Publican feared his hotel would be torched if he offered beds to ‘scab’ labourers during great shearers strike

Tattersall’s Hotel, Blackall, 1908. Picture: State Library of Queensland


A QUEENSLAND publican who refused accommodation to ‘scab’ labourers, out of fear that his pub would be burnt to the ground, during the height of the great shearers’ strike, was shown no mercy by a magistrate.

Under the 74th clause of the Licensing Act publicans were required to offer accommodation at their hotels unless they had a reasonable excuse.

The 1891 shearers’ strike is one of Australia’s earliest industrial actions, evolving from a dispute primarily between unionised and non-unionised wool workers. It resulted in the formation of large camps of striking workers, and minor instances of sabotage and violence on both sides.

Blackall, in outback Queensland, was one of the centres of the dispute, and it was here that the Australian Labor Party’s constitution and rules were drawn up, during its founding in December 1890.

Also at Blackall during this time was 60-year-old publican Richard ‘Dick’ Lane.

Richard Lane Publican close
Tattersall’s Hotel, Blackall, publican, Richard ‘Dick’ Lane. Picture: State Library of Queensland
“Converting a free labourer”. Picture: Sketches from The Queenslander magazine about the Shearers Strike of 1891

In April 1891 Lane, fearing his pub would be torched by unionists, refused accommodation to two so-called “free-labourers”.

Lane was summoned to appear in court for breaching the 74th clause of the licensing act by refusing accommodation to a person who was sober, respectable and of good repute. The publican told the magistrate he feared his pub would be destroyed by unionists if he offered “free-labourers” a bed. There were reportedly over 100 shearers drinking at the Tattersalls Hotel at the time.

“For God’s sake, don’t ask me [to accommodate the free-labourers], it’s not fair for you to ask me,” Lane reportedly pleaded to the local constable when the coach arrived outside his pub.

The magistrate said he had never before heard of “free-labourers” or “unionist”, and warned publicans not to discriminate against people seeking accommodation. Lane was fined £2 – £1 for each offence of refusing a bed to the men. The magistrate also warned in future he would cancel the license of any publican who was convicted three times of refusing accommodation to sober people, who were respectable and of good repute.

Dick Lane was an early settler of Portland Bay, and afterwards Warrnambool in Victoria, where he carried on business first as a butcher, and later as a hotel keeper. He was a keen sportsman, and was heavily involved in horse racing.

Dick and his wife, Maria, along with their children, moved to Blackall, a bustling service town for surrounding pastoral properties, in 1883, where he gained the license of the Tattersall’s Hotel.

Trouble stirred in the town with the arrival of non-union labour. The Rockhampton Morning Bulletin reported on April 14 1891:

A rumour got about that two free labourers were on board the mail coach, and a large crowd gathered about it when it stopped opposite Lane’s hotel. The passengers were George Gilbert, drover, four free stockmen, and two armed constables, The unionists at once commenced endeavouring to get the free labourers to join the union, and threats were used. Lane’s hotel was thronged with excited men. Mr Hartley, the Police Magistrate, was on the scene, and sent for the police, who arrived promptly in charge of Inspector Britton, all being armed. The free labourers, escorted by the police, were then taken to the police barracks. The unionists gathered in a crowd, and gave three cheers for the union… The proprietor of Tattersall’s Hotel, Mr Lane was afraid to accommodate the men on account of the probability of a disturbance, arising, and they were therefore escorted to the police barracks for protection, where they will remain until arrangements are made for them to be conveyed out of town. The unionists have a camp formed two miles from town, but they have pickets in town to-night for the purpose of bringing the union men back to the camp. Any man getting drunk will be sentenced to a week’s imprisonment in camp.

Sixteen summonses were issued against the most prominent of the unionists at Blackall Court House, where Lane pleaded guilty to two charges of refusing accommodation.

Interestingly, during the court case, it was revealed that two of the four presumed free labourers, who had arrived by the coach, were constables in plain clothes.

Dick remained as host of the Tattersall’s Hotel at Blackall for 14 years before his untimely death in 1897. He fell seriously ill during October 1897 when he contracted gangrene in a wound in his foot. He died after a few days at the hotel, aged 66. His wife, Maria died the following year, aged 69.

The Tattersall’s Hotel traded for almost another 100 years in Blackall, before it was sadly reduced to ashes after a blaze in April 1994 – 103 years after the great shearers strike. Today a modern replacement pub trades from the site.

Tattersall's Hotel Blackall Qld Google
The site of “Tatts Bar” today in Blackall, Qld. Picture: Google

© Copyright Mick Roberts 2022

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Categories: Publicans, Queensland hotels

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