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Anarchism and State Violence in Sydney and Melbourne

An argument about Australian labor history.
By Dr Bob James


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Chapter Six - The Maritime Strike - Colonel Tom Price versus J.A. Andrews; and the Legitimacy of State Violence

Five thousand gathered in the Sydney Domain on 17 August 1890 on the day after the Marine Officers walked off their ships to begin 'the Maritime Strike', and cheered a speaker's claim that 'the day of glory for the working class was at hand!' More ominous however, was the sight of seamen 'ringleaders' being marched off the 'Zealandia' to jail under a military escort with fixed bayonets.1 In the first week prices of 'necessaries' such as flour rose 'drastically',2 closing colleries produced a stream of miners to the wharves looking for work and the Sydney TLC began its Harrington Street 'board and barracks' to interdict the flow of these and other unemployed. The Queensland military went on 'restricted leave',3 while in NSW, Premier Parkes met with Police Commissioner Fosberry and Colonel Richardson, NSW military commander, but kept the deliberations 'profound secrets'.4

One secret became public almost immediately. A Proclamation 'warning persons against acting together, endeavouring to intimidate and oppressively interfering with certain other of her Majesty's subjects in the lawful pursuit of their occupations'5 was pasted up in Newcastle on 29 August as a company of Permanent Artillery, plus their Nordenfeldts returned north. 'Mobs' stoning 'free laborers' on wharves were cleared on two days running and additional barricades were put up by special constables.6 Unionists in Sydney were conducting themselves in 'an exemplary fashion' but stout barricades began to go up around the Circular Quay warehouses from 1 September, the day Parkes rejected the TLC offer of unionists to be special constables.7 Employees refusing their employers' 'requests' to enrol as special constables were sacked.8

In Melbourne Police Commissioner Chomley alerted country police stations on 19 August that they, with carbines and swords, would possibly be needed in Melbourne.9 On the 27th after some incidents involving 'free laborers' and unionists10 Chomley asked for the promised men to come immediately.11 A 'furious' public 12 - that is, a handful of fearful property owners, including Police Magistrate Nicolson - was not satisfied and using the heat generated by a businessmen's meeting on the 26th and an announcement of a unionists' meeting on 31 August, visited and wore down a reluctant Cabinet and had Melbourne put on a war footing.13 Detectives posed as insurance investigators to check the basement of the building where the Democratic Club met after an anonymous letter came to Premier Gillies claiming that 1000 rifles were stored 'in a secret place in Lonsdale Street'. Nothing incriminating was found and it may be relevant to note that at the time Rosa was blackballed by the Club.

Despite such rumours neither the police14 nor the government15 had any evidence about unionist intentions to engage in disorder or indeed 'any evil designs by any class in the community'. Political considerations frustrated police willingness to act against 'rowdies' unless they were prepared to act unilaterally,16 and meant the military were to be kept totally away from crowds.17 Sensitivity to the electorate's volatility also meant that Proclamations and other public statements by both the Victorian and NSW governments were aimed at any show of force protesting the status quo but in terms which allowed 'respectable' unionists and politicians to claim that the Proclamations were only talking about that 'sinister and hideous' criminal element that lurked in any city.18

This cosy and mutually protective situation was upset in Melbourne by two incidents involving individuals acting contrary to the role assigned to them: firstly, Colonel Tom Price, Commander of the Victorian Mounted Rifles made his famous 'Fire Low and Lay Them Out' 19 speech, and secondly, Jack Andrews proved that it had been given20 when the government21 and its supporters22 denied that it had. An embarrassed Cabinet found a reprimand to Gordon, one of Price's under-officers, who initially published the order in a rural newspaper, and a please-explain to Price did not lessen the heat as these two were acting from a different premise and saw no need for regret. Questions in the House forced, firstly, a tabling of all instructions to the military during the strike, and secondly, the holding of an inquiry.23

Police Magistrate Nicolson,24 Major-General Keogh, retired British officer and Commander Hay, second-in-command, Victorian Navy, formed an impartial body formally appointed by the Executive Council, and sat at Victoria Barracks for three days, October 23, 24 and 27. They heard a long line of witnesses, mainly Price's own men, swear he had not used 'bad language' such as 'Shoot the bastards in the guts' nor had he suggested the troopers might have to shoot their own kin.25 The concern by respectable persons for decorum successfully obscured the real issue, which was that the order had been given at all. Premier Gillies had not been concerned about obscenity when he responded to the first of a dozen Members' suggestions that Price be court-martialled, suspended or demoted:

He [Gillies] believed there was no-one in the community who was not surprised and deeply annoyed at the language which was acknowledged to have been used by Lieutenant-Colonel Price ... The situation was far too serious to justify the use of violent language on either side.26

This in itself was an obfuscation but perhaps Gillies did not know that the order 'to fire low' was a standing instruction, it did not have to be 'issued'. Labor-oriented commentators have echoed the naivety of the labor spokespeople at the time who expressed their outrage at 'legitimate industrial action' being confronted in this 'unsoldierlike and inhuman' way. They seem to think that it was the strike which suddenly produced a military thirst for blood or that Price was an aberration. On the contrary, over a long period the military had evolved a series of graded responses to the need for 'mob control' which took into account the use of police, special constables, hired 'toughs' and different army specialities up to and including cannon, which were to be used only 'as a last resort'. In a charge of cavalry:

The troopers should rely as much as possible on the action of their horses and the edge, not the point of the sword, should be used. The former is more terrifying and inflicts uglier-looking wounds and yet is less likely to prove fatal than the latter ...27

General Tulloch, Price's commanding officer, expressed the matter-of-factness of the situation when indicating that he had always intended to be the one giving any orders to fire:

I had had considerable experience in riots, and if anyone were killed, there would probably be special enquiries and such like afterwards.28

Price was quite clear and quite unapologetic about his intentions. He only wanted 'to hit the strikers in the legs ... not to kill them outright'.29 He explained that the term 'lay them out' was used in his regiment to mean 'temporary disablement'.30

Andrews, being 'a rank anarchist', was not called though his letter to 'the THC containing the Gordon article from the Alexandra and Yea Standard was the cause of all the embarrassment to the authorities. He was also an embarrassment to Gordon, since in his letter he had quoted Gordon quoting Price's earthier threats. Gordon told the enquiry how he had found Andrews half-clothed, living off opossums in the bush and 'gave him something to do', namely a job as reporter on his paper. Subsequently being called to do his duty in Melbourne he had left Andrews in charge but said he had to return after his overseer telegrammed saying Andrews had: 1) inserted copy to the effect that Alexandra miners had subscribed 15,000 pounds to the Strike when they had not subscribed fifteen pence; 2) walked about the town with a revolver saying he would shoot the Mounted Rifles; and 3) gone on -strike.31 This implies Andrews was sacked on Gordon's return to the 'paper. He appears to have had enough reasons. In fact, Andrews left, voluntarily on Gordon's own account, in the second week of October, nearly six weeks after the Price order:

[Our] reporter suddenly cleared out for Melbourne through some unexplained cause.32

This 'rank anarchist', this half-naked wild man had continued his Melbourne connection with the Australian Natives Association (ANA) in Alexandra and had delivered a paper to the Alexandra and Yea Branch in July on 'Societies I Have Been In' which then ran over several issues of the Standard, 18 July to 8 August 1890. He was to debate 'Capital Punishment' with a newly-arrived school teacher before the ANA in August, but the teacher said he was ill and could not appear.33 His reluctance to meet Andrews could be imagined. On 8 August, Andrews requested space to reply to a defence of God by a Reverend M. Cahill in the previous issue. He signed himself 'Nihilist', called the letter 'The Reign of Law' and began the first of three sections with five propositions, the first of which was:

1. What is termed a Natural Law is an observed order of facts identical under identical circumstances, and modified identically under identical modifying circumstances.

The fifth proposition began:

5. What is commonly called the Universe is but a limited portion, as the Absolute Infinite cannot be manifested. By the Schism or allotment into parts, which may be irrespective and over-lapping we have the beginning of relativity which is the origin of all material quality.

The consternation of the locals must have been great. Some tried, to their credit, to come to terms with him, but subsequent correspondence on his letter did not deal with his arguments.

The Board of Inquiry naturally dismissed all charges against Price and the Minister of Defence presented the Executive Council with the Report on 3 November.34 No action eventuated and Price had to write to his commanding officer on 24 November asking if he was going to be informed of the Board's decision.35

The Gillies-Deakin coalition was forced out of office on a vote taken on 30 October after eight of its usual supporters, in the wake of the Price enquiry, indicated their greater fear of the labor vote. The outgoing government resigned but did not dissolve parliament because 'a political contest would not be in the interests of the country'. So the Governor simply called for a new government under Munro.36 Thus was replaced the first Australian government to be toppled with the help of an anarchist.

Incidentally, although La Nauze thought Deakin had collected odium by putting the troops into the streets, a majority of the THC at the time regretted his leaving office as they thought he had played square with them.37 Similarly gulled were those Sydney unionists who gave three cheers for Henry Parkes,38 whose government had faltered at the same time over the same issue and was saved only by the same subterfuge Gillies had used, but which Parkes used more adroitly. As noted, Parkes had an early meeting with the military to make appropriate arrangements. He received daily reports from Fosberry,39 whose police force members, as did their counterparts in other states, continued their secret political police role. But the Premier had been immobilised since May and Treasurer McMillan was Acting-Premier and when in early September arrests began to occur of strikers harassing non-strikers, and further proclamations were issued,40 he, McMillan, came under pressure from commercial interests with whom he was more closely aligned than Parkes. At a Mutual Life Assurance Banquet to open their 'magnificent new offices' he said that 'the Government knew nothing officially on this question [the strike - that is, was neutral] ... but they did know that brutal intimidation had been pracitsed ... and if there was any function which was peculiarly ... of the Government it was that it must defend the individual rights of the citizen'.41 What he had in mind became clear soon enough.

On 19 September, town 'blades' and defiant graziers drove bullock teams of wool bales to the Quay through crowds of unemployed, strikers and onlookers who responded with cheers, cat-calls, stones; an attempt to cut lines to the teams and unorganised abuse. The Riot Act was 'read' twice at the Quay since the crowd would not disperse when ordered to. The first 'mumbling'42 of the Act completed, the mounted police43 charged the crowd and bedlam followed.44 Some newspaper accounts are very cautious45 while others go a long way towards Ernie Lane's more sensational account. What is common and borne out by the on-the-spot drawings are the panic stricken bystanders trying to escape the plunging, rearing horses, while a number of verbal accounts refer to swords drawn against individuals, the 'extreme' viciousness of the constables, and the continuing attack and counterattack through the lanes and back streets around the Quay for some hours afterwards.46 The Australian Star editorialised:

The responsibility for the riot ... rests chiefly on the persons who organised the procession ... for the purpose of expressing defiance.47

Many large fires broke out around this time. Claims about 'incendiaries' were made and enquiries instituted. No evidence to support the claims came to light. The TLC organisers thought they were winning and tried to damp things down:

If the men only kept quiet there would be a dissolution of Parliament in a very short time.48

What tensions were percieved as sufficient to defeat the Parkes government were left unexplained, though they doubtless centred on the Parkes-McMillan dynamic.

McMillan received his sobriquet 'Machine-Gun' at this time, many people49 believing that he ordered out a detachment of these weapons to mow the crowd down should they show any fight during the procession of wool to the Quay. Much of the anti-Tory speculation rests upon this point of a plot by certain sections of the mercantile-conservative groupings opposed to changes in tax, suffrage and mining legislation introduced by Parkes. The plot involved landing British marines from Her Majesty's visiting ships Orlando and Curocoa,50 arrest of the Labor Defence Committee to discredit the Parkes government and replacement of that government with a new one,51 and the shooting of any protesting people 'down like dogs'.52 In responding to a Chamber of Commerce deputation on the morning of the 19th, and an hysterical Daily Telegraph editorial, McMillan had said that the government was prepared but 'yesterday, matters had reached quite a different stage':

a temporary, semi-revolutionary government had attempted to be set up ... The situation could not be any graver and he told those who sanctioned the disorder that the Government were prepared to go to any extreme to preserve order.53

Parkes spoke the same day of the union leaders being guilty of conspiracy but said that any new security arrangements would have to come through him. Feeling himself obliquely repudiated, McMillan resigned, and though Lord Carrington, NSW Governor, refused to accept the resignation 'under any circumstances',54 it was a day or two before reconciliation was effected. The direct claim of 'revolutionary conspiracies' did not resurface, but only because the labor vote was being whipped up by speeches like the following of A.G. Taylor:

The menacing attitude of the Government merely invited every working man in NSW to erect barricades ... hang tyrannical capitalists, shoot the Ministry themselves down like b----- dogs, ... haul down the Union Jack, hoist the flag of NSW republicanism and pulverise the public statues of the Queen and her consort.55

Parkes refused calls for a general election, though one was due, on the grounds that he did not wish 'to increase the country's disturbance until this strike is at an end'.56 Taylor, elected 26 October in a byelection , lasted in the House about three minutes. Suspended when trying to 'explain' his remarks about the Queen he waited outside while a long debate ensued inside. Dibbs, in opposition , particularly attacked Parkes's statement of 14 October that 'the state of things is little short of revolution ... the disturbance to industrial life is quite as great as if Sydney was bombarded by a foreign fleet ... very little further would plunge the country into undisguised anarchy'. Dibbs said that he thought Taylor's election had gone off without trouble and that 'free people exercising their right to combine and withdraw their labor were insulted by being referred to as Anarchists'.57

The majority of members; however, did not wish to risk their seats and there was no motion of no confidence. But unprepared as they were to chance an election, the sitting members were almost certainly ignorant of how shaky their position was or just how angry the labor voters could have been. The military was reassessing their position vis-a-vis the civil power.

Lieutenant-Colonel Mackenzie, NSW military, was asked by his commanding officer to write on 15 September, just four days before the NSW militia could have faced their major test, to the Victorian Secretary of Defence to request 'a copy of any Local Act or Regulation... regarding the calling out of the Militia Forces in connection with riots'. A reply was sent on the 17th complying with the instructions of Collins, Secretary for Defence, that 'we [Victoria] have no Act neither are there any clauses in our Discipline Act', as Queensland and Canada had, 'providing for calling out the militia in aid of [the] civil power'. 58 This admission puts a different light on the variations in the way colonial governments responded to 'unrest', goes some way towards explaining the greater vulnerability of the Victorian government once the Price order had been publicised, but it also throws into doubt the whole chain of authority in such situations, especially the basis of the Instructions for the Guidance of Magistrates, Constables and Others With Respect to the Suppression of Riots used in both Melbourne and Sydney.59

Price recorded in 1906, discussions in the Defence Minister's office late in August 1890 about what powers the Victorian government had to call out the military in their behalf.60 The decision to do so was made on the basis of Queens Regulations according to Price. The Age of 30 August 1890 had recorded that Crown Law officers were called in and that the troop's oath 'to cause her Majesty's peace to be kept' was taken as justification for calling on the military. However on 16 September, that is, between the date the NSW letter was received and the day the Victorian reply was sent, General Order 397 was posted in Victoria's barracks. It quotes sections of the (Victorian) Defences and Discipline Act, 1890, which came into operation on 1 August,61 including Paragraph 17 which reads:

On a summons by proclamation in the Government Gazette and in all cases of actual invasion of Victoria or hostile attack thereon or upon the making of any general signals of alarm as provided in the regulations to be made as aforesaid every person whose services shall have been so engaged as aforesaid shall forthwith assemble and shall be liable to march or embark on board any ship or vessel and to serve according to the terms and conditions of the regulations to be made as aforesaid for their respective services.

It would appear therefore that an attempt was made to paper over a hole by people who knew what they wanted done but who had suddenly sensed a chill wind of doubt.

Concern was also being felt in another area - that of the Magistrate 'deputed to go out with the troops', that is either Nicolson or Shuter62 in the case of Melbourne, 1890. 'He' contacted the Military Commandant to ask whether the choice of weapon 'lay with the Officer Commanding the Troops or himself .63 The Instructions ask the magistrate to provide in writing an instruction to 'charge the mob [with drawn swords, or fixed bayonets or truncheons] or to fire on the mob' to the officer if riotous persons have not dispersed fifteen minutes after the Riot Act has been read. Part of the Instructions reads:

The military present acting with a magistrate are, in the eye of the law, present as civilians, and have the same duties and the same responsibilities as civilians; but all are alike justified in using necessary force to disperse persons actually engaged in a riot ... and for that purpose they may be armed . ... if the magistrate is cool and cautious, the police and troops can incur no responsibility, and would in all likelihood, be held blameless, except in an extreme and clear case of unnecessary violence . ... the magistrate, who will be always responsible, should, for his own security, wait until the danger has become so imminent that a tolerable unanimity of witnesses may be hoped for, or at least sufficient to weigh down the misrepresentation certain to be subsequently made.

All of which wording sounds like a government carefully providing itself with scapegoats in any eventuality.

The Military Commandant, Tulloch, was certain that 'as soon as the Magistrate signs the order ... all further action unquestionably rests on the shoulders of the Officer ....'64 He agreed that differences of opinion between the magistrate and the military officer could lead to such 'awkward' situations as the officer being 'tried for his life for doing his duty'. Although he had 'never before heard such a question raised' his concern about potential differences or doubts about Price may have been the reason he had intended to be the ranking officer present at any reading of the Riot Act during the strike.

Collins, Defence Secretary, sent Tulloch's memo to the Crown Solicitor, John Gurner, for an opinion.65 The government's legal expert equivocated:

In giving the order the Magistrate to a great extent assumes the responsibility although if he orders measures which are clearly severe beyond all reasonable necessity the officer executing them is not protected and should if they are palpably uncalled for refuse to execute them ...The officer ... may take more severe measures ... or he may act apart from the Magistrate ... and he may possibly find himself justified ... but in my opinion it would be very unwise for the officer in command to incur the very great risk and responsibility he would undoubtedly incur by so doing unless the necessity for his so acting was clear beyond all doubt.66

On being apprised of this response Tulloch concluded 'the opinion given practically leaves the question where it was'. He wanted something done:

As the reference to swords, bayonets, truncheons (which soldiers never carry) or firing [in the Instructions] are different to the instructions given in the United Kingdom might I suggest that the matter be referred home.67

Collins minuted back that as the question was one of merely local concern and the colony a self-governing one the Minister thought it was unnecessary to refer the matter 'home'.68 But although the urgency had clearly gone out of the matter for the Victorian authorities, at least as clearly the other military commanders did not provide him any comfort when they met in December 1890 for three months later Tulloch rather pleadingly returned to Collins with:

What I want is this. Has the Home Government any precedent to guide us.69

No further correspondence is in this file, so the matter perhaps remained there, unresolved, but secretly so.

It was perhaps the doubt about demarcation of responsibility with the militia and/or police and indeed the legality of use of militia that had prompted Nicolson early in September to reverse his previous opinion, that is, prior to the Tom Price-Flinders Park Meeting on 29 August, and to now urge the police through Sadleir'not to expect military aid until the Police resources had been used and had failed'. He now expressed the Opinion that Sadleir's arrangements were not sufficient or the best use of the police. Since Sadleir still insisted the military was needed he, Nicolson, again collected the Lord Mayor and interviewed a Minister, this time Gillies, to display his Sherlock Holmes-type powers of deduction:

[On 2 September] I visited the wharf and found a crowd collected there of over 3000 men, one third at least [Nicolson's emphasis] of whom were criminals, semicriminals and such other men as who could only be deterred from violence ... by the presence of the Police and fear of the law.

Mindful of his 'very serious responsibilities' and the legal penalties he believed he was subject to 'when engaged in dispersing unlawful assemblies' Nicolson apparently prevailed upon Gillies to override Sadleir. The subsequent strengthening of the police force [by more police] 'had a most wholesome effect, as evidenced by the peaceful appearance of the wharf all the following day'.70

Who is kidding who here is doubtful. The Melbourne Herald on 3 September described the previous day's visitation of eighty mounted police and the same number of foot police as 'a useless display' 'for at no time during the day was there less appearance of any disturbance'. Someone had apparently predicted a riot, despite the police on the spot saying that 'everything was quiet'.71 It is this description of the police show of strength as 'a false alarm' that had prompted the Nicolson letter (above) and visit to Gillies; one must speculate about the magistrate's motives, perhaps his ambition. Of course, the Age insider claim that 'arrangements had been made' so that the Mounted Rifles 'will not come into contact with any crowd of people'72 indicates that the government called the troops to satisfy the political requirements of its own supporters, never intended their use even in an emergency (such as the Circular Quay event in Sydney), and that it was ultimately put out of office through a device of its own making, namely when the hired gun of doubtful legality it had loaded but kept in a locked cupboard went off by itself. However, even before the emission was discovered a safer weapon, more police, was substituted for public display, too late as it turned out only for Gillies.

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