The nineteenth-century police state in New South Wales

Harry Holland and the labour movement in Australasia Part 1

In the year 1890, a mass strike erupted that eventually involved sixty thousand waterside workers,  seafarers, miners, shearers and rail workers across the port cities and hinterland of Australia, and a further ten thousand in New Zealand and Fiji. It was defeated three months later – with wage cuts of up to 30% imposed on maritime workers – but only after a mobilisation of thousands of police and troops to support the strikebreakers. The Maritime Strike proved to be a watershed in the history of the Australasian colonies; it marked the violent birth of the working class. In the period of intense political ferment that followed the defeat of the strike, Henry Edmund (Harry) Holland joined the Australian Socialist League in Sydney at the age of 23.

Mounted troops arrive to support strikebreakers during Maritime Strike, Melbourne 1890

For the next quarter-century, the wage-labourers pressed towards centre stage in politics throughout Australasia. Harry Holland devoted his life to the struggle to raise the workers’ consciousness of themselves as a class with separate class interests from those of their employers, and to defend the interests of the working class.  For two decades he pursued that task in New South Wales – in the cities of Sydney and Newcastle, in the rural towns of the Southern Tablelands, in the isolated mining camps of Broken Hill in the far west of New South Wales, and in Albury jail.   Then in 1912 he sailed to New Zealand, and quickly became a central leader of the rapidly advancing working class movement there. In both Australia and New Zealand, he led efforts to organise unions, organised and addressed mass meetings of workers, stood as a working class candidate in Parliamentary elections, and defended himself in court. He was part of an expanding international movement for socialism and class struggle, a contemporary and admirer of Eugene Debs and the IWW in the United States, of Tom Mann in the United Kingdom and Australia, and of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia.

Harry Holland in 1925

Holland was an agitator and a socialist propagandist before all else, a writer, editor and publisher of newspapers and pamphlets. Later, as an uncompromising voice of Labour in parliament, he continued this work, even as the rising working class tide which had raised him to the parliamentary platform turned and retreated. It is in the pages of these newspapers and parliamentary records that we can trace the arc of his life’s work.

The story of Harry Holland’s life is also the story of that moment in history when the scattered British colonies in Australasia evolved into the nation-states of Australia and New Zealand and, at the furthest point on the globe from Europe, the modern classes of capitalist society emerged and spoke in their own name. Holland wrestled with the questions that confronted working people when their mass organisations had to be built from scratch, when an ordinary day’s work could leave a worker maimed or killed and their family destitute, when mass unemployment, militarism and the threat of war hung permanently over their heads, when even for the employed workers hunger and homelessness were only one payday away. In Holland’s time, most of those who claimed to speak for labour in the political arena proved to be treacherous mis-leaders, while the truthful voices of the working class were met with police violence, censorship and crushing libel suits. Not infrequently, workers ran for election to public office wearing prison uniforms and leg-irons.

More than a hundred years later, working people confront these questions once again, albeit in different and, in most respects, far more favourable circumstances. In one respect, however, workers today are at a disadvantage in comparison with a hundred years ago: nowhere yet in the contemporary world have working class leaders of the calibre of Harry Holland won a mass following. This is the justification for turning to the historical record. In the life and writings of Harry Holland is to be found one of the most eloquent voices of the oppressed and exploited that has ever emerged in this part of the world.


Harry Holland’s life began in the village of Ginninderra, in the rural hinterland of New South Wales 300 kilometres to the southwest of Sydney. Ginninderra was established in 1826 as a community of Methodist farmers.  What little remains of the village can be found on the outskirts of the present-day federal capital city of Canberra; however, Canberra was not built until the twentieth century. The closest substantial town in Holland’s time was Queanbeyan, about twenty kilometres distant, which still exists today, functioning as an outer suburb of Canberra. About one-third of the way from Ginninderra to Sydney lay Goulburn, chartered by Queen Victoria in 1863 as “Australia’s first inland city.” In 1868, the year of Holland’s birth, Ginninderra was a place where the landscape was wide and bountiful, while social conditions were fettered and stunted.

Ginninderra lies in the Southern Tablelands, which form a broad saddle on the Great Dividing Range. To the southwest lie the Snowy Mountains, and to the northeast, the Blue Mountains. To the west is the great Murrumbidgee River, which flows north for fifty kilometres until it joins the Yass River and then turns westwards to join the Lachlan and Murray Rivers. Though the tablelands are close to the east coast, the rivers flow westwards into the Murray-Darling catchment. The climate is hot and dry in summer, and because of its elevation, cool and frosty in winter with occasional snow on the hilltops. The poor sandstone soils of the hilltops were generally covered in eucalypt forests, while on the plains there were wide grasslands and rich dark soils. The first Europeans who explored the region in 1820 described it as ‘very capital land’ for grazing sheep.

In The Biggest Estate on Earth, Bill Gammage presents convincing evidence for careful Aboriginal stewardship of the land prior to European settlement.

Prior to European settlement these plains and gently rolling hills had been grazed by kangaroo and emu. For at least 15,000 years they had been occupied by the Ngunawal people. The Ngunawal divided their time between the mountains, where they feasted on the Bogong moth in the summer months, and the plains where they hunted the kangaroo and emu, and caught the abundant fish in the rivers. The first Europeans often described these lands as looking ‘like a park.’ They marvelled at the fact that on horseback one could gallop unhindered through the plains without risk of injury to man or horse.  This was the consequence of centuries of Aboriginal stewardship of the land, using carefully controlled fires to control weed species and limit undergrowth in the eucalypt forests, and to bring on the growth of new shoots in the grasslands which would attract kangaroos and other game out into the open.

As European settlers occupied more of the land, the Aboriginal inhabitants were forced to withdraw. There were a few armed confrontations between the settlers of the Southern Tablelands and Aborigines in the 1820s and 1830s, usually as a consequence of acts of sexual violation of Aboriginal women and girls by settlers, but in general settlement in this region was accompanied by less open violence than elsewhere. Aboriginal workers were employed intermittently on some of the larger farms, and some played in Ginninderra cricket teams from the 1850s. In 1859 a corroboree organised in Queanbeyan by one of these Aboriginal cricketers was watched by two-thirds of the town’s people. It included a one-to-one combat between two men in settlement of a tribal criminal dispute. From about that time, measles, influenza, tuberculosis, and alcohol ­– direct and indirect consequences of the encroachments on their land and water, the means of life – took an increasingly heavy toll. Aboriginal numbers in the local region fell steeply, although corroborees involving hundreds from far distant places took place near Queanbeyan up to the 1890s.

This southern tableland had been one of the first inland regions of Australia to be settled by Europeans.  The convict settlement of Sydney lacked good agricultural and grazing lands nearby, so explorations of the interior began soon after the founding of the colony in 1788. Most of the good farm land within 150 kilometres of Sydney had already been occupied by 1825, when a severe drought prompted the expansion into the new lands further to the southwest.

Convict labour, New South Wales. In 1830s, convicts made up more than 60% of the population of Queanbeyan district.

Few free settlers took up land to farm on their own account in the beginning. On the contrary, conditions of labour throughout the colony were disfigured by the convict system well into the nineteenth century. To encourage development of the hinterland, land was freely granted by the early colonial governors to military and colonial officials and other ‘deserving persons’ with the capital and stock to develop it. Many of these people never visited their estates, but employed overseers and convict labour to break in the land. In many cases, the convict labour was also granted free.  ‘Tickets of occupation’ were also granted to graziers, giving them permission to occupy government land without rights of ownership. Over time, such rights were extended to leases and right to purchase. From 1825 governors sold as well as granted land. Sales of land – a distinctly finite resource – formed an increasingly important part of government revenues, from which it began to subsidise the immigration of free settlers in the 1830s.

In 1833, 60% the population of the county that included Ginninderra and Queanbeyan were convicts – and many among the free population were former convicts. In comparison, in New South Wales as a whole, convicts made up about 50% of the adult population in 1833; among adults, men outnumbered women three-to-one. From the late 1830s, the proportion of convicts began to fall. Free migrants from Ireland and Scotland established small communities in the Southern Tablelands from the 1840s; their numbers were soon augmented by migrants fleeing the Irish and Scottish potato famines and the highland clearances. Transportation of new convicts from England to New South Wales, which reached a peak in the 1830s, was suspended in 1840. Meanwhile, some 20,000 assisted free migrants arrived in 1841.

The transition from convict labour to free labour was not an easy one. At the point of most rapid change in the early 1840s, there was drought, a sharp slump in the price of wool, and increased Aboriginal resistance to loss of land, food sources, and access to water, which all combined to throw the colony into a severe depression. Henry Parkes, one of the assisted immigrants from England who arrived to bleak employment prospects at that time, commented bitterly on the call by some pastoralists to bring in immigrants from India. “They have been accustomed to having the convict’s toil for nothing, and they cannot bring their minds to paying for that of the free man. Hence they would fain have the poor coolie from India, bound to them for a number of years—a slave in everything but in name.”

The depressive effect on wages was not the only legacy of the convict system. There were secondary effects which profoundly conditioned and corrupted social relations in New South Wales for the remainder of the nineteenth century: in the first place, the enormous imbalance of the sexes, with all the negative consequences which flow from that, and which was only slowly overcome: in 1861 males still outnumbered females 4 to 3, and among adults the imbalance was even greater.

Convict being flogged, New South Wales

The general culture of brutality and humiliation was another indirect effect – the legacy of a system where sentences of fifty or a hundred lashes could be handed down for crimes such as petty theft, drunkenness and neglect of work. Closely related to that was the ongoing lawlessness and banditry of the absconding convicts who took to the bush and lived by robbing settlers and traders, and later, the gold escorts.

Above all, there was the oppressive burden of the colossal state machinery, which weighed heavily on the whole society – the omnipresent police, the network of prisons, the courts, clerks, magistrates, mounted constabulary, spies and informers, troops and trackers needed to police the convicts, to assign and then supervise their employment, to hunt down and arrest absconders, attach and remove leg-irons, administer punishments and privileges, award tickets-of-leave (a transition to freedom), and more. Much of this machinery of state endured well beyond the last convict ships, since there were convicts still under sentence in parts of Australia until nearly the end of the century.

Aborigines in neck irons, Roebourne jail, 1896. The chains and prisons of the convict system were turned against Aboriginal resistance later in the nineteenth century.

Moreover, the neck irons and chains, and the vast stock of places of incarceration, performed a double service. As colonial settlement expanded into the interior simultaneously with the decline of the convict population, they were not dismantled but rather turned against the mounting Aboriginal resistance. The Australian colonies remained a police state throughout much of the nineteenth century. It was not by accident that even as late as 1909, union leader Peter Bowling was placed in leg-irons during a strike. The expression “Labor’s leg-irons” used later by Harry Holland as the title of one of his pamphlets was a literal truth as well as a metaphor.

Unloading wool from bullock cart at railway station, Queensland, 1898

In the 1860s, Ginninderra was still very isolated. The railway did not reach Queanbeyan until 1887; up to that time, the wool, wheat, and other produce from the region had to be hauled to Sydney by bullock teams across some very rough tracks. The journey could take from three to six weeks or even longer, depending on weather and road conditions. However, two recent developments shortly before Holland’s birth had done much to bring life to these far-flung communities: the Land Act of 1861, which had opened up the possibilities for small farmers to obtain land, and the discovery of gold at Braidwood in 1851 and Kiandra in the Snowy Mountains in 1859.  New settlers and wealth flooded into the region. Queanbeyan’s first newspaper was established in 1861: it was optimistically named The Golden Age.

(to be continued)

5 responses to “The nineteenth-century police state in New South Wales

  1. Thank you James – am completely ignorant of the formation and struggles of the Australian working class. Good to have a start on it here.
    Tom Richardson Middlesbrough UK

    • Thanks for your comment Tom. I’m in the process of preparing a biography of Harry Holland, who was a leading figure in both Australia and New Zealand at that time, and I expect to be posting further installments throughout the coming year. I’ve already written a few posts about the origins of the working class and Harry Holland in New Zealand – if you click on the Harry Holland link at the side, it should show most of them.

  2. Pingback: Young Harry Holland: the soapbox preacher | A communist at large·

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