Located 1080 km north-west Brisbane and 273 m above sea-level, Barcaldine is a sleepy town of 1700 people with a lot of pubs and a wealth of interesting and unusual buildings.
It is hard to imagine that this town was central to one of the more significant events in the political life of Australia: the shearers' strike of 1891, which played an important role in the events which led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.
The shearers' strike, together with the maritime strike of the preceding year, constituted the greatest labour disturbance to that point in Australian history, affecting the general community like no other previous strikes. The reason for this was that the unions, to increase their effectiveness, had begun to amalgamate and centralise, as workers began to see their fates as interlinked. Thus, a strike starting in one industry now began to spread to other industries, creating something resembling a general strike and a virtual civil war. However, both the maritime and shearers' strikes were defeated when the Queensland and NSW governments sided with business interests, which were similarly amalgamating their associations to form a united front to oppose the unions.
The strike was sparked in January 1891 when shearers at Logan Downs Station, near Clermont, were told they had to sign the Pastoralists' "contract of free labour" before commencing work: a move intended to reduce the influence of the unions in the sheds. A month later the centre of the strike had shifted to Barcaldine, which was the terminus of the rail line from Rockhampton and the commercial centre of the wealthy Mitchell district, where 30 stations were affected by the strike.
In March the pastoralists began bringing in non-union strike-breakers, who were protected by the police and troopers of the colonial governments. Retaliation took the form of crops and woolsheds being set alight. Strikers marched in strength at Barcaldine but the colonial secretary then ordered the arrest of the union leaders. 120 mounted infantry surrounded the union office at Barcaldine and arrested the strike committee while infantrymen with fixed bayonets guarded the police station. In a move intended to break the back of the strike, the union leaders were charged with conspiracy and sedition and gaoled for three years apiece on St Helena Island, with 200-pound, twelve-month good behaviour bonds upon release.
The arrests and dwindling funds caused the 1891 strike, like that of 1890, to fold. The failure of militancy to achieve the desired outcome prompted the labour movement to turn its attention to the pursuit of political power as a means of advancing the interests of working people. Labour Electoral Leagues were formed and one of the strike committee members, T. J. (Tommy) Ryan, from Barcaldine Shire, became the first genuine representative of Australian labouring people when he was elected to the Queensland parliament in 1892. In fact he was the first labour representative to be elected to a parliament anywhere in the world. When a Labour League was formed in NSW, it won 37 of the 141 seats in the NSW Legislative Assembly. This success sparked similar 'Leagues' in other states, culminating in the formation of the Australian Labor Party, which was Australia's first political party, and one of the first such parties in the world. Its success led labour's rivals to unite in a similar way, generating the two-party system as we know it today.
The symbol of the strike is the 'Tree of Knowledge', located in Oak Street in front of the railway station. The tree was vandalised and poisoned in November, 2006. The dead tree was removed in July, 2007 and replaced by monument celebrating its significance in Australian political history. Striking shearers held their meetings under this 150-year-old ghost gum. It was here that they sang Henry Lawson's great poem 'Freedom on the Wallaby' with its stirring final verse:
'We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
Of those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.'
Beside the tree is a monument in the shape of a pair of shears. The stated aim of the monument was to: 'Honour the men and women of the Labour movement who congregated in this area and, through their courage, determination and dedication to the principles, ideals and objectives of the labour movement, played a leading role in the formation of the Labor Party and further spearheaded the many reforms that resulted in the vastly improved way of life for the Australian people generally.'
The plaque on the front of the monument has the faces and names of the 13 gaoled strike leaders. It is interesting to note that a number of these went on to become significant political figures: William Fothergill returned to become Chairman of Barcaldine Shire Council; William Hamilton became President of the Queensland Legislative Council and George Taylor became the Speaker of the West Australian Legislative Council.
The first European to pass through the Barcaldine area was Sir Thomas Mitchell who arrived after good rains and proceeded to sing the praises of the area, describing it as 'the finest region I have seen in Australia' and waxing lyrical about 'grass shooting up green from old stalks'. The locals, who know only too well how dry and harsh the area around Barcaldine can become, look upon Mitchell's analysis with bemusement.
However Mitchell's enthusiasm was contagious and in 1863 Donald Cameron overlanded sheep from the New England area and settled on a 64-km frontage along the Alice River which he named Barcaldine Station after his family's property in Scotland.
In spite of this early settlement the town wasn't gazetted until 1886 when it became the western terminus for the railway line from Rockhampton.
A detailed history of the town titled Barcaldine 1846-1986 has been written by Isabel Hoch and is available from the tourist information office or the shire council.
Things to do
Australian Workers' Heritage Museum
Designed to complement the Longreach Stockman's Hall of Fame (thus making this part of Queensland a very desirable option for tourists) this interesting and award-winning museum in Ash Street proffers itself as a tribute to all of the nation's working people, their history, heritage and traditions.
The award-winning museum is located in the former grounds of the old Barcaldine State School, with old school structures renovated and incorporated into the exhibition space. Other historic workplaces, such as a one-teacher school, a railway station and a police watch-house, have been relocated from around Queensland. Artifacts, artworks and multimedia presentations help to tell the story with displays including features on the shearers' strike (see town history above), the role of women in outback life and the importance of Aboriginal stockmen.
The Heritage Centre features landscaped gardens and shady trees around a billabong, with picnic shelters, barbecue facilities and a modern children's playground. It is located in Ash St and is open every day but Christmas Day from 9.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. Monday to Saturday, and from 10.00 a.m. to 5.00 p.m. on Sunday. For more information check out: http://www.australianworkersheritagecentre.com.au/
The Wanpa-rda Matilda Outback Education Centre
This education centre is located on the same grounds as the Heritage Centre. It offers day trips around the area with a local tour operator, air-conditioned dormitories, a fully-equipped kitchen, outdoor barbecues and a recreation area. For more information check out:http://education.qld.gov.au/schools/environment/outdoor/wanpardamatilda.html
The Shearers' Strike Camp
A short distance out of town is the site of the Shearers' Strike Camp where literally hundreds of shearers camped during the troubles. It is protected by the National Trust but, at the moment, is not open to the public. Enquire at the tourist information office near the Tree of Knowledge if you have special reason to visit it. The tourist information office also has a leaflet which has an excellent analysis of the causes of the strike by a local station owner.
The Barcaldine and District Folk Museum
The town's folk museum is open on a daily basis. Like many of the museums in western Queensland it is full of memorabilia collected from locals, including a rare Edison gramophone dating from 1900, some barbed wire from the 1870s and a 1923 ticket issued by Qantas. While it has the chaotic appearance of a junk shop it is a fascinating collection of everything from old pots and pans to antiquated newspaper articles. The grounds outside the museum even include the town's first motorised fire engine and a Southern Cross windmill.
Perhaps the most remarkable of all Barcaldine's buildings is the Masonic Lodge on Beech Street (note that all the streets in the town are named after types of trees). Built in 1908 as a bank it stands out from everything around it. This is because the facade "a hugely elaborate combination of friezes and arches" is actually painted on. The effect is at once pretentious and eccentric.
Around the corner is St Peter's Church, a superb example of the use of timber in outback Queensland. The church was built in 1899 and its elaborate tongue-and-groove boards and its craftsmanship make it a worthy example of Queensland's distinctive architecture. It was built for the modest sum of $520.
On the outskirts of town (at the end of Pine Street) is the Beta Farm Slab Hut, a reconstruction of an 1880s structure which betrays some superb craftsmanship. The owners have furnished it with unusual objects from the period including a kitchen cupboard made out of piano cases and an extensive display of dolls.
Barcaldine Tourist Information Centre
Barcaldine QLD 4725
Telephone: (07) 4651 1724
Facsimile: (07) 4651 2435