THE SS DIMBOOLA INCIDENT - 1919
(The Last time Police were ordered to fix bayonets)
by Peter Skehan
On May 4, 1919 a bloody confrontation between supporters of the Lumpers’ Union and the Western Australian Police became known as ‘Westralia’s Eureka’, or the ‘Battle of the Barricades’.
The unrest was the culmination of two years of a demarcation battle on the Fremantle waterfront, exacerbated by a shortage of food, and fears of a further outbreak of the influenza epidemic that was sweeping the world.
At the centre of the uproar was S.S. “Dimboola”, laden with supplies desperately needed by hospital patients and the general community. Because of influenza cases aboard, the “Dimboola” was quarantined, but officials relaxed the rules to allow her to berth.
The Lumpers, already incensed by the government’s support of the rival National Watersiders’ Union, took to the streets when the Premier decided to erect barricades to close the wharves.
Although bolstered by officers brought in from the country, the police were vastly outnumbered by the crowd of three to four thousand Lumpers and their supporters, both men and women.
The protest became violent when the police were showered with missiles, including stones, bricks, scrap iron and iron railings. Mounted officers tried to push back the protesters, while others on foot used batons, and then fixed bayonets to try and prevent encroachment onto the wharves.
In the confusion, one of the protesters, Thomas Edwards, fell to the ground injured. Edwards later died in hospital. With the injury to Edwards, and another man suffering a bayonet wound to the thigh, the situation reached crisis point.
When shots were fired from within the crowd, the Commissioner of Police Connell sent for a Magistrate to read the Riot Act, and police were issued with ammunition. Fortunately, although the order was given to load their weapons, they were not ordered to fire.
Discussions between the Commissioner, the Premier, the Lumpers’ Union, and the Labour Federation led to some semblance of order. The protesters agreed to disperse if the barricades were withdrawn, and the crowds left the wharf.
However, sporadic outbursts of violence against the police continued for a few days. 35 police officers were injured in the incident and medical expenses came to over £1,500. 7 Lumpers were injured including Edwards who died as the result of a fractured skull.
The Coroner’s finding was that he “came to his death … from a fracture of the skull, caused by a wound on the head, received on the wharf at Fremantle on May 4. We are unable to say who caused the wound. Death was accidental.”
Inspector Sellenger had commanded the Police throughout this period of unrest.