The Historical Background of Waltzing Matilda.

In this section of the website is gathered together some detailed information about the historical background that gave birth to the song,

Waltzing Matilda

These events form the backdrop to Waltzing Matilda the musical.

1)   Strikes: the 1890 Maritime Strike

Australia experienced frequent industrial trouble in the latter half of the nineteenth century.  The purpose of the strikes in the1850’s were to limit the working day to 8 hours, which was only partially achieved – while it became common practice, it was not legislated. Up until 1890, Unions did not affiliate with other Unions. If there was industrial trouble, it was confined to the Union of that industry.

In 1890 a sailor was laid off, who happened to be the Union official on board a ship, and the Maritime Union believed it to be an unfair dismissal. The Maritime Union went on strike, followed by other Unions, and very soon the terms of the dispute had widened to include wages and industrial rights, in particular the rights of Unions in different industries to affiliate. The maritime union included the steamship operators; and steamships were one of the main avenues for supply of coal and goods to different parts of the colonies. The ship owners in response to the strike employed non-union labour, and mining companies closed coal mines (the reason given was that the mines relied on outside supply, but according to the Unionists many mines not reliant on outside supply were closed). Many other unions “walked out” in sympathy with the maritime union.

The strikes were not only a huge event, they were also a spectacle. To illustrate the scale of demonstrations - 10,000 men took part in a procession in support of the maritime union on Saturday September 6th (reported in the Sydney Morning Herald Monday September 8th) and the composition of the marchers was as follows:

Brittania Band; 300 Marine Officers; Wharf Labourers Band; 2000 Wharf Labourers; 350 Stewards & Cooks; 100 Hotel Caterers Employees;  Scotch Pipers Band; 1800 Federated Seamen; 200 New Zealand Seamen; Premier Band; 500 Coal Lumpers; 200 Amalgamated Employees; 40 Tobacco Operatives; 100 Tailors; 300 Trolley & Dray Men; Young Australian Band; 100 Painters; 200 Slaughtermen & Butchers; 40 Pressmen & Stereotypers; 50 Confectioners; 70 Pressers; 70 Tinsmiths; Coldstream Band; 250 Balmain Labourers; 50 Bookbinders; Oriental Band; 40 Plasterers; 200 Quarrymen; Standard Brewery Band; 60 Brewers; 70 Plumbers; St Georges Band; 400 Boot Trade; 300 Gas Stokers; 200 Boilermakers; 30 Irondressers; 50 Masters & Engineers Of Harbour & River Steamers; 30 Furniture Trade; 200 Shipwrights; 100 Ironmoulders; 50 Bricklayers; Wentworth Band; 400 Compositers; 200 Stonemasons; 200 Coach & Car Builders; City Band; 120 Bakers; 100 United Labourers; 30 Farriers; 50 Amalgamated Carpenters; 50 Coopers; 30 Cutters & Trimmers.

The crowd listening to the speeches at the end of the parade numbered between 12,000 and15,000. Onlookers were not sure whether it was a demonstration or a spectacle– so lavish were the brightly coloured costumes. Union leaders wore costumes, often with tasselled sashes and hats, and carried banners.

From an early hour the vicinity of  Circular Quay was the scene of intensive preparations, and long before 2 o’clock there were gathered there immense crowds of participators in the present difficulties, sympathisers, and onlookers. Gradually the great open space fronting the Custom-house filled with quiet-going strikers, distinguished by blue ribbons, phalanxes of trade-unionists headed by bright-coloured banners and bands, and sightseers. The animated assemblage filled up every available foot of ground from away round by the Messageries Maritimes Company’s Wharf to the P. and O. Company’s Wharf. But this vast space was insufficient for the purpose, and the leading bodies were compelled to advance into George-street, the lower portion of which was filled by a seething mass of humanity. It seemed as though all Sydney were out to participate in or gaze upon the spectacle of labour defying capital…. The police in considerable force, moved quietly about amidst the throng, and, aided by the marshalling committees, had no difficulty in regulating matters satisfactorily. Perhaps the moral effect of a strong contingent of artillery being stationed at Dawes Point, ready to gallop down at a moment’s notice, had something to do with this…. The marshal of the labour forces was again Mr Mooney, of the Shearers’ Union, mounted on a fine horse, and waving the gaily coloured banner, surmounted by a pair of imitation shears. He headed the procession, and made a clear passage for the men through the crowd. (Sydney Morning Herald Monday September 8th)


This crowd represents approximately 5% of the population of Sydney in 1890. The Maritime Union was on strike in all the colonies of Australia, and also in New Zealand.


A labour conference came to the decision to call out all the other affiliated unions on Monday 15th of September, and they expected 100,000 Unionists to be out within a week in Australia. The rhetoric was quite stern:

...they state that they have, without utterly abandoning the vital principles of trade unionism, done all that men could do to bring about a conference, and in return have only received slight and contempt. As a result they will no longer take a conciliatory position, and any conference that is constituted will be forced on the owners by the voice of the public. They will now in effect drop the olive branch, and, in the words of the original manifesto, will fight to the ‘bitter end:’ They have, they claim, endeavoured to restrain their hand and have left untouched means which, if put into operation, would have the effect of bringing about almost a revolution in Australia, and so compel a consideration of their claims. These claims have, they say, been so completely ignored that this trump card has at least to be played. (Sydney Morning Herald; Sept 16 1890 “Maritime Difficulties”)


Not long after that speech there was a large Union demonstration when volunteer labour carted wool from Darling Harbour station to Circular Quay in Sydney; the Unionists shouting and throwing stones, and troopers using force. After reading the newspaper reports, I feel quite strongly that Manning Clark understated the severity of these events.  (Manning Clark History of Australia volume V page 50)



the mob charged by the troopers

Fifteen arrests made

special constables called out

the riot act read

further disturbances feared

an early settlement improbable

sir henry parkes on the position


The position of affairs in regard to the strike yesterday underwent a total change. From what appeared to be the prospect of an early settlement of the disputes at an early date, matters have so changed that there is now unfortunately every indication of the fight being prolonged, and becoming more bitter even than heretofore. When it was hoped that everything was proceeding quietly and placidly towards a meeting of the parties to the dispute, a mine has been suddenly sprung in the form of a riotous outbreak of proportions such as have never been seen in Sydney before. As a result, it is now feared the chances of a peaceful settlement of the difficulty are very far removed, and there is every indication that the matter will now be fought out “to the bitter end.” Such an opinion is expressed by leading men on both sides, each side stating that the action of the other side in yesterday’s fracas was such as to embitter their opponents, and to make them less inclined than ever to give way on any point. Thus the leaders of  the labour party contend that the disturbance was due to the fact that what they term a demonstration was made by the gentlemen who were concerned in the carriage of wool through the streets, which ostentatious display might have been avoided. The owners, they hold, must be aware of the feeling of the men at the present time, and, under the circumstances, they should have allowed matters to cool down a little before attempting to assert their position.  Instead of this they have done everything with a view to rousing the anger and opposition of the men, though it is stated that the forcible display did not come from the strikers themselves, but from hangers on in the crowd who have long ago given up work as a means of livelihood. The owners state that instead of attempting to bring about a better feeling between them and the strikers, the latter have, by their attitude yesterday, virtually thrown down the gauntlet and declared war to the knife. Such being the case they say they are prepared to accept the challenge, and will go on their way without any regard to men who would take such action. The result of the outbreak is all the more deplorable, from the fact, of which we are assured, that during yesterday morning a movement was on foot by which the owners were being urged to at least meet the representatives of the men and hear what they had to say. But…the whole thing collapsed…those who had before shown themselves willing to meet the unionists expressed their objection to proceed any further….

…That the outbreak which convulsed the city yesterday was not spontaneous or unexpected on either side is very apparent….During the last few days, there has been more general disturbance throughout the city than in any previous period of the strike. The result has been that earning operations were almost brought to a standstill, inasmuch as men declined to run the risk of meeting the unionists while in such a dangerous position. In consequence of the actions of the strikers - comprising mostly trolley and dray men, who may be considered the most disorderly class as a whole of all the men on strike- work at Darling Harbour on Wednesday was found to be impossible on account of the fact that the men virtually took possession of the place. Not a trolley or dray was allowed to leave the station yard which was held by an excited mob, who overturned vehicles, unharnessed horses, cut the harness, and in other ways demonstrated their intention to stop all carrying, especially of non-union wool. It was decided, in consequence, by the stevedores, woolbrokers, and others who were interested in the removal of wool to the dumping stores and boats in the harbour, that on the following morning steps should be taken….a number of drays should be loaded with wool, and, under police protection, taken to the Quay. Yesterday morning, therefore, a curious procession was to be seen wending the principal streets of the city, from Darling Harbour station to Circular Quay. Ten trolleys, laden with wool, driven by men of standing in the city, and surrounded by numbers of special constables, with a few mounted troopers, formed the centre of attraction. Around them, however, was gathered a constantly increasing crowd, comprised, partly of strikers and partly of sightseers, a portion of whom behaved in a most outrageous fashion, hooting, yelling, and stoning the special constables, and drivers, during the whole progress of the procession. On arrival at Circular Quay a perfect pandemonium occurred, and, for a time, it seemed, mob rule was to be allowed. But special police protection was procured immediately, and before long a powerful body of constabulary, mounted and on foot, appeared upon the scene. Even this display of force was not sufficient to subdue the feeling of the mob, and, eventually, after exercising all necessary patience, it was decided that the riot act should be read. Following this, the order was given to clear the Quay, and in an incredibly short space of time, the troopers, followed by the constables on foot, charged the mob, and order was restored.





…non-union labourers, who wished to earn a living, had stepped forward to do the work which the trolley men and draymen had left…speedily throw up the engagements at the bidding of the union pickets.. of men willing- and eager- to work there were hundreds, but their hands were tied by the terrorism of what has frequently been termed “a brute minority.”

….numbers of gentlemen occupying clerical positions in the different wool stores…sworn in as special constables…volunteered their services…

..Ten trolleys, each drawn by two horses, were speedily loaded with upward of 150 bales of wool, and were then drawn up in line, the intention being to leave the station in procession, rather than separately. …gentlemen… on the trolleys as drivers, having with them a number of younger gentlemen who pluckily volunteered their company and assistance. The procession then moved towards the station gates, escorted by 12 mounted troopers, under Inspector Latimer, a strong police force, and a number of special constables. The moment the first trolley cleared the gates the uproar increased, but the drivers and their comrades showed the greatest calmness. Mr George Maiden and one or two others acknowledge the reception by removing their hats and waving at them courteously.  Now and again one of the more daring of the mob would dart forward, and loosing the break gear, bring a trolley to a standstill; but this brought several additional special constables to the fore who walked alongside the brakes, while others led their horses. For a brief while the unionists contented themselves with frantic yelling, cussing, and threats of vengeance, but soon stoes commenced to fly about freely. As the procession wended its way into George-street, via the Haymarket, a section of the mob…got a little way ahead by taking a shortcut, and…showers of blue-metal whizzed about. Unfortunately the stones reached their mark only too often. Mr Alister Lamb, of Hunter’s Hill, who was driving one of the waggons, had his head severely cut in two or three places, causing vlood to flow freely… (others) also received wounds to the scalp…others received blows to the head or body…Trooper Cardell, while clearing the mo away from a couple of constables who had made a caputre, received a piece of blue metal in the back of the head, causing him to feel in the saddle and almost unhorsing him. Unfortunately his assailant could not be detected. As the procession proceeded along George street towards Town Hall, the stone throwing… was discontinued, probably because few missiles could be found lying about the wooden road. The hooting and groaning and cursing, however, were continued, and as the number of persons on the street continued to grow, the excitement increased. A large piece of metal, weighing a couple of pounds, was hurled at one of the constables in charge…but it missed its intended mark and hit one of the crowd on the head, causing blood to spurt forth. Turning from Market Street into Pitt Street…every window frame filled with eager faces, the footwalks lined with thousands of spectators…groups of employees shouted excitedly….When the Quay was reached upwards of 18,000 persons were gathered together, composed of all classes of the community. A space in front of Messrs. Talbot and Co’s store was speedily cleared, there being a strong body of police present, and waggon after waggon, as it drove up, was received with loud cheers, unloaded, and the wool bales rolled into the store. But before the work was completed, disturbances again rose, and missiles commenced to fly about. Trooper Sparks had his nose put out and his right cheek laid open with a piece of stone, and several others had lesser injuries. Inspector-General Fosbery, seeing that serious measures were necessary, had the mounted troopers, 36 in all, about 60 of the police, and nearly 200 special constables, drawn up in a line, and the Riot Act read by Mr Nugent W. Brown. Immediately this function had been discharged, the order was given to troopers and police to clear the Quay. The move was a very effective one. The troopers charged in line, and the people went flying out of reach of their horses, tumbling over one another in their haste, so that within a few minutes the crowd, estimated to number quite 10,000, was cleared off the Quay, and made no effort to return.

(Sydney Morning Herald 20 September 1890)


            THE RIOT ACT:

Our Sovereign Lady the Queen chargeth and commandeth all persons being assembled immediately to depart to their habitations or to their lawful business upon the pains contained in an Act of King George for preventing tumults and riotous assemblies... God save the Queen!  (Sydney Morning Herald 20 September 1890)


The first non-Maritime unions to be called out were the shearers, woolcarriers & rouseabouts, comprising at least 40,000 men, and the coalminers. The price of goods went up in the country areas, and industry came to a standstill particularly in the capital cities in Australia and New Zealand. The strike began with a good deal of optimism on the part of the Unionists. The ship owners and employers objected to the Unions joining forces, and it soon became a bitter struggle.

By November, however, the Unions, who had been using up their reserves paying strike pay to the workers, had run out of money. (Sydney Morning Herald Nov 6 1890) They requested funds to continue the strikes from the English labour unions, because the Australian labour unions had aided the English unions during the coal strikes of the 1880’s, and they expected support in return. None was forthcoming. The coal miners in Australia returned to work, and the Maritime Unions were forced to accept the ship owners’ terms and also went back to their jobs.

Many of the strikers were in considerable financial distress at the end of the strikes – and severely disillusioned by the outcome. For this reason many were pleased to return to work. (Sydney Morning Herald November 7 1890 p 5 “The Strike Over” ) The strike pay had been meagre, and the Government generously handed out rations of bread and meat for the families of the strikers. (Sydney Morning Herald Nov. 10)  This happened again at the end of the shearing strike in 1891.

Hoffmeister, possibly the inspiration for the swagman in Banjo Paterson’s poem Waltzing Matilda, and the main character in our musical, was known on the waterfront of Rockhampton as a troublemaker and Union agitator in the 1890’s. He possibly started off his working life after emigrating to Australia as a wharf worker, and, had he been in Sydney in 1890, he would have undoubtedly been involved in the trouble at Circular Quay.


2)   The 1891 Shearing Trouble.

On the 2nd of January 1891, when shearing hadn’t yet started, the Pastoralists’  Union announced the new shearing agreement; the outcome of the intercolonial conferences held in Melbourne on the 7th of November, coincidentally, the day after the Maritime strike ended (or probably not coincidental at all); and in Sydney on the 22nd December. These conferences were completely secret - the Pastoralists kept it out of the newspapers and the first the Union leaders knew of the new ‘agreement’ was when they read of it in the paper that morning.

The basic terms of the agreement were: Shearers were paid 20s per 100 sheep and lambs shorn, and 40s per 100 of adult rams. The shearers had to pay 20s per week for accommodation, and they had to engage their own cook, but the employer paid him. The rouseabouts’ wages were not specified (a major cause of contention later). They were provided with accommodation and hut utensils, and the employer engaged and paid the cook. This was also a source of contention, as earlier the men had engaged their own cook. (See Sydney Morning Herald January 3 1891) The agreement goes on to specify duties of shearers and rouseabouts (called “general useful hands” in the agreement) and rules and regulations.

The rates were agreeable to the unions, but it was the fact that the agreement was drawn up without consultation, and it was what was not covered in the agreement that they objected to: there was no clause covering hours of labour, the shearer had no right to leave work unless sick, the price of rations was increased, and there was no clause covering the cooks’ pay or the usual practice of paying a bonus for the shearing of wet sheep. There’s an interesting article on 20th January 1891 (S.M.H.) with the pastoralists’ answers to the Unionists’ objections, and on 24th of January the Unionists’ reply – it is interesting for the insight into the way the Unionists’ complaints revolved around practicalities at this stage.

In Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney, the Pastoralists’ Union actually advertised for shearers to shear in Queensland. There were large numbers of men anxious to shear in Queensland who came to the Pastoralists’ Union to be signed up, and there were Union pickets abusing the scabs; typical of the threats offered by Union men at the picket lines was that “it wouldn’t take much to set all the stations on the Barcoo to blaze.” (Brisbane Courier Feb 2 1891). Lawson’s song, “Freedom’s on the Wallaby”, needs to be read in this context: the line “we’ll light another fire and boil another billy” doubtless refers to the practice of burning shearing sheds, which became a feature of the shearing strikes, particularly in 1894, ending with the burning of the shearing shed and shootout at Dagworth Station, which is the culmination of the second Act in our musical.


a.    Shearing Machines

An interesting part of the dispute was the advent of new technology. Shearing machines were brought in by the squatters - a shearer could shear up to 110 sheep a day using one of these. Many of the large stations were equipped with them by 1891, and one of the motivations for getting them was the strikes and the necessity of getting through as many sheep as possible in a short time. (Brisbane Courier Feb 3rd 1891).

You can see the initially small objections of the shearers building into a large dispute, and one of the principal objections became the fact that the agreement did not specify rouseabouts’ wages. This left the more unscrupulous squatters free to lower the wages as much as they wanted - the Sydney Morning Herald lists the reductions on Friday Feb 3rd 1891 - reductions in the weekly wage of 10s to 30s and in some cases up to 33s – some rouseabouts ended up earning less than 30s a week.

Around the 16th of February a large camp began to be formed at Barcaldine. The police were authorised by the colonial secretary to swear in special constables, but most “business people” were sympathisers with the unionists. One by one the Queensland sheds were declared non-union, and union strikers continued arriving by the hundreds in most of the major centres.


b.    The Crash of the Argentine Financial Market

Many banks in England and Europe had been investing heavily in Argentina in the late 1880’s. In July/August of 1890, the financial market in Argentina crashed. In November of 1890, Barings in London failed. In Australia, people withdrew their deposits en masse from the banks, causing activity to cease in the building trade, public works stopped, and Government services and financial institutions were heavily affected. 

The banks in Australia held out until March of 1892, when the first crash occurred. The squatters lowered rouseabout’s wages in 1891, but not shearer’s wages. They tried to attain control of the financial side of their operations by ignoring and later crushing the unions, probably in anticipation of financial troubles, or because Australian banks had started foreclosing on people’s loans. This situation is reflected in Banjo Paterson’s poem, “Kiley’s Run”. International wool prices were already affected drastically - they had crashed along with the Argentine financial market crash.

There were three reasons for the 1891 strike:

I.               The financial pressures the squatters were under because of the international money market crash, and the failing Australian banks cutting off credit lines.

II.             New technology making it possible for sheep to be sheared more efficiently, and the squatters felt they should not have to pay as much, since the rate was calculated per sheep sheared.

III.           The secretive manner in which they brought in the new shearing agreement, without consultation with the Unions.


c.    Transport

In Queensland, there were three rail systems in competition for the resources of the colonial Government - the Southern, Central and Northern Railways. The Southern Railway was begun at Ipswich in 1864, and was extended to Toowoomba by 1867.  From there the southern branch reached Warwick in 1871, was extended to Wallangara on the northern border of New South Wales, in 1887, joining the NSW rail system there. The western branch was extended to Dalby  in 1868, Roma in 1880, and Charleville in 1888.  The port of Rockhampton, being a convenient place to ship wool from northern Queensland offshore, managed to have a short line built from Dalby in 1868. By 1879 it had been extended to Peak Downs and Emerald. In 1892 it was extended to Longreach.

To get to Barcaldine, the train went north from Brisbane to Rockhampton, then inland.

These were the stops:

Rockhampton, Duaringa, Emerald, Jericho, Barcaldine.

From Emerald you could go north to Capella and Clermont, or South to Springsure.

By 1892 the line had been extended from Barcaldine to Longreach. To reach Winton it meant a buggy ride from Longreach, perhaps three or four days, and Dagworth station, the station where the words of Waltzing Matilda were written by A.B. “the Banjo” Paterson and the music by Christina Macpherson, sister of the station owner, was another three days from Winton.

The strikers came by train, or on horseback. The mounted strikers thus were often able to elude the police, and there were cat and mouse games where the Unionists would go to stations and try to recruit scabs to the Unions, and alternatively the police and Pastoralists would attempt to transport scabs under cover of darkness to stations, trying to get them past the Union camps without the Unionists finding out. On one occasion in 1891 a buggy full of pastoralists, protected by only one mounted policeman, was intercepted by Unionists who who threw stones at the buggy, and attempted to overturn it, before being dispersed when reinforcements arrived. (Sydney Morning Herald March 9th 1891)

The minimum number of police constables for a patrol during the strikes appears to have been three. (Sydney Morning Herald March 9th 1891)


d.    Communication


Cobb & Co carried the mail by horse and cart in the country areas. In Brisbane there were trams that delivered mail.

Electric Telegraph was the main means of communication. There was a telegraph office in Winton, and nearly every town in Central Queensland had one by 1890. Many outback stations also had telegraph.

The capital cities all had newspapers, which are now available on Microfiche at the libraries. The main paper in Queensland was the “Brisbane Courier” in Brisbane. Every town had a country newspaper, and there were 90 country newspapers in Queensland in 1890, and the number was still growing. Many towns had two - one conservative, pro-squatter; the other urban, agrarian, liberal. The Unionists read the “Worker” magazine and the Bulletin. The papers of the day were less concerned with appearing impartial, and articles often mixed reportage with moralising. This can be seen in the Sydney Morning Herald articles about the Maritime Strike, where they are fairly even handed in rebuking both the Unionists and the Employers for escalating the situation, however, while they report all the names of the men driving the wool carts, and the injured police and special constables, they do not report any of the injuries or name the principal players on the Union side, apart from the Union leader.

The Bulletin was delivered in country areas, all around Australia and New Zealand.


e.    The Shakespeare Hotel.


The Shakespeare hotel in Barcaldine declared their house union on March 6th 1891. They gave free beer to the unionists, and fired the Chinese chef. Many men stopped working at faraway stations and came in with big cheques and drank them. The Union leaders tried to dissuade the men from drinking, but without much success - there are many reports of drunken unionists in the newspapers throughout the strikes, and some of the reports of rioting, etc. often mention drink as the one of the causes.


f.     Burning Shearing Sheds.


On March 22nd  a Union Leader used very revolutionary rhetoric in a public speech. He put himself in danger of being prosecuted for libellous incitement.


 “We will get a portion of the machinery of Government to place ourselves on an equal footing with you” -  If they did that they would meet the capitalist on his own ground, and when they met him with equal strength they would - because they had justice on their side- win all along the line. (Cheers.) But supposing they could not get hold of the machinery of Government there would be yet another method, and that was a bloody revolution. (Great applause, and disorder) Sydney Morning Herald March 23rd

By March 23rd, shearing sheds were burning, and Unionists were killing sheep for mutton, burning fences, and going through the runs and leaving the gates open (a great sin in the eyes of a Pastoralist!). At a conference in Sydney, a labour council delegate said if they got a portion of the machinery of government they would meet the Capitalist on his own ground but failing that there would be another method, and that would be a “bloody revolution”. (SMH 23 March 1891). The Unionist violence was attributed to drink, and the Union leaders wanted the government to close the pubs.

The Government decided to get tough, and more troops were sent in.



Brisbane, Monday.  All the officers of the Defence Force now in the disturbed districts have been appointed to the commission of the peace. In regard to the action decided upon by the Government under the present circumstances it is understood that the intention is to bring before the civil courts every prominent person breaking the law, and the Government will have a sufficient force to ensure the warrants being executed firmly and without loss of life. All persons assembling in connection with unions except such as are peacefully assembled in camps will be regarded as members of unlawful assemblies, but it is intended only to arrest those who are most prominent in such unlawful assemblies. All who use seditious language will be at once arrested for seditious libel, and those who incite others to commit crimes will be arrested or incitement to commit felony, which is in itself a crime. Prominent persons in such unlawful assemblies meeting and sallying forth to intimidate free labourers will be charge with conspiracy to intimidate men in their lawful occupation, while more will be charge with the offence of intimidation by combining to molest workmen pursuing their lawful avocations. (Sydney Morning Herald March 24 1891)


These intentions were carried out; some prominent leaders were arrested the very next day, and charged with conspiracy, and subsequently throughout the strikes many more men were arrested and imprisoned, some for quite trivial offences. The arrest was very dramatic. ( SMH Mar 26. )

In May of 1891 13 men were imprisoned - they were the strike leaders at Barcaldine. They were in gaol for three years. Their names were: HC Smith Barry; W Fothergill, A Forrester; JA Stuart; G Taylor; PF Griffin; EH Murphy; HO Blackwell: AJ Brown: R Prince; WJ Bennett; D Murphy; and William Hamilton. There is a monument to these men in Barcaldine right in front of the train station - the “Tree of Knowledge” -  and this is said to be the place where the Labour party started in 1891. The names of these men are listed there.

Many more troops arrived, and the situation became more critical  - railway workers were signed in as special constables on Sunday March the 29th. More Union leaders were arrested, and imprisoned.

Public opinion held that the government was guilty of criminal neglect for not forcing the pastoralists to come to the conference table and discuss the situation with the unionists. The pastoralists refused to discuss anything with the unions until the unions conceded freedom of contract (unlike South Australia, where both parties came to the table without standing on principle and an amicable agreement was reached within weeks.)

Attempts were made to wreck trains, the unionists even kidnapping free labourers, and attempting to force them to turn to the Union side; there were over 10,000 men on strike by the beginning of April. The Trades and Labour Council in Sydney resolved to hold demonstrations in support of the Queensland Unionists, and many Unions took up collections or charged their members levies to support the Queensland Shearers’ Union. The amounts given by other unions to the QSU were published every day in the newspapers.

The Argentine Republic scheme was held up as a retreat in case the unions went down - the Argentine Republic promised them “nearly everything but their passages to the Republic” - the unionists were ready to fight to the bitter end. (SMH Apr 7 1891)

At the same time there were persistent rumours of dissatisfaction among the Unionists - many had wives and families, and although they received rations they did not receive strike pay (unlike the Maritime strike of 1890). Though there were some defections, the size of the camps kept growing. The arguments between the pastoral leaders and union leaders continued in the pages of the SMH and Brisbane Courier.


g.    Were they Revolutionaries?


During the Rockhampton trials of the strike leaders, some letters were read out by the prosecution that purported to be a list of things the Union Leaders would do to bring about a revolution if the strikes failed; in fact, giving precise details of their plans. Because of police ‘carelessness’ this evidence could not be accepted - in order to attend to some emergency the troopers guarding the Union offices had left the letters in the hands of another special constable (who could not later be located) thereby leaving themselves open to the charge that someone had ‘planted evidence;’ so the reliability of these letters was certainly suspect.


h.    Rations.


Rations were obtained in large quantities and given to the Unionists. The Unionists were fed by the Unions - some camps had mess hall type arrangements, in other camps the men split up into small groups and were responsible for their own food, killing and eating kangaroos and other native animals, and also poaching sheep off the stations.

The Unions in those days often paid strike pay to the Unionists - but not in the Queensland strikes. In the 1890 Maritime Strikes, strike pay had been paid to the men on strike, so there was some discontent about this.

The publicans and townsfolk in Barcaldine, Clermont, and the other towns on the trainline were all sympathetic to the Unions, and provided them with free grog, and food. Guns were smuggled to the Union camps too - there were quite a few incidents between the police and the Unionists in this respect. Unionists in other colonies donated money to enable the strikes to go on:-

The Shearing Trouble
Adelaide, Tuesday  .....Mr Spence, the president and Mr Saunders, one of the Queensland delegates, have come to South Australia to again enlist sympathy for the unionist shearers. They proceed on Wednesday morning to the Peninsula copper mining district, where the unionists are numerically very strong. They hope to gain considerable support from the miners at Wallaroo, Moonta, and Kadina, and will address the men at each place, laying before them the unionist version of the Queensland dispute. Mr Spence points out that as the struggle may last some months, and, as the Queensland unionist shearers draw no strike pay, they must receive support from their fellow unionists in other employments. It does not cost each man very much to live, but there are a great many, and the total cost is considerable. It is to lessen the cost of living that men are camped in large bodies near the railway station, and get supplies wholesale from the centres of population. Everything is done as cheaply as possible. It only costs each man 7s or 8s a week to live. The men are determined to resist the pastoralists  uttermost. After concluding the  tour to the peninsula which is expected to last about a fortnight, the two delegates will proceed to the New South Wales shearing centres.( Sydney Morning Herald March 18 1891)


 The Strike Funds-  The rations supplied weekly to each man are as follows :-10lb flour, 10lb meat, 3 lb sugar, 1/2 lb tea, 2 tins baking powder, 1/4 lb tobacco, half bar soap, 2 boxes matches, with pepper and salt in addition. At the latest estimate this cannot be supplied at Barcaldine at less than 7s upwards. 8000 voted at the last ballot but  many of these are not yet dependent on the union for support. If it be estimated that only half of them are so dependent a sum of £1400 would be required each week for food alone. Then there are many other expenses. Telegrams alone amount to a large item, so that it may be estimated that at least £1500 a week is required to maintain the strike….  (Sydney Morning Herald May 2 1891)

He goes on to say that as the cold weather approaches they will require more funds, and that the levies the unions have around the country are bringing in less and less each week, so the prospect that they will run out of funds becomes more and more likely.

While they were on strike, men were not required to pay Union dues. Scabs were not required to pay Union entrance fees if they “turned” – however, when the strikes ended went back to work they may have been. (Pressure would have probably been put on them to “do their bit”) But if men had just arrived on the train, broke, then their fees would surely be waived, because it was in the Unions’ interest to have as many people join them as possible. When scabs arrived at the railway station they were encouraged in very vocal terms to join the union, and if any did they were cheered.

The strikes were at a peak in March/April. When the promised revolution failed to materialise the number of men striking gradually diminished, especially after the imprisonment of the leaders in May. By June the funds were running very low and the Union was no longer able to give rations to the remaining faithful strikers, so they gradually left in dribs and drabs.

The constables’ camp was within a stone’s throw of the Union camp. The Union camp was surrounded by a fence, but the police used to harass them by riding right up to it. The police had the power to arrest someone for sedition, and as the pastoralists had been given guns and inducted as special constables I suppose they had some of the powers of the police. Troopers were only supposed to arrest people when they had a warrant. The police and pastoralists would most definitely have listened to the speeches, so they could get material to arrest loudmouthed Unionists for sedition. (after May 23 1891)

At the camp in Barcaldine, there was a soiled flag saying “Freedom” in the middle of the Union camp, and a Eureka flag at the entrance (in those days, of course, they called it the Australian flag. ) In Barcaldine, the Union camp was within sight of the police camp, and there were several incidents, such as, when the police went on parade, the Unionists stole their chickens, and later, when the Unionists went on parade, the police tried to steal them back, but the Union men had left guards to prevent this happening.


i.     Pay rates in the 1890’s


The Pastoralists offered a contract to the shearers in Jan 91 under the following terms :

Shearers were paid 20s per 100 sheep and lambs shorn, and 40s per 100 of adult rams. The shearers had to pay 20s per week for accommodation. The rouseabouts’ wages were not specified (a major cause of contention later). They were provided with accommodation and hut utensils, and the employer engaged and paid the cook. (Sydney Morning Herald January 3 1891) Previously, the shearers had engaged their own cook, and the employer paid him. The agreement goes on to specify duties of shearers and rouseabouts (in the agreement rouseabouts are called “general useful hands”) and rules and regulations.

These were the wages decided in the South Australian and NSW dispute which was resolved late February (S.M.H. Feb 27th 1891). There were 20 shillings to a pound.

“Price of shearing wethers ewes and lambs, including ram lambs under 6 months old,

be at the sale of 17s 6d per 100 for all such sheep shorn;

Rams over six months old at the rate of 35s per 100 for all such rams shorn;

Money to be paid by cheque on local banks, or exchange allowed on the net amount earned....”

These are on the surface of it considerably worse than the terms initially decided on by the pastoralists in January 1891 and offered to the shearers ( 20s per 100 sheep and lambs shorn, and 40s per 100 of adult rams). But under the February agreement in NSW and SA the shearers did not have to pay for their own accommodation. Also, they could shear higher tallies in many stations because of shearing machines, which were becoming popular especially in the larger stations. The freedom of contract issue was left at the door - neither side made a stand on principle; this is the major difference between NSW and Queensland, where the Pastoralists wouldn’t even come to the table unless the Unionists agreed to the principle of freedom of contract.

A shearer could shear between 40 and 160 sheep a day - average tallies were between 80 and 100. At the beginning of the season they had higher tallies. The tallies were higher with shearing machines than before (brought in around 1890 - another reason the pastoralists wanted to lower the pay rates). But they had to buy fresh blades out of their own money (another reason why they walked out)

A pastoralist is reported as saying a shearer could earn between 35s and £3 a week before the strikes... (Sydney morning herald Apr 30 1891).

Rouseabouts (picking up wool from the floor, doing the odd jobs etc) were paid between 30s and 35s per week - these wages had gone down from 40-65s/week (see Sydney Morning Herald Fri Feb 13 1891). Their accommodation was described as “dog-sheds” in one union leaders’ speech.


Board and Lodging:    12s6d -per week  NSW

                                    17s 6d per week     SA (Feb 27th 1891 Sydney Morning Herald)

By comparison -

A clerk could make £2’10s a week.

There was a bakers’ dispute around the same time - they worked 60 hour weeks, and the bosses wanted to make the wages £2, the bakers wanted £2’10s. Perhaps £2’10s was considered an average to good wage... (May 2nd 1891 Sydney Morning Herald)

60 hour weeks - this is perhaps where society is headed now.


j.     Non-Union Labour (‘scabs’)

Trainloads of non-union labour arrived frequently, and occasionally pastoralist officials on the train also-  it is worth noting that the governor of Queensland had considerable pastoral interests, so these were possibly people with government connections. They arrived to a welcome crowd of Unionists shouting slogans, trying to get the scabs to change sides, abusing the pastoralists. Occasionally the police were caught out and did not have enough men at the railway station to properly defend their charges - there were some incidents, including the stoning of a mounted police officer. (March 7th 1891 SMH)

k.    Massive Gerrymander

An interesting fact about the 1890’s which is not generally recognised, is that a person had a vote in every electorate in which they owned land. The Governor of Queensland at that time owned land in 32 electorates, and therefore had 32 votes, especially since Union members during the strikes were removed from the electoral role. This caused quite a lot of resentment, and is the primary reason that some unionists were calling for a revolution, rather than putting their trust in political means to effect change.

l.     Dramatic Scenes: Unionists taken prisoner.

April 8th- dramatic scenes as Union prisoners arrived in Barcaldine to appear in court - Taylor (one of the prisoners) shouted, “This is Queensland Freedom!”   “No, it’s freedom of contract!” shouted back some one ; and the crowd cheered. The crowd continued to get more exalted; the horses of the mounted infantry grew restless at the shouting of the crowd; and Taylor shouted out “Hurrah as much as you like! They can’t pull you for that!” ... a mounted policeman was pulled from his horse... SMH April 9.

On April 13 the union men voted to continue the strike, and not to accept Freedom of Contract. On April 14 the courthouse floor collapsed in Clermont. Many more Unionists charged with conspiracy. In response, the unionists attempted to burn down a courthouse.

In Barcaldine there were mass meetings held every afternoon. The reports of outrages committed by the unionists were held to be outrageous lies spread by the squatters. They vowed to fight to the bitter end, until every last penny was gone from the union coffers.

m.  The End of the 1891 Strike.

On Monday June the 1st all the Union camps were instructed to assemble in Barcaldine, perhaps because of dwindling numbers. Some of the Unionists were beginning to waver by this time, in fact some went to shear under the pastoralists’ terms. Work was progressing quietly on most of the stations with non-union labour, under police protection.

By the middle of June the Union funds were running out. The word got to the papers that the strike committee were having difficulty paying for the rations  - the union leaders initially denied that there were any problems, then started to advise the men to return to work.  (Jun 13) “In response to a telegram sent by the strike committee to the various chairmen of strike camps throughout the colony informing them that funds were no longer available for supporting the strike, and requesting their opinion concerning the men returning to work, 16 replies have been received.”  - - most camps decided to go back to work, with the exception of Charleville and Angathella, as well as the Southern districts. In Charleville the men decided they would go to gaol rather than sign the pastoralists’ agreement. The strike was declared off by the Union leaders, without officially conceding freedom of contract. The men were thanked for their loyalty, and it was said that the unions had been crushed by the Government. As in the Maritime strikes there considerable distress and anger amongst the men, as well as financial difficulty, especially as many of the shearers were married. The Government was approached to help, and they agreed to give rations to anyone who had left the union camps, but refused rations to those who insisted on remaining; men in the more remote camps survived by killing cattle and sheep; it was estimated that there were 8000 bushmen out of work. The men were asked in a secret ballot whether they preferred gaol or starvation - they preferred gaol. But gradually the camps dispersed, and men went back to work - if they could find it...

The end of the strike is heartbreaking to read about in the Sydney Morning Herald. The men must’ve been devastated. Only weeks before the union leaders had been saying, in effect, “there’s no financial difficulty, we can pay for the rations”, and then they did a 180 degree turnaround, and told the men to go back to work. The men didn’t want to go back to work, and were angry at the Union leaders for misrepresenting the state of funds. Many of them refused to leave the camps, even though there was no food for them - they went hunting and ate rabbits, or continued poaching sheep from stations in the area. Some of the Unionists had been grumbling for weeks, that they had families to feed, so there were those who went to work willingly, but most stayed in the camps for as long as they could after the leaders declared the strikes finished. There were 8000 of them, out of work, shearing positions had already been taken - poverty and defeat stared them in the face.

The Government stepped in and agreed to give rations to those who left the union camps. The shearing season was not over, but many positions in sheds in northern Queensland were already taken, and many of the men did not want to go back to work if they had to bow to the pastoralist’s demands. Pastoralists in some areas were still bringing scab labour up from the other colonies to fill positions that unionists refused to take.

In NSW the Maritime Workers (who included wharfies, sailors, and steamboat operators) had returned to work after the 1890 maritime strike, having had to bow to the employers’ conditions, but they refused to handle wool while the shearing strikes were on in 1891. When the NSW shearers went back to work, the wharf hands still refused to handle Queensland wool. The Carriers Union was indecisive in it’s support of the 1891 shearers’ strike, and the Railway Workers Union was on the side of the government.

n.    Shearing Season.

The Shearing Season started in May/June (after the Queen’s Birthday holiday) and continued up to October/September. The shearers generally moved South after that, presumably to shear in southern Queensland or NSW, where the season lasted a little longer. The 1891 strike began around the beginning of the season - as men arrived in the north to shear, they joined the Union camps instead. Shearers generally spent December-January idle, and this is why the Pastoralists’ new shearing agreement of 1891 was released in January. Shearing paid rather well in comparison with some other jobs, so shearers generally did not feel it necessary to work during their off months. Rouseabouts in their off season would often do labouring jobs such as house painting.

The shearers were paid strike pay by the unions, from Union dues saved up during the non-striking years. It was a pittance compared to their ordinary income, but it provided the basic necessities.


o.    The interchangeability of Union Tickets, throughout the colonies, and across the professions.

On Feb 18th 1891 the General Labour Union decided that the tickets of their Union should frank a man in any colony. On February  17th 1891 (see Sydney Morning Herald quote below) the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (NSW, Vic, SA)  passed a resolution that anyone from any union would be admitted without entrance fees provided they could show their union ticket. The ASU recommended that other unions follow their example.  The sentiment to admit members from other unions existed before that resolution; the labour conference was validating a procedure that was already practiced. To demonstrate the solidarity that existed among the different unions: the shearers paid a levy on top of their normal Union fees to aid the maritime workers during their 1890 strike.

WED FEB 18th   Sydney Morning Herald

The Close of the Labour Conference

Adelaide, Tuesday

....yesterday a motion was carried that it be a recommendation of the union that tickets  of the General Labour Union and the Queensland Labour Union should frank a man in any colony; but if a man be not financial he shall pay into the branch where that member may be working. The recommendation of the sub-committee in reference to the wages of the various hands engaged in shearing were presented. The proposal of the GLU that the general labourers unions be induced to adopt in their border districts the same rates of wages as have been adopted by the GLU and that the same annual subscription, viz 10s per year, with no entrance fee, was agreed to... the following sentiments of the Queensland Labor Federation were reciprocated: 1) that every assistance be given to the GLU in gaining recognition of their rules and --- wages....



p.    Aborigines had equality in the Unions.


On February 26th 1891, the Australian Shearers’ Union resolved to admit Aboriginal workers without entrance fees. The Shakespeare hotel in Barcaldine allowed all Union members to drink there, including Aboriginal members, which made it one of the few places where Aborigines were treated equally in the 1890’s.

FEB 27th Sydney Morning Herald

Shearer’s Union Conference (ASU )

...It was resolved that pure bred aboriginals of the colonies be admitted without entrance fees as members of the ASU and that after receiving certificates of membership they will make the same penalties and payments as other members. It was also received... that the ASU admit members of any trade or labor union on producing a clearance or (trade?) card of the society or union which they belong to without payment of an entrance fee, and that efforts be made by the executive of all branches of the ASU to induce other unions to extend the privilege to all other unionists.


3)   The 1894 Shearing Strikes.


In 1894 there was a rekindling of the Shearers Strike, which was sparked when the Pastoralists again brought in a new shearing agreement, cutting the rouseabout’s wages from 30s/week, to 24s/week, which was lower than the Pastoralists’ own 1891 Shearing agreement. The 1894 Shearing Strike was a far more bitter struggle. More shearing sheds were burnt, and there was greater desperation on both sides, because of the harsh economic conditions caused by the bank crashes of 1892.

In July of 1894, a leaflet was circulated recommending the murder of 13 pastoralists, and this was the precursor to many violent incidents. There were shearing sheds burnt. The first was burned at Oondooroo station - not far from Dagworth station, where Waltzing Matilda was written. There were 17 or 18 incidents: intimidation at Milo, Adavale, violence at Hughenden, sheds burned at Cambridge Downs, Murweh, Eroungella, Cassilis, Manuka. There were violent clashes between the Unionists and the Squatters, a shooting at Coombemartin woolshed, and the burning and sinking of the steamship Rodney, which had been carrying non-union labour, on 26th August of 1894 by radicals, followed by the shooting of a unionist, William McLean by a policeman, at Grassmere station near Wilcania, later that same day, possibly in revenge for the sinking of the Rodney. William McLean was later imprisoned, and died of tuberculosis soon after being released four years later.

The burning of Dagworth Station Shearing shed and the shootout on the early morning of 3rd September 1894, followed by the death of Hoffmeister, possibly by suicide, at the Union Camp at the Combo waterhole a short ride from Dagworth Station, was the culmination of the violence of 1894.

The station was owned by the Macpherson brothers, and their sister, Christina, whose best friend Sarah Riley was engaged to Banjo Paterson. Three months after the death of Hoffmeister, Christina ended up rearranging the melody of Craigielea, an old scottish song, to fit Banjo Paterson’s poem, Waltzing Matilda, the story of the suicide of a swagman, which many people say was influenced by the tragic events on Dagworth station that night.

All content on this website Copyright © 1993,1996,2006,2007 Submarine Media Pty Ltd, Waltzing Matilda the musical Pty Ltd, Edward Holding & Andrew Partington

Waltzing Matilda the musical Copyright © 1993,1996,2006,2007 Submarine Media Pty Ltd, Waltzing Matilda the musical Pty Ltd, Edward Holding & Andrew Partington