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Hamilton, William (Bill) (1858–1920)

The death last wreek of 'Bill' Hamilton, the former miner, shearer and general bush-worker who became Minister for Mines and latterly who occupied the position of President of the Legislative Council recalls to recollection some of the incidents associated with his participation in the great bush strike of 1891, his unjust arrest and undeserved sentence. The debate in Parliament in July, 1891, on Glassey's motion that a special commission be appointed to inquire into the labor troubles and their origin had at least one good result, inasmuch as that it brought into 'Hansard' some statements of fact which had been entirely suppressed by the Press of the period. The ''Worker,'' then a very small and struggling sheet, had to feel its way warily, and dared not publish all that it knew, for fear that its suppression would result. The Pastoralists' Association in 1889 and 1890 had found the shearers' and other bush unions far too strong to suit their desires, and had adopted a plan of campaign which, briefly stated, was to collect a thousand or so free laborers in the southern colonies and work them through the strong unionist districts in Central Queensland. It was decided that most of the shearing could be postponed till June, and it was anticipated that by that time union funds would be exhausted, the spirit of the unionists broken, and their willingness to accept any peace proposals secured.

In all the big southern newspapers men who were willing to shear as non-unionists were advertised for, and the Pastoralists' Association was backed by the sugar-planters and the federated employers generally. Political power in Queensland was held by men bitterly opposed to any special political representation for unionists, and there were only two Labor men in Parliament. Such were the combined forces against which the bush unionists had to fight for anything like decent conditions and fair wage.

Realising that only by close contact, intense organisation and solidarity had they any chance of winning through, the shearers and allied workers, for whom the pastoralists stubbornly refused to find employment, assembled together in camps in different parts of the State. They held meetings and candidly condemned the tactics of the pastoralists. They also asserted to the full their rights to picket and persuasion, as conferred by the Trade Union Act, waited(?) on free laborers and urged them to join their ranks. If, as alleged, threats of violence were used, the leaders of the camps certainly were not responsible for any startling statements. It was a season of many bush fires, even in districts in which there were no unionists' camps, and wherever such or any fires occurred within a day's ride of the camps wild rumor, favorably heard by the party in power, charged the unionists with arson.

Another wild and ridiculous rumor, to the effect that a thousand armed unionist shearers were coming over from Bourke to the assistance of their Queensland mates, also was spread abroad. A Gatling gun, a Nordenfeldt, and a number of hirelings in military uniform were despatched to the Central West, but wet Weather and floods intervened to prevent the early arrival of the guns at the scene of their threatened usage.

An old Conspiracy Act of George IV., which even many of the lawyers had believed to have passed into desuetude, was disinterred and revived to enable the arrest of the camp leaders. The Riot Act was read ad nauseam in the Western towns by magistrates. On each occasion of its reading the men were called upon to disperse, and on refusal some were arrested. The military officers were specially created justices of the peace, so that when any unionists were charged they could occupy seats on the bench and counteract any tendency to leniency. And all this military activity was in addition to that of almost the whole of the mounted police force transferred to the western duty in hunting packs. (Digression here may be permitted for the remark, 'Other times other manners,' in association with the news item that a squad of brilliantly accoutred mounted police formed part of the lengthy cortege which accompanied Hamilton's mortal remains to Toowong Cemetery.)

The first arrests were made at Charleville; but the Central West became the storm centre. The strike committee at Barcaldine were arrested without the formality of warrants, and their papers also taken into police custody. The chief idea underlying the seizure of letters, etc., undoubtedly was to implicate the Australian Labor Federation, but although shearer Ryan, one of the representatives of the Federation, was arrested, those who were so desirous to prosecute failed to fasten on the A.L.F. the responsibility for any unlawful acts.

The Government ignored the fact that it was not its function to take sides in the dispute, and instead of the officials acting merely for the maintenance of peace and order, they openly took sides with the pastoralists. Hundreds of special constables were sworn in and despatched to the stations, where, as one pastoralist facetiously put it in a letter to a P.M., 'their youthful minds were guided in the way they should shoot.' Colonel French, who was in charge of the military at one centre, was instructed by wire to indulge in no more dilly-dallying, but to 'EXERCISE VIGOR, EVEN IF IT CAUSED BLOODSHED.'

The pastoralists wanted the unionists' camps broken up so that they could shear with non-union labor, and the Government, which was largely composed of members of the Employers' Federation, was of the same mind as the pastoralists. Although a number of the men arrested and charged were sent to serve three years' terms in St. Helena, NO UNLAWFUL ACTS WERE PROVEN AGAINST THEM. It was merely shown that some of them had said things, i.e., made more or less empty threats. Judge Harding, before whom they were tried, made remarks such as this during the trial, which took place at Rockhampton: 'There were four policemen. Four times six are twenty-four. There would not have been many boohooed the second time if I had been one of them.'

At that trial it was shown that while in charge of the camp at Clermont, Hamilton, a born leader, had restrained the men, and on one occasion, when peregrinating pastoralists were greeted by bawling and boohooing which might have developed into something worse, he had successfully called upon the 200 men in his camp to maintain order and to allow the pastoralists to proceed.

Hoolan, then member for Burke, contrived to have inserted in 'Hansard' this eloquent testimony to Hamilton's honesty and respectability written by a member of a Victorian firm of sharebrokers — 'You need have no doubt as regards Bill Hamilton's character. He is an Australian goldfield's boy, noble-minded, HONEST TO A FAULT, and one who resents the oppression of the producer by the capitalist. He has more than the average intelligence, and has always, I believe, conducted himself respectably, as his parents taught him to do. He is a zealous workman at whatever he tackles. I have known him on Mount Brown to do two men's work, I have also known him on Kimberley to work ljke a Trojan (if they ever did work), but, I am sorry to say, with very poor results. . . . Will you do what you can for him?'.

Even before they were sentenced Hamilton and the other men had suffered harshness of a character very discreditable to nineteenth century civilisation. They were chained together day and night and sometimes exposed to all the inclemency of a wet season. But though true justice was denied them and tyranny oppressed them, Hamilton and his mates were not of the type that whine and despair.

As soon as possible Hamilton was back again in the west, one of the best of the Western shearers, and, as always, one of the bravest of bushmen. He married Miss Mary Mitchell, daughter of William Mitchell, who had assisted to make history in the Eureka Stockade, and who in his later years deserted the lure of metal for life on the land, and became a grazier in the Longreaeh district.

Hamilton lived to see his children grow up, lived also to earn the goodwill and high respect of the anti-Labor as well as the Labor forces in both Houses of Parliament. The State funeral accorded to him was attended by many men who in the early nineties had been willing to believe any ill of him, but who long since had been conquered by his sterling qualities and the natural dignity which, combined with sound commonsense, enabled him to fill with credit the high offices which since the elevation of Labor to the seats of Government were offered for his acceptance.

As for those objects for which in his young manhood he strove, and because of which he suffered, they and much more long since were achieved by the solidarity of bush unionists and are accepted with equanimity even by the Pastoralists' Association. It was due to Hamilton's persistency that the bill to provide better accommodation at the places of their employment for shearers and sugar workers, which he introduced as a private member's bill during his first (1899) session in Parliament, finally became law.

He passed in his 63rd year while still in full mental vigor, and at his passing the workingmen of the bush and the mines lost a good friend.

Original publication

Additional Resources

Citation details

'Hamilton, William (Bill) (1858–1920)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://oa.anu.edu.au/obituary/hamilton-william-bill-6540/text39981, accessed 3 July 2022.

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