When police shot Anzacs

Princes Pier in the 1920s.

All societies need some form of law and order. Over many years of political organising, police who agreed with my right to protest and assisted when political or industrial rallies were being organised earned my respect.

But throughout Australia’s history, there are many examples of how laws in our society tend to protect the rights and property of the wealthy at the expense of the working class.

Well known are massacres against Aboriginals and miners at Eureka. Less well publicised has been police violence during industrial disputes, acting on the side of employers.

In 1894 at Grassmere Station, police shot shearer William McLean. On May 4, 1919, Fremantle waterside worker, Tom Edwards, was bludgeoned to death with the butt of a rifle during a police bayonet charge. On December 16, 1929, Rothbury coal miner Norman Brown was shot dead by police.

On November 2, 1928, Victorian police shot and wounded four waterfront unionists on Princes Pier. One of these men, Allan Whittaker, died three months later from his wound. No police officer was ever charged over any of these deaths.

Newspaper reports about the 1928 shooting at Princes Pier demonstrate clearly that Melbourne’s press decided to cover up the shooting. One-sided journalism also helped attempts by shipowners and conservative politicians to smash Melbourne’s waterfront union. Similar to the attempt in 1998!

Despite requests from the Australian Council of Trade Unions and concerned organisations, no public inquiry was ever held into the shootings. The only inquiry into this event was an internal police one but the results have never been released to the public.

Police named ringleaders of an alleged riot, which they claimed forced them to shoot. No waterside worker was ever questioned or charged over the mythical riot. The media also never queried this.

Waterfront scabs were praised in the press, while locked-out unionists with starving families were painted as thugs.

The Age claimed 2000 workers attacked 27 police officers on duty at the end of Princes Pier. The Herald only counted 1500 workers. At a coroner’s inquest, Mounted Constable James Alexander Graham stated under oath that no more than 200 to 300 workers “ran around” the police guarding the end of the pier, chasing 200 scabs.

The media did not disclose that three of the four workers shot that day — Jim Nagle, James Williams and Allan Whittaker — were actually ANZAC veterans from WWI.

Other unionists on the waterfront that day also served in WWI. Ducking from the police bullets was Bill Lowrie, a sergeant in France and Belgium and winner of a military medal (as well as a well known footballer who played for St Kilda). Many waterside workers served in both wars. In WWII, Port Melbourne waterside worker, Jimmy Coy, was also awarded a military medal.

Even after Whittaker died from the police-inflicted wound on January 26, 1929, the media never disclosed his military record.

He was one of the first Australians to enlist in WWI and was with the soldiers to land at Gallipoli. He was wounded at 8.30am on the first day of the landing and, after spending 80 days in an Egyptian hospital, was repatriated back to Australia and given an honourable discharge and a pension.

Whittaker had two brothers, Percy and Cecil. Percy was also at Gallipoli, later serving in both France and Belgium. He was wounded three times and each time returned to the trenches. He was also a unionist working on the Melbourne waterfront at the time of the 1928 shooting. Cecil was killed in the French trenches in 1918.

A coroner’s inquest into Whittaker's death stated his death was “justifiable homicide — by gun”. The name of the police officer who fired the fatal bullet has never been revealed.

Whittaker was fatally shot in the back by police on the beach at Port Melbourne while trying to protect his job, 14 years after being shot on the beach at Gallipoli. It’s now time that the truth about this great injustice to an Australian unionist and war hero be corrected in the history books of this nation.

[ACTU Secretary Ged Kearny and retired judge Frank Vincent, will speak at an event to honour the memory of Allan Whittaker and other shot workers, to be held near the spot where Whittaker was shot at Beacon Cove, between Princes Pier and Station Pier. November 7, 11am. Further information: 03 9329 5477 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting              03 9329 5477      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.]