MARITIME historian Daniel A Elias has struck gold after his call-out for memorabilia relating to industrial relations on Western Australia’s docks (“Appeal for port history,” Voice, August 20, 2022).
The UWA honours student is looking into how the tensions between labour organisations such as the Lumpers Union, stevedoring companies and government bodies helped shape today’s maritime sector.
Mr Elias was contacted by James Stewart, whose father (also James) was a member of the Seamen’s Union of Australasia and later the Fremantle Lumpers Union at the time of the Bloody Sunday riots that led to the death of lumper Tom Edwards on Victoria Quay in Freo.
Amongst the treasure trove of documents he’s now provided, Mr Stewart had his father’s old membership cards, discharge papers, union rule books and quite a stash of contemporary information about Bloody Sunday.
Mr Elias said it was a big breakthrough in his research.
“The significance is that it fills a gap of early records of the Fremantle Lumpers Union, having been established in 1899,” he said.
“I haven’t been able to find anything on them until 1911 – so that’s a big gap.
“And we have all the primary sources of the first copies of when Tommy Edwards’ funeral happened, and there’s something I’ve never seen before, which is Tommy’s partner.”
Mr Elias said from his research so far, Jane Edwards had always been portrayed as a background figure, but a week after the lumper’s funeral, the Fremantle Herald ran a letter from her on its front page.
“Comrades, I desire to thank you all so very sincerely for the many acts of sympathy and kindness shown to me by you all since my sad loss that terrible Sunday of my dear husband, Thomas Charles Edwards,” she wrote.
The Herald also lived up to its working class roots by lambasting the state’s more conservative newspapers for their one-sided reporting of Bloody Sunday, noting none had bothered to mention that women were also in the firing line that day; one received what likely amounted to a fractured skull courtesy of a police truncheon, while another received a bayonet through the hand while trying to fend off a police charge.
Mr Elias says he believes it was the last time police were issued with bayonets anywhere in Australia.
“There’s also this fellow James Stewart; Jim Stewart is the son and he donated all his belongings to me.
“James was first a seaman, part of the Seamen’s Union of Australasia which covered New Zealand as well as Australia, and then he became a leading member of the lumper’s union; how much of a leader I have yet to figure out.
“There’s a lot to dig through, and it’s humbling, really, that someone would donate this to me.”
If you’ve got any material related to division on the docks, or even just some old stories passed on from an old wharfie, you can contact Mr Elias as freo. firstname.lastname@example.org
by STEVE GRANT