The government wanted it forgotten, prohibiting the export of any newsreel footage of the anarchy, lest the rest of the world see Australia's shame.

Thousands crowd the city streets, fighting each other, looting shops and battling with the thuggish baton-wielding militia that's replaced the police.

This wasn't Weimar Berlin or Soviet Moscow — it was Melbourne, 95 years ago — when a police strike resulted in an anarchic riot unlike anything seen before or since in Australia.

After the founding of the force in 1853, Victorian police weren't treated well at all. They worked long hours, had few days off, were poorly paid and they even had to buy their own uniforms. At least by the turn of the century, they were entitled to a pension on retirement. Then, in 1902, this right to a pension was withdrawn for new recruits.

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November 4, 1923: Crowds at the corner of Flinders and Swanston St during the 1923 police strike. Photo / News Corp Australia
November 4, 1923: Crowds at the corner of Flinders and Swanston St during the 1923 police strike. Photo / News Corp Australia

Twenty years later, police grievances had really piled up. They got only one Sunday off per month, were entitled to few holidays and were paid significantly less than their counterparts in New South Wales. Unmarried constables had to live in a city barracks - nine or ten men forced to share rooms less habitable than the stables enjoyed by police horses.

The confirmation of a new Chief Commissioner, Alexander Nicholson, in April 1922 made matters worse. He was 59, almost at retirement age, and a veteran administrator who'd spent most of his career in the country. His most damaging move came in November 1922. That was when he set up a system of four Special Supervisors to secretly monitor beat cops as they went about their duties. Drawn from the police ranks, these men were given the derogatory nickname: 'Spooks'. That's because the Spooks haunted ordinary constables, skulking around in plainclothes to spy on them.

The police complained about the Spooks but no-one listened any more than they listened to their grievances about pay, pensions and conditions. Politicians, press and public – no-one seemed to care – and the Victorian Police Association – who were represented the men - were ineffectual advocates.

No-one hated the lot of the police more passionately than 34-year-old Constable William Thomas Brooks. Born in 1889 in Port Melbourne, he had joined the force in 1911. Since then he had enjoyed a solid career, and, from 1921, worked plainclothes in licensing, busting the sly grog shops then thriving in Melbourne. Constable Brooks was a good cop – never disciplined: He had received three commendations for his work.

Things started to go wrong for Constable Brooks in February 1923 when Chief Commissioner Nicholson purged him and sixteen other men from the Licensing Branch. There was no suggestion of dereliction of duty, or corruption, or anything else. Without explanation, Constable Brooks found himself back in uniform and again pounding the beat in Melbourne. Aggrieved, Constable Brooks and another colleague started a petition to redress the rank-and-file's more general complaints. They demanded the removal of the Spooks, reinstatement of police pensions and pay equal to that enjoyed by their peers in New South Wales. After several run-ins with Chief Commissioner Nicholson, Constable Brooks on 31 October 1923 responded to the latest instance of Spooks writing up men for minor infractions by calling on a show of strength.

Constable Brooks stoked 28 of his fellow police into righteous indignation against the Spooks and urged them all to go out on strike. Just before 10pm, when the night shift was due to begin, the men all refused duty. They were on strike, they said, until the Spooks were withdrawn.

November 6, 1923: Workmen repairing the wrecked windows of Leeming's footwear shop in North Melbourne. Photo / News Corp Australia
November 6, 1923: Workmen repairing the wrecked windows of Leeming's footwear shop in North Melbourne. Photo / News Corp Australia

Chief Commissioner Nicholson and Inspector Thomas Kane met with Constable Brooks and the men. But their arguments and threats fell on deaf ears. Chief Commissioner Nicholson then summoned 100 recruits to take over the night shift. They arrived and fell in – with the strikers.

Now Chief Commissioner Nicholson conceded: the Spooks would be unconditionally withdrawn for the night; the matter would be raised with the Cabinet; and the police would be able to represent themselves to the government. Temporarily mollified, Constable Brooks and his men resumed work at 12:30am and the crisis appeared over.

The next morning a headline in Melbourne's The Sun News-Pictorial newspaper read: "Police On Strike: Swift Blow Left City Unprotected". Ominously, it noted that for two and a half hours the city had only been protected by a few plainclothes men.

On the afternoon of Thursday 1 November 1923, Constable Brooks met with Chief Commissioner Nicholson and Premier Harry Lawson to argue his case. Premier Lawson consulted cabinet and told Constable Brooks that the government stood by Chief Commissioner Nicholson, that it would not tolerate any strike and that it would receive complaints from the police at a later time.

That night Constable Brooks and more men went on strike and vowed not to back down. After midnight, the Premier, the Chief Commissioner and the Victorian Police Association put one last offer to the men: if they returned to work there would be no victimisation. The men refused. Chief Commissioner Nicholson dismissed all the men on the spot. Four dozen police had just been been summarily sacked.

By Friday night, hundreds more police were on strike and Melbourne was protected only by a thin contingent of plainclothes officers, loyal uniformed constables and pensioner police who had been recalled to duty. On picket lines in the centre of the city, strikers taunted those on duty with cries of "scabs" and "blackguards" and worse. At the corner of Swanston and Bourke Streets, one such scab - a pensioner constable directing traffic - was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of angry people. This crowd drew curious onlookers and quickly got much larger, with cars and trams unable to move. Fearing for his safety, the old cop retreated into a shop. When police reinforcements arrived, the unruly mob turned on them, screaming insults, and the men fled to the Town Hall police depot for safety.

The horde yelled threats and obscenities at the bolted door and planned to smash their way in to get at the police sheltering inside. When a constable appeared and tried to talk sense to the rabble, he was pelted with eggs and beat a hasty retreat back inside.

"Eggs," a thug yelled.

1A carload of 'specials' operating in Little Collins St during the police strike. Photo / Supplied
1A carload of 'specials' operating in Little Collins St during the police strike. Photo / Supplied

"That's nothing. It'll be bottles tomorrow."

Suddenly, the depot door flew open to reveal a line of police with batons at the ready. The crowd howled and rushed forward, only to be hit by a high-pressure blast of water from a constable wielding a fire hose in the doorway. Pushed back 20 yards, the multitude gathered its courage again and rushed forwards as the cops slammed the door.

"Come out and fight," hooligans taunted.

At the corner of Russell and Little Collins Streets, a squad of 10 uniformed constables was menaced by a crowd hooting and throwing missiles. Police patience cracked.

For the next few hours, loyalist police and detectives skirmished with the crowd.

"The police singled out the most disorderly ones and batons were freely used," reported The Sun. By midnight the city was quiet again and by 1am the police had full control of the streets.

While the police had restored order overnight, ominous excitement grew in Melbourne on Saturday. Crowds poured into the city, thrilled not just by Derby Day but by the prospect of a carnival atmosphere of chaos.

All day at the Town Hall, clerks enrolled men for a militia of Special Constables. After taking an oath, they were issued armbands that read "Special" and equipped with batons. Meanwhile, country cops were coming into the city as reinforcements.

By mid Saturday afternoon, the intersection of Bourke and Swanston was packed with strikers, larrikins and curious civilians. Strikers encouraged police constables on duty there to join the mutiny. Those who did were cheered by the crowd. Those who didn't were booed and abused.

At 3.30pm only three police constables remained on duty on the corner. When a dozen uniformed reinforcements arrived, this small cluster of cops faced a threatening crowd of more than two thousand that was growing bigger every minute. Jostled and harassed, several more police defected. So far the abuse hadn't been serious. That changed just after 5pm when a hooligan broke from the crowd and punched a constable in the face. The police now charged, scattering the crowd, smashing the man with their batons.

Realising their predicament was hopeless, by 6pm the police had either defected or retreated to Russell Street headquarters. Melbourne's busiest intersection was now at the mercy of an unruly horde. Larrikins pulled a tram from its tracks and tried to set it on fire. The vehicle was rescued by tram-men, set back on its tracks and managed to depart under a shower of stones.

The mood got even uglier when hundreds of drinkers left city pubs under the six o'clock closing laws to join the anarchy. Many had prepared for battle by taking beer bottles with them from the hotel bars.

"Look out!" someone shouted as a bottle sailed over the crowd and smashed into a man who went down bleeding from a head wound. More missiles followed – bottles, bricks, bluestone metal, whatever came to hand – as the crowd went crazy. Bottles and jagged pieces of glass flew in all directions and, the Argus reported, within minutes scores of people were bleeding, pools of blood glistening on the road and footpaths.

"My God, this is Australia," one returned soldier was heard to say.

A few inebriated sailors tried to control the crowd outside Melbourne's landmark Leviathan clothing store. The sailors swung metal boot stands to hold back the crowd, now estimated at some 12,000 people. One man – James Lobley, a 50-year-old farmer – was hit in the head, fell down and was dragged off. Later he'd be found unconscious in a gutter and was taken to Melbourne Hospital where he died some weeks later.

A shop window broken in the Melbourne riots during the police strike in 1923. Photo / News Corp Australia
A shop window broken in the Melbourne riots during the police strike in 1923. Photo / News Corp Australia

The sailors couldn't hold off the mob. A man rushed forward and used an axe to shatter one of the Leviathan's plate glass windows. Looters jumped into the destroyed display and began to calmly throw goods to the crowd. The sailors fought all comers. As the fight continued, one naval man was hit by a bottle and went down bleeding. When his mates went to help him, the crowd closed in and began to beat the men. Just when it seemed they'd be killed, the mob's focus turned to a nearby jewellery store.

"Smash it in!" they shouted. The window was shattered and every item stolen. More jewellery and clothing stops were targeted, with one thief's hand nearly severed at the wrist as he reached through jagged glass to snatch booty. The streets were soon strewn with tons of broken glass, along with empty cigar boxes and cigarette cartons, emptied jewellery drawers and cases.

"Melbourne had the appearance of a metropolis raided by hostile aircraft," observed a Herald reporter.

At 7pm, thirty minutes after the looting began, 40 pensioner police and country constables assembled at the Russell Street barracks. A sub-Inspector gave them their orders: "Go to the corner of Bourke and Swanston Streets. Keep together, and when you hit, hit hard!"

This squad marched down Bourke Street. Near the corner of Swanston Street, a well-dressed woman stepped from the pavement and knocked a constable's helmet from his head. The crowd roared its approval and the baton-swinging cops rushed the mob, whose members scattered.

The most vivid description of the riots is found in Alan Marshall's 1962 memoir This Is The Grass, which followed from his landmark autobiography, I Can Jump Puddles. Then aged 21 and using crutches to walk, the aspiring writer had witnessed Friday night's riot – and been drawn to the city on Saturday night by the prospect of more spectacle. Yet it almost got him killed.

The crowd, he wrote, "circled slowly round an axis of intense action, a vortex spiked with flailing arms that threw out, on its perimeter, a debris of staggering men clutching their bellies, men snorting blood from bowed heads. It sucked in unmarked men to replenish its losses; it engulfed the special constables who had raced to meet it and whose truncheons flashed up and down in a frenzy of hitting until they too were tossed aside."

At the request of the government, the managers of Bourke Street's theatres and picture shows asked men in the audience to volunteer as Special Constables. Some 200 responded at Hoyts Pictures alone. But cinemas were also the sites of one of the ugliest incidents when one thousand people tried to force their way into the Brittannia and Melba theatres, which stood next to the Leviathan.

Police fired shots over the heads of the crowd. That sent people into a panic, and they stampeded, falling against shop windows, which shattered, while others were trampled underfoot. Meanwhile, smaller bands of thugs forced their way into the cinemas.

At 8pm in Bourke Street it was pandemonium as constables tried to fight their way through crowds as missiles rained down on them. A constable staggered, hit in the head. Seeing red, he went after his attacker in the mob.

"Thud after thud cleared a space about him," reported the Argus.

"Every blow of the baton sent a shudder through those who heard it."

Newly enlisted special constables, some wearing official armbands, some with batons, queue outside the Town Hall. Photo / Supplied
Newly enlisted special constables, some wearing official armbands, some with batons, queue outside the Town Hall. Photo / Supplied

His comrades followed and the crowd panicked, with men and women going down screaming as they were hit with batons.

During these melees, police didn't make serious attempts to arrest offenders. It was too dangerous - their numbers weren't sufficient and on several occasions arrested hooligans were forcibly freed by their mates.

Meanwhile, the Specials were put under the command of not the Chief Commissioner but Great War hero General Sir John Monash and other Australian military leaders.

With the central city block of Bourke Street thoroughly plundered, hundreds of looters descended on virgin territory in Elizabeth Street, stripping stores for seven minutes before sixty cops arrived with batons swinging, hunting the fleeing mob, who smashed yet more windows as they escaped.

But by 9:30pm, the ever-growing number of Specials was helping to turn the tide. The forces of law and order now comprised some 50 plainclothesmen, 200 uniformed police and some 200 specials. Together, they brought Swanston Street under control and established strong pickets to guard the Town Hall and Leviathan. Police and Specials systematically swept Russell Street, Flinders Street, Elizabeth Street and Bourke Street, breaking looters into small groups and arresting or driving them off.

Batons were used freely and with great enthusiasm – against offenders and anyone who got in the way. Some of the wounded were arrested and taken to the watch house. Others who'd been knocked out were carried away by their friends or taken to Melbourne Hospital whose doctors and nurses were struggling to cope with hundreds of people suffering head injuries and broken bones.

Another man was knocked down and killed on Swanston Street. But the worst crime of the night took place on the corner of City Road, when William Spain, a returned serviceman and railway worker, was attacked by three thugs outside popular attraction Wirth's Circus. In full view of dozens of witnesses, he was beaten senseless with a beer bottle before being robbed. He died in a little rookery, covered in his own blood. His murderers were never identified.

While it came too late for William Spain, by 10.30pm the police and specials had gained the upper hand in the battle to control Melbourne. Patrol cars sped through streets, their running boards packed with cops, headlights lighting up shadows. Any group of people was promptly broken up.

Sunday dawned to reports that the riot had seen 78 city shops suffer some £50,000 in damages. Three people had died, 400 were injured and 55 people were under arrest. Despite falling rain, now 100,000 people came into the city from the suburbs that Sunday see the ruination for themselves. The size of the crowd threatened another night of anarchy.

The state government had been caught out by the events of the past 24 hours, but it now acted more decisively to prevent further violence. To encourage the crowds to return home, and make it harder for more people to enter the city as darkness fell, cabinet decreed all trams stop by 6pm and trains by 7pm. But Victoria's leaders conceded they couldn't guarantee the protection of commonwealth buildings. So the federal government, then based in Melbourne, ordered the armed forces to protect the city – and show its citizens that further rioting might be met with deadly force.

All army, air force and navy leaves were cancelled, with men reporting to their bases and ships. A detachment of 200 men from Queenscliff Garrison Artillery and Engineers arrived at Flinders Street, each man carrying a rifle fitted with a bayonet and issued with 200 rounds of ammunition. The soldiers marched over the Princes Bridge to Victoria Barracks, where machine guns were also being held in readiness. Soldiers and sailors guarded the banks, the treasury, government house and other public buildings.

November 5, 1923: Front page of The Sun newspaper. 'Running Like Rabbits From A Baton Charge Of Special Constables'. Photo / News Corp Australia
November 5, 1923: Front page of The Sun newspaper. 'Running Like Rabbits From A Baton Charge Of Special Constables'. Photo / News Corp Australia

On Sunday afternoon, Bourke and Swanston Street was quiet, but hundreds swarmed into Russell Street, near the police headquarters. For three hours they surged at and were repulsed by a strong force of police and Specials. Rains of bottle and blue metal were met with charges and the vigorous application of batons. On Sunday night, a detachment of ex-Australian Light Horsemen rode into the city over the Princes Bridge. Their arrival was reported as having a 'profound effect' on the mob. These heroes had fought at Gallipoli, Beersheeba and the Western Front against the Turks and the Germans. Now they were being deployed in Melbourne against… Australians.

At 7pm a crowd had again gathered at Bouke and Swanston, this one broken up by a charge of mounted Specials. Men and women hid in doorways, only to be bashed out with batons. There were skirmishes on Exhibition Street also and in inner city Fitzroy. As the night wore on, mounted police, motor patrols and hordes of specials, who now numbered more than 2000, criss-crossed the city constantly to break up smaller crowds with the vigorous application of batons.

But by late Sunday, the city was again under control, though there would be sporadic episodes of violence over the coming week, including an incident in which six police were wounded by a shotgun blast.

Monday Melbourne newspapers contained some of the most vivid headlines, stories and editorials in Australia's history. The tabloid Sun News-Pictorial outdid them all. Its front page was given over to photos of the riot. The headline: Running Like Rabbits From a Charge of Special Constables. An interior headline read: When Melbourne Made A Shameful And Tragic Orgy of Night: Anarch Horde. Murder, Looting, Violence Its Game. Lawlessness With No bridle. Another screamed: Witches Sabbath Outdid Continental Kind: Our Unleashed Scum. City Preyed on By Brawling Bullies. Australia's Worst Episode. Mounted Forces Beat Them Back.

The official line – that the worst offenders were known crooks and those of the "embryo criminal class" – was repeated in all the newspapers. As the week progressed, this proved untrue. While no doubt previous offenders were involved and got away without being arrested, the majority of those arrested, charged and sentenced to up to six months' jail were ordinary young men and women without criminal records who had simply succumbed to the mass hysteria.

Despite the unprecedented chaos that engulfed Melbourne for three days, the November 1923 police strike and riot eventually faded from popular memory. The Commonwealth government wanted it forgotten, prohibiting the export of any newsreel footage of the anarchy, lest the rest of the world see Australia's shame. Even though forgotten, nearly a century later, the legacy of the strike lives on. Though not one of the 636 police strikers got their jobs back, their actions led to rank-and-file grievances being taken seriously and acted upon. Within a year, a police pension scheme was reinstated and constables received a pay rise, along with clearer paths to promotion and increased annual leave.

The Spook system of surveillance was forever abandoned.

While the Spooks were gone, the Specials were to remain on duty until the force was rebuilt. But before that could be achieved, Melbourne's police were to be tested by a shocking crime, the likes of which had never been seen in Australia: the Botanic Gardens Massacre.

Front page of The Sun newspaper. 'Running Like Rabbits From A Baton Charge Of Special Constables'. Photo / News Corp Australia
Front page of The Sun newspaper. 'Running Like Rabbits From A Baton Charge Of Special Constables'. Photo / News Corp Australia

Michael Adams is the author of Australia's Sweetheart, about forgotten movie star Mary Maguire, which is published by Hachette in January 2019, and he is the creator of the podcast Forgotten Australia.