Theory Meets Practice:
During a three month coalminers’ strike in 1888, police alleged that when ‘new labour’ was brought to a pit-head near Newcastle in September the miners became violent. The Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) demanded that strong measures be used against ‘the rioters’ while Sydney’s Daily Telegraph needed seven headlines above its report to reflect the gravity of the situation. In a flash, it seemed, troops were rushed to Newcastle on the overnight steamer armed to the teeth and ready for any confrontation. A Bulletin report was initially dismissive. It spoke of ‘a small disturbance’, told how the government had expressed alarm and despatched twenty-four ‘high military officers’ and privates who found on arrival with ‘an expensive cannon and other panoply of glorious war’ that the belligerents had ‘gone home to tea’. On 20 October, however, amid continued Establishment drum-beating over ‘rioting miners’, The Bulletin suddenly announced:
The Revolt Has Begun
Were it not so what need of the… military preparations on behalf of Capital? What need of Nordenfeldts and armies if it were not recognised that this strike differed from the rest in proclaiming war, not against individuals but against a System?
What had changed in a month? Noisy headlines about the Haymarket explosion had been running for two years, so why was this Sydney paper talking up ‘war…against a system’ now? The Bulletin seemed to have vital, new information, going on to say:‘…And already the workers are steadily, silently making their preparations…’ What secrets did the writer know? Who had he been talking to? Well, perhaps no-one. There is a whiff of bombast in the rest of this sentence:
…to nullify all these schemes of oppression and possess themselves, once and for all peaceably, if it be possible, but by any means and at any cost, of the full heritage of men. [My emphasis]
Vain glorious rhetoric – whipping up contempt for the authorities by trivializing them and by inflating the workers’ strength and the nobility of their cause – could not assist strikers, at Northumberland or anywhere else. Its mirror opposite, the rhetoric of the Establishment papers, could not assist the forces of law and order to achieve their goals. In both cases, the language has other goals. Sometimes honestly held, the excited words could be aimed at rallying support in a crisis, or they could show an editor’s belief that ‘his’ readership considered that there was a crisis, ie, it was a marketing strategy to massage the paper’s readership. Lastly, the words could be an electric button-hole used by ‘spouters’ – showmen, snake oil salesmen, aspirant politicians – to attract attention. Yet, there was sometimes genuine passion about real issues and, at times, there was real blood in the street.
The Australian Star, a paper factionally-aligned with the parliamentary opposition, the Protectionists, joined the conversation with a qualified insistence ‘that any use of the Nordenfeldt, indeed any shooting of a striker’, could have resulted in the ‘vast majority of working men (flying) to arms’. On what basis was this assertion made? It appears to be pandering to both sides simply for commercial gain by building a sense of excitement without showing commitment to either. The paper had a stake in the sensational, and heightened the tension by suggesting the outcome of any armed conflict could not be predicted. Did the editor really think civil war was possible, that the government might have fallen, that society might collapse in turmoil? It made no suggestions about how citizens might prepare for such outcomes. It is, in hindsight, a ‘ho-hum’ statement – ‘this is all very predictable’, ‘capital and the workers are at it again’, ‘we’ll get excited because readers are excited but really nothing will change, and soon we’ll be back to normal’.
Ellis described this 1888 strike as ‘the greatest coal strike in history’ but since he was writing the Company’s history he did not mention the military. John Turner, locally-based, academic historian, concentrated in his account on national economics and did not mention the military either. A local history, Story of Lambton does not even refer to the strike though it has a lot to say about the miners. Another enthusiastic and researcher quoted the letter-books of a key mine manager, even nominated the numbers of the letters which ‘contain references to arrangements police and military made’ but does not himself go into those ‘references.’ All of this neglect is despite the existence, beside the letter books, an easily available, detailed chronology of the struggles to unionise in the Newcastle District up to 1911, painstakingly assembled in longhand by an untrained union official in 1953-4.
A recent biography of Parkes is a spectacular example of the continuing deplorable state of Australian history writing. Partisan to an absurd degree, poorly researched and cliche-ridden, it has a total of two sentences on the 1888 event:
In September, disorder in Newcastle, which was rent by a miners’ strike, saw Parkes dispatch volunteer corps troops to the city. To his embarrassment, the troops took a Gatling gun with them, and his opponents expressed horror that the Premier would even contemplate using a machine gun against his own citizens.
The introduction of machine guns into imperial wars against ‘the primitive/noble savage’ was notable enough, their introduction into civil conflicts in eastern Australia surely rigorous examination. Parkes has been quoted as saying he wanted to spit upon the Northumberland miners because they showed him insufficient regard but one has to assume there was more to this situation than personal pique. A recent essayist has blamed ‘Anzac’s long shadow’ for a lack of attention to such matters, arguing that cliched commemoration of a mythologised campaign has obscured the importance of defence strategies and the educational possibilities of war. I believe the treatment since 1915 of the Anzac landing at Gallipoli is better seen as a result, not as a cause. The question is why so little interest in understanding or explaining the past, with violence and/or war two particular areas of neglect. Just in regard to the above incident, the contemporary and later accounts are just as cliched as those articulated each year at Anzac services, and of use only to partisans of the mythical entities, the ‘working class’ and ‘the Establishment’.
Between Bourke-street and Little Bourke-street there were lanes arranged in a kind of grid pattern… Many of these never appeared…on any map of the city…
This review is not intending to work through the decade’s multiple incidents or the opinions expressed about them to attempt some sort of accounting of relative legality, viciousness, or morality.
…In some cases they were merely passages left by the property owners to enable the nightmen to have access to the earth closets…
It is concerned with the real muscle buried under the generalisations of pale history.
..Yet, here and there along these, spaces had been found for the erection of some tiny hovel, in which people dwelt,…
There are willful, pulsating, risk-taking, vacillating and secretive people at work creating the 1880’s and ‘90’s extremes of poverty, ruthless injustice and un-realised possibilities.
…so that they were in a manner, main thoroughfares…what might be called secret passages…
A conflict akin to the frontier war being waged against the indigenes, was being waged on urbanised and settled fronts, but in both cases, the gun slingers and the desperadoes, the zealots, demagogues and the lying schemers have been twice rubbed out.
…These bye-ways were as foul as it is possible to conceive of…
They have been erased by the toxic charms of respectability, and by the soft, pasty hands of historians who’ve turned away from the reality to produce pap. In the case at hand, behind the mythologies and the cliches lurk valid questions, including: Were the troops acting under Parkes’ authority? If not, whose? Was the Riot Act not read because the main body of troops, apparently Permanent Artillery, was neither volunteer militia nor police? Was this sortie led by the State’s de facto ranking officer, Colonel CF Roberts, because ‘someone’ wanted the action tightly disciplined and no shots fired? What would have been the benefits and/or the losses if miners had been shot, or the troops scattered by a serious, large-scale protest? Were they as expendable as the natives?
An accurate summation of the much-publicised confrontation in September at Adamstown/New Lambton is that 150 Permanent Artillery officers and men with 86 more troopers from the nearby Fort Scratchley marched to Newcastle Station to board a train which had a Nordenfeldt machine gun mounted on a flat truck in front of the engine. All troops carried carbines and sword bayonets, and there was a further force of 76 local police on hand at the pit-head when they arrived. Records show that there were a number of similar episodes across the three months of this one strike, and that the involvement of this amount and kind of weaponry was not new. Heavy weapon intervention in civil disturbances has a much more varied history than anyone yet knows but in 1879 at least angry Northumberland miners had found themselves negotiating with ‘the panoply of glorious war.’ Henry Parkes was Premier on that occasion, also. [See my They Called Each Other Brother for some of his secret history.]
The letter-books of JY Neilson, Manager of the Newcastle Wallsend Coal Company mines enable a look behind the cliched accounts of the 1888 conflict. His weekly reports to the Directors and additional letters to the Company Secretary, Binney, provide a running commentary on the impending collision of forces, and, importantly, its timing, not by Parkes, but by players more locally placed, especially Neilson himself. His letters show a canny, pragmatic man who dragged himself out of the ranks of underground miners to a position where he could describe the community providing his livelihood as ‘a mob’ and ‘the enemy’, and their leaders as ‘conspirators’ and ‘agitators’.
Early in August, 1888, he expressed himself quite relaxed that a dispute was threatening, and confident that its end would be on the Company’s terms. His experience told him that the ‘quiet miners’ and their families would find themselves suffering so greatly after two months or so they would beg for a return to work. He advised ‘the Masters’ their best strategy was to do and say as little as possible and allow ‘the natural processes’ to play out:
If the above course had been pursued in 1873 strike, Masters would have won in six weeks instead of which all the wavering miners were daily fed with rumors of a settlement and in 8 weeks the Masters were beaten.
On 5 September, aware the miners had access to dynamite, he wrote:
(The) only thing that I am afraid of is that some attempt may be made to upset the passenger train.
By the 18th other companies had begun bringing in ‘new labour’ to load small coal and on the 19th he reported to his Directors that ‘their miners’ were getting restless:
Should you decide to introduce new hands to fill small coal, the bitter feelings will increase, but this ought not be attempted without sufficient police or military to awe the mob at the onset. [His emphasis]
To Secretary Binney he wrote the same day:
You should be prepared to be masters of the situation the moment the new labour arrives. Do not allow “the powers that be” to persuade you to wait until all the worst passions of the mob are roused – and some violent act committed before they will give you a sufficient force.
He believed there should be an equal number of soldiers and police but that the soldiery were the key as the miners would not be deterred by the police whom they saw every day. As he had done in 1879, Parkes issued a Proclamation on the 20th September threatening dire consequences for anyone interfering with persons ‘fulfilling their lawful occupation.’ The Bulletin reporter then told how three of the arrested miners had been released on bail and quoted a despatch from Premier Parkes to the ‘offending justices’. Chief Justice Darley had written to Parkes very exercised about ‘the impropriety of granting bail’ in such a serious case as this, so Parkes, in sending the Newcastle magistrates a copy of this letter, reminded them that ‘the first duty of the justice of the peace is at all times to conserve the interests of peace, to support all in authority in the maintenance of the law, and to do his utmost to preserve the good order of society’. In asking the magistrates for what explanation they could possibly have for granting bail, Parkes asserted that ‘the persons offending voluntarily put themselves in the wrong’. He went on to say that any social position the arrested men might have only aggravated the offence. It seemed that in his eyes it would have served them right if they’d been shot for throwing potatoes and lumps of coal which is all the charge sheets show they had done.
On the 26th, Neilson told Binney that he had ‘by chance’ run into Col Spalding who had advised him that if he required ‘a protection force’ a written application had to be made through a Police Magistrate [PM]. To expedite matters, Col Spalding had said he ‘will come up tomorrow (in private clothes) and look over the works to decide what force will be required which will enable him to decide what to do.’
On 1st October, to Binney, he wrote that though had Col Spalding had wired Sydney for instructions after their Saturday meeting nothing had been received as yet. Neilson is frustrated by the ‘foolishness’, as he sees it, of the officials with whom he’s dealing:
…Col Spalding…thinks it would be imprudent to further divide the forces now available…and advised me to write to you to apply to headquarters for an additional force as he fully anticipates meeting with strong opposition at Wallsend…(This) is a great mistake… Mr Perrott (PM) endorses Col Spalding’s opinion and says that he cannot do anything as he must remain at West Wallsend to be ready, as he says “To read the Riot Act and to give the order to fire” (pompous old fool).
Neilson is sure that Perrott will never get a chance to read the Act for ‘so long as the force is there…none of the miners will go near them.’ ‘Under the circumstances’ he accepts that he has to delay the introduction of ‘new labour into ‘his’ mines until extra troops have arrived to augment those on hand and until someone makes a decision about how the military are to be allocated. He emphasises the need for ‘the Masters’ to continue to give no support to mediation attempts and says that while we wait for the miners to accept reality he will use ‘deputies and shiftmen’ not in the Miners’ Association to repair a bad roof in that section of the mine where the small coal is. On 5th October he wrote again to Binney to keep the Board up to date on his protracted negotiations:
I went to Newcastle this morning and there met Col Roberts and Superintendent Meyers. As I wired you I saw them again this afternoon after their return from the Newcastle Company’s (mines) when Col Roberts stated that he could not possibly divide the forces further and Supt Meyers said it was impossible for him to send sufficient police for so large a place as Wallsend and that if non-union men were sent it must be at our own risk.
Neilson then immediately proceeded with Col Roberts to see (the Manager) Mr Keightley ‘to ascertain when the Newcastle Coal Coy would be done with their men as Col Roberts said they (the military) were only sent for a fortnight:
(He) at first told Mr K he would withdraw his force at the end of that time but Mr K begged to keep them for another week when they would finish and it was finally settled that the military would be withdrawn from Newcastle Company on Friday week and sent to Wallsend as Sir Henry Parkes was anxious for each colliery to have its fair share of protection..
He advises Binney that ‘as you can see it would be futile to bring non-union men here at present notwithstanding the miners’ statements they will not interfere they cannot be trusted’. Despite further protestations from Keightley, Roberts remained firm and visited the Wallsend ground to determine the troop placements he would use:
The mobbing of Sir H Parkes at Wallsend 2 years ago has created the impression that our men are perfect demons and Col Roberts says he must have a strong force and his Nordenfeldt gun to be prepared for any emergency.
Weather then slowed down the troops’ relocation but that allowed Neilson to secure other details. He advised Binney to recruit as many experienced ‘tunnel-men’ as possible and ‘if possible get a couple of engine drivers and…2 good ships’ cooks’:
I have had quietly 3 horses per day shod in township, and the necessary number of horses are now ready. I have also secured sufficient miner’s lamps on the place. The Military and Police will provide their own food, I will only have to provide for the men and will engage Mr Broughton of Newcastle to be providore who will supply everything even to tin pannikins and spoons.
With all arrangements in place, the troops met ‘the new men’ on the Thursday, accompanied them with Nordenfeldt to Wallsend and the lifting of small coal commenced without incident. In due course, the 17th of November, the majority of the miners sued for resumption of work whereupon Neilson insisted that one miner in particular, Summers, be excluded before he would allow them back.
The Nordenfeldt was a central element in these events. Obviously relevant to the question of State violence, the full story of how it came to be in Australia would make entertaining reading. As high value chips in a murky, no-holds-barred competition, the movement of ‘multiple-volley machine guns’ between factories, arms dealers and government armories was not straightforward. Corruption oiled many of the links in the chain, including apparently respected globe-trotting journalists who were instrumental in the dis-information which was common practice to de-stabilise a competitor’s bid. Some agents manipulated warring sides to obtain sales. At this time, the best attempt at perfecting a system of concentrated or ‘volley fire’ was that of Heldge Palmcrantz, a Swedish engineer who invented a mechanism that permitted the operator to keep up sustained fire or a single barrel. A gravity feed over each barrel meant the cartridges fell into place and after firing the cases fell through openings in the frame. Palmcrantz convinced a Swedish banker and broker, Thorsten Nordenfeldt, to finance mass manufacture a deal which meant the gun was re-named the Nordenfeldt.
Such was the world-wide interest in these weapons in the 1880’s that while the first factory was being built, the design was being surpassed but its reliability, workmanship, and endurance, that is its performance in practical situations, was ‘phenomenal’. At one test of the 10-barrel, rifle caliber model, at Portsmouth in July 1882, the weapon fired 3,000 rounds of ammunition in 3 minutes 3 seconds, without a parts failure or stoppage. It and the five barrel version, the model which faced the Northumberland miners, had a feature called ‘automatic scattering gear’. This separated the shells in any volley so that for example, a burst of 10 shots covered up to 10 charging men spaced three feet apart. This spread of bullets could be altered for trajectories up to 500 yards by adjusting a thumbscrew placed on the left rear of the gun:
The broker proved himself one of the world’s greatest salesmen, as, by sheer merchandising ability he promoted successfully a multi-barrel weapon inferior to half a dozen other guns available at the time. Nordenfelt was a shrewd businessman who made every effort to meet the whims of influential people who could help him in disposing of his products.
The kidnapping in November, 1888 by railway officials of unionised shearers on a train at Cowra (NSW) ostensibly to ‘protect 2 non-union men and pastoralists’ agents’, was a crime which might also have attracted more attention than hitherto, alongside the kidnapping by unionists in Koroit (Victoria) of non-unionised shearers around the same date. In both cases, the detained men were quickly released a few miles away but the very similar events were reported very differently and the perpetrators treated very differently by the law. The Koroit kidnappers finished up in court, the railway officials were applauded. Similarly, whereas jailed Glebe and Wallsend ‘rioters’ were released after a month in jail, NSW Minister for Justice Gould refused release of riotous Brookong (NSW) shearers after six months on the grounds that their camp had been organised, they had patrolled the roads, had had guns, and people had been intimidated. Clearly, the more closely protestors resembled military and the more competent warriors they appeared to be, the more anxious some authorities became. The Brookong judgement was given by Sir William Windeyer, High Court judge and close friend of Parkes. It included a distinction only useful to those in power:
If a man’s liberty were interfered with, if his life were threatened by overwhelming numbers, he and every other honest man is entitled to protect himself by taking the lives of those who come upon him. This in law is deemed justifiable homicide. On the other hand, if lawless persons took life they were guilty of murder.
In his eyes, ‘lawless persons’ threatened lives whereas ‘the State’, here assumed to be foreign, threatened liberty. To defend the latter against ‘overwhelming numbers‘ was legitimate, to defend the former from ‘the State’ or its agents was criminal and potentially murder.
John Deasey, County Mayo MP in Australia to raise funds for Irish eviction victims complained his mail was being tampered with, and upon getting agreement from the New South Wales Postmaster General, O’Connor, that the envelopes looked tampered with, a Royal Commission was established. For some reason, Deasey destroyed the envelopes concerned whereupon the Royal Commissioner insisted the contents of the letters had to be produced in evidence. Failing that, Commissioner Pilcher found the charges ‘could not be sustained’. The Sydney Morning Herald agreed, saying that:
It is no uncommon thing for Governments to open letters to obtain information that they desire, as in the case of suspected treason, in time of war, and of great peril from anarchical or other causes.
But since, the paper argued, ‘we are in no danger from Mr Deasy’ ‘our’ Government could not have tampered with his letters! The conservative interests were under threat from Protectionist who were gaining the upper hand in close meeting encounters. This is clear from the language of abuse used, for example, by the Evening News, the Free Trade advocate. Protectionists were now ‘roughs’, ‘ruffians’ and ‘blackguards’. The editorial writer referred to one seat in particular during the State election of 1889:
To the protectionists of South Sydney belongs the dubious honor of transforming the hitherto fair-field of political discussions in Sydney into a bear-garden of disgraceful disturbances and unmitigated ruffianism.’
This was the seat which Wm Traill won in 1889. Successful candidates for the NSW Parliament enjoyed payment only from 1889, nearly twenty years after Victoria, and the ground was suddenly thick with aspirants. Leather lungs and vivid catch phrases were priorities, along with an ability to finesse one’s position and one’s alliances. Organised meeting disturbances to assist non-conservative interests were not necessarily ‘protectionist’ and the Free Trade activists did not simply roll over. Before generalisations are possible there is a need for greater detail of the arrangements made over the period 1890-94. Between formal meetings in the capital cities and confrontations between military, strikers, free labourers, employers, et al, patterns will be found eventually, and they won’t fit simple ‘us’ ‘them’, black and white dichotomies. Perhaps successful disturbance of a capital city meeting had greater significance in the playing out of a stand-off hundreds of miles away than we yet realise.
‘Jack’ Andrews thought so at the time and wrote about it, but his testimony is not sufficient to illustrate dynamics which I feel in my bones must have been in play. The link must be the obvious one, the one illustrated in the behinds-the-scene negotiations on the northern coal-fields already set down – the squeeze on the decision-making politician balancing the demands of the military, the voters and the influential individuals responsible for the decision-maker’s future prospects.
Could any confluence of political elements be more important than that in place when military confront armed malcontents? Imagine a volley of machine gun fire ripping through the flesh of even a handful of civilians at a pit head, at Circular Quay, at a shearing shed somewhere in the Mallee or out of Claremont? The employment of cannon was a more forceful statement than a parliamentary vote, or an arrest and trial, even the execution of an individual. Whether the authorities intended, nay hoped, to use this destructive force or not, the fact that violence of this magnitude was even contemplated should make us pause for deeper thought than we have had. Artillery was a blunt weapon whether cocked or not, their deployment required lots of space and freedom to move, there were questions over their legality in civil arenas, and other politically-reliable violence was available. Hired muscle was often a superior tactic and a more predictable weapon than the professional soldiery.
Who a political operative chose in 1889 as his ‘muscle’ was as much a political decision as a commercial one. ‘Billy’ Hughes made out meeting manipulation was a joke, George Black later wrote ‘nostalgically of the organised interruptions at political meetings’ without explaining what he meant. The relevant detail is not always given but, for example, a September, Free Trade meeting in Sydney featuring Minister Carruthers was ‘protected’ by the police – Sub-Inspector Mackay, one senior sergeant, ten uniformed and several plain-clothes police – and by ‘professional pugilist’ Sandy Ross and Orange ‘friends’. Though never officially a member, secretly Parkes was a ‘client’ of the Loyal Orange Institute of NSW, from 1865 to his last campaign in 1894.
The Protectionist Australian Star had an interest in applauding worker unrest in free trade areas and it attacked government MP and free trader Bruce Smith in September for not supporting the London dock strikers and for suggesting they were not worth sixpence an hour. However, it did not point out that the ‘free men’ filling small coal at the northern pits the year before had been paid 10/- for an eight hour day. A further Australian Star editorial is even more enlightening:
Time was when the present movement at the London docks would have been suppressed by ruthless force, while all over the world that action, if noticed at all, would have been applauded. But times have changed … education has literally created a new mankind in a new world. Labor’s methods of righting its wrongs are no longer those of the savage beast, for the masses have learned the use of moral weapons and the power of moral discipline.
This is an amazingly clear example of blaming the victim for being ‘suppressed with ruthless force’. Memories of Nordenfeldts have supposedly dimmed in 12 months and now that labor no longer acts in a way that requires it to be harshly treated it can be rewarded by not being harshly treated. A clear example of setting ‘self-restraint and patient endurance’ on a higher ethical plane than force, at least for the masses, it is the emphatic pointer guiding any doubtful readers onto the parliamentary road.