A Movement That Sings (Will Never Die)

Danny Blackman

Rod Noble’s tribute to Vera Deacon earlier in this issue tells us much about Vera’s life of activism; in particular, he notes how her inner strength and politics were formed by her experiences growing up during the 1930s Depression years. Vera told many stories of her life as a child in the Newcastle Unemployed camps[1] and she spoke at length to her friend and comrade Dorothy Hewett about the period when her family lived on an island in the Hunter River. Dorothy later wrote a poem based on those stories, and in 1965 that poem was set to music by Michael Leyden.

The resulting song, ‘Weevils in the Flour’, has become an Australian folk classic, sung by a very wide range of performers over the years. You can listen to it as sung by Declan Affley at http://unionsong.com/u140.html [2] The song was first recorded by Gary Shearston on his influential LP Australian Broadside: Contemporary Songs from the Australian Folk Revival for the CBS label in 1965 (when threats of a lawsuit forced him to drop the specific mention of BHP) [3]. A political anthem of sorts, it was sung by the workers occupying the Cockatoo Island Docks in Sydney Harbour before its closure in 1992. Wendy Lowenstein chose Weevils in the Flour as the title of her oral history of the depression because of the song.[4]

‘Weevils in the Flour’ was subsequently arranged for four-part choral singing by Ricardo Andino, and has been regularly sung by Newcastle’s union choir, the Newcastle People’s Chorus, since at least the early 1990s. As Rod notes in his tribute, Vera first heard the song when the Chorus sang it in 1995 – and she loved it!

Weevils in the Flour[5]

Words from a poem by Dorothy Hewett©1963; music by Michael Leyden©1965. Choral arrangement by Ricardo Andino

On an island in a river
How that bitter river ran
I grew on scraps of charity
In the best way that you can
On an island in a river
Where I grew to be a man.

For dole bread is bitter bread
Bitter bread and sour
There’s grief in the taste of it
There’s weevils in the flour
There’s weevils in the flour

And just across the river
Stood the mighty B.H.P.,
Poured pollution on the waters,
All the lead of misery
And its smoke was black as Hades
Rolling hungry to the sea.

In those humpies by the river
We lived on dole and stew,
While just across the water
Those greedy smokestacks grew,
And the hunger of the many
Filled the bellies of the few.

On an island in a river
How that bitter river ran
It broke the banks of charity
And baked the bread of man
On an island in a river
Where I grew to be a man.

Last chorus:
For dole bread is bitter bread
There’s weevils in the flour
But men grow strong as iron upon
Black bread and sour,
Black bread and sour.

During the Depression, soaring unemployment left many families, particularly in working-class Sydney neighbourhoods such as Newtown, Leichhardt, Redfern, Glebe, Bankstown, Lakemba and Guildford, facing eviction because they were unable to pay the rent. The Unemployed Workers’ Movement carried out vigorous anti-eviction campaigns, often producing violent clashes between activists and police.

Our second song for this issue, by the late Scottish-Australian folk singer and songwriter Alastair Hulett, is published to mark the 90th anniversary, in June this year, of one of the most violent – and also the last – of these clashes, the Siege of Union Street.

The ‘battle’ between the Union St occupiers and police took place during the violent raid by armed police on 19 June 1931, at a terrace house at 143 Union St Newtown. The house, barricaded with sandbags and barbed wire, was occupied by nineteen men. A huge crowd of supporters gathered outside in the narrow street, listening to speeches until, around midday, sixty-odd police, in some six vehicles, arrived to carry out the eviction. A police bus was reportedly driven straight at the crowd and police began firing revolvers at the occupiers on the terrace’s balcony.

The police gained access to the house through a back door, and a pitched battle began, in which two of the occupiers suffered shotgun wounds, pickets were fearfully beaten, with at least nine head injuries, and two police required treatment for injuries. Nineteen people were arrested and charged with unlawful assembly and causing a disturbance – but none were actually convicted.

For this Newtown battle triggered much-needed change. That day, the NSW Labor Caucus called for an amendment to the Fair Rents Act ‘without delay’, and for legislation to protect the unemployed against eviction. A week later, the NSW Attorney General put before parliament the Fair Rents and Lessees Relief Bill; this was later withdrawn, but in early August the Lang government brought in the Ejectments Postponements Act, followed in October by the Reduction of Rents Act. This legislation didn’t solve the problem – the unemployed still had no cash with which to pay their rent – but their lot was considerably improved.[6]

Alastair Hulett’s song about the Newtown battle, “The Siege of Union Street”, still often sung on the Sydney folk scene, was recorded by Hulett and Dave Swarbrick on The Cold Grey Light of Dawn (1998). You can listen to them performing it at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ioD8AvSfp2c

The Siege of Union Street[7]

Lyrics and music by Alistair Hulett 

You should have seen us down at Erko
Fourteenth August[8], Saturday night
To Newtown, Stanmore, Enmore and Petersham
Calls went out ‘Workers unite!’
We built a bloody great wall
With planks and boards full seven foot tall
We didn’t mind the howling wind and sleet
When we stood around the fire at Union Street

The man from the shop said put it on tick
The kids came round with bottles and bricks
There was Irish stew and home-made lemonade
They were grand old days on the barricade

I never thought I would join a party
Carry a card or see things red
The sight of barefoot children crying
Out on the pavement turned my head
Their old man’s over in France
Flapping like a rag on a barbed wire fence
Their Mum does what she can to make ends meet
And she’s down at the siege of Union Street

The cops came down and they came down hard
They must have numbered five hundred strong
They called us reds and they cracked our heads
To teach us poor sinners right from wrong
I learned a lesson that night
It’s all out war when you stand and fight
I saw those brisk young coppers on their beat
Behave like thugs in Union Street

Sunshine danced on the broken glass
It shone like diamonds as morning broke
The cops were back by the railroad track
And the streets were filled with working folk
They’d bashed us bloody and raw
But it forced Jack Lang to change the law
Now the landlords have to cop it sweet
And the Red Flag flies over Union Street

The man from the shop gave out licorice sticks
To the kids who cleaned up the bottles and bricks
Down the years those memories never fade
Of the grand old days on the barricade


[1] Some of Deacon’s stories appear in Len Fox (ed.) Depression Down Under (Potts Point, NSW: Len Fox, 2011) amongst other sources.

[2] From the 1987 memorial LP Declan Affley.

[3] Mark Gregory, Weevils in the Flower – 15 September 2012: a short history of a song https://radicalnewcastle.files.wordpress.com/2012/09/weevils2.pdf accessed 13 November 2021.

[4] Ibid.

[5] While Hewett’s poem, over the years published under several different titles, includes more verses, and there are slight differences in wording, the words reproduced here are as they appear in the sheet music for Andino’s arrangement of the song.

[6] Thanks to Scott Poynting for background information on the Siege, drawn from the work of Drew Cottle and Nadia Wheatley on the anti-eviction campaigns.

[7] Song lyrics reproduced by permission of the current copyright holder, Fatima Uygun.

[8] The source of the error in the date is not clear; the correct date is 19 June 1931.