Frame-ups for rioting and sedition, and victimisations: the Battle of Broken Hill ends

Eleventh part of Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand

The situation at Broken Hill had come close to disaster in early January. However, bloodshed was averted, and this was not an accidental circumstance. The key to that fact was the huge size of the mobilisations of unionists. The Sydney Morning Herald admonished those in their camp who criticised the police for being too soft, explaining the police position: “The whole Issue of life and death hung several times in the balance, and the police knew It. They were faced by a mob ten times as numerous as themselves, studded with angry and determined miners, many of whom were armed, and who were wrought up to the pitch of violence.” The Herald also carried sensational reports that some of the men arrested were carrying weapons and ammunition. Regardless of the truth or otherwise of these reports, the police in that situation, with that relationship of forces, knew that if workers’ blood were to be spilt, their own lives would also be at risk. This knowledge kept their guns silent.

The International Socialist Review for Australasia was unequivocal on the question of the workers’ right to self-defence. “Even under our present class-made law, the mere fact that a hooligan or murderously-inclined man who commits or attempts to commit an outrage on decent citizens wears a policeman’s uniform does not take away the citizen’s right to defend himself. Every man must defend his own life and limb; and it’s up to the Barrier people to see that they do it… Sydney Labor Council should be ready to call a general strike in the event of the Broken Hill men being jailed.”

The arrest of Tom Mann had as its purpose the silencing of the Barrier’s leading agitator. When he appeared before the court, it was abundantly clear that there were no reasonable grounds by which he could be denied bail; the court nonetheless tried to impose a complete gagging order as a condition of bail. Mann refused to accept it and remained in jail. Eventually a compromise was reached: Mann accepted bail with a condition that he could not speak publicly within the State of New South Wales.

The train taking Broken Hill people to Cockburn, New South Wales, to hear Tom Mann speak, January 1909

Barnett’s report continues, “The unionists circumvented this outrageous travesty of justice by obtaining gramophone records of speeches made elsewhere, and by holding two monster Sunday demonstrations in Cockburn, just over the border in South Australia – at which Tom Mann addressed magnificent crowds of Barrier people, who had travelled there by train. Never before in the history of Australia were the eyes of the people opened to the desperately class nature of Government and Courts as they were by these events.” Following these demonstrations, Mann turned his attention to organising work among the Port Pirie workers, who were that part of the Proprietary company workers based in South Australia. When his case came to trial in late April, he was acquitted of all charges.

By effectively removing Mann from the scene, the company had nonetheless struck a blow. Mann had been the inspirer of the mass pickets and daily demonstrations. In his absence, isolated arrests of workers continued, and new efforts to recruit scabs began. Meanwhile the space left by Mann’s removal was filled by pro-Arbitration delegates from the Sydney Labor Council who, in the words of the Sydney Morning Herald,  threw their weight “on the side of those among the leaders of the men who are counselling ‘no violence.’”

At hearings of the arrested unionists the judge – who had been specially brought to Broken Hill for the occasion – disregarded all the witnesses except the police, convicted the men, and handed out fines of up to £5 with gagging conditions and good-behaviour bonds; a few got six-month jail sentences. The major charge of rioting was dropped.

The Arbitration Court hearing on the miners’ contract was set for February, but adjourned when the company refused to agree to abide by its decision.

The Barrier Socialist Group invited Holland to Broken Hill in early February. Not everyone in the leadership of the Combined Unions was pleased to see Holland. While they had welcomed Tom Mann, Holland, who was much sharper than Mann in his opposition to Arbitration and his denunciations of Labor Party ‘scabbery’, was a different matter. By a small margin, the Combined executive voted not to permit Holland to speak from the Combined Unions platform. William Rosser, a Barrier Socialist Group member who had been serving on the Combined Unions organising committee, resigned in protest.

Holland spoke to a meeting attended by thousands that was organised by the Barrier Socialist Group, and at a series of mid-day rallies in late February. He denounced the Wade government for their refusal to prosecute the Proprietary Company for the illegal lockout, criticised the attitude of passivity being preached by the Sydney Labor Council, called on the labour movement to prevent the transporting of more police to Broken Hill, attacked the treacherous conduct of the Labor Party parliamentarians, and exposed the Arbitration system.

Albury defendants. Photo: Solidarity Forever.

On the morning after one of these speeches, he was arrested and charged with sedition. He was committed for trial at Broken Hill on 5 April, and released on £300 bail. He continued to speak publicly after his release on bail. Sedition and rioting were serious charges, with the right to trial by jury. When the authorities realised that the possibility of getting a jury of Broken Hill workers to convict the workers’ leaders was very low, the trials of Holland, Mann and five other unionists facing serious charges was moved 900 km away to the town of Albury on the NSW-Victoria border, a town dominated by merchants and big capitalist farmers.

The sedition charge against Holland was curious. There was no statute law against sedition. Sedition is part of common law, or as Holland described it in his court defence, ‘judge-made law’, the body of law that depends on judicial precedent. But recent precedents were strangely lacking. Holland was the first person ever to be charged with sedition in New South Wales. His researches showed that it had only been used three times in Britain in the last century, all of them unsuccessful. As Holland explained at his trial, “The prosecution has had to go back to the dead centuries to find a law under which to prosecute me, for there is no modern law under which they could prosecute me with any degree of success.” He called it a Star Chamber law.

A Defence Fund was launched; at campaign meetings in Sydney the Rockchoppers’ Union pledged their support. Mann had been silenced by the terms of his bail, but in the week before their trials Holland and two other accused spoke to a meeting of three thousand in Broken Hill and in Albury itself, they addressed two thousand at a May Day rally. On the eve of Holland’s trial, Tom Mann’s trial for rioting resulted in his acquittal on all charges.

Holland’s trial opened in Albury on May 4th 1909. He refused to plead, on the grounds that he could not expect a fair trial so far from the scene of the alleged crime. The judge entered a plea of Not Guilty. Holland defended himself.

There was in the sedition charge a strong echo of the Sydney Morning Herald’s campaign against the unionists, accusing them of general lawlessness and defiance of public order, and insinuating that they were responsible for series of explosions that had occurred throughout the lockout period. The Herald had announced back in January that ‘further proceedings are to be taken in regard to some people so far untouched by the law, who have been inciting the unionists to set constituted authority at naught.” “It will not be in the least surprising to Broken Hill to hear in the immediate future of proceedings being taken against the leaders of the strike. Conspiracy is the charge being talked of.

The prosecutor explained the charges, saying “The highest law in the land was the safety of the public, and no person had the right to stir up hatred against the Government, or bring about a state of disorder. … There was a big difference between attacking the individual Ministers of the Cabinet and attacking the system of government.”

The indictment set forth that Holland “made use of the following false, wicked, seditious and inflammatory words: —We read of thousands of you men, who call yourselves unionists, being there, and allowed Tom Mann to be arrested and taken to gaol, and not one of you attempted to rescue him, and only 300 policemen in Broken Hill. You have the position in your own hands geographically. Why, how long would it take you to stop supplies to the gaol? Refuse to allow your daughters to wait on the police; stop supplies to Broken Hill mine, and send Wade’s criminals back. If you are going to fight put a little ginger into it. Yes, pepper if you like, or, to be plain-spoken—dynamite. That’s the way to win.  Do you mean to say that three hundred police are going to frighten you?  Why if they hit you with a baton, him them with a baton; if they hit you with a pick-handle, hit them with a pick; if they shoot at you with a revolver, then shoot at them with a revolver, and if they use a rifle on you—well, if you have a Gatling gun turn it on them.”

Five policemen gave evidence that they had heard Holland use these exact words. Their evidence was identical, including one who had been listening from a distance of 150 yards.

Holland rejected both the falsifications and distortions of his words given in court, and the implied intent, in particular the insinuation that he supported acts of sabotage and violence. “[On the charge that] I moved the people to contempt of the Government of the State… My answer to the charge is this: When I made the speech, the direct attacks were that the Government, and particularly the head of the government, had neglected or refused to administer a law which was being broken. To break that law is a quasi-criminal offence against the Industrial Disputes Act. I admit I made a strong accusation against the Government, and pointed out that the Government had assisted the Capitalist against the working class, and I submit that it was perfectly fair criticism. If the Government is not open to criticism, then where do we stand?

“I attacked the Wade Government for sending a police force to Broken Hill before any trouble occurred. I referred to the police as a military force, and I told the crowd that a violation of the law was being perpetrated. You know, and everybody knows, that clause of the Federal Constitution which says that no armed force shall be maintained in any State without the sanction and authority of the Federal Parliament. Yet, what do we find; on the big mine there were rifle barrels gleaming. Is it wrong to point out this? Is it wrong to point out the wrongs that have been meted out to us?  …

“I am charged with inciting the people to rescue Tom Mann…. But how could I incite people to interfere with his arrest when that arrest had already taken place a month ago?”

“[on cutting off supplies to the gaol] I certainly said ‘You should cut off supplies from the gaol,’ but I did not say you should FORCIBLY cut off the supplies. My party has always been identified with industrial unionism. … I have advised, and do now, that if the workers were organised they could even now take charge of the country in the name of the working classes. Is there anything wrong with that? The workers represent 85 percent of the people. … Everyone acquainted with the underlying principles of industrial unionism knows that by combination, and by adopting the proper methods of warfare, they can win the battle without spilling a drop of blood or using any violence whatsoever. That is all I meant by saying we could cut off the supplies to the gaol.

“[on the use of the word dynamite] The case for the Crown says that I said, ‘Put ginger into your fight… or, to be plain-spoken, dynamite.’ The police have sworn with parrot-like precision to those words. My witnesses gave evidence in a way that should convince the jury. I have put into the box men who, in point of fact, are against me politically, and some of these witnesses swore that they interjected the word ‘dynamite.’ The word dynamite is one that is very frequently used in Broken Hill. To say, “Put dynamite into it” is a common occurrence. …I absolutely deny that I advocated the use of explosives. I advocated the force of industrial unionism.

“The most serious part of the charge against me, that I said “If the police hit you with a baton, hit them with a baton, etc.” My statement was as my witnesses have testified, “If the police illegally hit you.” I admit saying if a policeman hits you illegally, then hit him back again. This is a point of law, and a point of nature too, and if anyone strikes a man illegally in the street, surely he is entitled to hit him back, even if his assailant is a policeman. I claim that the law of the land allows this.

“If the verdict of the jury goes against me I will not squirm, but I ask you to consider that you will be taking away the right of free speech; you will be saying that the Government can bring the shadow of the gaol walls over a political opponent who attacked them.”

The prosecutor closed by saying, “The jury could judge by what they had seen of Holland that he was a clever man and a great speaker, and such a man could not be allowed to incite ignorant unthinking men to disorder at a time of public unrest and excitement.” The jury, made up of “squatters, farmers and one clerk” returned a Guilty verdict after forty minutes, and Holland was sentenced to two years hard labour in Albury jail. Two other workers, William May and Walter Stokes, also received lengthy sentences.

Holland’s speech at his trial was published as a pamphlet and distributed by the Release Committees

The convictions, coming only days after Mann’s acquittal, and the severity of the sentences shocked many in the labour movement. In the weeks following the trial, Release Committees sprang into action in Sydney, Melbourne, Adelaide, and Broken Hill, and soon extended their activities across the Commonwealth of Australia. Initiated by the Socialists, they drew support from many different forces, from Anarchists in Melbourne to Labor Party Members of the Legislative Assemblies. Holland’s speech in his own defence at the trial was printed as a pamphlet entitled Sedition in NSW – What Is It? and distributed widely by these committees, but their main activity was winning signatures on a petition protesting the convictions and calling for clemency for the men convicted at Albury. A Mr Spiers of the union of workers in the Electrical Trades told the Sydney Labor Council that if the 80,000 workers of New South Wales were properly organised, “they would not bother about petitions for the release of the men sentenced at Albury but would march down and pull the gaol to pieces.” [Solidarity Forever p85].

Simultaneously with Holland’s trial, the battle of Broken Hill came to an end. After the tumultuous events of early January, the lockout had settled down into a long war of attrition, in which the mobilisations of workers gradually dwindled, while in inverse proportion the machinations of the Arbitration Court grew in importance. Meanwhile the profit pressures on the Proprietary Company and the political cost to the entire capitalist class also mounted.

First to accept that they could not hold out long enough for a total victory was the Australian capitalist class; they had in the Arbitration Court the instrument for expressing their decision. In mid-March the Arbitration Court judge issued his award, but the Proprietary Company objected, refused to lift the lockout, and appealed the ruling to the High Court. The Company was overruled there too; the Arbitration Court ruling was largely upheld. The Court reversed the wage cut.

The company won one important concession from the Court, however: the general manager Delprat insisted on ‘his right to employ whom he choose’ and the Court had granted that. That gave him a free hand in refusing to re-hire union militants at both Broken Hill and Port Pirie.

The Combined Unions at Broken Hill were steadfast: they would not go back until all had been re-hired. But immediately following a vote at Port Pirie to endorse this stance, a spontaneous, unorganised back-to-work movement began among the workers, and many crossed the picket line. After 18 weeks, and with their central demand having been conceded by the Court, their will to continue the struggle was exhausted. Broken Hill soon followed.

The outcome was a victory for the union side. But it was a victory won at a cost. Some leading militants were effectively blacklisted from the mines, and several of the key militant leaders, including Harry Holland, were in jail. The Proprietary company kept their mines shut for many more months, forcing many miners to leave Broken Hill to look for work elsewhere. When they did finally re-open, only 500 men out of the 2000 originally employed there were restarted.

The pages of the International Socialist Review contain a sharp criticism of Tom Mann’s conduct in leading the end of the struggle written by Peter Bowling, leader of the Newcastle Miners, who had traveled to Broken Hill to assist in organising and leading the unions just as the lockout came to an end. The Review also printed Mann’s reply. The exchange is of extraordinary interest, as an example of the judgements and tactical decisions that have to be made by class-struggle leaders in the heat of moment. Such circumstances arise only rarely, and the debates almost never take written form.

Bowling’s position was that Mann made a serious error in accepting that the spontaneous back-to-work movement at Port Pirie was irreversible. In Bowling’s opinion, “no union worthy of its existence should tolerate victimisation.”  The excuse for going back to work at Port Pirie was to preserve the integrity of the union, he said, but “if the Union would agree to Delprat’s conditions, it was not worth preserving.” Instead, the leadership should have shifted the centre of gravity of the fight from wages to the question of victimisations, and “in this way a big movement could quickly have been worked up, which between other things would have had a tremendous effect towards securing the release of Holland and others.” He contended that a series of last-minute negotiations Mann had conducted with Delprat was the key mis-step that undermined workers’ confidence in the union and demoralised them.

Mann said in reply that the workers’ ability to struggle had been weakened from the outset by their leaders’ commitment, given in open Court, to abide by the outcome of the Arbitration Court, and further weakened by the unions’ vote to drop all claims except the renewal of the contract without any wage cuts. When the movement to cross the picket-line began, “the gates to the smelter were open, and non-unionists were being taken in by contingents of plain-clothed as well as uniformed police.” The gains of the past months in unionising the Port Pirie workers were under serious and immediate threat. While it was necessary to resist victimisations, the union was not in a strong position to compel the company to re-employ everyone, and the employers “had opportunities of stopping men in half a dozen ways without technically victimising [them].” His meetings with Delprat were to try and get some kind of assurances that there would be no victimisations.  “I am quite sure the right course was taken, the fight was over and really won by the men, … and the unions at Port Pirie and at Broken Hill are more powerful now than ever before and will be ready in due time for further activity.”

It would be very interesting to know what position Harry Holland took on this disagreement. By the time it erupted, he was already in prison, and Mann left Australia to return to England soon after his release. Almost certainly he discussed it with both Mann and Bowling, but he never publicly expressed an opinion on it.

We do have the verdict of history, however.  Mann’s assessment that the unions were more powerful than ever was soon borne out, when Harry Holland was released from jail by a special decision of the Governor on 4th October 1909. The Governor was responding to the petition, organised by the Release Committees and presented by some Labor Party parliamentarians, which by then had been signed by 50,000 people.

The relationship of forces between the classes was evidently favourable enough to break open the prison gates and liberate Harry Holland, so that after serving only five months of his sentence he was “sacked from Wade’s Silencer”  and thrown back into the thick of the struggle. For Holland, this revealed even more clearly the farcical and unjust character of the conviction. “Either I was rightly imprisoned, and am now wrongly at liberty, or I was wrongly imprisoned and am now rightly free,” he said.

He was met at Sydney railway station by a rally of unionists, including “the cream of the craft unions,” [8405] where he was cheered and carried shoulder high to the waiting car. After addressing meetings and rallies in the Domain, he embarked on a tour of Broken Hill, Port Pirie, Adelaide and Melbourne, to help rebuild the Barrier Socialist Group, which had been hit hard by the victimisations, and to campaign for the release of William May and Walter Stokes, the two other Broken Hill militants still in jail.

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2 responses to “Frame-ups for rioting and sedition, and victimisations: the Battle of Broken Hill ends

    • Thanks for the comments. There are various historians in New Zealand who are more or less sympathetic to and interested in the history of the labour movement – they get together at meetings of the Labour History Project, which organises events in both Auckland and Wellington. I don’t know if any would call themselves communists.

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