The Words “Boer War”

“Here they come!” I pointed towards the far edge of the park. I was excited to be the first to see them.

As all eyes following the point of my finger, the buzz of flies and the hoarse squawking of crows evaporated in the midday heat as the soft shuffle of marching feet became our focus.  The boys from Thornborough College came forth, swinging arms, striding feet, across the well-worn path that transversed Lissner Park, heading back to school from Sunday morning church. They were like the troops of soldier crabs we stopped to watch on the beach.  All dressed in blue, heads forward, vibrating with talking and laughter as they marched purposely toward their destination.

Lissner Park is a large grassy area with a wide band of shade swept around the circumference by big old fig trees.  Like every street in Charters Towers on a Sunday, Deane Street is blanketed by silence, only broken by the cries of black crows who congregate atop of the leafy fig branches or by the buzzing flies hoping to feast on our sandwiches or apple pie.  The procession of boys from Thornborough College was an attraction we always eagerly awaited.  Dressed in their dark formal jackets, tie and long trousers, and their faces shaded by straw boater hats, they were living reminders that Charters Towers is a city rich in history and tradition.

Leaning back on the chequered blanket nibbling on our ham sandwiches and withdrawing from the heat with sips of ice cold lemon cordial, my sisters and I were quite oblivious to the arms of history that invisibly circled our small piece of grass in the park.  This was a typical Sunday visit to “The Towers”, as we locals affectionately refer to Charters Towers. We had taken my Uncle Grahame out for the day.  He was a boarder at All Souls Boys College and as with all of our visits, we enjoyed lunch at Lissner Park. This was our tradition and one that no doubt extended back to my Grandfather as a teenager, as he too had been a boarder at All Souls.

Reclining from the weight of too much apple pie, I close my eyes and lay back on the blanket, basking in the warmth of summer’s rays, listening to the mournful choruses of  crows and buzzing bees and fluttering of leaves in the trees.   This was typical of our sleepy picnics in Lissner Park with just ourselves for company, except for the grand old lady of the park, that is.

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Boer War Kiosk, Lissner Park, Charters Towers. Photo:  James Cook University

She stood on the grass, unprotected by the shady trees. I envied her elegance, as I watch the sun dance and flicker through the delicate lace of her dress and ripple along the waves of her perfectly coiffed hair. Of course I knew she wasn’t really a lady, but my childhood imagination liked to run free.  Sometimes I pictured other ladies joining her, in their long white lacy gowns and oversized hats, sipping tea and nibbling dainty cakes.  They are accompanied by toffs in top hats and tap their feet to the brassy tunes of a band in white military styled jackets and pith helmets. Indeed, the ethereal presence of the grand old lady of the park, was a reminder that perhaps “The Towers”, now a quiet country town, had indeed been a city of considerable glory.

Although the story of the Lissner Park Kiosk is in no way related to the city’s riches of gold.  This beautiful testament of Victorian Architecture is a memorial to those lost in the Boer War.  Of course I could not comprehend the meaning behind its existence.  How could a four year old understand anything about war?  As I grew up and my family continued the tradition of taking cousins or sons of friends to lunch in the park, I grew to admire the beauty of its architecture, but the words “Boer War” along with the many names imprinted on its walls were just that.  Words.

Years later, when I had access to the world behind those cupboard doors, the words “Boer War” were sounding like the echoes of old war drums once more.  I was told o’er and o’er that The Military Man had fought in the Boer War, but there was no explanation as to what the Boer War was other than it took place in Africa.  As I enjoyed exploring my family’s museum, my fingers filed through leather bound albums of postcards depicting black and white scenes of everyday life in Africa; they caressed the curves of engraved ostrich eggs  and tried to interpret the random scribblings and notes written in that dark continent long ago.  All these items, seemingly meaningless at the time, were replaced in the box or on the shelf that had been their home for the previous six decades, to gather more layers of dust.

One could be forgiven for believing these offerings of the past are simply the souvenirs of a tourist, of an adventurer who sought the wonders of an undiscovered world.  However, the deeper I scratch beyond the veneer of those old cupboard doors, the more horrors I unearth to give a more sinister meaning to those two little words “Boer War”.

 

 

 

 

 

Monday Musings From The Writer’s Desk

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Dear Family, Friends and Followers,

Good Morning from my writing desk!

Firstly, I would like to thank you all for taking the time to read my weekly posts.  At times it can be stressful, knowing I have a deadline to meet and it is you, my readers, who keep me tapping away at my Great Grandfather’s story.   Now, each Monday, I will open up the cupboard doors and invite you to join me at my writing desk.

The journey, Behind The Cupboard Doors, has been a few years in the making and it is as much my story as it is that of William Lyons. I would like to thank the man himself for keeping so much behind those old cupboard doors.  According to family, my Great Grandparents never had much money, however, they were rich in a lifetime of memories that remained stored away for decades.

All family historians know that wonderful feeling of finding treasure in old shoe boxes and the like.  I certainly know that wondrous feeling of touching a letter or card that was written by an ancestor more than one hundred years ago.  Those old yellow pages are like time machines transporting us to a fascinating foreign world, whether it be home or across the seas.  Each word or sentence is merely a piece in the puzzle that forms our family tree.  They give life to the dead and give me an added appreciation for my ancestors who paved the way for our lives today.

I wonder with the advances in technology, whether, in the future, there will be any evidence of our lives at all.  I often hear of the space-saving wonders of storing photographs and documents on computers or online. What happens in 100 years time, when current technology has been superseded over and over and access to those precious records is not possible?  What happens if the computer crashes?

So, call me behind the times, but I will always believe in the merits of keeping original photographs, letters and documents. Yes, in 100 years time, my great  grandchildren hopefully will feel the same joy that I have over and over; that wonderful sense of discovery as I have filed through an old shoe box or opened an old folder of photographs, negatives and all.  And with the dying art of letter writing, and the advance of emails and texting, what will our future generations be able to learn of our lives?  Certainly, there will be no detailed written accounts of our daily lives.  There will be no personal connection to an ancestor through their handwriting which is like a person’s trademark.

So, I urge you all to keep your boxes of old letters and postcards, do not discard those old albums of discoloured photographs as they are part of your DNA.  They will assist future family investigators who will be trying to untangle the many twists and turns of your lives.  And, maybe, you might want to try your hand at writing to your friends or family instead of shooting off a quick text or email.  There is nothing as comforting than sitting with a cup of coffee in one hand with a long handwritten newsy letter in the other.  Even more so if it is 100 years old.

Before I leave you,  I must say that I am not in any way slamming technology as it is a godsend for all family historians.  It has many advantages, however, as they say, don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.

I remind you before I go, to stay tuned for my next post “The Words ‘Boer War’

Kim Chambers

The Shearers’ Strike – The End

As I traverse the years of memories that were stored behind those old cupboard doors, I search the contents of the shelves and drawers for a sign or a clue that William was indeed involved in the shearers’ war.  There is no physical evidence to indicate that he was, however, I question how the subject first came to light. Perhaps he’s whispering in my ears, planting ideas, guiding my fingers on my computer keys.  Is it he who is telling the story?

The more I ask myself, “was William actually one of the 43 soldiers sent to the West from Mackay?”, I keep hearing a voice in my head saying “it doesn’t matter my dear.  Don’t just tell the story for me, tell it for all the men, my friends, who lived and breathed that piece of history.  It needs to be told.”

Today, only ghosts remain of what was cited as a potential revolution.  The war drums that once beat so loudly have faded to an almost inaudible whisper, loud enough to remind us that the warring parties of that era have now taken their places in our history books, along with the old ghost gum tree.  It was the only surviving witness to the event, until a few years ago, when it succumbed to the poisonous hand of a murderer. The dark clouds that gathered over the West in 1891 have dissipated into sunny blue skies and murderous calls for scalps have long been silenced, returning the outback to its usual state of quietness.

For those of you who are left wondering how the warring parties came to a peaceful resolution, I urge you to visit the sleepy western town of Barcaldine and stand before what remains of that old ghost gum tree. Its guards the station  in readiness to disperse its knowledge upon anyone who wishes to listen. Above the sound of whistling winds, the hum of passing cars and the cacophony of squawking cockatoos and crying crows, listen closely for the whispers and groans of that old man tree.

“That was a troubling year,” he says, shaking his head of leafless limbs.

“When faced with all those mounted troopers, cannons and machine guns,” the old ghost gum sighs. “It was a relief to my ears when the shearers lay down their sticks and stones and were silenced of their hateful cries.”

But a shadow of his former self, he shudders when he recalls what could have been.

 “I waved my arms in celebration when the unionists chose to follow their cause via political means.”

“That was indeed a happy day for me,” the old tree grins, before his voice is carried away by the passing winds.

You might also hear the ghostly taunts and jeers of the riotous mob who swarmed the prisoners on that April day in 1891.  Listen for William’s mumbling prayers,  the laboured snorts of his frightened prancing horse, and the deafening rhythm of his heartbeat as he prepared to cross the unknown divide of that battleground.  You may also hear him say,”Thank God, my prayers were answered that day.”

For the soldiers who nervously rode out the waves of rising tension, the expected imminent orders to charge or shoot never came. Despite an arsenal of cannons and gatling guns, that were capable of firing 800 bullets a minute, their full potential was never demonstrated.  Despite some parties who criticized the army for not firing upon rioters and disruptive strikers, the army showed great restraint and appeased any incidents of unrest by conciliatory means, making many arrests.  And despite, the bloody threats of the strikers, by June of that year, union funding was running low, men were hungry and the onset of rain made conditions in their camps untenable. Thus,  a “ballot” rather than “bullet” approach was adopted and beneath that old ghost gum tree, the Australian Labour Party was born.

Perhaps, that was not the end of the story for the military men who were told they were to  prove themselves as real soldiers.  It was an opportunity to dispel the military’s reputation for being pretend soldiers.  It was a time to demonstrate their full potential.  As they entrained across the burning western plains, knowledge of the fires and riots that had already unfolded in the preceding days would have stoked a fire in their own bellies.  They were ready to prove themselves, to their families and above all to their country.

Dear Great Grandfather, I am listening to your whispers, as I finally understand why you wish for this piece of history to be told. I cannot comprehend why anyone would enlist for a war that is not yours to fight. But now I know why, a decade later, you answered the call of war drums that began to boom across the deep blue seas.  I understand why you allowed Mother England to gather you into the clutches of her Imperial fold.  You and your fellow soldiers had unfinished business to attend to; you had an undying need to demonstrate to yourselves, to your country and the world, your full military worth.

Shearers’ Strike – Part 3

Mary Lyons sat scanning the newspaper, searching and pleading for news of the strikes, moreover news of her son.  As her eyes following the lines of black and white, the words “Riot at Barcaldine” grab her attention. She could feel her heart race as she pictures scenes where “the mingled hooting and groans caused the horses to prance and at one time a serious catastrophe appeared imminent.” ¹

“Oh no,” Mary is afraid to read further, but at the same time, can’t bring herself to cease the racing of her eyes back and forth across the lines, looking for a positive outcome to the incident. But the further she reads the more unsettling the situation appeared as “the yells and the cheers caused the horses several times to break the line.  One soldier was thrown and his horse galloped away; another was kicked in the chest by his horse and had to be taken to hospital!”¹

“Lord, may it not be my son,” she squeezed her eyes shut praying aloud.

Mary reopened her eyes and continued to read. “It seemed almost impossible to proceed, and the order to charge was momentarily expected.”¹

Whilst the blazing western plains were ignited by tempers and emotions inflamed, the pens of newspaper journalists brought the heat of the battle into homes throughout Australia.  Everyday Australians like Mary Lyons were kept informed daily of the happenings in Outback Queensland.  They would have ridden the waves of tension as the stormy seas pummelled the lives of those embroiled in the conflict, whereby war was declared between Capitalism and the working man.

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Union Camp in Barcaldine in 1891.  Photo: John Oxley Library of Qld. Neg.. 2027

Upon William’s arrival at Barcaldine, the doors of the train flung open, flooding the platform with a sea of jostling khaki green, bobbing rifles and slouch hats. William moved with the throng towards the wide open street, glad to be able to stretch his legs.  A crow cries from above, an uneasy reminder of the undercurrent of tensions that are simmering within the fabric of the outback.  He looks up and spots the culprit sitting in a branch of a leafy ghost gum tree like an omen against the darkening sky.

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Camp Police, Barcaldine.  Photo:  John Oxley Library neg. 45656

 Peering down either side of the wide open street, William noticed it was void of town folk.  There were troopers mounted on horses guarding the front of the station and more troopers teeming the street in all directions.  Above the clip clopping of hooves and clatter of voices chatting and laughing, barking  dogs echoed from the far end of the street.

Still feeling the motion of the train vibrating through his body, his mind was reeling with thoughts of the stories he had read in the newspapers; tales of riotous mobs burning homesteads and woolsheds and sabotaging train tracks.  He could feel the simmering emotions of the 400 strikers who declared war only weeks ago beneath this very same tree.  He raised his weary gaze to its upper limbs and shuddered at the thought of what transpired on 15th February.

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Tree of Knowledge, Barcaldine.  Photo:  Kim Chambers 2004.

It was a war whereby the unions, seeking better conditions for its workers wanted to control the woolsheds.  They demanded that union members only be allowed to work them.  On the other side of the battle line, the Squatters (Pastoralists) were determined to survive by controlling wage rates in an economic climate where wool prices were at a low.  Their answer to the problem was to introduce the Pastoralists’ Contract of Free Labour. They were calling for non-union labour to shear their sheep, whilst the unions were calling for scalps….

From the beginning of  William’s deployment in Barcaldine, tensions had risen and fallen at the railway station with each arrival of non-union labour heading for the woolsheds on nearby stations.  His eyes had been trained to scan an unruly crowd for arms wielding weapons.  His ears became acutely tuned to the slightest tremor of anger.  Each arrival brought with it an unsettling mood of uncertainty.

By the time Mary Lyons reached the end of the newspaper article about the Barcaldine Riot, William too was considering the events of the previous day. He remembered his feelings of relief as he rode in the parade alongside 450 military men to the nostalgic beat of bagpipes and a brass band.  Relaxing his guard, he felt himself being swept up in the mood of jubilance, allowing the anxieties and tensions of the past two weeks to disperse into the fresh earthy air.

At last his buzzing nerves slowed to an undetectable beat, he allowed his trained eyes to look straight ahead with military pride instead of searching for signs of trouble.  He closed his ears to any suspicious noises, tuning out any thoughts of the Shearers and their war cries.  As he hummed to the brassy marching beat, his mind was with his family in Mackay.  He realized how much he missed his Mother, his beloved Padda, his siblings and the security that they represented.

As the parade ended in front of the railway station, just after 5.00pm, William’s mood of rejoice was interrupted by the roar of a whistle.  With that single announcement of an oncoming train brought the tensions of the prior two weeks flooding back.  It was a signal that summoned a vicious, swirling, torrent of more than 1000 angry men. On foot and on horseback, they waved arms, they hooted and groaned, as they stampeded down the dusty street towards the station like an unstoppable tsunami.  They were there to protest the holding of 6 prisoners, Union men, who were on that train.

William’s brief sense of security was killed by the chaos that surged around the procession of chained prisoners and their escort of 50 mounted riflemen as they made their way to the Police Headquarters.  Once more, his eyes and ears were alert. An order roared out above the din, for himself and other mounted infantrymen, to “face into the crowd men!” in an attempt to dam the violent rushing bank of unionists who ran around and under horses.

One of the unionist began to slap Major Patterson’s horse on the face causing him to rear.¹  William’s own horse began to startle and prance in panic from the explosion of screaming, yelling and jeering that filled the air; and he witnessed another poor trooper kicked in the chest by a startled horse.  Caught in the middle of a solid mass of angry pressing men, his rifle was ready, bayonet fixed, his nerves were once more buzzing with anxiety as he listened expectantly for an order to shoot.

Bibliography

(1)  http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/213481064?searchTerm=Shearers’ Strikes 1891&searchLimits=l-state=Queensland|||l-title=1069

The Shearers’ Strike – Part 2

“Now is the time to show whether we are playing at soldiers or whether we are prepared to protect our hearths and homes!  So what is it to be?”

The words of his commanding officer kept ringing in William’s ears. He had been serious about his career and knew he had made the right decision from the moment he joined the Militia.  Although he was beginning to question his readiness for his inaugural military conflict.  Seeing first hand the results of the shearers’ wrath, had somewhat shattered his former confidence which was further exacerbated by the irritation of his wool uniform that now clung to his back like a scratchy wet rag. He was drenched from the flow of sweat he felt dribbling down the back of his neck, which now ached from sitting on the hard train seat for several hours.

William fiddled with the brim of his felt hat that covered his lap as he faced the western plains.  He watched in disbelief, the grand old bottle trees that were flailing their singed black limbs grieving over the charred dead remains of their nearest and dearest. The grassy fields, once swaying from brushing summer breezes, were rendered lifeless from an unprecedented season of darkness that was tearing through the west.  A deathly silence deafened the vibration of the train on the tracks and the chugging of steam and coal smoke that crowded the dark ominous sky.  All eyes in the carriage were peeled to the windows, peering out at the black smouldering moonscape dotted by charred carcases of dead sheep.

William was well aware of the conflict in the west.  He had followed the daily newspaper articles spouting stories of unrest among the Shearers who were seeking better working conditions.  He didn’t wish to take sides, he and his fellow troopers were sent to do a job. To keep peace.  To protect those who wanted to work, to guard each arrival of non-union workers.  However, on the other hand, the Pastoralists appeared to be offering them a fair deal.  What was so wrong about signing a work contract.  Wouldn’t that guarantee a job?  Have the unions become too powerful? Perhaps they have.

Following what seemed an eternity, the voice of the trooper in the seat across the aisle snapped William out of his analytical thoughts.

“They say things are bad out at Barcaldine. Word is there has been riots in the streets.” The trooper commented at no-one in particular, as he held the landscape in his gaze.

“Those bloody shearers won’t know what hit them when we get there!’ chimes another.

William tries to focus on the banter that kept bouncing back and forth across the carriage, to keep his mind off his immediate discomfort.  He lifted the window in an attempt to relieve the searing heat, but instead felt the immediacy of hot smoky air brush his face. A man two seats down caught his attention when he said,

256px-Frederick_Vosper

Frederick Vosper

“Did you read in the paper about that Frederick Vosper?”¹

“Who is he?” another enquired.

“A journalist from Charters Towers I think.” Replied the man two seats down.  “He’s making wild death threats.  It is worrying, I must say.”

‘The entire situation is worrying,’ William thought to himself as he watched the blur of the blackened plains pass by.  He had read the words wielded by Frederick Vosper’s hateful tongue.  If he remembered rightly he had threatened the Pastoralists and the armed forces with death “by cold lead and steel”, or words to that effect.

By now, William could think of nothing, besides his destination which was fast looming as the train clacked its way along the tracks.  With the heat of fires and the tense talk of unrest within the four drab walls that seemed to be closing in on his world, what else was there to think about?

His mind was racing with words, harsh provocative ravings.  Just days ago, the unrest had spilled onto the railway lines and streets of towns he had just watched pass by. With the squeal of brakes and roar of the whistle, he had wondered whether the brief stop at Clermont would be incident free.  It was only a week or two ago that the sleepy country town had come alight with rioting unionists flooding the streets.² He had been relieved that the station was absent of the 200 unionists on horseback and 100 on foot who attacked the carriages carrying Executives from the Pastoralists Association. The angry hoots and swinging sticks, had been replaced with an orderly show of police presence on the platform, accompanied by the ghostly echoes and whispers of what had been.  The sense of disquiet that had gripped the men only ten minutes before, subsided as the train once more gained full speed ahead.

Now, as the momentum of the train slowed on its approach to Barcaldine, William wondered what awaited them there.  He nervously tapped his fingers on the barrel of the new Martini-Henry rifle that stood on the floor before him.  His initial feelings of excitement were now melting into a rushing tide of uncertainty that was about to crash him head first into the first wave of his military career.

 

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Troopers at Shearers’ Strike, Hughenden 1891 – Photo: State Library of Qld.

 

Bibliography

1.http://www.digplanet.com/wiki/Frederick_Vosper

2.http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/3523372?searchTerm=Shearers’ Strikes 1891&searchLimits=l-state=Queensland

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Shearers’ Strike – Part 1

 

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Photo:  Along the road between Jericho and Clermont.  Taken by Kim Chambers

The beauty of the bush and grassy plains that sprawl from Emerald to Longreach is in the sounds of silence.  It spreads its wings over the expanse of land, like a soft giant coat of tranquillity.  Families of giant squat bottle trees stand guarding the sunburnt land; their leafy arms outstretched, happily waving to travellers as they come and go.  You might see an old man Kangaroo standing by the road’s edge, nonchalantly standing on hind legs chewing grass, waiting for intruders to pass.  And, the passing flocks of galahs or cockatoos squawk greetings of cheer from high above in the bright blue sky.  This is the Australian Outback today.  It is a place of peace, a retreat from the hustle and bustle of our city streets.  However, in 1891, the sheep grazing areas of outback Queensland became a battlefield.  The war drums were beating so loud that the Government became increasingly concerned that the country was in the grips of civil war.

William leaned his head against the window of the troop train, basking in the sharp rays of sunlight that stabbed his face through the glass. Although town folk from the coast complain about the heat, dust and flies, he found those traits of the bush to be comforting, despite the discomfort they brought.  They were reminders of the land where he was born.  He never dreamed of leaving his home, albeit an unforgiving landscape that could, at a snap, break those of a weaker constitution.  The secret of falling in love with the bush was to allow it to seep into one’s soul; the solitude and quiet has a way of speaking to you like no city or town can.

His eyes became mesmerized by the brushstrokes of yellows and browns that painted the landscape as the train rolled out west of Rockhampton.  He wished he could evesdrop on the groups of grey parched ironbarks or overfed bottle trees that gathered along the tracks. Seeing the land that was once his home, was like conversing with a long lost friend.  Since moving to the coast, he has missed these conversations with a home that understands how he thinks, the topics stretch to the horizon and back.  And the quiet solitude allows one to converse with one’s inner self whose thoughts can be easily heard.

Not that he hasn’t enjoyed the move, to a certain degree.  Life is easier.  The climate is more agreeable, cooler by far.  The golden yellows and browns have been replaced by lush tropical greens that represent a life of abundance.  But he finds town life intrusive, where the infinite boundaries of the wide open spaces have been replaced with the confines of small fenced yards where you can see your neighbours across the fence.

An hour or more chugs by and William closed his eyes, listening to the beat of the train rumbling along the lonely track towards the epicentre of unrest. He knew it would be another couple of hours before they reached Barcaldine.  He was content to let his thoughts revert to the dramatic changes that had occurred in his life of late.

Only a few months ago, he was helping Padda tend to horses and cattle on their station near Banana.  It was a hard life, especially for Ma who spent days and nights on her own with just his brothers and sisters for company.  He fondly remembered the times he had accompanied his father on his cattle drives.  He loved the freedom of the outdoors, riding his horse, chasing wayward cows in the bush.

Then he also recalled times of darkness when their safety was under threat of hostile groups of Aborigines who accused white folk of invading their land.  He shuddered when he recalled those nights when his Ma, with a hushing finger to her lips, ushered he and his five younger siblings, into the darkness of her bedroom.  Behind the closed door, they would huddle together with Ma, who held a loaded revolver in her hand.

Then, one evening last May, his father surprised him when he asked, ‘Kids, what do ya think about moving?”

“Where would we move to?” He asked his father. He could not imagine living anywhere else.

“Mackay,” His father replied.  “Yer Ma and I have been discussing dis for a while now.  Word is, there is money to be made in pubs.”

He had been disappointed at the prospect of losing the only way of life he had known during his seventeen years.

But, his Father had reassured him, “Son, it will be a new beginning! You’ll see.”

His father had been right.  It was a new beginning, for Ma and his siblings that is.  What Padda didn’t know was that he’d be leaving them in Mackay to follow life’s path without his helping hand.  His illness was sudden, unexpected.  How could he have foreseen….

“OH MY GOD!!  WHAT IN HEAVENS NAME!!”

William awoke from his dozing state to a tsunami of expletives rolling out of the open mouths of those who crowded the carriage.  He found himself joining the shocked chorus as he looked out at the blazing spinifex plains that circled Alpha and Jericho.  It was a battlefield, black and scarred,  dotted with the charred remains of poor dead sheep.

“Is this the work of Shearers?” he asked incredulously, his eyes fixed on the window.

 

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Military Parade in front of Barcaldine Camp during Shearers’ Strike 1891.  Photo:  State Library of Qld, Neg. 2024