The CBD was a war zone

We often complain about unruly behaviour in the CBD but history tells us of a truly scary period in 1923 when Victoria Police went on strike.

A display of numbered armbands on the wall of the City Gallery at Melbourne Town Hall look benign enough.

But the story they represent is terrifying.   Similar armbands were issued to citizens who stepped up to attempt to keep the peace in the face of chaos. Much has been written about the causes and effects of the police strike.

But the following recollections of journalist Hugh Buggy, writing 26 years later, put the rioting into perspective. ‘Special’ at the City Gallery, at 110 Swanston St, is on display until August 14.

From The Argus in December, 1949. By Hugh Buggy

On an afternoon of sunshine Frances Tressady won the Derby – November 3, 1923 – and in those early dead hours of Saturday afternoon the city was tranquil. It was round 5pm that the forces of the underworld were marshalled, which were to show Melbourne what could happen when the arm of the law faltered.

Thirty loyal city police and country constables in the centre of the city saw those forces gathering like a black storm cloud. It was a cloud that rolled east along Bourke St and north along Swanston St, and as it rolled, the elderly sergeants and constables watched their island of cleared space steadily contract.

Then came the first testing reconnaissance in force. Supported by a howling and swearing rabble, a tough youth swung a heavy right to a constable’s jaw. Hooligans, vicious as hornets, closed in from every side.

Ringed by a hostile mob, more ruthless and more drunken than on Friday night, the handful of police found that attack was the only effective defence.

They charged with their batons against a solid moving wall of ruffianism. Down went the youth who hit the constable; blood bespattered his face and his collar. Those who had urged him on dragged him into a car, and threatened that they would return to “fix” the police. He got what he deserved, but the pack of criminals wanted their martyr, and now they had him.

With an angry roar the mob surged towards the line of police in Swanston St, and a shower of bluemetal and half-bricks heralded the coming of the storm. A full beer bottle was broken over the head of a policeman. Two others went down before stones and bricks, and on the ground they were brutally kicked.

A tram in Swanston St was dragged from the rails, and the yelling mob tried to set fire to it.

By 6.20pm the heavily reinforced criminal rabble won absolute control of the block bounded by Bourke, Swanston, and Elizabeth streets. Then began a night such as Melbourne had never known.

A naval rating was knocked over by a bottle near the Leviathan Building. Four comrades who sought to rescue him were assailed by hooligans, and the fierce fighting spread rapidly. Five plate-glass windows in the Leviathan were shattered by flying bottles. Within three minutes looters crunching through the broken glass had stripped every window of men’s wear worth £3,000. From that moment thieves, thugs and gunmen with their screaming women launched a systematic campaign of pillage.

Window after window crashed before an onslaught of beer bottles, bricks, and metal shop fittings. Those windows burst like bombs and a blizzard of flying glass sliced faces and heads. Thugs dragged out frocks, furs, shoes, rings and bangles to deck their drunken young women, who shrieked and lusted for loot. Stolen hats, shirts, suits, and lingerie, clocks, cutlery, and chinaware were carried off in armfuls. Hooligans tried on overcoats and hats and if they failed to fit they flung them on the pavement. Looters waged bitter fights against other looters for the possession of rich hauls of jewellery. They fought with bottles, bludgeons, and boots and men who were felled were trampled on and kicked.

It became a race against time and against the coming of the special police. Men and women carried off hats and frocks and lingerie and the wax models on which they were displayed. One decorous reporter wrote: “A man was seen in Little Collins street carrying a girl in a most undignified and unconventional position.

Happily the girl proved to be only a wax model.” Happily!

But there were other respectable girls, not of wax, who were caught in that maelstrom. They were embraced by drunken hooligans and forced into doorways. They had to fight with hands, feet and teeth to prevent their clothes being torn off in Swanston St.

“Hell fire awaits you,” yelled a bearded street evangelist who waved a Bible in his hand. He howled denunciations at the busy looters. “Knock that old goat,” screamed the girls of the thugs. A bottle thumped on his head and he was trampled on by a milling horde out for undisturbed pillage. Most of the looting was organised by the underworld. Cars waited in darker Queen St to receive the plunder. Barristers defending the looters later spoke of “the master mind” who had not been caught.

After 9pm a wave of destruction engulfed Bourke St, with plateglass windows exploding like a running salvo. Elizabeth St became a shambles of broken glass and scattered loot. Pockets were picked, and decent citizens were battered and robbed. One young man identified as William Spain was robbed and kicked to death near Princes Bridge. It was a murder mystery that never had a chance of being solved.

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