BLF - NAVVIES ROCKED THIS CITY - CANBERRA 1911 - 16
rocked this city
the Federal Area to become a Federal Capital on the ground as well as in
law, hundreds of navvies had to construct before tradesmen and other
labourers could build.
The navvies laid the rail track from Queanbeyan to Acton and roads
across the Territory, damned the Cotter, laid pipes to the reservoirs
they installed at Mt Stromlo and Red Hill, and cleared the way for a
military college, brickworks and power house. With no source of labour
nearby other than Queanbeyan, the authorities recruited from Sydney and
later from Victorian mining districts.
Keeping workers was a problem even in times of unemployment.
unions – stic
manner of organising was closer to the Industrial Workers of the World
than to the centralising impetus inside the AWU.
April 1911, organiser George Bodkin presided at a Queanbeyan meeting to
form a district branch among the navvies who were ‘road-making’ for
the ‘Federal capital city’.
The Commonwealth contracted the construction of a spur line from
Queanbeyan to Acton to the NSW Railways Department to construct which
employed 200 of the 300 members in the Territory from early 1913. (N,
RW&GLA competed with the all-grades Amalgamated Railways and
Tramways Servants’ Association (ARTSA) to recruit fettlers and way
men. Both unions got places on a Wages Board for rail navvies outside
the metropolitan area.
RW&GLA district secretary Tom Kinlyside
reported that the Queanbeyan railway yard saw the ‘galling state of
affairs when men are separated only by a wire fence and two rates of pay
are in existence for the one class of work’. He warned that the
division suited the NSW Commissioner’s plan to employ only casuals on
one or two shillings less a day. He hoped to avoid friction by getting
all navvies into the RW&GLA and thereby maintain its rates. To this
end, he summoned its advocate to see the work in order to prepare a case
for the Industrial Court. (N, 11.4.13: 4)
where an award applied, workers complained that it was not being met.
Late in 1913, Bodkin accused the chief engineer Thomas Hill of breaking
his word to enforce the Award and to set up an Appeals Board, telling
him that his promises were ‘ancient’. (N,
2.1.14: 7) Hill continued to drag the chain by insisting that the men
submit what amounted to a Log of claims for rates and over the scope of
an Appeals Board, which did not come until the 1920s. (N,
16 March 1914: 2) In April, Hill did back-date the increases to 9
February, a decision in keeping with Gibbney’s portrayal of him as
‘prepared to be conciliatory’.
(N, 27.4.14: 4)
the jobs, some conditions recalled those which the Association’s
founders said had brought men together in 1908. Without a union to stick
up for them, the gangers had driven navvies to thrust their shovels into
the ground ‘up to the maker’s name’. A man could be sacked for
lighting his pipe. In cahoots with sub-contractors, gangers robbed the
men who lived in shanties with no sanitation or potable water. (N,13.4.12:
7) Unionists looked to a Federal Labor government to prevent such
injustice in its own bailiwick. As if in explanation for Federal
Labor’s loss at the 31 May 1913 elections, Kinlyside wrote to the Navvy:
‘The workers expect something different from a Government which gets
their votes and support for election’. (N,
June 1914, Liberal Joseph Cook held a majority of one in the House and
only seven out of thirty-six senators. To store up triggers for a double
dissolution, his cabinet introduced a bill to deny preference to
unionists in government contracts, which Labor Senators twice rejected.
Minister without Portfolio, William Henry Kelly, who assisted Cook in
his Home Affairs portfolio, promised to pay the highest rates but had
not done so six months later. (N,
15.8.13: 6) Being ‘of independent means’, Kelly had little
experience of or empathy with navvies. By contrast, Cook had started
life as a miner, entering the NSW parliament as a labor man in 1891.
Industrial violence and general stoppages, however, had left him with a
‘horror of strikes’ and fearful of the ‘danger of them
spreading’, making him ‘highly indignant; when pipe-layers struck at
the Cotter early in 1914.
‘little grievances’ erupted late in January over the quality of
drinking water pumped from the Murrumbidgee for the pipe-laying gang. At
times, the pipes had been left open, allowing rabbits to use them as
burrows. The 200m. of piping had not been sluiced out so that the water
tasted of tar, in contrast to that drawn from the river, which a
journalist described as ‘an unfailing supply of the purest mountain
water. There will be no need of settling tanks or filter bed, as the
Cotter is a crystal clear stream, not to be beat anywhere’.
The day after the navvies’ representative, James Ryan, asked the
medical officer to test for quality, the Clerk of Works Brilliant sacked
Ryan on the grounds that he had been absent for six days without
permission over the previous six months, and was off sick on the day of
The others felt that he was being victimised, perhaps for his Labor
documented five demands to present to Cook in Melbourne: Ryan’s
reinstatement; married men to get free wood and water; the water to be
pure; an Appeals Board; and a school at the Cotter. Kelly promised a
canvas school and improved water. After a week with no redress, the
pipe-laying gang voted to stop work from Thursday 29 January against
what they felt to be ‘incompetent, high-handed despotism’. A motion
to call out all 500 men at the Cotter was narrowly defeated.
The union provided strike pay of 15s for single men, a pound for married
men and two shillings and sixpence for each child. (N,
2.2.14: 1) Labourers at The Rock levied themselves 2s 6d a fortnight in
support. (N, 16.2.14: 8)
a public meeting in Queanbeyan, Bodkin spoke about either calling out
all the men without a ballot or of stopping the pipes in Sydney.
Kinlyside alleged that locals stood down for refusing to load pipes had
got no strike pay. (N,
16.3.14: 5; 27.4.14: 5) Bodkin replied that ‘the real quarrel’ was
that Kinlyside had ambitions but was ‘not up to the mark’ (N,
11.5.14: 5), and was upset because he had not been toured around the
sites to ‘boom him up’. (letters from TK, N,
16.3.14: 5; 27.4.14: 5; GB’s reply 11.5.14: 5)) Their spat was one
instance of the conflict between the navvies’ tradition of district
control against the centralising of Bodkin as he positioned himself to
takeover as general-secretary.
offered to go to the Cotter site but then telegraphed that he would not
come for as long as the men were on strike. After Chapman wired back
that his presence was urgent, Cook arrived at Queanbeyan on Saturday, 7
February, and settled all matters except Ryan’s re-instatement, which
he left in Kelly’s hands. The men refused to resume without Ryan. When
the official party travelled to the Cotter, the prime minister found the
water tasted no more of tar than at his Sydney home after the
installation of new pipes. Chapman admitted that although it might be
wholesome it was ‘not very nice to the palate and he preferred
something very different’ - perhaps laced with the alcohol almost
unavailable in the Territory.
Chapman arranged a second conference during which Cook offered to move
Ryan to another gang. Over objections from his fellows, Ryan agreed to
go to Duntroon but decided against when he learnt that men were being
dismissed there too. He accepted an all-expenses-paid transfer to the
telephone tunnels in Melbourne.
(N, 16.2.14: 3)
conciliation at the highest political level, the men got increases of
between threepence and one shilling a day to match the highest rates
operating in New South Wales.
Bodkin could report late in March 1914 that he had
By then, the workforce at the Cotter was below 200, many of them on the bridge since the tunneling and the ‘heartless attempt at laying pipes in the water main’ were almost over.
return of a Labor administration on 5 September 1914,
saw William Oliver Archibald, sometime labourer and an official in the
South Australian railways union, become Minister for Home Affairs but he
brought little improvement for the labourers.
head off calls for a sewer-workers union in the Territory (N,
21.12.14: 7), the RW&GLA in February 1915 went after the
Rockchoppers’ rates and hours for its members on that work (N,
8.3.15: 6), in the hope of extending the best conditions in Sydney to
the rural workforce.
The dismissal in May of two leaders of that campaign provoked all the
sewer workers to stop – unwisely claimed organiser Marris. The
engineer refused to discuss reinstatement if the strike went on. When
the men agreed to return, the sacked pair refused to do so because they
claimed that Marris had sold out their conditions, (N,
28.6.15: 5, and reply 12.7.15: 2-3) though he did improve the ladders
and dressing sheds, and the quantity of air down the drives. (N,
14.6.15: 7) Resentment at arbitrary discharges, especially of miners
whose wives and children were on the road from Victoria, erupted again
in July. Enforcing a crude form of time-and-motion study, the Clerk of
Works, Brilliant, and ganger Dillon were sacking anyone who did not
excavate a set volume of earth each shift. The navvies protested that
the measures did not allow for the different soils. (N,
in March, the Acton branch had called for the removal of a ganger after
he discharged three of his men. The labourers wanted centralised job
allocation to remove the ‘pin-pricks [that] brought on the recent
strike’. (N, 22.3.15: 7)
When a speed-up at Mt Stromlo provoked another stoppage, Bodkin returned
to Melbourne to confront the Labour ministry. (N,
9.8.15: 3) Anger at Dillon’s behavior spilt over into dissatisfaction
with the union, some of it articulated by IWW militants. (N, 25.1.15: 5)
the dismissal of another shop steward, Bodkin called an aggregate
meeting at the Yarralumla Woolshed on 13 August 1915. Grievances
accumulated over the false pretexts for sackings, especially of the
union warned the jobless to stay away.
men’s patience was also running out with Labor governments because of
their failure to fight to even the first shilling to control the
inflation that was eating into real wages. One recalled, somewhat
August, the labourers were ropeable after five months of the Labor
ministry’s refusal to grant an inquiry into the sewer works and to set
up an Appeal Board. (N,
1915, Archibald and Bodkin corresponded about the non-payment of sewer
rates at 2s 3d extra per day (N,
4.10.15: 4), until the Minister refused the increase on 18 October. (N,
2.11.15: 4) Bodkin also complained that Brilliant was not enforcing
preference to unionists. (N, 2.11.15: 4) After O’Malley returned to Home Affairs, Bodkin
asked Chapman to arrange a deputation to establish an Appeals Board, (N,
16.11.15: 4) and to set up a meeting with O’Malley when he next
visited the Territory. (N,
14.12.15: 4) Although the Minister spent a few hours there on 17
February 1916, he did not discuss working conditions, further upsetting
(N, 14.3.16: 4)
the spring of 1915, Sam Givens, twenty-five years a miner and brother of
the President of the Senate, summed up the discontent with Labor’s
administration of its nation’s capital:
This article has benefitted from discussions with Allen Mawer and
The first labourers remain out of sight in Robert Bollard and Erik
Eklund, ‘The Hidden Proletarian Past of Canberra’, Bobbie Oliver
(ed.), Labour History in the
New Century, Black Swan Press, Perth, 2009, pp. 103-9.
J.H. Gibbney, Canberra, 1913-1953, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, p. 12.
Peter Sheldon, ‘System and Strategy: the changing shape of
unionism among NSW construction labourers, 1910-19’, Labour
History, 65, November 1993, p. 122; see my ‘Improvising
Nomads’, Journal of
Australian Colonial History, 10 (2), 2008, pp. 223-50.
Sheldon, 1993, p. 121; Labour
History, 40, May 1981, pp. 94-5.
Mark Hearn & Harry Knowles, One
Big Union, A History of the Australian Workers Union, 1886-1994,
Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 126.
Queanbeyan Age (QA),
28 April 1911, p. 2.
Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, The Labour Movement in Eastern Australia
1900-1921, ANU Press, Canberra, 1961, pp. 12-13, 59n and 65n.
Bodkin later called on his members to return the ARTSA president to
the Board. (N, 18.1.16:2)
When Kinlyside died on 14 October 1915, aged 59, an obituary in The
Navvy recalled ‘an ardent reformer and agitator – always
fighting for justice for his fellowmen’. (N,
2.11.15: 3) He had published radical verses under the pen-name ‘Jingler’;
Alan Foskett, On Solid
Foundations, The Building and Construction of Canberra, 1920 to 1950, Canberra
Tradesmen’s Union Club, Canberra, 2001, p. 16, and Errol
Lea-Scarlett, Queanbeyan, Queanbeyan Municipal Council, Queanbeyan, 1968, pp.
176-7. As Kinlyside was dying, the Acton and Cotter River branches
took up collections in response to suggestions from Bodkin. (N, 16.10.15: 3, 2.11.15: 6) An area to the east of Hall has been
named after the Kinlyside family,
Peter Kimber, Kinlyside family
in Canberra, Privately published, Canberra, 1989, pp. 9-12.
For one hearing in the Magistrate’s Industrial Court, QA,
22 August 1913, p. 2.
tardiness in meeting legal commitments continued with the Australian
Builders’ Labourers’ Federation Award delivered on 13 December
1913; Federal secretary, P.J. Smith, withdrew a writ against the
Labour Attorney-General only after Prime Minister Fisher announced
in August 1915 that it would be enforced, Smith to Fisher, 24 August
1915, NAA, A106 G1921/2019.
Gibbney, Canberra, p. 15.
The injury rate among navvies made a levy of sixpence a week for
medical coverage important, see my Framework of Flesh, builders’ labourers battle for health and safety,
Ginninderra, Port Adelaide, 2009. The Medical Profession insisted
that all of that £1
6s go to its members which left nothing for hospital expenses. (N,
11.4.13: 4) At the same time, Kinlyside reported how his fellows
appreciated the treatment and staff at the Queanbeyan hospital, (QA,
27 March 1913, p. 2), to which the men at the Cotter donated £6
11s. (QA, 2 April 1914, p.
2.) Members levied themselves to support injured workmates and their
families. (N, 9.11.14:6,
17.5.15: 5, 2.11.15: 7)
The Navvy informed members
about conditions elsewhere, for example, in the middle of Bodkin’s
report on the Territory he inserted the problems at a dam at Potts
Hill where men were charged a shilling a week to pitch a tent on
private land. (N, 11.4.13:
around Canberra contrasted with Jervis Bay where a Naval College
Branch of the Association operated as did house flies by the million
from bad sanitation, though the RW&GLA supervised a guest house.
(N, 13.9.12: 4; 11.10.12:
1) Industrial relations there were quiet with Federal rates in
force. (N, 6.7.14: 6)
J.H. Gibbney, Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 7, MUP, Carlton, 1979, p.
611; Senator Rae’s motion to allow Territory residents a vote
lapsed, CPD, v. 71, p.
Labor’s 1913 pre-selection for Eden-Monaro, 445 of the 900 votes
were cast by RW&GLA members, most for H Lestrange,
vice-president of the AWU. (N,
11.4.13: 1) Lestrange lost to Chapman with almost 59 percent and did
slightly worse in 1914 when he was in strife with Bodkin who alleged
that he had told unionists at Wagga Wagga to handle ‘black’
17 July 1914, p. 2; 21 August 1914, p. 2.
Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1901 – 1929, MUP, Carlton,
1956, pp. 111-27.
Gibbney, Canberra, p. 96.
GIbbney, Canberra, pp. 14-15; Foskett, On
Solid Foundations, p. 18.
motored from Yass which he had reached on the Melbourne express. QA, 10 February 1914, p. 3.
Daily Telegraph, 9
February 1914, p. 8.
QA, 18 February 1916, p.
2; 22 February 1916, p. 3; 7 March 1916, p. 4.