100 years ago, Melbourne went mad with Spooks on Halloween

Forgotten Australia podcaster Michael Adams details the protests that erupted on All Hallows Eve (the Christian name for Halloween), Australia's first coronavirus outbreak and the flu that everyone feared.

Spooks and specials on Halloween 1923

One hundred years ago this week, Melbourne went mad thanks to Spooks.

On Wednesday 31 October 1923, after decades of poor pay, poor conditions and poor treatment, the city’s constables were fed up.

But the straw that broke the camel’s back was Chief Commissioner Alexander Nicholson’s introduction of plainclothes ‘Spooks’ who spied on their brother officers.

That night – All Hallows Eve – 29 police refused to go on night duty until the ‘Spook’ system was unconditionally terminated. They also wanted pay equal to their NSW brethren and the restoration of retirement pensions.

But the Commissioner refused – and threatened to fire all the cops. Tensions escalated and efforts at conciliation faltered – right as visitors were pouring into the city for the Spring Racing Carnival and the Melbourne Cup the following Tuesday.

After four dozen police were summarily sacked, never to get their jobs back, hundreds more cops went out on strike.

The police strike sparked chaos

On Friday 2 November Melbourne was protected only by a thin contingent of plainclothes officers, non-striking uniformed constables and retired police who had been recalled to duty.

On picket lines in the centre of the city, strikers taunted those on duty with cries of “scabs” and “blackguards” and worse. Civilian crowds gathered, swelling to hundreds, with many larrikins ready to rumble. Police patience cracked.

Photographs from the riots of 1923 shocked Melbourne.

For the next few hours, loyalist police and detectives skirmished with the crowd. “The police singled out the most disorderly ones and batons were freely used,” reported The Sun. By midnight the city was quiet again and by 1am the police had full control of the streets.

Ominous excitement grew in Melbourne on Saturday. Crowds poured into the city, thrilled not just by Derby Day but by the prospect of a carnival atmosphere of chaos.

The Victorian government tried to reinforce themselves and all day at the Town Hall clerks enrolled men for a militia of baton-wielding Special Constables.

By mid Saturday afternoon, only 3 loyal police constables remained on duty on the corner of the intersection of Bourke and Swanston.

When a dozen uniformed reinforcements arrived, this small cluster of cops faced a threatening crowd of more than 2000 that was growing bigger every minute. Jostled and harassed, several more police defected to the strikers.

Just after 5pm when a hooligan broke from the crowd and punched a constable in the face. The police now charged, scattering the crowd, smashing the man with their batons.

By 6pm the police had either defected or retreated to Russell Street headquarters. Melbourne’s busiest intersection was now at the mercy of an unruly horde.

Larrikins pulled a tram from its tracks and tried to set it on fire. The mood got even uglier when hundreds of drinkers left city pubs under the 6 o’clock closing laws to join the anarchy. Many had prepared for battle by taking beer bottles with them from the hotel bars.

“Look out!” someone shouted as a bottle sailed over the crowd and smashed into a man who went down bleeding from a head wound. More missiles followed – bottles, bricks, bluestone metal, whatever came to hand – as the crowd went crazy. Bottles and jagged pieces of glass flew in all directions and, the Argus reported, within minutes scores of people were bleeding, pools of blood glistening on the road and footpaths.

“My God, this is Australia,” one returned soldier was heard to say.

Sailors tried to take control

A few inebriated sailors tried to control the crowd outside Melbourne’s landmark Leviathan clothing store. The sailors swung metal boot stands to hold back the crowd, now estimated at some 12,000 people.

One man – James Lobley, a 50-year-old farmer – was hit in the head, fell down and was dragged off. Later he’d be found unconscious in a gutter and was taken to Melbourne Hospital where he died some weeks later.

A man rushed forward and used an axe to shatter one of the Leviathan’s plate glass windows.

Looters jumped into the destroyed display and began to calmly throw goods to the crowd. The sailors were all beaten.

Just when it seemed they’d be killed, the mob’s focus turned to a nearby jewellery store. More shops were targeted and the streets were soon strewn with tons of broken glass, along with empty cigar boxes and cigarette cartons, emptied jewellery drawers and cases.

“Melbourne had the appearance of a metropolis raided by hostile aircraft,” observed a Herald reporter.

At 7pm, 40 pensioner police and country constables assembled at the Russell Street barracks. A sub-Inspector gave them their orders: “Go to the corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets. Keep together, and when you hit, hit hard!” They did.

Alan Marshall's observations

The most vivid description of the riots is found in Alan Marshall’s 1962 memoir This Is The Grass, which followed from his landmark autobiography, I Can Jump Puddles. Then aged 21, the aspiring writer had witnessed Friday night’s riot – and been drawn to the city on Saturday night. Yet it almost got him killed.

The crowd, he wrote, “circled slowly round an axis of intense action, a vortex spiked with flailing arms that threw out, on its perimeter, a debris of staggering men clutching their bellies, men snorting blood from bowed heads. It sucked in unmarked men to replenish its losses; it engulfed the special constables who had raced to meet it and whose truncheons flashed up and down in a frenzy of hitting until they too were tossed aside.”

The damage from the riots was extensive, and the government forbade the airing of any newsreel footage.

Bourke Street cinemas saw one of the ugliest incidents when 1000 people tried to force their way into the Brittannia and Melba theatres. Police fired shots over the heads of the crowd. That sent people into a panic, and they stampeded, falling against shop windows, which shattered, while others were trampled underfoot. Meanwhile, smaller bands of thugs forced their way into the cinemas.

At 8pm in Bourke Street it was pandemonium as constables tried to fight their way through crowds as missiles rained down on them. A constable staggered, hit in the head. Seeing red, he went after his attacker in the mob.

“Thud after thud cleared a space about him,” reported the Argus.  “Every blow of the baton sent a shudder through those who heard it.”

His comrades followed and the crowd panicked, with men and women going down screaming as they were hit with batons.

Meanwhile, the Specials were put under the command of not the Chief Commissioner but Great War hero General Sir John Monash and other Australian military leaders.

With the central city block of Bourke Street thoroughly plundered, hundreds of looters descended on virgin territory in Elizabeth Street.

But by 9:30pm, the ever-growing number of Specials was helping to turn the tide. The forces of law and order now comprised some 50 plainclothesmen, 200 uniformed police and some 200 specials. Together, they brought Swanston Street under control and established strong pickets to guard the Town Hall and Leviathan. Police and Specials systematically swept main city streets, breaking looters into small groups and arresting or driving them off.

Batons were used freely and with great enthusiasm. Melbourne Hospital’s doctors and nurses were struggling to cope with hundreds of people suffering head injuries and broken bones.

Another man was knocked down and killed on Swanston Street. But the worst crime of the night took place on the corner of City Road, when William Spain, a returned serviceman and railway worker, was attacked by three thugs outside popular attraction Wirth’s Circus. In full view of dozens of witnesses, he was beaten senseless with a beer bottle before being robbed. He died in a little rookery, covered in his own blood. His murderers were never identified.

By 10.30pm the police and specials had gained the upper hand in the battle to control Melbourne. Patrol cars sped through streets, their running boards packed with cops, headlights lighting up shadows.

A carload of 'Spooks' operating in Little Collins St during the police strike

Any group of people was promptly broken up.

Sunday dawned to reports that the riot had seen 78 city shops suffer some £50,000 in damages. Three people had died, 400 were injured and 55 people were under arrest. Despite falling rain, now 100,000 people came into the city that Sunday see the ruination. The size of the crowd threatened another night of anarchy.

The state government now acted more decisively to prevent further violence. To encourage the crowds to leave early and return home, Cabinet decreed all trams would stop by 6pm and trains by 7pm. But Victoria couldn’t guarantee the protection of Commonwealth buildings. So the federal government, then based in Melbourne, ordered the armed forces to protect the city.

All army, air force and navy leaves were cancelled, with men reporting to their bases and ships. A detachment of 200 men from Queenscliff Garrison Artillery and Engineers arrived at Flinders Street, each man carrying a rifle fitted with a bayonet and issued with 200 rounds of ammunition. The soldiers marched over the Princes Bridge to Victoria Barracks, where machine guns were also being held in readiness. Soldiers and sailors guarded the banks, the treasury, government house and other public buildings.

While there were more violent large-scale clashes with police and Specials in the city in Sunday afternoon, that Sunday night a detachment of ex-Australian Light Horsemen rode into the city over the Princes Bridge. Their arrival was reported as having a ‘profound effect’ on the mob. These heroes had fought at Gallipoli, Beersheeba and the Western Front against the Turks and the Germans. Now they were being deployed in Melbourne against… Australians.

That night there were more crown scenes and more baton charges, with skirmishes on in the city streets and in inner city Fitzroy. But by late Sunday, Melbourne was again under control.

The official line – that the worst offenders were known crooks and those of the “embryo criminal class” – was repeated in all the newspapers. As the week progressed, this proved untrue. The majority of those arrested, charged and sentenced to up to six months’ jail were ordinary young men and women without criminal records who had simply succumbed to the mass hysteria.

Despite the unprecedented chaos that engulfed Melbourne for three days, the November 1923 police strike and riot eventually faded from popular memory. The Commonwealth government wanted it forgotten, prohibiting the export of any newsreel footage of the anarchy, lest the rest of the world see Australia’s shame.

A century later, the legacy of the strike endures. Though not one of the 636 police strikers got their jobs back, their actions led to rank-and-file grievances being taken seriously and acted upon. Within a year, a police pension scheme was reinstated and constables received a pay rise, along with clearer paths to promotion and increased annual leave. And the Spook system of surveillance was abandoned.

On this day in 1965

When English model Jean Shrimpton, who had been nicknamed Twiggy, attended Flemington races on Oaks Day, November 4, 1965, she made head turns by - GASP - wearing a mini dress.

At the time, Melbourne's The Age newspaper wrote that "In a plain, white sleeveless shift, its hemline a full 4 inches above the knee, Miss Shrimpton drew appreciative stares wherever she went on the course."

Australia’s forgotten coronavirus outbreak?

Thanks to covid-19, we all got a bit of a history refresher on the ‘Spanish Flu’ pandemic and how in it killed 15,000 people of the five million people living in Australia in 1919. But that pandemic – in which most died from bacterial pneumonia – wasn’t a coronavirus. Yet Australia had potentially suffered a Covid outbreak before in ‘Russian Flu’. It killed a million victims worldwide from 1889. Recently, the New York Times published an article postulating that this pandemic, nicknamed by the French as ‘La Grippe’, was a coronavirus.

The Russian Flu reached Australia in 1890. Melbourne was hit hard and in April the Williamstown Advertiser published a poem titled ‘Russian Influenza’ by ‘A Survivor’ describing its effects.

Sample: ‘Of all the things beneath the skies/That’s sure to make one swab his eyes/ And sneeze and cough till he nearly dies/Is the Russian Influenza’.

The bug was still deadly in the late spring of 1891. As an example of the toll it was taking, the 30 October Melbourne Herald ran a story headlined: ‘Influenza in the Brighton District – Twenty Deaths in Six Weeks.’

The  newspapers were filled with lots of other little articles about healthy adults who got infected and died swiftly.

All up it’d kill some 2400 of the 3 million Australian colonial population.

Beliefs that bad atmospheres caused disease were then commonplace and this pestilence sent some folks fleeing to the fresh air and wide spaces of the country. Fair enough – Victoria’s choking capital’s poor sewage had lent it the effluvial nickname ‘Smelbourne’. So if you could, you’d avoid the city like, well, the plague.

But perhaps the strangest stories from this Australian pandemic was of how it’d indirectly killed one man. This story seemed to say: when you’re number’s up, your number’s up.

On the same day as the Brighton tally, 30 October 1891, the Argus told readers about one nervous old fella who’d left Melbourne and gone to Swan Hill to seek safety from the contagion.

The report continued: ‘But though he escaped the prevailing epidemic by his flight, he met a swifter until surer death in the country by being drowned in the river Murray, near Tyntynder.’

The Bendigo Advertiser also published the story, under the headline ‘A Fugitive From the Influenza Epidemic’.

This senior citizen’s corpse had been found floating on 18 October. When the local constabulary had made enquiries, they learned that he was a stranger to the Swan Hill district. Upon arriving, he’d said he usually made his home in Melbourne but had left to avoid being infected by the influenza.

Without evidence of foul play, the underpaid Victorian police weren’t about to undertake an intensive investigation into the identity of this scaredy cat who’d sealed his own fate by running away. But they did issue a description of the deceased that was circulated in the newspapers:

‘Between 60 and 65 years of age, about 5ft. 8in in height, stout build, bald, grey hair and beard, and shaved on the face He was respectably dressed in a dark cloth coat and trousers, satin waistcoat, white shirt, worsted gloves and new shoes A red woollen comforter was tied round his body. The comforter, shoes, and part of the waistcoat have been preserved to assist in the identification Anyone who is able to furnish information about the deceased is requested to communicate with Superintendent Ryall, Bendigo, or the criminal investigation department, Melbourne.’

In Melbourne one of the newspaper readers recognised the description of this stylish senior citizen.

How the Russian flu finished off a bushranging legend

Born in May 1819, in Waterford, Ireland, Henry Johnson was convicted in Lancashire in August 1840 of stealing and sentenced to 7 years’ transportation to Tasmania.

Originally a convict, Henry Johnson turned himself into bushranger Harry Power and spent years on a prison hulk and then inside Pentridge.

Despite having escaped and gone on the run for a couple of years on the mainland, by 1848 Henry was freed and started a new life as a cattle drover and talented bushman in country NSW and Victoria. But in 1855, after an affray with drunken troopers near Bendigo, in which they accused him of horse theft, Henry responded to a sabre threat by drawing his revolver and firing a shot.

Henry was sentenced to 13 years - and did some of this time on the prison hulk Success, which was moored in Port Phillip Bay. In October 1856, he was involved in an uprising in which a warder was killed. While Henry was one of the prisoners charged with murder, he acquitted and would be released early on remissions. But in 1864 Henry would get another 7 years for horse stealing.

In 1869, he escaped from Pentridge. By then he was known to all under the far catchier villain name of ‘Harry Power’.

An engraving of Harry Power's capture.

Harry fled to the Victorian north-east, met up with some old comrades and was soon mentoring their teenage kinsman in the ways of bushranging.

Young Ned Kelly and old Harry Power were firm outlaw friends for a while before a falling out.

Soon after, Ned’s alleged betrayal led to Harry being caught in his tent in June 1870.

Harry was sent back to Pentridge. This time there would be no escape. But, as we read last week, he’d be profiled by undercover journalist ‘Vagabond’ in March 1877. Even 7 years later he was still angry at Ned Kelly – who was soon to be really infamous Australia-wide.

The Stringybark Creek massacre, the Glenrowan siege and Ned Kelly’s hanging: they all happened while Harry was still behind bars.

Harry Power was released in February 1885, with the Herald running a big article about his limited funds and prospects. But, despite his old age and that he’d spent half his life behind bars, the old crook fell on his feet with a job that traded on his notoriety.

The prison hulk Success had been converted into a floating museum and was filled with waxwork dummies of notorious criminals. There was no-one better to be its tour guide than the old bushranger who’d once called its cells home.

Success was such a success that it toured its true-crime attractions internationally. Harry Power went along for the ride.

Despite being in his early seventies, Harry was still the ladies’ man he’d always been. When back in Victoria, he’d alternate between living aboard Success and with a Mrs Slater at Oakleigh.

Harry was still doing this when the Russian flu was hitting Melbourne hard in spring of 1891.

Back in 1855, when he’d first gotten into trouble with the law in Victoria and shot at the copper, he’d considered turning himself in at the nearest police station.

He’d tell Vagabond: ‘But I was frightened, and rode across the colony, thinking to go and stay in New South Wales till the row was over. At the Murray I was stopped.’

In 1891, feeling threatened by the flu, he fled north again and again he stopped at the Murray and was picked up by the police. Except this time they were fishing his body out of the river.

Upon reading the newspaper reports about the well-dressed drowned old-timer, a Mr J.L Reilly - half-brother to Mrs Slater - recognised the description and the clothes and contacted the police.

The Herald on 7 November reported this development and provided a round-up of the rascal’s long career:

‘Harry Power, as he was familiarly termed, was once a central figure in the history of bushranging in Victoria. His exploits in the bush were of a varied character, and it is said that Ned Kelly served his bushranging novitiate under him. It was Power’s boast that he never took human life.’

Harry Power – who’d cheated death so many times could never have imagined it’d be his fear of the Russian flu that’d be his end.

Nor that one day he’d be played by Russell Crowe in something called a ‘movie’.

Russell Crowe played Harry Power in the 2019 movie, True History of the Kelly Gang.

To hear podcasts about Australia’s experience of the Spanish Flu and the Melbourne riots, check out episodes 1 & 2 of Forgotten Australia. Michael Adams’ books Hanging Ned Kelly and The Murder Squad are available now.

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