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The Day The Shearers Fought With Fire

The Age

Sunday August 21, 1994

Sue Neales

Passions erupted during the shearers' strike a century ago. Sue Neales reports on the burning of the paddle steamer Rodney.

The spirit of shearers past is stalking the steep and ancient banks of the Darling River north of Mildura this week.

It is 100 years since the great shearers' strike of 1894. And this Friday, 26 August, marks the centenary of the infamous burning of the paddle steamer Rodney by striking shearers near Pooncarie in southern NSW - an act of terrorism that shocked Australia by its temerity and violence.

The Rodney was the pride of the 300-strong Murray and Darling river paddle-steamer fleet. News of its torching swept across Australia within days and led to calls for tougher action against the rise of militant unionists.

On Saturday, more than 700 locals gathered at remote Polia Station to watch a centenary re-enactment of the burning of the Rodney.

And, for the first time, the historian and song writer Mr Dennis O'Keeffe has revealed that a revered Australian writer and poet, Henry Lawson, may have been part of the torching group of more than 300 union shearers that ambushed the Rodney.

The centenary celebrations of the burning of the Rodney have been made even more poignant by the severe drought now gripping Queensland and NSW.

For the first time in many years, the level of the Darling River is so low that the corroding metal ribs of the Rodney's hull can be seen above the murky waterline.

On its fateful voyage upstream in August 1894 - in the days when almost all the wool clip of southern Queensland and NSW was carried to the port of Echuca by steamship - the Rodney and its captain, Jimmy Dickson, had taken on board a troublesome load.

The 109-foot paddle steamer was carrying 45 ``scab" shearers; non- union men loaded at Echuca and headed for central NSW in a bid by property owners to beat the three-states strike.

But the pastoralists were unsuccessful. Instead, the Rodney, while tied up for the night, was ambushed and boarded by the unruly mob of union shearers at 4am on 26August. Many had come from as far as Wilcannia and Bourke for the attack.

The ``scab" shearers were hounded off the paddle-steamer by their attackers, disguised with blackened faces, just before it was burned.

Captain Dickson was set adrift on a barge, which later came ashore at a sheep station.

According to historical accounts, the union shearers danced on the river bank and sang to an accordian as the flaming Rodney drifted downstream into the night.

The burning of the Rodney was followed by a national outcry against lawlessness. Graziers talked of hanging the firebugs, the NSW Government offered a reward for the shearer ringleaders while property owners and ship captains started to arm themselves.

Yet, despite eight arrests, no convictions for the burning of the Rodney were ever recorded.

And, as the 1894 shearers' strike - started after pastoralists slashed shearing pay rates - petered out, the Rodney's historic burning gradually slid into the recesses of history.

The local organiser of Saturday's re-enactment, Mr Max Whiting, believes that is why it is so important to commemorate the occasion this week: ``This was one of the most serious events in both the river's history and in Australia's class struggle - that someone would go to the extent of burning a riverboat."

Dennis O'Keeffe, a Warrnambool folk singer, is almost certain that the Rodney's burning now has an added significance to Australia.

Using newspapers, union files, shipping and transport records, and the letters and articles of Henry Lawson, Mr O'Keeffe is convinced the famous writer, albeit incognito, helped torch the Rodney.

© 1994 The Age

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