Radical Brisbane

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26. Red Flag Riots – Merivale Street

So many startling events occurred during Queensland’s Red Scare of 1918-19 that one could write a book about them. And in 1988 I did. After The Red Flag Riots. A Study of Intolerance was published, among those who contacted me was an elderly woman who rang to offer thanks for vindicating her childhood memories of the principal Merivale Street clash on the night of 24 March 1919. As she recalled, she had been playing out in this street with a group of other children that evening when their game was brought to an abrupt halt by a terrifying, unearthly sound. The children stood transfixed. They had never heard anything like it before. It was the roar of a rampant mob of around 7-8000 adults, principally men, rushing across Victoria Bridge and down Melbourne, Grey and Russell Streets en route to attack the Russian community headquarters. Their wild cries were underscored by the thunder of thousands of marching and running feet; and as this cacophony approached a crescendo, the children could see the front ranks of the crowd pouring into Merivale Street as well as lines of foot and mounted police rapidly taking up their positions to defend the Russian Hall. The children ran away in terror and later watched or simply listened to the hours of savage rioting which followed from the comparative safety of their nearby homes.

Yet years later, when this woman attempted to tell her offspring and their families what had occurred that evening long ago they had laughed indulgently at her, saying that her memory was playing tricks in her old age. How could that sort of thing have ever happened in Brisbane, they demanded.

As we so often hear, the past is another country – and an effective passport there must contain provisos not only about ‘attentive disbelief’ but also about open-mindedness towards its undoubted oddity. Merivale Street today is busy traffic-wise, but otherwise dull and unremarkable – a long , one-way stretch of asphalt, bordering on part of the South Bank complex and flanked by largely characterless warehouses. There is absolutely no hint that anything momentous ever happened here. But that is often the way with radical history. It inspires oversight and suppression rather than monuments.

Back in the years of World War One, however, Merivale Street was a restless centre of urban, proletarian life, filled with tenements, boarding houses, workers’ cottages and corner stores. It also composed part of the small South Brisbane Russian ghetto, stretching around into Russell and Cordelia Streets, as well as southward towards Vulture and Stanley Streets. The Russian Hall, the focus of the rioting of 24 March, had only recently been leased and occupied, following a raid by Military Intelligence on the Russian Rooms in the Hardgraves and Atlas Buildings in Stanley Street during January 1919 which had confiscated revolutionary literature, banners and a printing press – and in the process trashed the premises.

The Russian community was habituated to this ongoing kind of harassment. Indeed the vast majority were no strangers to suffering, having arrived in Brisbane over the previous decade or so via a tortuous migration route. Most were ex-political prisoners, escapees from Czarist gulags in Siberia, following the failed Russian Revolution of 1905. They had entered Queensland as refugees upon steamers shipping between Asian and Australian ports. Several thousand had arrived between 1908 and 1915, invariably to a hostile reception. Australia’s intolerance of refugees goes back a long way! In 1912-13, Premier Digby Denham, whom we last heard from rejoicing over the excesses of ‘Baton Friday’, attempted to have them debarred from landing by claiming they were ‘Asiatics’ and having the Immigration Restriction Act invoked against them.

Around the same time, it was officially noticed that the heavily politicized Russians, many of whom were Social Democrats and Social Revolutionaries, had formed a ‘socialistic society’ and the Brisbane CIB began keeping close watch on them. This society, the Union of Russian Workers (URW) was moulded from an immigrants’ self-help club by Tom Sergeev (alias Artem) who, following upon the February Menshevik Revolution of 1917 overthrowing the Czar, would return to Russia and become one of the fifteen members of the Bolshevik Central Committee, which planned the successful October coup.

During World War One, the URW would take a forward role in anti-war and anti-conscription struggle in Queensland. It published its own newspaper which kept changing its name and format in order to stay ahead of Commonwealth censorship prosecution. Its club-rooms were a thriving centre of debates, lectures and social gatherings. In December 1915, for instance, it organized a grandly named ‘Conference of Citizens of the World’ to expose the excesses of militarism. Its library contained more than 1 000 ‘precious volumes’ of working class literature. As a group of seven URW members proudly wrote to Labor’s Daily Standard in June 1919:

The Russian worker often refused his dinner and subscribed the shilling to enrich the library. Sweat and toil built it up! …[The URW] has sub-organizations and ‘self assistance’ and ‘relief’ to the political prisoners in Siberia and other places…[It] even had a ‘Field Naturalists Club.’ Yes, it had a great deal in which the Australian working class organizations are deficient, in the manner of self-education…

By the time this was written, however, all lay in ruins: the Russian Hall wrecked and closed down; the Russian community in disarray from evictions, job dismissals, rioting and general harassment; their newspaper suppressed; their leaders and spokespersons in prison, with some facing deportation. And most of the rest of the local labour movement turning a decidedly deaf ear to their sufferings.

The Merivale Street riot provided a climax to a series of clashes which stretched back into the conscription campaigns of 1916-17. During 1918, these had taken on a more politically focused character as local fears of the Bolshevik Revolution connected anti-alien with anti-radical hysteria. Feeding the mounting frenzy was the local conservative press, principally the Brisbane Courier and the Daily Mail, depicting revolutionary Russians as ‘Bolshevik swine’, guilty of ‘repulsive bestiality, lawlessness and lust’; as well as leaders of the Catholic and Protestant churches, preaching against the alarming spread of ungodly, atheistic communism.

Yet the principal provocateurs of the anti-Bolshevik rioting were a key group of professional organizers and opinion-makers. Late in 1918, E. H. Macartney, solicitor, company director and leader of the right-wing Parliamentary opposition in Queensland, had joined with the millionaire Catholic merchant, T. C. Beirne and Colonel A.J. Thynne, Macartney’s legal and business partner, in launching the Australian Democratic Union (ADU) on an exclusive anti-Bolshevik platform. This group had joined forces with the United Loyalist Executive (ULE), a super, populist mobilization of over 70 000 Anglophiles, royalists and anti-socialists from all over Queensland, led by Dr Ernest Sandford-Jackson, a prominent Brisbane physician of pastoral family background and a former president of the Queensland Club. This enormous body of ultra-loyalists merged, in turn, with the expanding, rightward-leaning returned soldiers’ organizations, the Returned Soldiers and Citizens Political Federation and the smaller, more vibrant Returned Sailors and Soldiers Imperial League, later known as the RSL.

It was largely these returned men, led by ex-military officers and augmented by civilians from the ULE, who conducted the violent street skirmishes against Russians and other leftists which peaked between 23 and 25 March. Yet the strength, commitment and audacity of this campaign also owed its momentum to yet another, more covert source. For, since May 1918, sections of the Commonwealth government – Military Intelligence, Military Censorship, the Special Intelligence Bureau (SIB), run by the Governor-General’s Private Secretary, and the Commonwealth Police – had all been playing the dangerous game of bolstering anti-revolutionary initiatives by secretly encouraging right-wing vigilante activism. This idea had originated from the USA where the Federal government had sponsored an American Protective League of 250 000 citizens to suppress ‘disloyalty’ during and after the war, The plan was brought back to Australia by a former Intelligence operative, R. D. C. Elliott, a businessman and newspaper proprietor.

It was adopted by the Minister for Defence, Senator George Pearce and the Acting Prime Minister, W. A. Watt. After discussions with Herbert Brookes, a business associate of Elliott and one of the most powerful political figures in the country, an Australian Protective League (afterwards, the Australian Defensive League (ADL)) had been launched on 28 May 1918 along similar lines to the US prototype. Its contacts in the various states were not only Intelligence functionaries, but also Police Commissioners, the ostensible prime upholders of law and order.

The ADL’s Queensland links were therefore people like the right-wing historian, Malcolm Ellis (operating as a mole for the SIB); the Military Censor, J.J. Stable, English Department lecturer at the University of Queensland; Commandant G.G. Irving and Captain C.N. Woods of Military Intelligence; Captain G.N. Ainsworth, a former Antarctic explorer and Queensland head of the SIB, and Sergeant A.M. Short of the Commonwealth Police. Queensland’s Police Commissioner, the former avid Native Police Officer and Baton Friday warrior, Frederick Urquhart was kept appraised of the mounting vigilante mobilization, helping it along and reporting developments back to Herbert Brookes in Melbourne. Only a month before the Red Flag riots erupted, he wrote to Brookes of a visit from Sandford Jackson of the ULE and two unnamed others who:

…came along to ask my advice and told me…that they would have 60 societies joined up and expressed a wish that I might take a hand in the matter…They wish to go pretty far – not only to uphold the constitution by peaceful means but to have a formidable striking force ready if required…

Urquhart wrote not to condemn this blatant contemplation of lawlessness but to recommend its services to Brookes and his nascent ADL. On the same day as Urquhart was fraternizing with the ULE, Constable Hubert Foote of the Commonwealth Police reported to Captain Woods of Military Intelligence that this loyalist phalanx was engaged upon ‘the supplying of arms to their members.’ Woods told him to mind his own business. ‘Our work is only concerned with the disloyal associations,’ he reprimanded Foote: ‘We do not worry about what the Loyal Societies are doing.’ In any case, Woods continued, most of the leaders of ‘the Grand Executive’ (ie. the ULE) were already rifle club members and had no difficulty in finding a gun – ‘any man with a few pounds to spare could easily purchase one’ – and if the ULE were so organizing, he concluded pointedly, ‘All the more power to them!’

When these backroom machinations along the central corridors of power are considered, the wild rioting in Brisbane just one month later takes on an entirely different aspect. At street level, it was certainly wild, visceral and uncontrolled; but behind the scenes, it was encouraged, planned and specifically targeted. Leading establishment figures like Macartney, Thynne, Sandford-Jackson, Brookes and others inhabited a web of loyalism and intrigue which stretched from the office of the Prime Minister and the Governor-General to the fractious ranks of returned soldiers and citizen loyalists in the streets, smarting for a fight.

It had been Herbert Brookes during 1918 who had influenced the Commonwealth Government to ban first the flying of the green, white and orange Irish Sinn Fein flag and then the Red flag itself as dangerous symbols of rebellion. Brookes was a founding member of the Liberal Party and was married to the eldest daughter of former Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin. He had the direct ear of Prime Minister Billy Hughes, and knew how to get his way. Both flags were prohibited under the War Precautions Act. Yet the Red flag was not simply an emblem of revolution. Red was the official colour of the Australian labour movement and, in Queensland, of the Labor Party itself. Over subsequent months, it became a matter of who on the Left was prepared to defend the flag and who would meekly submit to the ban.

Although trade unionists had protected a large red flag flying on the roof of Brisbane Trades Hall in early August 1918 from an attacking party of returned soldiers, after the official ban in mid-September, union officials had simply looked helplessly on as Military Intelligence officers confiscated the emblem to the cheers of watching loyalists. A Russian worker named Kritikoff complained to the Daily Standard:

When the red flag was hauled down…there was not a single voice of protest…If the rank and file do not realize the real meaning of the Red Flag – that sacred standard and symbol of solidarity and fraternity of Labor, which in the present struggle in Russia is protected by Bolsheviks at any price and by any means – then the time is not ripe yet for its hoisting on the Trades Hall.

The Russians, however, had their own humiliations to bear. Sunday Domain meetings of Russians and other radical leftists were physically attacked; the Russian Consul, Peter Simonoff was interned; other Russian spokespersons were officially gagged and on 8 November 1918 – the first anniversary of ‘the overthrow of Capitalism in Russia’ – an attempted celebration in the Centennial Hall was prohibited by the military. When the thwarted leftists attempted a street meeting instead, this too was violently dispersed twice by returned soldiers.

By March 1919, the general political atmosphere throughout Australia was bitter and galvanic. During this year there would be more than a score of violent demonstrations and riots in urban centers involving returned men. A small number would be directed against the authorities or employer groups but most chose relatively powerless out-groups of so-called ‘alien intruders’ and ‘disloyal extremists’ as their target. In Queensland alone there were serious clashes in Townsville, Hughenden, Ayr, Proserpine, Toowoomba, Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Dalby and Charleville; but the violent events in Brisbane cast virtually everything else of a conflictful nature around Australia into the shade.

The fuse that lit the powder-keg was supplied by a small, civilliberties march of 3-500 leftists, Russians included, fromTrades Hall on Sunday afternoon, 23 March. The march was planned to protest the continuation of the draconic War Precautions Act in peacetime; and when the Russians marching displayed several prohibited red flags as an act of civil disobedience, it was unsuccessfully attacked by a small number of foot and mounted police en route to the Domain. The Russians’ act of defiance was just the trigger that the well primed loyalist machine had been awaiting. Within hours, thousands of returned soldiers and others had been alerted to attack the regular Sunday meeting of the One Big Union Propaganda League situated at North Quay. The large speakers’ platform was overturned and thrown into the river and many radicals injured in the melee. Herman Bykov, a Russian speaker, was beaten, kicked and stabbed.

After making short work of this gathering, the ex-soldiers next descended upon the Merivale Street Russian Hall. Around sixty Russians, forewarned of this approach by their leader A. M. Zuzenko, however, stood armed and ready to defend their premises. As the loyalist mob approached, their mad rush was halted and dispersed by revolver shots fired over their heads. The conservative press of the following day was filled with provocative headlines like ‘EXTREMISTS LOOSE’ (meaning, of course, radicals not loyalists), ‘BOLSHEVIK OUTBREAK’, ‘QUEEN ST RUSSIANISED’ and ‘POLICE AND SOLDIERS BADLY MAULED’; and its press accounts read as an open incitement to further rebellion.

The clamorous ‘sea’ of up to 8,000 demonstrators who packed North Quay that evening, spilling back into Queen and William Streets, did not gather there simply to hear long-winded speeches. The site itself was not a conventional one for large-scale political rallies but was chosen rather for its proximity to Victoria Bridge, as this represented the only way across the river to attack the Russian quarter once more. The vast crowd was literally screaming for blood, and talk of arson and lynching was rife.

Flying a large Australian flag at their head, the huge concourse moved rapidly across the bridge soon after the speeches had begun, some singing the wartime recruiting anthem, ‘Australia Will Be There’ and, more chillingly, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning.’ Others were bellowing and chanting, ‘Burn them out!…Hang them!’ In Merivale Street, they were met – not this time by Russian weaponry – but by two lines of police, drawn up in military formation – rifles loaded with ball cartridge and bayonets fixed. These had been ordered out after the Labor Cabinet had learned that, at RSL meetings that day, veterans were advised to bring whatever weaponry they had to the evening rally. It was also claimed that leaders of the ULE had armed a force of forty returned men with rifles to pick off targets in the Russian sector.

As the maddened crowd pushed onto the bayonet line, they were attacked from behind by ten mounted police, wielding riding crops. In response, enraged loyalists began tearing hundreds of palings off surrounding fences to defend themselves. Gunshots rang out, as rocks, bricks and bottles flew through the air. Seven of the troopers were seriously injured, as were several of their horses, one of which, hit nine times by bullets, had subsequently to be destroyed.

With the mounted police line effectively broken, groups of soldiers attempted to penetrate the wavering police cordons in order to reach the Hall. Missiles hurled over the constable’s heads effectively reduced the premises to a wreck. The pungent fumes of alcohol and gunpowder hung over the pandemonium and the evening air was peppered with the staccato blasts of gunshots and home-made ‘jam tin’ bombs, the shrill cries of frightened and wounded animals, the clatter of hooves on asphalt, the thunder of running feet, the crack of whips, breaking glass, the whack and thud of palings and rifle butts, and the yells, groans and curses of the men as they were stabbed by bayonets or felled by flying debris. This continued for at least another two hours until exhaustion and satiation set in. Then a deputation, led by the Queensland Secretary of the RSL, was actually taken on a tour of the wrecked Russian premises by police to ensure that no Bolsheviks were hiding under any beds! Tenements, homes and shops were afterwards raided and looted.

Nineteen police had been seriously injured in the disturbance as well as an uncounted number of rioters. One of the constables calculated that ‘over a hundred’ had been pierced by bayonets during the Diggers’ ‘bonzer stunt.’ He had ‘prodded six’ himself, he wrote to his brother in Cloncurry. Perhaps the most ironic casualty was Commissioner Urquhart, stabbed deeply in the right side of his chest by Inspector Ferguson, who was using his rifle-butt to flatten demonstrators. Perhaps it had required the point of a bayonet to drive home at last to the Police Commissioner the folly of covertly inciting right-wing vigilantism.

Both the Brisbane Courier and the Daily Standard reported the following day that something quite exceptional had happened. Yet whereas the Standard viewed the rioting as ‘one of the maddest and most disgraceful scenes ever witnessed in any part of Australia’, the Courier exulted in its ‘wild and thrilling’ magnificence: ‘Nothing … approaching it …had ever been witnessed in Brisbane before.’ From London, Prime Minister Hughes expressed unabashed delight at hearing of how the soldiers had dealt with the Bolsheviks of Brisbane.

The Merivale street riot, sensational and climactic as it was, was unfortunately not the end of the matter. In fact, it seemed to open a Pandora’s box of more civil disturbance over subsequent days as rioting spread across the inner-city area. Bowman House, the Daily Standard building, was attacked by a large mob and known Brisbane leftist were assaulted in the streets. Russians too were individually beaten up by avenging gangs as a general social and economic boycott was instituted against them. One Russian resident wrote in early April:

Yes, it was a formal pogrom, exactly like the pogroms of Jews organized during the reign of the Czar…All the Russians are in a state of panic. They are being dismissed everywhere from work… The soldiers thrash the Russians in the streets…

Another stated, ‘Many Russians were beaten…There is danger…on every step and corner.’

Instead of punishing the rioters or their instigators, however, Commonwealth and State Authorities now colluded in turning punitively on the Russians and their left-wing supporters who had been the target of public attack. The decision of a State Labor Government, under the leadership of E.G Theodore, to imprison fifteen men for a total period of seven years simply for displaying red flags must stand as one of the more shameful actions in the Queensland Labor Party’s history. The same Government also offered its police forces and its lockups to cooperate with the Commonwealth in the deportation without trial of eleven Russians, ostensibly involved with Bolshevik activities in Australia. Lists were compiled for the expulsion of sixty more, but this was thwarted by British Authorities. For more than two months after the riots, enormous loyalist rallies, addressed by some of Brisbane’s most respected citizens, decried virtually anything ‘foreign’ or radical in their midst; several thousand returned soldiers organized a private ‘Army to Fight Bolshevism’ at the Exhibition Grounds; and, in the countryside, Edward Lord and others again mobilized their Legion of Frontiersmen, last seen in 1912, to thwart a possible Bolshevik uprising in the capital.

The next time you happen to be in Merivale Street, South Brisbane, near its Russell Street intersection, close your eyes for a moment and listen for echoes of this time of extraordinary discord – a time when the mere sight of the colour ‘red’ transformed seemingly ordinary citizens into raging bulls and xenophobia ran riot against a largely manufactured enemy.

Raymond Evans.

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