Lagoon Creek Shearer’s Strike Camp

Written by Nicholas Hadnutt, Curator, Archaeology.

In the 1890’s, work relations in Australia were a hot topic. Working conditions and wages were at an all-time low for shearers and they were preparing to fight for their rights. The Queensland wool industry was rapidly growing and shearers and pastoralists were seeking to define fair working conditions. Unfortunately, the opinions of the two groups as to what constituted reasonable working conditions were poles apart and conflict was looming. By 1890, shearers and other labourers began forming unions to better represent their rights, including a key requirement that pastoralists only employed union members. The pastoralists reacted by coming together nationally to create a shearing and labouring agreement of their own. The wealthy pastoralists were expecting a fight and were working together to defeat the union movement.

Fragment of sheep shears recovered from the Lagoon Creek site next to a complete shears for reference. This type of sheep shear was still being regularly manufactured in the 1950’s but it is tantalising to consider that this fragment belonged to one of the striking shearers.

In February 1891, the situation came to a head in the small township of Barcaldine. Over one thousand shearers called a strike and had made camp on the outskirts of the town. They were seeking support for their cause and for some unionists to travel to outlying stations to persuade workers to join the strike. Barcaldine had been selected as the site of the main strike camp, in part, because a railway had been extended to the township. Pastoralists used the railway to bring in non-union labour from the southern states. Fears of violence against the picket line breakers caused the State to send military support to protect the non-union labour and the pastoralists themselves hired ‘special’ constables for their protection. Tensions escalated over the ongoing weeks as the pastoralists sought to further strengthen their support in government. The Governor-in-Council issued a proclamation outlawing assembly under arms and additional military units are sent via rail to Barcaldine. Approximately 29 officers and 509 soldiers are based at Barcaldine along with two artillery pieces.

After 8 weeks of high tension, police arrested the strike leaders in both Barcaldine and Clermont. Further arrests of union leaders quickly followed and the will of the unionists began to waver. By mid-April, additional free labour continues to arrive under police escort to Barcaldine and the conditions in the strike camp takes a downturn with fever and dysentery reported. The arrested union members went to trial in April and May and 82 of the 86 arrested were jailed. The leaders were given 3 year sentences. The strike was broken and the unionists left the camp. Of the 8500 unionists polled through Queensland, less than 100 wished to concede to the pastoralist’s demands. However, they were up against the wealthy landowners who had government and military support. By May 1891, the camps were dwindling and on the 14th June, the union marching band made its last parade from the camp to the union office in Barcaldine. Whilst the strike was eventually disbanded, individuals were able to negotiate individually for better conditions. The 1891 strike became memorable for the struggle of the unions and the lasting legacy of the union movement in Australia. As a result, Barcaldine is seen by some as the birthplace of the modern labour movement and the Australian Labor Party. The large gum tree under which the strike leaders met to discuss the union movement and strategy became known as the “Tree of Knowledge” and was heritage listed in 1992.

Fragment of the distinctive base of a Hamilton bottle next to a complete bottle for reference. Hamilton bottles were designed to be stored on their side in order to keep the cork wet. This type of bottle was slowly replaced after 1870 by the Codd bottle, which had a revolutionary new neck design to seal the bottle and no longer required corks.

Although the camp site has been heritage listed and officially named the Shearer’s Strike camp, the place is not confined to those few months of occupation on 1891. Both the archaeological record as well as documentary evidence demonstrates that the campsite, along the banks of Lagoon Creek, has a rich history. Investigating the campsite enables us to better understand the history of the region as well as Australia. When Thomas Mitchell explored the region in 1826, he encountered the traditional owners of the region – the Iningai people. It was estimated that over 700 Iningai people lived in the area. However, the advent of pastoralism in the 1860s caused a violent and lengthy frontier war as settlers sought to control natural resources and subdue Aboriginal resistance to colonisation. By 1886, it is estimated only 136 Iningai remained. In 1897, the Aboriginal Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act 1897 allowed the Government to forcibly remove Aboriginal people and Iningai people were removed to faraway places such as Durundur, Baranbah and Palm Island.

In the 1990’s the Commonwealth Department of the Arts, Sport, the Environment, Tourism and Territories requested that the area undergo archaeological investigation, to assess the archaeological value of the sites as a precursor to developing a large scale heritage project to commemorate the centenary of the 1891 strike. The assessment and subsequent archaeological survey and investigation took place in late 1988, resulting in a thorough survey and recording of the sites along with recovery on a number of artefacts. Two sites were selected for excavation: one called Lagoon Creek Shearer’s Strike Camp, and the other the Alice River Settlement. Both sites are fundamentally linked to the 1891 shearer’s strike and deemed of national significance to Australia.

Fragments of Holbrooks Worcestershire sauce bottles alongside a complete bottle. Worcestershire sauce was a commonly used condiment throughout the late 19th and early 20th century. Fragments of Lea & Perrins sauce bottles were also recovered from the site and this brand can be purchased ion today’s supermarkets.

Artefacts recovered from the campsite reflect the daily lives of those who lived there – not only for almost 6 months during the strike but for the longer time periods either side of that event. Artefacts include broken glass bottle, broken ceramic plates, rusted food tins, tobacco tins, knives and spoons, nails, horse tack and broken pieces of shears can be dated to the strike camp period. From these artefacts we know some of the people enjoyed both Lea & Perrins and Holbrook worcestershire sauces with their meals, they drank a coffee substitute (Bickford’s essence of coffee with chicory and Symington’s Essence of Coffee and Chicory), ate processed food packed in tin cans and fed their baby’s with specially designed bottle feeders. However, the archaeological investigation of the camp site also recovered Aboriginal flakes from the same contexts as the European material. Although these stone tools are not datable in and of themselves, they demonstrate Aboriginal people lived along the creek. The tools may predate European occupation of the region, or they may date to the late 19th century when Barcaldine was growing as a township. Aboriginal people may have chosen the same campsite as that chosen by the shearers  for many of the same reasons – access to fresh water and food resources, close to town and work but far enough away to serve as a  refuge. Some of the recorded artefacts post-date the 1891 occupation of the site. At least one of the recovered bottles dates to the 1950’s and demonstrating an ongoing occupation of the site. Historical evidence suggests the site was used as a scout campground as well as an army camp during World War 2. During the 1988 investigation, recent camp fires were identified, suggesting that people were still using the site as a recreational area. Local anecdotes detail how the people from Barcaldine often travelled the short distance to dump their garbage along the edge of the camp.

It is interesting to reflect on how a small collection of artefacts from the bank of a creek in Queensland can lead us along a national narrative including Aboriginal and pre-colonial occupation of Australia, labour conflict and worker’s rights, the Stolen generation and World War Two. Even small, individual objects such as the baby feeding bottle allow us to consider the role of women in the contexts of the occupation of these sites, an often silent part of this history.