William Morrow - Life of the Navvy in Queensland

[Taken from - Margaret Bridson Cribb, 'The A.R.U. in Queensland: Some Oral History' Labour History (1972) no. 22 pp 16-21]

I came from an old railway family. My father held up a railway sleeper so that it could be spiked to a rail by Lady Bowen, the wife of the Governor, to mark the official beginning of railway construction in Queensland; that was on the Ipswich to Grandchester line. He then continued his career in the railways and we all followed him-six brothers and five were engine drivers. 

I went to work when I was very young, about ten years of age, as a 'nipper' in the lifting gang; that is, lifting the rails, and carrying the water for the men to drink and boiling their billies. At 16 I was a man because I'd been mixing with them all the time, and I was in charge then of straightening the rails, after the lifting gang had finished with them, to make them straight for the train. The conditions they lived under were very primitive. 

They used to build half a mile of railway a day, lay it down; what they call plate laying. A lifting gang would come afterwards. Well, every fortnight we'd shift our camps. Our camps consisted of tents, no boarding houses. We had to cook all our own meals, and I, at ten, used to cook mine. Our main diet was corn beef, bread and golden syrup, potatoes and tea and sugar. We had no cooling system then. We'd hang our food up in a bag under the tent. You'd come home some nights and you'd find your tent flattened by what they call a 'willie willie'. And ants-there were millions of them. You couldn't have butter, because it was too hot for butter, it used to melt. 

Well, these were the conditions that these men who worked there had. They didn't have any earth-moving equipment. All they had were picks and shovels, hammer and drills to bore the holes in the rocks and blow them up, wheelbarrows to wheel the dirt to make all those big banks, and horses and drays. Their conditions were very, very bad. These men had to walk from the first morning they shifted their camp at the head of the road, that's the head of the line, where it was built to. They'd build half a mile. 

They'd walk half a mile home and next morning they'd walk half a mile to work and that night they'd walk a mile home. They'd repeat that operation, walking an extra half mile home every night until they got up to six miles. We had to get up very early in the morning we worked 48 hours a week then. Consequently, every fortnight you'd shift, and you'd shift your camp on Saturday afternoon and Sunday you'd clean things up. 

Well, the navvy was the man who was most looked down upon and I think he was the most important man who ever came to Queensland.

The navvy was the most loyal of men, but the monotony of the job was such that he'd drink a lot to break it. He didn't have any association with women, he had no association with the outside world, and therefore became addicted to drink. 

Now, the engineers used to encourage sly grog shops on the line. T'hese sly grog shops were terrible things because they used to dilute the whisky and the rum; in fact, they used to put tobacco in the rum and all kinds of acid in the whisky. The men would drink this stuff and it would send them mental. 

Now, most of the engineers, not all of them, would encourage this because if they didn't have the men always broke, they couldn't keep them there, and wouldn't have men to build the line because they were only getting 6/- a day for all this hard work. Then the monotony used to work up and up and up, and after about four months [something had to give]. 

I used to be boiling the the billies and they wouldn't allow me to boil a kerosene tin and pour it into each billy can. I had to have a long fire and boil all the billies on it. I was a bit of a psychologist-you learn psychology from natural causes-and I used to watch them and they'd come over and say, "You young bastard, you put the wrong tea in my billy," and I'd be ready to run then, because I'd get a kick. 

I knew that was the beginning of the break in the monotony. I didn't know it at that time but I know it now. Then they'd say, "Well, I'm going into town to get a shirt or a pair of boots," and they went to get drunk. They'd be there for about three weeks and they'd come out shivering and shaking and they'd have what you call the D.T.'s. They'd see snakes and everything, running all over the place and yelling at night time. 

It was an unwritten law that they were allowed to have a job although they couldn't do their work for about a week because they were so run down with this adulterated whisky they had been drinking. 

After about a week, they'd be their old selves again, laughing and singing and shaving every morning, and patching their pants and saving up. That would go on again for another four or five months. That was the pattern all the time, and, consequently, they were looked down upon.


I began to realise that our conditions were very bad, so I used to do a bit of organising at night time by going on to the next gang, trying to get them to form a union. There were no unions then and, of course, a union ticket in those days would get you the sack. We did do some effective work, and it was the conditions that were operating in North Queensland at the time that made the militancy. It wasn't the unions. It came from down below because the men in Queensland had suffered so much. 

The A.W.A. (Amalgamated Workers' Association) was a very militant organisation because the conditions that had operated for so long made the people so mad that they'd take on anything. If anything bad goes on long enough, people will revolt against it. The result of that revolt was trade unionism.

In the end, the organisation won a lot of reforms from the employers. We had no holidays, no sick pay, no compensation, nothing like that at all. In fact, sometimes you'd work on Sunday for nothing in the early days. They won so many reforms and put the workers in a much better position, but the rank and file lost that militancy because they no longer had the real hardships.

I remember once there was a big meat works strike on. The meatworkers in North Queensland were very militant. In fact, during the war they could get almost any demand, and if they didn't agree to the conditions, they'd put what they called "the old man" in. "The old man" meant "go slow", so that it would take them about an hour to do what would nornlally take a quarter of an hour. They could make these demands because the profits were so great with selling meat to the other side of the world, and the Germans were sinking the boats so fast that they couldn't keep the supply up. Well, the employers were getting huge profits from this, and thought it's better to give in to the men than lose the profits. 

But after the war it was a different thing altogether and the men didn't realise that they hadn't the same amount of bargaining power as they had previously, because there wasn't such a demand for the meat. Well, they went on strike. I think it was about 1919 that they had this big strike. 

It got so severe and so bitter that T. J. Ryan, the Premier, decided to send 400 armed police, with rifles and bayonets, and they came as far as Charters Towers. We said that this is not right that we should let these people come down here to belt our fellow workers down. So we organised and we declared the police train black only 82 miles from its destination. [At that time there was no through line from Brisbane to Townsville and the train had been routed via Longreach and Winton to Charters Towers.] 

When they got to Charters Towers, we decided we wouldn't take them any further, they had to stay there. We'd run every other train but that one. So they decided they'd put an engine on themselves, and we said, "If you want every train stopped, you'll take that train out." We kept them there for two or three days and Mr. Sampson played a big part in the whole affair; then up came the engineer, the locomotive foreman and others and they took the train down to Townsville. 

When the policemen got down to Townsville they arrested the Chairman and Secretary of the Meat Workers' Union and put them in gaol. Well, of course, the men went up then to release them from gaol and pushed the fence over and the police fired at them and shot a couple of them. They didn't kill them, but a fellow named Hunter was shot and crippled forever. 

The men then decided to have a meeting under the Tree of Knowledge near the post office, and down came a number of police with fixed bayonets to disperse them. The men rushed across to Shaw and Rooney's shop, broke the big plate-glass windows and took all the guns and ammunition they could find, then continued their meeting. [For fear of bloodshed, some of the police were turned back to their barracks.] 

There was some shooting. Some of those fellows were pretty good marksmen. They were shooting pigeons off the top of the post office and they were shooting across the road. The police were good shots, too. In fact, one policeman said, "Watch me make that fellow run," and he was firing behind him as he was running. I think there's a dint in the National Bank to this day where the bullets struck the outside plate. It was nasty because of the shooting and because people were being beaten up.

When you're outside, fighting along with the workers naturally to get the support of the workers you become like them, you are one of them and you work honestly for them. Now, that's one class of  society. 

But when they put you into parliament you serve another class of society. It's the exploiter and the exploited. When he's there, he's got to administer capitalism in accordance with what's laid down. He's going to be loyal to the Governor, and the Governor represents the Queen and he's going to be loyal to imperialism, and he gets into a different category altogether. 

[Speaking about A.L.P. Premier W. McCormack], I heard that he was having a drink in London and they said to him, "When are you going back?" He said that he was going back tomorrow to sack those bloody railwaymen. He got big in the head through having the power administrating capitalism. 

I've been figuring it out ever since, that he saw the depression coming and he wanted to get a bad name to get out while the other fellows got in–they had to carry the burden for three years–and that gave the Labor Party a fresh lease of life. The Labor Party began to go down the drain completely from then on. It became just a middle-class party and now it's representing local capital while the Liberals are representing foreign capital.


William "Bill" Morrow (1891 – 12 July 1980) was an Australian politician. Born in Rockhampton, Queensland, he received a primary education before becoming a railway worker. Having moved to Tasmania, he was Tasmanian Secretary of the Australian Railways Union 1936-1946. In 1946, he was elected to the Australian Senate as a Labor Senator for Tasmania. He lost his Labor endorsement in 1953 and stood on his own ticket, under the name of "Tasmanian Labor Party". He received 5.1% of the vote but was defeated. While not well known, Morrow is a significant figure in Australian labour history. He came from a working class background, was politicised at an early age, worked in the trade union movement, was elected as a Senator (Tasmania, ALP) and finished his career working for the NSW Peace Council. His strong commitment to international socialism led to his expulsion from the Labor Party on two separate occasions. Following his political career provides an insight into some of the major ideological and political disputes in twentieth century Australia.

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