Dramatic Labor history forgotten

Tom Edwards’ widow Jane’s moving letter from The Fremantle Herald of 1919.

A FORERUNNER of the Fremantle Traffic Bridge – the ‘sticks’ railway bridge – was in the thick of the action during one of the most dramatic events in WA’s industrial history on May 4, 1919. 

Yet, commemorating his moment with a realistic interpretive site incorporating the existing bridge – or part of it – has not been broached since the latest ‘new’ bridge controversy started when the Labor government announced Covid stimulus funding in April 2020. 

Not even WA premier Mark McGowan nor his colleague, planning minister Rita Saffioti, nor the newly minted, ALP-affiliated Fremantle mayor Hannah Fitzhardinge have raised this historic event at the approach to WA’s most famous heritage city with its UNESCO World heritage Listing for Fremantle Prison.

All have eagerly promoted a new, modern replacement for WA’s longest, timber, heritage-listed bridge.

The site over the Swan River saw a dramatic clash between conservative premier Hal Colebatch and the ‘scab’ labour of the National Waterside Workers Union he was trying to barge into Fremantle Harbour to bypass the picketing Fremantle Lumpers’ Union and their supporters.

It was the curtain-raiser to a violent clash a short while later on Victoria Quay between B and C Sheds – where the Rotto ferry berths today –  which saw lumper Tom Edwards killed by police and others injured. 

The modern day irony is that this battle centred on the 1919 flu pandemic with the unpopular Colebatch, as with his modern day highly-popular successor, a pandemic premier. Colebatch resigned as premier a month or so after the violent clash.

Who better to tell this story than the late Ron Davidson in his book Fremantle Impressions. Ron, who died in 2020, was a long time Fremantle resident, co-founder of the Fremantle Society and a committed historian. 

In addition, we include the letter writen by Jane Edwards, widow of the slain lumper, following the clash and published on the front page of the then Fremantle Herald.


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