Towards the end of August, 1925, a strike began which stretched across the globe. British seamen walked off their ships in the ports of England, Canada, South Africa, America, New Zealand, Australia and wherever British seamen were.
Australia had never before played host to striking workers from another country.
The British seamen had been receiving a pay of £10 a month in comparison to Australian seamen receiving £14 per month and keep. Hours and conditions were deplorable. Havelock Wilson, the General President of the Sailors' and Firemen's Union of Great Britain and Ireland (commonly known as the Seamen's Union) had agreed with the shipowners that this was too much and the seamen should work for £9 per month.
Havelock Wilson was getting £1000 per annum in his life-appointment job, was an O.B.E., belonged to an exclusive liberal club and was attended always by a manservant. He earned the nickname, "Have-a-lot" Wilson.
The shipping industry was one of the wealthiest combines on earth and had made hundreds of millions during the war.
After agreement on the award, which not only reduced the wages but "booked off" at sea, overtime worked in port, the owners and Seamen's Union toasted each other in champagne—a fine banquet to celebrate a wage reduction which brought the British wage below that of the Japanese.
By August 31st forty-four vessels were tied up in Australia with something like 2500 men affected. Havelock Wilson, O.B.E., declared the only men "striking" in England were unemployed exploited by the Communists. He said the men were freely signing on, and realised that the best bargain had been made in their interests.
However the union members claimed they were never consulted, and this was a big point of grievance.
Prime Minister of Australia, Stanley Melbourne Bruce (U.A.P.) received a cable from Wilson urging him to protect British seamen carrying out their contracts and restrain the members of the Australian Seamen's Union from interfering in the dispute. Labor politicians and Trade Union leaders felt that union "etiquette" would have been preserved had Wilson communicated with official Labor first. It was considered an extraordinary step to communicate direct with a rival political party.
Union officials and Labor politicians did not as a whole welcome the strike but the officials of the Seamen's Union were wholeheartedly in support, so much so that General Secretary, Tom Walsh and Assistant Secretary, Jacob Johnson were in danger of deportation. The marine transport unions in Melbourne decided to support the strike and it was suggested that unionists in work levy themselves 5/- per week.
It was a fantastic strike which had to be battled from day to day. The Strike Committees formed in the various ports never knew how many ships would be in and how many men would be out.
In Melbourne the main burden of the strike was carried on by a small body consisting of Jim Morley acting as Secretary, Charlie O'Neill who was assistant secretary of the Seamen's Union (representing the local people) together with two men from each ship. Later Joe Shelley, president of the Communist Party and a member of the Seamen's Union, was co-opted.
Emergencies were always arising.
Two hundred men came off the "Euripides" in Melbourne, most of them without a penny in their pockets. They had to walk up from Port Melbourne to the city. The men were sent to a cafe under the viaduct in Flinders Street for a meal paid for by the union. Cafe proprietors faced with keen competition were prepared to reduce the cost to an almost non-existent margin of profit.
Great work was done by local men, Noel (Ham and Eggs) Lyons, his brother Lacey and Ted Dickinson in canvassing waterfront pubs. In one afternoon when need was dire they went out and came back with £90, some of it literally reefed from the publicans who depended on seamen and watersiders for their profits. Noel was so-named for his reputation of holding up his ship for a decent breakfast of ham and eggs. Ted Dickinson was executed in Spain fighting against Franco. Well known for his daring in action, when captured by Spanish Fascists and Moorish mercenaries he made his famous utterance just prior to his execution "If we had 10,000 Australian bushmen here we'd drive these bastards into the sea".
In Sydney, in the beginning, strikers lived on the ships but they were soon locked out, resulting in three hundred men from the Themistocles sleeping out in the Domain. Later men were accommodated as far as a "doss" was concerned on the floor of the Communist Party Hall in Sussex Street.
The Trades Hall in Goulburn Street became headquarters of the Strike.
• • •
The "Cornwall" was the first ship out in Melbourne on August 20th followed by "Euripides" August 25th.
Percy Laidler in Melbourne took it upon himself to find beds, when, at 5 p.m. one night it was found that a hundred men had come ashore.
That great humanitarian-Christian, above politics, organisation the Salvation Army refused his request that the homeless should have the luxury of sleeping on the floor of one of its many halls.
Because of his intimate acquaintance with Melbourne, Laidler was able to secure beds in two hotels in Bourke Street, itself. At this time Eleanor Neil was managing the huge Palace Hotel and when Perc and Eleanor's brother Jack broached her, she quickly agreed to make beds available. Another well-known hotel, opposite Andrade's bookshop, Parer's Crystal Palace hotel was the dwelling place of interstate Union leaders and labor party leaders when they were in Melbourne. The Manager, Jones, was well-known to Laidler and he also agreed to make beds available.
During the progress of the strike many seamen were "adopted" by families. They were housed, fed and given pocket money by those who could afford to do so. Some people who did this were Fred Riley, a great anti-conscription fighter who became secretary of the Manufacturing Grocers' Union and eventually an intense DLP'er. He adopted a young lad named Tom, who became keenly interested in politics. Mr. Fred Edmonds, an owner of the Ruskin Press and head of a family of staunch supporters of the labour movement, adopted two young seamen. Sally Barker and Harry Barker (bookseller) adopted two men.
The seamen themselves, some little more than children, looked so pathetic, so underfed, so white and unhealthy that it was quite apparent to even an unemployed Australian that these men were greater victims of the system than he himself. If there had been compulsory lung screening, the result would probably have been appalling.
Their conditions on board were wretched. They worked up to 12 hours a day, had poor quarters and poor and inadequate food. Tea, sugar and other food was rationed out to so much per week. There were no facilities for washing clothing, or bathing on at least 80% of British owned ships. Men slept and ate in the forecastle (like a dormitory). In the "Themistocles", they slept in a dormitory approximately 120 feet x 6 feet. There was a table down the centre on which to eat and it had to be put away so the men could go to bed.
Maximum hours were fixed at 84 per week.
There were no medical officers for the men. On some ships the run for coal barrows was one hundred yards long. Conditions on foreign ships were better.
Even drinking water was limited and frequently, crossing the tropics firemen came out of the hold fainting and were denied water.
The men had only two outfits and during stormy weather would be wet through on watch after watch. Of their wages of £2.5.0 per week seamen had to supply their own bed (usually a bag of straw), bedding, eating utensils and special working clothes, and also pay 2d. union dues and 1d. insurance.
From the balance 25/- per week was paid to wife and children. 15/- was reserved for the seamen and handed over for clothes and other expenses as required. The balance (if any) was paid over at the end of the voyage as wages.
Lascars were paid only 30/- per month.
While the slaves, their wives and children eked out existence on this meagre pittance Lord Inchcape the owner of the P.& O. shipping line and British India Companies was spending £1 a day on perfume. Even this didn't make him smell any sweeter to his slaves.
While the men were on strike the allowance of 25/- per week was cut off from their families.
A strong supporter of the strike was A. W. FOSTER, who later became Judge Foster. In an article in Labor Call of September 10th, 1925, he set out a table of food cost comparisons to give some idea of the buying capacity of the 25/- family allowance. There is no chicken and champagne on the list.
Prices. England and Australia.
|Bread||10½d.||11d.||4 lb. loaf|
|Beef||10d. to 1/6||4d. to 10d.||per 1 lb.|
|Mutton||11½d. to 1/8½||5d. to 1/-||per 1 lb.|
|Potatoes||10d.||1/-||for 7 lb.|
Now a further 5/- reduction.
The strikers' demands were:
1) Maintenance of old ratings in every department.
2) 48 hour week at sea, and 44 hour week in port.
3) Overtime to be paid at time and one half (week days) and double time for Sundays. Work at sea for all hands including firemen. Firemen to receive overtime pay for heaving coal after 8 hours work had been performed.
4) Abolition of Sunday work in port.
5) Abolition of the PC5.
6) Right to form ships' committees—representative of all departments and recognition of duly elected representatives by officials and officers, and no victimisation.
The P.C.5 Order became well known amongst Australian workers. Another man in Melbourne who worked steadily for the strikers was Jack Chapple, the Secretary of the Australian Railways Union, Victorian Branch. Jack Chapple described Wilson as running a profitable employment bureau. Wilson had an agreement with the shipping companies that no-one could be employed except through trade union agency. To get a job a man had to be financial—to be the holder of a "P.C.5 Order" which completed Wilson's monopoly position, and union dues were deducted from the wages of the men.
"Scab-a-lot" Wilson as the English called him had a fine record of ten years' peace in industry but was an "internationalist" in that he encouraged and supported all foreign strikes. This way the British shipowners gained the work. The British seamen had become regarded as scabs amongst the European seamen for the role Wilson forced them to play.
The seamen themselves played a very active part which kept morale high.
Many men who had never been in front of an audience before, became good propagandists as the strike continued. They addressed workshop and factory gate, lunch-hour meetings by day, and street and union meetings by night. They evoked great sympathy over a much wider area than was expected.
The strike came at the chief exporting time of the year and affected the farmers severely. Refrigerator cargo ship movements were at the height of their season. Farmers were worried about their produce rotting.
The press was never more rabid on the effect the strike could have on the farmers. Yet in country centres such as Bendigo, Ballarat and Geelong the story of shipboard life told by the seamen themselves aroused sympathy and brought substantial gifts of money and food for the strike fund.
Cockney wit went down well.
"They told us in 1914 we were fighting to make England a place fit for heroes to live in. Well, a man has to be a hero to live there now."
"Seamen have to provide their own beds and as a rule they purchase a bag of straw to lie on, that costs 2/6 in England (interjection: 'a donkey's breakfast'). No, the donkeys sleep on it."
Percy Laidler addressing a Yarra Bank rally in support of the seamen.
The Strike Committee organised a weekly dance at Unity Hall, Bourke Street, the hall of the Australian Railways Union. Seamen supplied their own excellent music. Many a function in Melbourne high society would have been pleased to boast three orchestras. Two were professional bands which entertained passengers on two of the ships. One was a string band of the old type and the other a then modern, saxophone band. The third was a self-trained group known as the "kazoo" band, as this was the main instrument together with a second-hand kettle drum procured by Laidler. There were also paper-comb players, spoon players and a triangle player. This band usually headed processions to the Yarra Bank and was once referred to in the press as "a nondescript band of strikers playing a variety of instruments."
Melbourne women were wonderful, exerting their utmost to raise money for the Strike Fund and in providing supper for dances. There was a regular team of Communist and Socialist women who turned up to the supper-room each week at Unity Hall to prepare a supper which was more like a meal for the dancers. Mrs. Blackler, Mrs. Barker, Mrs. Peach, Mrs. Jeschke, Mrs. Nicholson, Mrs. Young to name a few, whilst well-known Port Melbourne figure, Mrs. Jennie Baines was an attraction as a platform speaker.
Meetings and demonstrations in support of the strike were huge, the greatest since the anti-conscription campaigns. Meetings on the Domain rose from 10,000 to an estimated 100,000. The largest of these was addressed by Matthew Charlton, the ALP leader of the Opposition. One speaker declared "Today we think of the bonds of Empire in the terms of the bonds of Trade Unionism". Collections were large, as much as £78 on the Domain and £150 was collected in the Bijou Theatre, Bourke Street, lent free by Fullers (the wellknown theatrical entrepreneurs) addressed by Tom Walsh.
Meetings were held in the Sydney Town Hall with the Lord Mayor as a speaker.
Clothing was collected for the poorly-clad strikers. In Brisbane two clergymen showed interest and Rev. F. E. Maynard of All Saints Church and Dr. Sharp, Archbishop of Brisbane visited the men and gathered material on their conditions.
When Bruce decided to go to the country in elections, Melbourne stepped up its meetings to twenty every night.
Large Bijou theatre meetings were addressed by Bill Duggan (President) THC, E. J. Holloway (Secretary) THC, Frank Anstey, MHR, and George Prendergast, MLA.
Demonstrations drew in the Australian supporters, kept up morale and augmented the bottomless pit of the Strike Fund which in the face of the huge sums of money required was always in debit. In the beginning three meals a day were catered; but this had of necessity to be cut to two meals. There were Sunday night meetings in the Socialist Hall in Exhibition Street.
A camp was set up in Mt. Macedon and of course with men of all callings on board ship there were plenty of skilled cooks, carpenters and jacks-of-all-trades to make a model camp. Lord Stonehaven, the Governor, made an informal visit to the camp and unofficially subscribed £5 to the fund.
On September 9th in Melbourne 329 warrants were signed and 107 issued on that date. The rest were issued later. The Masters of various vessels took out writs charging the men with "having refused to obey lawful commands".
A mass meeting of the men decided to co-operate with the police in serving the warrants which otherwise would have been rather impossible to serve.
The reason for the decision was that it would be a great relief to the Strike Fund to have the Government pay for the keep of the men for a while and from the men's point of view the conditions would be far better than aboard ship.
On the 13th September there was a big march to the Yarra Bank in support of the men going to Court the day following. A banner worded, "DOWN WITH TRAITOR WILSON WHO SOLD US" typified the spirit of the march. A contingent of the Former Police Reinstatement Association and Railway Refreshment Waitresses who were on strike marched. Joe Shelley chaired the Bank meeting and speakers were Maurice Blackburn, MLA, Bob Solly, MLA, J. Murphy, MLA, and G. Prendergast, MLA. A big collection was taken up and each donor of a £1 note was greeted with mass singing of "For he's a jolly good fellow". Twelve seamen were paraded on a lorry as the fine type of men who were going to be "degraded and debased in a felon's cell" as one speaker put it. On the same Sunday Laidler addressed a big meeting in Wonthaggi. With its own rich experience of industrial struggle and deprivation, Wonthaggi responded well.
Percy Laidler, Shop Assistants' Union and THC, Chandler, Engineers' Union and THC, R. Beardsworth, President of the Victorian Council of the ALP (endorsed Labor candidate for Flinders), and Rice, one of the members of the crew of a British ship on strike spent the weekend in Wonthaggi.
On Sunday morning they attended the meeting of the local branch of the Miners' Federation. R. Coffey, President of the Union, presided, and Rice, the striker, was received with great interest as he detailed the food and conditions.
The local paper The Wonthaggi Sentinel reported, "Laidler was forceful and lucid, and he dealt trenchantly with the inhuman and disgraceful conditions attached to the lives of the overseas seamen". "Murderers and hardened criminals are treated better, better cared for and fed in Victoria than honest men."
The result of the meeting was a motion of support moved by J. C. Welsh, seconded by W. J. Dowling; a donation of £100, a levy of 1¼ per cent and a £25 collection.
• • •
On Monday the strikers assembled at the Victorian Branch of the Seamen's Union and about 9 a.m. the march began from the south side of Queens Bridge, down Flinders Street, Elizabeth Street, Bourke Street and finally turned into Russell Street and up the hill to the City Watch-house. The men appearing that day were from the "Pt. Kembla", "Pt. Brisbane" and "Portfield". Later it was the turn of the men from the "Euripides" and "Cornwall". The first banner was inscribed "PRISON BEFORE SLAVERY", the second "HEROES IN 1914 SLAVES IN 1925." 99 men appeared and all pleaded not guilty. J. M. Cullity well-known barrister appeared for the men instructed by Solicitor Frank Brennan of anti-conscription fame, later an MHR and Attorney-General. R. Knight was the Police Magistrate who handed out gaol sentences. The magistrate asked the men if they would return to their ships and take them back to England. In response a chorus of seamen bellowed "NO". They were sentenced to three weeks and fined two days' pay and exited singing "Pack up your troubles."
In succeeding days others were charged and sentenced.
The demeanour of the men created a very favourable impression and their treatment in gaol was very good. The warders were sympathetic, got them little extras, shut their eyes to a little tobacco smuggling and in general showed they were real human beings.
• • •
The authorities became similarly active in Sydney, Adelaide, New Zealand and South Africa. In Sydney two different magistrates gave, in one case 21 days, in another 7 days.
The strike in New Zealand, very much a farming country, was more disastrous in its effect on the economy than in Australia. It completely dislocated trade. N.Z. was not only affected by fifteen ships tying up in N.Z. but also by fourteen tied up in Australia that were due to pick up produce in New Zealand. Banks in N.Z. suspended advances against produce.
The indignation of the Government was expressed in harsh sentences of 6 weeks' gaol and 2 weeks' pay in Auckland and Wellington — regarded as the most savage Tory sentence yet on Britishers in any part of the world.
At New Plymouth 28 men from the "Port Dunedin" were sentenced to one month's gaol.
In Auckland the men from the "Benicia" marched up Queen Street, down Victoria Street and east to the Magistrate's Court under a banner "WE PREFER JAIL TO STARVATION WAGES". They had great sympathy from onlookers. In Wellington 86 men of the "Arawa" marched singing, with 500 supporters to the Terrace Gaol. As each man's name was called he marched through their own lines and was cheered by the crowd as he entered the gaol.
|Hard Labour Rations, NSW Government Gaols||Seamen's Scale of Provisions|
|per day||per day|
|Bread||20 oz.||16 oz.|
|Oaten Meal||8 oz.||1½ oz.|
|Meat||12 oz.||12 oz.|
|Potatoes||16 oz.||13 oz.|
|Sugar||3 oz.||3 oz.|
|per week||per week|
|Salt||3½ oz.||2 oz.|
|5 blankets, cocoanut matting, hot bath, candles, light, water in cell. Weekend off. Read to 8.30. 1 visitor a month. Books.||No bed or bedding, no bathing. Water 4 qts. daily. No eating utensils.|
The names of the ships became wellknown as their men were identified with them.
The "Euripides" became best known because it had the most men in Melbourne, and in Sydney, the "Themistocles" was prominent. In Sydney were also the "Drama", Beltana", "Port Darwin", "Port Denison", "Surrey", "Tarroa", "Aeneas", "Autolycus", "Hurunui".
In Fremantle the "Orsova" and "Borda".
Melbourne the "Cornwall", "Portland", "Pt. Kembla", "Pt. Brisbane".
"Port Wellington", "Orsova", "Ruahine" as well as the "Euripides".
In Brisbane the "Pipiriki".
Durban (South Africa) "Durham Castle", "Apolda", "Northumberland".
Auckland, N.Z., "Benicia Kent", "Pt. Sydney" and "Hollinside" (the last named was getting Australian rates in Australian waters but still came out in solidarity).
Wellington, N.Z., "The Arawa".
Men on the ships in South Africa were being paid South African rates which were higher than British rates, but the men were demanding Australian rates.
As soon as the first ships came out the Governor-General, Lord Forster, proclaimed that a "serious industrial disturbance exists in Australia." This proclamation brought into operation the Deportation Clause of the Immigration Act. It was directed against any person not born in Australia, who interfered with the laws of the Commonwealth relating to trade and commerce or conciliation and arbitration.
The leader article in the Argus of 25th August hastened to point out that this was not a dispute within the meaning of the Arbitration Act. British seamen were not members of a Union registered in Australia nor could owners be brought within the jurisdiction of arbitration laws.
Already on the 27th August a Deportation Board was set up consisting of Algernon Stratford Canning, formerly a Police magistrate of Perth, as Chairman; Frederick James Kindon of Sydney, accountant, and Norman De Horne Rowland of Sydney, Barrister. These men were described by the Labor Daily as three obscure persons, who were to receive £25 a day (for a period of six weeks). Whilst many serious labour people had supported the men from the outset, the deportation threat swung big numbers of leaders and greater sections of the rank and file into action.
Despite the fact that the strike was world wide, and the striking British seamen in Australia had come to the Seamen's Union and asked for help, the Australian Government and press claimed that the Australians had coerced the British seamen into coming out and were using force to intimidate reluctant strikers. The strike had started with the "Balranald" men in Adelaide and spread from Australia to England. Alf Foster said it was dishonest to say the strike was the work of Walsh and Johnson. It was a spontaneous move throughout the world.
The Prime Minister of South Africa, Hertzog, said that the "men's action appears to be entirely of their own volition and they have not been persuaded by anyone in South Africa". This was the truth in Australia too, but there was a complete rapport between Havelock Wilson and Bruce. Havelock Wilson made a great hue and cry to all governments to protect the "loyalists", and Bruce's line of "putting the blame" on Australians suited him. Walsh and Johnson knew nothing of it until the strike began.
A. W. Foster declared the Proclamation signed by F. G. Pearce was a dishonest proclamation. It was made within a day or two of the first intimation of the British Seamen's Strike. He pointed out that no jury, no court or Judge was to make the final decision. It was merely to be made by a Government board and a single Minister.
He said that it would be a tragedy if drastic steps to prevent the deportation of any citizen from Australia were not taken immediately. The whole force of Australian industrial sentiment should be arrayed to meet the danger.
Bob Solly, M.L.A., said that Labor members of Parliament throughout Australia should be urged to work with the Trades Hall Councils.
Lang, Premier of New South Wales played a good role throughout the strike and the deportation attempt.
It was mainly owing to his attitude that the Commonwealth Government was compelled to reconstitute a Commonwealth Police Force.
Late in August the Federal Solicitor General waited on Premier Lang, requesting that state instrumentalities set up a Deportation Board. Lang refused.
He said "I regard the Act as one of the most iniquitous and monstrous ever passed in any country and I will firmly refuse to permit city instrumentalities to be abused for the purposes of deporting political or industrial leaders." He went further and suggested that the Federal Government had no power and in his opinion the legality of the act could be challenged.
He said that there was "not the slightest sign of lawlessness in this city [Sydney] . . . the seamen were models of good conduct and have occasioned no trouble whatever."
He suggested that if the Federal Government continued arresting and gaoling the strikers a lot more gaols would have to be built. He was vilified and had to deny that he was providing free meals at Government expense to 500 strikers who ate regularly at the Railway Refreshment Rooms.
Doyen of anti-conscription campaign journalists, Henry Boote came into the campaign, as editor of the Worker, organ of the Australian Workers' Union.
His biting pen delighted in descriptive phrases denoting Stanley Melbourne Bruce.
"Bruce, the pet of Flinders Lane", the "Tailor's darling", "Mr. Mussolini Bruce". He wrote "What large lies you have got Grandmother" in exposing Bruce's firm Patterson Laing & Bruce of Flinders Lane selling German goods.
Senator Pearce got his share from Henry Boote: ". . . petty despot like George Pearce, who having absolutely betrayed his own class, is glad to be the tool of another." He described him as a—"Time serving politician who ratted with Hughes and then ratted on the rat." One of his editorials finishes with: "The Deportation Act is a monstrous abrogation of democratic principles. In such a crisis labor forgets its internal differences and quarrels. The sundered ranks close up instinctively when unionism is challenged. Solidarity forever." He quoted the wages of British seamen in 1688 as £2 per month and in 1888 as £3.15.0 a month. Claiming the cost of living had multiplied five times from 1888, he accused that the men were being kept on an Elizabethan wage.
The Workers Weekly, organ of the Communist Party vied with The Worker, when it called Bruce the "Flinders Lane Knut"—"hireling of the capitalist class of the British Empire"—"a political robot in gilded uniform."
Although the deportation moves appeared to coincide with the British Seamen's strike the preparation was made over a period of preceding months. The Government awaited the psychological moment to begin legal process. Before the Strike, Anti Deportation Committees existed.
The Australian Seamen's Union had been active in local issues for which it had been deregistered. The seamen's main demand was that conditions of labour should be specified in the articles they signed—usual practice in other countries. The owners were no less militant than the men and tried to break conditions by chartering vessels in England. Naturally the Australians preferred the English seamen be paid Australian rates.
An incident which infuriated the "Flinders Lane knut all dressed up and nowhere to go" took place in Melbourne.
Thousands of distinguished guests were to go down Port Phillip Bay on the "Weeroona" to welcome the American Admiral when the American Fleet visited Australia in July 1925. Firemen on the "Weeroona", led by Tom Botsman, objected. They resolved: "We refuse to fire the ship unless Bruce leaves the ship and gives a written apology to be published in the press, for the malicious lies and insults heaped upon us during the strike."
The guests had to leave the ship as Bruce would not agree.
"An exhibition of class spitefulness", claimed the Sydney Telegraph whilst the Sydney Morning Herald regarded it as "National Humiliation."
The Act was aimed at trade union militants born overseas.
Tom Walsh born in Ireland, Jacob Johnson born in Holland, Jock Garden born in Scotland, and Bob Heffron, New Zealand. Had the effort of the Government been successful it would then have operated in Melbourne against Charles O'Neill, Jim Morley and Joe Shelley.
Foster from his extensive legal knowledge pointed out that Walsh was not an immigrant. He had been here thirty years and was here before the Commonwealth became an independent entity. He was one person who in the words of the constitution "agreed to unite in one indissoluble Federal Commonwealth under the Crown."
The deportation of such a man with wife and who had three children born and brought up in Australia amounted to exile in a foreign country.
At the end of October the police paid a 2 a.m. visit on Walsh. When asked for the reason one policeman said "We heard you had flitted, I was sent around to make sure." Walsh said "Tell Bruce he is more likely to flit before me."
A taxi driver who had driven the police went to the Labor Daily office and gave a full story on their behaviour and remarks in his cab. On returning to the cab the remark was, "Drawn blank, all right. He was there as large as life and he said Bruce would be likely to escape before he would."
The function of the Board was to decide whether to recommend the deportation from the Commonwealth of any person summonsed by the Minister to appear. If the Board recommended deportation, the Act empowered the Minister to make an order for deportation. Failure of a witness to appear made him guilty of an offence. Although the Board was entitled to hold its sittings in camera it decided for open hearing.
The first meeting of the Board was held in Sydney on Saturday, the 29th August. The proceedings from the outset were lively. A sensation resulted when the N.S.W. State Attorney-General McTiernan consented to defend Walsh and Johnson. There was uproar in the Legislative Assembly. R. D. Meagher, Solicitor for the Defence, said that it was not unusual for the Attorney-General to appear in Court. However, Meagher had later to state he regretted that it had been found that the Attorney-General would not be able to form part of the Defending Counsel because his presence was necessary in Parliament for the debate on the Abolition of Capital Punishment Bill (of which McTiernan was in charge).
Defending Counsel was H. V. Evatt, later to become leader of the Opposition and Minister for External Affairs from 1941 to 1949 and the only Australian of sufficient stature to cut a world figure in the United Nations (he was only 30 years old but well able to handle this defence) and Andrew Watt, KC, who put up a brilliant legal fight. For the prosecution — Lamb KC with H. E. Manning. The Solicitor General, Sir R. Garran, sat beside Mr. Lamb.
The cases of Walsh and Johnson were heard separately and in each case the end was a stalemate. Watt made application for the issue of subpoenas on the Prime Minister Bruce and Minister for Home and Territories, Pearce, to produce documents and submit to cross-examination. The Board opined the issue of Summonses to witness was at their sole discretion and refused to issue them.
The enquiry commenced on 29th August. Some seamen called to witness refused to answer. One said he did not know anything about Communism—"We are Imperialists not Communists". The secretary of the Strike Committee in Sydney, one Lydell, had been chairman of the local branch of the Imperial League in England and had thought of standing for Parliament. A witness said "Seamen are proverbially conservative-minded."
Another witness said "Send Walsh to Jericho and the strike will still go on."
Witnesses gave striking war records, some torpedoed got no compensation, prompting Counsel Watt to say, "You say, you want to be paid money, and not glory and that is a mistake." From yet another witness—"We have no bolsheviks. All the few Russians hereabout are followers of the old Czarist regime. The bolsheviks have remained at home."
In giving evidence before the Board, E. J. Holloway said:
About 22 years ago Senator Pearce, speaking at a May Day demonstration was allowed, at his own request, to propose the usual anti-militarist and international resolution. Conditions then lent themselves to things being much redder than was so under present conditions. The red flag was then carried and occasionally songs were sung. That was in the early years of Pearce's senatorship. Witness has heard Senator Pearce and Mr. Justice Higgins pass certain comments on the Boer War. There would be some men look upon it at that time in much the same way that Walsh was regarded in certain quarters now, as being anti-British. The deportation of Senator Pearce at that time would not have done any good.
The labour people would have objected to his deportation just the same as they were objecting today to the proposed deportation of Walsh.
The shipowners refused to produce books. Terence Pearson Tronsdale, secretary of the Overseas Shipping Representatives' Association, refused to answer many questions.
Evidence of the captains was interesting, Capt. Allin of the "Beltana" admitted when he brought immigrants, and extra hands were wanted, these were recruited and turned adrift here. Unofficial migrants booked for discharge on his last voyage had been 27 or 28.
Evidence of other captains showed some adult ordinary seamen got as low as £4.15.0 a month. Youths employed as ordinary seamen were rated as low as £3 a month.
• • •
The hearing was referred to in workers' papers as a court martial. It ended on the 10th November when Johnson was on trial and Defence Counsel was again refused service of writs on the Prime Minister and on Pearce. Watt said he wanted to call 600 seamen who attended the first meeting in Sydney. Meagher, Defence Solicitor, stated, "We are hamstrung, gagged and chloroformed."
Meanwhile there has been another attempt to settle the strike through the Arbitration Court.
On October 14th Mr. Justice Powers intervened calling a compulsory conference.
He stated that the court had not previously intervened because firstly the dispute was world wide and could not be settled in Australia and secondly it was held by the High Court that the Arbitration Court could not make binding awards because the jurisdiction was not within the Commonwealth.
It now intervened it was alleged because the position had altered in that the strike was settled in South Africa and in other places practically settled. Some vessels had left Australia, he asserted. The compulsory conference never advanced because meetings of seamen resolved there be no settlement. The men said they would not submit claims or enter negotiations till all men were released from gaol.
Adjourned to 21st October, Justice Powers said although there was no settlement he advised them to go back to their ships. He said, "If the men were true unionists, they would go back, and he was sure that Mr. Havelock Wilson, had not agreed to the reduction until it could be avoided no longer."
Whilst the Deportation Board was sitting, the Government decided to go to the polls in the midst of a great red-baiting atmosphere. The main point in speeches was the deportation and strike. This prompted banister Watt and others to declare that the Prime Minister and Minister for Home & Territories would have been better making their statements in the box than touring the country making statements on the subject of the case.
The result of the poll held on November 14th resulted in a win for the UAP with a gain in seats. Six days later Walsh and Johnson were dramatically seized at 5 a.m. and taken to Garden Island Naval Depot. It was thought that the cruiser "Melbourne" was standing by to take them as it was highly improbable that any merchant crew would do so.
The Solicitor General, Sir Robert Garran, on behalf of the Prime Minister, issued a statement:—
The Deportation Board has found with regard to both Thomas Walsh and Jacob Johannsen, that the respondents have been concerned in acts directed towards hindering or obstructing, to the prejudice of the public, the transport of goods or the conveyance of passengers in relation to trade or commerce with other countries; that their presence in Australia, will be injurious to the peace, order, and good government of the Commonwealth; and that they have failed to show cause why they should not be deported. The Board has accordingly recommended their deportation.
The Minister for Home and Territories, Senator Pearce, has ordered the deportation of both respondents, and they are now in civil custody awaiting deportation. The Government will be willing to pay the passages of the wives and children of the deportees to their destination, and also to grant them meanwhile a sustenance allowance.
• • •
Counsel for Walsh and Johnson immediately sought a writ of habeas corpus directed to the Chief Officer of the Commonwealth Peace Officers to release them, and the State Court agreed to an Order nisi returnable for argument at the Banco Court on Monday, the 23rd November. However, the Commonwealth Attorney-General, represented by Lamb, KC, and E. M. Mitchell, KC, was successful in an application to the High Court of Australia, that the case be transferred to the High Court for argument, before Justices Isaacs, Rich, Starke, Higgins and Chief Justice Knox.
The High Court sat only one day to consider judgment and reserved its decision on the 9th December. By that time the strike was over.
Extra police were on duty as large crowds gathered round the Law Notices List to see the verdict. Headlines in the press best express the result "SHOCK TO GOVERNMENT", "NO DEPORTATION", "HIGH COURT JUDGMENT".
It was not until the 18th that the Judges delivered separate judgments—which in the opinion of the Age editorial of the 21st "seems to be unanimous". The consensus was that the Immigration Act did not apply. Walsh and Johnson were not immigrants and their detention was illegal. The Crown was ordered to pay all costs. The judgment of Mr. Justice Higgins was regarded as a dissentient judgment by the labour movement.
The cost to taxpayers was enormous. Another incidental to Court costs was the wages of 200 men who had joined the Commonwealth Police whose total work consisted of serving two summonses.
The deportation attempt provided good material for the propagandist speakers, Jock Garden averring that Prime Minister Baldwin was pleading with P.M. Bruce not to send Walsh back.
Then there was a suggestion that Walsh, if deported, would become General President of a new Union of Striking British Seamen, and it was stated that he would get leave of absence from the Australian Union to contest with Havelock Wilson for supremacy in Great Britain.
A wellknown meat exporter and finance magnate interested in racecourses offered to make up the £1 per month, amounting to £10,000 in all, to get the ships moving. It was a one-way offer. Rumour had it that Angliss and Wren were the men involved.
Before this legal battle took place the strike had ended, and despite the brave fight put up by the men they did not win back their 50 cents a week.
It was an exceedingly difficult strike to win, the Australian Seamen's Union was financially weakened at the outset as it had just concluded a lengthy local strike—hence the speed with which the Government leapt into its deportation manoeuvres. The men were worried about the welfare of their wives and children; of course it was out of the question for sufficient money to be raised in Australia to keep the families as well as the men. Some ships only stayed out a few days and went back and as time went by more ships decided to call it a day. There were many lascars working on ships and none of them came out. For the white British the penalty of strike was serious enough but to the lascar the penalty was disastrous. He would never work again. His wages were only 30/- per month but he could not take action. Solidarity was expressed by a coloured crew on the "Mongolia", as it donated £6.1.6 to the strike fund.
The Masters were aware of the tenuous position of the strikers and were able to move a ship, the Pipiriki, from the Musgrave wharf in Brisbane, against the will of the strikers. The major break in the strike occurred in Fremantle at the end of November. Officers decided to try and move a ship called the "BORDA", and this resulted in a clash with seamen on the wharf. There were 100 police on duty and many arrests were made. The press admitted that police batons were used freely and claimed the men hurled coal and stones. There were serious injuries on both sides. The strike ended on November 30th, 1925, fifteen weeks after it had begun, and Melbourne was the last port to capitulate. In Australia it had been decided that there should be no sectional settlements, in other words "one back, all back". Walsh, in an endeavour to keep the strike going, failed to inform Melbourne that the men were voting to go back in other ports. Chairman of the Strike Committee, Chas. O'Neill, claimed they were beaten by lack of money. It cost £600 a week to keep going in Melbourne and although £10,000 had been raised, they were now in debt to the tune of £600.
In England the ranks were split due to the activities of Emanuel Shinwell, National Organiser of the Amalgamated Marine Workers' Union, setting up rival strike committees. This handicapped the whole strike.
In pre-television days the press was omnipotent. Together with the Government it really put the record on and played it again and again.
The press howled—"anti-British", "anti-Empire", "helping the Germans", "driving away European trade", and "crippling the farmers". The reports of attendances at meetings and demonstrations were arrived at by some inexplicable means of calculation—apparently, take any figure and divide it by 10. Throughout the whole fifteen weeks of the strike there wasn't one in which it was not reported, "STRIKE NEARING END". The thousands supporting the strike had as good a taste of the press as could be had in any struggle, and more than in most.
The born name of Jacob Johnson was "Johannsen"—what a howl about that! At one stage the seamen's mass meeting carried a motion that no pressman from any paper referring to Johnson as "Johannsen" would be allowed in a meeting.
Tom Walsh received a great deal of personal abuse in a series written by T. R. Ashforth in the Age. His subheads show his bias:— "Walsh is a destructionist", "Tom Walsh Industrial Cuckoo", and "Havelock Wilson Seamen's Friend".
One paper referred to Archdeacon Curtis of Sydney, Rev. Maynard of Queensland and Rev. Dean Hart of Melbourne, saying, "The soft headed clergyman who indulges in fatuous sentimentality is a wellknown type", because they showed some sympathy for the seamen.
The politicians let their heads go: Prime Minister Bruce, "the time has arrived when a sort of dictatorship would be acceptable."
Nationalist candidate Gullett, told a Henty audience: "If I had been in power, I would have snapped up Walsh and deported him without any trial, and taken him away in the night in a navy boat, and made certain he would never come back."
Nationalist member Latham told an audience at Kew: "There are some facts that cannot be proved in court by legal evidence, though the facts are known to everyone". In other words, wrote Laidler in the Shop Assistant, "convict a union leader without legal evidence but give the vilest criminal a trial by jury".
The gains were great.
Firstly, the men themselves went back in good spirits. They marched to the ships and their oft repeated question and answer slogan was once more declaimed, "ARE WE DOWNHEARTED?"—"NO!" "WILL WE WIN?"—"YES!"
Secondly, it was something of a holiday for the British seamen and they learned that by scrapping lackey union leaders and replacing them with fighting men, they could gain a better standard of living, which poor though it was in Australia, was still far ahead of England.
Thirdly, they learned something about red-baiting.
Fourthly, the original policy had been to transform their union from a Company Union into a fighting workers' union, and this remained so, despite the suggestions during the strike, to form a new union.
Fifthly, it was learned strikes could be conducted internationally, and that it was possible to raise sufficient money to keep approximately 2,500 men for fifteen weeks.
And lastly, the educational gains were valuable in Australia. Those implicated, in many cases, lost their former "superior" attitude to the British workers, and had to acknowledge they had guts. It dispelled many of the nasty schisms between workers and cut through some of the local parochialism.
As far as the deportation fight is concerned, a new level of unity of the labour movement was achieved and the resulting verdict became a precedent which has prevented the deportation of working class leaders to this day.
The book Solidarity Forever! is Copyright © the estate of Bertha Walker 1972.
This website is Copyright © Alan Walker 2012.
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