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Tuesday, October 13, 2009

The Great Shearer's Strike of 1891

Townsville Mounted Infantry in Hughenden in Qld






Looking up into the Tree of Knowledge



In 1891 the pastoralists got fed up with the Shearer's Union and set out to break it. They said that wool prices had dropped and they couldn't afford to pay the current rate and wanted to cut wages by 33%. So they declared a "Freedom of Contract" which meant that non-union shearers could be employed at a lower rate of pay.


The Union retaliated with the "Bushmen's Official Proclamation" to all its members which read in part


........It is our toil that brings rich dividends to banks and fat incomes to squatters and profitable trade to great cities. Fellow unionists, the squatters expect the Queensland bush unions will fight hard but they do not know how hard. We call upon you to show them...
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Barcaldine became the headquarters for the shearers and the biggest strike camp in the state, other camps were at Clermont and Hughenden. The shearers would often hold meetings in the shade of a ghost gum in the main street, later known as the Tree of Knowledge. In March 4500 people were in Barcaldine or camped nearby. Tension gripped the town.


Henry Lawson's famous lines:

...We’ll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn’t say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.

After such an exciting build up, it all fizzled out. In March police arrested strike leaders in Barcaldine and Clermont and thirteen men were sentenced to three years hard labour. Naturally the pastoralists received the full support of the conservative government and in April the scabs who were prepared to work for the lower rate, arrived on two trains escorted by 1000 soldiers. With the leaders in gaol and the non-union shearers now fully employed working for the lower rate, the battle was lost.


But the people had a lot of sympathy for the shearers and were encouraged to show their support at the ballot box. In 1892 the seat of Barcoo gave the unions their first voice in Parliament. The death of local member Francis Murphy, a staunch supporter of the quatters' cause, brought about a by-election. Conservative William Campbell was defeated by shearer, Tommy Ryan on March 5th. He became the first Labor parliamentary representative in Queensland. Just seven years later Queensland went on to have the world's first Labor Government.

The Tree of Knowledge in Barcaldine was believed to be between 170 and 200 years old. It had emergency surgery in 1982s, 1986 and 1990 and in May 2006 someone poured 30 litres of chemicals over its roots and killed it. In its place is a towering odd-looking cube with 4000 suspended timbers of various lengths. The trunk and limbs from the original tree have been preserved and now stand here as a tribute to hard working-class Australians everywhere.