For many years a group of Port Melbourne people have been organising an annual commemoration of the 1928 dock strike and the death of Alan Whittaker, shot by police, during the dispute.
Now the committee which established the event is down to the last three members and we are wondering what will happen to the event in the future. Fortunately, a local historian, Janet Bolitho, has obtained a grant to make a film about Whittaker, the 1928 events and their commemoration.
What happens in the future after that is up in the air.
Meanwhile here is my address delivered on 2 November 2023 to the annual Whittaker Memorial Event at Princes Pier Port Melbourne
I pay my respects to the Bunurong people, the traditional owners of this land and these waters, and pay my respects to their Elders past, present and future.
I also pay my respects to those who fought so hard for the Yes campaign – the MUA and Thomas Mayo and the people of Macnamara.
When history records what happened – people will know we voted Yes.
It is significant that we are holding this event today at a time when the maritime union is involved in a stoppage. It should also be noted that two MUA members who are here today have just been sacked by their employers in the midst of the dispute. Waterfront employers don’t change much.
But today I want to talk not so much about the events of 1928 but more about our Port community back then and some of the facts about Gallipoli which are rarely, if ever, mentioned.
When the Supreme Court Justice Frank Vincent – who was born under the hook – last spoke at one of these events he told us about his research into the hospital records and death certificate of Allan Whittaker.
He found that not only was Whittaker suffering from the gunshot wounds but that he was also seriously malnourished.
Today, with modern medical care, he would probably have survived. But back then he was doomed – just as so many of his comrades who fought at Gallipoli were.
But first let me reflect on why Whittaker and other Australians were there at Gallipoli.
Despite all the jingoism and Anzackery about Gallipoli the truth goes far beyond the fact that it was a strategic and military disaster – poorly planned and horribly executed.
A recent book, The War Lords and the Gallipoli Disaster tells a different story from the one we have been fed.
Nicholas A. Lambert, the author, demonstrates that the real aim of the campaign was to open up the Dardanelles so the Russians could start exporting wheat again.
The price of wheat was skyrocketing and the British wanted the Russians exports to help lower the price and, perhaps even more importantly, to enable Russia to repay the loans it owed to British bankers.
It was failure on all its fronts – the exports didn’t resume and the Tsar was toppled by Lenin and Trotsky.
Thirteen years after Gallipoli and the events in Russia Port Melbourne life was dire.
It has been estimated that during the 1920s and 1930s between 75% and 90% of Port people were unemployed.
In her research on Port and the Great Depression Wendy Morris found that Port people helped one other extensively.
The dairy owner, Mr Barry – whose family still live in Port – kept supplying milk even knowing he probably wouldn’t be paid; butchers helped and so did Swallow and Ariels.
Wendy quoted one resident who said: “Everybody was broke, then they opened the soup kitchen in the Montague Hall….and they used to go over to the abattoirs, and they’d given them a bag of lambs heads and they’d clean them all, make the soup up. People would be line up with their billy cans and that, they’d have to because they were starving, really starving.”
Is it any wonder Allan Whitaker was malnourished? Is it any wonder that – while he survived Gallipoli – he didn’t survive being shot by police.
But while today and each year we remember the men who were at the docks we also need to remember all those Port women who battled to feed and protect their families.
Those of you old enough to have grandparents who survived the Great Depression would have heard stories of mothers who went without food on many nights to ensure their children were fed.
And on this day, we should also remember those mothers for another reason.
When more scabs were sent down to the docks on the Port train it was these mothers and other women, alongside the men, who met the scabs with a hailstorm of stones and drove the scabs back into Melbourne.
So, when we remember Alan Whittaker and his workmates at these annual events we are also remembering the women and children of the Port community.
Malnourished and faced with massive problems every day – but still strong in solidarity.