Fremantle Stuff > FHS > Fremantle Studies > 1 > Harcourt

The purple circle

Geoff Harcourt

Harcourt, Geoff 1999, 'The purple circle', Fremantle Studies, 1: 39-46.

The subject of this paper is the development of a work culture at the Co-
operative Bulk Handling (CBH) North Fremantle grain terminal. CBH is a
grower owned and controlled co-operative that exports Western Australia’s grain

The North Fremantle culture evolved separately from the dominant CBH culture,
which was built around patronage and reward. North Fremantle shared elements
of waterfront working life such as the necessity to live close to the job, 1 the
importance of solidarity and the almost arrogant sense of work pride, making the
men feel that they were in charge of their own destiny.

In both areas, the waterfront and the grain terminal, work was casual but with an
element of security for those in a position to be picked up regularly. 2 For many
men at the terminal this system suited them during Australia’s only sustained
period of full employment, the post-war period from 1945 to the end of the

Notwithstanding gradual changes in technology, elements of a work-and-bust
lifestyle remained. Gambling and drinking were popular and affordable as good
wages allowed for these indulgences. These practices were carried on quite

My involvement with CBH and the North Fremantle grain handlers began in
1977 at the Kwinana grain terminal where the men had been transferred after the scaling-down of North Fremantle. Their refusal to handle excessively dirty,
weevil-infested wheat at the new terminal caused CBH to hire casuals (of which
I was one).

I recognized a certain arrogance in the men’s actions and later came to
understand that the key to their assertive nature lay somewhere in their cultural
baggage. The evolution of this culture became the focus of a thesis, based largely
upon the men’s own stories.

Documenting workers’ experiences at North Fremantle was not simply a task of
employing a tape recorder. The stories had to be set in a context and time frame.
The validity and thoroughness of the information provided had to be assessed
carefully. For example, those still employed in the industry found it difficult to
speak about issues that might indict them or their workmates; then there was the
problem of sifting out the legend from the truth or having to follow up two
versions of the same event. In some cases, with a brief preface, they could both
be cited as ‘fact’.

Arbitration decisions and industrial awards formed a large part of the
documentation used to highlight the development of a work culture at North
Fremantle. Accounts of these are available in the Western Australian Industrial
Gazette. However, where no formal hearing was held or where agreements were
reached by consensus, only the results of those items were gazetted. The
information therefore had to be supplemented by private sources. In this context
the ‘Grain Handler’ files at the Fremantle Branch of the Maritime Union of
Australia (formerly the Waterside Workers’ Federation), which now represents
the Kwinana grain handlers, were most valuable.

The terms of employment for grain handlers at North Fremantle before World
War II and throughout the 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s were casual. A daily
pick-up operated from what was commonly known as ‘the corner’. Despite the
casual nature of the employment, preference was given to an inner core of
regulars known as ‘the circle’. These men were, as an award provision, expected
to ‘unless lawfully absent from the industry attend the daily pick-up regularly
from day to day and accept employment provided by an employer’. 3 John
Duggan explained that

The circle consisted of a certain group of people who got picked up every day; they were permanent casuals. They got a job before anyone else … They never got a dirty job. 4

While circle men were given status under the award, those outside were at the
mercy of fluctuations in the industry. A group of semi-regulars or ‘untouchables’
picked up any surplus left by the circle, while a third group of hopefuls - the
‘seagulls’- were so called because they had to accept any jobs that were left.
They were mainly picked up only when conditions were busy. It was possible to
move gradually through into the circle but, for some, that wait was not necessary.
Much of the hiring was done on approval of influential people among the bosses
and workers. Dave Barnes, a casual during the 1950s, recalled:

Nugget Kitson and Geoff Currie virtually went straight into the circle because they had relations on staff. 6

But both John Duggan and John Fuller became regulars at North Fremantle because of a word-of-mouth network. John Duggan explained:

I was told there might be work at North Fremantle ... So I went over and positioned myself on the corner [the pick-up] and saw one of my old school mates. He said he would put in a word for me. 7

And John Fuller recalled:

I was only 16. I had two uncles working there. They told me casuals were being picked up. So I went over there and got picked up for a midnight shift ... Once I was there a few times they knew me as McCarthy’s nephew. 8

But he was not always successful.

Not being circle you [were] only picked up about half the time. It was fairly spasmodic for a couple of years. When you didn’t get a start at the silo you would go down to Paddy Troy’s corner — the Painters and Dockers. 9

John Duggan’s early experiences highlight another important factor in the system

After two days I upset an Agricultural Inspector. For a couple of days I didn’t get picked up so I approached the foreman. He told me that the Agricultural Inspector had put me in. He [the Foreman] had been told not to pick me up. 10

John Fuller also recalls being ‘left’ on the comer for a few days once.

We wanted to go to the Kalgoorlie races. We didn’t ask to be excused — we just went. When we got back a week or so later we didn’t get picked up. 11


Wheat stacker working in No 1 Annex, Nth Fremantle Grain Terminal, 1938. Note the primitive uprights which made it difficult to handle grain quickly and economically. Courtesy CBH

On another occasion CBH suspended a casual hand from the pick-up for fighting
on the job. Barney Johnson remembered such an occasion:

Bert Morgan was left out in the cold for a week once for fighting ‘Willagee’ Joe Woodward — he [Joe] only got two days. Bert was annoyed and argued that [his week] was a bit stiff. He said ‘A bloody week! Come off it. I could smack a copper in the mouth and only get two days in the slammer and they’d have to feed me’. 12

The rules were not quite so tight for circle men unless it was extremely busy. John Duggan explained that

Some of the circle blokes would work all weekend and wouldn’t want to work Monday. When the foreman called out the names from his book someone would say ‘Washing day, Bill’. That would mean that the bloke wasn’t coming in. 13

Replacements for those circle men who opted not to report to the comer after a
weekend came from the untouchables, the group just outside the circle. Usually
there were enough men to cover all the required positions but occasionally the
company could be left short of labour.

From the men’s point of view these arrangements broke down the number of
hours worked. John Duggan claimed that this practice was popular because it
allowed men to take time off in lieu of wages that would otherwise be taxed
heavily, while also giving a battler a chance at a day’s wage. 14 The power of the
circle was reinforced with activities like this as members indirectly dictated who
worked in the industry. In addition, non-attendance after weekend work
institutionalized a later award condition — the day in lieu of weekend overtime. 15

The casual and seasonal mode of CBH was attractive to some shearers who lived
in the Fremantle area. Barney Johnson, for example, was able to come home
when the shearing sheds were cut out, have a short holiday, then pick up regular
work at CBH.

The foreman Bill Stansfield was an old shearer himself, so after the circle had been looked after he favoured blokes like me. This upset some of the circle men. Once I was given a circle man’s position because he hadn’t turned up, but when he arrived he ‘rolled’ me. Old Bill said to me ‘Sorry Barney’ and that name stuck to me. 16


Nth Fremantle Grain Terminal, late 1940s. The large horizontal storage sheds were used until the late 1960s when need for a greater storage capacity new technologies made them outdated. Courtesy CBH

Shearers who had been union members were able to move freely between wool
and wheat as both areas of work were covered by the Australian Workers’
Union. Barney Johnson recalled how this happened in the pick-up at North

I had always shorn union. I bought my ticket at the first shed I went to
each year. That meant I was a walk-up start at CBH because my ticket
was still valid when the work there picked up. 17

During the season North Fremantle worked more or less around the clock. There
was a midnight shift each night and a 14-hour day, except Saturday’s day shift
was for the morning only because of races or football. 18

The long hours worked meant that men earned big wages. While most men made
themselves and their families financially secure there were elements of a ‘work
and bust’ lifestyle. Gambling was popular: a two-up school was run every lunch
time on pay day. John Duggan recalled:

Cookie Mitchell and Billy Picket ran the two-up. One fellow used to do
his pay. Once, after the new office was built, Ted Sherridin was
cockatoo in case of a raid. There was a strange ute parked by the office.
Ted lifted the tarpaulin and there were two bodies (hiding) under it. He
slammed it down and raised the alarm. By the time the coppers got there
the school had hidden. They got no one. They went to the office and
told the boss his men were playing two-up and if he didn’t stop it they
would arrest him.”


Nth Fremantle Grain Terminal, late 1940s. The large horizontal storage sheds were used until the late 1960s when need for a greater storage capacity new technologies made them outdated. Courtesy CBH

The consumption of alcohol was also embedded in the culture that developed at
the terminal throughout the 1950s and early 1960s. Not all the men indulged in
the drinking but it was strong enough to become an accepted custom at North
Fremantle. Some men would come to work under the influence of alcohol while
a smaller number also brought beer or wine with them and drank during the meal
breaks. 20

The men who gambled and drank together formed a close-knit group that,
despite these habits, worked hard and were able to keep the operations n1nning.2l
It became apparent very early that under these circumstances as long as the job
kept going without trouble the ‘bad habits’ of some men were overlooked.

By the early 1960s a combination of the need to expand North Fremantle’s
storage capacity and the need to supply a better product was beginning to impact
upon CBH.” To overcome the difficulties of inadequate storage and guarantee of
product, CBH opted to re-develop North Fremantle.

The expansion of North Fremantle did not suit everyone, even though most of
the circle men were offered permanent positions in the new silo. A number of
long-serving men ignored the opportunity. Many men who had worked for CBH
as casuals since the end of World War II were not interested in permanent jobs.
Some of them had spent all their working lives as casual labourers and had come
to accept the occasional uncertainty of the pick-up because they also enjoyed the
freedom a casual status provided. Amongst these men were some who thought
that the ability to earn good wages would disappear with the rigid work patterns
that they believed permanency would bring. John Duggan recalled:

A lot left because they thought they weren’t going to get the big money they had got in the past, or the hours didn’t suit them. 23

Dave Barnes remembered some circle men refused the offer of permanency or
wanted to revert to casual status after signing on as permanent hands.

Cookie Mitchell and Billy Pickett got on as permanent but didn’t like it,
so they resigned and went on the comer with us as casuals. A lot of us
who got left out would have been glad to be put on as permanent.
Johnny Fuller and I were left as casuals for two years before we got put
on. 24

When the new terminal was opened it was heralded as the dawn of a new era for
CBH and rightly so, but it was also the closing of a chapter in its history. The
plant was modern and much more of the working environment, it was suggested,
would be cleaner. 25 Terms of employment under a new award offered
permanency but this did not suit many of the old hands who enjoyed the freedom
of a casual status. So, while the industry looked to bigger and better things, some
of the workers looked back with more than a tinge of sadness.

Presented at the Fremantle Studies Day
22 June 1997, Fremantle Maritime Centre


1 For further information on living close to the job see Winifred Mitchell, ‘Home Life at the Hungry Mile: Sydney Wharf Labourers and their Families 1900 — 1914’. Labour History 33, 1977

2 For accounts of the work arrangements see Wendy Lowenstein & Tom Hills, Under the Hook: Melbourne Waterside Workers Remember, Melbourne, 1982. See also Bryn Griffiths, Wharfies: A celebration of 100 years on the Fremantle waterfront 1889-1989, Platypus Press, Perth, 1989

3 Western Australian Industrial Gazette 48, Award No 14, 1961 (hereafter WAIG), pp 13-14

4 Interview with John Duggan, 14/7/91

5 Interview with Dave Barnes, 28/8/91

6 Ibid.

7 Duggan interview

8 Interview with John Fuller, 8/7/91

9 Ibid.

10 Duggan interview

11 Fuller interview

12 Interview with Barney Johnson, 28/8/91

13 Duggan interview

14 Ibid.

15 North Fremantle Grain Terminal Award No 27, 1975, Clause 18, Overtime

16 Johnson interview

17 Ibid.

18 WAIG 48, 1961, p 4

19 Duggan interview

20 Fuller interview

21 Duggan interview

22 Annual Report to Shareholders and Staff, 1961, CBH, Perth 1962, p 6

23 Duggan interview

24 Barnes interview

25 CBH, Annual Report, 1961, p 6

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