Image Troopers protecting non-union labour during the Shearers' Strike, 1891

TLF ID R8001

This is a black-and-white photograph of 121 armed officers and men of the Townsville Mounted Infantry escorting about 60 non-unionist shearers, known as 'blacklegs' or 'scabs', to Hughenden Station on 22 April 1891 during the central Queensland Shearers' Strike. Several crowded 'German' wagons follow, some containing more armed uniformed men. Several riders accompany the wagons on their flanks. The procession has stopped to pose for the photographer.

Educational details

Educational value
  • The 1891 Shearers' Strike aroused such strong feelings that the government believed this group of 'blacklegs' required protection on their arrival in Hughenden. There had been some previous instances of violence and there was a 700-strong camp of unionist shearers in the town at the time. In fact, 80 to 90 unionists did meet the train the 'blacklegs' arrived on, but nothing untoward occurred.
  • On 5 January 1891 unionised shearers in central Qld had gone out on strike as they believed that organised pastoralists, insisting on freedom of contract and the right to negotiate with individuals rather than unions, were trying to reduce shearing pay rates and victimise unions. The unionists' demands included continuing existing pay rates, protection of workers' rights and privileges, exclusion of low-cost Chinese labour and just and equitable agreements.
  • Central Qld at the time appeared to be on the brink of civil war, with the conservative colonial government sending more than 1,000 armed soldiers and special constables to protect non-union shearers. Armed camps of striking shearers were based on the outskirts of several towns and unionists carried out raids on shearing sheds, committed sabotage such as setting fire to crops and wool sheds, attempted to derail a train and verbally harassed non-union labourers.
  • Referred to by the pastoralists as 'free labourers', the strikebreakers were recruited largely from New South Wales and Victoria where unemployment levels were higher than in Qld. They were probably a mix of bush workers and unemployed city dwellers and the first shipload arrived in Rockhampton in early February. It was met by an orderly crowd of about 700, who extended invitations to the 'blacklegs' to join the union.
  • The Strike ended on 20 June 1891 after union resources became exhausted, several leaders were jailed and plentiful non-union labour became available. Fourteen union leaders had been arrested in central Qld in March and April, the government invoking an antiquated 1825 law and arresting without warrants. After a trial, 13 were charged with sedition and conspiracy, sentenced to three years' hard labour and sent to the prison on St Helena Island.
  • The breaking of the 1891 Strike led to unionists becoming disillusioned with the use of direct action, such as strikes, to achieve improvements in their working lives, and saw the rise of the alternative idea of seeking political power. The Strike was therefore important in the formation of the Australian Labor Party. By 1892 the Party had emerged with a broad agenda to seek full adult suffrage and full employment and the first unionist had been elected to parliament.
  • Two features of interest in the photograph are the iconic slouch hat and the 'German' wagons. The hat was first adopted by colonial military defence forces in the 1890s. It is believed the Qld Mounted Infantry troopers added emu plumage to their hats at the time of the Shearers' Strike. 'German' wagons, introduced by immigrants but built in Australia because of their weight and size, provided useful transport at the time for agricultural produce or people.
Year level

4; 5; 6; 7; 8; 9; 10; 11; 12

Learning area
  • History
  • Studies of society and environment

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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
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  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia
  • Organization: Education Services Australia
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  • Name: State Library of Queensland
  • Organization: State Library of Queensland
  • Address: QLD, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organization: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Description: Publisher
  • Address: VIC, AUSTRALIA
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  • Name: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Organisation: Education Services Australia Ltd
  • Address: AUSTRALIA
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Learning Resource Type
  • Image
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