Skip to content

P: Police Strike 1923 #AtoZChallenge

April 19, 2021

#AtoZChallenge 2021 April Blogging from A to Z Challenge letter P


The Blogging from A to Z April Challenge is an annual challenge put out to bloggers, to publish a post from A-Z, every day in April, except for Sundays. April 1 is A, and so on throughout the month. Participants can post on a chosen theme or just do random posts with no theme at all. The theme I have chosen for 2021 is Newspaper Articles About My Family Found in Trove. Trove is the electronic archive for newspapers, books, magazines, photos and much more.


Ernest Arthur Taylor

Ernest Arthur TAYLOR is my first cousin twice removed. Born in December 1885 at Bundalong, he is the seventh child of James Lloyd TAYLOR and Emily Louisa PEARCE. After completing his war service, he joined the police force, and was stationed at Prahran. In 1923, he was one of the 625 police officers who were dismissed after the historic police strike in Melbourne.

Ernest died on 9 November 1938, leaving a wife and three sons.

Police Strike 1923

On Derby Day, 1949, never before seen chaos reigned in the City of Melbourne, after members of the police force took strike action. Ernest Arthur Taylor was one of these policemen. His employment was never reinstated.

Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954), Saturday 31 December 1949, page 2

When Anarchy Ruled in Melbourne by Hugh Buggy
Pale gleams of light from two ancient gas lamps, fell across the broken pavement of the old muster yard at Russell Street Police Barracks. In the dim glow the sergeant of the night patrol peered over a list of names in a notebook.It was 10 p.m., the hour when night-duty police lined up, to be allotted to their city sections. At this hour on each night, over 53 years, 30 policemen had emerged from their old barrack of bluestone—solid and dismal as a Norman keep. But on the night of Wednesday, October 31, 1923, the routine of half a century was broken.

Only the rumble of voices—rising and falling— drifted across the yard. Over in their assembly room in the old bluestone wing, the night-duty men were engaged in spirited debate. At 10 p.m. the night sergeant looked at his watch and closed his book. What were they babbling about in the assembly room? He would go and see. “You men should be on parade,” he shouted at the door.

He was just in time to hear a motion being carried by a chorus of “Ayes.” That motion declared that the men would refuse duty until the supervisors were removed. “We’re not going to parade,” they told the sergeant. He opened his roll-book again and marked the 30 men absent from duty.

There was no city night patrol that night. Such then, was the prelude to a crisis, without parallel, in the history of the Victorian Police Force. It was the prelude also, to the most dramatic weekend in the history of Melbourne since the great Flinders street fire in 1897. Nothing remotely like it had happened before in any State.

It was the first flicker of open revolt by the police, against what they called “The Spooks.” And that revolt was to engulf nearly the whole force and teach Australia a stern lesson, that should never be forgotten. Uniformed constables gave the name “Spooks” to men whom their officers called “special supervisors.” These were certain senior constables who wore no uniform. They worked in pairs and watched how constables patrolled their beats and did their jobs in the city and suburbs. Such scrutiny to tighten discipline was proposed in 1922 by the Superintendent of the Melbourne district. It was adopted by the then Chief Commissioner, Mr. Alexander Nicholson, and was resented by the rank and file. They felt they were being spied upon, and disliked it.

To such murmurings, their superior officers replied that, if they were vigilant and competent, they need not fear the special supervisors. Among the men, this issue was added to grievances of older vintage. For years the police had been asking the authorities to restore pensions. These had been abolished for members of the force, who joined later than November, 1902. Police pay was absurdly inadequate, even in those happier days when the pound bought more. And the numerical strength of the force had not kept pace with the growth of Victoria’s population.

Had there been a little more tact and diplomacy shown by both sides, long before the crisis of October 1923, the disaster could have been avoided. Over the years, State Ministers had made the mistake of lifting the hopes of the police, with vague promises on the pensions issue. And the police, and those who supported their cause, made the mistake of thinking that a policeman was an industrial worker who had the right to strike.

On that October night, the Commissioner hurried back to the city and talked to the mutinous night-duty men. He appealed to them to return to duty. He offered to remove the special supervisors for one night only. He would consider the general demand in the morning. That offer was not accepted. “You are not like ordinary working men,” he said. “You have a duty to the public. Do not be led away by one or two malcontents.”

Mr. Nicholson warned that those police who refused duty that night would cease to be members of the force. If they persisted, he would call in police pensioners and loyal citizens, to police the city. Another brand, however, had been added to the smouldering fire that morning.

Supervisors had reported two young constables. Their offence? They had drunk a cup of tea near Queen’s Bridge with a wharf shed watchman, 10 minutes before their shift ended at 6 a.m. It was at this point that Constable W. T. Brooks established himself as spokesman for the men, and he promptly circulated a petition. This document called for an indignation meeting to demand removal of the “Spooks.” It carried a hint of the possible use of “other than constitutional means” to gain their removal. For that reason, many police declined to sign.

All day on Thursday, November 1, the Premier, Mr. (afterwards Sir) Harry Lawson conferred with the parties. First the Commissioner was summoned to a talk, then Constable Brooks, then Mr. A. J. Gill, secretary of the Police Association, and then State Ministers. Cabinet laid it down that police who mutinied on the Wednesday night must resume unconditionally or be dismissed, and there would be no victimisation.

This ultimatum was rejected by the men at another meeting at Russell Street on Thursday night. They disregarded also, the advice of the Police Association executive to resume. Their attitude was: “We do not wish to refuse duty, but we will have no ‘Spooks’ after us.” Insults were hurled at Mr. Nicholson when he sought to address the men. He was told that he was unreasonable, and that he had made a “mess of things.” Never before had Victorian police assailed a Commissioner with abuse. The outlook was grim.

That night, the detective force held a meeting, and decided to stand loyally behind the Government and accept any duty allotted to it. Yet, in spite of all warnings, defections spread rapidly among ranks of the uniformed police, who left their city sections and their suburban stations.

Facing an angry, shouting group of policemen, the Commissioner declared that Constable Brooks and Constable Pitt, who organised the petition,  calling for an indignation meeting, would be dismissed. As the Thursday night patrol did not parade, he told those men they would be discharged.

“This is a revolt against the community,” declared the Premier. He said that the Government backed the Police Commissioner. It was prepared to condone the action of Wednesday night, but it would not tolerate any further attempts to cause trouble.

Melbourne citizens on Friday, November 2, saw the rule of law gradually weaken. They hardly knew what to expect. There was no precedent for such a situation. More than 400 police had gone on strike. These men held the mistaken view that they were indispensable. They felt sure they would get their jobs back, when they had won the fight. Honest citizens held the equally mistaken view that a skeleton force of loyal police officers would suffice until the dispute sorted itself out. Many even believed that a city which prided itself on its order, its good sense, and its decorum would, in effect, police itself for the time. All those naive hopes were to be blasted within 24 hours by a storm of flying bottles, bricks, and broken glass. Early on that Friday morning I watched police musters that were really the passing-out parades of the old police force as we knew it. When the 6 a.m. relief was ordered to fall in, at Russell street, only those constables entitled to pensions obeyed. All the others joined the strikers, swelling their total to 475. As the day wore on the drama reached its climax. Many high police officers had faith in the loyalty of country police brought in to replace the city strikers.

Twenty-three constables from country towns paraded in uniform in the barrack yard at 2 p.m. Inspector Kane, of the City Division, told them the strikers might seek to dissuade them from duty. If this happened they were to place the police strikers under arrest at once. This order rather startled the country men. A simmer of excitement ran along their line. Ten men fell out immediately. “We are dropping out, and I speak for my comrades,” said one of them. A storm of cheers from scores of strikers swept across the yard. They almost drowned the voice of Inspector Kane as he sought to tell the 10 men they were discharged forthwith.

It was the last straw. Melbourne, seething with Cup visitors, was to be without police, save for a handful of loyal long-service men. “This is mutiny,” said the Premier. “It cannot be tolerated by any Government worthy of the name.” He reminded the strikers that they had incurred a moral as well as a legal obligation when they took the oath. Their action was desertion, not a strike. More than 630 policemen had left their posts, and on Derby Eve was seen the shape of things to come. In those days Friday nights was late shopping night. It was the night of the time honored parade of the boys and girls. It was a night, too, when every city street was awash with throngs of shoppers.

But on that Friday night in 1923 there were not enough police left either to keep the crowds moving or to disentangle the traffic jams. It was not long before the hooligans broke loose. They milled over the tram tracks. They shouted abuse at the band of loyal police who tried to patrol the streets. They pelted them with eggs and stones. They called them “curs” and “blacklegs” and “scabs” and “pimps.” In solid jostling phalanxes they sought to overwhelm the lone constables on traffic point duty.

In the midst of this yelling rabble a dignified, bearded sergeant tried hard to keep on his feet. Half Melbourne had known him for years on traffic duty, and he was a highly respected officer. By weight of numbers he was borne away from the Bourke and Swanston streets corner. His tunic was torn, and he was buffeted, kicked, and hit in the face. This treatment of a man whom everyone respected, angered a group of police strikers in the crowd.

With flailing fists 20 of them carved a swathe through the milling roughs. They snatched the sergeant from his tormentors, who had him pinned against a Swanston street doorway. At the town hall police depot a centre was being prepared to enrol loyal citizens as special police. Half-drunken hooligans flung stones and beer bottles as the few loyal regular police paraded outside the depot. Baton charges and a fire hose drove them off and 14 people were taken to hospital with cut heads.

These police sorties broke the tension, and the position never got beyond control. There were two reasons for this. First, the army of unruly youths who jostled the police and flung gibes at them were not thieves. Property that night was respected. Secondly, the really tough criminals lay low. It was not the propitious moment for thieving raids with a cohort of witnesses round.

Underworld scouts foresaw some luscious pickings at the weekend. Meanwhile the strikers filled the Temperance Hall, in Russell street, to reaffirm their strike policy. They resolved that they would not resume duty until the special supervisors had been removed and a promise had been given by the Government that there would be no victimisation. Actually, at that time the whole 636 of them had been sacked, and, while they did not then realise it, none of them was ever to be reinstated.

On an afternoon of sunshine, Frances Tressady won the Derby—November 3, 1923—and in those early dead hours of Saturday afternoon the city was tranquil. It was round 5 p.m. that the forces of the underworld were marshalled, which were to show Melbourne what could happen when the arm of the law faltered. THIRTY loyal city police and country constables in the centre of the city saw those forces gathering like a black storm cloud. It was a cloud that rolled east along Bourke street and north along Swanston street and as it rolled, the elderly sergeants and constables watched their island of cleared space steadily contract.

Then came the first testing reconnaissance in force. Supported by a howling and swearing rabble, a tough youth swung a heavy right to a constable’s jaw. Hooligans, vicious as hornets, closed in from every side. Ringed by a hostile mob, more ruthless and more drunken than on Friday night, the handful of police found that attack was the only effective defence. They charged with their batons against a solid moving wall of ruffianism. Down went the youth who hit the constable; blood bespattered his face and his collar. Those who had urged him on dragged him into a car, and threatened that they would return to “fix” the police.

He got what he deserved, but the pack of criminals wanted their martyr, and now they had him. With an angry roar the mob surged towards the line of police in Swanston street, and a shower of blue metal and half -bricks heralded the coming of the storm. A full beer bottle was broken over the head of a policeman. Two others went down before stones and bricks, and on the ground they were brutally kicked.

A tram in Swanston street was dragged from the rails, and the yelling mob tried to set fire to it. By 6.20 p.m. the heavily reinforced criminal rabble won absolute control of the block bounded by Bourke, Swanston, and Elizabeth streets. Then began a night such as Melbourne had never known. A naval rating was knocked over by a bottle near the Leviathan Building. Four comrades who sought to rescue him were assailed by hooligans, and the fierce fighting spread rapidly.

Five plate-glass windows in the Leviathan were shattered by flying bottles. WITHIN three minutes looters crunching through the broken glass had stripped every window of men’s wear worth £3,000. From that moment thieves, thugs, and gunmen with their screaming women, launched a systematic campaign of pillage. Window after window crashed before an onslaught of beer bottles, bricks, and metal shop fittings. Those windows burst like bombs, and a blizzard of flying glass sliced faces and heads. Thugs dragged out frocks, furs, shoes, rings, and bangles to deck their drunken young women, who shrieked and lusted for loot. Windows had become drifts of broken glass on pavements.

Twenty three clothing stores had been ransacked and the windows of 17 jewellers shops had been emptied. Property worth £75,000 had been looted, reporters had run out of superlatives, and five of them were in hospital with head wounds. On Sunday, November 4, 200,000 people surged into a city where shops were boarded up, as if awaiting a bombing raid. An appeal to Lighthorsemen and an appeal for horses had given the force of specials, a new mobility. Their numbers had swelled to 2000 men and all Sunday afternoons, they met and thrashed bands of looters who had come back for more. State Cabinet decided that none of the 636 police strikers would be reinstated and on Monday, the government pushed through a bill which set up a Committee of Public Safety.

On that night in North Melbourne the underworld revolt was finally crushed under the batons of mounted specials. There were no fines, and every captured looter was given three months gaol. On the day when Bitalli won the 1923 Melbourne Cup, “The Argus Editorial expressed what all law abiding citizens thought. It ended on this note: “Few people would have believed that an orderly city could so rapidly be captured by it’s criminal and semi criminal elements”.

*Please note: paragraphs and punctuation have been added for ease of reading.

Obituary of Ernest Arthur Taylor

THE STREETS BECAME BATTLEGROUNDS AS A CITY WENT MAD” The Mail (Adelaide, SA : 1912 – 1954) 31 December 1949: 2 (Sunday Magazine). Web. 11 Jul 2020 <;.
#AtoZChallenge 2021 badge
©2021 copyright. All rights reserved

  1. What an interesting article, I had not heard of this previously.

  2. New to me too.

  3. Wow what a fascinating story! It seems blatantly stupid to me that the Commissioner clung tight to having the “Spooks” even before it got to that point. I also wondered, given it was 1923, how many of these men had been to war and would have been resentful to both the supervision, lack of pensions, and arbitrary control. Also interesting that the Police Association (Union) tried to get them back to work.

    • I was shocked that the union tried to get them to work. Wouldn’t go down too well these days. I hadn’t thought of the men being resentful after the war. That’s a good point

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. Reflection Post #AtoZChallenge | Tracking Down The Family
  2. Reflections on A to Z 2021 – Family history across the seas

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

And Anyways...

Author, Baker, Sunrise Chaser

Barroworn Succulents

Succulents, Geraniums, Iris and much more. All grown on our local property

Kerryn's Kin

A Tribute to my ancestors by Kerryn Taylor

Next Phase In Fitness & Life

Over 60 and living my best life

'Genealogists for Families' project

Family History and Genealogy


Family History and Genealogy

Western District Families

Stories of Pioneering Families From the Western District of Victoria

%d bloggers like this: