Australian history

1891 Shearers’ Strike and the rise of Australian Labor

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The 22 April 1891 is the 120th anniversary of the ‘Clermont rioters’ trial during the Queensland shearers’ strike. This was a time of perceived rebellion. The Queensland government organised ships and train loads of ‘scabs’, escorted by police and heavily armed troops to get them through the pickets to the shearing sheds. The strikers established huge bush camps. The shearers’ strike of 1891 in western Queensland and the Rockhampton trial of the striking shearers was a defining moment in the history of the Australian labour movement, writes Glenn Davies.

Brookong Stations union shearers at the time of the riots, Lockhart Shire. 189-?. National Library of Australia, Canberra.

In the early Australian colonies, the main relationship in workplaces was between an individual master and servant. 

By the early 1890s trade unions became more assertive as the colonial economic conditions deteriorated.

Businesses responded by seeking to cut the wages and conditions of workers in order to continue in business. For more on this point see Fair Work Australia's publication, Waltzing Matilda and the Sunshine Harvester Factory, p.13 at

The year 1890 found an unsettling spirit within the heart of the British Empire. A political and financial upheaval in Argentina had brought Barings, one of London’s leading financial houses, to its knees, and in July that year there was a tremor within the edifice of law and order with the onset of a partial strike of the London Metropolitan Police. At the same time, military unrest prevailed in one of the bastions of the British Empire when the second Battalion of the Coldstream Guards mutinied. This resulted in the calling out of the Inniskilling Fusiliers, but instead of obeying the authorities, the latter sang ‘God Save Ireland’, the Fenian hymn of 1867, and cheered the mutinous guards. The result was their quick replacement by the Yorks. On the work front, the eruption of the London dock strike in 1889 was to be one of the antecedents for a rash of strike action in the antipodes, for the colonial periphery was not exempt from this unsettling spirit. 

On the Imperial frontier in Queensland, there had already been a collision between capital and labour. During 1890, the maritime strike – an urban forerunner of the bush struggles of 1891 and 1894 – was fought between owners and workers. During the first month of the maritime strike, the Liberal Premier, Samuel Griffith, allied with the conservative leader, Thomas McIllwraith, to form a Queensland Government commonly known as the continuous ministry or, in a term that conjures an antediluvian image, ‘Griffilwraith’. This alliance followed on the resignation of the Morehead ministry, after defeat in parliament over a proposed property tax. Griffith and McIllwraith had been opponents for so long, differed so widely upon important points of policy, and their conflicts on so many occasions had been so bitter, that many Queenslanders doubted that the ‘Griffilwraith’ would last. The sight of two former political enemies becoming allies and their overt grab for political power aroused considerable opposition. Public meetings were held throughout the state to denounce the coalition. In Charters Towers, a massive censure of the ‘Griffilwraith’ was moved at a public meeting in early October 1890 with an attendance of over one thousand people.

Twice Queensland Premier Thomas McIlwraith

Working conditions for sheep shearers in 19th century Australia were atrocious. In the late 1800’s, wool was one of Australia's largest industries. But as the wool industry grew, so did the number and influence of shearers. By 1890, the Australian Shearers’ Union boasted tens of thousands of members, and had unionised thousands of sheds. At their annual conference in Bourke in 1890, the Union laid down a new rule, which prohibited members from working with non-union workers. Soon after, shearers at Jondaryan Station on the Darling Downs went on strike over this issue. As non-union labour was still able to process the wool, the Jondaryan shearers called for help. The Rockhampton wharfies responded and refused to touch the Jondaryan wool. The unionists won the battle.

In late 1890, an inter-colonial conference of pastoralists had drawn up a new shearing agreement that was to take effect from the beginning of 1891. The agreement was intended as a thrown gauntlet rather than a serious case for discussion. It ignored all previous arrangements between shearers and pastoralists regarding work hours, cut wages by between fifteen and thirty-three per cent and introduced the option of hiring non-union labour. The shearers found these arrangements completely unacceptable. Shearers at the Logan Downs Shearing Station in Queensland already believed their pay rates and conditions were unacceptable, but were further angered when the station began to employ non-union men to do the work. The union representing the shearers wanted the station to form an agreement, stating that the shearers’ pay would not be reduced and that their rights would be protected. However because he wanted to reduce union influence, Logan Downs Station Manager Charles Fairbain wanted the shearers to sign the Pastoralists Association contract of free labor. On 5 January 1891, the rouseabouts at Oondooroo and Vindex Stations, and the shearers at Logan Downs – all in western Queensland – refused to sign the pastoralists’ agreement. The shearers announced a strike until the following demands for a contract were met:
1. Continuation of existing rates of pay

2. Protection of workers' rights and privileges

3. Just and equitable agreements

4. Exclusion of low-cost Chinese labour
More than 1000 men downed shears and marched through the streets demanding better conditions. The potential for revolution dissolved when Aborigines, Kanaka Islanders and Chinese immigrants were enlisted to work for even cheaper wages. This galvanised the squatters, and they formed the Pastoralists’ Federal Council, to counter the strength of the unions. The battle lines were drawn, conflict was not far away; the only question was where and when.

During January 1891, union organisers formed western strike camps at Wolfgang Creek, Capella and Mount Abundance. In early February 1891, non-union labour, or ‘blacklegs’ began arriving. A meeting of unionists at Barcaldine, on 15 February 1891, resolved to fight the agreements and to send all available horsemen to Clermont to assist their comrades. A party of about 180 men, many armed, proceeded to Clermont. The shearers’ strike escalated in intensity until, on 21 February 1891, the Brisbane Courier asked nervously,
“Are the revellers of the gay season in London and Paris to be told by the swift running tape of Morse transmitter that the industrial Armageddon has been fought in the heart of Australia, in a locality which a score of years ago was an undiscovered country? Yet true it is that on our great Western plains the opposing forces of civilisation and revolution are gathering and…conflict is inevitable”.
As the mouthpiece for the status quo, the Brisbane Courier trembled at the prospect of containing a mass movement among the bush workers. That they saw conflict as inevitable perhaps demonstrated their lack of understanding of the bush workers. For in reality the shearers’ threats were mostly bluff, as they were not bent on civil war. 

The Barcaldine strike leaders, 1891

From February until May 1891, the shearers’ strike spread quickly until central Queensland appeared to be on the brink of civil war. Striking shearers formed armed camps outside of towns while they waited for their union organisers to negotiate. At the end of February 1891, unionists in Barcaldine had elected a committee to co-ordinate union activity during the strike. In Queensland, over 2000 soldiers and police were deployed and 1099 special constables were sworn in to protect non-union labour and arrest strike leaders. The unionists retaliated by raiding shearing sheds, harassing non-union labour and committing acts of sabotage, although the incidents of actual violence or arson were few.

On 28 February 1891, the Charters Towers Mounted Volunteers, under the command of Captain Robert Russell, were sent to Winton to aid the civil power in the district. A strikers’ camp of three hundred formed at Hughenden in March 1891 and the Charters Towers Mounted Volunteers were warned for action to move to that town. However, Winton was to be their destination. Of all the strikers’ camps throughout Queensland, Clermont appeared to be the most violently inclined. On 7 March 1891, the Pastoralists’ Special Executive arrived unexpectedly at the Clermont railway station where a large group of unionists had congregated. An incident occurred that was later to be called the Peak Downs Riot. Thirteen men were eventually arrested in connection with the Peak Downs Riot. They were all charged with ‘molesting hired servants’, seven were charged with rioting and the other six with unlawful assembly. They all appeared in the Clermont courthouse to face the ‘molesting’ charges. Seven rioters and two unlawful assemblers were committed to Rockhampton.

Another radical speech was made at Barcaldine on 24 March 1891. The speaker told the unionists that:
“they were on the verge of social revolution, and the great struggle between capital and labour could end only in one swallowing up the other.”

This was printed in the Charters Towers Northern Mining Register, a conservative weekly that supported the actions of the Queensland government. In publishing this statement it appears that the Northern Mining Register was concerned that the one swallowed would be “capital”. The strikers continued to form camps, one of which was set up at Torrens Creek on 27 March 1891. This camp contained three hundred strikers. They asserted their hostility to the pastoralists by cutting the throats of the squatter’s horse. In response, the mobilised Charters Towers Mounted Volunteers were hastily posted to the township. The Queensland Government had been confrontational from the beginning of the shearers’ strike. Now, with the countryside sprinkled with militia, it moved directly against the unionists. 

On 28 March 1891, dozens of shearers including a strong band of union leaders were arrested in towns nearest to the shearers’ camps. Eleven strikers –with three union leaders among them – were arrested at the Clermont railway station. Union leaders Griffin, Taylor and Stewart were charged with conspiracy. A short-lived scuffle broke out between police and two of the men, Taylor and Stewart. The handcuffed trio were then marched through the town under heavy police guard. Eight more union shearers were arrested and charged with causing a riot when they tried to prevent free labourers from travelling to work at Peak Downs. In a carefully planned police operation, the entire Barcaldine Strike Committee were arrested. Around noon, two divisions of mounted infantry formed a line outside the union office in the town’s main street, virtually hemming in a large crowd of onlookers who were mainly unionists. A detachment of the mounted infantry then rode to the office door as a contingent of police walked through the mounted lines and into the office, arresting five men: Thomas Ryan, Michael Murphy, William Fothergill, Hugh Blackwell and William Bennett. The prisoners were then marched across the street into the police station where they were charged with conspiracy.

On 14 April 1891, the 8,482 strikers in the twenty-two strike camps that had been established throughout the west voted against conceding ‘freedom of contract’ to the Pastoralists’ Union. The Queensland government was fearful that the 1891 shearers’ strike might turn into a civil war. On the Australian frontier, law and order seemed to rest on frail foundations. Indeed, Horace Tozer, Home Secretary and for several weeks Acting-Premier while Samuel Griffith was attending the National Australasian Convention in Sydney, was deeply alarmed at the growing tensions. Why would the lawmakers in Brisbane believe that the frontiersmen of the inland were potentially uncontrollable? In the minds of the representatives of the urban middle-class there was a real danger of a violent confrontation with those makers of Russel Ward’s “Australian Legend”, the bush workers, the “hardy shearers of the West”. The Queensland Government no doubt had visions of armed citizenry overthrowing the government of France 100 years before—they were seriously concerned. In 1891, the striking shearers of western Queensland adopted Thomas Paine’s American advice and tried change through the use of force. In retrospect, the strike was the highpoint of the radical movement. It was not long afterwards that the optimism for a “working-man’s paradise” faded.

From the beginning, the omens for the Queensland shearers’ strike were not good. The Clermont rioters trial commenced in the Rockhampton Circuit Court on 22 April 1891. The jury returned a verdict of guilty for six of the men. At the Rockhampton Supreme Court on 1 May 1891, the trial of thirteen men accused of conspiracy against the Crown was presided over by Justice George Rogers Harding. These thirteen men were the only unionists to stand trial for conspiracy. On the same day, the trial began one of the first May Day marches in the world took place in Barcaldine. The Sydney Morning Herald reported that 1340 men took part, of whom 618 were mounted on horse. Banners carried included those of the Australian Labor Federation, the Shearers' and Carriers' Unions, and one inscribed 'Young Australia'. The leaders wore blue sashes and the Eureka Flag was carried.

Senior Puisne Judge George Rogers Hardy

Senior Puisne Judge George Rogers Harding was sent up from Brisbane to adjudicate the session in Rockhampton. He had almost certainly been specially selected by the Queensland Government for the task of obtaining convictions against the unionists. Scrupulously fair and highly respected for his judgements, the shearers’ strike was the only case to make Harding unpopular. On 20 May 1891, the jury returned its verdict of Guilty. Under Section 543 of the Criminal Code, they were sentenced to three years imprisonment on St Helena Island Prison together with a bond of 12 months. The harsh sentences that were imposed clearly revealed Harding’s prejudice. Four months before the trial Harding had married Isabella Grahame, sister of E.R. Drury’s wife. This connection raises the question of collusion. As the Queensland General Manager of the National Bank of Australasia, Drury had vested interests in the pastoral industry. The prosecutor chosen was Virgil Power and the unions retained for the defence, Edwyn Lilley, son of Chief Justice Sir Charles Lilley. Originally, Charles Lilley was scheduled to preside at the Rockhampton Circuit Court. An ardent supporter of republican and socialist causes his presence may have resulted in a vastly different verdict.

By 11 June 1891, the shearers were unable to continue to hold out and the strike was called off. The summer had been unseasonably wet, and the strike was poorly timed for maximum effect on the shearing season. The union camps were full of hungry penniless shearers. Although largely a failure, the 1891 Shearers Strike is credited as being one of the factors behind the formation of the Australian Labor Party. The harsh suppression of the shearers’ strike made many people in the trade union movement see the limitations of industrial action and the need for a political party to represent the interests of working people. Separate labor parties, called Labor Leagues, were formed in Queensland and in New South Wales, quickly taking a prominent role in politics. The parties later joined to become the Australian Labor Party.

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