Memories of the Mount Isa beer drinking strike

STRIKE ENDS: Bugger the beer drinker's strike, let's drink. Mount Isa, 1930.
STRIKE ENDS: Bugger the beer drinker's strike, let's drink. Mount Isa, 1930.

“WE members of the Union know only too well,” said a Bagman. “What it is to go without beer, especially in the torrid west.”

“But cheer up comrades at Mount Isa, for a better time is coming when we will control the pubs and breweries.”

“Then there will be free beer for every toiler, while he will have the satisfaction of seeing the capitalistic class having a jamboree on ‘barmaid’s blush’,” he extolled.

This was the unlikely sympathy, the Bagman’s Union, extended to the men in Mount Isa when word had passed through, of the Mount Isa beer drinkers’ strike.

So, incensed at the increase in beer prices, drinkers quietly protested by leaving their beers on the bars and walking out of the hotels, later to rally across the road at Smith’s Dance Hall and declare a beer strike in town.

Ironically their meeting venue was owned by Harry Smith who also as it happened, owned the Mount Isa Hotel.

Unfortunately, as the months wore on, the Beer (Drinkers’) Strike Committee quickly gained notoriety with its heavy handedness in boycotting, picketing and blacklisting many of the local businesses including Smith’s Hall and Harry Smith’s other popular business, the Star Picture Theatre.

Furious at the turncoats who had earlier availed themselves of their hospitality at Smith’s Hall, Harry and his son, Norm, retaliated by refusing entry to any relative of a strike committee member to the chagrin of protestor’s families.

Even the heavy rains and flooding of the Leichhardt River in early 1930 didn’t dampen the determination of the strikers to bring the licensed outlets to their beer knees.

The two hotel publicans adamantly rejected the Beer (Drinkers’) Strike Committee’s demand to reduce the price of beer by 25 per cent.  

This refusal saw the committee’s numbers grow in protest and the social upheaval escalated on the town side as locals quickly realised the strikers were serious and meant business.

The Strike Committee and its supporters’ ‘black’ list extended to any person or business deemed to be connected to either hotel with its outrageous price of beer.

Unfortunately, one major casualty of the ‘black’ list was the Mount Isa Racing Club secretary, Mr O H Connell.  

With the threat of boycotting the Easter Racing Carnival, the Beer Strike Committee demanded the resignation of Mr Connell for refusing to lower the price of beer at the races.

In his defence, the race club manager said he only supported beer increases because they would have contributed to good returns for the racing club.

Fortunately, after lengthy negotiations between the strike committee and the racing club, it was agreed to accept the manager’s resignation in good faith, so that the forthcoming racing carnival could go ahead.

At the same time, unrest at Mount Isa Mines resulted in miners going out on a different type of strike, in support of three work mates who were sacked for supposedly unsatisfactorily work.

This strike exacerbated living and social conditions, directly for three weeks, until the dispute was settled by the Industrial Magistrate, Mr S Wilson.  

The upshot of this was the increase in miners who went on to support the Beer (Drinkers’) Strike Committee in their efforts to lower the beer prices across the bars at the Top Pub (Mount Isa Hotel) and the Bottom Pub (Boyd’s Argent Hotel).

Mount Isa was fast becoming a teetotal community as there was little or more likely, no money to buy a schooner at nominal prices, let alone buy a beer at the increased costs.

Indeed, beer could no longer hold the title of ‘tipple of favour’ to quench the thirst of the miners as they showed their support of the strike, by downing a never-considered-before glass of water or preferably down a bootleg ‘potato’ tipple brewed by migrant miners.

During these difficult times there was no end of skulduggery by the locals looking to get an extra bob or two.

The antics of one of the strikers, Jim Liddell a member of the strike committee, extended to his failed opportunistic blackmail demands on a local business which saw him appear before the Court of Petty Sessions.  

Charged and found guilty of attempting to illegally acquire money by deception he was transported for two ‘dry’ months to Stuart Creek Gaol in Townsville.

Finally, common sense prevailed and after nigh on nine months, the infamous Beer (Drinkers’) Strike began to rapidly decline.

On June 22, 1930, members walked out of the last meeting only to walk through the doors of the two hotels for a ‘quiet’ one.

So, on a whimper and with no fanfare, the great Mount Isa Beer Drinkers’ Strike ended.

At its peak during the ‘80s and before the introduction of random breath testing, Mount Isa boasted five hotels (Mount Isa, Boyd, Argent, Barkly and Overlander), one tavern (Isa Tavern), two social clubs (Mount Isa Irish Club and Buffalo Club).

Several licensed national and sporting club houses, licensed motel restaurants (including the Verona and Inland Motels) and independent restaurants (David’s, La Cuisine and the Phoenix) together with the Mount Isa Airport Bar which was open to travellers and locals alike.

And over the years, national breweries, such as Victoria Bitter saw the marketing power of Mount Isa … where the big, big, men have a big, big thirst … and their big, big thirst … is for Vic … Victoria Bitter.

So, it is safe to say that Mount Isa did not succumb to the aim of the beer drinkers’ strike and its temperance movement of 1929-1930. But neither did the union comrades succeed in having a jamboree on the … ‘barmaid’s blush’.

Researched and written by Kim-Maree Burton. Photos supplied by North Queensland History Collection. Information sourced from the archives of the Cloncurry Advocate, Brisbane Courier Mail and the Townsville Bulletin. 

ALTERNATIVES TO DRINKING: Ice cream lickin' good in Mount Isa, 1930.

ALTERNATIVES TO DRINKING: Ice cream lickin' good in Mount Isa, 1930.

BACK TO THE PUB: The Bottom Pub (Boyd's Argent Hotel) in 1930 was back to normal when the strike finished.

BACK TO THE PUB: The Bottom Pub (Boyd's Argent Hotel) in 1930 was back to normal when the strike finished.