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Townsville’s ‘Tree of Knowledge’ claims first place

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The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge is considered to be the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party (Screenshot via YouTube)

The birthplace of the Australian Labor Party has traditionally been claimed to be under the “Tree of Knowledge” at Barcaldine in 1891. History editor Dr Glenn Davies investigates other “Trees of Knowledge” around Australia and considers which has the claim as the original.

QUEENSLAND UNIONISTS and community members broke out their hats and placards this week for the annual Labour Day marches across the state. The first weekend in May has been of major cultural and historical significance for the union movement in Queensland ever since the state’s first Labour Day procession took place in Barcaldine on 1 May 1891.

The Labour Day public holiday has been celebrated by workers in Queensland on the first Monday in May since 1901 (apart from a few years during the Newman Government). It is deeply ingrained in Queensland’s history as a day to recognise workers’ rights.

Labour Day, like ANZAC Day, is a day when we remember the sacrifices our forebears made: the mateship, the loyalty and the determination to build and protect the freedom and rights we now enjoy. Both are also occasions when we recognise the ongoing struggles of today and thank those standing beside us in the fray.

The Labour Day date was moved from May to the second Monday in March in some parts of Australia after World War II. For a large section of the Brisbane labour movement, it remained important that the Labour Day celebrations be changed to enable participation by all Queensland workers and that the date of the procession moved from the traditional one on 1 March to 1 May.

The main arguments for changing the date of the celebrations was to make them part of the international campaign, begun by the International Labour Congress in 1889, to make 1 May an official workers holiday around the world. This campaign was given a major boost when, on 1 May 1891, more than 1,000 striking shearers participated in Australia’s first May Day march through the streets of Barcaldine, where their leaders wore blue sashes and they carried banners and the Eureka flag. It was reported that cheers were given for “the eight-hour day”. Henry Lawson wrote Freedom on the Wallaby to mark the day.

The meeting of the shearers under the Queensland ghost gum, a Eucalyptus Papuana, outside the railway station in Barcaldine during the strike of 1891 is widely regarded as a defining moment in Australian political history. Australian Labor history has long held that it was under the Tree of Knowledge that the Australian Labor Party was founded.

There are many other trees dubbed the “Tree of Knowledge” around Australia:

  • the 150-year-old Moreton Bay fig tree in Randwick, in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, known by locals as the Tree of Knowledge, was removed in July 2016 to make way for a light rail line;
  • Goondiwindi;
  • the Galamarrma, or Tree of Knowledge, is located in the courtyard of the Darwin Civic Centre and has been used as meeting place, postal address and community notice board;
  • the Perth Tree of Knowledge was craned into the children’s section of the City of Perth library;
  • Kidman’s Tree of Knowledge is a mature coolibah tree at Glengyle Station, Bedourie under which Sir Sidney Kidman reputedly camped when contemplating the development of his pastoral empire. For this reason, it has been heritage-listed; and
  • the Tree of Knowledge at Camooweal is a mature coolibah tree on the eastern side of the Georgina River where drovers, teamsters and others would camp, rest and yarn.

Trees are significant in many of the world’s mythologies and have deep and sacred meanings throughout history. They are powerful symbols of growth, death and rebirth, with evergreens sometimes considered symbols of the eternal, immortality or fertility.

The source of knowledge in many ancient myths is a tree that symbolises how knowledge represents the connection between ideas from different worlds — for example, the world of humans and the divine world. The Tree of knowledge (World Tree) is found in many religions and mystic traditions such as the Tree of Eden, the Norse Yggdrasil and the Kabalistic Sephiroth Tree, to name but a few.

No doubt the Barcaldine Oak Street ghost gum tree bore silent witness to those events of 1891 that saw riots and 2,000 police and army personnel in the town to protect the strikebreakers, however, there is no evidence that the strikers met there. Also, the ghost gum was never called the “Tree of Knowledge” at the time. In fact, it wasn’t until at the least the 1930s that the tree began to receive this moniker.

The tree was first known as the “Alleluia Tree”, so-called because local members of the Salvation Army congregated to worship under its branches. Bullock drivers who were constantly on the move throughout Western Queensland also used the tree as a place to gather and swap yarns and news from along the trails.

The ghost gum continued to be referred to as the “Hallelujah Tree” in 1914 and in 1919 when Labor senate candidate Myles Ferricks addressed the crowd, it was reported to have occurred at the Hallelujah Tree. In 1921, Barcaldine newspaper The Western Champion reported the Hallelujah Tree was declining in health. In 1923, there is again reference to the Hallelujah Tree in the local media in Barcaldine, continuing still in 1927. It’s not until 1931 there is evidence in The Western Champion referring to the old ghost gum as the “Tree of Knowledge” rather than the “Hallelujah Tree”.

The argument to support the position that Barcaldine never referred to a Tree of Knowledge in its community until the 1930s is the reference in The Western Champion, 29 March 1919, to the regular unemployed meetings in Townsville

‘...held under a tree, which is now described as the “Tree of Knowledge”.’

There is no reflection in the newspaper column on the name being originally a Barcaldine term from the 1891 strike, almost 30 years before. As an article that was critical of the success of the Townsville unemployment meetings, reference to the unoriginality of the name of the meeting place would have been mandatory. It was not mentioned.

In 2006, the Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine was poisoned. The culprit/s were never found and the ALP (Queensland) has a $10,000 reward for identifying who poisoned the tree.

The dead gum tree was removed and a sapling, propagated from the original, now grows at the Australian Workers Heritage Centre. Ironically, the Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge also achieved National Heritage listing in 2006. A memorial has been erected to commemorate the tree's history in Barcaldine and its significance to the Australian Labor Party, Barcaldine and Queensland.

The north Queensland city of Townsville also has had a historical Tree of Knowledge.

Public meetings held in Townsville under the tree played a role in the development of Townsville’s industrial and trade unions. Flinders Street, Townsville has been the home of cafes, theatres, hotels and jubilant celebrations, yet it has also witnessed under Townsville’s own Tree of Knowledge unemployment meetings, weekly communist party meetings, political protests and individual spruiking. In 1919, it also saw gunfire and union agitation after a demonstration when 3,000 meatworkers protested over their wages and conditions.

The Tree of Knowledge linked closely to the Townsville Workers Electoral League, established on 17 July 1891 and eventually became the Australian Labor Party in Townsville. The impetus for the League came from trade unionists whose pursuit of solidarity and reform quickened in 1888 with the formation of the Townsville Trades and Labour Council and its reconstitution in 1890 as the Townsville District Council (TDC) of the Australian Labour Federation.

The Townsville Tree of Knowledge was actually three trees planted in the 1890s. It appears the three trees stood outside the Aplin Brown Building at the corner of Flinders and Denham Street and was a central meeting point for union meetings in Townsville. Until about 1918, they were referred to as “The Shade Trees”. However, by early 1919, when the Unemployed Committee first began having outdoor meetings in Townsville, the name had changed and within a month, the “Tree of Knowledge” had started to appear in the local press as an address.

The three trees were Terminalia catappa, commonly called beach almond, or sea almond. The name “Terminalia” comes from the Latin terminus (end) and refers to the clustering of the leaves at the ends of the shoots; “catappa” is the Malayan name for the tree. These were suitable trees as a meeting place (clustering) for the labour community who did not have access to the wealth needed to distribute their political positions, such newspapers and radio; the outdoor public meeting was their only option.

The Tree of Knowledge remained a Townsville city landmark for many years and was a popular place for the public to rally and listen to union officials, labour candidates and politicians such as long-term member for South Townsville Tom Aikens and Fred Paterson, the Communist Party Townsville Alderman. In 1926, the first major tree was cut down. It was under the second and third trees where all the soapbox debates occurred and the opening rallies of all political campaigns — municipal, state and federal.

It’s not clear when the third tree disappeared, however, the second and final tree was badly damaged by Cyclone Althea in 1971 and was removed on 8 January 1972. However, it is reputed that a cutting was saved and replanted in Anderson Park, Townsville. It was from this tree that three cuttings were planted in a triangle by the Townsville Probus Club in 1986 in Ogden Street near the tree’s original position in Denham Street to represent the Tree of Knowledge, The Tree of Love and the Tree of Understanding.

The cuttings were planted in a triangle with a brass plaque set in a granite rock in the middle with the words:

‘We pray that those who come by here will have the knowledge, love and understanding of their fellow man.’

The replanting of the trees was a memory to the soapbox oration of politicians, union officials and others over at least 80 years under the Townsville Tree of Knowledge.

In 1985, the Townsville City Council, with the support of the local unions, commissioned Anthony Dennis Pryor to create a Tree of Knowledge steel sculpture as a remembrance of the old tree. It was unveiled by Margaret Reynolds, Minister for Local Government, on 21 November 1987 and continues to reside in Perfume Garden Park, a block away from where the original Trees of Knowledge had stood.

As Barcaldine had not stopped referring to their meeting place tree as the “Hallelujah Tree” until the 1930s, then it appears Townsville can lay claim to the first Tree of Knowledge under whose broad branches and leaves the men and women of labour could meet to act collectively to help each other to seek a better and purposeful life.

The 1891 shearers’ strike in Barcaldine was a capital versus labour reflection to the 1919 Unemployed Committee organising in Townsville almost 30 years later. However, the difference was in the use of the “Tree of Knowledge” name. The evidence shows that the term was originally used by the Townsville vagrants marginalised by the post-World War 1 lack of support for employment and who were in direct solidarity with the meat workers strike at the same time.

Today we celebrate those workers and union delegates who stand alongside their mates and colleagues to preserve and better the working conditions of all Australians. We celebrate the toil of men and women everywhere and in these economically dark times we also extend our hands and hearts to those who have lost jobs and pride.

It’s always worth remembering: if you’re standing alone, then you’re begging. If you stand as a collective, then you’re bargaining.

I’d like to acknowledge the research assistance in writing this article from Brian Davies.

You can follow Dr Glenn Davies Glenn on Twitter @DrGlennDavies.

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