Sunday, April 17, 2011

The Ballad of 1891

Words: Helen Palmer
Music: Doreen Jacobs

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The price of wool was falling in 1891
The men who owned the acres saw something must be done
"We will break the Shearers' Union, and show we're masters still
And they'll take the terms we give them, or we'll find the ones who will"

From Claremont to Barcaldine, the shearers' camps were full
Ten thousand blades were ready to strip the greasy wool
When through the west like thunder, rang out the Union's call
"The sheds'll be shore Union or they won't be shorn at all"

Oh, Billy Lane was with them, his words were like a flame
The flag of blue above them, they spoke Eureka's name
"Tomorrow," said the squatters, "they'll find it does not pay
We're bringing up free labourers to get the clip away"

"Tomorrow," said the shearers, "they may not be so keen
We can mount three thousand horses, to show them what we mean"
"Then we'll pack the west with troopers, from Bourke to Charters Towers
You can have your fill of speeches but the final strength is ours"

"Be damned to your six-shooters, your troopers and police
The sheep are growing heavy, the burr is in the fleece"
"Then if Nordenfeldt and Gatling won't bring you to your knees
We'll find a law," the squatters said, "that's made for times like these"

To trial at Rockhampton the fourteen men were brought
The judge had got his orders, the squatters owned the court
But for every one that's sentenced, ten thousand won't forget
Where they jail a man for striking, it's a rich man's country yet

A powerful and much-loved Australian song. There is an excellent first-hand account of the writing of this piece on the Ozleft Forum, Birth of An Old Bush Ballad.

The 1891 Shearers Strike was one of the defining events of Australian early political history. A summary can be found here.

It is hard to imagine now the strength of feeling that this dispute produced. Here are the closing words of the 21 February, 1891 editorial from the Australian Republican, a Charters Towers newspaper:

If your oppressors will not listen to reason, let them feel cold lead and steel: as they have starved you, so do you shoot them; and allow them not to destroy your liberties and deprive you of your bread without a fight. Better to see the last squatter and the last member of this hateful Government butchered than to see one jot or one tittle of the sacred rights of the people lost.

The illustration is a photograph of Townsville Mounted Infantry in Hughenden in Qld during the strike.

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