Divisions and solidarity

The 1934 Kalgoorlie race riots revisited

By SARAH GREGSON [email protected]>

(A version of this article originally appeared in Labour History, vol. 80, May 2001.)

How and why race riots start?

The conventional explanation for the explosion of racist sentiment in Kalgoorlie in 1934 is that ‘it all started on the mines’, with racist workers demanding southern European exclusion to protect ‘British’ jobs. However, amid the resolutions against migrant workers, there is also evidence that a significant number of Kalgoorlie miners took action to end the rioting and to assist their migrant counterparts. Indeed, one year after the riots, ‘Britisher’ and migrant members of the Australian Workers Union (AWU) successfully united in a six week strike against Chamber of Mines’ attempts to institute a 48 hour week.

Beyond the workplace, there were signs of similarly contradictory forces. While southern Europeans often lived and worked in areas that were spatially distinct from the Britisher-dominated areas, there was considerable interaction between the two groups. In the schools and on the sporting fields, Britisher and foreigner worked and played together in a manner that should moderate our understanding of racial division on the goldfields. Other writers imply that the riots were the ‘logical outcome’ of multi-ethnic interaction in a competitive capitalist environment and, without doubt, labour market competition is one element of the picture. But such a deterministic focus on the working class as ‘natural’ supporters of migrant exclusion precludes the possibility that host workers interact with migrant workers in contradictory ways - sometimes blaming them for unemployment, but at other times offering solidarity. While not ‘whitewashing’ the actions of Australian racists, working class or otherwise, it is argued that racism should not be portrayed as an almost inevitable working class condition, made so by labour market competition, proximity or by false consciousness. Rather, the ebb and flow of racist responses is a dialectical and open-ended process, where the pressures are determined by the nature of the capitalist system, but the outcomes are not.

Overview of the 1919 and 1934 riots

Kalgoorlie experienced anti-southern European rioting in both 1919 and 1934. In 1919 when a 22 year old returned soldier, Thomas Northwood, was fatally stabbed by an Italian, returned servicemen led riots against southern Europeans, organising a march of outraged townspeople to various Italian-owned businesses in the area. Single Italian men were given an ultimatum to leave the town or face ejection and, as a result, many migrants fled.

In response to perceived ALP ‘disloyalty’ during the war, a Nationalist union, the Coolgardie branch of the Federated Miners’ Union (FMU) was formed in 1917, providing an industrial home for anti-Labor returned soldiers. The AWU, allied with the Official Labor Party, recruited returned servicemen and anti-conscriptionists alike. These unions clashed over two key issues. Firstly, the FMU wanted preference for returned soldiers, while the AWU sought preference for its members and recognition as the sole representative of mine labour. Secondly, the AWU leadership was prepared, albeit half-heartedly, to support the mostly migrant woodline workers who were engaged in a campaign for better wages and conditions. The FMU opposed migrants having jobs, especially while returned servicemen were unemployed. While many miners would have experienced little contradiction between membership of both groups, for some within the AWU, the question of southern European labour raised competing political priorities between the poles of exclusion and solidarity. RSL politics were not similarly vexed, with their allegiance to a homogeneous ‘white’ society prompting repeated calls for migrant exclusion (see below).

The RSL headquarters in Kalgoorlie became a focal point for organisation against working class militancy and for migrant exclusion. Unlike some sub-branches of the RSL, where an orientation towards the labour movement was a contested issue, the Kalgoorlie sub-branch was, from the start, an anti-Labor force and their often violent actions were officially sanctioned by the police, the conservative press, the state government and employers. At an RSL meeting held to discuss the Northwood stabbing, the Resident Magistrate of Kalgoorlie, Mr Walter, sympathised with their desire to get Italians off the goldfields, but cautioned them to use ‘constitutional methods’. H. Axford and W. Schwann of the RSL executive also urged ‘peaceful means’, no doubt convinced that their threats against Italian men and their thoughtful advice to rank and file members not to damage the property of Australians, fell into this category. When the riot erupted, the president of the Kalgoorlie RSL was in Perth. He cabled the following message to his secretary, ‘Wire me particulars of trouble with foreigners. Hold men in hand. Help police to trace culprit. Use no unlawful means.’ Despite the almost immediate arrest of the man who had stabbed Northwood, the reply sent by the secretary suggests that the executive endorsed the membership’s actions. The message read, ‘Returned soldiers moved all foreigners leave Goldfields by Saturday night or be deported. Rank and file have position in hand. Hell itself will not bluff them. Don’t worry.’

In contrast, the AWU leadership denounced the rioting and deportations. They promised solidarity to all foreigners who were union members, passed resolutions attacking the government’s lack of action and demanded measures to prevent further harassment. They also promised that ‘vigilance committees’ would be formed for the protection of unionists. Murray argues that the AWU leadership defended the migrant workers in order to build AWU membership and to subsequently strengthen the union’s case for preference against that of the FMU. While she indicates that the resolutions supporting the woodline workers must have been supported by the majority, there were clearly mixed feelings. It was reported that these motions were passed ‘emphatically’ but that the miners ‘possessed no greater liking for the foreigners than anyone else’.

Later that year, AWU miners struck to get non-AWU labour (specifically, FMU members) out of the mines. The police galvanised opposition to this militancy in the form of ‘special constables’, with returned servicemen prominent among the recruits. One returned soldier claimed that the RSL executive was ‘reactionary and unrepresentative’ and that they were ‘one of the channels through which the Chamber [of Mines] hopes to sail to a complete victory’. A Boulder meeting of returned soldiers censured the Kalgoorlie RSL executive for ‘fighting the battle of the Chamber of Mines and acting in a manner which is detrimental to the best interests of ourselves as workers’ and passed a motion that returned soldier workers should ‘link up with the A.W.U.’. While the Chamber of Mines refused to grant preference to either side, they were content to encourage the strikebreakers and to portray themselves as champions of impartiality. The strike ended without the main issue fully settled – the FMU continued to exist as little more than a rump and considerable enmity between supporters of the FMU and the AWU remained a feature of the Kalgoorlie industrial landscape for years to come. The AWU moved to expel any members who had been special constables and even in 1928 Labor officials were still investigating charges that certain persons had ‘served’ in this capacity.

Fifteen years later, rioting against migrants again erupted on the goldfields. During the Australia Day weekend of 1934, an inebriated Britisher miner, Edward Jordan, instigated a fight with an Italian barman, Claudio Mattaboni, outside the Home from Home hotel. Jordan cracked his skull on the pavement and died several hours later in hospital. The next day, aided by Jordan’s drinking partners, rumours abounded that the popular footballer, firefighter and tribute miner had been murdered by the Italian. Hundreds of ‘mourners’ who attended Jordan’s funeral withdrew to wakes in various hotels and, in the evening, gathered in Hannan Street near several migrant-owned businesses. A youth threw a stone through a window of the Kalgoorlie Wine Saloon and full-scale rioting ensued. After looting much of the hotel’s contents, rioters burned the building to the ground, then moved on to attack other migrant-run establishments. A large group of rioters then ‘commandeered’ a tram and rode to the nearby town of Boulder, where the destruction continued.

In the morning, meetings were held at several pit-heads, and it was resolved that the Britisher miners would not work until unnaturalised miners were ejected from their jobs. In Boulder, side-stepping the AWU leadership who did not support the idea of striking, a street meeting was organised from the back of a lorry. One reporter described how several speakers ‘harangued’ the crowd of approximately 300 people to elect a committee of representatives from each of the principal mines to demand the dismissal of all foreigners, regardless of naturalisation status. The selection process was rather informal. Someone in the crowd would call out a nomination. ‘Let’s have a look at him’ was the response. After some nominations were voted down, seven men were selected. A photo showing six members of this unofficial committee appeared in the West Australian, listing their names as H. B. Charteris, R. Fletcher, J. J. Baker, M. Gilbert, J. Thomas and T. Brozam. Much information on these men has been obscured by the intervening years, but the selection process suggests that they were known in the town, were representative of the cross-section of views present at the meeting and were united on the need for migrant exclusion. It is known that Bob Fletcher worked as a pipe fitter on the Ivanhoe Mine and was shop steward for the AWU. He was also a Labor member on the Boulder Council. Joe Thomas was described by the premier of the day, Phillip Collier, as ‘an out and out red ragger of the very worst type’ and was later blacklisted from the mines on Collier’s express recommendation. J. J. Baker was a champion cyclist, sports commentator and promoter. Both Joe Thomas and Harry Charteris were returned soldiers.

Later that day, a meeting was called by AWU officials and Labor parliamentarians in an attempt to end the strike. However, this meeting was an open-air, rowdy affair and not limited to union members. When explosions were heard coming from Boulder’s predominantly southern European residential area, known locally as Dingbat Flat, the rioting flared for a second time and migrant residences became the main target of the mob. Two men were killed in the ensuing battle – Charles Stokes, a young Britisher rioter, and Joseph Katich, a migrant miner. Many residents of the Flat were forced to hide in the surrounding bushland. Although the rioting came to an end that night, it took several days of meetings and negotiations to end the strike. The Chamber of Mines insisted that they followed a policy of British preference, but would not consider removing southern Europeans from their jobs as this would create an untenable labour shortage. Despite this, by the end of the week, the miners had agreed to return to work on the AWU officials’ assurances that an English language test would be more carefully administered to migrant workers.

In time, eighty six people were arrested on a variety of charges in connection with the riots - 22 charges of stealing, 55 for unlawful possession, four for vagrancy, 17 for riotin (one absconded from bail) and four for possession of unlicensed firearms. The police were able to secure 83 convictions and 14 men received gaol sentences. Eight of those charged with rioting were found guilty. The arrest records indicate that the riot participants had a wide range of occupations and that there was a preponderance of young men among those charged. Alongside the 37 miners who were charged were listed several women domestics, a housewife, two building contractors, an upholsterer, a billiard marker, a salesman, a clerk, a gardener, a barman, a storekeeper and a 73 year old hawker named Juma Khan. Mattaboni was charged with the manslaughter of Jordan but was subsequently acquitted. However, while much of the preceding information is a matter of public record, it is necessary to examine the political, industrial and social conditions that prevailed in Kalgoorlie in order to understand how such a period of rioting eventuated.

Ideological battlegrounds

Most discussions of the Kalgoorlie riots demonstrate the undoubted prevalence of racist attitudes in the town, revealed in frequent references to claims that southern Europeans were disrespectful to women, scabbed on the job, caused mine accidents, lived in filthy conditions and sent all their earnings out of the country. This section will discuss four groups with ideological and industrial influence in Kalgoorlie in the interwar period - the Chamber of Mines, the AWU, the RSL and the Communist Party of Australia (CPA). Because the views of these organisations towards southern Europeans were widely disseminated through newspapers, meetings and a myriad of other intermediaries, their influence contributed significantly to the fluctuating community attitudes towards the migrant presence in the town.

The Chamber of Mines represented mine management and shareholders, and sought to promote any policy that would increase mine profits. From the earliest days, management had attempted to sow division within the goldfields workforce. Herbert Hoover, of the Bewick Moreing-owned Sons of Gwalia mine, for example, began to import Italian miners at the turn of the century and threatened the newly unionised workforce that many more Italians would come if new work arrangements were not accepted. However, the most divisive management tactic introduced was tribute mining, which saw some miners performing waged labour on award rates, while others were paid contract rates. During World War I tribute mining was instituted on the goldfields as costs rose and labour shortages became acute. Miners competed to lease the most profitable sections of mines, payment rates were altered arbitrarily by management and daily hire was endemic. During the Depression, tensions were exacerbated by increased demand for jobs and high unemployment, even while the mines boomed.

The AWU leadership occupied a contradictory position between the Chamber of Mines and its own membership. Although it sought peaceful and bureaucratic negotiations with management, it also sought to build a union in an industry where management denied any concessions, using every possible means to reduce wages and conditions and to weaken trade unionism. The union had been unable to resist the Chamber of Mines’ push towards greater employment competition, and blaming migrants for poor conditions either went unchallenged or became a convenient scapegoating exercise. The AWU-controlled weekly newspaper, the Westralian Worker, was a firm advocate of a White Australia, describing the policy as an expression of a ‘noble national ideal’. However, as will be shown below, this abstract propagandising was remote from the practicalities of building a trade union in a workforce with a significant southern European component. Nevertheless, during times of rising unemployment, Labor in government was anxious to institute immigration restrictions as a panacea for insufficient jobs. In a sea of such arguments, it is not hard to imagine why some workers focused on migrants per se as the source of their problems.

Most discussions of Kalgoorlie refer to the belief among many miners that migrants paid ‘slingbacks’ – or bribes – to the shift bosses for high-yield sections of the mines. No tangible evidence has ever been uncovered to prove the existence of such payments, nor their alleged confinement to southern European miners. Nevertheless, the accusations of slingbacks served the interests of management inasmuch as blaming foreigners served to shift attention from the competitive labour situation on the mines, marginalising attention to this more basic corruption of the employment contract. The belief that foreigners were getting preference was indirectly fuelled by members of the Chamber of Mines. They made it abundantly clear that the foreign-born miner was an example which Britisher miners would do well to emulate – docile, hard-working and uninfected by trade unionism – an easily recognisable ‘divide and rule’ tactic. Although the mine managers insisted that they observed a policy of Britisher employment preference, pointing out the advantages of migrant labour confirmed their commitment to ‘freedom of contract’.

The RSL leadership’s position on immigration was contradictory. On one level, they supported the employers’ right to search for the cheapest labour. At the same time, their commitment to a ‘White Australia’ encouraged opposition to all but British immigration. As a result, their stance helped to marginalise southern Europeans in Kalgoorlie, while not effectively limiting their arrival. At both state and federal level, the Kalgoorlie RSL leadership promoted motions demanding an end to southern European immigration; calling for the more strict enforcement of language tests; and scaremongering about the social dangers of non-British immigration. Typical of these motions was one passed at the 1934 State Congress, which read:

That representations be made to the State Parliament on the question of restriction of alien labour in the mining and other industries in order that the decision of a previous Congress on this matter be given effect to.

While returned servicemen came from all classes in society, with the majority of working class origin, the conservative nature of the RSL had become well-established by the mid-1930s. In 1934, the president of the local sub-branch was Captain R. R. Gibbs, a bank manager. The secretary was Lieutenant-Colonel Fairley, who was also country vice president of the WA branch of the RSL. There were strong links between the RSL leadership and the mine managers. At the 1933 Kalgoorlie RSL’s annual Anzac smoke social, a toast to the mining industry was made. F. G. Brinsden, manager of the South Kalgurlie mine, Mr Blackett of the Boulder Perseverance and Mr Thorne of the Lake View and Star Co. responded and ‘paid excellent tributes to the work of the RSL’. Inspector Spedding-Smith toasted Mr Gibbs and made favourable comments regarding the cooperation between the police department and the League.

While the precise degree of ideological influence is always difficult to gauge, it is reasonable to assume that some working class returned soldiers, RSL members or not, were exposed to, and influenced by, the RSL leadership’s propaganda regarding limitations on southern European immigration. Because these returned servicemen were an important subset of the working class, they could provide a conduit for conservative ideas into the wider working class, and into the labour movement, where it was much more likely that tensions surrounding contradictions between ideas of race and class would be felt. The RSL portrayed its opposition to southern European immigration as partially motivated by concern for white workers’ living standards. In reality, what was always apparent about their industrial intervention was what Oliver describes as ‘the indifference of the league’s conservative leadership to observing award conditions’. During the Depression the Kalgoorlie RSL played a role in finding jobs for unemployed returned men through its employer connections. The sub-branch journal would frequently thank local businesses for their support, while its activities on behalf of worker members more closely resembled charity work than protests for better conditions.

At the other end of the political spectrum sat the local branch of the CPA. According to Jack Coleman, who was, for a time, secretary of the East Coolgardie section of the CPA, there were about 60 members in the region, with approximately half living in Kalgoorlie and Boulder. CPA branch members were active in goldfields unions and the Party produced a paper, the Red Star, which argued for a more militant response to the terrible conditions on the mines. When the rioting broke out, the CPA produced a leaflet which stated that ‘the foreign born worker is not our enemy’. Members spoke at the daily miners’ meetings, and even at Katich’s funeral, to argue for international solidarity.

Not everyone joined the riots

While some miners participated in the 1934 riots, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the vast majority did not. Instead they held meetings, took votes, denounced the violence and organised to prevent further outbreaks of rioting. Chief Inspector Hunter of the Kalgoorlie Police stated in his report ‘I am convinced that few if any of the real miners took part.’ Newspaper reports indicate that the afternoon shift went underground as usual on the Monday and was oblivious to the turmoil above. In the midst of the ensuing strike, the conservative newspaper, the West Australian, reported that few of the older miners could be seen on the streets.

In line with the official attitude of the union [AWU], they seem to be holding aloof from the anti-foreigner campaign and some of them are not slow to express their abhorrence of the lawlessness.

In an article entitled ‘Miners are Blamed for Work of Irresponsibles’, the Goldfields Observer emphasised the youth of the majority of demonstrators and pointed out that many miners disassociated themselves from the riots.

They scoff at the idea of the gathering, which virtually howled down the Minister for Works, being classed as a miners’ meeting and contend that it was a gathering of irresponsibles who had no right to speak for, or act on behalf of the genuine miners.

The Kalgoorlie Miner report of the AWU meeting held on Friday, 2 March, stated that:

The general feeling of the meeting was against any association with the element which ran riot and caused such havoc and distress. It was mentioned that they had burned out some fine members of the community. The homes of boys who had given their all in sport for the entertainment of the public and who had been popular citizens, had been destroyed.

AWU records suggest that a tiny number of their members were in the forefront of the riots, although some of the arrestees listed their occupation as ‘miner’ or ‘labourer’. Of the 16 charged specifically with rioting, only one, Alan Pereira, was an AWU member. >From the 86 persons charged in total, only eight were listed on AWU membership rolls. The official leadership of the AWU had an ambivalent attitude towards the explosion of racism on the fields. It was clear that the main issue for them was the strike, not the racism. The leadership was able to play on the common stereotype that foreign miners were dangerous underground because they lacked English skills, and a deal was eventually struck with the Chamber of Mines to more rigorously apply the language test. However, while this deal was little more than a ploy to get the miners back to work, the AWU leadership consistently denounced the rioting and stated its ‘determination to give the union ticket to all members irrespective of nationality’. A defensive force of some 300 miners patrolled Boulder on Wednesday evening to prevent further trouble. A deputation of AWU miners met with the mayor and demanded that the violence be stopped. The West Australian reported:

The Mayor said that many had told him that they were in sympathy with the stricken foreigners, and deplored the fact that no provision had been made for their housing and care during the day.

Because the early mass meetings had undoubtedly included a number of non-unionists, the official leadership took steps to limit meetings to those with union tickets. By Friday the unofficial miners’ committee had agreed to leave negotiations to the AWU leadership. On the Sunday, by an almost unanimous vote, the miners agreed to return to work on the understanding that the language regulations would be strictly enforced. When leaving the fields, Minister for Works, Alex McCallum, was reported to have said, ‘The dispute was created outside the ranks of the union and was handed over to irresponsible individuals who had no experience and were not even known in union circles’. AWU miners at the Sons of Gwalia pit censured Labor Premier Collier for not visiting the fields and taking a firm stance on the need for unity among all workers, which was especially significant, given that many Italian miners were employed there. Jack Crisp suggested that the employers acted to maintain divisions in the workforce.

There was a great deal of bitterness. I was working underground at the time and ... the Australians, Italians and Slavs were a mixed workforce underground and things were very unhappy for quite a while. The mine staff did the very best to segregate the Australian[s] from the southern Europeans.

The Westralian Worker, the AWU-run weekly paper, denounced those union members who took part as displaying ‘an inexcusable lack of solidarity’. Their articles pointed out that all workers, regardless of nationality, faced the same conditions and that racism played into the hands of the Chamber of Mines. One writer pointed out, ‘We cannot, as workers, afford to quarrel with the workers of any other country ... We need their assistance in our struggles against a common enemy.’

Forces for unity

Racism was certainly widespread in Kalgoorlie, yet other forces drawing people together were also at work. At school, in sporting competitions, at social events and at work, there were many opportunities for Britishers to meet and mix with their migrant counterparts. Although this interaction did not automatically challenge racist ideas, it did provide as many opportunities for fraternisation as for friction. However, with the hitherto emphasis on ethnic segmentation in the literature, important ‘incongruities’ have been overlooked. For example, why were Jordan and his Britisher friends trying to get a drink in an Italian-run hotel? Certainly, many establishments attracted regular customers on the basis of nationality, but this division appears somewhat elastic. Rena Gianatti, the publican of the Home from Home hotel, gave evidence at the inquest into Jordan’s death, to the effect that he had been a regular at her establishment. Claudio Mattaboni, the barman ‘responsible’ for the fatal punch, stated that he had known Jordan for at least 12 months because the fireman was a regular at the hotel.

Wally Dawes, a resident of Kalgoorlie during the riots, spoke of the high degree of integration that existed between the Britisher and foreigner communities.

[T]here had been Italian families there from quite early days and they were well integrated into the community. They were fairly well thought of ... and their boys mixed with the Australian boys and all that. And although they invariably went to a different school [from Wally], meaning they were mostly predominantly Catholics. Well, there was quite a lot of Australian boys and girls went there too.

Evelyn Villa, whose father was Italian and mother Australian, recalled a woman whose business had been destroyed in the riot. She said ‘the lady that owned the hotel [Mrs Furia, formerly Osmetti], she had four boys and ... very good sportsmen, they were in everything’. Descriptions of local Australian Rules matches are littered with tales of the sporting prowess of the Osmetti brothers and members of other migrant families, playing alongside their Britisher teammates. In one game in 1935 ‘Jacko’ Osmetti opened the scoring, while Diorites dominated play in the final quarter. In another match, Marchesi replaced the injured Forrest while Tomich and the Osmetti brothers were named, alongside Laffin, Spence and Gibson, as the best players for the Mines Rovers team, also the team for which Edward Jordan had played before his death. Marjorie Henderson mentioned that she was in the same class as one of the Osmetti boys and that they were ‘very well known, very well respected and liked’. In fact, three years after the riots, Tomich, Dellaca and Charlie Osmetti were selected to play in a goldfields team that defeated South Australia on the Kalgoorlie Oval. Also selected for this team was Frank Jordan, Edward Jordan’s brother. In the memoirs of a Kalgoorlie local, ‘Blue’ Nelli, also the child of an Italian father and Australian mother, recalls that he played in a schoolboy team which represented the Goldfields in Perth.

Jack and Nancy Crisp both felt that integration was widespread. Nancy said:

But in the tennis clubs and football clubs, they’d been to school together and ... there was general friendliness in the district ... up our way, support was entirely with the southern European element …. I knew of no support for the rioters.

Evelyn Villa recalled that her father played an important role in the social life of Kalgoorlie.

[W]e were one of the families with a very, very nice car and he was called on such a lot to participate at funerals and weddings and things like that and I think he was a very highly respected man in the community.

When asked to think about whether there were any signs that the riots might occur, she said that there was some social segregation, but that it contrasted with integration in the workplace, where ‘[t]here was a big majority of Slavs and Italians and a few Greeks and that on the goldfields and I think they all worked in harmony with one another’. It was not only in the mines that the workforce was mixed. The Kalgoorlie Miner reported that many Britisher women had been thrown out of work when the Greek-owned cafes, in which they were employed, were destroyed.

Far from a ‘sense of shame’ that was often mentioned in the aftermath of the riots, the Crisps showed contempt for the rioters and commented on the way in which people gave support to migrants by offering them places to stay, food, clothing and other practical assistance. Jack said:

Amongst my friends in Boulder were quite a number of young men of Italian descent, but Australian-born, and my sympathies were very largely with them. I had no time at all for the rioters.

Some migrants who hid in the bush outside town left prized possessions with their Britisher neighbours. Beatrice Wellington recalled that her mother kept cases in her chook pen for southern European friends. Mr E. Fraser described how his family helped fleeing migrants.

I remember the people coming to the house with their tin trunks ... They were mostly people that lived on the Flats below our home and they wanted us to look after their belongings ... Well, our verandah was full of black, tin trunks.

Stella Villa remembers fondly all the help they received when it became clear they would have to leave their South Boulder home until the rioting had ceased.

[T]hey were all Australian neighbours apart from the one across the road. They shifted any furniture of value out of our homes, put it in different homes and I think the next door neighbours were very, very good. They took Dad’s car up the garage and had it refitted. Saw that the tyres were okay ... they refilled the car and we set sail.

As instructive as are these oral testimonies, the most important evidence concerning the degree of Britisher and migrant integration comes from the records of the AWU. The 1933-34 and 1934-35 state membership rolls reveal numerous names of obvious southern European origin. These records indicate that, in stark contrast to previous descriptions of the migrant community as ‘non-integrated’, more than 20 per cent of the AWU goldfields membership in Western Australia came from southern Europe, roughly analogous to their presence in the workforce. Indeed, given the tendency of migrants to Anglicise their names, this almost certainly under-represents southern European presence. In the wake of the riots, it might have been expected that migrant miners would suffer greater discrimination in employment, but it seems there was little scapegoating. In a report from the monthly meeting of the AWU Mining Branch, Secretary Alf Watts advised that, of 405 men who had undergone the language test, only two workers had failed.


What about the RSL?

Any detailed analysis of the 1934 riots should include some assessment of the role of the RSL. Although diffuse, snippets of evidence suggest that the RSL played a practical and ideological role during this period. Further, the Kalgoorlie riots shed light on Kristianson’s argument that the tactics of the League have always been subject to internal dispute, with one section endorsing ‘respectability’ and ‘responsibility’ and the other advocating more militant, and sometimes violent, agitation. Indeed, the secrecy surrounding those involved in the riots, in many senses, suited a ‘respectable’ RSL leadership who pontificated about the violence, but supported the aims and objectives of the rioters. RSL influence can be detected in the symbolism of Edward Jordan’s funeral. Jordan’s casket was covered with a Union Jack, suggesting that the organisers wanted to emphasise his ‘Britishness’. At 29, Jordan was too young to have participated in World War I, but few Kalgoorlie residents would not have seen a connection between Jordan’s death at the hands of an Italian barman and the 1919 death of Thomas Northwood. Most descriptions suggest that Jordan’s funeral was a political event, serving to galvanise racist and nationalistic hatred, with many attendees drunk and disorderly. Indeed, Gavin Casey argued in the Sunday Times that Jordan’s funeral was the cause of continued rioting.

Casey, newspaper reporter and eye-witness to the rioting, described how the rioters destroyed one building after another in a systematic fashion.

A ringleader of the mob was possessed of a military whistle, and by a code which effectively led the rabble, proceeded up Hannan Street, to the blare of a cornet which had been ransacked from the ruins.

At the end of the night, one of the leading rioters appealed to his comrades in arms, ‘We have done enough.’ He then urged them not to do anything they might regret in the morning and used words very reminiscent of RSL terminology.

Let us use constitutional means. Let us go in the morning, and tell the mine managers that we won’t have any but British workers on the mines and that the ____ Dings have got to go.

Casey wrote that a youth with a military whistle ‘blew a few blasts on the early morning air’ and the rioters moved on, but not before attacking the Slavonic Hall flagpoles.

The Kalgoorlie Miner related that the rowdy AWU meeting of about 1,000 people on Richardson Reserve was beginning to listen to a suggestion that miners report for work the next day, with another meeting to be held if foreigners were found to be working. At this point the meeting was interrupted by the sound of explosions coming from Dingbat Flat but there was initially little unified response from the crowd. Subsequent raids on the ironmongers and the police station were thwarted. However, the Kalgoorlie Miner reported:

One group of the crowd, led by a tall elderly man and followed by a dozen youths left hurriedly to raid the Returned Soldiers’ League hall in Boulder.

One suspects there was little resistance to this ‘raid’. It would seem that the ‘tall elderly man’ provided both the impetus and the practical assistance that the rioters needed. It also seems likely that the timing of the explosions to coincide with the miners’ meeting was not accidental. Whereas the placatory messages of the union officials and Labor parliamentarians were having an effect, the explosions within earshot of the meeting seem rather too timely. Again the riots were to escalate, and the impression of covert leadership is hard to escape. One interviewee’s comments suggest a further military aspect to the assaults on Dingbat Flat, as armed Australians appeared to be patrolling the area.

Joe [Hocking] told me that his brother … came out on the Fimiston Road ... [and] was stopped there by armed Australians [who] told him not to go any further, and he didn’t.

In the aftermath of the rioting, the Kalgoorlie Digger ran a full page article on ‘The Alien Question’. The wording made it quite clear that the leadership of the Kalgoorlie sub-branch wanted to distance itself from the more overt violence while still lauding the ideas that underlay that violence.

Direct action is always dangerous and altho [sic] it would appear that some demonstration was necessary it does not seem to have been necessary to wage war on the women and children.

While never admitting that League members had played a role in the riots, the Digger offered the excuse that ‘the men who probably started the affair had no idea of looting’ (emphasis added). Counteracting suggestions from some in the community that ‘the soldiers should have assisted to quell the affair’, an aggrieved tone was used to make reference to the events of 1919 and:

the last time we tried to assist the public and saved the mines. The mine people have forgotten our work but our friends never neglect to through [sic] up ‘specials’ on every occasion.’

Clearly, although the League had been stung by criticism of its direct action in 1919, there were still some members who were prepared to fan anti-foreigner sentiment, if a little more covertly than before. The League leadership did, however, claim a ‘pioneering role’ in toughening the language test. They argued that their diligence had been inspired by concerns for mine safety, the purity of Australian speech and the potential build-up of ‘foreigner colonies in the midst of our cities’.

The West Australian editorial also alluded to returned servicemen’s involvement in the rioting.

[W]hen the present frenzy has died down most of the small minority of those responsible for the outrages and the looting will be sick with what they have done. Kalgoorlie miners have the reputation of being a body of men decent and reasonable beyond the average. Those who knew them on active service respected them, not alone for the fighting qualities which they shared with other Australians, but for their essential decency and intelligence. It remains only for the sober-minded among them to assert their qualities of leadership, and put the hot-heads under the control of public opinion.

This line of argument was reminiscent of the attitude taken by many mainstream editorials in the aftermath of World War I when digger rebelliousness was more widespread. Often returned servicemen were excused as impetuous but fundamentally decent men who had perhaps been led astray by ‘outsiders’ and ‘troublemakers’. In 1934, the evidence clearly suggests the opposite – that the older RSL members provided both political and covert practical leadership to the mostly younger rioters. These impressions were backed up by my recent dealings with the current octogenarian secretary of the Kalgoorlie RSL. During a research trip in 1998, I asked him for details of the branch’s activities during the 1930s. He gave me copies of the 1933 and 1935 editions of the Kalgoorlie Digger but would not part with the 1934 editions, firmly stating that there was nothing of importance in them. He also refused to let me view volumes of the branch’s minutes, saying that these would be equally uninteresting. Upon returning to Kalgoorlie in 1999, I asked again for access to the minutes, only to be told that they had ‘disappeared’.

The struggle over working hours

Only a year after ethnic division racked Kalgoorlie, the Chamber of Mines and the AWU entered into a protracted dispute. During 1934, the AWU Mining Division had served a log of claims on the Chamber of Mines. The new award gave some pay increases but allowed for no reductions in hours and suggested that the 88 hour fortnight could be worked using alternating 40 and 48 hour weeks. The AWU agreed to accept the new award but warned the Chamber of Mines that any attempt to implement the hours clause would be regarded as a ‘hostile action’. The Chamber proceeded immediately to implement the new hours, locking out those miners who attempted to work under the old arrangements. The AWU leadership called for strike action.

It was reported that the strike inspired ‘a wonderful demonstration of solidarity’ throughout the goldfields. Around 6,000 workers were affected by the dispute, and there is little evidence of dissension within the ranks. The Sons of Gwalia miners had been working the new hours for some two years, professing a liking for the extra day to make a trip to the ‘city’, but they agreed to stop work in support of the Golden Mile unionists. A deputation from nearby Grant’s Patch came to Kalgoorlie to express their support. Initially, pickets were placed at the shaftheads but even the West Australian had to admit that they were peaceful affairs. No-one attempted to defy the union’s decision. An Appeal Committee swung into action and donations came from all over Australia. Slav miners discussed details surrounding their representative who had been sent to the coast to raise support funds. They passed a resolution which indicated that they were ‘quite satisfied with the handling of the trouble by their British comrades’. The Sparta Soccer Club donated to the strike fund. Workers at the Lake View and Star Company, one of the goldfields' largest employers of foreign labour, solidly supported the strike action. The unanimity of the strikers suggests that the wounds of 1934, while almost certainly not healed, were sufficiently cauterised to accomplish an organised, disciplined and successful strike. It is also worth mentioning Jack Coleman’s impression that the anti-racist position taken by the Communist Party branch in Kalgoorlie during and after the rioting had not done their profile any harm and had, in fact, played a role in getting a leading member, Bronc Finlay, elected to the secretaryship of the AWU (Mining Branch) in 1938. Finlay chaired the Appeal Committee.

The Chamber of Mines also displayed ‘wonderful solidarity’. They often refused to negotiate with AWU delegations, even a delegation that included the Minister for Mines, and it was widely believed that the Chamber was prepared to ‘starve the miners back to work’. The RSL’s journal editorial expressed regret at the hardship faced by families, but refused to take sides in the dispute, except to point out that the business owner, ‘who is a working man himself’, was having to carry his customers. After six weeks, a return to work was accepted on the proviso that a ballot would be held to ascertain which working hours arrangement was preferred. The ballot was for union members only and both sides agreed to abide by the outcome of the voting. On 30 March 1935, the members voted overwhelmingly to reject the imposition of a 48 hour week. Bertola points out that, as a result of the dispute and its successful resolution, ‘AWU membership among the underground workforce rose from about 40 per cent in February 1934 to over 72 per cent’ by the time the ballot was held.

At a mass AWU meeting on January 7, one speaker from the floor suggested that the union should consult with the Kurrawang woodcutters in order to gain their support. It was stated in reply that the woodcutters (mainly southern Europeans and highly unionised) would support any action that the AWU decided to take regarding the new award. However, the response of the woodcutters was more mixed than this statement suggests. In October 1934, the woodline workers had struck in pursuit of claims for an increased price for cutting engine wood, open competition for provision of supplies, restoration of holidays lost in the 1931 award and the 44 hour week. A stopwork meeting of all AWU members on the goldfields heard one of the delegates, Mr Graeme, oppose press statements to the effect that the Britishers wanted to resume work, assuring members that all the woodline workers, ‘irrespective of nationality were 100 per cent. strong’ in supporting the strike action. After much debate, it was recommended that the woodcutters should resume work and that the matter would be settled at arbitration. Three months later, when the woodcutters were asked to support the miners, the vote was split 80 votes for, 80 votes against, striking. The AWU official presiding over the meeting cast his vote in favour of remaining at work. The miners received word that the woodcutters would assist the dispute financially, and that they would stop work immediately if asked. No request was forthcoming.

The woodcutters’ arbitration case was much delayed and it was not until April 1935, that Justice Dwyer handed down an amended award which granted the 44 hour week and restored the lost holidays. Dwyer chastised the woodline workers for striking and made the following comment:

It is difficult to understand the mentality of the workers at Kurrawang in these circumstances. Some excuse may be made for them in consideration of the fact that fully 75 per cent of the Kurrawang wood cutters are foreigners from Southern Europe and Italy, nearly all of whom do not understand the English language or read our newspapers. They present a fertile field for the sowing and cultivation of subversive industrial propaganda by agents, whose motives and objects are not for the good of the State or the workers.

At a subsequent meeting of the Kalgoorlie and Boulder section of the AWU Mining Division, a motion was carried extending congratulations to the woodline workers for their victory. The meeting also resolved to protest to the State Executive against President Dwyer’s remarks which, it was suggested, would ‘promote racial hatred’.


The Kalgoorlie events of 1934-35 show how resistance to racist ideas among workers can emerge even while racism is ‘running riot’. While not seeking to whitewash the degree to which racism did permeate working class consciousness, this article has shown how some workers were able to stand against the racist tide. Even among those for whom racism was unexceptional, the experience of living, working and socialising in a town of many nationalities served to cement relationships and sympathies that could not be instantly swept aside by an upsurge of racist violence, nor by a crude calculation of available jobs. In short, for workers, racism was a contested issue.

The principal force responsible for racial division was the Chamber of Mines, which consistently sought the most competitive forms of labour hire. In order to further this aim, they promoted ‘white’ solidarity by outwardly upholding a policy of British preference while, in practice, offering work to the lowest bidder. They refused to take any action against perceived corrupt hiring practices and inflamed racist sentiment by praising European miners as hardworking and submissive. The RSL was a useful ally in these efforts to both incorporate and marginalise migrant labour. Because the organisation was cross-class in nature and dominated by conservative sections of society, its members played an important role in the dissemination of national prejudices among working class people. In 1934, the evidence suggests that RSL members helped to fan latent racist views into active racist turmoil.

For its part, the AWU leadership had a protean record in the defence of solidarity across national divisions. Self-seeking to the end, it sought a larger membership and was prepared to recruit southern Europeans to further that goal. However, it was also prepared to sacrifice the interests of those members when they became useful scapegoats for poor conditions on the mines. While the AWU leadership would not fight racism, it generally had no material interest in perpetuating division, except to cover industrial and political weaknesses. During the 1935 strike, Kalgoorlie unionists were able to build unity along class lines, pressing ideas of racial division into the background.

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