AUSTRALIAN POLICE IN THE NATIONAL WATERFRONT RIOTS 1928-1931
WALLACE B. BUDD QPM
Chief Superintendent (Ret’d) South Australian Police Force
‘Cry havoc! and let slip the dogs of war.” Richard III: Shakespeare
During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s there was a global economic ‘Depression’ and Australia fell victim. Unemployment figures were distressingly high. Masses of men in industry and on the Nation’s waterfront’s, clamouring for employment or better pay and working conditions, were easily manipulated by such organisations as the Communist Party of Australia and the Socialist Labour Party. One newspaper, The Workers’ Weekly, the official organ of the CPA, contained a directive from the Communist International in its 6 December 1929 issue. It read: ‘Impermissible to support the Australian Labour Party directly or indirectly. Overhaul policy – alter course!’ This was the signal for the hitherto clandestine members of the Communist Party working within the ALP to make an open break with that party and come out publicly in opposition to it.
Some of the aims of the CPA pertinent to this troubled era were:
‘With the support of a majority of the people we will overthrow and smash the power of the capitalists and big landowners.’
‘We will seize without compensation the big industrial undertakings so that the industrial production may be organised on a Socialist basis.’
The Communist felt their hour had come because of the despair among the Australian unemployed, and the subsequent bitterness in consequence of the National Strike involving the Waterside Workers’ Federation, which began in September 1928 with violence erupting in the wharves between waterside workers and police. The WWF demanded traditional wages to unload ships in the Nation’s ports. The ship owners offered less. The Communist Party exploited this situation and offered itself as an alternative political body to govern the country. Mr Ben Chifley, who became a Labour Prime Minister in 1945, warned Labour men in his Bathurst constituency during 1931: ‘ No more evil force has entered Australian politics and social life than Communism. It is entirely devoid of spiritual significance, and is calculated to shatter the finest ideals of any country into which its malicious influence enters.’
In September 1928 a new Award handed down earlier by Mr Justice George S. Beeby [later Chief Judge] in the Arbitration Court came into operation. Under the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Act 1904 – 1928, provision was made for the imposition of heavy penalties in the event of any person or organisation being guilty of any act regarded as contempt of Court, such as not complying with an award. Shipping circles throughout Australia decided there was every likelihood that the first test of this would be applied following the proclamation of the amended Arbitration Act. A serious and widespread maritime upheaval was certain once the ‘Beeby Award’, as it was known, became operative.
The Commonwealth Government directed that awards under the Arbitration Act must be obeyed. Refusal to comply with the Beeby Award would amount to contempt of Court with penalties being imposed. The unions objected to the Beeby Award in principle.
One of the provisions strongly objected to related to smoke–ohs. The smoke–ohs were always provided from 10 am to 1015 am and 3pm to 3-15pm. In addition, the employers allowed a smoke at 8pm and 10pm. The new award provided that ‘no smoke-oh shall be compulsory unless the men have been working for two hours’. Another provision the union particularly objected to (and paradoxically it existed in the old award) was that men should attend a morning pickup, and another in the afternoon. The men had steadfastly refused to attend a second pickup and only offered themselves for engagement between 8am and 10 am each day.
In September 1928 the President of the WWF (Mr W Mather) claimed Judge Beeby ‘had thrown the industry into confusion by establishing another pickup when one had worked successfully for years’.
In delivering his judgement on 28 June 1928 in the matter of The Commonwealth Steamship Owners Association and Other versus the Waterside Workers Federation of Australia, Justice Beeby said inter alia:
“It is unfortunate that the rank and file of the Waterside Workers Federation pay little regard to their industrial history. Before the Arbitration Courts first undertook investigation of their conditions they were a badly organised body of men needing the assistance of statutory tribunals authorised to fix reasonable conditions of employment”.
In 1914 Mr Justice Higgins began the difficult task of discovering and applying standard conditions for the occupation throughout the Commonwealth. His first award (8 C.A.R., p.53) greatly improved the earnings and working conditions of wharf labourers, and gave the men an industrial status never before enjoyed………. “I was surprised at this tendency of some witnesses to live in the past, and to assume that conditions existing prior to 1914 still prevail, and also at the avowal by some union representatives that, while the Court’s awards had been of great benefit, the union was entitled during the currency of those awards, by direct action at moments when pressure was likely to be effective, to compel compliance with conditions which had not been prescribed by the court……….The workmen have also forgotten and are encouraged by their leaders to forget the reasons for the high casual rates of pay fixed by the Court; rates higher than those paid in any other casual occupation in the Commonwealth”.
As in the case of all violent civil disorders, the environment on and about the periphery of the waterfront was to become ‘extraordinary’ rather than ‘normal’. Normal civic values and behaviour were likely to be shed in ruthless pursuit of the objectives of the mob. Police in the nation’s capitals were soon to meet tests peculiar to their circumstances in the worst national industrial dispute encountered in years. And tested they would be in large measures because they did not have any policies or guidelines regarding command organisation in the event of serious civil disorders on a grand scale.
From 11 September the waterfronts were idle. The unions ignored the Beeby Award. Overseas and Interstate Shipowners refusal to hold a conference with the Waterside Workers’ Federation if discussions were to be based on the old award. There was premature optimism when moderate elements among the unionists prevailed and in Melbourne on 17 September the Federal Executive of the WWF voted 48 votes to 22 for a return to work. The move was welcomed throughout Australia because it was the busy export period for wool. Much unemployment would be averted, for one thing. However, the Communists objected to the settlement.
Next day the Port Adelaide Waterside Workers at a mass meeting resolved not to work under the new award. Speakers who advised resumption were counted out. The same decision was reached by the Fremantle (Western Australia) waterside workers; and the question of non-union or 'free labour' being used to handle cargoes was raised. But it was doubtful if this would happen at Fremantle after what became known as the Colebatch Debacle in 1919, when national volunteers were introduced on the wharves - and taken off after a 'bloody Sunday'. A battle occurred between opposing forces of police and lumpers who were reinforced by relatives, friends and sympathisers. The Fremantle Wharf was assailable at every yard of its mile length and could not be adequately protected against attack.
FREE LABOUR VOLUNTEERS - THE 'SCABS'
The catalyst of the ugly situations about to erupt on the Nation's waterfronts was manifesting itself. The problem of the 'scabs' as the Free Labour Volunteers or non-unionist were dubbed by the WWF was emerging. ('Scab' is defined in the 1811 Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue as; 'A worthless man or woman'. Whether or not the users of the term in the 1920's realised this is a debatable issue. Medically, a scab is a healthy healing stage of flesh wounds).
At Port Adelaide by 1930 these so called 'Scabs' numbered in excess of 400. Most were Italian or European migrants who came to Australia from over-crowded homelands in search of work to sustain their families. There was work available on the waterfront and generally wages and conditions were superior to those they had left behind. They could not understand why Australians were refusing any work in hard times, and they were keen to fill the vacancies. Members of the WWF resented these scabs and attacked them violently at every opportunity. At Port Adelaide the volunteer labour generally 'turned the other cheek', and relied upon the police for protection mustering for work, or working on ships and wharves. Ominously, some armed themselves with knives and unlicensed pistols bought on the black market. In time, revolvers were brandished and knives produced to discourage assailants. Inevitably, there were stabbings resulting in prosecutions.
While plainclothes constable R. Booth was trying to arrest a suspect rioter near the Port Adelaide Police Station, the man threatened him with a revolver. During the struggle for possession of the weapon the policeman fell over and was kicked in the head by a passer-by. The man with the gun fled but he came later into the Police Station and surrendered himself and the weapon. He was an Italian who thought the out-of-uniform policeman was one of the unionists.
Members in the WWF selected their weapons, principally gas pipes and bale hooks. There was 'boot fighting', men being kicked when they were down. A motor traffic constable travelling in the sidecar of a motorcycle outfit along the front line of a demonstrating crowd was swiped across the face with an iron bar. He was disfigured for life. 'Cut throat' razors, or sharp knives, were fixed onto long poles for the purpose of hamstringing police horses from behind. And volunteer workers were thrown from wharves or ships into the Port River with reckless indifference to their swimming ability.
Psychological warfare was practised, as well. Police contingents deployed for action were taunted and abused. Women on the outskirts of an imminent stoush reputedly had the most versatile vocabularies. As one veteran mounted constable involved in these incidents said: "The language those lassies could lay their tongues to would make your hair curl!"
'THE DOGS OF WAR'
On 24 September 1928 the press reported the Albany (Western Australia) waterside workers had remained loyal to the Beeby Award but free labour volunteers "were savagely assaulted in Melbourne and Brisbane". At South Australia's Port Adelaide the strike position was expected to be clarified. A secret ballot among members of the WWF was to be held on the question of resuming work. However, the ballot was frustrated in a sensational manner. The box containing voting papers was seized and smashed by "several of the 'red' element and many papers were destroyed".
The ranks of the volunteer labourers were increasing on the waterfront and most vessels in port might sail before the end of the week, whether the strike ceased or not. But this hopeful state of affairs was doomed. Adelaide's morning paper reported on 28 September: "A disgraceful scene was witnessed at Port Adelaide on Thursday morning when about 4000 wharf labourers and others swarmed over Robinson's Bridge with the object of compelling volunteer labourers to leave the vessels on which they were working.” The volunteers were not given time to leave the vessels peacefully, and although a number were escorted off safely by benign wharf labourers, others were roughly handled. The police soon intervened and dispersed the unionists after considerable trouble.
During the afternoon an estimated 2000 men marched six miles from Port Adelaide to Outer Harbour, the alternative port for ships too large to negotiate the port River, and rushed the police lines which had been strengthened by calling out all available officers, including traffic and water police. A potentially ugly situation was resolved by the strikers being frustrated so far. This number of determined marchers was significant and caused widespread public alarm considering Adelaide's metropolitan population was approximately 300,000.
It was the beginning of many desperate confrontations between Mounted and Foot Police at Port Adelaide and Outer Harbour. The 4000 wharf labourers mentioned earlier “went through the Port Adelaide docks like wildfire” attacking the scabs “with weapons comprising iron piping bars and bale hooks.” Men who fell while trying to escape were savagely kicked. Serious injuries were inflicted. Volunteer labourers on a German liner jumped overboard and swam to safety.
The 2000 strong body of wharf labourers who marched on Outer Harbour were met by a force of 150 police under the personal direction of the then Police Commissioner, Brigadier General R.L. Leane (later Sir Raymond). He had served in the Commonwealth Military Forces from 1900-1914, and in the Australian Imperial Forces from 1914-1919. He was a highly decorated World War I hero who commanded the 11th and 48th Battalions, 12th Infantry Brigade, and was mentioned in despatches eight times. He became the S.A. Police Commissioner in 1920. When the vanguard of the close packed marchers reached the southern end of the Harbour wharves they were met by the Commissioner in plainclothes accompanied by an Inspector Horseman. The Commissioner’s attempt to dissuade the men from attacking the volunteer labourers at the Harbour failed, and the mob ran forward and through the wharf sheds shouting threats.
But General Leane had laid his plans well. The stone throwing mob was first met by a body of mounted police who soon had to use batons. When the horses were hit by stones they reared and kicked up clouds of dust. The mob was deflected off course and predictably rushed towards an area behind a railway station. Here they were attacked by large numbers of plainclothes police using batons, and they ran back towards the wharves between two blocks of buildings.
Before the mob could cross the road to reach the wharves, they were confronted and attacked by General Leane’s second line of defence, a cordon of foot police. The mounted police had reformed and with more foot police blocked escape to the rear and closed in on the flanks of the mob. The ships’ crews had been ordered earlier to haul up all gangways, and so passengers, crews, and volunteer labourers were able to witness, in safety, a neat coup at the closing stages of a situation probably without parallel in the industrial history of South Australia. The mob gave up and stood around in dejected groups.
Some of the ringleaders mounted a box and harangued the men, the bulk of whom “were plainly unmoved”. When a Detective Bourke got on the box and spoke to them, he was given a cheer and a sympathetic hearing.
The following occurred:
Detective Bourke explained the police had no personal feelings in the matter. They had their orders and they would carry them out. This was quietly accepted.
He asked the strikers what they would care to do next. They asked if appointed delegates could get into communication with the employers to ask them to call off their non-union labour. The police arranged this.
However, the delegates did not meet the employer even after a long wait, and by the time they returned most of their followers had drifted away. The incident was over.
ESSENTIAL SERVICES MAINTENANCE VOLUNTEERS.
The riot of 28 September 1928 was the most serious so far of those troubled times in South Australia, but more was to come. The next day was calm because no work was done on the wharves and ships. Indeed, all States except Queensland were now prepared to work under the Beeby Award. However, there were two serious incidents correlated to the rioters’ cause.
The driver of a motor lorry carrying timber to Outer Harbour was hit on the head by a stone thrown from the anonymous mass of a picket line denying traffic along Military Road at Largs Bay near the Harbour. He was knocked unconscious. A Good Samaritan passing by on a motorcycle and sidecar took him to the Port Adelaide Casualty Hospital where he received many stitches in a large wound. A mounted police patrol subsequently dispersed the picketers. In the State of Victoria overnight bombs were thrown at homes of foremen stevedores in the suburbs of South Melbourne and Middle Park. Extensive damage resulted but no one was injured. Even so, two children were sleeping in a wrecked bedroom in the Middle Park home and were at risk.
The premier of South Australia, the Honourable R.L. Butler, announced the State had reached a critical stage in its history and his Government was determined to preserve law and order. 500 members of the Essential Services Maintenance Volunteers were sworn in as Special Constables and rifles and service kits were issued to them by the Defence Department. By 29 September 2000 Special Constables were organised and equipped to prevent disorder and resist violence on the waterfront. Charged with this objective, Lieutenant Colonel W.C.N Waite was appointed officer commanding.
The Police Department had established a depot on a former smelting works property opposite the Adelaide Chemical Works on Ocean Steamers Road to house mounted and foot police contingents deployed against the rioters. Stables, farrier shop, kitchen and messroom had been built. Wooden huts and canvas tents were the sleeping quarters. Contingents of the Essential Services Special Constables were stationed at the depot for training. Lt. Colonel Waite set up his headquarters in a brick administration building nearby. A wide unsealed parade ground was contiguous to these buildings on which the Special Constables underwent rifle drill. The rioting fraternity derided the police depot as the ‘Scab Compound’.
In Victoria on 2 November 1928 police opened fire with revolvers when stevedores tried to rush the P and O liner ‘Chitral’ at Prince's Pier, Port Melbourne. One stevedore was badly wounded in the neck; one was shot in the shoulder; another through the arm.
There were about 1000 stevedores at the pickup place early in the morning and they attacked the non-union volunteers who were marching to the ‘Chitral’. The pier and the stevedores rushed the pierhead, which was held by a few police. The stevedores fired a shot and threw road metal at the police, who, finding it impossible to hold the position with their batons, drew their revolvers and fired more than 50 shots into the air before Sub-inspector Mossop ordered them to fire into the still hostile crowd.
Brigadier-General TA Blamey (later Sir Thomas), who became Australia’s first Field Marshall on 16 September 1950, was appointed Chief Commissioner of the Victorian Police Force on 1 September 1925. In his view, the firing of shots by the police was justified because they were in danger of being overwhelmed with strikers gaining control. He decided to bring 100-180 police in from country areas because he thought there was no need to enrol special constables as the existing force had demonstrated it could handle the problem.
THE MARCH OF THE WOMEN – 1929
On 19 January 1929, some 800 wives of unemployed waterside workers, led by Senator A.A. Hoare and Mr Norman Makin M.H.R, began a peaceful march along Commercial Street, Port Adelaide, in support of their husbands’ cause. Early in the march an Adelaide man called for local men to join it – and over 900 did! Many were not waterside workers. As the marchers passed some auction rooms a women grabbed a large red ‘sale flag’ and carried it on high. A male marcher followed her example by taking another red flag from the auction rooms further along. Many marchers sang Internationale, often sung at socialist demonstrations in Europe.
At the corner of Divett Street the marchers deserted their leaders and rushed towards Queen’s Wharf where the steamer “Van Spilbergen” was being loaded with wheat by volunteer workers. Foot police were unable to halt the crowd and mounted troopers rode through to break it up. People from the body of the march threw pieces of wood, stones and bottles at the police who retaliated with batons which found occasionally unintended marks. In the melee a child in its mothers arms, allegedly hit by a baton, lost two teeth. With horses pushing into the crowd, batons swinging and missiles flying, it was inevitable, as reported in the press, “many people were roughly treated” and a battlefield was certainly no place for children. Eventually the police were able to stop an invasion of Queen’s Wharf.
During the fighting a woman punched a foot constable and kicked him in the shins. Constable A.W. Dack was hit with a bottle. Sergeant W. Partridge (later Inspector) of the Mounted police had his collarbone fractured by a stone.
At 5pm work ceased on the steamer and the volunteers were escorted towards their bureau by a large police contingent. The crowd had lingered and a shout went up. Men and women rushed to the attack and were met by baton wielding mounted police who drove them back. By 6pm they had dispersed. The troopers remained to seal off the wharf.
At a meeting of the Port Adelaide Traders and Labour Council during January 1929 delegates passed the following motion:
“We protest strongly against the action of some mounted police riding down inoffensive citizens under verandahs on footpaths and using batons in defiance of British law and the Constitution, which says a baton should be used only as a last resource, and the Commissioner of Police is not under law an infallible authority to deprive citizens of their rights”.
The secretary regretted that “greater discretion was not shown by some younger policemen in the use of the baton. This policy of ‘wherever you see a head hit it’ would not assist the trade union movement to prevent bloodshed”.
Next day a European migrant, after seeking work unsuccessfully at the Trades and Labour Bureau, was chased by a group of 20 men at Alberton near Port Adelaide on his way home. He ran into a nearby back yard to hide but was caught, stoned and kicked when he fell. While he was down one of his tormentors bashed him over the head with a house brick. The wound bled profusely and his attackers fled. A neighbour rang for an ambulance and the police. Constable Schultz accompanied the man to the Port Adelaide Casualty Hospital. He was later transferred to the Royal Adelaide Hospital in a serious condition.
Such were the times, vicious and violent. Undisciplined mobs roaming at large within the community were becoming dangerous. The ‘dogs of war’ had been let slip with the potential to create great havoc.
THE BEEF RIOT – 1931
In January 1931 the Government removed beef from the dole ration issue. On the morning of January 9 some young men met at the office of the Waterside Workers’ Federation and the Seaman’s Union, Port Adelaide. They invited the officials of these organisations to head a protest march to the Premier’s offices in the Treasury Building near Victoria Square, the geographical centre of Adelaide. The Union leaders would not cooperate; and so a large group of people comprising mostly men, and a small group of women and children, set off for the city. Their leaders carried large red flags and placards on long poles. As they marched they sang ‘The Red Flag’. People joined them along the Port Road. At Southwark, a suburb on the western outskirts of the city on the banks of the River Torrens, they were met by some 1000 unemployed who had marched from the Labour Exchange in the city.
The augmented crowd move quietly to the Corner of West and North Terraces and the Port Road at the entrance to the city under the wary eyes of a contingent of mounted, foot and motor traffic police. At this corner, without clear reason, one of the youthful demonstrators struck a mounted constable with his placard. The police, ordered to use restraint, did not react physically. The march leaders were asked to maintain control as best they could. A potentially volatile situation was defused.
The procession was orderly as it moved into North Terrace, although threats were shouted at police lining the route and onlookers. As it passed Parliament House there was some hooting, and several politicians were named and counted out. The mood was by now belligerent; the police were becoming concerned.
The marchers turned South into King William Street, the main city thoroughfare, and went to the Treasury Building demanding to see the Premier. Here a contingent of foot police confronted them. Inside the building a police reserve waited in readiness. The police administration had been learning, and it felt it was well prepared for whatever might eventuate. There was an officer in charge of operations, Superintendent McGrath, and he asked the leaders what they wanted. They demanded an interview with the Premier. While this was being negotiated the crowd became impatient. On an impulse house bricks were thrown at the police. Considering there were none on the roadside in King William Street, it begs the question – why were they brought there?
Plainclothes Constable Waye sustained a fractured jaw and a deep flesh wound. As he staggered about dazed he was struck with an iron bar. Stirred by this initial blood letting, a section of the mob armed with sticks and other makeshift weapons charged the police lines. The police met the onslaught with drawn batons. A fierce fight ensued and blood flowed freely.
One rioter savagely attacked a police horse with a wooden cart wheel spoke. Motor traffic constable Holloway, a well built, athletic Englishman, grappled with this offender and while he was doing so he was struck a heavy blow over the head by another man armed with a thick piece of oregon fashioned with a serviceable handle. Motor traffic constable Varley arrested this man after a struggle. Constable Sharman was about to assist his fellow officers when he was assaulted by a rioter armed with a heavy cudgel. A severe blow was partly cushioned by his pith helmet but the back of his head was badly gashed and he collapsed unconscious. As he lay on the ground he was hit several times by a man welding a piece of timber.
By this time combatants on both sides had fallen and were trodden on with fine impartiality. Women joined in. Many became hysterical, caught up in the surging, yelling mob, and some fainted. Demonstrators fleeing the scene leapt over them.
When the brawl showed signs of waning, hard core demonstrators called for a final sally and threw missiles and picked up weapons dropped by their comrades. But many of their people turned away and fled south across Victoria Square. Nonetheless, there were fanatics who fought on until they were over-powered and arrested.
Traffic police secured all abandoned weapons used by the rioters for production in court as real evidence. Lengths of timber with nails protruding at one end, half bricks, large stones wrapped in brown paper, broom handles cut in half, wheel spokes, iron bars and lengths of gas piping made up the haul. The Premier and his staff watched the ‘Beef Riot’ from an office window.
THE COMMISSIONER OF POLICE – 1928
Field Marshall Sir Thomas Blamey and Brigadier General Sir Raymond Leane were men of their times, and like most people today were conditioned by the generations preceding them. Moreover, both of them were battle tried soldiers and pragmatic. They could not suffer gladly procrastination and parleying while their men were being used as coconut shies at a country fair. It seems their philosophy was: stand, resist, prevail – then talk. They expected and got, unequivocal Government Support.
CAPTAIN JUDD’S LETTER – 1930
One contemporary South Australian of those bedevilled times held strong views about who was fanning the flames of anarchy and how their activities might be thwarted. Captain Frederick Judd, a shipping agent stationed at Abo on the Baltic Sea, Turkey, Finland, wrote a letter on 2 November 1930 to Mr D Deex, a ship’s chandler, Port Adelaide. Let him have the last word:
“The newspapers you sent me, they are very interesting, but what has become of Australia now? All trouble, it is a shame. It is on account of all the Russians. Those soapbox speakers, they never done a day’s work. I hate them. Once at Southshields (a South Australian agricultural sea port) I knocked one of them down from his box. He was trying to talk about the sea and get good men to strike. The swine, he couldn’t speak English hardly. We here are badly off with the Russians, there is all sorts of tricks, but we know them and watch them, but it takes all our time too. But we are altering our law now so that anyone causing disturbances anywhere is heavily punished, and if not a Finn, out he goes. What we call them, undesirables”.
Signed F. Judd
SOURCES OF REFERENCE
BOOKS: LF Crisp, Ben Chifley, Griffin Press, Adelaide, 1963.
NEWSPAPERS: The Register (Adelaide) 1927-1929.
PEOPLE: (Assistance gratefully acknowledged) – Ms Heather Layton, Supreme Court Library, Sir Samual Way Building, Adelaide: SA Police Officers contemporary to the era – reminiscences.
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