Shear Power

The 1891 shearers’ strike is one of Australia’s earliest industrial disputes. The quarrel was between unionised and non-unionised wool workers, and violence came from both sides. The strike is seen as one of the factors that led to the formation of the Australian Labor Party.

By Queensland State Archives

Merino sheep ready for shearing, Jondaryan (1894-11-02/1894-11-02) by Lands DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Throughout the 1870s and 1880s, Queensland had enjoyed growth and economic prosperity. During this same period, socialist ideas and the development of various trade unions enabled workers to band together to establish conditions for fair work.    

Men shearing sheep in Barcaldine (1948-01-01/1948-01-01) by Premier and Chief Secretary's DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Sheep shearers, whose roving lifestyles and key functions in the pastoral industry provided them with formidable bargaining tools, were particularly confrontational in their efforts to achieve fair working conditions. 

Interior of a wool shed at Jondaryan (1894-11-02/1894-11-02) by Lands DepartmentQueensland State Archives

In late 1890, as the international depression caused the price of wool to fall, rural employers drastically reduced wages and entitlements for shearers. 

Manifesto of the Strike Committee issued to the Queensland Shearers' Union and Labourers' Union (1891-06-20/1891-06-20) by Colonial Secretary's OfficeQueensland State Archives

On 5 January 1891, the Queensland Shearers’ Union and the Queensland Labourers’ Union gathered in Barcaldine, the centre of a rich pastoral district, to set up a strike committee headquarters.    

Strike camps were formed throughout Queensland and New South Wales. For months, negotiations between employers and unions were unsuccessful. 

Strikers camp, Lagoon creek

With the rise in strike camps, a military camp was set up near the Barcaldine courthouse and roughly 1,000 military personnel were distributed to monitor strikers’ camps throughout Queensland. 

Prison record for Charles Henry Smith Barry (1891-01-01/1891-12-31) by Prisons DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Prison record for Alexander Forrester (1891-01-01/1891-12-31) by Prisons DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Thirteen of the strike’s organisers were arrested in March 1891 and sent to St Helena Island Prison for three years hard labour.    

Prison record for Julian Alexander Salmon Stuart (1891-01-01/1891-12-31) by Prisons DepartmentQueensland State Archives

Following this setback, and with increasingly poor conditions, the strike began to lose momentum. 

Manifesto of the Strike Committee issued to the Queensland Shearers' Union and Labourers' Union (1891-06-20/1891-06-20) by Colonial Secretary's OfficeQueensland State Archives

By mid-June, the strike was called off and the defeated unionists went back to work on the pastoralists’ terms. 

Although unsuccessful, the legacy of the shearers’ strike lies in the interests of workers becoming part of the political agenda. In 1892, unions met in Barcaldine to form the ‘Workers Political Party’, which later became the Australian Labor Party. Its vision included using parliamentary power to achieve decent working conditions for all. And ever since the days of the 1891 shearers’ strike, workers have come together to demand their right to fair employment.

Prison record for William J Bennett, Prisons Department, 1891-01-01/1891-12-31, From the collection of: Queensland State Archives
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Prison record for William Fothergill, Prisons Department, 1891-01-01/1891-12-31, From the collection of: Queensland State Archives
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