at Grassmere and for riot and destruction of property at Momba. The shearers and their sympathisers were determined to give the Crown witnesses set to testify against their mates hell. The Broken Hill Age reported:

Six witnesses for the Crown...came into the town by coach and were set down at an hotel in Oxide Street. A crowd gathered and as the manner of the gentle mob, began to persecute the men, hustling and boo-booing them and finally thrusting one against a shop window and causing him to break the glass. The men were refused accommodation at the hotel, and although two policemen were present they did little or nothing to protect the victims from their assailants.

For all the cases according to George Dale "192 jurors were empanelled, while Messrs. Glynn …and Hamilton … acted as barristers for the defendants, and the eminent legal luminary, A. H. Shand, acted as Crown Prosecutor". "Justice" in 1894 was short and swift. Four major trials were rushed through in five days. The Tolarno Riot case was heard first on the Monday, followed by the Rodney case on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Grassmere riot case followed on Thursday and finally on Friday the Momba case.

On the Monday the six shearers charged with the Tolarno riot were quickly found guilty, but with a recommendation of clemency. They were sentenced to between two years and three months and eighteen months in Goulburn gaol. The shearers had clashed with police defending scabs they wished to "interview." Rough justice was also meted out to those charged with the Grassmere "riot". All eight were found guilty. One of those convicted, William McLean, "who it turned out was mortally wounded, was carried into the court on a stretcher, yet the ‘quack’ in charge at the time of the Wilcannia Hospital...testified that both McLean and Murphy were out of danger." The scab Arthur Baker who had shot them "was roundly congratulated by his Honor – aye, more than that, he was held up as an example...In summing up to the twelve members of the bourgeoisie Judge Stephens" said:

I am surprised that these free laborers do not arm and resist such brutal outrages...if these free laborers were to organise, and it was known that they were prepared to resist, there would be less of these cowardly outrages by Unionists; if I were a free laborer I would almost certainly arm myself, and if under the circumstances I took life I believe the jury would bring a verdict of justifiable homicide...If the Unionists who made these attacks were met by some courageous men like this boy – Arthur Baker – they would perhaps think twice before they went out on these marauding, tyrannical expeditions.

"After this fine master-class oration by his Honor it took the jury just ten minutes to return a verdict of ‘guilty of riot’ against all accused...the Judge pronounced sentence of three years with hard labor in the Birriama gaol."

McLean and Murphy were sent to Goulburn "the coldest prison in the colony...[and] McLean later, was moved to the Parramatta prison...[and] pronounced...too ill to be held in captivity...he was allowed to return to his mother’s residence at Koroit, Victoria.

William McLean’s death certificate stated that he died of "tuberculosis of the lungs". But his comrades knew he had been martyred in the cause of unionism and for many years they conducted a yearly pilgrimage to his graveside. They passed around the hat to raise the proud sum of 90 pound to erect a monument to this hero of 1894. The memorial stone is a round granite column about three metres high resting on a square of bluestone. The top of the column is broken off unevenly to signify a young life cut short. This impressive monument has been well preserved and can be visited to this day in the Tower Hill Cemetery near Koroit, Western Victoria. The AWU holds a memorial each year to this day. The inscription, which legend has it was penned by Henry Lawson, reads:

Erected by his Fellow Unionists and Admirers in memory of their comrade William John McLean who was shot by a non-unionist at Grassmere, New South Wales, during the Bush Union Struggle of 1894 and who died March 22nd, 1896, aged 26 years. A good son, a faithful mate, and a devoted Unionist. Union is Strength.

Jack Murphy died some years afterwards as the result of his scab-inflicted injuries.

The case of the twenty-four shearers charged "with unlawful assemblage and malicious destruction of property" at Momba was:

...the same story over again: the Unionists seeking an interview with the free laborers and the police on masters’ behalf preventing it. The damaging of property consisted of the alleged breaking up of an engine and pump attached to a well on the run, and a supposed attempt at setting fire to the engine house. However, the evidence was so weak and palpably faked that the jury after a few moments deliberation returned a verdict of "not guilty". This setting at liberty of so large a number of men caused a wonderful amount of enthusiasm in the workers’ ranks, and they did not wait until they had left the court house, either, before giving expression to their feelings.

A further charge of arson was at once laid against seven of the accused...and a change of venue to Sydney...granted, and this trial (so-called) in the city resulted in four...getting seven years each.

The Rodney case began on Tuesday 16 October 1894. Of the eight defendants, seven: Sid Robinson, James Fox, James Pender, William Duncan, Travers McDonald, William Goodie and James Evans were charged with maliciously setting fire to a steamer. While Robert Studholme was charged as an accessory.

The principal Crown witness was William Storey, who George Dale described as "a professional horse thief, who could not count on the fingers of both hands the number of times that he had been in gaol, and was evidently after the one thousand pounds reward offered by the Government." Storey, a laborer on the Rodney, stated that he saw a dozen men on deck. "Two men came into the hold with sticks in their hands. One of them was Evans." Evans supposedly said, "Come up here the ship’s burning now. You’ve only got five minutes." "Some of the strangers on deck had sticks, one had an axe, while another appeared to have a revolver." He said he also saw Fox. "The men who had come on the steamer ranged the free laborers up and counted them". One of the counters was supposedly Duncan, who caught hold of Storey. "The men who boarded the Rodney went across the river in a boat towards the Polia shed. The free laborers stayed on the island till about 11 o’clock when one of the Rodney’s crew came and took them to the Moorara side."

Storey stated that he saw Evans again on Sunday evening at Moorara (a union shed) where he was employed and that he, Storey, said to Evans: "A pity you burnt the Rodney. I got frightened when I saw the revolvers". Evans supposedly replied "there were a dozen revolvers there" and that "we burnt the agreements" (the scabs had signed with the pastoralists). Under cross-examination Storey admitted that he had been convicted three times of theft.

Another Crown witness Arthur Tipper stated he saw Goodie who had a stick and was not disguised and that he saw Duncan on the island and Pender, also not disguised, and McDonald and Studholme.

Sergeant Joseph Beer testified that he arrested Robinson at the Polia shed where he was wool pressing. Matthew Beaty who was in charge of the scabs for the Pastoralists’ Association testified that he saw Robinson take the wheel of the ship and that Robinson had said: "We’ve got plenty of kerosene, we’re going to burn the b – boat." However under cross-examination it became fairly clear that Beaty was lying. When Beaty was challenged about the fact that in the coroner’s court he had stated it was "too dark to distinguish anyone’s features", he admitted that he did say he "could not identify any of the men who were present."

Defence witnesses gave evidence that on the evening of the Rodney’s burning Robinson was in the rouseabout’s hut at Polia. Moreover John Davey said he saw Sub-inspector Johnson pointing out Robinson to one of the scabs saying "There is a man big enough to do anything." The men were put in a line, Robinson being put straight in front of the door. Joseph Denison, the mail driver on the coach that brought the Crown witnesses to Broken Hill testified that Beaty said: "We have been brought down to identify the prisoners; neither we nor anyone else could identify them the way their faces were blackened." Robinson declared: "he had never seen the Rodney. It was his first year in the bush, and his first year as a unionist. He was perfectly innocent."

James Evans claimed that he had gone to Polia on the Saturday to see his brother Charles, a woolroller, who was working there and to arrange a game of cricket. That evening far from being off burning the Rodney he played "nap" with his brother and friends and he had a string of witnesses to prove it. Very conveniently Edward Watts the cook at Polia remembered seeing Evans asleep in bed at 1.30 in the morning. There was a string of witnesses who provided alibis for the other accused.

According to George Dale "the barrister for the accused made a masterly appeal to the jury, while the Judge not summing up altogether against them delivered a long homily on the necessity of good Unionists to keep within the law." The jury retired shortly after 7pm and returned at 9pm with a verdict of not guilty, which "was received with enthusiastic cheering from the very large crowd outside the court, and although it was nine o’clock at night one or two impromptu speeches were delivered in the roadway." However the Adelaide Register

demanded that the defence witnesses be arrested for perjury, and denounced courts generally as farcial (sic). It advised the "squatter’’ to in future look to his own resources for protection, get in a good stock of ammunition, depend less on the State.

This was the second outburst of the kind from the capitalist press in Adelaide, as a month previously the Wool and Produce Review got this lot off:

"The pastoralists, failing the law’s protection, should form a body of men similar to the Pinkerton police in America. It may perhaps not be advisable to introduce American methods generally into this country unless compelled; but too many jelly-backed politicians are at the present in the field to expect much beyond promises from the Government..."

The Broken Hill Age editorialised:

...that an act worthy of the Moors of Barbary can be perpetrated on the holy Sabbath day in civilised Central Australia and the culprits go scot free. This knowledge is as alarming as the cause which created it was dastardly...the gentle unionists...twist and perjure themselves to shield the guilty...It can also be said with truth that those scoundrels, instead of being loathed, are regarded as heroes by all other unionists and by those who live by pandering to them...Especially has the dangerous spirit of the Anarchist been displayed by the bush unions...for their motto has been "anything – no matter what – for the furtherance of the cause is good".

As to the eight men suspected of having fired the Rodney, the Scotch verdict of "not proven" would have better applied than the one of "not guilty". It is morally certain if they were not mixed up in the crime...some of them could lay their fingers on the actual culprits if they chose so to do.

Did they do it?

According to the Broken Hill Age, far from an unprejudiced source, "it is impossible not to entertain serious doubts as to their innocence, especially in the face of the chuckling boasting indulged in by some of them after their acquittal." However in his summing up McMahon Glynn, the unionists’ counsel, made the telling point that given the late time that the Rodney moored and its isolated location "was it suppose that men from Pooncarie, Polia and Moorara had had the time to gather at this place and execute such a design as this?" The disciplined nature of the operation further suggests that the workers did not gather in some unco-ordinated or spontaneous fashion. The fact that the police could not find any informers also points to the attack being carried out by a relatively tight group from one union camp that could maintain discipline and solidarity before and after the action.

The police were clearly frustrated by the degree of solidarity shown by the unionists and their inability to obtain informers despite the large reward and the offer of a pardon. They were increasingly under pressure to make arrests for such a notorious crime. As was the Reid government which was under attack from the right wing press for being too soft on the shearers and reliant on Labor. "A Premier is wanted who will not tolerate the existence of such hotbeds of crime as the shearers’ camps" declared the Broken Hill Age. Yet to the mass of the population in the west (and not just the unionists) the workers who burned the Rodney were heroes, inflicting retribution on the hated pastoralists and their scab herders. So it seems the police plucked out some fall guys virtually at random to carry the can. In court their case fell to bits, aided by what the Crown Prosecutor probably correctly declared "was a concerted plan [by the defence] to defeat the ends of [bourgeois] justice." An alternative view would see it as a triumph for working class solidarity.

As Justice Stephen said in his summing up "the evidence strongly pointed to Polia station as that whence the perpetrators of the crime came". Significantly after the raid the unionists gave three cheers for Polia station and then went back across the river towards Polia. This tends to rule out William Duncan, who a number of witnesses testified was singing in a concert at Burns’ Hall in Pooncarie on the night of the burning. James Pender also claimed to be at Pooncarie and had witnesses to confirm his alibi, while Travers McDonald was at Moorara and he too had witnesses. Robert Studholme, charged as an accessory, seems to have just been roped in by the police. There was virtually no evidence against him and the judge directed the jury to acquit him. With these four probably ruled out that leaves Sid Robinson, James Fox and William Goodie who were working at Polia and James Evans, who though working at Moorara, was at Polia on the Saturday and Sunday. The full extent of their role in the events may never be known, but given the scale of the operation and the number of workers involved, it is almost impossible to imagine that anyone in the 200 strong Polia camp on that Saturday night did not know what was afoot. According to Sid Robinson’s daughter Ethel the opinion of the family was that he had been involved at some level in the burning of the Rodney. However Wendy Evans, the great grand daughter of James Evans, says that the family had never heard anything at all about his involvement.

Definitely Robinson, Fox, Goodie and Evans would have known who was involved by the following day and all four at the very minimum maintained solidarity by keeping quiet about it in the face of police harassment. In bourgeois legal terms this at the very minimum makes them accessories after the fact.

The man who was verballed

Subsequently a young man named Thomas Bonner was arrested and verballed by police. Though according to WG Spence, Bonner "was not within a hundred miles of the steamer at the time of the incident." The jury in Bonner’s first trial in Wentworth disagreed and he was remanded to Sydney. Though the only evidence against him was a verbal confession he was convicted and on Monday 25 March 1895 sentenced to seven years’ jail. Even the Broken Hill Age conceded:

the strongest portion of the evidence against him was the confession he was alleged to have made to a constable to the effect that though he did not actually burn the steamer he assisted to row others to her. This confession he denied having made, but the jury believed the officer’s evidence, and wished to find him guilty of aiding and abetting, but not guilty of setting fire to the steamer.

The judge would not allow this. So they found him guilty with a strong recommendation to mercy on account of his youth and excitable temperament.

There was considerable public sympathy for him because he was obviously not a ring leader of the "couple of hundred" involved.

Big Sid Robinson

Sid Robinson went on to become a leading militant and socialist activist in the Broken Hill mines. During the great 1909 Broken Hill lock out Robinson was arrested after he defended the workers’ leader, the famous British socialist Tom Mann, from a savage police attack. Subsequently Robinson was brutally bashed in the cells and along with Mann and other picketing miners charged with unlawful assembly and riot. Mann was acquitted but in Robinson’s case the jury failed to agree.

Robinson was six times President of the Barrier branch of the miners’ union, the AMA, and served on the AMA executive for fourteen years. He survived several attempts at victimisation by the mining companies, but in 1911 he was struck down with miner’s lung disease and had to give up work in the mines. Nevertheless he remained active in the labour movement, first working on the council outdoor staff and then running a boarding house where miners new to Broken Hill were educated in the militant traditions of the Barrier. Brian Kennedy wrote: "He was quick to inform new arrivals of the injustices he had suffered and to put them in touch with other socialists." Robinson was active in the Barrier Socialist Propaganda Group and in a series of political campaigns including opposition to the 1909 Defence Act which introduced "boy conscription", the World War I anti-conscription struggle and the 1917 NSW General Strike which shut down the town. During the 1917 General Strike he was again arrested for riot after participating in a mass invasion by picketing workers of "the line of the lode" to close down the mines. He and other militants were sentenced to six months jail, but he was released after 11 weeks. He died of miner’s lung disease aged only 50 on Tuesday 5 February 1924.


Over a century later does the burning of the Rodney have any modern day relevance? Or is it simply a colourful episode from a bygone era when Australian society was radically different from today? I would argue that there are many more similarities between the Australia of the 1890s and the early twenty first century then most commentators would care to admit. The last decade has been a period of rapid industrial change and increasing social tensions. A period when the social divide between the tiny capitalist minority at the top and the mass of workers at the bottom is increasingly accentuated. While those lucky enough to have jobs work longer and longer hours and their lives are increasingly plagued by insecurity about their, and their children’s, futures, the already rich are getting vastly richer.

In this context a union movement which despite facing attack after attack from the ruling class has failed to offer decisive, fighting leadership could well do with a revival of the spirit of 1894. The solidarity, collective loyalty and rank and file militancy, which were the hallmark of the union camps along the Darling, need to be re-galvanised, if the union movement is to meet the challenges confronting it.

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