The 2016 Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge Festival – commemorating the 125th anniversary of the 1891 Shearers Strike

Danny Blackman

Barcaldine 125th anniversary poster sepia
Poster reproduced by permission of the Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge 2016 Festival Committee. Images are from photographs held in the Queensland State Archives

In early 1891, the infant town of Barcaldine was to become the epicentre of one of Australia’s first major industrial disputes, the great Shearers Strike.

Relations between the pastoralists of western Queensland and their bushworkers, always difficult, were to become increasingly bitter in the lead-up to the economic depression of the 1890s. Sporadic disputes over shearing rates, which had been occurring all over the country for some years, had already led to the formation of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union in Ballarat in 1886.  In February 1887 a public meeting of itinerant shearers in neighbouring Blackall had led to the formation of the Queensland Shearers’ Union. In response to growing support for the union, western Queensland pastoralists gathered in Barcaldine in April 1889 and formed the Queensland Pastoral Employers’ Association. Throughout 1890, tensions between the two grew as the Shearers’ Union declaration of ‘none but union agreements’ in July was matched by the Pastoralists’ November declaration of Freedom of Contract and further reductions to shearers’ wages.

The shearers refused to accept the new individual contracts and in early 1891 the Shearers Union and the Central Queensland Labourers’ Union met in Barcaldine and set up strike committee headquarters in Ash Street, Barcaldine. Establishment of strike camps across western Queensland followed, with large camps set up at Barcaldine and Clermont. (At the height of the strike, when around 9000 men were on strike and some 8000 living in strike camps from the Gulf of Carpentaria to the NSW border, the main Barcaldine camp on the southern bank of Lagoon Creek outside the town is said to have held around 1000 strikers, some accompanied by their families.)

Events rapidly unfolded as the union’s strike manifesto of February was followed by the pastoralists’ action in bringing in ‘free labour’ by rail to Barcaldine and Clermont, which was met by stringent opposition from the strikers, as was the subsequent arrival of military personnel.

Torchlight processions commenced in Barcaldine’s main street, with growing numbers (estimated as building from 1000-odd in the early processions to around 3000 by April) of strikers on foot and on horseback putting forward their protests against poor working conditions and low wages, armed with banners and the Eureka Flag, and supported by a brass band and considerable local encouragement.

In March the alleged strike leaders were arrested on charges of conspiracy; the subsequent trial at Rockhampton in May resulted in all but two being sentenced to three years hard labour on St Helena Island at Moreton Bay.

By June the strike was no longer sustainable and was called off, with an uneasy peace reached between the parties. In 1892, unions met under the big gum tree outside Barcaldine Railway Station (much later to be dubbed the ‘Tree of Knowledge’) to form the Workers’ Political Party, later to become the Australian Labour Party. The Tree of Knowledge became the symbol of the strike, the avoidance of armed uprising and loss of life, and the emerging understanding amongst workers that social change could be achieved through parliamentary power.

Barcaldine now commemorates these events with an annual Tree of Knowledge Festival and the 2016 Festival, commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Shearers’ Strike with a program of events over the Queensland May Day long weekend, was an event of great significance for the ALP, the Australian Workers Union and the Queensland labour movement generally.

Events of the weekend included a town competition for sculptures and window displays on the theme of the strike, an Art Exhibition (sponsored by the MUA), sheep shearing demonstrations in the Tree of Knowledge precinct (sponsored by the CFMEU), and the annual Race Day with the AWU Tree of Knowledge Cup, as well as street markets, and town parties in the main street on the Saturday night and at the Showground on the Sunday (where a key attraction was the goat racing).

A replica Strike Camp was established in the main street, Oak Street, near the Tree of Knowledge precinct, and there were daily recountings of the story of the Strike and performances by balladists and the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir. The AWU dedicated a new Shearers’ Stands memorial in the precinct and on the Sunday night a magnificently costumed re-enactment of the Shearers’ torchlight marches was held, complete with the symbolic burning of effigies of pastoralists.

A key event of the weekend was a memorial service and dedication ceremony under the Tree of Knowledge for the longest serving ALP member in Australia, Kevin Joseph O’Leary (21 March 1915 – 8 July 2015), a real True Believer with 86 years of continuous membership of the ALP. His ashes are enshrined in a memorial under the Tree.

The weekend, which included a VIP ALP gathering and an AWU commemorative dinner, concluded with a well-attended May Day March (led by Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk, ALP dignitaries including former Prime Minister Bob Hawke and former federal Treasurer Wayne Swan and prominent Queensland union leaders) along Oak Street to the Barcaldine Showground.

The March, the first since the Palaszczuk Government restored the Labour Day holiday to Queensland’s traditional May Day long weekend after the Newman Government had moved it to October, had a wide range of union contingents and also included floats from local businesses and an impressive collection of goats drawing carts driven by local children. A highlight of the Showground ceremony was a solo performance by Bob Hawke of Solidarity Forever (with the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir leading the choruses).

Barcaldine remembers its history, the significance of the tumultuous events that took place there in the 1890s and its central role in the history of the Australian labour movement and the formation of the ALP, Australia’s oldest political party. The towering Tree of Knowledge Memorial in Oak Street outside the Railway Station (erected in 2007 and recognised by UNESCO as a site of world significance) and Barcaldine’s Australian Workers’ Heritage Centre provide lasting evidence of this.

This year, the 125th Anniversary of the Shearers’ Strike, Barcaldine certainly celebrated those events in great style.

Information in this article was drawn from the Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge Festival Official Program, published by Barcaldine Community Events Inc and observations of the author who attended the Festival as a (temporary) member of the Brisbane Combined Unions Choir.

Tree of Knowledge, Barcaldine Qld 2016