2001 ASSLH Conference – Policing the 1873 Lothair mines dispute at Clunes

David Baker
Criminal Justice and Criminology, Monash University


The Clunes riot was the first occasion that armed police used force in an industrial dispute in Victoria. The miners took strike action over pay and hours of work. On 9 December 1873, the townspeople formed a blockade against a small contingent of police who were escorting Chinese strikebreakers to the Lothair mines. The police attempt proved abortive and the Chinese returned to Creswick. It is argued that the determined local blockade was effective in defeating the aggressive, militaristic and numerically inferior police. In the highly volatile situation, the lack of communication between police and local miners created a riot.


Throughout Australia’s industrial relations history, police have responded willingly and often forcefully to demands from employers and/or government to clear entrances to workplaces. In a number of disputes, police escorted strikebreakers through picket-lines into the workplace, the most common scenario of violence between police and unionists.1

Although police escorting strikebreakers was quite unusual in the nineteenth century, it transpired at Clunes (40 kms north of Ballarat and population of approximately 6,000 townspeople). Virtually the whole community, united and resolute, supported the picketers in their efforts to prevent Chinese labour entering the mining town. An Age editorial (11 December 1873) lamented the proceedings of “physical force” of the riot, “which have so degraded Clunes as a greater disgrace could not have befallen the working men of Victoria”, those workingmen whose David Syme’s Age had long championed. It was the first time in the colony’s history both that armed police had intervened in an industrial dispute and that, according to the Argus’s disgust (11 December), there had been a resort to rioting “in order to sustain and enforce the demands of labor”.

The Clunes riot, a forgotten event in Victoria’s history as well as a neglected occurrence in Australia’s industrial relations precedents,2 was a forerunner of much aggressive, forceful and legalistic policing of major industrial disputes in Australia. The policing of the Lothair mines dispute portrayed the hegemony of the capital city government and its centralised police force over a part of the hinterland of the fledgling colony. The Victoria Police constituted the visible authority of the state (and since 1870 there had been no imperial army in the colony) invested with a monopoly of power to use force. Although theoretically based on Sir Robert Peel’s 1829 London policing model, rural policing in reality was heavily influenced by the paramilitary Royal Irish Constabulary. The dispute encapsulated the paradoxical positioning of a colonial police force espousing civil policing but adopting militaristic tactics. Mark Finnane generalises that that there is little evidence of a consistently repressive police role in terms of the policing of conflict and dissent.3

Although there has been no formulated policy of repression against strikers in Australia, whenever employers have demanded police intervention the police response has usually been swift, decisive, ruthless and forceful.4 Clunes is a case-study of such a response, albeit unusually ineffectual.

The Lothair dispute foreshadowed the deepening industrial conflict between capital and labour in the years approaching the Great Strikes of the 1890s. The use of Chinese as strikebreakers was unusual but the fear of cheap Chinese competition was central to the development of the White Australia policy.5 Local characteristics played a prominent part in the Lothair mines dispute as they would in many industrial disputes over the next century in Australia. The policing of major disputes at Broken Hill (1909), Rothbury (1929), Korrumburra (1937), Mt Isa (1965) and Burnie (1992) would be enacted in remote or rural areas and be significantly effected by those local and regional traits.6

The dispute and community resistance

Industrial conditions at Clunes had been peaceful until September 1873 when the latent conflict between capital and labour surfaced and with it the accompanying need for the state to utilise its coercive agency, the police. For fourteen weeks from September 1873, the miners of the Lothair Quartz and Alluvial Mining Company had been on strike regarding rates of pay, hours of work and the management’s decision both to stop contract work and to impose extra shifts.7 The Ballarat Courier (24 September) extolled the inevitable differences between capital and labour: “…so long as Competition is the regulating principle, they will be antagonistic…” The paper’s editorial acknowledged: “The end of commerce is gain—profit to those engaged in it. But it must be born in mind there are two parties, the employer and the employed. The first brings his money, and the other brings his labour and skill”. The industrial tension was heightened by the type of mining employed on the Clunes goldfields. The quartz mines, owing to their depth, produced fouler air and much hotter conditions than the alluvial mines of other districts.

On 13 September, Mayor Blanchard, “an old miner”, was elected the inaugural president of the Clunes Miners’ Association of 130 members. 150 men, resolute not to work more than eleven shifts per fortnight, went on strike on 15 September. Ballarat and district miners refused to take the place of their Clunes co-miners. The directors asserted that they were seeking European labour from Ballarat but to no avail as the “Clunes men will seek every advantage to do us injury”. The directors maintained their pledge to “employ Europeans, and give them 7s 6d per shift, and guarantee good air”.8 A Melbourne shareholders’ meeting empowered the company directors to engage Chinese labour from the goldfields to resume operations because the works were idle as agreement could not be achieved with the Clunes miners.9

The Clunes dispute highlighted a fundamental industrial issue of capital and labour: the right of the employer to employ whomsoever he might choose. According to the Ballarat Courier (13 December) which sided with the company’s intent, the Chinese had a moral and legal right to accept work from the Lothair company. The miners counter-argued in terms of their right to protect pay and conditions but, in so doing, they denied the same workplace to the Chinese. On Monday evening 8 December, the Miners’ Association received telegrams stating that the Chinese were leaving Ballarat and Creswick for Clunes. The Creswick Advertiser (10 December) stressed the unanimity of the mining community in opposing the Chinese cohort: “…the tocsin was sounded, and all the miners in the different mines suspended work and turned out to give the weight of numbers and the prestige of the Association as a demonstration against the Mongolian invasion”. Next day about 500 hostile miners assembled, “headed by a band of music, and paraded the streets. They armed themselves with axes, picks, sticks and waddies of all manner. Women in their hundreds urged the men in their endeavours”.10 The Tuesday afternoon edition of the Ballarat Courier (9 December) spoke of industrial sabotage by claiming that some of the Lothair miners earlier that day had taken “a rope to a building a few hundred yards off, which had been erected for the convenience of the expected Chinamen, and passing it around, pulled it over”. Tension and exaggeration consumed Clunes: a telegram from Creswick stated that 150 Chinamen were on their way.

Although most of the contemporary newspaper accounts refer to the Clunes riots, in fact there appears to have been only one major confrontation between police and the local community. On Tuesday evening 9 December, a small band of police (newspaper accounts range from 10 to 30) led 40-50 Chinese strike-breakers from Ballarat and Creswick towards Clunes; they had already been pre-warned by the Mayor of Creswick of an impending hostile reception. The miners were well-prepared! By 8pm more than 1000 men, women and children waited on the Ballarat Road for the arrival of the Chinese. The Ballarat Courier (10 December) reflected local community feeling: “…nearly the whole population turned out to join in a demonstration of resistance” against the Chinese, including “a good many women, and a whole army of boys”.11

The police role in the riot

Five coaches escorted by police approached “with a dash” the townspeople’s barricade, at the junction of the Ballarat and Coghill’s Creek roads and a mile short of Clunes. A brief, but ferocious, battle ensued. According to the Age correspondent (10 December), “the battle…was fought with determined energy and bravery on both sides”. The police and Chinese were quickly routed. According to the Daylesford Mercury & Express (11 December), when the Chinese and the police appeared before the miners’ barricade, “they were assailed by a storm of bricks and stones, and though the constables fought well, they were compelled to retreat.” Three received serious cuts to their heads—Sgt Larner; Mr Bryant, the mining director; and Mr Pascoe, the local director. Institutional historian and serving policeman Robert Haldane suggests that the police under Larner acted in a brave but questionable manner.12 “Brave” could be interpreted as foolhardy: the need for police to take risks and show their mettle in crowd situations. “Questionable” could be viewed as impractical, in the face of overwhelming odds. According to the Creswick Advertiser (10 December), the confrontation lasted “about three-quarters of an hour, the police, the coaches, and their contents had pretty warm of it.” This paper took unabashed and unrestricted delight in the outcome: “Sergeant Larner had been nearly killed; several of the police wounded, and great works done—and more, the Mayor would not read the Riot Act.” The police retreated to Ballarat; the Chinamen returned to Creswick, never to return to Clunes. The Ballarat Courier (11 December) expressed the accepted outcome of the district: “Whatever the upshot of the strike, it is certain the Chinese will not reenter Clunesward again… What they say is ‘No kill Chinamen this time, kill him second time’”.

The Age correspondent (10 December) spoke of the gallantry and heroics of the police leaders, especially Sergeant Larner (from Creswick) and Constable Durack (a resident of Clunes for thirteen years), who both mounted the barricade, one with a carbine and the other with a horse-pistol. The fifteen police fought and “did all in their power bravely to beat the men off and save the wretched Chinamen, who, it is feared, got severely punished and cautioned, although they hid as much as possible under the seats and behind the luggage”. The Ballarat Courier graphically described both police and Chinese confronted “by such a vast and furious storm of stones” and lauded the heroics of the troopers fighting “like fury, especially Sgt Larner and Constable Durack”. The Ballarat Star (10 & 13 December) followed the time-honoured argument that the police at Clunes were merely doing their paid duty in the face of “a murderous assault” when attacked by “crowds of miners and their wives”. 

By contrast, the editor of the Creswick Advertiser (12 December) chided the futile efforts of Larner and Durack who were “baffled, defeated and wounded”. The editor believed that their “conduct, if truly related is subject to censure and deservedly so”. The paper called for immediate investigation, if as reported, the two police officers “mounted the temporary barricade and presented their firearms, for such conduct was not only a breach of the law, but provocative of it in others in the highest degree”. The Daylesford Mercury editorial (11 December) questioned the tactics of the police leader, Sgt Larner. When he was confronted by an “excited mob” forty times larger than his men, he would have been “justified in returning to Creswick for further instructions” because entry to Clunes was impossible. But Larner went forward and mounted the barricade. Numbers are a key to the policing of any public disorder situation, but especially a blockade. Police need to “win” the contest in order to hold the day and overcome future challenges to their authority. If police are thwarted by a superior “enemy”, the consequences for future industrial confrontations can be dire.13

The Herald (13 December) was highly critical of police tactics.14 Repeatedly, it argued that the most appropriate tactics would have involved “a large police force concentrated in Clunes to prevent any breach of the peace by whomsoever caused and that with the Lothair directors alone should have remained the responsibility of conveying their interesting proteges to the scene of their labors”. Throughout Australian history, the public police have borne the brunt of conveying non-union labour into the workforce; this seemingly partisan role has often riled the union movement.

The Herald’s editorials of the Saturday evenings of 13 and 20 December raised universal issues, still pertinent today, of the proper function of police in controlling overt manifestations of industrial disputation. The paper claimed that the duty of police is “immediately upon receipt of information of the disturbance having taken place is to preserve the peace, and not to provoke a breach of it by offensive demonstrations”. However, the police at Clunes “not only escorted the foreigners, but sought to force a way for them, and to cow the miners by warlike demonstrations”. In its condemnation of coercive colonial policing, the Herald (20 December) appealed to British policing principles of impartiality and neutrality. Police as spectators “are enjoined under no circumstances whatever to appear as partisans in strikes, but are told not to interfere on one side or the other until a breach of the peace is committed”. Despite the erection of the illegal Clunes barricade and the throwing of rocks and other missiles, the Herald argued that the police “actually presented themselves as violent partisans of the Chinese, and sought to secure for them safe conduct to the homes which had been prepared for them in the midst of a thriving, industrious, and, as the world goes, moral neighbourhood”. The “great mistake” of the police was that they “took the law into their own hands, and sought to force the men off the road”. The police should merely have used the law to punish those offenders who had placed an obstruction on the public highway. The Herald justified the miners’ actions as defensive, not offensive, and excused all wrong-doing because “action taken thus in the heat of great excitement possesses no vicious or criminal features”. This is a far cry from the conservative newspaper images of the heroic policemen Larner and Durack protecting the hapless Chinese against the overwhelming tyranny of the miners.

The local community blockade had proved effective. Consequently, “a riotous mob gained a decisive victory over the police”.15 Local MLA Mr Philipps spoke that “he felt proud to witness, under the existing circumstances the orderly but still determined manner in which they (the miners) resisted that which they believed to be oppressive”.16 The townspeople followed Bryant, the manager, to his home and demanded his resignation. Pascoe, a local director, who was particularly obnoxious to the workers and who many perceived as a catalyst of the strike, was ordered off the claim, “tapped on the head again” and required police protection.17

The next day, a detachment of sixteen armed police reached Clunes from Ballarat. Many were stationed on the Lothair mine to protect property. The populace was uncertain of the reasons and motivation for the continued presence of the constabulary garrison. The Creswick Advertiser (15 December), which identified the central government as a stakeholder, jubilantly asserted that no Chinese would work at Clunes “unless protected by a force of police which the government cannot afford to release from all the other districts”. A week later, the paper reported that normality had returned to the rural township but a large police presence “gives rise to much speculation”. After Tuesday’s events, the townspeople trusted neither the central government nor the police. Support for the Clunes miners was conveyed from other miners in the north-central areas of the state. It was claimed that if an appeal were made to the Sandhurst miners (Bendigo) “hundreds would at once take to the road to assist their fellow countrymen at Clunes”.18

Law and order

The 1873 riot raises the perplexing question of the proper function of the police in handling major industrial disputation. At Clunes, and as applied during the policing of the 1998 Australian waterfront dispute, police have a mandate to enforce the law and keep the peace. These two tenets, both then and now, are not always compatible.19 Victoria Police in 1873 was a centralised, paramilitary force bedevilled by poor leadership and its rural police lacked bush craft and training.20 The police were not merely civil protectors but also the colony’s standing army (aided by a volunteer force) for defence purposes.21 The relationship between the central government and police headquarters, both centred in Melbourne, was close and incestuous.

Any police participation in industrial conflicts, especially the quelling of riotous behaviour and the smashing of picket lines, promotes law and order controversy. The people of Victoria were conscious of a recent mob disturbance and attack on police at Stawell as well as the memory of the 1857 Buckland riots. The Daylesford Mercury (18 December), a staunch supporter of authority, condemned the Clunes rioters “for their deliberate contempt for constituted authority. It is a just subject for pride among the British race that they respect the constable’s baton as the symbol of law and order”. Interestingly, force (the baton, the weapon of street clearance) was depicted as the symbol of law and order. Akin to most Melburnian newspapers, the Ballarat Star (12 December) took a strong law and order stand over the Clunes resistance and denounced the work of “violent mobs”. If the miners were not condemned, “anarchy would supervene” and the colony would no longer be a “civilised community”.

Although the historical perception presented by the state’s ruling elites is that major strike activity challenges and undermines the fabric of democracy and the political and economic system and that large-scale picketing is a direct challenge to police hegemony on the streets, there has been no strike in Australia’s history which has directly sought the overthrow of the government of the day by workers taking up arms.22 Deery argues that challenges to the state through industrial struggles are “successful only in rare and exceptional circumstances”.23 Nevertheless, a number of colonial newspapers expressed a genuine fear of violence and anarchy spreading in the colony as a result of the police defeat at Clunes. A Daylesford Mercury & Express editorial (11 December) asserted that “every attempt to inaugurate the reign of physical violence in this colony must be put down with a firm hand”. This paper, along with others (Age, Kyneton Guardian and Ballarat Star), referred to riotous conduct at Stawell over the “jumped claims” territorial disputes, “followed by the doings of the mob at Clunes, conclusively shows that there is a tendency to lawlessness on the goldfields”. The days of Eureka still haunted the traditional advocates of law and order such as government, police and much of the press which abhorred any possibility of a future Victoria tainted by lawlessness and mob rioting.

The Herald (10 December) assailed the police involvement on legal and constitutional grounds. It saw the police in league with the Melbourne establishment, especially the government and the directors of the Lothair Company. The Herald praised the miners’ restraint in the face of police provocation. The Creswick Advertiser (12 December), appealing to English legal traditions, raised questions about the legality and propriety of the handling of the Lothair mines dispute by “a posse of police” whose duty is:

…to preserve order, but not to anticipate or provoke disturbances by an overt demonstration of force. There is something so peculiarly un-English in Tuesday’s proceedings that we trust the members for Creswick will obtain an explanation from Captain Standish of his part in the matter. In England, the police authorities studiously avoid the least demonstration of force in strikes, or differences between masters and men.

The paper arrogantly advised Chief Commissioner Standish that he should have increased the police force at Clunes, “and instructed the officer in command there to use every quiet effort to preserve the peace, and on no account to resort to extreme measures unless an outrage was committed”.


Sir Robert Peel’s civil policing model extolled minimum force: force was to be a last resort for the London constabulary. The Ballarat Courier (11 December) demanded an explanation of Captain Standish in relation to the Lothair industrial dispute: “…the peaceful inhabitants of Clunes have been insulted by a mob of Chinese being escorted towards them by an armed constabulary force.” The paper asserted that the police should have made no overt display of force “until their services were required by actual outrage” and that policing principles of neutrality, independence and the use of force as a last resort were abandoned by Standish’s men. The police were the provocateur; Chief Commissioner Standish of the Melbourne Club too closely allied with the government, the establishment and the directors of companies.24 Ironically, Victorian police at that time were working-class males, paid accordingly and enjoying a lowly status as semi-skilled workers.25

The Stawell Miners’ Association meeting, 13 December, passed a resolution that “the Government or Captain Standish, as the head of the police, are to blame for having escorted or protected any particular class of subjects before any breach of the peace had been committed”. The miners were unsure who to blame—Premier Francis or Standish? They were expressing a reactive view of policing: police should only become involved after there is a breach of the peace. The miners unanimously castigated those “unprincipled speculators”, the Lothair Company directors, who instigated the attempt to introduce Chinese labour at Clunes, “an insult to the European population of the colony”.26 By contrast, the Melbourne correspondent of the Ballarat Star (12 December) expressed a preventive view of policing by hypothesising that if there had been no police escort, murder would have almost certainly been committed.

The second resolution of a Miners’ Association meeting at Sandhurst “condemned the action of the police interfering between men on strike and the directors of the Lothair Co. and request the Government to establish an inquiry into the action of the police authorities”.27 Their request for an inquiry was neither considered nor granted. This failure to hold either individual constables or police departments accountable for violent actions during industrial disputes has been a common feature of Australian industrial history. Similarly, government, police and press successfully resisted calls for an external or internal inquiry into the fatal police shooting of stevedore Allan Whittaker at Port Melbourne on 2 November 1928.28

Some of the rural newspapers in the vicinity of Clunes bluntly condemned the miners’ unprovoked attack on the police. The Kyneton Guardian (13 December) censured the mob for committing a “cowardly and brutal attack…upon a handful of police and a dozen or two of Chinese”. The 17 December editorial deplored the rhetoric of those wishing to assist “the male and female ruffians of that district in breaking open policemen’s heads and savagely assaulting Chinese cooped up in coaches and quite unable to defend themselves…” It condemned the Sandhurst sympathy meeting as inflammatory and secretive. The Bendigo Advertiser (13 December) regretted the loss of confidence in law and order and admonished that “the majesty of the law, though it may only be represented by a handful of policemen, is not to be insulted with impunity”.

By contrast, the Creswick Advertiser (15 December) clearly blamed the central authorities for the fiasco at Clunes: “…the authorities made a bungle of the affair, committed a gross blunder, and invited by their exasperating conduct unlawful reprisals”. The editor of the Melbourne Herald (13 December) laid the blame squarely for the riot on the shoulders of the Government: “There can be no two opinions that the Government by providing police to escort the Chinese, are solely responsible for the breach of the peace which took place at Clunes”. The paper lamented that Parliament was not sitting, thereby denying the Opposition the opportunity to capitalise on the fiasco in the House. Some Clunes residents alleged that Premier Francis had a financial stake in the mine bordering that of the Lothair Company. The Herald challenged the Premier’s neutrality in the affair: “Mr Francis, it may be mentioned, is largely interested in the mine adjoining that of the Lothair Company, and his personal sympathies can therefore be by no means with the rioters.” The radical Herald pointed out that Francis’s “strict neutrality” was “simply bosh”. Yet police historian Haldane claims that armed police at Clunes, “acting without precedent or specific government approval, intervened in an industrial dispute to assist in strike breaking”.29 Haldane presents no evidence to support this claim, just as no evidence (apart from newspaper opinion) can be located to contradict his interpretation. It appears strange that a decision would have been made by the local police after a protracted, fourteen weeks stalemate at the mines; the likely scenario was that the government, via Standish, instructed the regional police to act as an escort for the Chinese in order to break the industrial deadlock. A week later, the Herald (20 December), exploiting Cabinet leaks and exhibiting stark racism, transferred the blame squarely onto Chief Commissioner Standish for sanctioning the police escort of the “unholy competition” of Chinese:

The Cabinet, according to all accounts, has had under consideration the recent disturbances at Clunes, and has decided that the Chief Commissioner of Police acted in an improper manner in lending the protection of the forces under his control to the attempt to introduce the Mongolians into a community which has hitherto been free from the pollution which follows in the footsteps of that race as they exist in this colony.

The Creswick Advertiser (15 December) asserted that the police on-the-spot provoked violence by their foolhardy steadfastness in challenging the barricade: “…Sergeant Larner and Constable Durack presented their carbines at the breasts of quiet, peaceable men, and used threats of using them effectually for clearing the way”. The Melbourne correspondent of the Clunes Guardian & Gazette, 1 January 1874, reported that a scapegoat would be found to blame for the police debacle. Sarcastically, it reported: “Of course the Government never authorised it and it may safely be guaranteed that the Chief Commissioner never thought of such a thing much less directed it”. The Gazette was certain that a lowly ranked policeman, “the poor devil”, who “any big bug in the force has got a down upon”, would be demoted to appease the wrath caused by the futile venture at Clunes. Such a policeman would become the “scapegoat” for the guilty party of “Government, Chief Commissioner, Superintendents, J P’s, &c, &c.”

Initially, the Age (11 December) denounced “deeds so shameful and so disreputable to us as a law and order abiding people’. This liberal, reformist newspaper proudly boasted that whenever trades in Victoria had requested advanced wages and shorter hours of labour “that physical force has never before been resorted to”. Its editorial feared that the miners “seem to be of a different kidney from their fellow workmen”. Rival papers such as the Herald and the Argus accused the Age of vacillating and contradictory attitudes to the Clunes riot. But on 12 December, the Age’s workingmen’s tap flowed: “…the government was blameworthy in allowing the police to help them, and the first vicious step of resorting to physical force was not taken by the miners”.

Outwardly concerned for the young colony’s reputation, many conservative elements of society called upon the government to charge and punish the ringleaders of the Clunes riot. On 13 December, the Herald reported that the Government intended to prosecute some miners in order to divert attention away from the Government’s “own deficiencies”. The Herald (20 December) believed that the Government had intended to prosecute on a broad scale and on serious charges but the “Government, appreciative of the fact that the police had committed a grave mistake in the first instance, intend in a manner to retrace their steps, and prosecute the ringleaders for assault only”, a seemingly token response. According to the Herald (23 December), Premier Francis was trying to please and appease all; especially the miners, public and company directors.

The Francis Cabinet informed the police department that police were to be instructed to issue summonses for simple assault against all persons “who could be identified as having committed any breach of the peace on the occasion in question”.30 The Government itself decided not to prosecute anyone but left it to the police to proceed against those persons identified for common assault. The Daylesford Mercury (18 December) called for an example to be made of the ringleaders, otherwise “we are to drift into anarchy”. The conservative Argus (20 December) regretted that “the offenders are fortunate in escaping indictment for the far more serious breach of the law” such as rioting. Prominent local people present at the riot were not called to account for their presence and actions; eg, MLA Philipps and Mayor Blanchard. The central government no longer took an active role in the Clunes affair but rather its outcome was left in the hands of local Clunes police.

Those ringleaders who were charged appeared at a densely crowded Clunes Police Court, on Tuesday, 23 December, just prior to Christmas; an obvious, though significant timing. The defendants and their witnesses made much of the police brandishing their firearms. The Bench inflicted a fine of 5 pound upon all defendants (except Joseph Tonkin whose case was dismissed); in default, 14 days’ imprisonment. The Court outcomes reflected the local feelings. Considering the nature of the charges, ones of assault, the penalties imposed on the guilty were regarded as lenient. Even more significant was the fact that charges were left to the police to lay. No major crime against the state was alleged; no crime of conspiracy, no crime of provoking a riot. Fines amounting to 80 pounds were paid by the Clunes Miners’ Association, a liberal and generous response of the townspeople, including “handsomely responded” contributions from the Clunes business people.31

As early as the Thursday after the riot, Syme’s Age (11 December) was lamenting that “no attempt has been made to submit the dispute between employers and employed to intelligent and independent arbitrament”. Hindsight indicates that consultation, negotiation and compromise between strike organisers and the police can be an effective means of avoiding violence at the picket line. The policing of both the 1992 APPM dispute at Burnie and the 1998 Australian maritime dispute are two contemporary instances of police adopting low-key, peace-keeping and accommodating approaches to industrial unrest. Confrontation was the policing strategy in 1873; there was no attempt at communication between police and the organisers of the blockade; there was no attempt to solve the dispute by independent arbitration.

Prior to the introduction of compulsory conciliation and arbitration in 1904, there was a penchant for disputes to involve direct police and striker confrontation, such as at Adamson in the Hunter Valley in September 1888 when thirty police, unable to protect six strikebreakers, fled from the stoning of a large crowd.32 Revisionist historian Robin Walker has documented how violence in colonial industrial disputes was more widespread and significant than historians have realised, although government restraints, including the use of police, were even more significant. Most of the violent incidents related to objections to the use of strikebreakers, especially at shearing-sheds, docks and mines.33 As it was rare that strikebreakers themselves provoked the violence, clashes, like that at Clunes, were normally between the workers and the police escorting the “scabs”. Walker claims that for the late nineteenth century, labour antagonism to the police was far less hostile than most historians or sociologists Connell and Irving imagined.34 Apart from some of the more radical and marginalised worker groups, hatred of police in Australia has usually remained a transitory phenomenon at the height of the conflict. There is no evidence of continued hostility towards police in the Clunes district; Constable Durack remained on duty. The miners’ spokesmen rebuked the police sortie, but the deep-seated antagonism was directed against the company’s Melburnian directors.

The Lothair dispute, in novel fashion, was settled in late December 1873 when the company accepted the rules and regulations of the Miners’ Association in return for the miners’ working for four months on the company’s terms— Saturday afternoon and Sunday night shifts. The miners maintained their half-day; the air was cleared and a primitive form of the closed shop principle established. The Clunes Guardian (15 December) expressed local concerns at the economic and social effects of the strike on the township: “The strike generally is deplored, not only on account of the workmen and shareholders, but the injury it has inflicted on the prospect of the town”. The Australian Sketcher’s editorial, 27 December 1873, bemoaned the townspeople’s success in rejecting law and order and argued that this “very objectionable example” and “dangerous precedent” thereby undermined the status of the youthful colony.


The townspeople of Clunes were united in their staunch and belligerent opposition to Chinese working the Lothair mines. The disturbance showed the futility of openly hostile and confrontational police action in the face of an aggressive and headstrong local populace that was forewarned and numerically superior. Police actions at Clunes failed, and it was such failures that developed the public order policing philosophy that police must win the initial battle in order to win the longer war. Police forces and their governments quickly learnt the significance of winning and controlling both public and private spaces. Tactically, Sergeant Larner’s foray reveals the hazards of a grossly outnumbered police body attempting to move a committed and incensed body of strikers and local supporters.

The Lothair industrial dispute may not have been avoidable but certainly the Tuesday riot was not inevitable. Larner’s small police escort made no attempt to communicate or negotiate with the Clunes “community blockade”; he merely attempted to enforce the letter of the law, and with dire consequences. This constitutes one of the few victories of protesting workers in public confrontation against police. The MUA’s “community assemblies” in April 1998 were effective in thwarting the limited police incursions at the various Patrick terminals around Australia. On 21 April 1998, the state police commissioners at their annual conference issued a statement advocating a “negotiated” and “non- violent” resolution of the dispute. Police leaders affirmed that the maritime dispute should be settled by industrial relation mechanisms and proper legal processes “rather than violent conflict”.35 This was a far-cry from the “solution” of 1873! Nevertheless, both the 1998 waterfront dispute and the 1873 Clunes riot highlight the latent power of community protest which is planned, organised and of unified intent. In 1873, the miners had the specific purpose of keeping the Chinese out; in 1998, the MUA wanted to return to work on the docks. 

The legal authority of fifteen police could not conquer the solidarity of more than a thousand agitated miners and their families. The Clunes police defeat was a rare instance of police surrendering public ground. If police were to have legitimacy, they had to be able to enforce and control; if government was to remain stable, it needed an effective police force. The police function of escorting strikebreakers was to become prevalent in Australian industrial history—and result in some violent clashes between police and picketers—but police effectiveness and tactics were to be sceptically viewed and consistently challenged by the labour movement.


1 D. Baker, “Batons and Barricades: A Historical Perspective of the Policing of Industrial Disputes in Australia” in M. Enders and B. Dupont (eds) Policing the Lucky Country (Federation Press, 2001).
2 R. K. Haldane, The People’s Force (MUP, 1995) p.73, has contributed a couple of paragraphs. G. A. Oddie, The Chinese in Victoria, 1870-1890 (unpublished MA thesis, University of Melbourne, 1959) pp.36-39, devotes a few pages to the riot.
3 M. Finnane, Police and Government: Histories of Policing in Australia (Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1994) p.55.
4 Baker (2001), op.cit.
5 The Lothair dispute and the 1878 seamen’s strike were two rare occasions when employers deliberately attempted to use Chinese labour to replace striking workers and undermine levels of employment and wages. See Oddie, op.cit., pp.35-42, 165-170.
6 Baker (2001), op.cit.
7 The men worked on contract rates and were paid according to the amount of quartz extracted from the reefs. The company directed the men in one mine to work on Saturdays until 11pm, and in the other to work Saturday afternoon shift and Sunday night from 11pm to 7am. Effectively, this meant that the men would work twelve shifts instead of the usual eleven per fortnight. See Ballarat Courier, 9 September 1873 and 26 November 1873; Ballarat Evening Post, 18 December 1873; and F. C. Weickhardt, “Clunes—the Chinese Riot, 9 December 1873” (unpublished, Talbot and Clunes Shire Council, December 1973).
8 Herald, 17 December 1873.
9 Australasian Sketcher, 27 December 1873. A director of the Lothair Company published a letter in both the Ballarat Star and the Herald of 17 December which advocated that since the men refused the company’s offer, the “only course open was to try and get men who understood alluvial mining, and who were accustomed to work it.” The Company called for tenders but this was prevented by the Miners’ Association. The Clunes miners and those elsewhere overwhelmingly supported the industrial strategies of the Clunes Miners’ Association.
10 The Ballarat Evening Post , 10 December 1873
11 The Kyneton Gazette, 17 December 1873, deplored the image of “the male and female ruffians of that district in breaking open policemen’s heads and savagely assaulting Chinese cooped up in coaches and quite unable to defend themselves”. Walker has argued that despite distinctive gender roles in colonial coalmining villages, women shared the values and concerns of their menfolk; the same applied to the Clunes goldmining community. See R. B. Walker, “Violence in industrial conflicts in New South Wales in the late nineteenth century”, Historical Studies, vol.22, no.86, April 1986, p.57.
12 Haldane, op.cit., p.76.
13 The 1990s have witnessed a more professional and prudent police strategy when outnumbered by large-scale industrial pickets or lockouts (eg, 1992 APPM dispute at Burnie, 1996 ACI-Glass dispute at Spotswood, 1998 national waterfront dispute). See D.Baker, “Community Police Peacekeeping amidst Bitter and Divisive Industrial Confrontation: the 1992 APPM Dispute at Burnie” in R. Hood and R. Markey (eds) Labour and Community (Proceedings of the Sixth National Conference of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History, Wollongong, 1999) pp.9-19; and D. Baker, “‘Meat in the Sandwich’: The Vicissitudes of Policing Contemporary Industrial Disputes” in J. Burgess and G. Strachan (eds) Research on Work, Employment and Industrial Relations 2000 (Proceedings of the 14th AIRAANZ Conference, February 2000, Newcastle) pp.199-207.
14 The 1873 Herald rhetoric has similar resonances to some of the 1993-95 Age reports about police coercion of demonstrators at Richmond Secondary College, East Melbourne logging protests and the “Save Albert Park” rallies.
15 Kyneton Guardian, 13 December 1873
16 Creswick Advertiser, 12 December 1873
17 Ballarat Courier, 10 December 1873.
18 Bendigo Advertiser, 11 December 1873.
19 See D. Baker, “Avoiding ‘War on the Wharves’: Is the Non-confrontational Policing of Major Industrial Disputes ‘Here to Stay’?” International Employment Relations Review, vol.5, no.2, December 1999, pp.39-62.
20 J. McQuilton, “Police in Rural Victoria: A Regional example” in M. Finnane. (ed), Policing in Australia: Historical Perspectives (New South Wales University Press, 1987) pp.35-58.
21 Haldane, op.cit., pp.71, 77.
22 M. Finnane, op.cit., p.55, argues that 1890s strikes, 1912 general strike in Brisbane, and the industrial conflict of 1916-17 and the Great Depression presented a major challenge to the authority of the government of the day. Even the 1912 Brisbane general strike, confined to one state, had no chance of affecting a social revolution; D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan: A Political Biography (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia, 1975) p.62.
23 P. Deery , “Chifley, the Army and the 1949 Coal Strike”, Labour History, no.68, May 1995, p.92.
24 Robin Walker has documented how the identity and structure of the NSW police force evolved largely autonomously from the rest of society and the public service; see R. Walker, “The New South Wales Police Force, 1862-1900” Journal of Australian Studies, vol.15, 1984, p.29. Haldane’s institutional history reveals the Victoria Police, through its Chief Commissioners, more closely entwined with colonial governments.
25 C. McConville, “1888—the Policeman’s Lot”1988) in Australia 1988 no.11, May 1983, pp.78-87
26 Ballarat Star, 15 December 1873
27 Age, 15 December 1873
28 Baker (2001), op.cit. The trio of government-police-media, if of one mind and determined to thwart any inquiry, constitutes a powerful and controlling force.
29 Haldane, op.cit., p.76.
30 Clunes Guardian & Gazette, 21 December, reprinted in Creswick Advertiser, 22 December 1873.
31 Clunes Guardian & Gazette, 1 January 1874.
32 R. B. Walker, “Violence in industrial conflicts in New South Wales in the late nineteenth century”, Historical Studies, vol.22, no.86, April 1986, pp.56-57.
33 Ibid, pp.54-70. Walker (p.63) postulates that colonial governments publicly espoused neutrality in industrial disputation, but the law clearly favoured capital over labour.
34 Ibid, p.67. Connell and Irving argue that whenever police found themselves in the midst of battle between capital and labour and were ordered to disperse strikers, “there were strong cultural reasons why the orders were obeyed”. See R. W. Connell and T. H. Irving, Class Structure in Australian History (Longman, second edition, 1992) p.154. Marxist historian Russell Ward, The Australian Legend (Melbourne University Press, 1958), has stressed the anti- authoritarian nature of Australian heritage and culture, especially strong amongst mining communities. Walker (1984), op.cit., p.37, warned of the need to revise the “accepted wisdom” that Australians felt great disrespect for the police.
35 Courier Mail, 23 April 1998. See D. Baker, “Trade Unionism and the Policing ‘Accord’: Control and Self-Regulation of Picketing during the 1998 Maritime Dispute”, Labour and Industry, vol.9, no.3, April 1999, pp.123-144.