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Skip Navigation LinksQueensland State Archives > Researching the archives > Exhibitions > Queensland firsts > 01-25 > 1891 - Shears stop clicking

1891 - Shears stop clicking

For almost four months during 1891, central Queensland was preoccupied with a feud between shearers striking against working conditions and wealthy squatters. Recognised as one of Australia’s first major industrial disputes, the strike occurred during the overseas-induced depression of the 1890s.

Economic instability overseas impacted on falling wool prices in Australia, creating tension between the shearers and the pastoralists who proposed a reduction to the shearers’ wages, which then stood at £1 per hundred sheep shorn.

The shearers retaliated by refusing to supply their labour – a crippling blow to the wool industry. In February 1891, the centre of the strike shifted to Barcaldine, the terminus of the rail line from Rockhampton and at the centre of the Mitchell district, the richest pastoral area of the colony.

In response to the strike, the pastoralists introduced non-unionist 'free labourers' or 'scabs' who received the protection of police and troopers. Unionists staged parades and public protests with many arrested and jailed. At Barcaldine, the police station was guarded by infantrymen with fixed bayonets as 120 mounted infantry surrounded the union office, arresting the strike committee. They were charged under obscure British legislation with conspiracy and sedition.

Thirteen of the union leaders were brought to trial at Rockhampton and sentenced to three years at the St Helena Island prison. Despite the strength of union protest, the strike was unsuccessful although it hastened the call for a political movement to represent the interests of working people, leading to the creation of a Labor party.

Telegraph from Home Secretary, H. Tozer to Attorney General, Sir Samuel Griffith who was attending the first convention of the Australian Constitution. The telegraph on 1 March 1891, outlined developments in the Shearer’s Strike and possible actions to be

A library for striking shearers operated at the Barcaldine camp during the Shearers’ Strike, 1891 State Library of Queensland, Image no. 45647

A library for striking shearers operated at the Barcaldine camp during the Shearers’ Strike, 1891
State Library of Queensland, Image no. 45647

A military parade in front of the Barcaldine camp during the Shearers’ Strike, 1891 State Library of Queensland, Negative no. 2024

A military parade in front of the Barcaldine camp during the Shearers’ Strike, 1891
State Library of Queensland, Negative no. 2024

Telegraph from Home Secretary, H. Tozer to Attorney General, Sir Samuel Griffith who was attending the first convention of the Australian Constitution. The telegraph on 1 March 1891, outlined developments in the Shearers' Strike and possible actions to be taken
Queensland State Archives Item ID 1139523, Digital Image ID 2935

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Related records

Other items in Image Queensland relating to the Shearers’ Strike 1891 include:
  • George Taylor convicted of conspiracy (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 16575, Photographic record, description and criminal history of George Taylor, 28 May 1891)
  • Julian Alexander Salmon Stuart convicted of conspiracy (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 17778, Photographic record, description and criminal history of Julian Alexander Salmon Stuart, 28 May 1891)
  • Record for Julian Alexander Salmon Stuart admitted to H M Penal Establishment, St Helena on 28 May 1891, transferred to H M Prison, Brisbane on 11 May 1893 and discharged on 19 November 1893 (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 16583, General record and description of Julian Alexander Salmon STUART, 19 November 1893)
  • Charles Henry Smith Barry convicted of conspiracy (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 17779, Photographic record, description and criminal history of Charles Henry Smith Barry, 28 May 1891)
  • Daniel Murphy convicted of rioting (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 17769, Photographic record, description and criminal history of Daniel Murphy, 28 May 1891)
  • William Dover convicted of unlawful assembly (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 17773Photographic record, description and criminal history of William Dover, 28 May 1891) 
  • Record for William James Bennett admitted to H M Penal Establishment, St Helena on 28 May 1891 and discharged 19 November 1893 (Queensland State Archives, Digital Image ID 16584, General record and description of William James BENNETT, 19 November 1893)

 More documents on the Shearers’ Strike 1891 can be located using the ArchivesSearch catalogue.

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Last updated 01 June 2012