Category: Fights and Battles

The Battle of the Margaret River

The Battle of the Margaret River

 

In 1880, Australia’s borders were open, with no quarantine restrictions, and few immigration controls. Chinese miners had been flooding into the Territory goldfields for years. The Margaret River goldfields, north of Pine Creek, were worked by two rival Chinese factions, one from Hong Kong and the other, Macao. When they weren’t attacking each other with muzzle-loaders and shovels, they united against the Australian miners.

In late August, 1880, a young digger by the name of Fred Stone asked a storekeeper called Ah See to look after a bag of his wash-dirt overnight to save him carrying it back to his claim. For some reason the request enraged the Chinese man, who responded by pushing the Australian out onto the track.

Punches were thrown, and the furious storekeeper shouted for help from his countrymen, who came running from all directions. Picking up stones, they pelted Fred from all sides until he broke and ran. His Australian comrades, up at the camp, were greeted with the sight of their mate running flat out towards them, pursued by a mob of two hundred rock-throwing Chinese.

What choice did the white diggers have? Filling their own pockets with rocks they rushed to their mate’s defence, pouring a highly accurate barrage of missiles down on the Chinese. Meanwhile, the only policeman within cooee, Constable Lucanus, ran back and forth trying to quell the riot. He eventually succeeded, but not before he too had been peppered with rocks in the body and legs.

An eyewitness to the fight, a reporter from the Northern Territory Times and Gazette wrote:

“Some of the incidents of the battle were amusing. One powerful young European came to the front and intended to throw stones in return, but he became a splendid object for the enemy; and instead of throwing, he found himself sufficiently occupied in avoiding the missiles. He admitted himself (that) it was a most unsatisfactory method of fighting.”

The smallest white man there was apparently the best rock chucker, being described as a human Gatling Gun, causing carnage amongst the “enemy.” Not every man was armed with rocks: two diggers with rifles, and a local Aboriginal man called Billy Muck with his tomahawk, stood by, watching in case things got out of hand.

In the end, five of the most violent of the Chinese were arrested, taken to the “shackle” and tried for affray. Within a few years the area was mainly worked out and abandoned. Interestingly, a portion of the Margaret River goldfields has recently been designated as a public fossicking area.

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

James “Shearblade” Martin

James “Shearblade” Martin

James Martin - Queensland Police Museum

James Martin was working as a boundary rider when he first got his hands on a copy of Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto.  He was thunderstruck by the possibilities. He carried the book everywhere while he absorbed every word. He then moved on to other socialist writers such as Bellamy and Nordeau.

A dream was born, to make Australia a worker’s republic, owned by the people.

In 1891, while shearing shed after shearing shed was burned to the ground by rampaging shearers, Martin hurried from town to town, enlisting recruits and trying to convince strike breakers to change sides. In Barcaldine he addressed a crowd where he announced that it was time to move against the Queen, who he referred to as “Old Mother Brown.”

“What we want is a revolution and a republic,” he said. “If the amalgamated miners are prepared to back us, we are prepared to take the colony. I have a petition in my swag for electoral reform, but the only petition I believe in is 10,000 resolute bushmen behind 10,000 shear blades.” His numbers were not inflated. 8000 strikers were living in at least forty camps across Queensland, and thousands more were living independently or at home.

Almost as furious about Martin’s disrespect to the Queen as his threat to conquer Queensland, a team of policemen were soon on the trail of the man now known as James “Shearblade” Martin. On the day of his arrest he was carrying a revolver and seventy cartridges. This fact did not impress the judge. He was sentenced to two years in prison for sedition, and taken to the dreaded St Helena Island, off the mouth of the Brisbane River. Known variously as “the hell hole of the Pacific” and “Queensland’s Inferno,” Martin served two years in that gaol, suffering mercilessly under the lash and terrible conditions.

Released at the end of his sentence, Martin turned up in Charleville, taking control of the Australian Workers Union there, just in time for the next round of the Shearer’s Wars in 1894. He marched a small army to Winton, where the strike action was centred. Terrorising and converting scab labour was the number one activity, and Martin was involved in the burning of at least three woolsheds.

This was harsh, but bear in mind that the pastoralists had again banded together to set shearers’ pay below what was considered a living wage. These men were fighting for the right of their families to eat.

For the burning of the Ayrshire Downs woolshed Martin was ultimately charged with arson and sentenced to fifteen years at hard labour. They transported him on a steamer, padlocked to his bunk, to Townsville’s Stewart Creek Gaol, where he was placed in solitary confinement, in tropical heat, for three months. Later that year he was taken back to Brisbane’s Boggo Road, and ultimately to his old prison at Saint Helena Island, where he worked, for a time, as librarian, bootmaker, and cook.

Petitioned for early release, by members of the original jury, and 1500 members of the public, Martin and his co-accused served only four and a half years.

That was the end of James Martin’s dreams of a workers’ state in Australia. After his release he went to join the revolution in Paraguay, where his side had much better success than they did in Australia.

 

Researched and written by Greg Barron.

Click here to view the sources for the story.

Learn more about the book: Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

The McGree Brothers of Taylor’s Arm

The McGree Brothers of Taylor’s Arm

badge

John, Michael and Patrick McGree were raised on their parents’ farm on the Mid-north coast of NSW. All three answered the call to arms in 1915. The ANZAC battalions were forming up, and the brothers were determined to have their chance at glory.

Their mother, Bridget Sullivan, had married Irishman James McGree in St Augustine’s Church, Longford, Tasmania in 1874. The young couple moved north and took up a selection on Hickey’s Creek near Kempsey. Life was tough, but like most good Catholics they welcomed children, bringing twelve boys and girls into the world over a twenty-five-year period.

Patrick, the oldest of the three McGree boys who served, was a born adventurer. He headed off to New Zealand at an early age, living in Waiapo and Gisborne. He kept in touch with his Australian family via mail and occasional visits.

In 1914, when war broke out, Patrick was 31 years old, yet he signed on with the Wellington Infantry, New Zealand Expeditionary Force. Michael crossed the Tasman Sea to join his brother, but was waylaid by an unscheduled love affair. He married his Kiwi girl, Nellie, just before heading off for intensive training in Egypt.

John, still at home on the farm outside Taylors Arm, was 22 when he joined up in 1915. He was a small, wiry man, weighing just 58 kg, and of average height. In fact, none of the McGree boys were tall, but were all as tough as nails, with brilliant blue eyes and Irish charm. The doctor examining Michael for his enlistment described him as having a “grand constitution.”

Patrick and Michael, though assigned to different units, both took their place amongst the bloody heroes of the ANZAC landings at Gallipoli. Both survived the early days of suicide charges on the well-entrenched Turks, but natural attrition took its toll. Patrick was killed on August 8, 1915, in the defence of a hill called Chunuk Bair.

Nambucca and Bellinger New Fri Nov 26 1915

Michael was wounded in the last days of the Gallipoli campaign, and was evacuated to the Fulham Military Hospital in England. His recuperation was slow, and he endured hospitalisation for almost six months before being returned to his unit, judged as fit to serve in the hellish trenches of France.

On the 28th of July 1916 that “tough little bastard” John McGree was one of thousands sent in human waves against the German trenches at the Battle of the River Somme. He was shot in the chest and back. He was still alive when he reached the field hospital, but died within twenty-four-hours. He was buried at the nearby Warloy-Baillon Military Cemetery.

McGree death

James and Bridget received the usual telegram from Base Records in Melbourne informing them of John’s death: a message just fourteen words long. Losing one son was hard enough. The loss of a second must have been hard to bear.

Bridget penned a desperate letter back to Base Records.

McGree Bridget's Letter

Dear Sir

Please could you give me any information about the death of my son Pte John A McGree No. 3888, who died of wounds in France …  I would like to know the name of the hospital where he died, also if he was seriously wounded or what caused his death. What were his last words and where is he buried? Please send reply as soon as possible

B. McGree,

Taylor’s Arm, via Macksville

Five months passed before she received any additional information: a kind letter informing her of the nature of John’s wounds and the name of the hospital and cemetery. John’s personal effects also arrived in the mail: one religious medallion, three handkerchiefs, two brushes, a cap comforter, one photograph and a notebook.

McGree

By July 1918, the surviving brother, Michael McGree, was a veteran of three years of the most terrible warfare mankind had ever known. On the morning of July 18, 1918, just months before the end of the war, his company were ordered to attack a fortified German trench at Gommecourt Wood, France. Running into a hail of lead, Michael was killed in action, just a few kilometres away from the site of his brother John’s death, two years earlier.

Their father, James McGree died at the age of 86, in 1928. Bridget lived on until she was 87, a highly respected local pioneer, and a matriarch of the Laverty, Brock, and McGree families. She died in 1940 and was buried in Macksville cemetery.

The strength she must have had to shoulder the grief of three lost sons is a testament to the spirit of not just the Anzacs, but their families.


Written and Researched by Greg Barron

This post appears in the book ‘Galloping Jones and Other True Stories from Australia’s History’ by Greg Barron. You can get it at all good bookshops or at http://ozbookstore.com/item/gallopingjones
Click here to view the sources for this story.

The Siege of Dagworth

The Siege of Dagworth

Troopers at Dagworth Station 1894: John Oxley Library

The shearers’ strikes of the 1890s flared dangerously close to open warfare. It was a bitter struggle, with no sympathies between the conflicting sides. As one old timer recalled:

The wonder is that the strike and its attendant disturbances did not end in civil war. Since the Eureka Stockade, Australia has never experienced such a period of industrial upheaval, with the shearers in thousands armed with rifles, and military and police parading the districts of the central-west with an armament that included Gatling guns. There were many clashes and sensational incidents. Wool sheds were burnt on some stations, and considerable damage to property ensued before the struggle ended.

The reasons for the strikes were many, but were mainly related to pay and conditions. Shearers were paid just fifteen to seventeen shillings for every hundred sheep they shore, and were often expected to live rough while at the shed. Shearers also objected to being forced to shear wet fleeces.

Armed police preparing to break a strike near Hughenden, 1891: John Oxley Library

In 1894, a heavily fortified woolshed near Kyuna, Queensland, was bristling with guns, manned by special constables and station employees. It came under attack from a dozen determined shearers. Bullets flew in both directions, but the defenders kept themselves hidden behind stout log barricades.

One of the shearers crept forward with a kerosene bottle and used it as a crude Molotov cocktail to set fire to the shed. The defenders were forced to withdraw, but the arsonist hadn’t reckoned on the presence of 140 sheep in the yards. All were burned away to a terrible death. So ended the Battle of Dagworth.

The next day the squatter and the special constables who had been in the siege rode down to a nearby waterhole, where they found the body of Sam Hoffmeister, the man who started the fire. Racked with guilt he had shot himself during the night.

Interestingly, Banjo Patterson, then a lawyer hired to bring the warring parties together, visited Dagworth in the aftermath of the siege. Soon afterwards he made that historic visit to Combo waterhole, near Winton, with the station manager MacPherson, where they surprised an old swagman killing and dressing a station sheep.

It’s almost certain that the suicide death of Hoffmeister made its way into the lyrics of Waltzing Matilda, a story of independent spirit and resistance to authority.

 

Written and researched by Greg Barron

This story appears in the book Galloping Jones and other True Stories from Australia’s History by Greg Barron.

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