Burning the Rodney - dealing with scabs in the shearers' strikes

Published: 02/04/2007

Written by: Mick Armstrong
Originally listed under: Labour Hist


Violent class conflict is invariably portrayed as alien to the "Australian way of life". The common consensus is that while in countries like Indonesia, China, Argentina or even the United States violent conflict may be understandable (if nonetheless regrettable), there is no place for it in "the lucky country". The use of force we are told is only supported by small groups of extremists who are disowned by the great majority of "decent" workers. Who can forget John Howard's vehement denunciation of the 1996 storming of Parliament House as "un-Australian"? A mantra taken up by every media outlet in the country. The same cry was regurgitated in the Murdoch and Fairfax press to denounce the militant protests that played such a vital role in derailing Pauline Hanson's racist bandwagon.

It is not just the Liberals and their supporters in the media that share this outlook. ALP and ACTU leaders rushed to dissociate themselves from the Parliament House "riot" and union officials even offered to dob in their members to police. These attitudes filter down to rank and file workers. So that when the management of the Gordonstone mine in Queensland in 1997 hired security guards to intimidate workers this was portrayed as bringing outrageous "American" industrial relations practices to Australia. Similarly, the training of mercenaries in Dubai to take on the Maritime Union and the subsequent use of balaclavaed security guards armed with attack dogs and mace to drive wharfies off the docks in 1998 was proclaimed as "unprecedented" in Australian industrial relations.

Yet there is a very long history of state violence against strikers in Australia. Waterfront workers, in particular, have repeatedly been on the receiving end from the military, police and right wing militias and there is no shortage of union martyrs killed by these strike breaking forces. The reality is that without actual and threatened violent repression it is inconceivable that capitalism could be maintained. Coercion is not only crucial as a means of exercising power; it diminishes resistance by inducing feelings of powerlessness and resignation.

Even the most cursory glance at Australian history reveals a litany of riots, baton charges, shoot outs, bashings of scabs, the violent breaking up of meetings, arson, police killings of strikers, the setting up of street barricades, sabotage, drilling by armed militias, the suppression of dissent by the state and the repeated use of the army to crush strikes. Virtually every serious workers' struggle over the last 150 years was marked by such clashes - from the 1873 Clunes miners' riot, to the great strikes of the 1890s, the 1917 NSW General Strike, the bitter struggles of the Depression years (with police shootings of waterfront strikers and of coal miners at Rothbury where two were killed and 40 wounded), Chifley's use of troops against the 1949 coal strike, the 1975 Kerr Coup, the NSW BLF's "vigilantes" who destroyed scab building work, the 1982 storming of the Melbourne Club by the unemployed, state suppression of the BLF, the Hawke government's use of the RAAF to crush the pilots' strike and more recently of course Patrick's assault on the wharfies. The Parliament House "rioters" and the Dubai mercenaries are both part of a very long tradition.

Labour historians have documented many of these struggles. However, there has been a marked tendency to either understate the extent of violence, treat it as an aberration or dismiss it as the work of extremist minorities. Left wing historians have highlighted the use of state violence against workers but tend to be embarrassed by workers' use of force. Workers' violence is nearly always portrayed, even by sympathetic historians, as unfortunate, as spontaneous and poorly planned, as a product of workers being forced into a desperate corner. When workers hold back from violence, even after being attacked by police, their restraint is portrayed as a virtue. Even defensive violence is presented as being counterproductive and serving to discredit the workers' cause - the result of a few "hot heads" getting out of control. Union leaders are commended for attempts to control their members from resorting to "extreme" measures.

Very rarely is it acknowledge that there has at times been mass support for the use of force and that it helped win important gains - whether it be the Eureka Stockade that ushered in major democratic reforms (and was massively popular on the goldfields and in Melbourne), the militant and disruptive tactics which were a key part of the successful World War I anti-conscription campaigns, the widespread use of grass fires and the burning of woolsheds which were important in victorious shearing disputes from the 1880s to the 1950s, the street battles which helped to halt the growth of fascism in the 1930s, the militant protests that spearheaded opposition to the Vietnam War and the central role of militant picketing, occupations of work sites and the tarring and feathering of scabs in maintaining innumerable strikes.

It is far from the case that all working class violence was spur of the moment or ill-planned. There are a number of cases where workers carefully weighed up the balance of forces and coldly calculated that only the well co-ordinated use of force had any hope of pushing back their enemies.

One of the ironies of the demonisation of violence by strikers as "un-Australian" is that so much of the imagery associated with Australian nationalism centres around the bush worker. For well over a hundred years whether it was the poems of Henry Lawson or Banjo Patterson, the paintings of Tom Roberts or Waltzing Matilda they have been portrayed as the archetypal Australians, the stuff of legends. Yet it was these very bush workers that have been the most prone to violence in their recurring struggles with wealthy pastoralists.

The 1894 shearers' strike was one of Australia's most violent industrial conflicts. This would be conceded by most historians who have studied the strike. However the violence is commonly portrayed as pointless - the odds were overwhelmingly against the shearers and there was no way that they could win. There is no doubting the desperate circumstances confronting the shearers: a co-ordinated attack by the state and the pastoralists at a time when scab labour was plentiful due to horrific levels of unemployment. Yet the scale of the militant resistance mounted by the shearers prevented the authorities and the pastoralists from having it all their own way. The outcome of the strike was far from a clear-cut victory for the shearers. However, the inspiring and sustained resistance they mounted meant that they did not suffer a total rout. Fighting very much against the odds they managed to inflict severe wounds on the pastoralists, which gave them pause to think. The following years were hard going for the shearers. Nevertheless, they were able to sustain their union and working conditions more successfully than most urban workers, for whom the defeats of the 1890s proved catastrophic.

Many of the violent clashes during the 1894 strike were "spontaneous". However, on a number of important occasions the shearers executed bold, well-planned attacks on pastoral properties or scabs that completely outwitted the police and the graziers. One of the most successful of the shearers' actions was the burning of the riverboat, the Rodney, which was transporting scabs up the Darling River.

Militant rank and file actions like the burning of the Rodney did more to build the labour movement than the polite negotiations of union officials or the humbug of Labor MPs. Yet despite the 1894 strike being one of the most militant in Australia, no serious account of it has been published. The burning of the Rodney is mentioned in passing as some quaint or shocking incident in innumerable books but almost invariably the authors get even the most basic facts of the story wrong.

This is the first attempt to return to the primary sources and to try to separate fact from legend. For if historians have neglected the burning of the Rodney the legend has not died. On its centenary in 1994, according to locals, 5-600 people gathered near Pooncarie, a tiny hamlet in outback NSW, for a re-enactment and a stone memorial was erected on the banks of the Darling near where the Rodney sank. So far from the memory being obliterated as shockingly "un-Australia" even in the conservative bush this high point of militancy is still remembered as an inspiring part of working class history.


Burning and sinking

"Undoubtedly the most hideous of the many revolting crimes that distinguished the shearers' strike of 1894"

By August 1894 the shearers' camps along the lower Darling were in ferment. The strikers were well organised and had begun to assert their control over all movements along the river. Armed unionists, with widespread sympathy from the local population, had imposed a form of workers' control over much of the area. There were numerous clashes with police. Near Moorara station a "sharp engagement" took place between union shearers "armed with half shears on long poles" and "the armed police". According to one eye witness, if at times a somewhat hysterical and right wing one, the Hon J Langdon Parsons, a South Australian MP:

The state of affairs at Tolarno is distinctly serious, and unless the Government act with promptitude and determination, bloodshed and practical revolution are imminent. The free laborers [scabs] who were landed at the station...[were protected] by first three, now by nine, policemen...there is a camp of unionists variously estimated at from 300 to 400 men.

All travellers up and down the river on whatever errand bound - work, business or pleasure - are stopped, escorted into the camp, questioned, and detained. An arsenal of bottles, whole or broken has been established on the bank, to be hurled at any marked steamer...The centres are kept advised from Wentworth of all steamers coming up the river with free laborers.

While according to Gwenda Painter:

steamers travelling along the Darling were attacked by bottles, stones and firesticks, a policy of self-defence was advised, not reliance on control of shearers by troopers. Coach drivers were advised to use arms, masters to protect their steamers by armour plates and squatters to turn their stations into forts and to safeguard themselves and their property by guns and ammunition.

Meanwhile the Rodney, a side paddle steamer of about 175 tons, was being made ready at the Victorian Murray River port of Echuca to transport 45 scabs up to Tolarno together with a barge laden with merchandise for Wilcannia. The Rodney, owned by the forwarding agents Permewan, Wright and Co and built at a cost of 5000 pounds (and unfortunately for them not fully insured), was probably the fastest and most powerful steamer engaged in the river trade. Its master, Captain Jimmy Dickson, notorious for transporting scabs in previous strikes, was reviled by unionists. The Rodney, however, was not the only steamer to carry scab labour or police to be used against strikers. In 1892 Captain Wolter, master of the Pilot, carried thirty-one police from Bourke to Wilcannia to "restore order". While the Pilot, Fairy and Florence Annie were engaged in the scab trade in 1894. Shearers from the union camp at Nelyancho station assailed the Florence Annie "with stones, bricks, glass bottles and all kinds of missiles. The lady passengers were terror stricken."

According to Langdon Parsons the initial plan to seize the Rodney was for a party of shearers to "lie in ambush near a wood pile, where it is known that the Rodney will stop...at a given signal the 40 men are to run from their concealment and seize...the 40" scabs. Other accounts list numerous schemes supposedly hatched by unionists to deal with the scab shipment. Sandra Maiden states:

Captain Bob Grundy was tied up with the steamer Tolarno at Polia station and the union men tried to pursuade[sic] him to block the path of the Rodney with one of his barges, but Grundy...refused...The shearers then decided to cut long lengths of fencing wire which they strung across the river as a trap for the oncoming steamer; the wire was tied to trees on either side, which the shearers had sawn half way through so that they would fall onto the boat as she put pressure upon the unseen wire.

A Broken Hill Age report of 30 August states "Rumors...arose that a barge had been sunk in the channel a few miles upstream from Moorara bend." The History of Pooncarie and District claims:

The Fairy [a steamer] was at Moorara...Station owner Charles Wreford and two others removed the firebox to prevent shearers from using the Fairy to blockade...the Rodney...[However] Polia shearers were able to position a barge across the river."

The Rodney arrived at Echuca in early August with a load of wool from the Murrumbidgee and rumours swept the large local shearers' camp that its next cargo would be scabs. Only a week before at Echuca 45 scabs were unloaded from the Bendigo train onto the Pride bound for Lake Victoria station. When the Melbourne train arrived, with its windows heavily boarded, strikers were waiting at the railway station, but the train went straight through to the wharf. According to Ian Mudie:

The strikers raced after it, but, forgetting that the wharf had been built in storeys to accommodate boats according to the height of the river, they rushed the top level, and so missed the strike-breakers, who were hurriedly boarding the Rodney from a lower stage...Dickson wheeled his steamer out from the wharf under a hail of stones...

As they sailed up the Murray according to WG Spence's colourful account: "At Swan Hill...there was a camp of Union men, and as the Rodney steamed past the ‘scabs' hooted...They were very brave when out of danger..." Before Wentworth they met Captain Charlie Cantwell of the steamer Trafalgar on his way back from delivering a cargo of scabs. Cantwell reported that he had come through a barrage from unionists on the riverbank and the boat still carried an assortment of bricks, clubs, road metal and broken glass missiles hurled on board.

Cantwell warned Captain Dickson to expect trouble...so Dickson sought police protection from Wentworth. However, the local magistrate was not sympathetic...and no police protection was given; Dickson also approached the police at Pooncarie, but met with the same result. At Moorara station the manager hailed Dickson and warned him that at Polia... there was a strong protest group organised to stop the Rodney. Dickson steamed on, all men at the alert for the least sign of trouble or movement along the river banks.

Bobbie Hardy states that "A friendly hail from the river bank warned him that the unionists had strung a wire entanglement across the river, and rather than come upon it in the dark he tied up for the night." She also claims a lack of police support for Dickson: "Alerted that the unionists at Polia were lying in wait he tried unavailingly to obtain help from the local constabulary..." However the Riverine Herald report contradicts this claim "The captain was strongly advised not to proceed that night as the police had been communicated with, and would be at the Polia shed to quell any disturbance on Sunday."

According to Mudie the Rodney's "unique-sounding engine, recognizable far off" let the strikers know she was coming well in advance. At 9am on Saturday 25 August the Rodney passed Pooncarie, where the strikers camped there groaned loudly in derision. The steamer arrived at Syme's woodpile that evening and took in sufficient wood for a ninety-mile dash to Tolarno. The Rodney steamed a mile further on and Dickson moored the boat for the night in a swamp 23 miles above Pooncarie and a few miles above Moorara shearing shed. The spot was surrounded by swamps and creeks, making it difficult for anyone to approach the steamer. But, unfortunately for Dickson, it was just across the river from Polia station where there was a large and militant shearers' camp. According to The Riverine Herald:

Extra precautions were taken, full steam being kept on, while four watchmen guarded the barge and vessel all night. The barge, being well out in the stream, was not tied to a tree as is usual. Everything was made ready for a moment's start, should the occasion arise...The night being cloudy, the watchmen kept a sharp look-out.

The Broken Hill Age was more sceptical on this score declaring that the watch "does not appear to have exercised much vigilance". In the early hours of Sunday morning (3am according to the Crown evidence) dark figures waded out of the gloom of the overhanging trees. By the time the watchman heard their approach and gave his warning it was too late. The unionists boarded the steamer, rushed to the wheelhouse, and dragged out the captain. One of the unionists took the wheel. The scabs were hustled from below, and driven over the side. The unionists rounded up the ordinary passengers and crew and set them adrift on the barge. The scabs' swags were thrown over board and their owners forced at gunpoint to wade across to a small island. Finally the cargo of chaff in the hold was soaked with kerosene and set alight. As the flames rose, the shearers gave three cheers for Polia station. The burning boat then drifted downstream for several hours, scorching the gum trees as she went and sank in shallow water. The remains of the Rodney can be seen to this day at a low river about 8km downstream of Polia homestead. The stone monument erected by locals for the centenary celebration in 1994 among the river gums on the bank of the Darling marks the spot when the river hides the remains.

Captain Dickson claimed that on hearing the watchman's warning he "sprang into the wheelhouse and endeavored to go full speed astern. At the same moment his fireman, who was untying the rope which held the steamer...was accosted by armed men who said they would blow his brains out if he touched the ropes." Accounts sympathetic to the shearers however, downplay the extent of violence against the crew or even the scabs.

Exactly how many men were involved in the attack is unclear. According to Dickson about 30 men initially boarded the Rodney and in total there was about 150 involved. Virtually all accounts agree that the unionists had camouflaged themselves by covering their faces with mud, while the Broken Hill Age claims the shearers "had been numbered, and addressed each other by their numbers". According to The Riverine Herald many of the assailants were in boats,

The first lot of men, after ill-treating the captain, held him whilst another lot numbering about 150, who worked in gangs, ousted the free labourers forcibly...Another gang pillaged the boat of everything portable, whilst a third gang poured kerosene on the steamer from stern to stern, saturating a quantity of chaff in the fore and after holds.

Everything being ready, the signal was given "All hands ashore". The steamer was immediately fired from both sides. The captain was released, and he had much difficulty in escaping. Seeing that it was impossible to scuttle the steamer, he made for the dinghy, which fortunately was at the stern of the steamer. Having such a large quantity of inflammable material aboard, the Rodney was soon burning fiercely. The captain made for the barge, where the crew...were located. The mob did not interfere with the barge, which drifted down to Moorara station, where the crew were taken off...

When the mob left the Rodney, the men scattered in all directions, leaving the free labourers on a small island till daylight. The Rodney burned furiously for several hours, drifting about the river from bank to bank and finally sinking. The free labourers reached Pooncarie on Sunday night, and are now camped with the unionists. The captain states that owing to the darkness and the miscreants being disguised, he is unable to identify any of them...A reward of 100 pound is offered...for information which will lead to the conviction of those concerned...A free pardon is offered to anyone informing on an accomplice.

Broken Hill working class leader George Dale praised the ingenuity of the unionists:

Whoever was responsible for this "job" had gone about it in a rather neat manner and had defied the vigilance of Detective Roach, and all his hordes of police and spies. According to the Crown witnesses the men after firing the boat marched away in a body, to the accompaniment of a concertina, playing the then popular air, "After the Ball is Over".

Virtually all accounts sympathetic to the shearers, such as The Bitter Fight, highlight this touch of bravado - marching off to the strains of "After the Ball is Over." In thumbing their nose at authority in this culminating defiant gesture the shearers added to the legend that soon came to surround this successful night.

The only detailed description of the attack on the Rodney from the shearers' perspective is WG Spence's highly romanticised account written years later, by which time the legend had overtaken actual events. Though containing numerous factual errors it nonetheless provides invaluable evidence as to how the shearers and their supporters viewed the events.

A number of men borrowed a boat from higher up the river, and quietly carried it on their shoulders along the river bank, out of sight of the watchman. With muffled oars they pulled across the river. Originally about twenty five men had agreed to join in the capture, but only about a dozen really did the work. Some of those who backed out wanted to batten down the "scabs" under the hatches and burn them, but the leaders refused to hear of any such terrible vengeance.

The men who formed the boarding party turned all their clothing inside out, and covered face, head, hair and clothes with mud until recognition was impossible...they waded through the mud-swamp to the side of the tied-up boat. The watchman on his beat soon saw a muddy head appear over the side of the steamer. He gave the alarm to captain Dickson, who cursed him because he had not tomahawked the head. The captain rushed aft and tackled the first man he met. This happened to be a good lightweight boxer, and science told, though he admitted that the captain was a tough snag.

The forty "scabs" who had been so bold at Swan Hill, played a different tune now. Roused out of sleep, they evidently thought their end had come. They fell on their knees and begged for mercy...Two of those who had boarded the boat were below on a hunt for more "scabs". They had finished their search, when "the means to do ill deeds", in the shape of many tins of oil and other inflammable material, caused one to remark suddenly to the other:

What say if we burn the blanky boat?

No sooner said then done. Quickly the reeds in the swamp glistened with the shimmer of flame; the water, the bank and the big eucalyptus trees reflected the unwonted glare; whilst on the river bank, opposite the burning Rodney, sat a young man with a concertina playing, "After the Ball is Over".

There was but one idea in the minds of the men at the start, and that was to capture the non-Unionists. The party had no hand in the burning, though the law would have held them responsible if it had caught them. One of the proprietors of the steamer admitted to me that, excepting for the loss of trade incurred before she could be replaced, the burning of the Rodney inflicted no injury, as she was covered by insurance. As it turned out, the insurance company refused to pay. The firm tried to induce the NSW Government to pay for the steamer. They did not succeed in the move however.

Amongst the men arrested...was a staunch unionist named Syd. Robertson [Sid Robinson]. He was a fine fellow, and the police could not find a pair of handcuffs which could close on his wrists, so they put him in hobbles and chained him to other prisoners. Apparently the police have not forgotten him, as they "ran him in" again when they made the recent attack on the peaceful citizens of Broken Hill.


The lead up to the strike

The 1880s saw the rapid growth of the union movement. Far from Australia being "a working man's paradise" as it is often depicted, it was a time of contraction of opportunities for working class advancement. This fuelled increased radicalism and militancy. By the end of the decade the prospect of a showdown between an increasingly assertive labour movement and a capitalist class determined to reassert its authority in the workplace was very much in the air. The onset of a severe Depression at the start of the 1890s ushered in years of desperate struggle.

The initial crunch came with the 1890 Maritime Strike - easily the most far-reaching, long lasting and bitterly fought explosion of class struggle experienced till then in Australia. While the 50,000 Australian and 10,000 New Zealand workers who took part in the strike were defeated, it was far from the humiliating rout that it is often presented as being. In its immediate aftermath the unions continued to grow and a militant spirit was maintained. It was the deepening of the horrendous Depression with unemployment reaching perhaps 30% that led to a profound setback for the union movement.

Despite increased urbanisation and the rapid expansion of manufacturing industry between 1860 and 1890, the pastoral industry remained the largest single sector of the economy. Wool provided almost two-thirds of export earnings in 1890. This gave the shearing workforce and the transport workers that serviced the industry a pivotal role in the labour movement. In 1890 it is estimated 56,000 shearers and shedhands were employed in Australia. The proportion of workers employed in the pastoral industry and agriculture in NSW had declined from 34% of the labour force in 1871 but it still employed 21% in 1891. Australia-wide it was the largest employer - almost a quarter of the workforce in 1891. Moreover by the standards of the time, when the average factory in Victoria, the main manufacturing colony, only employed 17.6 persons, the shearing sheds were large and technologically advanced workplaces. In western NSW and outback Queensland, where the workforce was most proletarianised and union organisation strongest, shearing sheds could directly employ from 60 to over 250 shearers, rouseabouts, wool pressers, wool classers, cooks, mechanics and boiler operators at the peak of the season.

The Amalgamated Shearers Union (ASU), which covered shearers in all colonies except Queensland, emerged from the 1890 Maritime Strike with its funds deplenished and its membership reduced. The following year Queensland shearers were defeated in a bitter and violent strike against pastoralists' plans to impose "freedom of contract" (scab labour). The pastoral unions were bloodied but they were far from destroyed. Wages and conditions had not been severely undermined. Indeed some Queensland pastoralists considered that 1891 had been almost a pyrrhic victory. They had to pay large sums to the pastoralists' fighting fund and in many cases suffered losses through property damage and poor shearing. Given this outcome pastoralists outside Queensland hesitated about sharply cutting wages.

But as the Depression dragged on the ruling class went on the offensive driving down wages and conditions and breaking union after union. In 1892 Broken Hill mine owners repudiated their agreement with the union. Police were massed in the town and strike leaders jailed for seditious conspiracy. The miners went down to a severe defeat - wages were slashed and contract work re-introduced. In 1893 a seamen's strike, which saw 150 workers arrested for picketing and assault, failed to prevent wage cuts.

In Melbourne and Sydney unions suffered harsh reverses. Unemployment reached unheard of levels even in many skilled trades - in 1898 half the Bakers Union membership was unemployed. The unskilled urban unions that had emerged in the late 1880s collapsed. Even craft unions were severely affected, some disappearing. In Sydney in 1893 the Stonemasons Union was crushed after a defensive strike to push back the relentless assault on wages. The Sydney Trades and Labour Council declined drastically. Even the relatively strong Seamen's Union, by July 1894 the TLC's largest remaining affiliate, saw its membership plunge from 2,000 to only 400. In 1896 after a three-month strike coal miners were starved into submission and forced to accept a further wage cut.

While the shearers' unions were battered and bruised they weathered the early years of the Depression better than most. 1894 was to be the year they faced the onslaught. The 1891 shearing agreement stipulated that no changes were to be made to conditions and wages without negotiations. However in 1894, denying it until the last minute, the pastoralists moved to unilaterally cut wages and undermine conditions. The bosses' assault provoked a bitter, defensive strike centred in NSW and Queensland. With their backs to the wall as the pastoralists enrolled abundant scab labour, the shearers fought a heroic battle to salvage some of the gains they had won in the 1880s.

Already in 1893 a number of pastoralists had cut shearing rates. By the end of 1893 wool prices in London had fallen to their lowest point since 1886. In November 1893 the Federal Council of the pastoralists decided to cut shearing rates and refuse a conference with the ASU. Shearing rates were to be cut between 10 and 17% and conditions severely undermined. Only in the western division of NSW and in central and western Queensland were rates unaltered. It was decided to keep the rate cut secret from the ASU until 20 March 1894. However some cash strapped pastoralists opposed the cuts. They were worried that an all out strike would be disastrous for their perilous financial position. Queensland Darling Downs pastoralists who were to be the first cab off the rank with the new rates refused to enforce them.

The prevarication in the ranks of the pastoralists was overcome at a special meeting in early April 1894, where a slightly modified version of the cuts was unanimously endorsed. A new clause 8 was added to the shearing agreement that gave total power to the employer over work arrangements, most provocatively over when sheep were declared "wet". In May 1894 the executive of the newly formed Australian Workers Union (AWU) - the ASU and the General Labourers Union which covered shedhands had amalgamated in February - issued a manifesto urging members to stand by the 1891 agreement. Even the moderate shearers' leader, WG Spence, declared that "moral 'suasion was all humbug" and invoking the spirit of Eureka declared