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Police Strike

On 31 October 1923 Constable William Thomas Brooks led 28 other constables from the Russell Street Barracks out on strike. By Friday, 2 November over 600 of the metropolitan constabulary refused to resume their duties. The men were protesting against the system of supervision by plain-clothes constables, known as 'spooks', instigated by chief commissioner Alexander Nicholson. It was the first and, to date, the only strike by a police force in Australia.

The police strike commenced on the eve of the Spring Racing Carnival, when thousands of visitors were expected in the city. Bereft of a police presence, Melbourne experienced a tumultuous weekend of riots and widespread looting. Violent clashes occurred as lone loyalist police on point duty were jostled and jeered by crowds. Outside the Melbourne Town Hall, a crowd of thousands converged menacingly on a handful of special constables, pelting them with missiles and forcing them to retreat until reinforcements arrived and the crowd was driven back by fire hoses and batons. The disorder continued on the Saturday evening, as crowds returned from the Derby. Seventy-eight shop-fronts in the city were smashed and a tram set alight in Elizabeth Street.

After a week of disorder, the government passed a public safety Bill, authorising the formation of a special force to replace the strikers. The task fell to Lieutenant-General Sir John Monash, who formed a special constabulary force numbering 5000 men. By Melbourne Cup Day, 6 November, the chaos of the previous week had mostly subsided. Although a subsequent royal commission acknowledged the validity of the strikers' grievances, it refused to justify their action. While the strikers were never reinstated, their actions did contribute to a gradual improvement in police working conditions in following years.

Dean Wilson

Brown, Gavin, and Robert Haldane, Days of violence: the 1923 police strike in Melbourne, Hybrid, Melbourne, 1998. Details