By Alex Salmon
In this extract from Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle Alex Salmon describes conditions for unemployed workers during the Great Depression, the repression they faced, and the protests and tactics they used to fight for their rights.
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It is in the early afternoon of 6 March 1931 and thousands of unemployed workers have gathered on the Perth Esplanade to protest the continued inaction of James Mitchell’s National–Country Party government and its inability to provide employment or adequate relief for the unemployed and their families. After attending a protest meeting, the men will march from the Esplanade to the Treasury Building at the intersection of St Georges Terrace and Barrack Street to await the results of a deputation carrying a list of demands to Mitchell for the government to address. Among the protestors is a young communist named Sid Foxley, who emigrated to Western Australia from England in the early 1920s. Having seen the worsening unemployment situation leading up to the Great Depression in Western Australia Foxley joined the Communist Party of Australia in 1931. Foxley will be one of the key participants in the events that will become known as the Treasury Riot.
Built in 1874 in a late Victorian style by architects R. R. Jewell and G. T. Poole, the Treasury served as the main building in the city for government business; the premier and the opposition leader had their offices there. For unemployed protesters, the Treasury Building was conveniently located near the Esplanade, which unemployed men had long used for demonstrations and where many unemployed men were forced to sleep. Not far from there was the Perth Labour Bureau where the unemployed went to apply for relief work and sustenance. On Beaufort Street in Northbridge was the Trades Hall, where the unemployed went to collect meal and bed tickets and hold organising meetings. Its location made the Treasury Building a perfect target for protest.
On that March day, it was the site of the biggest protest in Western Australia during the Great Depression, when up to 3000 unemployed protestors demonstrated against the government’s lack of action in regard to the growing unemployment and fought back after being attacked by the police. Up to 7000 people looked on, no doubt amazed by the size and fury of the protest.
By 1931 the unemployed had plenty of reasons to feel unhappy at the inaction of the Mitchell government, which had come to power the previous year promising to provide work for all, but had failed so far to do anything for the unemployed. At an earlier protest in February 1931, unemployed activists had managed to get James Scaddan, a former ALP member turned conservative politician who was responsible for unemployment relief, to promise that if they would wait for Mitchell’s return from a premiers’ conference in Canberra he would see if anything could be done for them. Upon Mitchell’s return on 5 March, nothing was done so activists decided to organise a protest meeting on the Esplanade.
The meeting would march up to the Treasury to wait while a deputation presented its demands to Mitchell. To advertise the protest, some of the unemployed chalked up a notice – ‘Unemployed Demonstration, 1.30pm Friday, March 6, Police cordially invited’ – on the base of the Alexander Forrest statue outside Government Gardens (now Stirling Gardens). Handbills headed ‘Solidarity or Starvation’ were distributed, calling for the unemployed to ‘Parade their poverty, parade it on the Esplanade and to those who are responsible’.
Although times had been tough for the unemployed in the 1920s, as evidenced by the unemployed protest movement, the Wall Street crash of October 1929 signalled the beginning of the Great Depression. By June 1930 it was reported in the West Australian that an estimated 3250 men were out of work in the Perth metropolitan area between Midland Junction and Fremantle, but this number would have represented only a fraction of those out of work.
To gain any relief or sustenance, a married man had to report to the State Labour Bureau on Pier Street, and then wait seven days before reporting to the Bureau’s Bennett Street office in West Perth to fill out a form and attach a declaration stating how many children he had. After that he would be given 7 shillings a day for himself, his wife and up to five children. The most a family would receive was 49 shillings a week, meaning the family was expected to survive on 1 shilling or less a day for each family member.
For single men the situation was even tougher. According to Sid Foxley, there was no proper sustenance or relief for single unemployed men before 1930, so they were forced to rely on private charity. In 1930 the lord mayor of Perth set up a relief fund that allowed for a number of single men to get two 6 penny meal tickets and a 1 shilling bed ticket a day, which could be used at a Salvation Army hostel. Until 1931 this fund was privately administered but subsidised by the government. Afterwards the government was forced to take it over.
It had become clear that Australian governments, whether Labor or conservative, were unable to deal adequately with the growing economic crisis.
By early 1932 unemployment peaked in Western Australia at around 30 per cent. It was the growing frustration at government inaction that led to unemployed demonstrations taking on a militant edge in the early 1930s. In late 1930 the CPA’s national leadership sent over Jack Stevens to lead the party’s intervention into the unemployed movement in Western Australia. The CPA leadership believed that, by carrying out disciplined and organised protest, the unemployed would win better conditions and sustenance.
On 6 March, the unemployed gathered on the Esplanade for the demonstration. All the leaders of the demonstration emphasised that they didn’t want trouble with the police. Between 2000 and 3000 people marched from the Esplanade to the Treasury Building to await the outcome of the deputation to the premier. The deputation presented the following demands:
- Three 1/- meals a day, instead of two sixpenny ones.
- Unemployed single men should have the choice of sleeping accommodation and men who did not have homes should receive bed tickets and rations.
- Unemployed people coming to Perth should not have to wait seven days for sustenance.
- Entrance to Blackboy camp should be made voluntary.
- No unemployed should be forced to work for sustenance.
- In cases of necessity, the government should provide books and clothing.
- School children of unemployed should be given free schoolbooks.
- Unemployed should be able to earn 30/- a week and still retain sustenance.
- Marquis Street (Unemployed and rations depot) should be improved so men didn’t have to stand in the rain.
- Civil Servants and others in employment should be debarred from taking weekend jobs.
- Unemployed married men should be given their equivalent in rent and sustenance.
- A woman should be appointed to assist in issue of relief to expectant mothers.
When the protesters reached their destination they found their way blocked by the police. Foxley and another protestor were holding a banner when Police Inspector James Douglas told them to move back off the road. Foxley said he couldn’t because of the crowds behind him and that they were backed up against a bus. It is unclear what happened next but very soon the police and the protestors were fighting running battles, surging backwards and forwards along St Georges Terrace. Police witness Alexander Berkeley assistant secretary to the premier, claimed that it was Foxley who struck first and that when the crowd started getting unruly the police had to baton charge the protestors. Other witnesses said that it was Douglas who was the first to strike and that police wielded their batons with force. When the fighting started, the unemployed protestors gave the police as good as they got, fighting back with whatever they could find, including stones and pickets from fences from the nearby Government Gardens. According to one report these stones and pickets could be seen flying through the air. Reports in the press claimed that just nine people were injured, but it would surely have been more, as police also attacked some in the watching crowds. Eight demonstrators, including Foxley and Stevens, were arrested.
Then began predictable attempts to attribute blame and justify police violence. The West Australian disapprovingly reported that all the speakers at the Esplanade meeting before the march began had ‘foreign accents’ and a communist banner was carried on the march. The communist bogey was also used by WA Police Commissioner Robert Connell to justify the conduct of the police that day. Writing to John Scaddan, who held the portfolio of police minister, Connell claimed that the 6 March protest was all part of a communist plot to incite disorder by exploiting the discontent of the unemployed, who would be receptive to their ideas. The police had to act to stop this from happening. Scaddan undoubtedly agreed with commissioner’s anti-communist beliefs and was only too happy to blame the CPA for the Treasury Riot. Despite CPA involvement in the protest, it is clear that the unemployed were protesting because of their own grievances.
Although in the past the ALP hadn’t been sympathetic to the radical unemployed movement – and relations between the unemployed and the labour movement had been strained – the ALP used the protest to attack the record of its conservative opponents. In its 13 March issue, the Westralian Worker wrote a damning attack in an article entitled ‘Give them a dose of the baton’:
The men are hungry men, disappointed men who have realised that the Mitchell promises were mere election cries and not to be fulfilled; men who are becoming desperate; men who took the only course to impress upon the smug and well fed men the condition they were in. And men who were informed in the most convincing manner that for every head who harbours thoughts of resentment there is a baton in the hand of a hefty, well-conditioned policeman.
Other elements of the working class movement also protested. Some 200 people attended a meeting at the Midland Junction Trades Hall to complain about the police treatment of protestors. The meeting called on the ALP to organise mass stop work meetings of unionists throughout Western Australia. The Fremantle Lumpers Union (FLU), the Society of Operative Plasterers and the mining branch of the AWU all passed resolutions of protest. The FLU also called for the dismissal of the police inspector responsible for attacking the protestors. The CPA’s national paper, Workers Weekly, denounced the police as hirelings of capitalism and reported on a march later that day outside the GPO in the city that called for the dismissal of Inspector Johnstone, the officer with overall responsibility for police tactics. In this, they were supported by an unlikely source. That scandal sheet, the Mirror, also called for his removal. An anonymous leaflet entitled ‘Black Friday’, probably produced by the CPA, accused the police of acting like Cossacks in tsarist Russia.
Some police later expressed sympathy for the unemployed. After he retired, H. E. Graves, one of the officers involved in policing the 6 March protest, wrote in his memoir:
Now rioting is all wrong and cannot be tolerated. I am all for stopping it quickly; but at the same time men do not rampage up and down the street waving the hammer and sickle, demanding food and relief, for no reason at all.
Later that month, the eight defendants, along with three people who were arrested at the protest outside the GPO on the night of 6 March, appeared in court. In relation to whether Sid Foxley started the riot by striking at Inspector Johnston or was defending himself, all the police witnesses and Alexander Berkley agreed with Johnston’s account. Many other witnesses, including an Anglican minister, claimed that Foxley was defending himself and that the police unjustly and violently attacked the protestors. The magistrate ruled that, while some young police had indeed used excessive force, they were justified because the protestors outnumbered them. After one of the defendants pleaded guilty, seven (including Foxley) were found guilty, five were sent to prison, two were fined and four were acquitted.
As for the demands that the deputation of unemployed men presented to Premier Mitchell, he dismissed the three 1/- meals a day demand as ‘hopeless’ and took no action on the other demands. Later in its period in office, the government did institute relief projects, including at Frankland River in the state’s southwest. This would see another protest in September 1932, when relief workers stopped work and marched to Mount Barker, where they boarded a train to Perth to campaign for better conditions. Katharine Susannah Prichard eloquently described the misery on this march in a pamphlet she called The March from Frankland River.
This protest helped to seal the fate of the Mitchell government, which was trounced at the polls in 1933 by the ALP. Fortunately, the Collier Labor government was slightly better in dealing with mass unemployment. The unemployed would continue to organise throughout the 1930s, but the government refused to tolerate the existence of any organisations of the unemployed, actively crushing the Relief and Sustenance Workers Union in 1933–34. Still, the unemployed persisted, a Council Against Unemployment being formed as late as 1938. But no other protest matched the scale of the so-called Treasury Riot of 6 March 1931.
The Treasury Building ceased to be used for government offices in 1996 and stood empty for many years. Recent renovations that transformed the building into a five star hotel are a far cry from the bitter days of the Depression for this backdrop of the Treasury Riot. But it is worth reflecting on the history of this magnificent edifice on the corner of St Georges Terrace and Barrack Street and remembering the hungry men of 1931 who were desperate enough to fight back against the police batons.
About the Book
Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle is a book containing 34 stories of radical moments in the two cities’ past, from as long ago as the 1890s to as recent as the Occupy Movement. It is part of radical not-for-profit publisher Intervention Books’ Red Swan series, which covers radical West Australian labour history and politics and brings to life stories from the workers’ movement and social movements.
For information about how to order Radical Perth, Militant Fremantle and other Interventions books visit https://interventions.org.au/
- Depressions (1929)
- History - Australia
- Movements_Campaigns - Labor_Worker's rights
- Police brutality
- Western Australia