Great Strike of 1917 captured on film


by Laila Ellmoos

The Great Strike of 1917 began on the NSW railways and tramways on 2 August 1917 in the midst of World War 1. The strike started when employees from Eveleigh Railway Workshops and Randwick Tramsheds walked off the job to protest against the introduction of a new way of monitoring worker productivity known as the timecard system. This new system added a layer of management in the workshops, and was considered an affront to the skill and craftsmanship of rail and tram employees. Workers across a range of industries soon joined the strike action, as it spread throughout NSW and Australia. The strike lasted for just over six weeks.

The 1917 strike was preserved on film by a prolific but little-known Australian filmmaker named Arthur Charles Tinsdale. He oversaw the filming of the strike as it was unfolding, as well as appropriating footage from other locally made newsreels. His hour-long film The Great Strike was released in early October 1917 by which time the strike had largely ended. It only screened once in NSW, before it was banned, censored and retitled. Although future screenings were planned in NSW, they never went ahead due to the intervention of conservative politician Walter Wearne, MLA for Namoi.

Walter Wearne would have considered a film like this to be inflammatory against the backdrop of World War 1. But the catalyst for the film’s censorship was the depiction of a key moment in the strike that involved his brother Reginald. On 30 August 1917, Walter’s brother Reginald shot dead a striker named Mervyn Flanagan in the Sydney suburb of Camperdown. When Walter saw the film advertised at the Strand Picture Place in Narrabri, he contacted the Chief Secretary with his concerns, specifically the mention of his brother’s ‘Killing of Flanagan’. The film was then embargoed, censored to remove all references to the murder of Mervyn Flanagan, and re-titled as ‘Recent Industrial Happenings in NSW’. The film was effectively suppressed in NSW.

The surviving fragments of Tinsdale’s strike film are held in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia (NFSA) collection as two separate films. It’s not known how the two separate reels of film came into the collection but recent research reveals that one of the films was acquired from a New Zealand film collector in the 1970s. The other reel came into the collection in the 1960s; its donor is unknown. Both films were transferred from the original nitrate to 35mm safety film.

Only one of the film reels was catalogued, and it was down to the knowledge of Graham Shirley, the NFSA’s former historian and current PHA NSW & ACT member, that we were able to locate the other reel. Piecing together Tinsdale’s film involved intensive research to unravel the story of the film’s banning and censorship, and to understand the scene sequence. This was tricky as the sequence on the two separate films did not follow any particular order.

So what do the surviving fragments of the film capture? There are street processions, mass gatherings in The Domain, commuters finding alternative ways to get home, ships waiting in the harbour, and idle coal and coke operations in the Wollongong area. There are scab camps at Taronga Zoo and Sydney Cricket Ground, arrested strike leaders leaving the Central Court on Liverpool Street, and strikers gathering outside Sydney Trades Hall. The intertitles, although mostly descriptive, sometimes include humour and the lyrics to popular songs, a nod perhaps to Tinsdale’s vaudeville past and contemporary entertainment conventions, revealing that the film was topical but also entertainment.

The film came to my attention when I started work to co-curate an exhibition about the Great Strike of 1917 at Carriageworks. I worked with NFSA’s Simon Drake (Collection Reference Coordinator) to reconstruct the surviving fragments, scanned by the NFSA to 4K format, into a single film that followed the original order. To do this, we used synopses and shotlists found in newspaper advertising and in the censorship records held at State Archives NSW, backed up with my own research into the strike and knowledge about Sydney’s landmarks and landform. The footage was edited by the NFSA’s Richard Carter (Production Coordinator) into a chronology that follows how the film would have been originally presented. Although it was originally around an hour long, the Great Strike film now runs to around 16 minutes. The restored and reconstructed film is a rare survivor – not just because it’s an early Australian film but because it is an early film that documents a strike action.

The NFSA’s restored film titled The Great Strike (Centenary Reconstruction), was a key element of the exhibition 1917: The Great Strike, presented by the City of Sydney and Carriageworks in July-August 2017. This was the first time in 100 years that this reconstructed film, combining the two surviving fragments of the censored film, was seen in sequence. A soundtrack was commissioned for the exhibition by composer Martin Peralta.

Finding Tinsdale’s film, piecing the fragments back together, and unearthing its story was an unexpected bonus in curating the exhibition. It’s extraordinary that this visual document, made over 100 years ago, has survived, and that its history, meaning and significance can be interpreted through a multiplicity of documents from other libraries and archives. The film, as a mediated document, shows the power and value of the visual medium in the early decades of the 20th century. You can view it here.

The restored The Great Strike (Centenary Reconstruction) film has been inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register in 2019. This is a testament to the collaborative teams at City of Sydney and the NFSA that pieced the film back together. It is also a fitting tribute to Arthur Charles Tinsdale, who made the film. He would have been proud to have such a high honour for his filmmaking, a recognition that eluded him in his lifetime.


Image: Paul Patterson, City of Sydney