Navvies rocked this city – Canberra 1911-16

Navvies rocked this city
Canberra 1911-16[1]

 Humphrey McQueen

Canberra Historical Journal, New Series, 67, December 2011, pp. 17-24.

For the Federal Area to become a Federal Capital on the ground as well as in law, hundreds of navvies had to construct before tradesmen and other labourers could build.[2] The navvies laid the rail track from Queanbeyan to Acton and roads across the Territory, damned the Cotter, laid pipes to the reservoirs they installed at Mt Stromlo and Red Hill, and cleared the way for a military college, brickworks and power house. With no source of labour nearby other than Queanbeyan, the authorities recruited from Sydney and later from Victorian mining districts.[3] Keeping workers was a problem even in times of unemployment.

The unions – sticking apart

Rural navvies formed the Railway Workers’ and General Labourers’ Association in July 1908, its membership rising to over 12,000 by September 1915, (Navvy (N), 18.10.15: 6) when it was close to being the largest union in the State,[4] and had been publishing Navvy since April 1912. Its members displayed

many of the traditional navvy characteristics: enthusiastic solidarity; stress on local autonomy; Irishness; and the physical prowess of its officials. Largely decentralised with a district organisation spanning NSW, the Navvies’ Union had an active and informed rank and file which elected paid District Secretaries for administrative and organising work.[5]

This manner of organising was closer to the Industrial Workers of the World than to the centralising impetus inside the AWU.[6]

In April 1911, organiser George Bodkin presided at a Queanbeyan meeting to form a district branch among the navvies who were ‘road-making’ for the ‘Federal capital city’.[7] The Commonwealth contracted the construction of a spur line from Queanbeyan to Acton to the NSW Railways Department to construct which employed 200 of the 300 members in the Territory from early 1913. (N, 14.3.13: 4)

The RW&GLA competed with the all-grades Amalgamated Railways and Tramways Servants’ Association (ARTSA) to recruit fettlers and way men. Both unions got places on a Wages Board for rail navvies outside the metropolitan area.[8] RW&GLA district secretary Tom Kinlyside[9] reported that the Queanbeyan railway yard saw the ‘galling state of affairs when men are separated only by a wire fence and two rates of pay are in existence for the one class of work’. He warned that the division suited the NSW Commissioner’s plan to employ only casuals on one or two shillings less a day. He hoped to avoid friction by getting all navvies into the RW&GLA and thereby maintain its rates. To this end, he summoned its advocate to see the work in order to prepare a case for the Industrial Court. (N, 11.4.13: 4)


The distinctions between trades and grades gained significance as more unionists put themselves under the scope of arbitration awards which calibrated wages according to types of work. By April 1912, the RW&GLA had lifted minimum wages from seven to nine shillings a day.[10] (N, 13.4.12: 2) Meanwhile, 150 labourers in the Federal Area were waiting on the minister of Home Affairs, Labour’s King O’Malley, to decide their award. A crucial issue was how to deal with time lost due to wet weather. The men could have either eight shillings a day whether it rained or not, or nine shillings a day only for the days when they were able to work. They voted unanimously to accept the latter.[11] (N, 13.5.12: 6; 15.6.12: 5)

Even where an award applied, workers complained that it was not being met.[12] Late in 1913, Bodkin accused the chief engineer Thomas Hill of breaking his word to enforce the Award and to set up an Appeals Board, telling him that his promises were ‘ancient’. (N, 2.1.14: 7) Hill continued to drag the chain by insisting that the men submit what amounted to a Log of claims for rates and over the scope of an Appeals Board, which did not come until the 1920s. (N, 16 March 1914: 2) In April, Hill did back-date the increases to 9 February, a decision in keeping with Gibbney’s portrayal of him as ‘prepared to be conciliatory’.[13] (N, 27.4.14: 4)


Initial living conditions in the Federal Area were crude even by bush standards.[14] As the vice-Regal party left Canberra in mid-March 1913, Bodkin reported rail navvies having a ‘very rough time of it during the past two weeks, owing to the wind on the Acton plain. No shelter whatever, and but very little wood’. He had seen ‘a new tent torn to pieces in one week by the wind, while all the others are practically valueless’.[15] (N, 28.3.13: 6) Kinlyside described a family of five in a forty-year old cottage with a stone-and-concrete floor for two rooms with no door between; the bedroom was 11×9 feet and the living area of 11×7 with an 8ft high hessian ceiling beneath a shingle roof. (N, 28.3.13: 4)

Around the jobs, some conditions recalled those which the Association’s founders said had brought men together in 1908. Without a union to stick up for them, the gangers had driven navvies to thrust their shovels into the ground ‘up to the maker’s name’. A man could be sacked for lighting his pipe. In cahoots with sub-contractors, gangers robbed the men who lived in shanties with no sanitation or potable water. (N,13.4.12: 7) Unionists looked to a Federal Labor government to prevent such injustice in its own bailiwick. As if in explanation for Federal Labor’s loss at the 31 May 1913 elections, Kinlyside wrote to the Navvy: ‘The workers expect something different from a Government which gets their votes and support for election’. (N, 6.6.13: 5)


Once registering to vote in Federal elections became compulsory, more of the labourers working in the Federal Territory did so in the contiguous electorate of Eden-Monaro, held from 1901 until his death in 1926 by the non-Labor Austin Chapman; known as the ‘father of Canberra’ and called ‘one of the most expert constituency managers in Australian political history’, an achievement not unconnected with his horse-racing and licence of Queanbeyan’s Royal Hotel,[16] Chapman acted as a go-between for the navvies and their Association with both Labor and non-Labor ministers.

From June 1914, Liberal Joseph Cook held a majority of one in the House and only seven out of thirty-six senators. To store up triggers for a double dissolution, his cabinet introduced a bill to deny preference to unionists in government contracts, which Labor Senators twice rejected.[17]

The Minister without Portfolio, William Henry Kelly, who assisted Cook in his Home Affairs portfolio, promised to pay the highest rates but had not done so six months later. (N, 15.8.13: 6) Being ‘of independent means’, Kelly had little experience of or empathy with navvies. By contrast, Cook had started life as a miner, entering the NSW parliament as a labor man in 1891. Industrial violence and general stoppages, however, had left him with a ‘horror of strikes’ and fearful of the ‘danger of them spreading’, making him ‘highly indignant; when pipe-layers struck at the Cotter early in 1914.[18]

The Cotter

A quarry at the Cotter employed fifteen men in September 1912. (N, 27.9.12: 6) After the dam got underway, Bodkin recorded grievances but also some concessions not available elsewhere. For instance, the men got sixpence a day for camping out, and two labourers had always to be available to fix their sites. However, a ‘tin-pot ganger and speeder-up man … vexed’ members, causing a ‘good deal of uneasiness’ and complaints against the engineer who refused all claims but was rarely seen on the job. (N, 28.3.13: 6) The clerk of works, J.D. Brilliant, replied that men left without registering complaints but instead wrote ‘letters making wild statements of the treatment they have received’. He said he welcomed engagement with the RW&GLA to smooth difficulties. (N, 23.5.13: 4) Nothing had changed by August, when ‘brutal’ foremen were sacking at will, (N, 15.8.13: 6) which spurred the 100 members to form their own branch on 7 September 1913. (N, 26.9.13: 6) One ganger, Jeremiah James Dillon, was a 144-kilogram stand-over-merchant, ‘said to have a remarkable flow of profanity and to be totally illiterate’.[19]

The ‘little grievances’ erupted late in January over the quality of drinking water pumped from the Murrumbidgee for the pipe-laying gang. At times, the pipes had been left open, allowing rabbits to use them as burrows. The 200m. of piping had not been sluiced out so that the water tasted of tar, in contrast to that drawn from the river, which a journalist described as ‘an unfailing supply of the purest mountain water. There will be no need of settling tanks or filter bed, as the Cotter is a crystal clear stream, not to be beat anywhere’.[20] The day after the navvies’ representative, James Ryan, asked the medical officer to test for quality, the Clerk of Works Brilliant sacked Ryan on the grounds that he had been absent for six days without permission over the previous six months, and was off sick on the day of his dismissal.[21] The others felt that he was being victimised, perhaps for his Labor sympathies.[22]

Bodkin documented five demands to present to Cook in Melbourne: Ryan’s reinstatement; married men to get free wood and water; the water to be pure; an Appeals Board; and a school at the Cotter. Kelly promised a canvas school and improved water. After a week with no redress, the pipe-laying gang voted to stop work from Thursday 29 January against what they felt to be ‘incompetent, high-handed despotism’. A motion to call out all 500 men at the Cotter was narrowly defeated.[23] The union provided strike pay of 15s for single men, a pound for married men and two shillings and sixpence for each child. (N, 2.2.14: 1) Labourers at The Rock levied themselves 2s 6d a fortnight in support. (N, 16.2.14: 8)

Addressing a public meeting in Queanbeyan, Bodkin spoke about either calling out all the men without a ballot or of stopping the pipes in Sydney.[24] Kinlyside alleged that locals stood down for refusing to load pipes had got no strike pay. (N, 16.3.14: 5; 27.4.14: 5) Bodkin replied that ‘the real quarrel’ was that Kinlyside had ambitions but was ‘not up to the mark’ (N, 11.5.14: 5), and was upset because he had not been toured around the sites to ‘boom him up’. (letters from TK, N, 16.3.14: 5; 27.4.14: 5; GB’s reply 11.5.14: 5)) Their spat was one instance of the conflict between the navvies’ tradition of district control against the centralising of Bodkin as he positioned himself to takeover as general-secretary.

Cook offered to go to the Cotter site but then telegraphed that he would not come for as long as the men were on strike. After Chapman wired back that his presence was urgent, Cook arrived at Queanbeyan on Saturday, 7 February, and settled all matters except Ryan’s re-instatement, which he left in Kelly’s hands. The men refused to resume without Ryan. When the official party travelled to the Cotter, the prime minister found the water tasted no more of tar than at his Sydney home after the installation of new pipes. Chapman admitted that although it might be wholesome it was ‘not very nice to the palate and he preferred something very different’ – perhaps laced with the alcohol almost unavailable in the Territory.[25] Chapman arranged a second conference during which Cook offered to move Ryan to another gang. Over objections from his fellows, Ryan agreed to go to Duntroon but decided against when he learnt that men were being dismissed there too. He accepted an all-expenses-paid transfer to the telephone tunnels in Melbourne.[26] (N, 16.2.14: 3)

Following conciliation at the highest political level, the men got increases of between threepence and one shilling a day to match the highest rates operating in New South Wales.[27] Bodkin could report late in March 1914 that he had

little fear of the final touch. The Federal workmen will have no cause to regret the stand taken by the pipe-line workmen some few weeks ago. I hope the same rates will be extended to the many thousands of our workers who will now be covered by the compact which is almost now agreed to in regard to workmen in the area.  (N, 30.3.14: 3)

By then, the workforce at the Cotter was below 200, many of them on the bridge since the tunneling and the ‘heartless attempt at laying pipes in the water main’ were almost over.[28]

Snail’s pace

The completion of the rail line by May 1914 and the introduction of contractors reduced RW&GLA numbers in the Territory from 600 to 250 by March 1914. As well as the 150 still at the Cotter, thirty were on the powerhouse, and six each at the Red Hill quarry, Duntroon and Acton; road gangs had been cut from three or four labourers to two. (N, 30.3.14: 3) The pattern was unchanged in August with work at a snail’s pace and 260 at the Cotter on tunnels and the dam. (N, 17.8.14: 7) The seventy who were concreting the tunnels and the weir were likely to be there for another twelve months. By November, 280 members were at work while many unemployed because of drought. The brickworks were at a standstill but the powerhouse employed forty. Meanwhile, thirty-five were at the Mt Stromlo reservoir with forty more laying pipes to link it from the Cotter and on to the Red Hill reservoir. (N, 26.10.14: 7; 21.12.14: 7)

The return of a Labor administration on 5 September 1914,[29] saw William Oliver Archibald, sometime labourer and an official in the South Australian railways union, become Minister for Home Affairs but he brought little improvement for the labourers.

To head off calls for a sewer-workers union in the Territory (N, 21.12.14: 7), the RW&GLA in February 1915 went after the Rockchoppers’ rates and hours for its members on that work (N, 8.3.15: 6), in the hope of extending the best conditions in Sydney to the rural workforce.[30] The dismissal in May of two leaders of that campaign provoked all the sewer workers to stop – unwisely claimed organiser Marris. The engineer refused to discuss reinstatement if the strike went on. When the men agreed to return, the sacked pair refused to do so because they claimed that Marris had sold out their conditions, (N, 28.6.15: 5, and reply 12.7.15: 2-3) though he did improve the ladders and dressing sheds, and the quantity of air down the drives. (N, 14.6.15: 7) Resentment at arbitrary discharges, especially of miners whose wives and children were on the road from Victoria, erupted again in July. Enforcing a crude form of time-and-motion study, the Clerk of Works, Brilliant, and ganger Dillon were sacking anyone who did not excavate a set volume of earth each shift. The navvies protested that the measures did not allow for the different soils. (N, 9.8.15: 3)

Early in March, the Acton branch had called for the removal of a ganger after he discharged three of his men. The labourers wanted centralised job allocation to remove the ‘pin-pricks [that] brought on the recent strike’. (N, 22.3.15: 7) When a speed-up at Mt Stromlo provoked another stoppage, Bodkin returned to Melbourne to confront the Labour ministry. (N, 9.8.15: 3) Anger at Dillon’s behavior spilt over into dissatisfaction with the union, some of it articulated by IWW militants. (N, 25.1.15: 5)

After the dismissal of another shop steward, Bodkin called an aggregate meeting at the Yarralumla Woolshed on 13 August 1915. Grievances accumulated over the false pretexts for sackings, especially of the Victorian recruits:

This underhand, crooked way of dealing with men cannot last, and the men concerned will meet the same fate as other unscrupulous officers have met in the past.  (N, 30.8.15: 5)

The union warned the jobless to stay away.

The men’s patience was also running out with Labor governments because of their failure to fight to even the first shilling to control the inflation that was eating into real wages. One recalled, somewhat inaccurately:

Joseph Cook … directly and instantly increased the pay and improved the conditions of the men at the capital city without reference or bother about any outside tribunal, and the heavens did not fall nor an earthquake take place … Knowing all these things, is it any wonder that the workers, in their dismay, ask, in the name of High Heaven, what this Government can do for them; of what use is such a Government to them at all. (N, 17.5.15: 5)

By August, the labourers were ropeable after five months of the Labor ministry’s refusal to grant an inquiry into the sewer works and to set up an Appeal Board. (N, 6.9.15: 6)

Throughout 1915, Archibald and Bodkin corresponded about the non-payment of sewer rates at 2s 3d extra per day (N, 4.10.15: 4), until the Minister refused the increase on 18 October. (N, 2.11.15: 4) Bodkin also complained that Brilliant was not enforcing preference to unionists.  (N, 2.11.15: 4) After O’Malley returned to Home Affairs, Bodkin asked Chapman to arrange a deputation to establish an Appeals Board, (N, 16.11.15: 4) and to set up a meeting with O’Malley when he next visited the Territory.  (N, 14.12.15: 4) Although the Minister spent a few hours there on 17 February 1916, he did not discuss working conditions, further upsetting the unionists.[31] (N, 14.3.16: 4)

In the spring of 1915, Sam Givens, twenty-five years a miner and brother of the President of the Senate, summed up the discontent with Labor’s administration of its nation’s capital:

it was time to leave this Siberia, and seek employment with good old private enterprise, rather than leave himself to the tender mercies of a hide-bound bureaucracy administered by a Labor government. (N, 20.9.15: 1)

[1] This article has benefitted from discussions with Allen Mawer and Marilyn Truscott
[2] The first labourers remain out of sight in Robert Bollard and Erik Eklund, ‘The Hidden Proletarian Past of Canberra’, Bobbie Oliver (ed.), Labour History in the New Century, Black Swan Press, Perth, 2009, pp. 103-9.
[3] J.H. Gibbney, Canberra, 1913-1953, AGPS, Canberra, 1988, p. 12.
[4] Peter Sheldon, ‘System and Strategy: the changing shape of unionism among NSW construction labourers, 1910-19’, Labour History, 65, November 1993, p. 122; see my ‘Improvising Nomads’, Journal of Australian Colonial History, 10 (2), 2008, pp. 223-50.
[5] Sheldon, 1993, p. 121; Labour History, 40, May 1981, pp. 94-5.
[6] Mark Hearn & Harry Knowles, One Big Union, A History of the Australian Workers Union, 1886-1994, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 126.
[7]Queanbeyan Age (QA), 28 April 1911, p. 2.
[8] Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics, The Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900-1921, ANU Press, Canberra, 1961, pp. 12-13, 59n and 65n. Bodkin later called on his members to return the ARTSA president to the Board. (N, 18.1.16:2)
[9] When Kinlyside died on 14 October 1915, aged 59, an obituary in The Navvy recalled ‘an ardent reformer and agitator – always fighting for justice for his fellowmen’. (N, 2.11.15: 3) He had published radical verses under the pen-name ‘Jingler’; Alan Foskett, On Solid Foundations, The Building and Construction of Canberra, 1920 to 1950, Canberra Tradesmen’s Union Club, Canberra, 2001, p. 16, and Errol  Lea-Scarlett, Queanbeyan, Queanbeyan Municipal Council, Queanbeyan, 1968, pp. 176-7. As Kinlyside was dying, the Acton and Cotter River branches took up collections in response to suggestions from Bodkin. (N, 16.10.15: 3, 2.11.15: 6) An area to the east of Hall has been named after the Kinlyside  family, Peter Kimber, Kinlyside family in Canberra, Privately published, Canberra, 1989, pp. 9-12.
[10] 1 NSW Industrial Gazette (1912) 659
[11] For the significance of ‘lost time’ see my We Built This Country, Ginninderra Press, Port Adelaide, 2011, pp. 92-97.
[12] For one hearing in the Magistrate’s Industrial Court, QA, 22 August 1913, p. 2.
This tardiness in meeting legal commitments continued with the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation Award delivered on 13 December 1913; Federal secretary, P.J. Smith, withdrew a writ against the Labour Attorney-General only after Prime Minister Fisher announced in August 1915 that it would be enforced, Smith to Fisher, 24 August 1915, NAA, A106 G1921/2019.
[13] Gibbney, Canberra, p. 15.
[14] The injury rate among navvies made a levy of sixpence a week for medical coverage important, see my Framework of Flesh, builders’ labourers battle for health and safety, Ginninderra, Port Adelaide, 2009. The Medical Profession insisted that all of that £1 6s go to its members which left nothing for hospital expenses. (N, 11.4.13: 4) At the same time, Kinlyside reported how his fellows appreciated the treatment and staff at the Queanbeyan hospital, (QA, 27 March 1913, p. 2), to which the men at the Cotter donated £6 11s. (QA, 2 April 1914, p. 2.) Members levied themselves to support injured workmates and their families. (N, 9.11.14:6, 17.5.15: 5, 2.11.15: 7)
[15] The Navvy informed members about conditions elsewhere, for example, in the middle of Bodkin’s report on the Territory he inserted the problems at a dam at Potts Hill where men were charged a shilling a week to pitch a tent on private land. (N, 11.4.13: 6)
Conditions around Canberra contrasted with Jervis Bay where a Naval College Branch of the Association operated as did house flies by the million from bad sanitation, though the RW&GLA supervised a guest house. (N, 13.9.12: 4; 11.10.12: 1) Industrial relations there were quiet with Federal rates in force. (N, 6.7.14: 6)
[16] J.H. Gibbney, Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 7, MUP, Carlton, 1979, p. 611; Senator Rae’s motion to allow Territory residents a vote lapsed, CPD, v. 71, p. 2455.
In Labor’s 1913 pre-selection for Eden-Monaro, 445 of the 900 votes were cast by RW&GLA members, most for H Lestrange, vice-president of the AWU. (N, 11.4.13: 1) Lestrange lost to Chapman with almost 59 percent and did slightly worse in 1914 when he was in strife with Bodkin who alleged that he had told unionists at Wagga Wagga to handle ‘black’ chaff.  QA, 17 July 1914, p. 2; 21 August 1914, p. 2.
[17] Geoffrey Sawer, Australian Federal Politics and Law, 1901 – 1929, MUP, Carlton, 1956, pp. 111-27.
[18]QA, 10 February 1914, p. 3; Daily Telegraph (DT), 9 February 1914, p. 8; RW&GLA secretary Rosser accused the Federal authorities of being hostile towards the pipe-layers, DT, 6 February 1914, p. 10; Argus, 16.1.14: 8; 17.1.14: 22; 28.1.14: 4; 3.2.14: 7.
[19] Gibbney, Canberra, p. 96.
[20]QA, 21 November 1913, p. 2.
[21]QA, 27 January 1914, p. 2.
[22]QA, 6 February 1914, p. 2.
[23]QA, 30 January 1914, p. 2; 2 February 1914, p. 3. Navvy says the vote took place on 28 January to stop at 5pm the next day. (N, 2.2.14: 5)
[24]QA, 3 February 1914, p. 2.
[25]QA, 31 March to 3 April 1914 for reports of a prosecution for sly grog.
[26] GIbbney, Canberra, pp. 14-15; Foskett, On Solid Foundations, p. 18.
Cook motored from Yass which he had reached on the Melbourne express. QA, 10 February 1914, p. 3.
[27]Daily Telegraph, 9 February 1914, p. 8.
[28]QA, 27 March 1914, p. 2.
[29] Foskett, On Solid Foundations, p. 19.
[30] Peter Sheldon, ‘Job Control for Workers’ Health: the 1908 Sydney Rockchoppers’ Strike’, Labour History, 55, November 1988, pp. 39-54; Ann Gugler, Westlake, One of the vanished suburbs of Canberra, p.p., Canberra, 1997.
[31]QA, 18 February 1916, p. 2; 22 February 1916, p. 3; 7 March 1916, p. 4.