‘Upon the people themselves’: a Special Constable’s truncheon and armband
A Special Constable’s truncheon and armband in the museum’s collection reminds us of a time of widespread civil unrest in Australia.
This truncheon was issued to Walter Henriques, one of 3,300 special constables appointed in New South Wales during the Maritime Strike of 1890. With it is his arm-band, which served as the badge of office of a Special Constable, and a notice dated 24 November of that year standing the force of Special Constables down in which the Colonial Secretary said he was ‘of the opinion that this enrolment … will prove an important experience to the community, the more valuable because it is entirely in harmony with the institutions of the country, under which the Government depend to a great extent, for the preservation of law and order, upon the people themselves.’
It was the practice for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries for the authorities in countries of the British Empire to commission Special Constables in times of civil unrest.This included their use during large strikes. Although trade unions were now legal, strikes often meant trouble as employers tried to recruit non-union labour, unionists in turn tried to dissuade so-called ‘scabs’, and colonial governments mobilized troops and volunteer Special Constables to keep the peace and, at times, to break the strike.
The Maritime Strike began in Victoria in August 1890, and spread to NSW, South Australia and Queensland as well as New Zealand. It was the first Australia-wide strike, involving 50,000 workers (including miners and shearers who went out in sympathy), and paved the way for the Shearers’ Strike of 1891. The Maritime Strike ended in NSW in November 1890, and was a major defeat for the Sydney Wharf Labourers’ Union, founded in 1872. This union had been revitalised after 1899 by Billy Hughes, later a Labor and then a non-Labor prime minister and the longest-serving member of the Federal Parliament to the present day. The failures of the strikes of 1890 and 1891 were a watershed in Australian political history. They led to the decision by organised labour to enter into the political sphere via parliamentary elections, from which was born the Australian Labor Party.
Special Constable Walter Montefiore Henriques was described as an Estate Agent and as a shareholder in a gold mining and prospecting company in 1894 (The West Australian, 10 April 1894). The collection was acquired from his descendants in 2009.