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Forrester, Alexander (Alec) (1853–1932)

Qld shearers strike leaders, 1893 [Forrester is second from right, top row]

Qld shearers strike leaders, 1893 [Forrester is second from right, top row]

State Library of Qld, 64845

Old timers in the Labor Movement throughout Queensland will learn with regret of the death at Dunwich on Saturday 0f Alexander Forrester Lewis, one of the band of unionists who suffered imprisonment for their devotion to Labor principles during the big industrial upheaval of the early 'nineties.

Deceased, who was generally known as Alexander Forrester, was born near Ballarat, Victoria, in 1853. Coming to Queensland in early life he engaged in bush occupations, including work in the shearing sheds. These were stirring times in the West. The spirit of unionism, of resentment towards the tyranny and insolence or squatters, was beginning to show itself among the pastoral workers. To develop and direct this spirit and aid it in securing some redress of the many injustices suffered by the workers was the self appointed task of the Labor stalwarts of the day, of whom Alick Forrester was one. The upshot was the formation in 1886 of the Queensland Shearers' Union, precursor of the A.W.U., and of this historic body Alick Forrester could claim the great distinction of being first organiser.

Much good, most of it unrecorded — there was no Labor Press in those days — was accomplished by the union. Conditions were bettered, and shearing rates were raised in many sheds, those which had been paying the lowest rates— 15s. and 17s. 6d. a 100— being compelled to come into line with those that had been paying 20s. Efforts, however, to secure benefits for the shed hands were ineffective, and with the squatters beginning to marshal their forces for an onslaught on the newly organised workers, the spirit of unrest, of determination to fight for their industrial rights, became more and more widespread among the awakening wage earners.

One incident of those days, as showing how the leaven was working, was related to 'The Worker' by Dan Murphy, fellow prisoner with Forrester in 1891 and intimate friend for many years. In 1890 Albert Hinchliffe, first business manager of 'The Worker,' which had just been founded, sent along to Forrester a copy of Bellamy's 'Looking Backward,' that beautiful picture of ideal Socialism in the year 2000 A.D.; and Forrester read from the book chapter after chapter before a crowd of a hundred that assembled eagerly night after night to hear it until the end was reached. That was the first introduction of ideal Socialism to Dan Murphy and others, and its influence was lifelong. And the next time Dan and Alick met was in the police court yard at Rockhampton, where both were to face criminal prosecution for their joint association with unionism!

In 1891 the trial of strength came. The wealthy squatters, with the organised thuggery of law and order to back them, came forward against the bush workers with pockets empty but hearts full of enthusiasm. Ancient laws were invoked and new ones passed by a pliant Legislature in order to put the stamp of the broad arrow upon men taking a leading part in the union movement. And among the gallant band arrested for the 'crime' was Alick Forrester. He was taken at St. George. A friendly post office official gave him the tap that the police were after him, and Alick, accordingly promptly rid himself of all 'incriminating' correspondence and documents — strike literature and the like. The arrest of others, however, provided the evidence necessary to prepare an indictment against Forrester, and he received a sentence, with nine others, of three years in St. Helena.

On his liberation Forrester, fired with his old time enthusiasm, went to New Australia, the Socialist colony founded by William Lane, and here he stayed for 12 or 14 years. He then went to Argentine, where he worked in the wool and industries for a time, afterwards going to London. Here he met Sir Horace Tozer, then Agent-General for Queensland, and noted as one of the bitterest of Labor's opponents. Tozer, strange to say, endeavored to induce the former 'agitator' and 'stirrer up of strife' to return to Queensland, offering him land on liberal terms. Forrester, however, elected to go to New Zealand, where he engaged in dairying for 15 years, and where members of his family were settled. The severity of the winter, coupled with rheumatics, which had attacked him, compelled him to leave, and ultimately, after a spell in Sydney he decided that Brisbane's genial climate was most suitable.

Accordingly he came here some ten years ago, and here the evening of his life was spent; his savings though not much, sufficing for his simple wants. A couple of years ago he suffered a stroke, from which he recovered, but he became a martyr to rheumatism. About five weeks ago, fearing he would become helpless, he elected to go to Dunwich, where, somewhat remarkable to relate he met among the inmates a brother whom he had not seen for 38 years. Apparently the change was doing him good, but a severe attack of gastritis brought about the end on Saturday.

The late Alick Forrester had all the qualities necessary to fit him for the big part he played in the Labor Movement in crucial days of the early nineties. Well read, courageous, enthusiastic, and possessing a memory richly stored in matters of working class interest, he proved himself to be at once a born organiser and a big factor moulding and directing the forces, then coming into being, from which was to emerge the new unionism, manifesting itself in the Labor Movement as it is to-day. And the passing of the years, which serve in so many instances to narrow the mental outlook, had, if anything, an opposite effect in his case. Faithful to the end to the ideal of the Socialist State, he was ever dissatisfied with the slow march of mankind, and particularly of Australia as a possible pioneer of progress towards its goal. One of the salt of the earth. Laborites of all creeds and none will echo over his grave the benediction, 'Peace be to his ashes!"

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'Forrester, Alexander (Alec) (1853–1932)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/forrester-alexander-alec-32298/text39977, accessed 7 December 2022.

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