The Railway Riots

The Argus Friday 2 August 1861 p.5

 Rumours of a somewhat alarming character were current in town yesterday as to the state of matters along the line of railway north from Sunbury ; and the departure of a considerable body of police by the last train for Woodend, and the receipt of telegrams from Kyneton describing the uneasy feeling prevailing there, did not tend to lessen the excitement. Personal inquiry on the spot, however, leads us to believe that the slate of matters is not so alarming as the reports would indicate, and that the descrip- tion we yesterday gave of the aspect of affairs is substantially correct.

The riots are over, for the present, at least, and matters have assumed the usual aspect of a strike, the ugly feature of which, however, is that the turn-outs interfere with those who are willing to resume labour at the reduced terms offered by the contractors, and, by demonstrations of force, prevent them from proceeding to work. To protect the latter has become the business of the authorities, and it is in the performance of this duly by the police that the real danger of a collision lies.

The history of this strike is of the simplest possible character. For the last two years the navvies and labourers on and about the railway have been paid wages varying from 7s, to 8s. per day. But gradually, and especially of late, the amount of labour offering itself for hire has been increasing, while the rapid approach of the railway works to com- pletion, and the now perfect certainty that they can be completed within the time specified by the contract, has lessoned the anxiety of the contractors to push matters forward. With them the question has become how the amount of work that has still to be performed can be exe- cuted at a lesser cost, that the reductions that can now be made, and the economy that can now be practised, may to some extent compensate for the extravagant prices hitherto paid, and turn into a profit that which, not long ago, threatened to make the great railway works of Victoria a loss, in place of a profit, to those who contracted for their construction.

The opening of the line to Woodend brought these questions prominently forward. Between Wood- end and Castlemaine only one work of any magnitude—the Taradale Viaduct—remains in a backward state, and between Castlemaine and Sand- hurst the whole of the line is so nearly completed as to want but the permanent way to make it available for traffic. On the Geelong and Ballarat line equal progress has been made. In this state of matters, and of the labour market, the contractors came to the resolution to offer a re- duced scale of wages for mason work, by which, on piece, from 7s. to 8s. per day could be earned, and for labourers from 5s. to 6s. per day ; the reduction in the case of the latter was thus 2s. a day. Intimation of this intention was made to the men, through the sub-contractors, a few days ago.

The main body of the men affected by the change are employed on the sections between Woodend Station and the Taradale Viaduct, and they number in all (in round numbers) about 1,000 labourers, and some 300 masons. Of this numerous body, many were willing to accept the reduced terms, and did so ; but the greater number resolved to resist the reduction, and towards the close of last week mass meet- ings on the subject were held in the neighbour- hood of Woodend, and along the line northwards, Some of the wilder spirits, by exciting speeches, obtained a controlling influence over their fellows, and the turn-outs gave practical effect, on Monday last, to their determination to resist the reduction by marching from Malmesbury along the works, in a body some 300 or 400 strong, and forcibly compelling about 150 men who were at work to desist, and join their ranks. In their progress they cleared the line of the plant in use, by pitching it down the embankments.

On Tuesday another demon- stration, on a larger scale, was made. The entire line was cleared, and—as reported by telegram in Wednesday's Argus—Mr. Duxbury, one of the sub-contractors, was savagely assaulted. Mr, Jackson, another sub-contractor, was also attacked on the same day in the most wanton and cowardly manner; and at an early hour in the afternoon the turn-outs, some 500 or 600 strong, marched into Woodend, where they were met at the station by a small body of the police. For the moment a collision seemed imminent. while the occurrence of such an event was rendered all the more probable by the appearance of the Kyneton troop of Mounted Volunteers, under Captain Tucker, who were summoned by the local authorities, and re- sponded in the most gallant manner to the call, For this readiness, and for the excellent spirit they displayed, the troop undoubtedly deserve the very highest credit ; but the wisdom of the council which brought them on the field is very questionable.

This was tho state of matters at Woodend when Mr. Lavender, police magistrate of Kyneton, arrived. He temporized with the crowd by promising to go to Melbourne and represent their demands to the Government, and at his suggestion tho rioters dispersed. The result of that mission is already before our readers. It may have been that the aspect of affairs was sufficiently threatening to justify a ruse—for it was nothing more ; but it is dangerous for a magistrate at any time to resort to such a course, or to palter with the stern course of duty. Mr. Lavender could have no hope that he would have a favourable answer to carry from Melbourne. He had no case whatever to submit to the Chief Secretary on the part of the rioters. No money was due to the men, and no ground could be put forward under the contract, or of law, or of justice, why the Government could or should interfere in a question as to what should be the future rate of wages between the contractors and the men they might or might not employ. And still less was he justifiable in the extraordinary declarations which he made to the mob on his return, and the encouragement which he gave them—conduct which must be brought under the immediate review of the Executive.

Quieted by Mr. Lavender's promise, the men adjourned to the bush in the neighbourhood, and there resolved to give, if possible, a goneral character to the movement. They agreed that deputations should proceed to Geelong, Ballarat, Castlemaine, and the Big Hill, to comrounicate to the men employed on the Ballarat line, and the Sandhurst and Castlemaine sections of the Murray River line, the determination of the Malmesbury men to resist the reductions. This done, they resolved to adjourn until Monday next. It was understood that if they received sympathy and support from the quarters to which their delegates were despatched, they would then make a bolder demonstration. A "roll-up" to Melbourne was talked of, but it is very evident that the speakers who talked of a " roll-up'' to the Eastern Market had given very little consideration to the idle threat.

Yesterday all was quiet between Sunbury and Malmesbury, but there was an uneasy aspect in tho calm, as if a little outward influence might provoke a breach of the peace. The inspectors, who represent the interests of the Government, had intended that the ballasting and general finishing of the line should be proceeded with. They scoured the line from Woodend downwards in search of labourers, and offered as high as 7s. per day (the repairers having previously been paid 6s. per day), but though many men were willing none would venture to work. Gangs of the turn-outs, in twenties, armed with sticks, prowled along, on the outside of the fences, watching the line, and the willing men were afraid of after consequences.

Just beyond Kiddell's Crook, in a high embankment, various slips occurred, caused by the continuous rains. They offered no present danger to the passing trains but if the rain continued, and they became larger there might be some insecurity. It was desirable at all events, that the work of maintaining the line should go on ; but the demonstrations from without were of too masterful a character, and the willing men were afraid to put shovel or wheelbarrow to work. At the various stations these men were collected in groups ; but except at Gisborne, where some four or five men were engaged on a "piece" job, all was silent along the line. Everywhere the men were in an attitude of expectation. Here and there a policeman was to be seen, and at the ballast quarries one of the force, armed, stood sentinel over the machinery—the only visible proof that a power exists in the state to protect the weak against the lawless strong. Between Woodend and Malmesbury no further demonstrations wore made by the turn-outs.

Though in Kyneton itself all was quiet, a rumour was early circulated that the crowd contemplated overt acta. It was stated that a rush upon the banks was probable. So current and so generally believed was the rumour, that the agents of the New South Wales and Colonial Banks telegraphed to head-quarters the danger to which, as they believed, they were exposed ; and by the last train last night a detachment of sixty armed policemen, under Captain Standish and Inspector Branigan, proceeded to Woodend, from whence they would march to Kyneton during the night, to protect the threatened property; although it is almost impossible to conceive that the folly of the turn-outs should convert them into burglars.

The question at issue is, as we stated yesterday, purely one of wages. It is—what is to be the day's pay hereafter for labourers on the railways? The contractors say they will give from 5s. to 6s. ; the men demand from 7s. to 8s., and ask the Government to insist on their being paid that amount. Pending the issue of the dispute, they destroy travelling-cranes, waggons, tools, &c, to the value of a couple of thousand pounds, they assault within danger of life two sub-con tractors, they intimidate their fellow-workmen, they threaten the capital, and they throw an entire district into alarm and disorder. Is the reduction justifiable? We have already pointed out some of the causes which have suggested it, and it is patent that the price of labour of a rough kind has fallen to an extent not far short of, if not quite equal to, that proposed by the railway contractors. Within twelve months, stonebreaking for the road contracts has fallen from 4s. to 2s. per yard, or 100 per cent. Agricultural labourers, in the very district through which the railway passes, are paid, for work averaging twelve hours per day, not more than 10s. per week, while the added rations do not bring up the value of the weekly wage to more than 17s. or 18s.

The only tangible complaint of the turn-outs is that they lose a certain amount of time by wet weather—and it must be confessed that Mount Macedon is a famous maker of rain. But it is quite certain that for six months of the year not an hour is lost on account of adverse weather. The winter now drawing to a close has been a remarkably wet one, and there has been a considerable loss of time on that account. But the spring has come, and if the past is an index to the future, for the next two months the loss of- time will not average more than one day per week; and if the boardinghouse keepers, who maintain their rates at the figures at which they stood two years ago, meet the times—as they are bound in common fairness to do, in place of encouraging these disturbances—matters will speedily settle to a state as satisfactory as they were before. It is clear that these lawless proceedings cannot be permitted to continue. It is to be hoped that the better sense of the more moderate among the turn-outs will prevail over the rasher counsels of the leaders. But it is obvious that the authorities have but one course before them resolutely to maintain the law.

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