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The Ballad Of 1891

Words by Helen Palmer ©Doreen Bridges
Music Doreen Jacobs ©Doreen Bridges

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The price of wool was falling in 1891
The men who owned the acres saw something must be done
"We will break the Shearers' Union, and show we're masters still
And they'll take the terms we give them, or we'll find the ones who will"

From Claremont to Barcaldine, the shearers' camps were full
Ten thousand blades were ready to strip the greasy wool
When through the west like thunder, rang out the Union's call
"The sheds'll be shore Union or they won't be shorn at all"

Oh, Billy Lane was with them, his words were like a flame
The flag of blue above them, they spoke Eureka's name
"Tomorrow," said the squatters, "they'll find it does not pay
We're bringing up free labourers to get the clip away"

"Tomorrow," said the shearers, "they may not be so keen
We can mount three thousand horses, to show them what we mean"
"Then we'll pack the west with troopers, from Bourke to Charters Towers
You can have your fill of speeches but the final strength is ours"

"Be damned to your six-shooters, your troopers and police
The sheep are growing heavy, the burr is in the fleece"
"Then if Nordenfeldt and Gatling won't bring you to your knees
We'll find a law," the squatters said, "that's made for times like these"

To trial at Rockhampton the fourteen men were brought
The judge had got his orders, the squatters owned the court
But for every one that's sentenced, ten thousand won't forget
Where they jail someone for striking, it's a rich man's country yet


Many thanks to Doreen Bridges (formerly Jacobs) for permission to add this song to the collection.

In 1891 the squatters (pastoralists) went on the offensive in Queensland, drawing up a proposed agreement for the 1891 shearing season that abandoned the recently won eight-hour day and did not recognise unions. The shearer's rejected this on January 6, 1891, and the first great shearers' strike began. The scale of the confrontation and the organisation of the strikers was unprecedented, perhaps taking Australia the closest it has been to civil war.

The government organised ships and train loads of scabs, escorted by police and heavily armed troops to get them through the pickets to the shearing sheds. The strikers established huge bush camps. These served to house and organise the strikers throughout the campaign and were run by elected committees. The strikers' resolve was strengthened the arrest of key strike leaders, on May 1, 1891, 1500 armed strikers marched through the town of Barcaldine. At the same time Rockhampton begins the trial of the unionists arrested at Clermont and Barcaldine and 12 were gaoled for conspiracy.

In 1950 Helen Palmer wrote this poem which was set to music by Doreen Jacobs and was soon taken up by Australian workers facing a new spate of anti-union legislation form the Menzies Liberal government. The song became central to New Theatre's production of Dick Diamond's play "Reedy River" that opened in 1953.

Doreen Bridges told me that Helen Palmer a teacher and historian, had completed her thesis on the English Ballad and was eager to compose ballads with a local flavour so she wrote The Ballad of 1891 and the Ballad of Eureka to commemorate two critical historic events in colonial Australia. Doreen was leader of Unity Singers a Sydney choir among whose members were John Meredith, Alex Hood and Chris Kempster. She had been close friends with Helen Palmer since their days together in the airforce and when she put both ballads to music in early 1951 they became part of the Unity Singers repertoire.


australian traditional songs . . . a selection by mark gregory