The Great Strike (1917)

Australian Workers Film Guide


Consisting of two surviving fragments of a previously one hour documentary, this silent film chronicles the Great Strike of 1917, which saw workers across the country strike in support of striking workers at the Eveleigh Rail Yards and Randwick Tram Sheds in Sydney. This film was restored and reconstituted for the 2017 anniversary of the strike.

According to the National Film and Sound Archive, the film had only been screened once before being banned, censored and renamed Recent Industrial Happenings in NSW, largely due to political pressure applied by Walter Wearne, a politician who had organised volunteer labour to do the work of the strikers. [1]

The film consists mainly of protest demonstrations, marches and public meetings in Sydney, opening with a scene of the first public outdoor meeting of workers, where a Surry Hills Citizens League speaker addresses the crowd. This is followed by a three mile procession through the streets to Sydney’s Domain, where banners tell of the simmering discontent at the end of World War One. One banner reads, ‘Boys Who Fought For Australia In Trenches, Now Fighting For Australian Democracy At Home.’ Other banners read, ‘Railway Tea Room Girls Stand Loyal’, and ‘20,000 Miners Determined To See This Through Stand Solid And We Must Win.’ There are scenes of idle shipping in Sydney Harbour, idle collieries, workers arriving on a tram at the Sydney Cricket Ground, workers raising their hats to passing trams followed by more footage of a Domain procession and meeting in which 100,000 people attend.  

A title card catalogues all the unions involved in the strike, which include government mechanics, railways and tramways, wharf labourers, coal lumpers, carters, seaman, engineers and firemen, slaughtermen, butchers, coalminers, street boys, sanitary carters and gas employees. Footage of men exiting the Central Police Court is accompanied by a title card declaring John Kavanagh (Secretary of the NSW Labour Council), Carl Willis, (Secretary of the Miners Federation) Claud Thompson, (Secretary of the Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association) are granted bail after being charged with conspiracy. [2]  A. W. Buckley M.L.A is also arrested.

After a day’s work, voluntary workers are seen arriving on a ferry at the Taronga Park camp, having a meal and milling about, ollowed by scenes outside the Wollongong police station, which appears to be further arrests. Another title card,  “STRIKERS’ LOSS”, indicates that the loss in wages will be £1,000,000, ‘and the chief sufferers must inevitably be the workers.’ Workers or union officials are seen outside the Industrial Workers of the World building. The Strike Committee advises men to return to work and a crowd of workers is seen raising hands to vote, but the men refuse to sign forms issued by the Government and the men return to Trades Hall. The final scene shows a worker and a boss shaking hands.

[1] NFSA Films (n.d.), The Great Strike (1917) [website], viewed March 22, 2023 at <>

[2] The Australian Worker (1917), Strike Cases Abandoned, viewed 22 March 2023 at Trove <>


Special Notes/Achievements

This reconstituted and restored version produced by the National Film and Sound Archive.  The final credits indicate the following contributions:  Research and reconstruction supervision – Laila Ellmoos (City of Sydney), Simon Drake (NFSA), Editor – Richard Carter (NFSA), Film Transfers – Craig Dingwall (NFSA). Thanks to Graham Shirley.

Author: J Bird, 2023

Duration: 15 mins 37 seconds

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