Roots of the Labour Movement

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-By Jen Hamilton

Every issue, Australian Construction Focus profiles a structure of unique historical, cultural, or environmental significance. This month, we take a closer look at The Barcaldine Tree of Knowledge Memorial in Barcaldine, QLD.

A small town in the central west area of Queensland, known as Barcaldine, carries with it a great legend. This legend begins with a quiet sheep shearing community and culminates in the acknowledgement of the working man’s plight in Australia and the eventual formation of the Australian Labour Party. Central to the legend is an old ghost gum tree found in downtown Barcaldine which served as a shaded meeting place for striking shearers in the past, and now serves as not only as a unique reminder of a turning point in political history, but a welcoming hub for the formation of new memories and continued public gatherings.

The town of Barcaldine developed out of a large sheep station at the end of the rail line from Rockhampton and drew many seasonal and casual workers. By the 1880s, reduced wool prices brought on by overseas economic instability led to reduced wages and poor working conditions. As in many pastoral districts across Queensland, social tensions ran high and disputes between shearers and wealthy graziers mounted. Organisations formed by disgruntled shearers and other workers affected by the economic situation began to spring up and, by the end of the decade, the Central Queensland Labourers’ Union was established in Barcaldine.

As wages continued to fall and work remained hard to find, a shearers’ strike was called against the Pastoral Employers’ Association and their proposed “freedom of contract,” a pastoralist attempt to free themselves of union rules. Beginning in 1891, the strikers staged public protests and marched in parades in an effort to have their voices heard. Unionist camps cropped up across the territory including, most notably, the main camp at Lagoon Creek near Barcaldine. Here, leaders of the protest met under a large canopied Eucalyptus papuana, or ghost gum tree, to shade themselves from the hot sun while discussing their next action.

As confrontations grew and the situation escalated, the government stepped in with a military presence and had the strike committee arrested and charged with conspiracy and sedition. Although the strike was unsuccessful for shearers and their supporters, many union leaders subsequently became significant political figures. They continued to challenge the attitudes of wealthy property owners and the labour policies of the time, and worked to advance the interests of workers across the nation. Many Labour Electoral Leagues soon formed and, in time, the Australian Labour Party was born.

The famous eucalypt, with its whimsically twisted branches and expansive canopy, came to be known as the Tree of Knowledge. This simple relic remains an icon of the Australian union worker for its role in The Shearer’s Strike of 1891 and its ultimate influence in the Australian labour movement.

Unfortunately, this 10 metre, more than 150 year old ghost gum has had some troubles of its own throughout the last century. It has required a number of surgeries over the years, has endured its share of pests and even needed its roots flushed during a 1990 termite infestation. In 2006, to the dismay of the townspeople of Barcaldine, the Tree of Knowledge was poisoned in an act of vandalism and did not recover.

The ancient tree was removed in 2007, but all was not lost. Thanks to the vision of an association of architects, Brian Hooper and m3architecture, this historical piece remains a natural gathering place in a beautiful memorial. When the tree was removed it was taken to be preserved, but these architects went beyond preservation, and created a new landmark from the ancient ghost gum’s remains.

From afar, the memorial appears as a massive cube on the horizon. In fact, this cube stands at about 7 storeys tall and measures 18 metres cubed, its dimensions representative of the scale of the original tree’s canopy. As you move closer, it becomes apparent that the cube is a screen of charred timber encasing the ghost gum with its great trunk acting as the central pole. The gentle, hollow sound of timbers knocking together can be heard as the wind picks up outside.

When you step within the borders of the giant cube, your eyes are automatically drawn upward and the full wonder and mystery of this unique structure is revealed. The sound heard upon approach is 3600 timber pieces suspended from a transparent ceiling, swinging in the breeze, lightly bumping together. They cast flickering shadows in the sun’s rays, which pierce the outer enclosure during day, and in dramatic lights, that highlight the monument at night. Each piece resembles a leaf with its end cut into an oblique pentagonal shape. Respectfully, all timber used is recycled and certified by a third party for chain of custody.

The suspended timbers surround the preserved, twisted branches of the legendary tree. As your eyes follow the broad, knotted trunk from ceiling to floor, another imaginative feature of the artistic landmark comes into view. Below ground level the original root ball is displayed and protected within a case of glass; the background is the earthen red interior of the underground chamber, bolstering the gnarled system of roots.

Adjacent to the tree’s memorial, a monument dedicated to the shearers still stands. The monument celebrates the shearers, who met below the tree back in 1891, and set in place the chain reaction that changed the face of Australian politics.

Once a living legend thought lost, this symbol of a brave group of workers and a political party’s mythology has been restored and protected as, perhaps not a living legend, but a lasting legend. This one of a kind memorial now acts as a gateway to Barcaldine, a focal point in the railway’s entry sequence, as the original eucalypt once did. The inviting shade of the old ghost gum continues to draw visitors under the cover of its vast, embracing canopy.

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

August 19, 2018, 7:49 AM AEST