Revisiting The Great Strike (1917)


The Great Strike that erupted in Sydney in early August 1917 has been described as ‘the greatest class confrontation in Australian history’.1Robert Bollard, ‘The Great Strike of 1917—Was defeat inevitable?’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol. 52, No. 2, 2010, p. 159. See generally Ian Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics: the Labour Movement in Eastern Australia 1900–1921, Canberra, 1965, ch. 6; Dan Coward, ‘Crime and Punishment: The Great Strike in New South Wales, August to October 1917’, in John Iremonger, John Merritt, and Graeme Osborne, eds, Strikes: studies in twentieth century Australian social history, Sydney, 1973, pp. 50-81; Lucy Taksa, ‘“Defence Not Defiance”: Social Protest and the nsw General Strike of 1917’, Labour History, No. 60, May 1991, pp. 16-33; Robert Bollard, ‘The Active Chorus: The Mass Strike of 1917 in Eastern Australia’, PhD thesis, Victoria University, 2007. While the dispute garnered sympathetic commentary in various media outlets upon its centenary,2 Compare Sydney Morning Herald, 24 November 2017; ABC News, 28 July 2017; Green Left, 25 August 2017; Goulburn Post, 26 June 2017. the situation was much different in 1917. Then strikers often were labelled as traitors and the wartime context only served to intensify class conflict already inflamed by the controversial issue of military conscription.3For a range of views upon strikers as ‘traitors’, ‘deserters’ and so forth see Sydney Morning Herald, 25 August 1917, p. 10; Age, 21 August 1917, p. 6; Daily Herald, 12 September 1917, p. 4; Toowoomba Chronicle, 15 August 1917, p. 5; Evening Echo, 16 August 1917, p. 2. This had led to the downfall in 1916 of the Federal and New South Wales (nsw) Labor gov­ern­ments although the Prime Minister William Hughes and nsw Premier William Holman retained power by allying with conservatives and forming a new Nationalist party.4nsw Labor formally was opposed to conscription and those who supported it, including Hughes, Holman and like-minded parliamentarians were expelled from the party in 1916. While the Nationalists led by Hughes and Holman easily won the Federal and nsw 1917 general elections, conscription proposals were twice rejected twice in Federal referendums held in 1916 and 1917. See generally Michael Hogan, ‘1913’ and ‘1917’ in Michael Hogan and David Clune, eds, The people’s choice: electoral politics in 20th century New South Wales, Vol. I (1901–1927), Sydney, 2001, pp. 119–80. The strike began in Railways/Tramways workshops at Eveleigh and Randwick on 2 August, when about 6,000 employees walked out over the introduction of a Taylorist card timing/surveillance system.5Coward, ‘Crime and punishment’, pp. 51–54. Many other railway workers soon joined them and the protest then spread to other industries (particularly mining, waterside and other tran­sport­ation sectors).6Turner, Industrial Labour, p. 147. Ultimately, about 75,000 workers went on strike in nsw.7Coward, ‘Crime and punishment’, p. 52. 

Throughout the conflict the Premier William Holman was overseas and the state government was led by the Acting Premier George Fuller. Under his leadership, a mass sacking of about 17,000 railway workers took place in mid August, strike leaders were prosecuted with trumped up conspiracy and sedition charges and many unions deregistered.8Coward, ‘Crime and punishment’, pp. 57, 61. Among the arrested leaders were Edward Kavanagh, Secretary of the Trades Council and a Legislative Council member who was a key figure in the strike Defence Committee (as its leadership was known). In addition to commandeering vehicles to maintain food and energy supply chains, the state government helped mobilise a large paid strike-breaking force recruited primarily from rural areas by the Farmers and Settlers’ Association of New South Wales.9New South Wales Government Gazette, No. 124, 14 August 1917; No. 129, 21 August 1917; Sydney Morning Herald, 17 August 1917, p. 6. These ‘loyalist’ ‘volunteers’ have received little attention from historians but they clearly assisted the defeat the strike.10See, for example, Ian Turner’s brief overview (Industrial labour, pp. 151–52). Turner substantially under-represented the number of strike breakers deployed in nsw and subsequent labour historians largely have ignored them. Formally speaking, the railway dispute ended on 9 September 1917 when the Defence Committee capitulated to government demands. However, many railway workers initially refused to accept potentially punitive return-to-work conditions and industrial action lingered for a week or so; the strike also spread interstate and lasted on Victorian wharves until early December 1917.11Bollard, ‘The Mass Strike’, p. 113.

While the Great Strike transcended state boundaries, its main public spectacle was a succession of very large union/working-class dem­on­strat­ions held in central Sydney in August and September 1917.12For larger meetings see Daily Telegraph, 10 August 1917, p. 5; 18 August 1917, p. 9; 27 August 1917, p. 6; Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 1917 p. 8; 11 August 1917, p. 12; 20 August 1917, p. 8; 27 August 1917, p. 8; 6 September 1917, p. 8; 10 September 1917, p. 8. Some of these processions and meetings were captured in a pioneering doc­ument­ary film, The Great Strike, compiled by Arthur Tinsdale (c. 1881–1954) and the focus of the rest of this article. In addition to Sydney processions and meetings, the approximately 30-minute feature recorded the impact of the strike upon traffic and industry, prosecutions of union leaders, footage of strike breakers in various locations and events following the shooting of two men (one fatally) by a strike breaker. However, soon after completion in late September 1917 Tinsdale’s film was censored by the nsw gov­er­nment, required to be retitled Recent Industrial Occurrences in New South Wales, and seems to have screened on relatively few occasions in any form.13New South Wales Police Gazette, 5 December 1917, p. 519.

During the Great Strike’s 2017 centenary about 15 minutes of surviving footage was reconstructed and published online by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia. The introductory notes accompanying the reconstruction don’t indicate the exact nature of the censored (or other­wise lost) content, but when the film briefly was screened in uncensored form in Tasmania in October 1917 synopses reiterating the original silent film intertitles were published in cinema newspaper advert­ise­ments.14See, for example, Mercury, 8 October 1917, p. 6. Intertitles effectively took the place of narration in silent films and the synopses help us identify what some of the extant footage depicts when pertinent intertitles have not survived. They also reveal the nature of censored subjects (or footage otherwise lost—as is the fate of the bulk of silent-era cinematography).15Ray Edmondson and Andrew Pike, Australia’s lost films, Canberra, 1982. Finally, the synopses also help us identify filler content seemingly not part of the original film but likely added by Tinsdale to substitute for censored footage. Before looking at the latter in more detail in Part II, it may be useful to provide some commentary upon what is depicted in the surviving film.

Part I: Annotated Intertitles

1 TROUBLE BREWING (0:47 to 1:20)

One synopsis suggests early strike or related protest meetings footage was captured at the northern end of Hyde Park/Queens Square, opposite the Queen Victoria statue (located on the corner of Macquarie Street and St James Road). However, I haven’t yet come across any press references to strike meetings being held there in early August (a meeting of about 700 unemployed men, addressed by union officials, was held near the Queen Victoria statue about two weeks before the strike began).16Daily Telegraph, 20 July 1917, p. 6. Ostensibly, it would seem surprising if the earliest outdoor meetings were filmed for newsreel or documentary purposes; on the other hand, the opening scenes do seem to represent improvised public meeting contexts (no banners or speaking platforms are evident and a couple of the men stepping up to speak seem rather hesitant in demeanour).

The last scene in this section (1:12–1:20) does show a dedicated speaking platform—and a much more emphatic orator—decorated with a banner of the Surry Hills branch of the nsw Labor Party (then Political Labor League or P.L.L). Unfortunately, the slogan on the banner—the demand for an independent tribunal to adjudicate issues—doesn’t help date this footage as the policy was pursued by union leaders and John Storey, leader of the nsw Labor party, from the start of the dispute.17See, for example, Sydney Morning Herald, 3 August 1917, p. 8. However, I think this scene likely was filmed at a larger and later open air gathering (perhaps one of the successive meetings of 100,000 plus, where up to a dozen speaking platforms were set up in the Domain and Hyde Park).18Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 1917, p. 8. I haven’t yet identified the silver haired orator but he clearly was not Arthur Buckley, the former tram conductor and Industrial Workers of the World (iww) member and recently-elected state Labor member for Surry Hills, who was a prominent strike leader (Buckley is briefly shown later in the film—see intertitle 11 below).

2 The Strike Develops (1:21–2:08)

Soon after the strike began, increasingly large processions of unionists were undertaken daily (or thereabouts) from Sydney Central Railway Station to the Domain—a traditional city recreation, meeting and public speaking place. Marchers were marshalled at Central at Eddy Avenue and Rawson Place and the main route north to the Domain was via George, Park and College streets (the route is marked in blue on the map below).19Daily Telegraph, 18 August 1917, p. 9. Apart from being the epicentre of the state’s railway system, the area around Rawson Place was the cultural heart of radical Sydney and the route along Sydney’s main thoroughfare, George Street, was chosen by organisers to pass near Sydney Trades Hall (situated in Goulburn Street, but not far from its intersection with George Street).20Sun, 17 August 1917, p. 6. More generally see Terry Irving and Rowan Cahill, Radical Sydney: places, portraits and unruly episodes, Sydney, 2010, pp. 144–50. The George Street route proved controversial as the largest processions repeatedly halted afternoon traffic in central Sydney for extended periods.21Sun, 17 August 1917, p. 6; Sydney Morning Herald, 28 August 1917, p. 6.

The footage in this section is of a large strike procession proceeding north along College Street, with the Sydney Museum at left background and Hyde Park at right. The banner borne by railway refreshment room workers visible at 2:04 to 2:08 was noted in a Sydney Morning Herald account of the procession held 13 August 1917 (but also was used on at least one sub­se­quent occasion).22Sydney Morning Herald, 14 August 1917, p. 8; Daily Telegraph, 18 August 1917, p. 9.


3 Chorus (2:09–2:18)

It’s not clear whether any surviving footage relates to this lyric intertitle (it may have been self contained).

4 Entering the Domain (2:19–5:05)

The initial procession footage in this section was shot at Prince Albert Road, not far from College Street, and shows strikers about to enter the Domain via its southern gate (the Frazer memorial fountain can be seen in the background). A substantial number of women can be seen marching and this footage (or some of it) may have been filmed on 9 August 1917 (see intertitle 11 below).

Footage from 3:38 to 3:56 was again captured on College street, near its intersection with Park street (Hyde Park’s Coronation Bandstand, later demolished, briefly is visible); the procession shown from 4:40–4:56 was also shot in this part of College Street while footage of mass meetings was captured in the Domain proper.

5 What’s the matter with father (5:06–5:41)

This intertitle and related footage is not mentioned in synopses and likely was filler inserted by Tinsdale after censorship reduced the original run­ning time. In the reconstructed film, the scene of the man and women referred to in the intertitle is followed by a seemingly unrelated scene of pedestrians and traffic at Central Railway station (5:28–5:42—the upper stories of the main station building can be seen under construction).23Central was opened at this location in 1906 but the main station building and clock tower took another 15 years to complete. Some of this footage possibly was part of a subsequent section titled ‘Public Inconvenience’ in synopses.

6 I Will/Won’t Walk (5:42–6:13)

This section is similar to that immediately above and depicts the strike’s impact upon public transport and traffic. The intertitle seems to imply a public conundrum of sorts and political contention certainly existed over the patronage of surviving tram services during the strike.24See, for example, this critical account of the strike by a female Com­mon­wealth bank employee, Bealiba Times, 17 August 1917, p. 2. The Queen Victoria building’s great dome is visible in the background at 5:45–5:58.

7 Idle Shipping (6:14 –7:44)

Only about half of the original 40 or so silent film intertitles have survived. These usually give a indication of footage location at top right (Sydney etc). Some also have references to ‘Topical Budget’—British newsreel footage that Tinsdale integrated into his film. In this section, the initial scenes do appear to be of ships anchored in Sydney Harbour; however, synopses show that most of the footage originally was included in a subsequent section entitled ‘Empty Coke Ovens at Corrimal’ in the Illawarra region south of Sydney—the Corrimal Coke Ovens are shown at 6:33–6:52. The colliery jetties shown from 6:53–7:14 likely were in the Illawarra region as well.

Footage from 7:15–7:44 returns to Sydney and shows strike breakers returning to a military-style camp hastily set up in mid August 1917 at the Sydney Cricket Ground (scg).25Sun, 15 August 1917, p. 5. Eventually, well over 7,000 men were enlisted for paid deployment in key industries at various locations in nsw and the government provided assistance with funding, administering, transporting, feeding and protecting them.26Sunday Times, 23 September 1917, p. 2. For press descriptions of the burgeoning main camp see Sun, 19 August 1917, p. 7; Sydney Morning Herald, 21 August 1917, p. 6. Volunteer labour recruited from Sydney’s conservative establishment—including many women and secondary and university students—was also mobilised and coordinated at the Department of Education Building in Bridge Street.27Daily Telegraph, 24 August 1917, p. 6; 25 August 1917, p. 10; 1 September 1917, p. 14. The volunteer women mostly were not required or utilised28Sydney Morning Herald, 19 October 1917, p. 6. but students assisted with menial railway work; university students and the Red Cross also helped provide medical and other services at the scg strike breaker camp.29Daily Observer, 15 September 1917, p. 3; Sydney Morning Herald, 9 August 1917, p. 6; 21 August 1917, p. 6.

Strike breakers camped at the Brewongle Stand at the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1917. Source: Australian War Memorial.
8 On Bail (7:45–8:22)

This footage was shot at Central Court of Petty Sessions (now Central Local Court, 98 Liverpool Street). Its façade, forecourt and gates largely are unaltered. The three Defence Committee leaders accused of conspiracy, Edward Kavanagh, Albert Willis and Claude Thompson, were committed for trial; however, following acquittals on some charges and a hung jury on another the state withdrew the case.30Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 1917, p. 8; Australian Worker, 26 November 1917, p. 3; New South Wales Police Gazette, 28 November 1917, p. 516. On the other hand, the Wharf Labourers’ Union President (and returned serviceman wounded at Gallipoli), William McCristal, and another wharf worker Ned Riley, were arrested, convicted and imprisoned for seditious speeches made at the Domain.31Daily Telegraph, 15 November 1917, p. 4; 17 November 1917, p. 7; 13 April 1918, p. 10. See also Peter Hopper, ‘Sergeant Timothy William McCristal: passionate soldier, socialist and republican’, Sabretache, Vol. 55, 2014, pp. 19–25.

Interestingly, a surviving photograph taken from Central Court’s front steps during these proceedings (below) shows a camera operator at work at left foreground. Unfortunately, the operator’s face is obscured but his location tallies with the perspective of the documentary footage in this section. In fact, the identical hats of two of the women pictured in the photograph’s foreground indicate that it was taken at about the 8:15 minute mark in Tinsdale’s reconstructed film.

Photograph of crowd at Central Court of Petty Sessions, Sydney, during Great Strike legal proceedings. Note the cinematographer at left foreground. Source: State Library of NSW.
9 Dead to the Union (8:23–8:54)

Some Sydney train and tram services were maintained by workers who refused to strike, often assisted by strike breakers or volunteers. As noted earlier, reduced tram services were further disrupted by the succession of large processions in Sydney and marching strikers symbolically expressed their displeasure at the ‘scabs’ operating trams and passengers using them by removing their hats while passing, as if they were marching in a funeral procession.32Daily Telegraph, 18 August 1917, p. 9. Taksa, ‘The 1917 strike’, p. 32. Bare-headed marchers seem much more numerous in the latter of these two similar scenes (8:47–8:54).

10 Strike Pay (8:55 to 8:56)

Relevant footage seems to have been censored or lost as does the sub­se­quent section noted in synopses titled ‘Waiting Their Turn’. It’s not clear whether the original footage showed strikers receiving union support payments organised by the Defence Committee (which were limited and reliant upon donations)33Turner, Industrial Labour, p. 159. or strike breakers being paid.

11 Another Arrest (8:57–9:23)

This section was also shot at Central Court. The man at left descending the forecourt stairs from 9:05–9:08 appears to be Arthur Buckley, the strike Defence Committee member and Labor member for Surry Hills, who was arrested on charges of sedition and conspiracy on Saturday, 25 August.34Sun, 26 August 1917, p. 2. Buckley was released at Central Court on £100 bail the same day and this footage likely was captured the following Monday, following a further preliminary hearing.35Sun, 27 August 1917, p. 6. The charges made against him were heard with those of the other Defence Committee leaders noted earlier and also ultimately found not proven or abandoned by the state.36Sydney Morning Herald, 14 November 1917, p. 8; Australian Worker, 26 November 1917, p. 3; New South Wales Police Gazette, 28 November 1917, p. 516.

Subsequent scenes at 9:11–9:23 were actually shot about two weeks earlier, on Thursday 9 August, at a women’s demonstration outside Parliament House in Macquarie Street (Parliament House is situated immediately west of the Domain). The women shown ascending the stairs formed a del­ega­tion to Acting Premier Fuller who proved unsympathetic.37Daily Telegraph, 10 August 1917, p. 5. Synopses indicate that the intertitle for this footage has been lost or censored.38A cinematographer was also noted filming this demonstration. See Sun, 9 August 1917, p. 5.

Newspaper photograph of the Women’s Demonstration at Parliament House. Source: Sydney Mail, 15 August 1917, p. 10.
12 Procession and Meeting (9:24–9:51)

At least two Domain/Hyde Park mass meetings in late August 1917 attracted audiences of 100,000 or more people. These figures were reported in con­serv­a­tive newspapers such as the Sydney Morning Herald and Daily Telegraph and do not seem exaggerations given the need to utilise Hyde Park as well as the Domain to accommodate the largest weekend dem­on­stra­tions.39Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 1917, p. 8; 27 August 1917, p. 8; Daily Telegraph, 27 August 1917, p. 6; While the main speakers were parliamentary Labor and union leaders who were constitutionalist in outlook, more radical anti-war iww activists such as the veteran Monty Miller and Tom Barker took advantage of some of the best attended meetings to address large audiences.40Sydney Morning Herald, 20 August 1917, p. 8; 27 August 1917, p. 8. While the ‘Wobblies’ had a significant following in Sydney, membership had been pro­scribed in 1916 and conservative claims that revolutionary forces were behind the Great Strike were far-fetched given that most prominent local activists (the ‘Sydney Twelve’) were in gaol; Miller and Barker likewise were arrested and imprisoned during the Great Strike.41Direct Action, 18 August 1917, p. 3; Mirror, 25 August 1917, p. 16; Sun, 31 August 1917, p. 5; 4 September 1917, p. 6. More generally see Verity Burgmann, Revolutionary industrial unionism: the Industrial Workers of the World in Australia, Melbourne, 1995.

13 Unions Affected by the Strike (9:52–10:28)

This intertitle was likely self contained contextual information. The fol­low­ing footage (10:05–10:29) shows strikers gathered near the intersection of Goulburn and Sussex Streets, near Sydney Trades Hall.

14 Taronga Park (10:29–11:45)

Other strike breaker camps were established in Sydney. The largest was at Taronga Zoo, then somewhat isolated on the harbour’s northern foreshore, primarily for men doing waterside work.42Sun, 21 August 1917, p. 6; Land, 21 September 1917, p. 6. Securely fenced locations such as the scg and Taronga Zoo likely were chosen due to the need to provide safe accom­moda­tion for the strike breakers, particularly given the hostile environment of inner-city working-class suburbs.

Intertitle synopses suggest that some original footage depicting the Zoo camp has been lost or censored. The surviving footage primarily shows men returning by tug/ferry to the Taronga Zoo Wharf (modern ferry services dock in the same vicinity). The tug Centipede filmed being used to transport strike breakers was built by the Australasian United Steam Navigation Company at Brisbane c. 1913 and was scuttled at Moreton Bay’s artificial reef in 1990.

Strike breakers pictured at the Taronga Zoo wharf in 1917. Source: National Library of Australia.
15 Coal is Piebald (11:46–12:33)

This footage was shot at the North Shore Gasworks in North Sydney (the harbour­side site later became a naval base HMAS Platypus). North Sydney then had a largely working-class population and striking local gas workers were replaced by 80 strike breakers on 11 September 1917.43Daily Telegraph, 12 September 1917, p. 8; As shown in the film, this group of strike breakers were fed and accom­mo­dated at the Gasworks (note the tents and police presence in the outdoor footage towards the end of the section).44Daily Telegraph, 4 October 1917, p. 3.

16 Scenes at the Police Station, Wollongong (12:34–13:41)

The initial footage shows people gathered at the entrance to Wollongong Courthouse; the men in police custody, iww unionists Fred Louden (also Lowden) and James McEnaney, were charged with attempted murder and are shown being taken back to the police station via the rear of the Court­house (now built in).45Sydney Morning Herald, 5 September 1917, p. 10. The subsequent footage (likely also of supporters of the defendants) was shot in the vicinity of the nearby Presbyterian church, now demolished, at the corner of Crown and Church Streets.

In early October 1917 it emerged that Louden and McEnaney, who were supposed to have shot an acting fireman named Alfred Green working a train approaching the Illawarra coal mining community of Coledale on 25 August, had been framed by a police informant named Charles Thorburn and the charges were dropped.46Sydney Morning Herald, 11 October 1917, p. 8. Thorburn subsequently was convicted of conspiracy to obtain the £1,000 reward posted in relation to Green’s shoot­ing; at trial, he claimed two police detectives were part of the conspiracy (which they denied).47New South Wales Government Gazette, No. 142, 27 August 1917; Sydney Morning Herald, 30 November 1917, p. 4.

17 Strikers’ Loss (13:42–13:49)

This intertitle likely was self-contained contextual information. Sub­se­quent footage shows the Sydney iww offices, now demolished, at 403 Sussex Street (which synopses indicate originally was included under its own intertitle ‘I.W.W. Premises Raided’).

18 The End in Sight (14:00–14:39)

On 8 September 1917 the strike Defence Committee agreed to terms of settlement which, crucially, acquiesced to retaining the card system that had led to the outbreak of the industrial action.

19 In Again, Out Again

The intertitle refers to Railway Department strikers, upon returning to their workplaces, being forced to sign application forms that intimated that they would suffer retaliatory action (potential loss of seniority, wages, status etc) leading to another mass walkout; however, most strikers agreed to government’s demands over the following week and industrial action within the nsw Railways Department had ended by 20 September 1917.48Bollard, ‘The Mass Strike’, pp. 106–09.

20 Black is White Again (14:55–15:04)

Tinsdale’s film presents an amicable resolution to the dispute; in reality, the Great Strike’s ramifications played out for some years. The govern­ment’s aggressive assault upon participating unions left them seriously weakened in financial, legal and political terms.49Turner, Industrial Labour, pp. 159–60. At the individual level, many strikers lost their jobs while others suffered various forms of retrib­ution. Joe Cahill, later nsw premier (1952–59) and Ben Chifley, later Aus­tra­lian Prime Minister (1945–49), became the best-known of the strikers who were sacked or demoted in 1917.

21 The Last to Strike (15:05–15:18)

This plainly superfluous conclusion is not mentioned in synopses and likely was another addition Tinsdale made to compensate for censored material. The footage was shot from the Sydney General Post Office at the corner of Moore (now Martin Place) and Pitt Streets (the adjacent Com­mon­wealth Trading Bank building is visible at right). A severe storm hit Sydney on 19 September and the footage possibly was captured that day.50Sydney Morning Herald, 20 September 1917, p. 6.

Part II: Censored or Lost Material

Initial investigations suggest that Tinsdale’s film briefly was screened in Hobart and a few other Tasmanian towns in October-November 1917.51Mercury, 8 October 1917, p. 6; North Western Advocate, 2 November 1917, p. 2. Despite being billed in Hobart as ‘The Colossal Sensation of All Time’, surprisingly limited distribution appears to have occurred elsewhere—particularly in major cities such as Sydney or Melbourne.52Mercury, 8 October 1917, p. 6. As far as nsw is concerned, information upon actual screenings in late 1917 is somewhat ambiguous although there is evidence of planned screenings being abandoned at Kiama and Lithgow due to police intervention or other proscription.53Kiama Independent, 20 October 1917, p. 2; Lithgow Mercury, 5 November 1917, p. 2. According to the Kiama Independent, the film was shown at the Alhambra Theatre (George Street, Sydney) in the second week of Octo­ber 1917.54Kiama Independent, 13 October 1917, p. 2. However, weekly releases listed in the Sydney press state that a film titled ‘Strike Official’ (maker not stated) was scheduled, mean­ing we can’t really be certain that Tinsdale’s production was shown.55Sun, 7 October 1917, p. 17. To date, I haven’t been able to find evidence that it was distributed in censored and retitled form either. This perhaps is not surprising as the strike had already been covered in regular newsreel footage and public interest likely waned once the conflict began to recede from memory (particularly given the wartime context). Clearly, the film did not reach its intended audience and probably incurred financial losses for Tinsdale, whose Austral Photoplay Company then dabbled in semi-professional film production.56Port Fairy Gazette, 11 June 1914, p. 3; Sun, 10 March 1918, p. 20.

Censorship also reduced the film’s running time by a third or more, likely reducing its commercial value further. Footage that we know was censored (rather than being otherwise lost) related primarily to the killing of Mervyn Ambrose Flanagan, a member of the Trolley, Draymen and Carters’ Union who appears to have been recently unemployed57Sun, 31 August 1917, p. 4; Sydney Morning Herald, 3 September 1917, p. 8. when he was shot by a strike breaker named Reginald Wearne at Camperdown on 30 August 1917.58Sydney Morning Herald, 1 September 1917, p. 12; 5 September 1917, p. 10; 6 September 1917, p. 8.See also Lucy Taksa, ‘Merv Flanagan, Labour Martyr’ in Irving and Cahill, Radical Sydney, ch. 19. On Wearne’s account, he was menaced by a number of men while driving a wagon along Bridge Road and, after firing warning shots, he shot Flanagan in self defence. Wearne’s elder brother Walter (1867–1931) was an executive member of the Farmers and Settlers’ Association and recently had been elected to parliament as a Nationalist member for Namoi. A coronial jury (chosen, unusually, by the Minister for Justice) returned a controversial verdict of justifiable homicide in relation to Flanagan’s death which led police to drop a manslaughter charge against Wearne.59Sun, 31 August 1917, p. 4; Daily Telegraph, 8 September 1917, p. 7; New South Wales Police Gazette, 12 September 1917, p. 392. Repor­tedly, in the aftermath he paid Flanagan’s widow Beatrice a £250 ‘present’ and committed to an ongoing pension of £2 per week.60Bathurst Times, 25 September 1917, p. 2. On the other hand, Flanagan’s brother James was sentenced to three months’ imprisonment for preventing Wearne from working—despite not having been present at the affray that led to his brother’s death. Henry Williams (who was present) likewise was gaoled—despite having also been shot (in the leg) by Wearne.61Sydney Morning Herald, 26 October 1917, p. 4.

Material relating to Flanagan’s death censored from the film was associated with four intertitles noted in synopses:

2) Flanagan and Darky Williams Charged With Intent to Murder;
4) The Grave of Ambrose Flanagan, who was Shot in Self Defence.62Mercury, 8 October 1917, p. 6. Emphases in original.

Of course, no footage was captured of Wearne shooting Flanagan and Williams: the first two censored sections likely depicted defendants or witnesses involved in related legal proceedings which took place at Newtown Courthouse and the City Coroner’s Court at The Rocks (in a similar manner to the surviving footage of prosecuted union leaders). Footage included after the third intertitle likely depicted Flanagan’s large funeral procession from Sydney Trades Hall to the Mortuary Station at Central on 1 September 1917. Taken at face value, the fourth section showed Flanagan’s grave in the Catholic Section at Rookwood Cemetery.63Daily Telegraph, 3 September 1917, p. 7.

A few other potentially controversial subjects noted in synopses are absent in the reconstructed film and likely were censored rather than lost. In particular, the original version seemingly contained footage of bailiffs evicting tenants (or seizing goods) for non payment of rent and ‘volunteers signing on’.64Mercury, 8 October 1917, p. 6. The former seems an obvious target for a government keen upon downplaying controversial aspects of the protest while the latter footage—if it related to actual volunteers from Sydney—may have been removed due to privacy and safety concerns.

Final Remarks

Arthur Tinsdale remains a rather obscure figure in the early history of Australian film. Clearly, however, he was no stranger to con­trov­ersy. In early 1923 Tinsdale and his wife Elsie left for England following accusations a year earlier that he had stolen film from the noted adven­tu­rer Francis Birtles, an erstwhile business partner.65Daily News, 24 January 1922, p. 5, 7 February 1922, p. 8, 9 February 1922, p. 7. Daily Telegraph, 11 February 1922, p. 14. Albany Despatch, 18 January 1923, p. 4. After attempting to establish himself as a film agent in London, Tinsdale was declared bank­rupt in 1925 and was found by the High Court of Justice to be ‘guilty of grave misconduct’ when a discharge application was heard the following year.66Everyones, 21 January 1925, p. 29; London Gazette, 3 February 1925, p. 834; 9 April 1926, p. 2538. The Tinsdales returned to Australia in 1928 and settled in Sydney, where Arthur reportedly struggled to find work throughout the Great Depression.67Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1937, pp. 1, 4. However, by the time of his death in 1954 he and Elsie appear to have been living in comfortable circumstances, residing in a substantial waterside home in Elizabeth Bay.68Sydney Morning Herald, 22 October 1954, p. 28.

Arthur Tinsdale pictured in 1937. Source: Daily Telegraph, 13 February 1937, p. 1.

Despite a history of dubious business dealings and scrapes with the law, Arthur Tinsdale actually had a hand in three significant Australian silent-era documentary film productions. About the time he left for England he collaborated with another adventurer-cinematographer, Ernest Brandon-Cremer, to document the 1922 Lick international astronomical expedition undertaken to record a solar eclipse at Wallal, in remote northern Western Australia, which provided the first empirical confirmation of Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity.69Journal, 4 September 1922, p. 1; Albany Despatch, 18 January 1923, p. 4; Worker, 8 November 1923, p. 7; Daily Mail, 3 November 1923, p. 7. C.A. Chant, ‘The Eclipse Camp at Wallal’, Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol 17, No. 1, 1923, pp. 1–9. Only part of The Sun Worshippers survives in the National Film and Sound Archive; however, Tinsdale later compiled another historically significant documentary, Gallipoli (1928). Long thought to be lost, this film now has been identified as surviving intact and contains rare actual footage of the Allies’ Dardanelles campaign in 1915 (shot by the English war correspondent Ellis Ashmead-Bartlett).70See Paul Byrnes (Curator), ‘The Spirit of Gallipoli‘, Australian Screen, accessed 28 June 2021. In 2019 The Great Strike was placed upon the UNESCO Australian Memory of the World Register and we are fortunate that all three films survive in some form given their historical significance.

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