‘With Fists and Boots Being Freely Used’: Anti-IWW violence in Cobar, 1916-17

Rowan Day

This is an edited extract of Rowan Days address to the Sydney Branch of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History on 25 May 2011.                                                                                                       .

The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), perhaps better known as the Wobblies, were a transnational movement of largely unskilled wage­earners founded in America. The organisation existed in some strength in the Anglo-Celtic settler societies with a token presence in a few other countries. Australia bore witness to one of the most successful incarnations of the IWW, its influence peaking during the early years of the World War 1. Their opposition to the war and subsequent opposition to the introduction of conscription increased their prominence in the public’s consciousness; however it was the class war which most concerned the Wobblies. They were strongly opposed to parliamentary politics and craft unionism, arguing the syndicalist model of the ‘One Big Union’ was the only hope of salvation for the working class. In pursuit of their ‘direct action’ goals they advocated industrial sabotage, the ‘go slow’, and, in contrast to the Labor-approved route of arbitration, wildcat strikes.I

By 1916 the IWW was public enemy number one, with then Labor Prime Minister Billy Hughes declaring they needed to be attacked ‘with the ferocity of a Bengal tiger’. 2 They were being met with the full force of the State from the constable to the censor. They were portrayed not only as a subversive influence but an essentially foreign one and German especially. In September and October 1916,12 prominent Wobblies were arrested on dubious charges of arson and conspiracy during Hughes’s conscription campaign. Ian Turner’s Sydneys Burning offers a brilliant account of this saga.’ A couple of months later, two Wobblies were executed at Bathurst gaol for the murder of a police constable. A few days before that on 18. December, the Unlawful Associations Act was passed, with the intention of destroying the IWW Under the provisions of the act, the IWW was considered an unlawful association, and any member who advocated any action which would hinder the war effort would be gaoled for a minimum of six months.4,5

While such measures effectively killed the IWW in Sydney, in certain areas, such as western New South Wales, repression had the opposite effect. In Cobar there was a spike in interest in the IWW Cobar is roughly halfway between Dubbo and Broken Hill. Its emergence as a town of any significance was a result of copper mining, and at its peak the town had a population of around 10,000, although that number has since declined by half. Further west on the Barrier Highway, the famous mining town of Broken Hill has received iconic status in the history of unionism and working-class agitation, whilst Cobar has been almost entirely ignored.Yet, as Geoffrey Blainey noted in his history of Broken Hill, many of the radicals there had originally come from Cobar, where, in his words ‘the IWW had a foothold’ .6

In Cobar in late 1916 and early 1917,Wobbly agitators held frequent street meetings and membership surged, and they sought to create a new IWW  ‘Local’ in the town. Cobar had in fact been one of the first locations in Australia to host an IWW  ‘Club’; however its importance gradually diminished after a worldwide split in the movement over the question of involvement in parliamentary politics. This was echoed in Australia where a Cobar man, George Reeve, was forced out of the leadership position to make way for what their opponents called the ‘bummery element’ of globetrotting direct actionists including LB. King, Tom Barker and Donald Grant, all of whom rejected parliament. Reeve called them violent skull crackers and preachers of theft.

The success of the IWW in Cobar in late 1916 and early 1917 inevitably provoked hostility from some quarters, including among craft unionists from the Federated Mine Employees’Association (FMEA). If there was one thing the Wobblies were known for and sought to promote, it was direct action, or agitating on the job. They did just this at the Great Cobar mine, where they were making ‘extreme demands’ .The previous year there had been separate disputes at the mine involving miners and engine drivers, though these were settled with pay increases.7 While the craft union may have frowned upon the IWW distributing propaganda in the streets, their agitation at Cobar’s biggest mine in the final days of January where they threatened ‘serious trouble’, appears to have been the final straw for them. Cobar’s ‘industrial future’ was at stake, they argued.8 However, as much as anything, it appears to have been a little name calling that roused tempers, with officials from the FMEA being especially outraged at being called ‘boneheads’, perhaps the Wobblies’ favourite insult.9

On the night of Saturday 3 February around a thousand people gathered in the main street of Cobar, a relatively large figure given the then population. 10 When around 20 Wobblies sought to address the crowd, violence erupted, which they claimed was pre-arranged. The Adelaide Advertiser reported that ‘every IWW man who was caught was severely dealt with, fists and boots being freely used’.11 The fighting reached such a level that it forced some of the Wobblies to seek police protection;12 however this doesn’t appear to have been forthcoming: one Wobbly had escaped the mob and sought shelter in a chemist’s shop. He was dragged out of the shop by a police officer and handed over to the mob who proceeded to beat him to a pulp.13 Other Wobblies had sought shelter in various other shops along the main street but they too ‘were followed, dragged out, and beaten.’ 14 Soon after another shopkeeper, who was in company with police officers, urged that the Wobblies be killed. As it turns out nobody was killed; however there were many serious injuries, including the Wobbly literature secretary who had his jaw broken after receiving attention from both boots and knuckle dusters.15 A writer to the Bulletin described the scene thus:

Up and down the street the battle raged and the best the police could do was to act as unofficial masters of ceremony, steering contestants away from the plate glass windows and picking up the wounded. You can buy IWW stocks in Cobar today at seven for sixpence.16

The Sydney Morning Herald made a brief reference to the events, describing it as ‘exciting’ 17 The Hobart Mercury praised the violence, rejoicing that the Wobblies were ‘thrashed with such vigour … would the same could be said of all the other Cobars!’18 They gave a sigh of relief that finally ‘their “Go Slow” abomination, their” Sabotage” frightfulness, and the rest of their mean, decadent, dog-natured’ ideas had been replaced by ‘manly stand-up fighting’.19 What delighted them even more was the fact that the IWW was being taken on in ‘the home of the go-slow’, in their words NSW -‘ that happy hunting ground of loafers of all kinds’20

The IWW naturally disagreed with the mainstream press over the cause of the violence. They argued it did not arise out of a dispute between themselves and the FMEA, and indeed the local secretary of the FMEA wrote to several newspapers arguing they had no problem with the IWW.21 The IWW claimed the violence was planned and instigated from within the office of the Great Cobar Mine, after the bosses got wind of a possible strike. These bosses had then colluded with the Mayor and local police to bludgeon them out of town, in imitation of tactics that had  been used against the IWW in America.22 It wasn’t the resounding victory conservatives may have hoped for though, as the following night there was further fighting at the local stadium when the FMEA tried to hold a mass meeting. Direct Action claimed they gained 75 new members.23 Whether or not there was any truth to the charge that the Mayor had been involved in planning the violence, after the second night of fighting he’d had enough and went to the local press, where he made it clear that the directive that ‘no person shall loiter on any footway, road or public place’ would be strictly enforced.24 Broken Hill’s conservative Barrier Miner newspaper closed off its report of the violence with the observation that ‘the opinion is now freely expressed that the town will in future be free from the IWW men’.25 In fact one reader was so impressed that he wrote letter threatening to raise his own vigilante mob and drive the IWW out of Broken Hill.

In response to such claims, the IWW paper Direct Action trumpeted that ‘We never forget’.26 The Wobblies were nothing if not persistent, and did not give up on Cobar. Less than a month later, the moves that had been in place to establish an IWW Local in the town were formalised at a public meeting to which 50 aspiring members turned up and at which £4 worth of pamphlets were sold. A month after this, a Wobbly agitator called Bill ‘Hobo’ Jackson arrived in the town and managed to attract an audience that half filled the local stadium. Bill’s nickname was fitting. He wasn’t always sure where he was going: after Cobar he went to Narromine and Lithgow before deciding  ‘I may make a trip to the Newcastle fields’ 27 In many ways he was a typical Wobbly, wandering the bush, with no family and no fixed address.

The police had never looked kindly upon the IWW; their antipathy only strengthening when a constable was shot by Wobblies in the nearby town of  Tottenham a few months prior. Direct Action accused the police of being in on a conspiracy to drive them from Cobar, and, to be sure, the police did little to help the Wobblies who had been attacked. As mentioned earlier, one officer even brought a Wobbly hiding in a shop out to the thousand-strong mob. However, despite their loathing of the IWW; the police were not quite as excited by the violence as sections of the press had been. In the aftermath of that night’s violence they fretted over the possibility of the two opposing camps arming themselves and that serious blood-letting was on the cards.28 Senior police figures in Sydney were alarmed about reports of weapons ,smuggling in the town.29

While the Wobblies had stood fast in the face of attempts to drive them away through violence, they were less of a match for assaults from the judiciary. For instance, four months after the violence, the IWW literature secretary who had had-his jaw broken in the riot was hauled before the courts. He had referred to the Mayor of Cobar, Mr Duffy, as ‘Duffy the Stuffy’ . For this apparently outrageous insult he was sentenced to three months hard labour. 30 Subsequently during 1917 many of the Wobblies packed up their few belongings and headed north to another copper mining area, Cloncurry in North West Queensland. Raymond Evans described the area as ‘a haven of rest for them from the clutches of the police who were hunting them down’.31 One of the most prominent of the Wobblies at Cloncurry was one such refugee from Cobar, a passionate soap boxer originally from Switzerland, who depending on which alias he preferred at the time, was called Fred Anderson or Henderson.32 In late 1917 ‘Hobo Bill’ also found himself at Cloncurry.

The anti-IWW violence in Cobar is just one example of the struggle involving this class-war fighting movement that has been largely ignored. And yet, as we have seen in this brief article, although it was in towns like Cobar, west of the Great Dividing Range, that the thickest of the fighting occurred, it is these areas that have received the least attention in studies of the IWW to date.

Rowan Day is a PhD candidate at the University of Western Sydney.

(Endnotes)

  1. For a general account of the IWW in Australia see Verity Burgmann,Revolutionary Industrial Unionism: The Industrial Workers Of the World in Australia, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995, and Frank Cain, The Wobblies at War: A History of the IWW and the Great Warin Australia, Spectrum Publications, Melbourne, 1993.
  2. Cited in Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, p. 200.
  3. Ian Turner, Sydneys Burning.An Australian Political Conspiracy,Alpha Books, Sydney, 1969.
  4. Cain, The Wobblies at War, p. 251
  5. Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism, p. 215
  6. Geoffrey Blainey, The Rise of Broken Hill, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1968, p. 126
  7. Neville Burgess, The Great Cobar, The Great Cobar Heritage Centre, Cobar, 2006.
  8. The Argus, 8 February 1917. p. 4
  9. Ibid.
  10. Bob McKillop, Rails to ‘Copper CitytTbe Nyngan to Cobar Railway in ‘Australian Railway History’ vol. 60, no. 863, September 2009, p. 4
  11. The Advertiser, 6 February 1917,p. 9
  12. Peter John Rushton, ‘The Industrial Workers of the World in Sydney 1913·1917:A Study in  Revolutionary Ideology and Practice’, UnPublished MA, University of Sydney, 1969, p. 17S.
  13. Direct Action, 3 March 1917. p. 1.
  14. Ibid.
  15. Ibid.
  16. Cairns Post, 4 July 1915,p.4.
  17. Sydney Morning Herald, 6 February 1917, p. 6.
  18. The Mercury. B February 1917,p.4.
  19. Ibid.
  20. Ibid.
  21. Dtrect Action, 24 February 1917,p. 3
  22. Direct Action, 3 March 1917,p.1.
  23. Direct Action, 24 February 1917, p. 3.
  24. Barrier Miner, 15 February 1917,p.1. 25
  25. Barrier Miner, 6 February 1917, p. 2.
  26. Direct Action , 3 March 1917,p.1.
  27. Direct Action, 2SApril1917, p.l.
  28. State Archives of New South Wales, NSW Police Department, Special Bundles, Papers concerning the IWW 7/5590.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Queanbeyan Age and Queanbeyan Observer, 12 June 1917,p. 2.
  31. Raymond Evans, The Red Flag Riots:A Study of Intolerance, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, 1988, p. 88.
  32. Ibid.