How a missed shipment of VB at Christmas nearly triggered bloodshed in Darwin 100 years ago
It’s a brave and foolish man who ups the price of beer on Territorians, and an even more unwise one who cuts off their shipment of Victoria Bitter, just before Christmas.
- Darwinites including former NT Administrators have recognised the centenary of the 1918 Darwin rebellion at a small ceremony
- The hiking of beer prices was a catalyst for the union uprising outside Government House, where the Administrator John Gilruth was knocked down
- The rebellion eventually lead to Dr Gilruth being removed from his position, and a shipload of VB finally unloaded in Darwin
But such was the lot in life for former Territory Administrator John Gilruth, whose heinous moves triggered the Darwin Rebellion of 1918, and eventually saw him driven out of the tropical town for good.
A revolutionary mood hung in the air near Government House today as a small band of battered warriors reflected on the events that took place on the same lawns 100 years ago tomorrow, December 17.
Author Bruce Honeywill told the crowd, to audible groans, about the moment which sparked Gilruth’s downfall.
The Northern Territory’s first Administrator Dr John Anderson Gilruth and his baby daughter. (Supplied: Northern Territory Library)
“A tallie cost about $25 in current rates of 2018 — and Gilruth put it up to one and ninepence, which is about $30,” Mr Honeywill said.
“Now that’s dear beer, so to speak.”
On top of this atrocity, the ever-arrogant Dr Gilruth nailed down his undoing by refusing to allow the unloading of crates of VB from a freighter destined for Singapore.
“And that was enough,” Mr Honeywill said.
“The boys were marching, and so they marched in … 700 Darwinites mustered here, and gathered outside that fence over there … this is where it actually happened.”
Outside his place of residence at Government House the mob angrily demanded Dr Gilruth explain his actions and called for him to step down from his post.
They demanded fairness. Equality. And cheaper bloody beer.
Dr Gilruth was knocked down by protestors, and Government House sustained some damage in the melee.
But calm was eventually restored, and violence gave way to reason.
“Rationality, which is the way in the Territory … rationality between Gilruth [and the union] saw the whole thing dissipate at the end,” Mr Honeywill said.
But the moment marked the beginning of the end for Dr Gilruth — within two months of the rebellion he had received his marching orders from the Commonwealth, stripped of his role and sent back down south.
Hundreds of workers marched to Government House in Darwin on December 17 1918 to protest. 8 December 2017 (Supplied: Northern Territory Archives Service)
‘Hardly the sort of way to talk to Territorians’
Upping the beverage prices had been a final insult.
The mood had been tipping towards rebellion for months, due to the spiralling cost of living, and because white Territorians had been stripped of voting rights following the secession of the NT from South Australia.
The union movement was picking up.
The hard-living, chronically underpaid and war-hardened workers of the north were sick of being rolled over and dictated to by a Commonwealth Government run from a cosy colonial building thousands of kilometres away.
As barrister Pat McIntyre put it: “There was serious antagonism between the government from the moment the Commonwealth took over in 1911, and the unions.”
“Not many people know that the phrase ‘a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work’ originated in the Territory,” Mr McIntyre said.
The workers were also sick of being patronised by Dr Gilruth, who, as former Administrator Austin Asche said, demanded civilians call him “your Excellency”.
Former NT Administrator Austin Asche tells the centenary crowd about Dr Gilruth, “a bloody awful administrator”. (ABC News: Matt Garrick)
“He was an excellent scientist, and a bloody awful administrator,” Mr Asche said of Gilruth.
“He was a character that when I was young I’d met a few of … learned men who would not argue — they were right and you were wrong, and that was it.
“Gilruth was one of those.”
This uppity mentality was “hardly the sort of way to get on with Territorians”, Mr Asche said.
And so, despite all Dr Gilruth’s lofty ambition for the region — he had once idealised creating a new inland capital near the Never Never town of Mataranka — his destiny was signed.
And the fierce unionists would make sure Dr Gilruth’s future was also signed and delivered, back to the southern comfort from which he came.
Dr Gilruth and his family at Government House in Darwin in 1912. (Supplied: Northern Territory Library)
The more things change…
As many of the Top End notables speaking at the centenary reflected — former NT administrators, an ex-lord mayor, authors and a Darwin barrister among them — the catalysts that lit the events of a century ago were eerily similar to circumstances taking place in the NT today.
The economy was in rigor mortis.
The Commonwealth’s grip on Territory affairs was tightening.
And as if no time has trickled through the drain over the past 10 decades, beer remains as expensive as ever.
A safari hat-donning Darwinite watches on as author Bruce Honeywill talks about the Darwin rebellion of 1918. (ABC News: Matt Garrick)
“We’ve come a long way, in terms of representation of people,” Mr Honeywill said.
“We’ve gone beyond the white population and we’re far more inclusive … but in many ways, [we’ve not gone] that far.
“[The] Territory still works on projects for income, and we’re in the doldrums now, and we’re in the same budgetary problems today … Chief Minister [Michael] Gunner is trying to work his way out of what Gilruth was in, 100 years ago.
“So some things never change.”
As a couple of placards held high by would-be revolutionaries at the centenary event suggested that public sentiment in Darwin remains the same as it did a century ago: be straight with Territorians, don’t talk down to them.
And never, ever threaten their beer.