Sunday, 14 August 2016

An uncommon working man

When the Shearer's Strike Monument was dedicated at Winton in August 1891, Thomas Henry Suddaby was beginning his last term at Bundaberg Central School. Many of his classmates must have been contemplating an uncertain future seeking employment in difficult economic times in Queensland, but Tom's path was to be different.

In January 1892, he would be one of just twenty privileged boys who began their secondary education at the Maryborough Grammar School. By the turn of the new century, his life showed many features one might expect of a stereotypical ex-grammar boy. He was an enthusiastic rugby player, a member of the Wide Bay Regiment, and a competitive shooter who had taken Supreme Court action to finalise the affairs of his late father and uncle.

But appearances can be deceiving. The property that had funded his schooling was gone and he was the father of a (growing) young family. Tom earned his living by hauling cargo in and out of the holds of ships on the Maryborough wharves.

One of the responses to the Shearers Strike had been a heightened understanding of the need for working men to organise and to bargain collectively. Wharf labourers were no exception to this trend and unions were formed in most major ports. Eadie's Illustrated Bundaberg Almanac of 1911 advised that the Waterside Workers Union met every second Thursday in their rooms in Targo Street (beside the Co-op Butchers). Among the office-bearers of the Union, T Suddaby is listed as both Vice-President and Auditor.

In that listing, the local union actually described itself as the Federated Waterside Workers' Union of Australia in recognition of an accelerating trend for site-based workers groups to join together in a single nation-wide body. That was formalised in October 1912 when W M Hughes organised the first Federal Conference of the WWF in Melbourne. The official photograph1 shows Hughes sitting in the centre beside the Prime Minister (Andrew Fisher) who had given a major address. Many of the other delegates are identified as Members of the House of Representatives or Senators, but there were a few active "wharf labourers" in the group. Sitting on the ground in front of Fisher was the Maryborough delegate, T H Suddaby (holding his panama hat).

In addition to his union positions, Tom had also been an office bearer in the local Labor Party Branch within the electorate held by Fisher. One can only speculate on the future career that he may have dreamed of. But circumstances were to change dramatically.

In the midst of the Galipolli Campaign (September 1915), Fisher suddenly resigned as Prime Minister and Hughes (by then his deputy) was chosen to replace him. Under the new leadership, the Labor Party continued what many ordinary members saw as the move away from some of the traditional principles espoused since 1891. The real value of wages (their purchasing power) had fallen by 10% in the first year of the war and that slide continued during 1916. Like most of his rank-and-file colleagues, Tom's commitment to the Empire had to be balanced against the need to support his family.

When every attempt to secure improved wages or to prevent the loss of existing conditions was described as "disloyalty" to the boys on the Western Front, it is little wonder that industrial disputation grew. Tensions between unionists and the men they had thought of as their "representatives" in Parliament were exacerbated when Hughes launched his long campaign to have conscripts sent to the battlefield to replace the terrible losses being suffered. After the first referendum was defeated amid tumult within the Labor party (particularly in Queensland), the Waterside Workers Federation expelled the Prime Minister from the very body whose formation he had overseen. Since he was then technically ineligible to serve as a Labor parliamentarian, Hughes led his followers from caucus in November 1916 to set up a “National Labor” government for a few months (before combining with the Liberal Party as the Nationalist Party).

That set the scene for a year of political and industrial turmoil in 1917 as a growing war-weariness, economic hardship, and opposition to conscription combined in a deep sense of frustration that often boiled over. Although it is common to refer to the industrial action in New South Wales (and then Victoria) in August and September of 1917 as The Great Strike, it was only the most obvious of very many actions that had begun with the rail workers in North Queensland at the beginning of the year.

The Waterside Workers were seen as key players in such an environment. Their central role in the movement of goods and their renowned discipline meant that they were frequently called upon to take action to support other embattled workers. Their own capacity to earn enough to keep their own families was often compromised by disputes in which they had no direct economic stake (other than solidarity).

We cannot know who (if anyone) stood beside Tom and Jane in Bundaberg Cemetery in April 1917, but he surely must have wondered what if anything had changed since 1891.

What price must the workers be prepared to pay in their struggle?

  1. Australian National University Open Research Library Waterside Workers Federation of Australia collection
  2. "Australia, Queensland Cemetery Records, 1802-1990," database with images, FamilySearch ( : 9 March 2015), Annie Suddaby, 21 Apr 1917; citing Burial, Bundaberg, Queensland, Australia, private collection of Jim and Alison Rogers, Bargara; FHL microfilm 1,514,762.


  1. Hi Bob - this is such an interesting post and so well written. I feel a positive ignoramus when it comes to this chapter of Australia's labour history so thank you for explaining it clearly and making it so interesting. I like the way you have laid out the Surnames section of your blog too. I might just have to imitate that layout at some point further along in time.

  2. Very informative Bob, some of my family were waterside workers in Melbourne during the depression.

  3. I enjoyed reading your story. How you linked it back to our brief of the 1891 shearers' strike and showed that there were many other groups of workers in difficult situations. I continued to read because you placed your story, still very personal, in the context of the times. Thank you for providing an example to follow.

    1. Thanks, Patsy. I had some doubts about the approach at the outset but once I began, the story dragged me along.

    2. Thanks, Patsy. I had some doubts about the approach at the outset but once I began, the story dragged me along.


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