Fremantle Stuff > Early Days: Journal and Proceedings of the Royal Western Australian Historical Society

Early Days, Volume 10, 1989-1994

The night of the stones: The anti-German riots in Fremantle, 1915

Bill Latter

Latter, Bill 1992, 'The night of the stones: The anti-German riots in Fremantle, 1915', * Early Days, vol. 10, part 4: 387-395.

* Xavier Herbert in his autobiographical novel Disturbing Element referred to the riots as the 'night of the big stones’. It was his novel which first alerted me to the incident, hence the title.

Monday 23 August 1915 dawned clear and bright. The showers of the previous week had passed, leaving the winter days crisp and sunny. Trams trundled down Fremantle’s Cantonment Road with their cargo of passengers bound for their working day in the city centre or on the wharves. Lumpers, identified by the sugar bag, carrying their lunch, slung over their shoulder and the ubiquitous billy-can in hand, trudged or cycled to the pick-up corner where the stevedore foremen would select the chosen to work the ships in the harbour.

All of this Ludwig Ratazzi saw as he watched from ‘Villa Maria’, his elegant two-storey residence overlooking the port. An erudite businessman, he had made his home in Fremantle before the turn of the century and, with his naturalisation, adopted Australia as his new country. He could trace his origins back to those highly prized Italian administrators engaged by the expanding Austrian Empire to administer the affairs of State, whilst its military leaders enlarged the nation’s political and economic influence within Europe.

Despite the brightness of the day, Ratazzi had much to ponder upon that gave him cause for concern. Previously Consul for Italy and Germany, but now deposed from those offices because of the war, he was one of the early victims of the hysteria of the time when over-enthusiastic loyalists smashed his office windows.

As agent and attorney for the Nord Deutscher Lloyd Shipping Line he had a thriving business until, with the outbreak of hostilities, the company’s vessels became prizes of war or holed up in neutral ports of Java from where they could only escape into the waiting arms of the young Australian Navy.

Not far away from the Ratazzi family lived George and Harriet Kopp. High on the hill in East Street, from their verandah they had a magnificent view of the city and, to the north-east, of the Swan River. Daily, George made the journey by tram or walked to the jeweller’s shop in High Street that he managed for his wife. She had inherited the business from her late

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husband, George’s brother Adolf, who had committed suicide in Ceylon some years earlier. Following his brother’s death, George had come to Western Australia to assist the grieving widow and her two young daughters. Later George and Harriet married. George was his usual taciturn self as he departed for work that morning but, for some reason she could not explain, Mrs Kopp was worried. So much so that later in the day she took her young daughter and joined her husband in the shop.

In the Star Hotel in Essex Street the Wittorff family performed their usual daily chores, serving an early ale to the occasional customer whilst cleaning the bar and attending to the many tasks that go to make a good, comfortable and popular hostelry.

Joseph Scherer, furniture maker, in his combination dwelling, workplace and shop in Mandurah Road, began his day as usual, laying out his tools, sharpening his chisels and plane blades, contemplating what items of furniture he would make or repair that day. Not that it mattered much because business had fallen away dramatically since the start of the war and local German traders had been abandoned as patriotic fervour grew. Like Ratazzi, he too was a victim of the times, when a stone had been hurled through his shop window late at night, some months earlier.

Two other victims to be were the proprietor of the Federal Hotel in William Street, August Fiedler, a Russian, and Mrs Wallman, of pure British stock, who had a fancy good shop in Market Street.

Nineteen days earlier Australia had ‘celebrated’ the first anniversary of the declaration of war. Patriotic meetings held in the Perth Town Hall and Victoria Hall in Fremantle overflowed into the streets. Parliament, in session, devoted time to enable its members to outdo each other in declaiming their support for the Allies and their undying enmity to Germany and Austria in their unholy alliance.

The war was not going well for Britain. The Western front was at a stalemate, none of the large battles had resulted in territorial gains and the casualties were escalating. On the Eastern front the enemy moved steadily through the Ukraine capturing villages and towns. The disastrous landing on the slopes of Gallipoli brought home to Australia the reality of the conflict. Many in Fremantle had cause to question as the hospital ships discharged their cargoes of sick and wounded onto Victoria Quay. The public had perhaps become inured to bad news because the West Australian had already published its 69th casualty list.

As always happens, truth was the first casualty of the war. The Germans were ‘Huns’, ‘Krauts’ or ‘Squareheads’. When they took a village or town, they ‘ran amuck’, ‘pillaging’, and ‘bayoneting babies’. Their tactics were ‘underhand’, they never ‘fought fair’. By contrast, the Allies fought the war with ‘gentlemanly courtesy’, according the enemy the respect that combatants should show to each other.

At home in Western Australia rumour and suspicion were rife. Anyone with a name that did not sound obviously British was the subject of a belief that they were German. Second generation Australians of German descent

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came under surveillance. AIF recruits with foreign names had to undergo investigation to determine their loyalty. A new term entered into the lexicon of the patriot—‘enemy alien’. Yugoslavs, Bulgarians and Hungarians were universally described as Austrians and interned en masse. Western Australia excelled in this new sport and, pro-rata, had the highest rate of internment of any State in the Commonwealth.

Reports during the day announced that there had been a big naval battle, between the Germans and the Russians, in the Gulf of Riga in the Baltic Sea. It slowly emerged that the Russians had been largely successful. The Germans lost a Dreadnought, three cruisers, seven patrol boats and four troop barges in the engagement. It was hailed as a ‘magnificent victory’. Both the West Australian and the Daily News gave the battle headline coverage. The good news lifted the flagging spirits of the patriots. Here was a cause for celebration.

Plans were made for a demonstration of public patriotism. A band was hired to play the martial airs of the day and those songs that would stir the breast of the faithful. William Murphy, a retired sea captain and entrepreneur, [1] also one-time Mayor of Fremantle and a past member of both the New South Wales and West Australian Legislative Assemblies, undertook the responsibility for organising the function. The publican of the Commercial Hotel, William Smith, outside of whose establishment the revelry was to take place, ably assisted in the organisation.

The choice of venue is a cause for conjecture. There were a number of more appropriate public places in Fremantle, where crowds could gather unimpeded, without hindering other users of the streets. Unless it was deliberately designed to attract the casual passer-by, to swell the numbers, and those who had been drinking in the numerous hotels in the town, it was not the best place to hold the evening’s entertainment.

It is not known how the public was informed about the evening’s entertainment. That the communication was adequate is testified to by the presence of over 300 people at the witching hour, growing to over a thousand as the evening wore on.

Out of the emotional cauldron, brought to boiling point by the war, emerged the All British Association, an organisation guided and led by a group of xenophobic zealots. [2] Its prime function was the exploitation of the public’s paranoid fear of the enemy. Every German was a spy, everyone with a foreign name was a potential enemy and anyone who expressed dissent, or an alternative opinion, was disloyal and should be interned. It was an extremist group, which perceived its role to include public agitation, propagating the cause of the Mother Country in its just war against Germany and its allies. Murphy was the President of the Fremantle branch. [3]

At 8.15 p.m., or thereabouts, William Murphy stood on the balcony of the Commercial Hotel and addressed the crowd urging them to uphold compulsory training and either go to the front or do all they could to help those who had already gone. He called on all loyalists to refrain from dealing with German firms or those who employed Germans. [4]

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What happened after that is not clear but, on the evidence of later events, there was probably discussion by some of the participants to determine what other activities should cap off the night’s rejoicing. There is abundant evidence that those who would play a more sinister role as the night turned into morn engaged in considerable drinking.

The time of the incident, which initiated the violence, occurred about 10 o’clock when a drunken woman accosted Mr Kopp outside the jeweller’s shop and called him a dirty German. Mrs Kopp, upon venturing out of the premises, when similarly addressed, responded that she was an Australian born in Victoria. [5] Sensing trouble, Mr and Mrs Kopp retreated inside their property, closing the door and pulling down the blinds whilst removing some of the valuables from the window display. [6]

The police, having been telephoned by the Kopps, soon arrived in force under the command of Inspector Sellenger and Sgt Simpson. Despite their presence the stones began to fly at the shop’s windows. The unruly and over-excited crowd was virtually beyond control when a bottle, hurled from the rear of the melee, smashed through a window, [7] inciting the mob to cheer and applaud.

The police constables moved forward and arrested two of the culprits. As they retreated to the lock-up, with their prisoners in hand, some of the mob turned on them, hurling all sorts of missiles at the arresting officers and their prisoners. Constable Sargeant was following up the rear to protect the backs of his colleagues when a heavy blow from a missile struck him on the side of the head causing severe injury. One of the prisoners was also a victim of the indiscriminate stone-throwing.

Notwithstanding the attendance of the police, a section of the crowd confronted August Fiedler’s Federal Hotel, around the corner in William Street, laying siege with the usual armaments of the night-stones and rocks. Fiedler had previously proclaimed publicly that he was a Russian because of allegations, made by the All British Association, that he was a German national. In his declaration he said he was in support of the Allies and that his country was also at war with the enemy. Indeed, earlier that day he and some friends had also been celebrating his country’s naval victory at Riga, albeit somewhat less exuberantly than the patriots.

So inflamed were the passions of the crowd that appeals to reason went unheeded. The police were again only able to quieten the crowd after the initial onslaught but could do little to prevent the hotel’s windows from being broken. It appears that things quietened down for a while except for a short burst of activity, when an unknown and inaccurate marksman hurled a stone through the newsagent’s window situated next door to Kopp’s shop.

A cry of ‘Come on boys. To the Star Hotel’ [8] urged a section of the crowd into action. Off they rushed, around into Market Street where, in the course of passing, they smashed the windows of Mrs Wallman’s shop, then down Essex Street where they bombarded the hotel with lumps of stone, provided to the assailants, from a broken wall, by a woman who had filled

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her apron with missiles to replenish those thrown through the windows. The terrified Wittorff family, seeking shelter from the barrage in the back rooms, heard the stones thudding against the inside walls.

A mile and a half away, in Mandurah Road, another mob, some of whom had been in the fracas outside the jeweller’s shop in High Street, attacked the premises of Joseph Scherer, smashing a huge four by two metre plate-glass window and breaking a mirror and dressing table that were on display. The police were again in attendance and questioned a person seen by a constable throwing a brick through the window. But, such was the temper of the crowd that the constables, having taken the culprit’s name, decided it safer not to arrest the offender. [9]

Another group, with an even more sinister purpose, ran along Adelaide Street into Cantonment Road bent upon attacking the Ratazzi home. Arriving at their destination they repeated the stone-throwing of the previous assaults, coupled with abuse of their victims who remained secluded inside the house. Every window fronting the street was smashed by the offensive.

Having vented their fury on the Ratazzi’s house they moved further afield into East Fremantle to lay waste to the Kopp family home in East Street. The two children left at home cowered in their beds as the senseless stone-throwing was repeated at this new location, smashing through the windows and banging against the weatherboard walls. Mrs Kopp broke down when, at 3 a.m. in the morning, she was told of the attack upon the house. [10]

Was the eruption of the night a spontaneous manifestation of patriotic feeling? Was it simply another example of xenophobia? Was it a night of ‘Mafficking’, brought on by over indulgence in alcohol, as some newspapers suggested? Analysis will show, the evidence tends towards a conclusion, that it was deliberately provoked. Whilst there is no concrete evidence to show that the provocateurs intended to incite a violent demonstration, they must have been aware of that possibility.

The All British Association came into existence in May 1915. Its aims were to promote Imperial sentiments and to work for the internment of all enemy alien subjects. [11] Its public pronouncements and activities, detailed in Military Intelligence archives, [12] show it to be a rather meddlesome, and not altogether veracious, group of individuals wildly declaiming against those who did not share their views on the war. William Murphy, the President of the Association in Fremantle, organised the band for the celebration, undoubtedly with the willing aid of William Smith, the publican who was probably also a member of the Association. [13] The former, in a letter to the Daily News, admitted being responsible for the arrangements and addressing the crowd when it assembled. He confirmed that he had called for a boycott of German firms or companies who employed Germans. [14]

Murphy was an experienced politician who played a prominent role during the maritime strike of 1890 in New South Wales, which resulted in

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his election, as a Labour Electoral League candidate, to the working-class seat of Balmain. [15] He was also elected as the Liberal candidate for Fremantle in 1910. It is difficult to believe what he said to the crowd that night was, without rhetorical flourish, a simple statement of facts, ungarnished by agitation. The call for the boycott of German firms and those who employed Germans was in itself an adjuration to harm individuals.

There is a conflict about whether there was one or a number of speeches made that night. Whilst Murphy’s letter states that he was the only person who addressed the crowd, newspaper reports, written by observers present at the meeting, refer to speeches made by prominent citizens.

There is, however, confirmation that the speeches were designed to excite the passions of the audience. Walter Dwyer, the solicitor, defending one of the persons charged over the smashing of Kopp’s window, said that liquor, ‘coupled with the inflammatory speeches made by prominent citizens from hotel balconies, no doubt excited him’. [16] It was also reported in the press: ‘the police at the time were loud in their assertions that they were going to make some of the inflammatory speech-makers “sit up” but so far they have done nothing.’ [17] When Murphy stated he was the only speaker from the balcony of the Commercial Hotel he could be telling the truth, for it is more than likely, given the charged atmosphere of the mob, there were other speakers and urgers in the street. He was not the only member of the All British Association in Fremantle [18] and it is reasonable to suspect that members of the Association actively encouraged people to attend the meeting and were themselves present in full force.

It is relevant when considering the cause of the night’s rioting that it began with the gathering of a crowd outside the Kopps’ business premises. They were not far from the Commercial Hotel, but neither was Wallman’s shop nor Fiedler’s Hotel. Kopp was known as ‘German George’, and he had been the subject of complaints by the All British Association and, as a result, was investigated by Military Intelligence. Four letters were sent to the authorities, two anonymously, charging him with disloyalty and alleging he was an arsonist responsible for three fires that had occurred in Fremantle. All of which, after investigation, the police found were caused by spontaneous combustion. It was also said he avidly read the war news in the daily papers and showed by his demeanour that he was disappointed when the Germans suffered a defeat. [19] Whilst the evidence is not conclusive there are good grounds to believe Kopp was singled out for the initial demonstration.

The time frame of the night’s happenings may provide a clue to the cause. Murphy’s speech is said to have occurred at 8.15 p.m.; the confrontation between George Kopp and a drunken woman, outside the shop, happened at about 10 p.m.; stone-throwing started at 11p.m. and the smashing of the window, with a bottle, twenty minutes later; assaults on Wallman’s shop, the Star Hotel, Scherer’s premises and Ratazzi’s residence about 1 a.m. The attack on Fiedler’s hotel is believed to have taken place shortly after the bottle-throwing incident.

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One newspaper stated that the mob split up into smaller groups to attack Wittorf's hotel, Scherer’s shop and Ratazzi’s and Kopp’s homes. The times of the offences reported in the press and confirmed by police evidence verify that statement.

That there was an intention by some of those present to wreak havoc, if not on Kopp’s shop, on some other, is confirmed by the police evidence in the trial of Joseph Connell, where they said that when arrested his pocket was full of stones. [20] Obviously this outback miner, as he was described, filled his pocket with stones in anticipation they would be thrown, as they were, at shop windows. It is more than likely, considering the number of stones thrown during the night, that others similarly armed themselves. It is also obvious the target of their hostility would be the German community because the propaganda of the meeting was directed at those people.

Fremantle in 1915 had a relatively small, albeit close, community. There is cause for conjecture as to whether a mob, a rag-tag and bob-tailed motley crew, who were not all local towns-people, would know who or where the business premises, and homes of the German families, were without guidance from a local leader. Scherer lived about a mile and a half from Wittorff in South Fremantle, Ratazzi lived about a mile from the city centre in an easterly direction and Kopp another half mile further on in East Fremantle. It is beyond belief that the groups would have split spontaneously to independently attack different targets, so far apart, without any direction from a person who knew the locality.

The All British Association, from its inception in May of 1915, had been campaigning for the dismissal of all enemy aliens, and their children, from government employment. ‘Happy’ Jack Scaddan, the Premier, resisted the witch hunts proposed by the Association, because their interpretation of who was a German or Austrian often depended upon the person’s name rather than their country of birth. Scaddan repeatedly pointed out that Commonwealth legislation, entitling the government to terminate a naturalised citizen’s employment, required proof of disloyalty before the employee could be dismissed.

The regular Esplanade meetings, from whence the organisation derived its strength, were invariably used to attack the government and whip up support for the extremist views of the speakers. Such a meeting took place on the Sunday preceding the riots and there is evidence that at least one provocative speech was made. In a letter to the Daily News, D. W. Thomas said: ‘I was very sorry to hear one speaker at the meeting give vent to such wild outbursts, but was pleased when the President of the ABA got up and threatened to sever his connection with them if they advocated such measures and incited people to riot’. [21] It appears from letters to the press, that the purpose of the meeting was to exert pressure on the Premier at a deputation he had agreed to receive on Wednesday, 25 August. The meeting carried a resolution, for presentation to the Premier, in the following terms: ‘That the Premier be requested to dispense with the services of all alien enemy subjects employed in the various Government services.’ [22]

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Some of the more radical elements of the ABA could have seen Monday night’s demonstration as a way of intimidating the Premier before the scheduled meeting. They may have believed that a protest of extreme hostility against German businessmen would influence the result of the deputation.

It is important to consider the evidence of PC Tomb who arrested Now, a Russian seaman convicted of throwing a bottle through the jeweller’s shop window in the first attack of the evening. According to the Magistrate’s notes the constable stated, ‘I was outside of Kopp’s shop on night of 23.8.1915 a very large crowd over 1000 people were there—I saw the accused there. I saw him deliberately throw what I thought was a tumbler through the large plate glass window in Kopp’s shop. That pane had not been been broken previously other missiles had been thrown at it but fell short—I was standing right alongside the acc’ when he threw it. I assisted to take him to lockup, on the way to lockup acc’ said “what did they pick me for I have done nothing a man prom’d [promised] me 1/2 sov’ [sovereign] to break the window” Acc’ appeared to be sober but was rather excited.’ [23] Another constable confirmed the principal part of that evidence when he said Now had told him that a man had told him to throw the bottle through the window.

The evidence of fact, and by inference, tends very strongly to the conclusion that the events of the night were organised and premeditated. Whilst a finding that the ABA was responsible is not capable of conclusive proof it must emerge as a strong suspicion. Certainly it was the view of at least three persons who wrote to the editor of the Daily News commenting on the riots and linking the Association with the night’s activities. [24]

It should not be thought that the views of the ABA and its members were without critics. In addition to the correspondents referred to above, the Reverend Canon Moore used his Sunday sermon at St John’s Church to flay the perpetrators of the crimes of the night. [25]

The All British Association had a relatively brief and perhaps inglorious period of existence, and by the middle of 1917 it was in demise. Its end may have been hastened by the successful defamation action against its newspaper in May of 1916, [26] but there can be no doubt that the ‘Night of the Stones’ set it upon the path of ignominy.

NOTES

1. G. C. Bolton and Ann Mozley, The Western Australian Legislature 1870-1930 (Canberra, 1961).

2. Bobbie Oliver, ‘All-British* or ‘Anti-German?’—A Portrait of a Western Australian Pressure Group During World War I, in Aspects of Ethnicity in Western Australia. Richard Bosworth & Margot Melia (edd), Studies in Western Australian History, xii (1991), pp. 28-39.

3. Letter from W. A. Murphy, Daily News, 28 August 1915.

4. ibid.

5. Daily News, 25 August 1915; Sunday Times, 29 August 1915.

6. Ibid.

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7. Truth, 28 August 1915; Fremantle Court of Petty Sessions Magistrates Evidence Book, p. 21, Battye Library Acc. No. 2952.

8. Daily News, op. cit.

9. Beaconsfield Police Station Occurrence Book. Battye Library AN 1197/13. PC McFar-lane reports, ‘I was unable to arrest him owing to the crowd rushing me, but I took his name which he gave me as Claude Anderson, Hulbert St'.

10. Daily News, op. cit.

11. West Australian, 28 May 1915. See also Bobbie Oliver, op. cit.

12. Military Intelligence File, Acc. No. PP14/1, File No. 4/6/4, Australian Archives, Perth.

13. The All British Association Newspaper contains a ‘White List’ of business houses, obviously of those firms or individual proprietors who were sympathetic to the objectives of the Association. Smith’s hotel is included in the list in addition to a large advertisement for the Commercial Hotel.

14. Daily News, 28 August 1915.

15. ibid.

16. Daily News, 26 August 1915.

17. Truth, 4 September 1915.

18. West Australian, 7 June 1915; Bobbie Oliver, op. cit.

19. Australian Archives, op. cit.. File No. PF43.

20. Fremantle Petty Sessions, op. cit., p. 20.

21. Daily News, 30 August 1915.

22. West Australian, 28 August 1915.

23. Fremantle Petty Sessions, op. cit.

24. Daily News, 25 & 30 August 1915,1 September 1915.

25. West Australian, 30 August 1915.

26. ibid., 28 May 1916; Bobbie Oliver, op. cit.


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