Elizabeth Huf

The Great Shearers’ Strike of 1891 was a major confrontation between Queensland graziers and their shearing hands. It has been recorded as one of the most significant events in the development of the Australian Labor Movement. But what really happened in Central and Western Queensland at Clermont, Capella, Barcaldine, Tambo, Springsure and Winton in 1891? From January 1891 when the Maritime Union called a black ban on wool shorn by non-union labour until the Rockhampton trial in May of that year, Queensland was on the verge of civil war ‘of more violent proportions than Eureka’. As the southern free labourers  (called ‘scabs’ by the unionists) arrived in Rockhampton on 10 February, to be taken by special train to Clermont to service Wolfang, Logan Downs and Gordon Downs, violent confrontations between graziers and shearers were set to begin.

The pastoralists had claimed their prices were falling, they wanted ‘Freedom of Contract’. The shearers had refused to sign this agreement, insisting on their right to work alongside unionists only for a set and fair wage. In 1890, a central district council, composed of members of the Queensland Shearers Union and Queensland Labourers’ Union had been formed with their headquarters at Barcaldine.

The strike erupts at Logan Downs

At Logan Downs, a station owned by George Fairbairn on the Peak Downs between Capella and Clermont, the Shearers’ Strike began on 5 January 1891. Central District Union organiser and Logan Downs shearer, George Taylor was present with Charles and Frederick Fairbairn.  As 120 shearers and labourers gathered together to commence work, Frederick Fairbairn read out the new Shearing Agreement passed in November 1890, when George Fairbairn had accepted the United Pastoralists’ Association ticket system and the posting of shed rules. Taylor and the shearers refused to sign, dispersed and formed a camp on the banks of Wolfang Creek, five kilometres from Clermont.

The Queensland Pastoralists Employers Association (QPEA) met on 13 January and decided to give the strikers a fortnight to return to work under a revised agreement. Shearers at Gordon Downs and Mount Abundance next went out on strike.  More camps were formed and as the whole magnificent downs country was flooded with rain, travel was almost impossible. The unions announced at Barcaldine on 1 February 1891 that the Queensland bush would be the battleground for a war with the landowners over fair wages.

Free labourers for the shearing sheds

The pastoralists’ executive council received a letter from their colleagues in Melbourne on 28 January recommending that ‘free labourers’ be obtained from Victoria, where pastoralists would organise 132 competent shearers, rouseabouts and cooks to travel north. The first free labourers (unemployed men) left Melbourne on 3 February bound for Rockhampton. They were offered 30 shillings per week and the shearers – one pound per hundred sheep shorn above what the union was demanding – with a guarantee of six months work. The graziers were determined to survive by retaining control of labour wage rates in the wool industry.

In early February, grazier George Fairbairn Jnr and two colleagues from the QPEA were on the Rockhampton wharf  to meet the ship Derwent, with its cargo of free labourers, or ‘scabs’ as the waiting mob on the wharf called them. They were delivered by train to Clermont, Emerald, Springsure and Capella.

Rifles railed to unionists

At the same time, ammunition and rifles were arriving for unionists. Rumours of union men riding to Emerald and Clermont were reported. On 10 February at Clermont Station the free labourers were ‘jostled and molested’ according to Frederick Fairbairn. On 11 February, a great crowd of unionists rushed the train on the arrival of the labourers from Melbourne. Drays waiting to escort the shearers to Logan Downs had their wheel lynch pins removed. Police Inspector John Ahern described the itinerant rampaging unionists at Clermont on 22 February ‘as the greatest ruffians in Australia’. Worse was to come when the Capella station master delayed news to Police Inspector Ahern of the arrival of mounted unionists by 12 hours.  George Fairbairn Jnr obtained 20 more constables to protect Wolfang Station, in late February. By this time, there were permanent camps at Sandy Creek near Logan Downs, Capella, Gordon Downs as well as the main camp at Barcaldine.

More than 400 shearers held an open air meeting at Barcaldine on 15 February and declared ‘black’ the woolsheds at Bimberah, Beaconsfield, Barcaldine Downs, Lorne Minnie Downs, Bowen Downs, Northampton Downs and Maneroo, Isis Downs and Salter Creek and many more.

As Julian Stuart, the young militant organiser of the labourers’ union was marching 200 mounted bushmen towards Clermont, the Government Chief Secretary Tozer was sending soldiers, armed with Nordenfeldt machine guns and Martini-Henri rifles, to the Central Highlands by train. Many of these soldiers later fought in South Africa in the Boer War. United Pastoralists’ president William Allan was comforted by advice that 70 more police were being sent to guard the ‘free labourers’.

Telegram from Blackwell to Forrester, 22 February 1891 ‘The first shot fired will maybe cause the Australian Revolution’

On 21 February, Rockhampton Police Magistrate, Robert Ranking, read a government proclamation at camps outside Clermont, requesting unionists hand over their arms and ammunition, but unionists reacted angrily. They burnt effigies of the Premier at Barcaldine and continued firing fences and woolsheds.  Most of the country between Jericho and Alpha was on fire. Unionists responded with the publication of the Australian Labour Federation Manifesto emblazoned across the colonial press.

Riots and confrontations

The most disturbing riot was at Clermont on 7 March 1891 when the pastoralists’ executive George Fairbairn Jnr, James Niall and Robert Oliver arrived by train, with only Sergeant Dillon and a few constables to protect them. Dillon was forced off his horse, and the unionists took the winkers off the buggy horses to encourage them to bolt. Stones flew freely, as constables drew swords and an ugly tension prevailed. Next day, several unionists were arrested.  At Capella Creek camp, more than 100 unionists met the police with sticks and refused them entry. Magistrate Rankin raided the union camps. A total of nine arrests were made.

At Barcaldine railway station on 10 March, almost 1500 unionists met two dozen police and blocked the platform. On 18 March, another riot occurred when the train brought free labourers to Minerva. However, when Charles Fairbairn allegedly ordered Major Ricardo to instruct his troops to fire, Ricardo refused. Finally, bayonets were drawn, but the unionists withdrew. On 31 March, an attempt was made to wreck a train crossing at Abor Creek Bridge between Capella and Clermont, by cutting through a headstock and the right pile. The telegraph line was also cut between Clermont and Emerald.

Shearers bear the Eureka Flag

In May, it has been alleged that at least 3000 striking shearers marched under the Eureka Flag to put forward their protests against poor working conditions and low wages beneath the boughs of the now poisoned Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine, where a new monument to the striking shearers and the formation of the Labor Party stands.

Strike ends in June: graziers agree to employ rebels

The strike was declared off in Blackall on 15 June and Hughenden on 18 June 1891. The union changed its manifesto by encouraging unionists to enrol on the electoral roll to have their voice heard. Without funding by southern unionists they could not have fought on through the winter. Because the shearers fought their battles with words and a few with matches (lighting woolsheds and grass as a way of communicating their needs to the pastoralists), the five months war resulted in only one violent death.  Finally, the United Pastoralists Association after engaging 1805 free labourers during the strike, was prepared to employ the rebels.

The Queen v George Taylor and Others

At Rockhampton Supreme Court on 1 May 1891, the trial of 14 men accused of conspiracy against the Crown was presided over by Justice George Rogers Harding. The accused were alleged to be leaders of the 1891 shearers’ strike and on 20 May, the jury returned its verdict of Guilty.  Under Section 543 of the Criminal Code, they were sentenced to three years imprisonment together with a bond of 12 months.

Shearers strike ‘Railroaded’

Many strike skirmishes occurred not only in Queensland’s central highlands but stretched right across the Winton, Warrego, Maranoa districts and over the New South Wales border. Historian Geoffrey Bolton maintains the Strike was ‘railroaded’.  Its suppression was an example of the power of the new railway.  If the strike had taken place six years earlier, it would have been impossible for the government to bring police, troops and free labour to Logan Downs and Wolfang Station.

Tree of Knowledge: still a monument

The Tree of Knowledge at Barcaldine was poisoned, but is still one of Australian’s most famous icons and the birthplace of the Australian Labor Party. Following the gaol sentence of strike leaders, unions involved met beneath the old ghost gum to form the ‘Labour Electoral Leagues’  which later became the ALP – the oldest political party in Australia.  It is interesting to note that several of the Shearers’ Strike leaders became significant political figures.  William Fothergill became chairman of Barcaldine Shire Council, William Hamilton became president of the Queensland Legislative Council and George Taylor became speaker of the West Australian Legislative Council.

Tourists come in droves to the Central Highlands to visit the Australian Workers’ Heritage Centre (The Big Tent) at Barcaldine and the historic Peak Downs Homestead at the Capella Pioneer Village.

References and Further reading (Note)

Liz Huf, Lorna McDonald and David Myers (eds), Sin, sweat & sorrow: the making of Capricornia Queensland 1840s-1940s, Central Queensland University Press, Rockhampton, 1993

References and Further reading (Note)

Ruth Kerr, Freedom of contract: a history of United Graziers’ Association of Queensland, United Graziers’ Association, Brisbane, 1990

References and Further reading (Note)

Stuart Svensen, The shearers’ war: the story of the 1891 shearers’ strike, 2nd edition, Hesperian Press, Carlisle WA, 2008