Labour History

The Great Strike of 1917 in Victoria: Looking Fore and Aft, and from Below

Labour History (2014), 106, (1), 69–97.


The strike of 1917 in Melbourne had its origins in the industrial changes that took place in the city in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and the industrial tensions of the decade before the war were exacerbated by the circumstances of war. Unemployment, seasonal and general, made men vulnerable to moral blackmail to enlist, true victims of “economic conscription.” And the fact that industrial confrontation persisted into 1919–20 shows that the causes of industrial unrest were deeper and more lasting than war-induced inflation and the consequent erosion of living standards. Historians do less than justice to the workers involved in 1917 if we do not look fore and aft, before 1917 to the conditions that were building class-consciousness among manual workers, and afterwards to the disputes and strikes that followed in 1918–20.

Access Token
If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


*The authors would like to thank the two anonymous referees ofLabour Historyfor their comments and suggestions. Google Scholar

1.Dan Coward “Crime and Punishment: The Great Strike in New South Wales, August to October 1917,”inStrikes: Studies in Twentieth Century Australian Social History, ed.John Iremonger,John MerrittandGraeme Osborne(:Angus & Robertson, 1973), 51–80. Google Scholar

2.Vere Gordon Childe, How Labour Governs(:Melbourne University Press, 1964);Brian Fitzpatrick, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement(:Rawson’s Bookshop, 1940);Robin Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales: A History of the Union, 1860–1960(:Melbourne University Press, 1963);Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics: The Dynamics of the Labour Movement in Eastern Australian, 1900–1921(:Australian National University Press, 1965); andK. D. Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852–1920(:Department of Economic History, Research School of the Social Sciences, Australian National University, 1970).Frank Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour: The Left in Australia 1919–1939(:Hale & Iremonger, 1981). Google Scholar

3.Coward, “Crime and Punishment,” 79. Google Scholar

4. Ibid., 66–7. Google Scholar

5.Robert Bollard, “‘The Active Chorus’: The Great Strike of 1917 in Victoria,” Labour History, no. 90 (May2006):77–94. See alsoRobert Bollard, In the Shadow of Gallipoli: The Hidden History of Australia in World War I(:New South Publishing, 2013), esp. ch. 6. Google Scholar

6.Lucy Taksa, “‘Defence not Defiance’: Social Protest and the NSW General Strike of 1917,” Labour History, no. 60 (May1991):16–33. Google Scholar

7.Bollard, “The Active Chorus,” 78, 87. Google Scholar

8.Bollard’s treatment of wartime inflation is largely confined to footnote 110 (on page 94), which presents figures drawn from Ian Turner’sIndustrial Labour and Politicsand covering the whole Commonwealth, to show declining real wages from 1913 to 1917 and rising levels of working days lost in strikes between 1915 and 1917. Bollard observes:“The correlation between the two sets of figures is striking.” Google Scholar

9.Bollard, “The Active Chorus,” 89. Google Scholar

10. Ibid. Google Scholar

11. Labour and Industrial Branch Reportrecorded almost 230,000 working days lost to strikes in Victoria in 1916, 760,000 days in 1917, only 165,000 in 1918, 733,333 in 1919 and 783,286 in 1920. The number fell away to fewer than 110,000 in 1921. Google Scholar

12.Graeme Davison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne(:Melbourne University Press, 1978);Kristin Otto, Capital: Melbourne When It was the Capital City of Australia 1901–27(:Text Publishing, 2009);Janet McCalman, Struggletown: Public and Private Life in Richmond, 1900–1965(:Melbourne University Press, 1984);John Lack, A History of Footscray(:Hargreen, 1991), esp. 125–28, 163–68, 172–76, and 179–83;Raelene Frances, The Politics of Work: Gender and Labour in Victoria, 1880–1939(:Cambridge University Press, 1993). Google Scholar

13.Rounded totals from end-of-year estimates in theVictorian Year Book(1974). Google Scholar

14.In 1891, total factory employment was 46,649; in 1895, 36,027; in 1901, 56,945; in 1911, 88,694; and in 1921, 117,633; seeReport of Chief Inspector of Factories for the Year Ended 31 December 1921, 3. For building workers, see“Occupations”, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia(1901, 1911 and 1921). Google Scholar

15. Victorian Year Book(1905):565;Victorian Year Book(1921):541. For the 1880s, seeDavison, The Rise and Fall of Marvellous Melbourne, ch. 2. Google Scholar

16.John F. Lack, “Footscray: An Industrial Suburban Community”(PhD diss.,Monash University, 1976), 463 ff; andLack, A History of Footscray, 165–68. Google Scholar

17.For changes in farming technology, seeJohn LackandCharles Fahey, “Harvester Wars: The Global Struggle Between H. V. McKay and International Harvester,” Ontario History 96, no. 1(Spring2004):9–40. The employment figures are drawn wages books ofH. V. McKay, Melbourne University Archives (MUA) and Mitchell’s Wages Books, Noel Butlin Archives Centre (NBAC), Australian National University. Google Scholar

18.SeeVictorian Year Book(1901–21); Wages Books and Accounts Ledgers, Hoffman Brickworks, MUA; Maize Products Wages Books, 1914–18, MUA. Google Scholar

20.For employment at T. B. Guest, seeCharles FaheyandAndré Sammartino, “Work and Wages at a Melbourne Factory: The Guest Biscuit Works, 1870–1921,” Australian Economic History Review 53, no.1(March2013):22–46. Google Scholar

21. Annual Report of the Victorian Railways(1901–21). Google Scholar

22. Victorian Year Book(1901–21). Google Scholar

23.T. B. Guest, Engagement Books, 1911, MUA; Bryant and May Engagement Book, PA 536, Box 144, SLV. In 1911, the average age of marriage in Melbourne was 28.7 for working-class grooms. The marriage ages are calculated from a 10 per cent sample of digitised marriage registers for 1911 held in the Victorian Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages.“Occupations”, Census of the Commonwealth of Australia(1911). At age 20–24, 57 per cent of women were employed; at ages 30–34, 29 per cent; and for ages 45–49, 22 per cent. Google Scholar

24.Guest, Engagement Book 1911; marriage sample for 1911 (see footnote 23); andLack, “Footscray,” especially the sections on endogamy (197–200 and Table 43) and occupational mobility (256–260 and Table 64). Google Scholar

25.John McKellar, Sheep without a Shepherd(:Ruskin Press, 1937), 18. Google Scholar

27.W. A. Watt, Argus, 31 December1910;Census of the Commonwealth of Australia(1911);Labour and Industrial Branch Report(1914 and1915). Google Scholar

28.H. M. Murphy, Wages and Prices in Australia: Our Labour Laws and Their Effects: Also, A Report on How to Prevent Strikes(:George Robertson & Co., 1917), 7. We have generally relied on P. R. Davey’s fine thesis, “Wages Boards in Victoria, 1896–1920”(PhD diss.,University of Melbourne, 1975), esp. 43–97. Evidence concerning particular employer, worker and union responses to the boards has been drawn from Lack, “Footscray,” and from our research in various company and union records, cited here. Google Scholar

31.John Lack, “The Legend of H. V. McKay,” Victorian Historical Journal 61, no. 2–3(August1990):124–57;Charles FaheyandJohn Lack, “‘A Kind of Elysium where Nobody has Anything Difficult to Do’: H. B. Higgins, H. V. McKay and the Agricultural Implements Makers, 1901–26,” Labour History, no. 80 (May2001):99–119;Charles FaheyandJohn Lack, “Harvester Men and Women: The Making of the Harvester Decision,”inThe Time of Their Lives: The Eight Hour day and Working Life, ed.Julie KimberandPeter Love(:Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, 2007), 65–85. Google Scholar

32.Charles FaheyandJohn Lack, “‘Silent Forms of Coercion’: Welfare Capitalism, State Labour Regulation and Collective Action at the Yarraville Sugar Refinery, 1890–1925,” Labour History, no. 101 (November2011):105–22. Google Scholar

33. Footscray Advertiser, 16 April1904, 3. Google Scholar

35.Lack, A History of Footscray, 173; and Cuming’s evidence to the Tariff Commission, Commonwealth Parliamentary Papers 4(1906):891–2, Q. 7129, 7131, 7132. Google Scholar

37. Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms and Shops for the Year Ended 31 December1910, 18. Google Scholar

38.Davey, “Wages Boards in Victoria,” 15, 163, 268. Google Scholar

39. Government Gazette(Victoria) (1912):5483. Google Scholar

41.For gas stokers, seeCommonwealth Arbitration Report(1913): 71; for superphosphate workers, see Arbitration Transcript Federated Artificial Manure Trade and Chemical Workers, CRS B1958 Set 4, 133, 190–1, NAA; CSR figures calculated from wage returns March 1914, NBAC. For the increasing employment of women in the biscuit industry after the introduction of wages boards, seeFaheyandSammartino, “Work and Wages.” Google Scholar

42.Judith Smart, “Feminists, Food and the Fair Price: The Cost of Living Demonstrations in Melbourne, August—September 1917,” Labour History, no. 50 (May1986):113–31. Google Scholar

43. Labour and Industrial Branch Report(1914and 1915). Google Scholar

44. Age, 29 January, 16 July1915. Only five determinations were made during the embargo, compared with 29 for the same period in 1914; seeLabour and Industrial Branch Report, no. 7 (1917):93. Google Scholar

46. Argus, 1 August1917. Google Scholar

47.Reported inAgeandArgus, 31 July 1917. Google Scholar

50.Bollard, “The Active Chorus,”quotes (incompletely) anArgusunemployment table, whereas Murphy, the Secretary for Labour, furnished detailed figures that were published almost daily in both theAgeand theArgus. Google Scholar

51. Argus, 14 August1917. Google Scholar

52. Age, 17 August, 1 September1917. Responding to a Political Labor Council (Victorian Labor Party) and Socialist Womens League deputation, Peacock opined: “The produce was the property of private individuals, who sold it when they thought the time opportune, in the same way that a working man made his labour available at a certain price if the price were suitable” seeAge, 18 August1917. Google Scholar

53. Age, 25 August1917. Google Scholar

55. Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms and Shops for the Year Ended 31 December 1918, 5;Age, 10 August 1918; andArgus, 23 October 1918. Google Scholar

56. Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms and Shops for the Year Ended 31 December1919, 4–8. Google Scholar

57. Ibid., 6–7. Google Scholar

58. Argus, 29–31May, 4–6 June1919.Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms and Shops for the Year Ended 31 December1919, 6–7. Google Scholar

59. Argus, 11 and 13 June1919; andAge, 20 June 1919;Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms and Shops for the Year Ended 31 December1919, 5. Google Scholar

60. Report of the Chief Inspector of Factories, Work-Rooms and Shops for the Year Ended 31 December1920, 6–7. Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

 Google Scholar

If you have private access to this content, please log in with your username and password here


Author details

Fahey, Charles

Lack, John