War on the quay

Fremantle’s traffic bridge has had an interesting history; it almost disappeared after big rains in the 1920s.

EXTRACT from Ron Davidson’s Fremantle Impressions

CONFLICT with Perth is serious on May 4, 1919.

Premier [Hal] Colebatch and a volunteer group including commercial travellers come from Perth in two launches to help build barricades to allow the ‘scab union’ (the National Workers Union) members to unload the interstate trader Dimboola.

The Lumpers’ Union claims the Dimboola has not been adequately quarantined to protect the community from the deadly Spanish influenza pandemic which is sweeping the postwar world.

The Nationals, after early solidarity with the Lumpers’ Union, want to start work.

The Lumpers are determined to stop them.

Hilda Hyde, whose father runs the original Italianate Swan Hotel, just north of the traffic bridge, watches from the hotel’s elegant southern verandah as preliminaries to the Bloody Sunday Riot are fought.

Hilda sees scores of women, carrying large rocks and lumps of iron, run onto the bridge as the Premier’s launches pass underneath.

They bombard them.

Four men stagger across the bridge with a large slab of limestone which they balance on the bridge rail then release it.

They do not score the direct hit which would sink the launch.

Surprisingly, no-one is seriously hurt but Premier Colebatch’s biographer (his son) says this was an assassination attempt.

Many in Perth are frightened by the news of rocks thudding on a premier’s launch and the violent riot which follows.

Not so John Curtin, later federal parliamentary member for Fremantle and Second World War prime minister, but then the rabble-rousing editor of the Westralian Worker who also ran socialist Sunday schools around Fremantle.

He defends his comrades on page one under the heading: Colebatch the Blood Spiller.

“There are voices in the land whispering that the Lumpers at Fremantle are a lawless band of rebels. The accusation is a monstrous lie.

It was the Premier himself, in his capacity as the cat’s-paw of the Shipping Ring, who broke the law by organising a brutal force to accomplish by sheer weight of intimidation and armed might the purposes the Shipping Ring nourish at their bosom.”

You enter the port proper from Cliff Street.

This is where the West Australian focuses its reports on the “sanguinary aspects” of the clash, which has a total of 2000 lumpers, their families and supporters – some prompted by urging from a Catholic priest at Mass – surging into the port on Bloody Sunday to confront police who are armed with fixed bayonets.

Lumper Tom Edwards is hit with a police rifle butt while shielding the fallen Fremantle Lumpers’ Union president, Bill Renton, between B and C sheds.

The scene becomes even more ugly when a returned soldier is bayoneted.

The Riot Act is read and a section of armed police riflemen face the enraged crowd. 

A bloodbath seems certain but precisely what happens next depends on who you talk to.

Old timers say – or said – Inspector William Sellenger, the senior police officer in Fremantle, and Alex McCallum, the secretary of the State Labour Federation who is not known for his tact, dramatically step from their respective groups and negotiate a temporary settlement.

The West Australian has Sellenger walking over to the rioters, asking them to ‘be quiet’ for 10 minutes.

In the 10 minutes of ‘quiet’ a deal is struck between all parties including Premier Colebatch who guarantees no Nationals or volunteers will step onto the wharf that day. 

The deal is done the day Tom Edwards dies of his wounds in Fremantle Hospital, an agreement preserved until the Patrick’s cargo-handling dispute 70 years later.

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