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1919: The Death of Tom Edwards

Tom EdwardsTom Edwards was the only person who died as a result of violence in the riot on the Fremantle wharf on Sunday 4 May 1919, tho many were injured. He was killed (tho not instantly) by a blow to the head from a police rifle-butt or baton.

There was a confrontation between members of the Lumpers Union led by Bill Renton, and police brought personally to Fremantle by the Premier, Hal Colebatch, the lumpers having refused to allow strike-breakers to unload a particular ship, the SS Dimboola. The ship was in quarantine, having influenza on board. Renton had been brought down by police and Tom Edwards was struck in the act of going to his assistance.

Edwards memorial fountainAt the inquest, the Coroner directed the jury to bring in a verdict of accidental death, his view being that the police were doing their duty. There was no attempt to identify the individual officer who struck the blow.

Edwards's funeral procession, led by Bill Renton, was the largest ever seen in Fremantle, stretching all the way from the Trades Hall building on Marine Parade to the Fremantle Cemetery in Carrington St. Photos of Tom Edwards' grave, and that of Bill Renton, may be found on the graves page on this site.

There is a fountain constructed by sculptor Pietro Porcelli as a memorial to 'Comrade Tom Edwards, Working Class Martyr', standing in St Johns Square in central Fremantle near the Town Hall. >

A long account of The Fremantle Wharf Crisis of 1919 was published in 1920 by the Westralian Worker (ed. J. Curtin) and is available on line. It includes the list of official mourners among whom are A. E. Pryce representing the Fremantle Workers Club, and W. Roche as Secretary of the Fremantle Tally Clerks Union (who would be William Roche the FWC Secretary who stole Club funds in 1923).



After the Rev. F. T. Bowen had concluded the burial rites of the Church of England on the remains of the late Mr. Thomas Edwards at the Fremantle Cemetery yesterday afternoon, Mr. Thomas Walker, M.LA., mounted a small platform at the head of the grave, which was draped with the Australian Flag.

Mr. Walker said: Friends. This is a sad occasion to me, as it is to you, to 'be here to bid a long farewell to a fallen brother — a brother fallen, at (principle, and for his fellow men. It is not a time when we should raise bitter feelings, when we stand by the graveside in the presence of the bereaved — it is our duty to think but kindly of the departed, and to give nothing but sympathy to those who may survive. And yet I venture to think there is scarcely one here in the fulness of life but admits that between us and the barren and cold heap of eternity we feel a spirit of human comfort that in the very midst of life, in the service of his friends, in the service of humanity, Tom Edwards should go to his last long dreamless sleep. We feel there is engraved in the hearts of all a touch that will not be buried with him. I have been informed that the deceased was a man who loved has home, and was in his home beloved. It was not only the love he gave to his wife and family that endeared him to us all, not only the warmth of a large heart and the support he gave to his comrades, but, above all, he was a good citizen. His large heart beat with sympathy for the homes of those that were breadless, with a great desire for the betterment of those who had suffered so long in apparently hopeless despair. We part with him, true, but not with his spirit.
That sad Sunday morn when he received the wound that has brought him here, he was doing his worship, feeling that for justice all places were a temple, and all seasons summer. A victory has been won for the cause his fellows have been fighting through the centuries for — and we still have to fight until every home is bread-supplied and garnished with comfort.
That cause he has assisted and honored by his martyrdom. We shed our tears for one who has died for us. His death, his blood, is consecrated to that noble cause which exists alone for the betterment of the lowliest of mankind, the coming manhood and womanhood of every toiler — the right of happiness.
The added happiness of your lives should be rendered as thanks to him who sleeps in the cold grave. Though you leave him — or his remains — there in that sacred spot, his memory will be in your minds as an example, and in your hearts an inspiration, and his life a solace to his comrades, and a bond between them, stirring humanity to its very depths until all slavery and bondage have been abolished, and happiness prevails in every home.
Good-bye, comrade! A long farewell to you as you lie there, but never forgotten—an eternal hope and stimulus to all of us to do our duty as courageously as you have, to fulfil our part as bravely as you have, to love our fellow men so much as to risk all we hold as you have done. Good-bye!
The following is an official list of the representative men present at the funeral...

[very long list omitted, which included the names of W. Roche as secretary of the Fremantle Tally Clerks Union, and A. E. Pryce as secretary of the Fremantle Workers Club]

The Daily News [Perth], 10 May 1919: 3

Tom Edwards funeral

Very poor reproduction of a photograph of some of the very large crowd at the funeral of Tom Edwards

Additional proceedings at the inquest on the death of Thomas Edwards, the lumper who died as the result of injuries received in the disturbance on the Fremantle wharf on Sunday, May 4, which were not included in our report yesterday (except in Stop Press) are given below. The inquiry was conducted by the Coroner, Mr. E P. Dowley. R.M. Sir Walter James, K.C., appeared for the Crown, and Mr. Walter Dwyer for tbe widow of the deceased.
Continuing under cross-examination, William Renton, president of the Fremantle Lumpers' Union, said he understood that it was the crowd that had followed him that had thrown the stones. Witness did not throw any missiles, but he saw the police pick them up and throw them back. When the crowd had exhausted their ammunition they commenced to retreat.
Sir Walter James: The police dropped their batons and bayonets, and commenced to throw stones?
Witness: No, it was not necessary for them to drop their arms.
To Mr. Dwyer: The Riot Act was read after he was "knocked out."
This concluded the evidence.
Counsel did not address the jury.
The Coroner (Mr. E. P. Dowley) said that the jury's duty was to find out and say in their verdict how Edwards came to his death. This was the only part of the verdict which would give them much trouble, because as to when and where death occurred there was no dispute. The jury was not concerned with anything else. There had been a lot of evidence placed before them— to which they had listened most patiently— much of which did not bear on the real issue. There had been about 18 witnesses brought to the Court who had told them what happened on the wharf on the Sunday morning. The jury had viewed the body, and seen the wound on the head, and Mr. Rowe had identified it as the body of the deceased. Inspector McKenna had given them a long narrative of what took place that morning, how the police had been brought on the wharf, the disposition made of that force, and the instruc- tions given to them. The latter was briefly, to put people off the wharf, and stop them coming on. At first the people appeared to have gone off fairly quietly, but afterwards in the vicinity of 'C' Shed there seemed to have been some violence shown to the police, and apparently the police retaliated with their rifles, batons, or whatever they had available. This was in reply to violence shown to them. They had been told the police had been instructed to resort to no violence if it could be helped, and only to use violence to protect themselves. All the witnesses seemed to agree that the police did not resort to any violence until it was shown to them that stones, bars of iron, etc., were thrown at them by the crowd they were trying to drive off the wharf. In carrying out their instructions to get the people off the wharf, the police were justified in using violence to oppose that which was offered to them. There had been a lot of evidence given about the movements of the launches. It was not part of the jury's duty to decide anything about these boats, only how deceased came to his end. If he, the Coroner, was acting there as was done in other places, without a jury, he would simply address himself as to how and when deceased was wounded. There could be no doubt that the wound on his head had caused deceased's death. Dr. Kershaw told them the wound was caused by a fracture of the base of the skull, that deceased lingered a day or two, and died. The doctor said there was a mark on the skull which might not have caused the fracture, and seemed of the opinion it might have been caused by a fall. It was for the jury to consider whether it was the knock on the head that caused death or not. They would remember there was a regular conflict between the police, who were carrying out instructions, and a crowd who seemed determined to prevent them carrying them out. In opposing the police, the crowd threw missiles. The deceased had been amongst that crowd. He had got hit in the melee, and, as far as they could see, his injuries resulted in the wound that caused his death. There was little to say. A number of witnesses had deposed as to the damage to the launch. There was no need to refer to this. Then a number of witnesses seemed to all express the same opinion as to the happenings on the wharf. A body of men came together, stones were thrown, men on both sides were hurt, and amongst them was the deceased, and it was for the jury, if possible, to say where he got that wound from. It added to the jury's responsibilities that no witness had said who struck the blow. If any witness could have identified the man who hit deceased the case would have been different. The only thing the witnesses, or some of them, said, was 'it was a policeman.' Of course it must have been a policeman! The crowd threw things at the police, and the latter retaliated.
After ten minutes' retirement the jury returned the following verdict:— 'That the deceased, Thomas Charles Edwards, came to his death on May 7 at the Fremantle Public Hospital from a fracture of the skull caused by a wound on the head received on the wharf at Fremantle on May 4. We are unable to say who had caused the wound. Death was accidental.'

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