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.
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.
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.
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.