A police strike is a rare and beautiful thing. The police, who have been impressed that they are in a different category to other workers, and have frequently been called in to baton down workers on strike, suddenly find themselves in the position of an ordinary striking worker plus. Bile and venom there are aplenty for every strike but when a section of the State comes out, then vituperative hysteria really dominates the scene.
Headlines in the Argus on Monday 5th November 1923. (Image via Trove Digitised Newspapers, National Library of Australia.)
When the Victorian Police strike took place, Melbourne was, of course, the centre of the action.
"Disturbances" occurred over six days with "rioting" mainly on Derby night. It was claimed goods to the value of £75,000 had been looted and property damage amounted to another £75,000. 248 people were taken to hospital and 87 looters arrested on Derby night, while many more were arrested during subsequent weeks.
Six hundred "specials" were engaged and volunteers to the number of 8000 were attached to the city. They were organised in squads of light horse, squadrons of cars and others were in trucks. They drove their trucks down pavements wielding chains and batons like stormtroopers, on the citizens. Windscreens were removed and replaced with wirenetting. The light horse spread themselves across the entire width of city lanes and rode through them—woe betide anyone in their path. Some men were armed with guns.
It was instant education for the striking men, in the methods of Governments and in press distortion.
The only place they could turn for help was the Trades Hall.
Crime reporters in the daily press pleased to make out that Melbourne was overwhelmed with hooligan hordes—thieving hordes—an assault of the underworld—an army of toughs ". . . drunken, destructive, and rapacious mob that included almost every convicted thief in Melbourne".
The actual facts were that discontent was rife in the sorely underpaid police-force. It was the culmination of twenty years of dissatisfaction.
Police Commissioner Sir George Stewart reported that he had made representations to the Government to meet the legitimate demands of the Police. Sir Harry Lawson was Premier and Stanley Argyle, Chief Secretary. Sir George Stewart's pleas were unheeded. He was succeeded by Maj. Gen. Sir John Gellibrand, a former army man, who made repeated efforts to get the Government to listen to reason and finally in exasperation told it, he would no longer continue unless some action was taken, and he stated that in the event of him resigning he would give his reasons publicly. This he did. Alexander Nicholson replaced him and was in charge when the strike occurred.
In 1902 Police Pensions were abolished: all efforts to restore pensions failed. The other States had pension schemes. The men objected to four-hour shifts where men were "on" for 4 hours, "off" for 4 hours and then called "on" to do another 4 hours—an 8 hour day spread over 12 hours. Their pay was 3/7d. per day less than that of NSW Policemen. NSW Police had 28 days' annual leave and every second Sunday off—Victorian Police 17 days' annual leave, and one Sunday off in four.
The final blow-up did not eventuate from all these grievances but from the fact that four "special supervisors"—senior constables in plain clothes, were appointed to spy on them. The men resented "espionage" and called them SPOOKS.
As one of the strike leaders, Const. W. T. Brooks said—"So much of our time is taken up in watching for the supervisors and keeping to our Schedule times that we do not get a fair opportunity to detect crime."
Two experienced Constables, W. T. Brooks and Larry Pitts were threatened with discharge and brought from country town stations to Melbourne for a second chance. As they were single they were put to mess and sleep with the young chaps, who were influenced by them.
The Police due for night duty in the city refused to parade on Wednesday, Oct. 31st. So sure was Commissioner Nicholson that the men would not strike that two days earlier, on October 29th, he had said, "Police are not like ordinary trade unionists."
Police recruits were brought from the Police Depot but when they arrived at Russell Street they joined the others in the meeting and refused to parade.
The President of the Police Association, H. F. Kroger was dumbfounded and announced the Association was not consulted.
• • •
Earlier in the year Brooks had circulated a petition reading as follows:
Comrades and Fellow-workers,
Are you in favour of an indignation meeting?
Firstly, Restoration of Police pensions in accordance with part 3 of the Police Regulations Act 2709.
Secondly, Conditions prevailing in the NSW Constabulary as regards pay, annual leave and uniforms.
Thirdly, the so-called supervisors be withdrawn immediately from the Prussianism class of duty they are now performing. Senior Constables on plain clothes' duty in the streets to detect any breach of discipline amongst constables on patrol duty.
Five hundred signed the petition.
• • •
The day after the first refusal to parade, the Government proclaimed that the men must immediately return unconditionally or be dismissed.
Pitts was suspended and Brooks dismissed. Brooks took the opportunity to go round all suburban police stations explaining the position. By Friday nearly all police were "out" and a mass meeting was held at the Temperance Hall, Russell Street, near Bourke Street (scene of many union strike meetings). It commenced at 10 a.m. with 500 present and the number rose as country trains came in. At 4.30 p.m. between 700 and 800 were present. Only about ten country police reported for duty. The country strikers were wildly cheered as they arrived.
At this meeting Const. F. Tucker was in the Chair. W. T. Brooks was elected secretary-treasurer and Committeemen were Consts. E. J. Power, J. Davern, J. M. Burke, J. Heslin and A. M. Pitts.
Sen. Const. Cummins took the chair until the arrival of the Chairman, Tucker. He addressed the meeting as "comrades" and said, "I will admit that I am a bit of a red ragger but what I am I have been driven to by my officers."
A resolution was carried about scabs. They hoped that tramwaymen would not drive past men on duty.
The Victorian Racing Club asked for twenty men to regulate traffic at the Derby—this was refused. A deputation endeavoured to see the Premier, who declined.
As one speaker said, they "would as soon stop out and carry our swags" rather than return to work on the old conditions.
The main resolution of the meeting was: "This meeting of the Police Force of Victoria condemns the system of espionage practised in Melbourne and suburbs in view of the repeated requests for its abolition, and now expresses regret for the need for the present action, and should no victimisation take place and fair consideration be given to just grievances under which the force has been suffering, they are prepared to immediately resume duty, it being understood that the spooks shall not be on supervising duty pending the holding of a conference."
After the meeting, striking policemen went down town and abused police still on duty, calling them scabs and the like. Ordinary people around the city joined in the abuse. A clash between scabs and strikers occurred outside the Police Barracks.
Those who remained at work were mainly sub-officers, members of the Detective Branch, and plain clothes' men.
The Town Hall Police Depot was quickly prepared to enrol "special" police.
The Returned Soldiers League and Victorian Automobile Club promised assistance. An appeal was made to shopkeepers to look after their own premises with nightwatchmen. The President of the Chamber of Manufacturers, Sir Robert Gibson, said the Government had a right to regard the strike as mutiny. Lee Neil, Managing Director of Myers announced that they had protection from their nightwatchmen, many of whom were formerly policemen.
Cinemas flashed on their screens a message asking returned soldiers to rally around General Elliott. Some men rose and left the theatre immediately. Between 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. about five hundred men were sworn in and supplied with batons. The Government set up a Citizens' Committee, consisting of Mr. Brunton (the Lord Mayor elect deputising for the Lord Mayor who was ill), the Town Clerk, General Monash (in charge), General McKie, Sir Robert Gibson, and Sir Arthur Robinson. That night a baton charge was ordered on the people hanging around, and a firehose was used against the crowd, fourteen of whom were taken to hospital with cut heads, including a senior constable. Friday night shopping existed then, so there were many people in the city, but they were restrained. One man danced on top of a tram.
The main scene of action was near the corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets.
The crowd in town that day was not a "criminal" one, but the usual Bourke Street crowd. Bourke Street was always a racy street. Horse cabs and charabancs plied for hire to take people out to the races. The usual crowd went to the Derby in the usual way.
The only sign that the city was practically denuded of police, was the operation of a big two-up school in Bourke Street in front of the Victoria Arcade (mid-way between Russell and Swanston Streets on the south side). Even the journalist sensationalists had to admit that all was quiet till 5.30. At this time the race crowds were brought back from the course and deposited in Bourke Street. There were always a few drunks around but the measure of ingrained legalism is shown by the fact that the hotels shut at 6 p.m. as usual. Had the crowd been lawless they could have forced the publicans to stay open.
As the streets filled, people rather naturally gathered round the Bourke-Swanston corner where there were a handful of police.
The first window smashed was almost certainly accidental—a large crowd was crushed in the Ezywalkin Building entrance in Swanston Street, where there was an island window. It was easy for this to have caved in under pressure of the crowd.
Leviathan Stores continued trading despite the damage done by looters (advertisement in Argus, Monday 5th November 1923; image via Trove Digitised Newspapers, National Library of Australia).
A drunk pulled out a heavy iron shoe stand and threw it at the next door window of the Leviathan Stores. Four naval men stood in front of the Ezywalkin window and when one man bent to pick up a shoe he was felled by a naval man.
With the smashing of the Leviathan window the crowd quickly realised there was no barrier between themselves and the goods. They interpreted literally, signs in the window "GENUINE CLEARING SALE", "WHY GO SHABBY". Bottles were thrown to break other windows—many were hurt with flying glass. From there on it was rafferty's rules and whilst many calmly tried on clothes till they got their fit and were quite content at this, some of the shrewder ones realised it could be more profitable to take jewellery and made for these shops.
It was claimed twenty-five clothing stores and eighteen jewellery shops were emptied, although, of course the latter would be mainly brummagem in window displays.
Meanwhile, a cable-tram trying to get through the crowd in Bourke Street on the east side of Swanston Street was pulled off the cable and turned on its side and an effort made to burn it. A Herald van tried to drive through but on perceiving his van would be turned over, the driver was lucky enough to back out in time.
The clamour and sight of fire engines racing down Bourke Street from Eastern Hill Fire Station caused alarm and loud hooting, which turned to elation and cheering when the firemen saw what was happening and about-turned to Eastern Hill. People arrested by police scabs were rescued by the crowd.
Living in Bourke Street half a block from the main centre of action Laidler was keyed with fever-heat excitement. It was a taste of "revolution", an arm of the State apparatus had broken down—everyone with an understanding of the Marxist theory of the State was eager to see developments. Evidencing his feeling of oneness with the masses he took his young son on his shoulder and walked down through the middle of the crowd of people.
That Saturday night a Committee was due to meet at Laidler's place. The participants managed to get there by taking circuitous routes. Whilst the others were ready to settle down, and discuss the ordinary business of the organisation, Laidler could not give it attention. He was out on the overhanging roof from which the scene down at the corner could be viewed. When individuals tried to get him in he said, "What's the good of talking about revolution when this might be it now?"
The public were asked not to come into the city on Sunday but naturally huge numbers came out of curiosity, to see the broken windows and empty shops. They also saw the untouched shops being boarded up by carpenters hastily called in for emergency work. In the window of Gaunts, the Jewellers, could be seen two men sitting in full view in the window, with automatics and revolvers, facing the "window shoppers."
The specials drove through the crowds pushing them out of the city. On Sunday the Attorney-General announced that the men would not be reinstated.
Front page of a leaflet issued by the Trades Hall Council.
The strike surprised the Trade Union movement, too. In fact the Labor Call of November 15, 1923, wrote that militant action by the rank and file was an eyeopener to the industrial and political labour movement.
The striking policemen went to the Trades Hall for help.
The Police Association which was not affiliated to the THC or ALP did nothing for the men. In fact it was telling them to return when the way had already been barred.
The THC did give support to the strikers by issuing a manifesto to unionists, giving space in Labor Call, making an appeal to unions to strike a levy to give financial help and organising two demonstrations to the Yarra Bank. There were 4000 at the Bank on November 18th to protest at the Minister's Policy and H. E. Foster, President of the Trades Hall Council presided. Snr. Const. Cummins spoke and £15 was collected. The Australian Railways Union took a separate collection at a meeting at Unity Hall and marched to the Bank from its hall.
Pearce, Minister for Home and Territories cancelled all leave for Army, Navy and Airforce men.
The authorities decided to employ naval, military and airforce men to protect Commonwealth Property, and to call in retired men if necessary.
Farmers heard that the law-abiding citizens of Melbourne were about to be overwhelmed by the underworld. They mounted their horses, bicycles or drove in their model T Fords and horse and buggies to the nearest railway station and came cityward.
Members of the armed services are not permitted by law to participate in civil disturbances but some army men came in civil clothes, giving false names.
The Melbourne University was primarily peopled by the sons of rich men, the scholarship being almost unknown until the Labor Government introduced Commonwealth Scholarships. Many students rushed in to scab just as did their English counterparts in the General Strike of 1926.
The specials were enrolled for a limited period only, and although many thought their loyalty would ensure them a job in the permanent force they were rejected when enrolment was opened. Their pay as specials was 15/- a day for 7 days a week. Police who had remained "loyal" were paid 12/- a day.
It was amusing to learn that the specials held a stop-work meeting on Saturday, the 17th November, at the Alexander Avenue Depot.
They refused weekend work and asked for leave (as there was no weekend leave), a mess allowance and no deductions in pay. 4/- of their 15/- pay was being deducted for food.
A deputation was formed to the officer commanding, Sir James McCay. Included in the deputation were two former Army officers. It was agreed to grant married men leave until 3 p.m. on Sunday and single men from 3 p.m. till midnight. The food position was to be looked into. So conscienceless and stupid was the Govt. that it learned no lesson from the police strike and was prepared to antagonise the scabs.
The city was affected by a virtual curfew. No trams or trains ran after 7 p.m. The sale of bottle supplies of alcoholic drinks was prohibited. Searchlights played continuously all night on the city, from Warships anchored in the bay.
The following article written by Laidler appeared in the Shop Assistant November issue.
THE MELBOURNE RIOTS
By an EYE-WITNESS
Readers are bound to be interested in the Melbourne doings of the last few days. It is Cup night. I have just come through from the post office. It is 10 p.m., and though the streets are almost deserted, there is a soldier, fully equipped ready for action, with bayonet fixed, on duty inside the door of the post office. Armed blue-jackets guard the Federal Treasury, and armed men guard other Federal property. Coming from the post office, a distance of two blocks, fourteen motor-cars containing special police passed slowly by. All night long, through the city streets, scores of these motor patrol cars glide slowly in and out, up and down. Occasionally motor lorries, loaded with specials, pass along. This has been so for three nights now. Guarding the city's property we have also, tramping up and down all night long, companies of specials, batons swinging; and squads of Light Horsemen. Newspaper reports say there are 8,000 specials. In one city block, at the one time, I have counted 200 in company formation, all bearing the armbands and swinging their batons. But the streets are almost deserted. No trams nor trains run after 7 o'clock. Everything now appears as peaceful as could be. But it was not so earlier in the strike.
Saturday afternoon and night Melbourne passed through, for Melbourne, a unique experience. The Government had lost its police force. It had not organised anything to take its place. A few police pensioners and a very few loyalists were to be seen. Towards 6 p.m. the atmosphere in Bourke-street became electric. Men talked to the few police as they liked. They punched them when they cared; and the members of police on duty were so few that they dared not, for their lives' sake, retaliate. The trams were forcibly stopped, attempts were made to set fire to them, to derail them, or to turn them over. By this time, all police but one or two pensioners (who were excused by the crowd) had thought it advisable to leave Bourke-street. Some went to join the strikers. Others went with bleeding faces. A dramatic moment then occurred. The fire brigade was seen sweeping down Bourke-street. Amidst the hoots of thousands, they arrived at the scene of action. The firemen were immediately surrounded, and within a few seconds cheer upon cheer went up as the firecarts turned for home. Then began the window-smashing and looting. Shop window after shop window was broken, until the footpath in the affected area was littered with broken glass and all sorts of fittings, such as dummy bodies for dresses and foot-rests for boots, etc., etc., lay scattered on footpath, gutter and roadway. Right up till late Saturday night excitement continued. Police re-inforcements arrived from the country, baton charges and rioting generally persisted until midnight. At 6 p.m., at 7 p.m., at 11 p.m., I went through the storm centre. At 11 p.m. I walked a block on broken pieces of plate-glass. The footpath was covered with it. Jewellery shops were specially favored by the looters, but hat shops, boot shops, and clothing shops were stripped of their window contents. Sunday came, and with it 100,000 sight-seers, Specials and Light Horsemen began to appear. Baton charges by specials were numerous in both afternoon and evening. All day Sunday two-up schools played in the heart of Bourke-street, as on Friday night, when a huge gathering surrounded and watched for hours a big two-up game in front of the Bijou Theatre, Bourke street. Monday morning came, and the barricading of shops in the city area proceeded apace. At six o'clock, carpenters were at work everywhere. In the main city block the vast majority of the shop windows were completely barricaded, and city shop-keepers, who had armed themselves during the day, in the majority of cases guarded their shops all night long. But Monday night passed with very few incidents. No large crowds gathered. Specials marched the streets in military order. Light Horsemen and motor patrols formed almost a continuous procession.
Laidler was correct in assuming it would be hard to persuade the ordinary worker to support the police, indeed it is hard to know how wholehearted the THC was in its support, for its manifesto (dated November 14th 1923), recalled the Waterside Workers' Strike of 1917, saying "Police doing duty on the waterfront in the 1917 strike were termed '8 bob a day scabs'." It goes on to say the men loyally obeyed orders, many worked 16 hours a day and several accumulated up to 135 hours overtime. Some of them had not yet been recompensed for the overtime. ". . . The men have been treated as though they had lost their manhood and had no right to claim justice". Hardly calculated to win a levy from the Waterside Workers' Union.
The Labor Call possibly summed up the position when it wrote that many trade unions wonder why the industrial movement was drawn into the dispute, and goes on to explain that members of the police force are part and parcel of our present social system and that in past disputes they were used to defeat the workers. It then pointed out they had bad conditions, low rates of pay and they had had driven home to them the power of the press. Certainly there were plenty of diehards who said, "Let them have a taste of their own medicine."
Helping to bridge the gap between the organised Labour movement and the Ex-Police were Laidler and Bert Payne, another member of the Labor Propaganda Group. They worked tirelessly to influence unions and their officials; they spoke at street meetings with ex-Police, putting the case to the public. By this time Brooks had dropped out and Sen.-Const. Ted Cummins had become the leading figure in the strike.
The strike gradually petered out with the organisation of large numbers of Specials.
The ex-Police formed a Police Reinstatement Committee to which Laidler was given a life honorary membership for his work for the strikers.
Conditions improved for the Police force—the Labor Call commented, that whether the strike was justified or not strike action had moved the Government more quickly than years of "constitutional" agitation.
What the striking police failed to gain for themselves, they achieved for the future members of the police force.
General conditions were improved, the rank and file received better treatment; better accommodation and better equipment were provided, a better proportion in pay increases gained and pensions were created.
Laidler went on a deputation with some of the police to his brother-in-law Tunnecliffe whilst Labor was in office, to try for reinstatement of the men. This was refused but the suggestion was made that Police try to get jobs as City Council Traffic Officers. It is possible Tunnecliffe helped in this regard as a number did secure work in this capacity. Most of the men obtained better jobs than they had in the police force. Some got jobs in the Tramways, as nightwatchmen and in the Penal Department as warders. One, Bill Winterton was a well-known figure spruiking outside the Tivoli Theatre. He later became a hotel manager.
The THC employed ex-policeman Ross as caretaker and he was used, from time to time, to bar militants from conferences.
From the struggle some permanent gains accrued to the labour movement, notably ex-Sen. Const. Cummins became an active recruit to the movement.
He had been twenty years in the force, had an unblemished record and had won a Valor Badge. He stood as an ALP candidate for Hawthorn in the State Elections of June 1924, and gained 6,511 votes from a total vote of 19,153. Later he went to New South Wales.
During the 1924 election campaign, parties of ex-police were very active. One paper proclaimed, "No feature of the present electoral campaign stands out more prominently than the persistence with which small parties of men who were discharged from the Police force for refusing duty, attend meetings addressed by members of the Cabinet, to heckle the speakers."
Another very fine recruit for the movement was Barney Shanahan. He became a close friend of Laidler.
It had been intended that he be a Priest and several of his brothers in Ireland were priests. He used to go to mass twice on Sundays. The strike completely changed his outlook. A serious, thinking man, he studied Marx and became a Marxist.
His father had been a sergeant of police in the Kelly country—Glenrowan, Wodonga and Albury. Barney became the black sheep of the family. After the strike he became a warder and rose in the Penal Department to Deputy Governor of the Castlemaine gaol, and while there drew up a detailed report on Prison life incorporating progressive ideas. It was submitted to the Inspector-General of Prisons.
Owing to heart trouble he was transferred to Pentridge where he had less responsibility and was close to specialist medical care.
He and a companion warder, who had also been in the police strike, used to call regularly to see Laidler in the shop on their day off. They were responsible for building a fine library in Pentridge.
This great man died on the 11th October, 1946, and it was his request that Percy Laidler should officiate at his funeral. All the warders attended and also high prison officials (Barney was so popular they paid for his funeral). Many of the mourners were Catholic. Laidler officiated at many secular funeral "services" and always endeavoured "to say something to the religious so they wouldn't feel so bad about it not being a conventional priest or parson saying the last words." He did it so well that many religious people broached him later and told him they had never heard a parson or priest speak so well.
The absence of a trained, disciplined body of police was felt in the city. In April, 1924, it was stated that in the previous six months there were a great number of cases of police being bashed, because of the poor quality of the police. The old police had been able to handle situations. Two men, said to be specials were killed, one kicked to death near Wirths Circus and the other found in Queen Street.
A Riot Sufferers League was formed to fight for compensation.
Large numbers of people including many women continued to be prosecuted for looting over a period of months—informers must have been very active. The standard sentence whether a man took a handkerchief or an expensive suit was 3 months. Some had boldly taken their loot and put it on sale outside the Stadium, where the queue was offered silver plated teapots for 2/- each and rolls of suiting at low price.
In June, 1924, a State election resulted in the return of a Labor Government. In opposition, the Party had been critical of the Government and promised reinstatement of the strikers, if office was gained. G. Prendergast became Premier and T. Tunnecliffe Chief Secretary of the Government which had to manoeuvre out of an awkward situation.
It did this by appointing a Royal Commission, sittings of which did not begin until the 8th September, 1924. General Monash (Chairman), John Martin Henderson (Ex-president Police Association) and Charles Stewart McPherson (Public Service Board) constituted the Commission. The terms of the Commission were:
(1) General state of efficiency and conditions of the force prior to 1923.
(2) Present standard of efficiency of force and best method of securing efficiency if found to be impaired.
(3) As to whether further and better police protection throughout the State or any part thereof is necessary; and if so what would be the most effective means for ensuring such protection.
The Labor Government was defeated during the sittings of the Royal Commission and on the 17th November, Allan of the Country Party, reconstructed the scope of the Commission by deleting clauses 2 and 3. The terms of the Commission then were:
1. (a) General state of efficiency of the force prior to 1923.
(b) As to whether any and what grievances were complained of by members of the force prior to November, 1923.
(c) The cause or causes that moved certain persons then members of the force to refuse duty in November 1923.
(d) The consequences arising from such refusal of duty.
A. D. Ellis was Counsel for the Police Department, A. W. Foster instructed by Crown Solicitor appeared to assist the Commission.
The Re-Instatement Association was represented by Sonenberg and Shelton.
Like most Commissions, the result was simply a torrent of words and much expense to the taxpayer.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
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