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Anatomy of an 'eviction riot' in Sydney during the Great Depression.

On 17 June 1931, 'one of the most serious disturbances ever dealt with by the police' in carrying out an eviction order took place at a barricaded house in Brancourt Avenue, Bankstown. (1) The 'Battle of Bankstown' was described as the 'fiercest that has yet occurred in Sydney between the police and those opposed to law and order.' (2) The clash was regarded 'as the most serious and the most significant of its kind in the history of the State.' (3) The 'riot' was seen as 'the fiercest fight between the police and Communists in the history of Sydney.' (4) The incident which occurred in the outer-Sydney suburb in 1931 was the culmination of an escalating struggle over housing that was generated by the economic circumstances of the Great Depression.

In June 1931, metropolitan Sydney was in the grip of an economic crisis. Thousands of Sydney's workers had been made jobless as the city's factories, workshops, warehouses and offices were closed or bankrupted by the Depression. Much of Sydney's population had by that time been out of work for more than two years. The Great Depression had been preceded in Sydney by a building boom. Beginning in the 1920s, this boom had seen new suburbs created which followed the railway lines to Bankstown and East Hills. Many of the dwellings constructed in these new suburbs were financed by banks and property speculators. With the onset of the Depression at the end of the 1920s the building sector collapsed, leaving many of Sydney's workers to confront unemployment and homelessness. Despite the building boom, most of the city's workers had continued to live in rented dwellings in the industrial inner suburbs. In Depression-era Sydney, the working class remained a renting class, residing largely in housing that had been built during the last decades of the nineteenth century. (5) As the Depression deepened, housing and food were the fundamental necessities for the unemployed. For working class families, the rent became the essential item in their budget.

Sydney in 1931 was a city of mass unemployment. To ease the manifold problems created by large-scale unemployment, the Lang Labor government of New South Wales established the dole. The dole ensured that the jobless would receive rationed items of food but it did not include any allowance for the payment of rent.

The fundamental need for assistance with rental payments or the provision of alternative housing was never addressed by the 1930s dole system. (6) While the Depression prevailed, housing was a perennial problem for the renting class, with varying consequences. Many unemployed tenants, fearing the bailiff's seizure of their possessions as payment for rent owed, embarked on the 'midnight flit' to unoccupied houses in the same street or suburb. Other tenants, similarly unable to pay the rent, were allowed to remain by landlords who were mindful of their property. Still others were evicted and made destitute, forced to construct makeshift dwellings in camps or 'Happy Valleys' at La Perouse, Milperra, or Clontarf. (7)

The Depression spared no sector of the economy as, from 1930 onwards, homelessness and unemployment in Sydney steadily increased. Employers, parliamentary political parties and the nation's trade union movement had no solution to the growing problems caused by the Depression. Comprising only a miniscule membership in that period, the Communist Party of Australia believed the Depression would result in the death of the capitalist system. Party members prepared for what they saw as the imminent demise of capitalism by organising the working class in campaigns which they hoped would realise the creation of socialism in Australia. (8) To this end, the Unemployed Workers' Movement (UWM) was founded in a meeting on May Day 1930 at Sydney's Trades Hall. (9)

Although Communist Party functionaries were its leaders and principal organisers, the UWM quickly expanded beyond the control of the Party. Within months of its formation, UWM branches were established in most of Sydney's working class suburbs. If the Communist Party believed the UWM would be a focus of mass mobilisation to overthrow capitalism within Australia, the jobless who joined the UWM saw it merely as a means of bringing the housing crisis to an end. (10) During the Depression, Labor Party associations' advocacy for the unemployed was limited to the petitioning of local councils for rent assistance and the sending of deputations to Labor Party branch meetings. The UWM did not simply act on behalf of the jobless; in contrast to the Labor-affiliated organisations, it was the unemployed who were involved and engaged in the activities of the UWM. However, the form of collective direct action that was eventually adopted by the UWM would prove abhorrent to both the Labor Party and Sydney's landlords. (11)

Those attracted to the UWM were a minority amongst the population of Sydney. The formation and rapid expansion of the UWM did not stop evictions from occurring in Australia's largest city during the Depression years. Nevertheless, in metropolitan Sydney from May 1930 until June 1931, the UWM staged a series of occupations in an effort to prevent the impending evictions of out of work tenants. (12) These occupations demonstrated a way of confronting, although not ceasing, the housing crisis for the jobless. While the occupations carried out by the UWM in this period were relatively few in number, the Communist Party newspaper, Workers' Weekly, described them as part of an 'anti-eviction war'. Sydney's establishment interpreted the activities of the UWM as being the catalyst for potentially sparking a social revolution by the militant unemployed. The notion that the UWM was inciting a radical rebellion or an anti-eviction 'war' was exaggerated and simplistic. The aims and actions of the UWM were limited to the attempted prevention of evictions in order to ensure that poor families had shelter while the Depression persisted. For some sections of society, however, the objectives of the Unemployed Workers' Movement were alarming. A number of Sydney's leading landlords and real estate agents sent a deputation on the issue to New South Wales Premier Jack Lang. They delivered an urgent appeal to Lang for a more aggressive posture by the police in making certain that evictions were carried out. While the police conducted any eviction that involved the UWM, other evictions continued to be overseen by bailiffs. (13)

Most of the UWM's successful occupations took place close to the centre of Sydney. Within the city's heavily populated inner suburbs, the UWM was able to form branches that were between two hundred and five hundred members strong, as well as mobilising significant support throughout its occupations. Security records list the names and activities of those who comprised the UWM's leadership, whilst its rank and file branch activists and supporters remain largely anonymous. (14)

The first of the UWM's anti-eviction campaigns that produced a positive outcome for the tenants was conducted in Glebe on New Year's Day 1931. A widow living in a one-room Glebe cottage with her children owed three weeks rent. The gas and electricity supply to the cottage had been shut off because the tenant had not repaid this debt. Members of the Glebe UWM branch intervened on the widow's behalf, meeting with the owner outside the cottage. The owner was persuaded to allow the woman and her children to remain rent-free. This Glebe case, resolved in the tenant's favour without incident, led the UWM to take more radical action in similar instances. (15)

In Surry Hills in February 1931, a Greek family renting a cottage owned by the Permanent Trustee Company was served with an eviction order. They were 5 [pounds sterling] in arrears. At the same time, the Permanent Trustee Company was threatening to eject many of its other Surry Hills tenants. With a growing body of local residents, the UWM organised pickets to prevent the family's removal. Reflecting community support for the UWM action, local shopkeepers and residents provided the picketers with food throughout February 1931. Several attempts by bailiffs to evict the Greek family were thwarted by the UWM. In a course that they would replicate during their Bankstown occupation, the UWM held daily meetings about unemployment and housing outside the Surry Hills cottage. Despite the UWM's picketing, the house was finally repossessed for its company owners when bailiffs arrived accompanied by the police. (16)

After the Surry Hills eviction, local magistrates began authorising police officers to remove trespassers from private rented property. During March and April 1931, members of the Unemployed Workers' Movement contested a number of evictions that were undertaken by the police. In Donnelly Street, Balmain, the UWM had averted an eviction; however, the tenant and his family later quit the property after receiving repeated police warnings. In Booth Street, Annandale, mass picketing and an occupation by the UWM foiled a police effort to oust tenants. Eviction orders were served on renters at two Rozelle properties, but these were subsequently cancelled by the property owners following the threat of large-scale occupations by the UWM. (17)

The Unemployed Workers' Movement began to involve itself in eviction struggles beyond the confines of Sydney's inner suburbs. To the disbelief of local police, a UWM occupation of a rented house at Granville caused the landlord to retract the eviction order. At a property in Lakemba, sixty UWM members resisted police attempts to remove the tenants on 1 May 1931. Two of the family of eight who were renting the Lakemba house were a father and son who had served in the First World War. Along with the UWM, the family's plight attracted the support of nearly one thousand ex-diggers who converged on the property to prevent them from being thrown out. Following this mass pressure, the real estate agent permitted the family to remain indefinitely. A similar outcome was achieved for the tenants of another rented house in Lakemba. In that case, a UWM occupation had again precluded an eviction. The tenants, a family of six, were allowed to stay on the premises without paying rent until work could be found by the parents. (18)

While the UWM gained confidence from these occupations, the police and many of Sydney's landlords believed that a greater degree of force was needed to ensure that the UWM did not prevail at contested evictions in the future. Violent confrontations between the police and Unemployed Workers' Movement members appeared inevitable. The eviction struggle at Douglas Street in Redfern during May 1931 established this new direction in violent confrontation. For ten years, the Douglas Street house had been rented by the McNamara family, who had always paid the rent promptly. The family's breadwinner, Jack McNamara, had lost his job as a boot machinist in a factory closure in December 1929 but managed to continue paying the rent for a further year. By May 1931, however, the McNamaras were 25 [pounds sterling] in arrears. The landlord ordered their eviction but the UWM intervened, picketing the property. Despite pressure from the Redfern police, the Douglas Street house was occupied by the McNamara family and five members of the UWM. They padlocked the doors, barricaded the window and hung a red flag from the verandah. On 30 May 1931, a squad of fifteen police officers smashed through the front door and beat several of the UWM members with batons as they tried to escape. With their revolvers drawn, the police ordered the crowd that had gathered in the street to disperse. The McNamaras were evicted and three arrests resulted from the UWM's actions. (19)

The Redfern clash led to greater organised resistance by the UWM at an occupied house in Starling Street, Leichhardt. While the Redfern eviction had involved fifteen police officers, police numbers were increased fivefold to execute the eviction order at Starling Street. Eighty police officers armed with guns and batons were despatched to the Leichhardt residence. They confronted a crowd of almost two hundred UWM supporters outside the house, and a struggle ensued. Injuries were incurred by both police officers and protesters, three women and two men were arrested, and the tenants were removed from the property. (20) In the aftermath of the Starling Street affray, the Sydney newspaper, The Sun, editorialised that Communists were working 'the men into a state of ferment' to take offensive action against the police and 'were intent on achieving a very large measure of civil commotion if not violent rioting'. (21) Resolute action was needed to destroy the likelihood of such happenings, however exaggerated.

It is within this context of police reaction to the rising militancy of the unemployed that the Bankstown 'eviction riot' may be analysed. The 'Battle of Bankstown' was the outer urban exception in the Unemployed Workers' Movement's campaign against the eviction of poor families. Unlike all of the UWM's previous occupations, demonstrations and picketing activities, each of the seventeen unemployed men involved in the occupation at Brancourt Avenue, Bankstown were arrested and charged by police. The Bankstown occupation proved to be a turning point in both the tactics used by the UWM to forestall evictions and the police response to these tactics.

In 1931, Bankstown was at the end of a tram-line, and was then one of suburban Sydney's most westerly extremities. It was a semi-rural area where developers in the 1920s had subdivided small farms and built scattered rows of domestic housing along unsealed, unlit streets. Most of this suburban development consisted of two-bedroom houses made of brick or fibroplaster. The house at 92 Brancourt Avenue, which was the scene of the 'Battle of Bankstown', was an example of speculative development. By 1930 over 60 per cent of the district's male breadwinners had been out of work for a year and 40 per cent of its houses were unoccupied. (22)

From the first weeks of 1930, jobless men from Bankstown and other outer suburbs had to walk miles to the Labour Bureau office in George Street, in the centre of Sydney, to collect ration coupons. After agitation by the unemployed, a Labour Bureau office was opened in Bankstown in April 1930. On vacant land near the Chullora Railway Workshops, scores of evicted homeless families from the Bankstown district lived in shacks made of Hessian bags, kerosene tins and saplings.

Most of Bankstown's numerous new poor 'got by' on their meagre resources. (23) Charity was tardy as the Depression worsened. Governments in Macquarie Street and Canberra believed there was a need for 'balanced budgets' and 'equality of sacrifice' as the jobless and homeless in Sydney's working class suburbs continued to multiply. In Bankstown a minority of the unemployed stirred into activism. The Workers' Weekly announced in late February 1931 that:
 ... the following hitherto unattached organisations [of the
 unemployed] have affiliated with the Unemployed Workers' Movement:
 Bankstown, Weston, Balmain, Broken Hill and Granville. (24)

By Easter in 1931, the Bankstown branch of the Unemployed Workers' Movement listed over two hundred members. A small unoccupied weatherboard cottage in Marion Street at the foot of Black Charlie's Hill became its headquarters. (25)

The beginnings of the Bankstown occupation were unremarkable, if not commonplace. The house, named 'Auld Reekie', was owned by a war widow, Mrs Isabelle McDonald. It was let to Alfred John Parsons, an ex-digger and itinerant labourer, his wife and two daughters, aged four and ten years, in the first week of February 1931. From early April until mid-May, Parsons failed to pay the rent as he could find no work. He began to attend meetings of the Unemployed Workers' Movement, which were held outdoors on Friday nights near the Bankstown Railway Station. (26) On 21 May 1931 at Campsie Court, Mrs McDonald took out a summons for the Parsons family to quit the property. After a Bankstown police officer delivered the summons to him at Brancourt Avenue, Alfred John Parsons requested that the UWM occupy the house. (27)

Buoyed by the successful UWM struggles in nearby Lakemba in which several of its members had participated, the Bankstown branch of the UWM responded to Parsons' call. The UWM arranged for Parsons' wife and children to be billeted with other unemployed families in the Bankstown district. The exterior walls of the Brancourt Avenue house were sandbagged by the UWM and its windows were enmeshed with barbed wire. These preparations were largely the work of the many unemployed ex-diggers who had supported and taken part in the Lakemba occupations. The words, 'Remember Eureka' were painted above the front door. Pickets on a round-the-clock roster kept watch over the property. On nearby vacant land, which was strewn with discarded building materials, the UWM held stump meetings and sing-a-longs. (28)

As a 12-year-old boy, Don Hamilton was taken to these meetings by his father, who was an unemployed bricklayer. A lifelong Bankstown resident, Hamilton remembers: 'Dozens of local men, mostly middle-aged and unemployed, listening to the commo speakers.' (29) It was at these sing-a-longs that 17-year-old Alexander Makaroff played his violin, accompanied by 37 year-old timber cutter, John Corbett, who sang popular ballads. Both would be charged and goaled for participating in the Bankstown 'eviction riot'. (30)

On 4 June 1931, Bankstown Council employees visited 'Auld Reekie' with the intention of cutting its electricity supply. They were refused entry by the Unemployed Workers' Movement pickets. In the first trial of the 'Bankstown Seventeen', one of the council workers, James Webster, a witness for the prosecution, stated that they were 'physically threatened' by a 'commo. mob' and 'as the [Council] lorry pulled away rocks hit the cabin.' (31) This statement was not allowed to be questioned by the counsel for the defence, Clive Evatt. It was repeated in newspaper reports of the trial. (32) Whether rocks were thrown by the pickets remains unknown. Their refusal to have the power supply cut to the house may only have demonstrated their resolve. Nevertheless, unnamed police officers engaged in the Bankstown eviction told the press that the barbed wire covering the house's windows had been electrified. This allegation has never been verified. (33)

From the time the eviction order was delivered until the day of the 'riot', the police never visited the house to urge its occupants to depart, although they knew of the fortifications and the public meetings held at or near the property. It seemed that violent confrontation was not only inevitable but expected. The night before the police besieged the Brancourt Avenue property, the UWM held a sing-a-long on the adjacent vacant land. Alexander Makaroff, the fiddler, was convinced to stay because of the cold and rain. (34) Sixteen other men, most in their mid-thirties, slept on the floors or took their turn as the lookout.

At 6.45 am on the morning of 17 June 1931, more than thirty police motor cars and three Black Marias surrounded the occupied house, which was isolated on a corner block. Estimates of the number of police officers who arrived in Brancourt Avenue vary; ranging from the official police figure of forty to the calculation of an eyewitness who put the number at one hundred and twenty. (35) The wide cordon of police narrowed as they drew closer to the house. A large number of younger unnamed officers picked up stones and began throwing them at the windows and onto the tin roof of the house. Small groups of residents awoken by the commotion moved onto the streets and the land surrounding the house. Some police officers turned their pistols towards the onlookers, threatening them to keep away. In the second trial of the Bankstown 'rioters' police witnesses insisted that rocks were hurled by the police only in response to the 'volley of stones' thrown by the occupiers of 'Auld Reekie'. (36)

The names and ages of the seventeen men arrested at 92 Brancourt Avenue, Bankstown were John Bowles, 40; Douglas Owen Kendall, 30; Daniel Sammon, 35; George Cannon Hill, 29; Jack Hansen, 44; John Corbett, 37; Alexander Makaroff, 17; Robert Mitchell, 27; Frederick Smith, 39; Murray Cleveland Lavender, 27; Claude Stevens, 35; John Arthur Terry, 36; Andrew Dunbar Thompson, 56; Arthur Tidman, 29; Harold Woolfe, 41; Richard Alexander Eatock, 28; and the tenant, Alfred John Parsons, 39. (37) Fifteen of the seventeen men arrested at the 'Battle of Bankstown' were members of the Unemployed Workers' Movement. (38) Six of these so-called 'Bankstown Boys' had recently joined the Communist Party of Australia. Only John Bowles was a long-standing activist, having joined the Communist Party at Broken Hill in 1923 when working as a miner. (39) Nine of the men were returned diggers, survivors of either Gallipoli or the Western Front. (40)

When Clive Evatt for the defence attempted to question the police account of the eviction, the judge demanded that he desist. How those crowded inside the house were able to throw stones any distance through closed windows laced with barbed wire or doors that were buttressed with sandbags was never considered. (41) Unnamed eyewitnesses told a Workers' Weekly reporter that one police officer, shielded behind a gum tree near the backyard fence, fired several shots into the house. In court, Evatt raised this matter during the cross examination of Inspector White of Burwood Police. White denied this had ever happened.

The actions of the Unemployed Workers' Movement in the Bankstown eviction struggle, as well as a subsequent confrontation at Newtown, have been depicted in a song of the militant unemployed:
 ... At Bankstown and at Newtown
 We made the cops feel sore,
 We fought well,
 They got hell
 As we met them at the door
 We met them at the door boys
 We met them at the door ...

The song mythologises the men involved in both the Bankstown and Newtown evictions as courageous, heroic and even triumphant in their battle against the police. While accounts differ as to what actually took place at 92 Brancourt Avenue, Bankstown on 17 June 1931, it is certain that the seventeen men occupying the house were in no way victorious in their encounter with police. The determined picketing and rallying of the UWM at the Bankstown house adorned with barbed wire and sandbags may indicate that the organisation was preparing for a siege. Indeed, the sandbags and barbed wire could be seen as reminiscent of fortifications used in the trenches during the First World War, of which more than half of the seventeen men were veterans. Despite the appearance of the Bankstown house as a symbolic stockade, it cannot be presumed that the UWM either sought or expected a pitched battle with the police.

The police claimed that, as they forced entry through the front and back doors of the Bankstown house, they were attacked by the occupiers, who were wielding piping and pick-handles. As Inspector White thrust first his revolver and then his head into the house through one of the windows, he was struck with a large stone by Richard Eatock, a Koori brickyard labourer. White suffered a fractured skull. According to two of the arrested men, Claude Stevens and Douglas Owen Kendall, Eatock was shot in the thigh, then batoned and kicked into unconsciousness by four policemen in retaliation for the attack on White. (42) As well as shooting Eatock, police fired on a second occupier, Murray Cleveland Lavender, who received a bullet-graze to the head. Lavender was then handcuffed from behind and pummelled with police batons. (43) With the exception of Arthur Tidman, who was arrested in the backyard as the police advanced on the house, those who had barricaded themselves inside 'Auld Reekie' were severely beaten. Most of the occupiers were dragged out by the police. Several were carried out unconscious. Arthur Tidman described the gruesome spectacle of his fellow occupiers being brought from the house: 'They came out of the place with heads on them like bullocks' livers'. (44) What occurred within the Bankstown house once the police gained entry cannot be stated incontrovertibly. An unnamed police officer gave his version of events to the crime reporter for The Sun:
 When we got inside through the shower of stones, it was cut and
 slather. We had to go for our lives. Batons, iron bars and
 pickhandles were flying everywhere. (45)

In their sworn statements at court several of the accused remembered things differently. Andrew Dunbar Thompson, the oldest of the seventeen defendants, maintained in court that the UWM occupants did not attack the police in the Brancourt Avenue house, but merely defended themselves from baton-brandishing officers. (46)

John Bowles asserted that none of the occupiers threw stones. The police, Bowles claimed, hurled the stones, charged the house and beat the accused men after they were arrested. (47) Another of the defendants, John Arthur Terry, alleged that police smashed down the front door of 'Auld Reekie' and surged into each room, assaulting the defendants. According to Terry, when all the men apart from Tidman and Eatock were handcuffed, they were pushed into the kitchen where they were bashed and kicked until they could not stand. Terry, who served in the Australian Imperial Forces for three years in the trench warfare on the Western Front, stated:
 We anticipated no trouble. We were there to remove the barricades.
 I have never experienced such bestiality. I might say they [the
 police] were fiends incarnate. (48)

A detailed description of the Brancourt Avenue incident written by one of the arrested men (most likely John Bowles) was published anonymously in a Workers' Weekly article entitled, 'Firing to Kill: Lang Plan in Bankstown':
 The police arrived in carload after carload surrounding the cottage
 on all sides and commenced operations with a volley of stones which
 smashed the windows and fibrocement walls of the house. Until the
 police forced their way in, only two workers had been downed;
 Lavender had received a gunshot wound to the scalp and Dick Eatock
 was shot through the thigh. The other men were beaten by police,
 handcuffed and forced into the kitchen at gunpoint. Satisfied their
 victims were disarmed, one of the police rushed at the tenant
 yelling: 'This is Parsons. Get him'. This was the signal for an
 attack on the defenceless prisoners who were kicked and beaten
 insensible. The soldier comrades who were present said that they
 had never seen such behaviour even in the worst stages of the war.
 The police went on a wild orgy of destruction ripping and smashing
 the walls, the belongings of the tenant, children's clothes,
 bedding, blankets, even loaves of bread. (49)

The recollections of the seventeen men arrested at the Bankstown residence contrasted sharply with the account of police officers at the scene and reports that appeared in Sydney newspapers. The Sun stated that after Inspector White was injured, the police gave the besieged men, many of whom were wearing Unemployed Workers' Movement badges, no quarter:
 Police smashed their way in and a terrific battle ensued between
 those with batons and guns and those with sticks and iron bars.
 Police recognised most of their opponents as well-known Communists.
 The weight of numbers told. Reds were led from the house showing
 effects of the fight. (50)

After the occupiers were taken away, the police spent nearly two hours clearing the house of debris, which fuelled the bonfire they created in the backyard. What the police left inside the 'Auld Reekie' were stones and an assortment of iron bars and pick-handles that were piled neatly beneath a window at the front of the house. Police allowed this evidence to be photographed by the media. Images of these missiles and weapons were featured on the front page of the Daily Telegraph under the headline, 'Sanguinary Riot'. (51)

Although an unequivocal record of the events at the Brancourt Avenue eviction cannot be ascertained, the disparity between the injuries sustained by police officers and the arrested men was telling. While the police claimed they were attacked with iron bars and pick-handles by the rioting occupiers, apart from Inspector White, the police received only minor injuries. Several police officers suffered bruises, and cuts and abrasions from broken glass and fibroplaster, and were treated on the spot by the Canterbury-Bankstown District Ambulance service. (52) After being detained at Bankstown Police Station, a number of the arrested men had to be taken to the Western Suburbs District Hospital at Croydon. The Sydney Morning Herald catalogued the injuries of the 'rioters':
 Richard Eatock, bullet wound in the right thigh; Alex Makaroff,
 severe cuts to face and hands, bruises to the body and probably a
 fracture of the skull; Douglas Kendall, body bruises and an incised
 wound on the head; John Terry, deep cuts on head and body; John
 Bowles, lacerated jaws and body bruising; George Hill, lacerated
 scalp; Harold Woolfe, lacerated scalp; Jack Hanson, incised wounds
 on the head; Daniel Sammon, lacerated scalp and injuries to hand
 and arms; and Murray Lavender, severe concussion and contusions to
 the head. (53)

After spending two days in Long Bay Gaol, fifteen of the 'Bankstown Boys' were formally charged at Central Police Court 'with being armed with offensive weapons at 92 Brancourt Avenue, Bankstown where they unlawfully and riotously gathered to disturb the peace.' Richard Eatock and Murray Lavender remained in hospital. Bail for each of the men was set at 80 [pounds sterling], an amount that was at the time 'exceptionally high'. (54) None of the accused, who were all unemployed, could afford to pay the bail, so they all remained in gaol as they awaited trial. (55)

The violence at 92 Brancourt Avenue did not quell tension between police and the unemployed. Hours after the anti-eviction 'riot' had concluded a protest meeting near the Bankstown Railway Station was attended by more than three hundred people. The speakers at the meeting damned the actions of the police at the Bankstown eviction. One speaker declared that what happened at Brancourt Avenue 'was only the beginning of the revolution'. (56)

Undeterred by the serious beating received by its members at Bankstown, the Unemployed Workers' Movement was engaged in an anti-eviction struggle at Newtown just one day after the Brancourt Avenue incident. Like 'Auld Reekie', the two-storey semi-detached brick terrace in Union Street, Newtown had been fortified with barbed wire and sandbags by its UWM occupiers. After a confrontation lasting nearly an hour, forty police officers overpowered the sixteen occupants who were dragged 'almost insensible' to waiting paddy wagons. The police were jeered and threatened by a crowd of almost one thousand people. Those arrested at Newtown were charged with riot and joined the Bankstown seventeen as inmates of Long Bay Gaol. In early July 1931, the Newtown defendants were tried, but the jury was divided in its verdict. The charges against them were dismissed and they were freed. For the Bankstown occupiers, however, the judicial process would prove far more lengthy and complicated.

At the first of three trials, sixteen of the Brancourt Avenue occupiers were convicted and one, Claude Stevens, was found not guilty in August 1931. Their defence counsel, Clive Evatt, appealed the convictions to the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal. The convictions were quashed and a new trial was ordered because the jury had been improperly selected and the judge had made improper remarks about the defendants during the initial trial. (57) Dissatisfied with the decision of the New South Wales Court of Criminal Appeal, the Lang Labor government appealed to the High Court. The appeal was dismissed by the High Court and the new trial went ahead. This second trial lasted for three days in September 1931, and ended with a hung jury. Their third and final trial was conducted before Judge Armstrong in the Court of Petty Sessions over four days in November 1931.

During the final trial, evidence was presented to the court that may have explained the defendants' conduct and cast doubt on the legality of the police operation at 92 Brancourt Avenue. The eviction order served on Alfred John Parsons had given him until 18 June 1931 to vacate the property, but the police had arrived to enforce the order on 17 June 1931. This point was verified during the cross examination of Mrs McDonald, the owner of the house. (58) Apart from Richard Eatock, who refused to address the court, each of the defendants stated that they had stayed at the Brancourt Avenue house to assist Parsons in his preparations to depart. Rather than readying themselves for a police siege, the defendants claimed they were planning to spend 17 June 1931 dismantling the barbed wire, removing the sandbags and cleaning the house before the eviction order came into effect. Neither the judge nor the jury were persuaded by this explanation. Andrew Dunbar Thompson asserted that he was on the premises because he had brought Parsons a work contract to sign for the position of shearers' cook on a property near Nyngan. (59) Parsons claimed that the contract he had signed could not be produced because it was destroyed by the police in their bonfire after the eviction. Thompson's statement was disregarded and the sixteen men were convicted. The police error in removing the occupants a day before the eviction notice was legally valid was overlooked.

Prior to the sentencing of the defendants, their criminal records were read aloud to the court by the Official Gaol Recorder. Their past crimes included resisting arrest in street demonstrations, offensive behaviour outside a Newcastle hotel, the stealing of a bicycle at Cootamundra, being drunken and disorderly at Murray Bridge, and killing and eating a sheep on a Cowra property. (60) The 'Bankstown Boys' were sent to gaol not for riot, but for 'resisting the police in their duty'. The sixteen men received sentences of between three and eighteen months hard labour. John Corbett, the communist organiser, and Eatock, the Aboriginal labourer, were given the harshest sentences. Harold Wolfe and Jack Hansen were each given a suspended sentence and two-year good behaviour bond. Andrew Dunbar Thompson refused a good behaviour bond, and was instead sentenced to six months gaol.

A campaign by the Unemployed Workers' Movement to free these 'international class war prisoners' proved futile, although it drew support from the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council. Petitions from unemployed organisations and some trade unions were sent to the Lang Labor government, demanding the immediate release of the 'Bankstown Boys' and an open enquiry into the police violence at the Bankstown eviction. After the Bankstown and Newtown eviction 'fights', the Unemployed Workers' Movement re-evaluated its strategies:
 The lesson of Bankstown and Newtown is that not all our forces were
 thrown into the field to activise [sic] the workers but many were
 engaged merely in preparing defensive measures at the scene of the
 eviction. Our campaign thereby showed a tendency to degenerate from
 mass work to conspiratorial work. Because the houses in Newtown and
 Bankstown were barricaded, it is wrong to assume that every house
 must be defended in the same way. Turning every house into a
 fortress of barbed wire and sandbags must be condemned and every
 available effort must be used to mobilise the mass of workers in
 the neighbourhood in support of the tenant. (61)

After the release of the Newtown defendants, the UWM continued to demonstrate against selected evictions, but in Sydney its members never again occupied barricaded houses.

While the activities of the Unemployed Workers' Movement had provoked a repressive response from the police in Sydney, the organisation also forced the state government to recognise the difficulties faced by poor renting families in the Depression. Premier Jack Lang revised the state law that governed tenancy by freezing rents. It was hoped that the introduction of this measure would cause the UWM's anti-eviction struggles to wane. Lang's minor amendment of the rental law did little to address or improve the circumstances confronted by tenants in a period of mass unemployment and economic crisis. Despite the actions of Premier Lang and the unorthodox methods of the Unemployed Workers' Movement in Sydney, evictions continued to occur.


(1) The Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1931, p. 4.

(2) The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 1931, p. 1.

(3) The Labor Daily, 18 June 1931,p. 1.

(4) The Sun, 17 June 1931, p. 1.

(5) P. Spearrin, Sydney Since the Twenties, Sydney, 1978, pp. 59-62.

(6) Spearritt, Sydney Since the Twenties, pp. 59-62; J. MacKinolty, Sugar Bag Days: Sydney Workers and the Challenge of the 1930s Depression, unpublished MA thesis, Macquarie University, 1972, pp. 140-167.

(7) M. Cannon, The Human Face of the Great Depression, Melbourne, 2004, pp. 15-19; J. Waten, The Depression Years, 1929-1939, Melbourne, 1971, pp. 10-15.

(8) S. Macintyre, The Reds, Sydney, 1998, pp. 183-199.

(9) N. Wheatley, The Unemployed Who Kicked: A Study of the Political Struggles and Organisations of the New South Wales Unemployed in the Great Depression, unpublished MA thesis, Macquarie University, 1975, pp. 205-208.

(10) Wheatley, The Unemployed Who Kicked, pp. 207-213.

(11) N. Wheatley, 'The Disinherited of the Earth?' in J. MacKinolty (ed.), The Wasted Years? Australia's Great Depression, Sydney, 1980, pp. 27-29.

(12) N. Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door: radicalism, militancy, and the Sydney anti-eviction campaign of 1931', in J. Roe (ed.), Twentieth Century Sydney: Studies in urban and social history, Sydney, 1980, pp. 215-218.

(13) Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door', p. 218.

(14) D. Cottle and A. Keys, 'Danger from Below: Anti-Eviction Struggles in Sydney, January to July 1931', in S. Poynting and G. Morgan (eds) Outrageous! Moral Panics in Australia, Hobart, 2007, pp. 30-39.

(15) Cottle and Keys, pp. 30-39.

(16) C. Keating, Surry Hills: the city's backyard, Sydney, 1991, pp. 89-91.

(17) Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door', pp. 217-218.

(18) S. Rosen, Bankstown: A sense of identity, Sydney, 1996, pp. 107-108.

(19) Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door', footnote 36, p. 220.

(20) Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door', footnote 36, p. 220.

(21) The Sun, 12 June 1931, p. 3.

(22) Rosen, p. 107.

(23) Rosen, p. 107.

(24) The Workers' Weekly, 20 February 1931, p. 6.

(25) Rex v Bowles, Quarter Sessions, 14-16 November 1931, Court Transcripts: Criminal A-B, 1931, 6/1564, State Records, NSW, pp. 65-68.

(26) R v Bowles, pp. 29-34.

(27) R v Bowles, pp. 81-86.

(28) R v Bowles, pp. 94-98.

(29) Don Hamilton, telephone interview, 2 September 2007.

(30) R v Bowles, pp. 160-171.

(31) R v Bowles, pp. 75-76.

(32) Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1931, p. 6.

(33) The Sun, 18 June 1931, p. 16.

(34) 'Forever Striking Trouble', Hindsight: Radio National, March 1999,, accessed 25 October 2005.

(35) Authored by "One of Them", 'Firing to Kill: Lang Plan in Bankstown', Workers' Weekly, 26 June 1931, p. 1.

(36) R v Bowles, pp. 104-107.

(37) Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1931, p. 5; Sydney Morning Herald, 10 November 1931, p. 6.

(38) R v Bowles, p. 183.

(39) R v Bowles, pp. 174-175.

(40) Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door', footnote 28, p. 217.

(41) R v Bowles, pp. 124-126.

(42) R v Bowles, p. 90.

(43) R v Bowles, p. 184.

(44) R v Bowles, pp. 156-157.

(45) The Sun, 18 June 1931, p. 16.

(46) R v Bowles, pp. 181-189.

(47) R v Bowles, pp. 181-189.

(48) R v Bowles, pp. 181-189.

(49) "One of Them", Workers' Weekly, 26 June 1931, p. 1.

(50) The Sun, 18 June 1931, p. 16.

(51) The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 1931, p. 1.

(52) The Daily Telegraph, 18 June 1931, p. 1.

(53) Sydney Morning Herald, 18 June 1931.

(54) Wheatley, 'Meeting them at the door', footnote 36, p. 220.

(55) Sydney Morning Herald, 19 June 1931, p. 6.

(56) Sydney Morning Herald, 17 June 1931, p. 6.

(57) No transcript of this case in the Court of Quarter Sessions could be located in the records of the New South Wales State Archives.

(58) R v Bowles, pp. 82-87.

(59) R v Bowles, pp. 152-154.

(60) R v Bowles, pp. 190-194.

(61) Workers' Weekly, 31 July 1931, p. 4.
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Title Annotation:Sydney, Australia
Author:Cottle, Drew; Keys, Angela
Publication:Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:8AUST
Date:Dec 1, 2008
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