Taking to the Streets: The Great Strike of 1917


‘History is not a single story’, writes Larissa Behrendt in the recently published The Honest History Book, whose main aim is to counter what it sees as Anzackery or the inflation of the Anzac myth over other aspects of Australia’s past.

Professional historians have much to contribute to uncovering the multitude of stories that make up Australian history and to bringing these to life for historians and non-historians alike. Take, for example, the Great Strike of 1917, one of Australia’s largest industrial conflicts in the early 20th century and a sign of the worldwide discontent among workers that had been exacerbated during World War I.

With commemorations this year still focussed more on battles – the glitzy affair in New York on the 75th anniversary of the Battle of the Coral Sea a case in point – it’s pleasing that the City of Sydney is marking the centenary of the Great Strike.

PHA (NSW & ACT) member and a City of Sydney historian Laila Ellmoos is driving the historical interpretation of the project, which is co-curated by Nina Miall.  On 10 May she delivered a stirring address at the Customs House Library at Circular Quay, explaining why railway and tramway workers went on strike in August 1917. They were protesting against the time-card system, a means of accurately measuring the time taken to do various jobs. In use in the United States at the time, this ‘speeding up’ system, as it was called, was not acceptable to Australian workers. At Eveleigh Railway Workshops in Redfern 3000 men downed tools, while at Randwick Tramway Sheds 1000 men stopped work. Soon the strike spread beyond the industrial areas of Sydney, as far as the Melbourne wharves.

Laila’s talk explored the social protest that accompanied the strike, from the regular street marches and mass meetings in the Domain, to the role of local communities in rallying around the strikers and on the picket lines. Illustrations accompanying the talk showed men in suits and hats marching with union banners and homemade placards from Central Station to Parliament House in Macquarie Street. Strikers’ wives, dressed in smart frocks with hats and gloves – some wheeling prams – also marched in support of the striking railway and tramway workers. Order, sobriety and ostentatious respectability were part of the theatrical tradition of protest at this time.

A mixed group of people attended Laila’s talk, showing the wide appeal accessible history can have. A couple of professional historians were in the audience, along with interested lunchtime workers and a scattering of ‘old lefties’. Some audience members told family stories about the strike. One elderly woman explained how her father, who had been involved in the strike, never forgave the ‘scabs’. When the family moved to a new house in 1950 he forbade his wife and children to have anything to do with the family next door because their father had not taken part in the strike.

The strike ended in defeat for the workers. This encouraged Prime Minister Billy Hughes to attempt a second conscription referendum in December 1917. The referendum was not passed. But the strike and the referendum debate did fracture the labour movement for the decade after the war, with about 20 unions deregistered and some in the rank and file becoming more left wing than their union leadership had had stomach for during the heady days of 1917.

In July and August, the City of Sydney and Carriageworks, the site of the old Eveleigh Railway Workshops, will present an exhibition to mark the centenary of this bitterly fought strike.


Pauline Curby and Francesca Beddie


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