Australian history

Egging the Prime Minister — 100 years on

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Billy Hughes being hit by an egg (

In November, Australians took part in a voluntary national postal survey, voting in favour of marriage equality. One hundred years ago, Australians were in the middle of another divisive national debate — on whether Australia should introduce conscription, writes history editor Dr Glenn Davies.

IN MEMORIALISING World War 1, the anti-war movements of the time have been overlooked. In all the sabre-rattling countries, efforts to prevent the outbreak of war were quickly overwhelmed. But in Australia, a movement to prevent the introduction of military conscription was surprisingly successful.

Of all the armies fighting in World War I, only the Australian Imperial Force was formed entirely from volunteers. The Defence Act (1903) gave the Australian Government the power to conscript men for military service inside Australia, but not for service overseas.

On 28 October 1916 and again on 20 December 1917, the Federal Government, led by the so-called ‘Little Digger’ William Morris “Billy” Hughes, held referendums in order to introduce conscription for military service overseas. In both cases, the proposal was narrowly rejected.

In a referendum, people are asked to vote directly on an issue. In Australia today, the word referendum refers specifically to a vote to change the Australian Constitution. The 1916 and 1917 votes on conscription were technically plebiscites or opinion polls. Australia has had three national plebiscites: the two conscription plebiscites of 1916 and 1917, and a 1977 plebiscite to choose the Australian National Anthem.

Prime Minister Billy Hughes’ fears were shaped by the significant military, social and political developments that were then straining Australian society. When World War I had broken out in 1914, most Australians enthusiastically supported "Mother" England in its struggles.

During 1916, Prime Minister Hughes became increasingly concerned about Australia’s place in the post-War world. He sensed that the only way Australia could earn the right to argue its case on the international stage was to conspicuously contribute to military victory.

British authorities had also requested additional troops for planned operations in 1917. This was becoming more difficult with mounting casualty rates and declining numbers of new volunteers.

Hughes was convinced that military conscription was the only logical and compelling option. His solution was to appeal over the heads of Parliament and call for a referendum which, if successful, would amend the Constitution to allow conscription for military service outside Australia. Hughes’s tactic was to pressure Parliament (and his party) to agree to conscription by gaining public approval for the idea in a national referendum. Hughes hoped to gain sufficient "yes" votes to pressure the Labor-dominated Parliament to change its mind.

Caricature of Billy Hughes from the Australian Worker magazine, 1917. (Noel Butlin Archives Centre, Australian National University, via

Hughes passionately argued his case to the Australian public and put the matter to a referendum on 28 October 1916. It was narrowly defeated, with 51.6 per cent voting "No". Hughes was forced to leave the Labor Party, which was vehemently opposed to conscription. He promised that he would not revisit the conscription issue unless it looked like Germany could prevail in the war.

The Australians in WWI were mostly heroic and, after the debacle of Gallipoli in 1915, many thought it could not be worse — but it was, as demonstrated by the huge numbers of casualties in 1916 on the Western Front.

1917 was an even worse year. It began in the muddy trenches of the Somme and ended in a slimy bog leading up to the Belgian village of Passchendaele. Many did not survive; there were 20,000 dead among the 77,000 Australians who became casualties.

Conscription remained the flashpoint of Australian politics in 1917 as Britain continued to demand more cannon fodder. Political advertisements dominated the press and Hughes even made a film to push his case.

As a result, Australia was divided again by the conscription debate for the second time during the war. As Australia’s casualty list grew and enlistment numbers fell, Hughes called for another referendum. The campaign was just as heated as the first, with popular opinion sharply divided. The second referendum was conducted in an atmosphere of violence quite unusual for Australia at that time. Tens of thousands of supporters attended rallies for and against the proposal. Debates were stymied and people arrested because of strict censorship regulations. In such a passionate, sectarian influenced and emotionally charged atmosphere, egg and other missiles were regularly thrown at speakers.

Hughes’ second conscription referendum had two vocal critics: Melbourne’s Irish-born Catholic Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Queensland State Labor Premier T.J. Ryan.

Queensland became a chief battleground and was where Prime Minister Hughes sensed imminent insurrection. Then Premier Ryan, son of an illiterate Irish labourer, was a vocal opponent of Hughes and conscription. Hughes visited Brisbane in late November 1917 and ordered police to raid the Queensland Government Printing Office and confiscate copies of State Parliament’s Hansard, which he said was full of subversive anti-conscription speeches.

Outraged with the affront to the Commonwealth, Hughes had Ryan charged with conspiracy to publish a misleading statement. Ryan later replied with a contempt charge against the Prime Minister. It was in the immediate wake of the raids and, with only three weeks left until the referendum, that the tired and anxious Prime Minister headed south to Sydney by rail and stopped in the Darling Downs.

On Thursday, 19 November 1917, Prime Minister Hughes arrived in Warwick and, as he tried to give a conscription speech at the train station, an egg was hurled at him. A Killarney man, Patrick Brosnan, upset at Prime Minister Billy Hughes's stance on conscription, threw an egg at him as he addressed a crowd at Warwick Railway Station, knocking off his hat.

Incensed at the attack, Hughes then threw himself into the melee and ordered Senior Sergeant Henry Kenny of the Queensland Police Force, another Irish-Australian, to arrest the culprit. However, Kenny refused, saying it was out of his jurisdiction and a matter for the Commonwealth. After Kenny refused and Queensland Premier Ryan declined to discipline the policeman, Hughes established a Commonwealth Police Force.

Kelly was transferred to Gympie the next year. On 20 December 1917, the referendum was again defeated, this time with a slightly larger majority of 53.8 per cent voting "No".

On 18 November 2017, the centenary of the infamous egg-throwing incident was re-enacted on the steps of the Warwick Railway Station. One of Warwick's smallest parks sits in front of the Warwick Railway Station and was recently named the Billy Hughes Park ahead of the centenary celebrations of the infamous Warwick incident. A plaque recounting the history of the egg throwing incident sits front and centre in the greenspace — which, ironically, sits in Brosnan Crescent, just off Lyons Street. 

The conscription debates of 1916-1917 reflected the division of loyalties that had emerged in Australia since the late nineteenth century, and especially since Federation in 1901. On the one hand, Australians felt a loyalty to their own young nation and a desire to shape its destiny. Meanwhile, most still felt the "crimson thread of kinship" — the strong links to Britain that could be seen in the desire to re-create British culture in a land on the other side of the world.

And yet, the decision not to force young Australians to fight for the "old country" on the other side of the world was surely a sign of independence for our young nation.

I guess it is in the DNA of Australians that we like to do things only if it is of our own choosing. We are a loyal people who value our tendency towards the levelling of society.

You can follow history editor Glenn Davies on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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