Wednesday, May 8, 2019

The Hungry Mile

From the vault (May 4, 2010) . . .

Sydney suffered in the Great Depression as much, if not more, than the other capital cities in Australia and more than much of the world. High numbers of unemployed meant that many families were destitute. Men who wanted to work were unable to obtain employment, resulting in hungry stomachs for themselves, wives and children; evictions, marital breakups and suicides.

They tramp there in their legions on the mornings dark and cold
To beg the right to slave for bread from Sydney's lords of gold;
They toil and sweat in slavery, 'twould make the devil smile,
To see the Sydney wharfies tramping down the hungry mile.

(The Hungry Mile by Ernest Antony)

The Hungry Mile was the name that the wharfies and maritime workers gave during the Great Depression to the mile long area of wharves between Darling Harbour and Miller’s Point, near the Sydney Harbour Bridge.

“It was to this mile of wharves that maritime labourers in the nineteenth century and on into the 1940s, tramped each day regardless of the weather to find casual, low paid work, because that was the nature of waterfront work in those days, meaning you had to live nearby to be on hand whenever work became available, in whatever lodgings you could afford and arrange, rented premises, shared housing, rooming houses, sublet rooms…..”

On ships from all the seas they toil, that others of their kind,
May never know the pinch of want nor feel the misery blind;
That makes the lives of men a hell in those conditions vile;
That are the hopeless lot of those who tramp the hungry mile.

Each morning large crowds of unemployed and desperate men gathered at the gates on the wharves to be available for selection for the small number of jobs available that day. As a ship came in and had to be loaded or unloaded, the stevedoring agents selected those they wished to employ for the day. The numbers of men who gathered at the gates was always much larger than the small number of jobs available.

The slaves of men who know no thought of anything but gain,
Who wring their brutal profits from the blood and sweat and pain
Of all the disinherited that slave and starve the while,
Upon the ships beside the wharves along the hungry mile.

The scarce number of jobs available and the soul-destroying walk from wharf to wharf was compounded by the “bull” system that also prevailed. The stevedoring agents preferred to select the big, muscular men, or “bulls”, who worked harder and longer than the others. This system also favoured compliant men and those who supported the employers. Bribery for jobs was also carried out.

In 2006 Arthur Brown recalled those hard days: "To be honest, sometimes it felt like you were going over bloody Mount Everest," Mr Brown, 91, says of his early days on the wharves west of Sydney's CBD. "But we considered ourselves lucky enough to get more than two shifts like that a week. The rest had to go home hungry, there were no jobs for them. The bosses picked the bulls - the strong blokes who were known - the rest had to hope like hell. We'd get into the ship holds and lift out these bloody enormous loads of wool, pig iron, soda ash, asbestos - that's another one. They've dropped like flies, the old wharfies - dozens of them. They all got asbestosis. That was their reward."

But every stroke of that grim lash that sears the souls of men
With interest due from years gone by, shall be paid back again
To those who drive these wretched slaves to build the golden pile.
And blood shall blot the memory out of Sydney's hungry mile.

Rowan Cahill writes: “Alongside its industrial and political roles, the Hungry Mile was an urban area, a site of working class domesticity. Before the post-1945 rapid expansion of suburban Sydney, before the end of the bull system, generations of maritime workers and their families lived within the geography of the Hungry Mile, so close they were part of it. From the government built flats for the families of maritime workers on Observatory Hill, to the long rows of tenements in Kent Street, to the rooming houses on Sussex Street, one of which in 1907 was packing in 200 maritime labourers, a community developed. Historian Winnifred Mitchell has described the lives of families within this community as being “like those in a coal-mining village”. It was in this urban geography close to the Hungry Mile that families lived, children were raised, and thousands of future workers learned about the world, how they related to it, and how it was to be faced.” The Hungry Mile, with its hardship, injustice, corruption, humiliation and exploitation became for many the face of capitalism. For many workers for many years it inspired militancy and radicalism.

The day will come, aye, come it must, when these same slaves shall rise,
And through the revolution's smoke, ascending to the skies,
The master's, face shall show the fear he hides, behind his smile.
Of these his slaves, who on that day shall storm the hungry mile.

Radical poet Ernest Antony (1894-1960) wrote of The Hungry Mile in his 1930’s poem of that name. Self-educated and having experienced his share of hardship during a nomadic existence, he had variously worked at different jobs and in 1930 had walked the Hungry Mile.

And when the world grows wiser and all men at last are free
When none shall feel the hunger nor tramp in misery
To beg the right to slave for bread, the children then may smile.
At those strange tales they tell of what was once the hungry mile.

As part of the Government’s redevelopment proposals for the area and the creation of a new suburb, the area was officially renamed in 2006 by the State Government from Miller’s Point to Barangaroo, the name of a prominent indigenous woman in the history of the area and the wife of Bennelong, who has given his name to Bennelong Point. Former PM Paul Keating, who was on the name selection panel, described the name as “Aboriginal kitsch”. The Maritime Union of Australia campaigned for the name The Hungry Mile to be retained in recognition of the history and hardship of the site. The public kept using the name The Hungry Mile rather than Barangaroo.

Wharves on Hickson Road, c 1920.

Barangaroo in the foreground, before shipping buildings were demolished

In September 2006 Premier Morris Iemma bowed to the pressure and announced that Hickson Road in Sydney was to be re-named The Hungry Mile in honour of maritime workers and their struggles during the Great Depression.

“The Hungry Mile will now take its rightul place on the map of Sydney where it will live forever as a permanent reminder of this area's heritage and the contribution made by maritime workers," Mr Iemma said.

There was no mention made of the irony of proposed multi million dollar residential apartments having an address at The Hungry Mile.

In a further irony, the Hungry Mile was used as the site of the Catholic Mass which opened World Youth Day in Sydney in 2008. It was also the scene of Christ’s crucifixion in the re-enactment of Christ’s last days.

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