The Victoria Police Strike - 1923

Author: Sergeant R.K. HALDANE

 

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This article was first published in the The Australian Police Journal Vol. 36. No. 2 April, 1982.

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On October 31st, 1923, there began in Melbourne, Victoria, what to this day, is the only strike by policemen in the history of Australia. The strike was the result of several factors which developed over a number of years but when it broke the strike did so suddenly and with catastrophic consequences. The strike lasted only six days before order was finally restored but during that period 636 policemen were lost from a Force of 1,808. At this time Melbourne was the scene of violent looting and rioting. Mobs ran the streets, killing two men, injuring hundreds of others and causing damage valued at over seventy-eight thousand pounds. In order to stem the tide of violence the Government was forced to recruit a Special Constabulary Force of about 2,000 civilians and it was these men who filled the void left by the striking police. The Specials were armed with cartwheel spokes shaped into batons and they clashed often and heavily with mobs of roughs who overturned trams and looted shops.

It was a police strike which produced the most violent scenes since those in Boston in 1919 and was not to be repeated again until the Montreal police strike in 1969. Just why the Victoria Police strike occurred is still open to debate but in the following paragraphs an overview of the events of the strike is given, which give an insight into this unique facet of Australian police history.

Although the strike began on the night of October 31st, 1923, the underlying sources of discontent can be traced much farther back and in order to present facts in chronological order this overview will begin not in 1923 but in 1853.

On January 8th, 1853, the Victorian Parliament passed "An Act for the Regulation of the Police Force". This statute established the Victoria Police Force as the single, statewide, police authority for Victoria. For many reasons which are not relevant here the Act was significant for policing in this State but most importantly in the police strike context is the fact that Sections xxi-xxv made legal provision for a comprehensive Police Superannuation Fund and other gratuities. Thus from the first day the Victoria Police Force began its members were provided with a superannuation scheme. A scheme which the 1852 Government Select Committee on Police had recommended as being, an inducement for police, "... to continue in the service." (1)

The provision of a superannuation scheme remained a condition of service for almost half a century, until the Government caused it to be repealed in 1902. Section 2 of the Police Regulation Act of 1902, No. 1798, provided:

"Where after the commencement of this Act any person is appointed to be a member of the Police Force, such person on retirement from the Force or superannuation shall not be granted or be entitled to receive out of the Police Superannuation Fund or out of the consolidated reserve any gratuity or pension or retiring allowance; or if such person in the discharge of his duty loses his life or receives bodily injury followed by his death no gratuity or pension shall out of such fund or revenue be paid to his widow or children or to any other relation of such member depending upon him for support."

This enactment was intended to save the Government in excess of 45,000 expended annually on superannuation payments to police and, "to place the Police Force in exactly the same position as the rest of the public service with respect to pensions or retiring allowances."(2) The Public Service Act of 1883 had done away with pensions for other public servants. It was suggested that police were worthy of special consideration, as they were engaged "in a hazardous occupation" in the service of the State, but this call went unheeded.(3)

The amendment of 1902 was a shrewd political exercise because it applied only to men who joined the police force after November 25th, 1902.(4) Thus, it did not alienate serving members of the Force or receive the degree of opposition that it otherwise might have. In addition, the Government required all new police recruits joining without pension rights to produce a current life assurance policy as a condition of employment. In doing so, the Government established a dual system whereby police who joined prior to 1903 were fully covered by State Superannuation and ancillary benefits, while those who joined after 1902 received only the minimal benefits of a life assurance policy for which they paid themselves.

The import of this fiscal decision of 1902 did not become fully evident until 1923, when it rose to the fore as a police strike issue. The Monash Royal Commission commented:-

"... there was a constant and growing agitation among many members of the Force for the restoration of pensions ... the course which events actually took, shows conclusively that, if pensions had been restored, there would have been no refusal of duty by any, considerable section of the Force ... it is a matter of surprise and regret that throughout a long series of years successive Governments delayed action which would restore to the Police Force as a whole that wise and prudent security of tenure and provision for old age, upon the basis of which the Force was originally organized ..."(5)

One witness before the Royal Commission stated:-

"... as soon as the non-pensioners got into the majority, there would be trouble in the Police Force. They are not subject to the discipline of pensioners. "(6)

Certainly, an interesting observation in light of the fact that when the strike broke, 74% (1343) of the Force were non-pensioners and of the 636 strikers only two had the contingent right to a pension.

Pensions though were but one aspect of the strike. Another factor was the appointment on February 8th, 1922, of Alexander Nicholson as Chief Commissioner. Nicholson was appointed from within the ranks of the Force and at the time of his appointment was 59 years of age, only one year short of retiring age for senior police officers. Although he had been a member of the Force for thirty-nine years and an Officer for six years his career as a police administrator had been very ordinary and had been mostly spent in Ballarat. Indeed, his affinity with the Ballarat District over many years and his close association with the then Chief Secretary and Minister of Public Health, the sitting member for Ballarat West, Major Matthew Baird, led to suggestions that Nicholson received undue favour in being appointed Chief Commissioner.

 

Chief Commissioner Alexander Nicholson. Head of the Victoria Police Force at the time of the Police Strike. Described by a subsequent Royal Commission as behaving in a manner ... "calculated to cause resentment and to unbalance the judgment of other policemen ..." (Private photograph).

.Upon being appointed he embarked upon a number of courses which contributed to the events of 1923. His first major change was to abandon the established practice of holding regular conferences with all his Superintendents. He stated, "I saw very little utility in it" and "I did not see any necessity for it."(7) Thus, his only consultation with Superintendents was on an individual and ad hoc basis and not by way of a conference where knowledge and ideas could be pooled and collectively updated. The Superintendents were next in rank to the Chief Commissioner as he had neither assistants nor deputies. Each Superintendent commanded a police district and they were spread throughout the State with a high degree of autonomy to make decisions. The Monash Royal Commission said of this action by Nicholson and its relationship to the strike:-

"... we consider it regrettable that such conferences should have been abandoned ... (this) is probably the reason why, upon the occurrence of the crisis, on 31st October, 1923, he did not call to his assistance, for advice and consultation, several senior officers who were available ... The Chief Commissioner had given an order that any man refusing duty should be summarily discharged. It was an order in every way calculated to swell rather than reduce the ranks of the strikers."(8)

Nicholson's second major change was implemented on November 14th, 1922, when he appointed four senior constables to work in plain clothes and operate in pairs throughout the city and suburbs, supervising men on the beat. These men soon became known throughout the Force as `Spooks' and the nature of their duties and the men themselves soon caused deep and widespread resentment within the Force. Nicholson's reasons for introducing the special supervisors were, that there was an urgent need to exercise stricter supervision over the men and that four special supervisors with a roving commission could adequately perform the task, instead of appointing thirty sub-officers to perform supervision in the normal manner.(9) His rationale for the urgent need to employ supervisors in this covert manner was put in evidence before the Monash Royal Commission:-

"... I urged very very strongly that the discipline be tightened up - from my own observations and from complaints I had received. I saw men idling about the streets, leaning up against lampposts, gossiping - actually smoking in uniform, and in broad daylight. I saw them drunk at night. I repeatedly went along a very considerable distance and saw no sign of a constable at all ... one constable was caught in a warehouse in uniform. He had broken into the warehouse with the watchman. Another constable was found with stolen property in his possession ... I urged on Mr. Evans, directed him, to tighten up the supervision and put a scheme before me. It had to be done in the interests of public safety, public property and the welfare of the public and the police force ... he brought this scheme of the special supervisors out ... and I thought it the best thing under the circumstances to adopt."(10)

The system of special supervisors was described by the police strikers as, "humiliating espionage,"(11) and the special supervisors themselves described in Parliament as, "pimps,"(12) appointed to "secretly watch and report on constables on duty."(13) It was a highly emotional issue and one where the conflict was more one of principle than fact. Of the 636 police who went on strike only 2.2% (14) had ever been charged by the special supervisors with a discipline offence. During the same period 4.7% (30) of the strikers had been charged by their own local supervisors.

Thus in real terms the men fared worse at the hands of their local uniformed supervisors than they did from the special supervisors. In view of the fact that no complaint was made by the strikers immediately before, during or after the police strike about conventional supervision methods, their repugnance of the special supervisors would seem to be based not upon the specific content of their work but their existence and mode of operation. On this point it is perhaps important to note that in four of the cases where special supervisors charged men who later struck, the charges related to constables being abusive or disrespectful to the special supervisors.

This last factor highlights another aspect of the spook issue and that is one of the men chosen to perform the task. Few could doubt that it would be onerous for any policeman to be directed to work in plain clothes and covertly supervise uniform police who were suspected by their Chief Commissioner of pervasive corruption and inefficiency.(14) One would also expect that the police chosen to perform this task would of necessity be experienced supervisors, of unblemished records, appointed in circumstances of scrupulous fairness and openness. Instead, Nicholson appointed men who were of mediocre ability and limited experience and included in their number his brother-in-law and another man who himself had been convicted twice with being found drunk on duty; the last occasion being in the year preceding his appointment as a special supervisor. The choice of men for the positions of special supervisors was a constant source of discussion at the Monash Royal Commission. The character and reputation of one of them was described as being "very bad" and unfavourable comment was made about the appointment of the Chief Commissioner's brother-in-law. It was also stated in evidence that constables complained bitterly and daily about the selection and mode of operation of the `spooks'. On these points the Monash Royal Commission commented:-

"... however desirable it might have been to exercise more effective supervision over constables on beat duty, it was not judicious to effect such supervision through the agency of men in plain clothes. Anything which is even colorably in the nature of `spying' is likely to be repugnant to a body of men ... the evidence did not sustain the charge that the supervisors carried out their duties in a harassing manner ... it appears to us that on the whole they carried their difficult and disagreeable duties with judgment and restraint.
The selection of one of the senior constables to act as supervisor proved to be unfortunate, in as much as he was a brother-in-law of the Chief Commissioner. The choice formed a pretext for adverse comment by the Commissioner 's critics."
(15)

The Monash Royal Commission acknowledged that a principal ground for attacking the system of special supervision was, "the selection of the supervisors was in some cases injudicious," but apart from the above observations the Commissioners chose not to comment further on Nicholson's choice of men.

In the events leading up to the strike another significant action taken by Nicholson occurred on February 8th, 1923, when he purged the Licensing Branch. On this day he summarily transferred seventeen plain clothes licensing police to general uniform police duties among whom was Constable William Thomas Brooks. Nicholson said of Brooks' transfer

"... from what had come to my knowledge I considered that he was unfit for this class of work ... he was spiteful about it and tried to create a deal of trouble at that time."(16)

Constable William Thomas Brooks. Organiser and leader of Australia's only Police Strike, described by his superiors as, "A capable and intelligent constable." (Private photograph).

It has never been divulged where Nicholson came by his "knowledge" of Brooks but he did state on oath to the Royal Commission that he did not know Brooks personally. This situation provides a curious paradox, for prior to Nicholson's actions of February 8th, 1923, Brooks was a nondescript member of the Licensing Branch, who had never been convicted of a discipline offence and had three commendations to his credit. Since 1918 Brooks had been engaged primarily on licensing duties and only two months before his summary transfer by Nicholson, had been commended by his Superintendent for displaying zeal and tact in partaking in 846 licensing prosecutions and sly-grog cases, in twelve months.(17) Indeed, even after his transfer Brooks was again commended for intelligence and perseverance displayed in the arrest of a burglar.

In any event, whether Brooks acted out of spite or for other reasons after being transferred from the Licensing Branch he became a vocal dissident.(18) Early in April of 1923 Brooks circulated a petition amongst constables in the metropolitan area. It was headed "Comrades and Fellow Workers" and demanded the restoration of police pensions, the immediate withdrawal of the special supervisors and the granting of conditions then enjoyed by police in New South Wales.(19) The petition was never presented and it was never certain to whom it was to be presented but it did receive publicity in the press. This had the effect of establishing Brooks as an unofficial authority figure amongst many metropolitan constables and precipitated his next conflict with the police administration. In May 1923 Brooks was summarily transferred "to Geelong for special work" notwithstanding that he resided at Prahran with his wife and family and had been resident in the city since 1915. At Geelong, Brooks was directed to perform licensing duty at Colac. He refused to perform this work and was charged with the offence of refusing duty but was later acquitted. In the month following the Geelong incident and four months before the police strike Brooks allegedly told a friend and colleague:-

"I absolutely refused point blank to do the duty I was ordered to do; ... they have not got rid of me yet, and while I am in the job, I will cause a lot more trouble."(20)

Brooks' ire apparently did not mellow over the months and on October 31st, only hours before the strike broke, Brooks allegedly said to another friend and colleague:-

"I am full of the bloody job right up to here (indicating neck). I cannot stick wearing uniform again,"(21)

The veracity of these uncorroborated, hearsay accounts is not known, but they were at the time accepted by the Royal Commission. That Brooks was acting under a sense of grievance was never in doubt and his Superintendent indicated it was not wholly without reason when he stated:-

"... he might have some ground perhaps for thinking that he had been unjustly treated."(22)

In any event all the available documentation shows that Brooks did not assume a position of prominence within the Force until his summary transfer of February, 1923. From that point on the tempo of his activities increased and ended with the final entry on his record sheet:-

"A capable and intelligent constable. Dismissed from the Force on 1st November, 1923, for organizing and leading a strike of members of the Force."(23)

In addition to the grievances about pensions and special supervisors, Brooks' petition sought improvement of general police conditions in Victoria to a level equal to those in New South Wales. Prior to the strike the Victoria Police Force was grossly undermanned and Nicholson had publicly complained about the lack of Police. In fact Victoria then had a police to population ratio of 1:902 which was the worst in mainland Australia and expenditure per head of population on police in Victoria was the lowest in Australia.(24) The practical effect of this paucity of men and funds was that police in Victoria were granted only one Sunday off in every four weeks and only seventeen days annual leave.(25) They worked a seven day week of forty-seven and a quarter hours, for which the base pay rate for constables was twelve shillings a day; 5/1/6 per week with allowances. The Government felt that such wages and conditions compared favourably with other, "lower grades of employment in the trades and callings," where wages began at 2/6/0 for a 58 hour week, with no leave entitlements.(26) The problem was of course that Brooks and the 700 signatories to his petition did not aspire to the lower wages and conditions of private employment but instead sought the wages and conditions existent in the New South Wales Police Force. In that Force, police received three shillings and sixpence a day more than their Victorian counterparts, and enjoyed twenty-eight days annual leave and two Sundays off each month. All States except Victoria provided pensions for their police.(27)

These conditions were of themselves a source of irritation to the men and they were further aggravated by Government intransigence and broken promises. For the duration of the First World War police in Victoria undertook and abided by a policy of not approaching the Government with complaints or representations for better conditions. Instead they remained loyal and reserved industrial action for the postwar period when they renewed demands for improved conditions and the re-introduction of pensions. Each year from 1919 to 1923, official representations were made by the Victoria Police Association to the police administration and the Government for additional leave, increased wages, improved working conditions, better barrack accommodation, restoration of pensions, and in 1923, removal of the special supervisors. Although assurances were given and promises made, by the time of Brook's petition in April, 1923, these grievances had not been remedied.

Thus, it was that at ten o'clock on the night of October 31st, 1923, Brooks and twenty-eight other constables took direct and drastic action; they refused to parade for duty until the special supervisors were removed. The effect of this action was immediate and salutary; the system of special supervisors was abandoned and has never been reintroduced. On the morning of Thursday, November 1st, 1923, the four special supervisors were re-assigned to other duties thereby eliminating the single ground upon which Brooks and his followers had refused duty the previous night. Tragically though, this action by the police administration was kept secret and not communicated to Brooks or the other men. Instead, Brooks was advised by the Government on November 1, 1923, that Cabinet supported the Chief Commissioner; the special supervisors were to be retained and the men were to return to duty unconditionally. The unfortunate outcome of this intractable approach was that at ten o'clock that night Brooks and the same twenty-eight constables again refused to parade for duty. Their one and only demand was that the special supervisors be removed; an action which had already been taken but which was never communicated to Brooks or in fact made public until it emerged during evidence given to the Royal Commission late in 1924. (28)

The reasons why this situation was allowed to develop have never been ascertained. The Officer who directed the special supervisors to cease duty was the Acting Officer in Charge of the Melbourne Police District, Inspector Thomas Kane, and he died on November 29, 1923, prior to the establishment of the Monash Royal Commission. In the absence of Kane, Nicholson's evidence to the Royal Commission on this point was evasive and circumspect; the true facts were never disclosed.

Therefore, on the second night of the strike, Thursday, November 1st, 1923, the same twenty-nine constables again refused duty, over a grievance which unbeknown to them had been rectified as a result of their actions the night before. Instead of imparting this information to them, Nicholson and Kane, began terminating the police careers of all constables who refused duty. The first to go was Brooks. He was dismissed on the spot by Nicholson and was followed in succeeding days by hundreds more. When the dust finally settled it was found that two men had been dismissed from the Force and 634 discharged.(29)

In concluding this overview it is perhaps pertinent to outline very briefly the outcome of the strike action taken by those 636 policemen. As stated, the first direct result was the abandonment of the system of special supervision, closely followed by the dismissal or discharge of 636 men who were never reinstated. Then, with almost insulting haste the Government rushed through Parliament the Police Pensions Act 1923, which came into operation on January 1st, 1924, and provided all police with pension benefits in excess of anything they had demanded throughout the years 1903-1923. The Government also granted police substantial pay rises, effective from January 1, 1924, which approximated police pay conditions in New South Wales and introduced annual increments of 10 for constables who were of good conduct.

The 10 increments were an inducement to forestall further unrest in the constable ranks and the criteria for establishing increment eligibility were advertised in the Police Gazette. The Government also amended the regulations relevant to promotional exams and reduced the service period for qualification from seven years to two years. Provision was also made for exemption from examinations in special cases. Additionally, in 1924 the Government granted all loyalist police seven days extra leave, then in 1925 extended annual leave for all police to a full three weeks. These improvements did not attain the levels sought by the strikers but they were the first such improvements in over a decade. Finally, the Government increased expenditure on police buildings by 59% and in the months immediately following the strike, particularly in the post-Royal Commission period, undertook major works by way of renovations to police barracks. If the success or otherwise of a strike can be measured by the improvement in work conditions and wages to ensue therefrom, then the success of Brooks' efforts stand out in Australian police history as a monument to change. The strike achieved more in a week than constitutional means had achieved in that time anywhere in any police force in Australia. However, if termination of employment because of refusal of duty is regarded as failure, then the efforts of the strikers were abysmal. None of them reaped the benefits of their action and all sacrificed their means of support and joined the ranks of the unemployed. Instead of savouring success many of them became embittered and struggled to maintain self-esteem in a society that decried their actions and labelled them as `mutineers' and 'oath breakers'.(30) They stand alone in the history of policing in this country as the only police ever to go on strike.

Special Constables dispersing rioters in Melbourne streets during the Police Strike. (Herald photograph).

 

Repairing damage caused by looters during the Police Strike. (Herald photograph).

 

Shop fonts boarded up as protection against the vandals and looters who rampaged through the streets of Melbourne at the height of the Police Strike. (Herald photograph).

 


NOTES

(1) Report from the Select Committee on Police. 1852. Melbourne: Government Printing Office, P. v.

(2) Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Assembly). Vol. 101. October 21st, 1902, p. 118. Mr. John Murray. M.L.A., for Warrnambool, Chief Secretary and Minister of Labour.

(3) Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Assembly). Vol. 101. October 21st. 1902, p. 119. Dr. J.G. Wilson, M.L.A. for Villiers and Heytesbury.

(4) Victorian Government Gazette. December 31st, 1902, p. 5060.

(5) Report of the Royal Commission on the Victoria Police Force. 1925. (Hereinafter cited as the Monash Report) Melbourne: Government Printer, pp. 6-7.

(6) Evidence of Sergeant Richard John Porter. Transcripts of Evidence, Royal Commission on the Victorian Police Force. (Hereinafter cited as the Monash Transcripts). Unpublished. Victorian Police Archives, p. 1047.

(7) Evidence of Chief Commissioner Alexander Nicholson. Monash Transcripts, op. Cit., p. 2388.

(8) Monash Report, op. cit., pp. 8 & 12.

(9) Public Record Office. Police Strike Papers. Minute from Chief Commissioner Nicholson to the Under Secretary

(10) Evidence of Chief Commissioner Alexander Nicholson. Monash transcripts, op. cit., pp. 2114-2118.

(11) Handbill titled. "Police Dispute. Reasons for the Trouble". Prepared and circulated by Police Dispute Committee. Signed W.T. Brooks, Secretary

(12) Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Assembly). Vol. 165. November 1st, 1923, p. 1807. Mr. Arthur Hughes, M.C. M.L.A. for Grenville.

(13) Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Assembly). December 5th, 1922, p.3380. Mr. William Brownbill, M.L.A. for Geelong.

(14) Monash Transcripts. (Nicholson), op. cit., pp. 2113-2119.

(15) Monash Report, loc. cit.

(16) Monash Transcript (Nicholson), loc. cit.

(l7) Victoria Police Archives. Record of Conduct and Service of William Thomas Brooks, Registered No. 5944. Entries dated 5.1.18, 1.5.19, 19.11.22.

(18) Brooks had been one of the two Melbourne Police District, No. 3 Division, Police Association Delegates in 1920-21 but resigned. His term as delegate was brief and he did not achieve anything of note or a position of prominence. Source: The Police Journal (Victoria), Volume 3, No. 2. August 2nd. 1920, p. 7 and Volume 4., No. 5, November 1st, 1921, p. 84. Brooks never publicly claimed membership of any political movement or party nor has any such movement ever claimed that Brooks was a member.

(19) Police Strike Papers. P.D.F. Public Record Office, Laverton.

(20) Evidence of Constable George Isdel Westcott. Monash Transcripts, op. cit., pp. 1318-1319.

(21) Evidence of Constable Frederick William Lockyer. Monash Transcripts, op. cit., p. 786.

(22) Evidence of Superintendent James Warren. Monash Transcripts, op. a it., p. 1080.

(23) Victoria Police Archives. Record of Conduct and Service (Brooks). Entry dated 1. 11.23 and signed Superintendent Grange.

(24) Commonwealth Year Book No. 18. 1925. Melbourne: Government Printer, pp. 472-473

(25) Pamphlet titled "Police Dispute. Case for the Men." Melbourne: Trades Hall Council. November 14th, 1923.

(26) "Statement of remuneration of constables and senior constables of the Victorian Police Force". Police Strike Papers. P.D.F., Public Record Office, Laverton

(27) "Police Dispute. Case to the Men". loc. cit. These facts were discussed and confirmed in correspondence dated November 19, 1923, from Chief Commissioner Nicholson to the Under Secretary, Chief Secretary's Department. P.D.F.. Public Record Office, Laverton

(28) Final address of Mr. H. Shelton , counsel for the Police Reinstatement Association. Monash Transcripts. op. cit., p. 2872.

(29) For details of discharges and dismissals see Victoria Police Gazette, No. 50, December 13, 1923, pp. 732736.

(30) Pamphlet "The Victorian Police Mutiny." Melbourne: Sands and McDougall, and Victorian Parliamentary Debates (Assembly), November 7th, 1923, pp. 18061847.

 

- Robert Haldane (2007)

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