Police and citizens fight a pitched battle in Swanston Street in the heart of Melbourne. One side is outnumbered and overcome by unexpected and unrestrained violence…

Watching Victoria Police use riot gear and manifestly excessive force on Friday to break up the peaceful Occupy Melbourne protest in the absence of any threat to public order and safety prompted some obvious questions: Just how common are riots in Melbourne? When was our worst episode of rioting, who was involved and what was it all about?

My opening description of running battles in Swanston Street actually dates from early November 1923 and a few days of utter anarchy and violence in Melbourne’s streets as opportunists took advantage of a strike by officers of Victoria Police in what remain the worst riots in the city’s 175-year history.

A complex set of circumstances led to the strike (you can read more here). Chief Commissioner Alexander Nicholson had become increasingly unpopular with some rank and file police during the second half of 1923, especially through the appointment of so-called “spooks”, plain-clothes special supervisors whose duties included monitoring the activities of uniformed police. This magnified simmering resentment about the lack of pensions and wage disparity with counterparts in New South Wales.

But it took a vocal dissident officer, Constable William Brooks, to precipitate the strike on 31 October 1923 when he and 28 fellow constables at Russell Street refused to go on duty until the “spooks” were withdrawn. By Friday 2 November, more than 600 members of the metropolitan constabulary had joined the walk-out and refused to resume their duties.

The strike came on the eve of Melbourne Cup Week, as thousands of visitors were arriving in Melbourne for the spring racing festivities. By Saturday night, crowds returning from the Derby Day races were joined in the city by others intent on a spree unhindered by the presence of police. A “human sea” emerged from Flinders Street station and surged up Swanston and Elizabeth Streets, sweeping the few remaining police and some hastily-sworn “special constables” from their posts. Trams were stopped, drivers manhandled and one tram set alight.

Boarded-up shopfronts in Melbourne following the Saturday night unrest

About 6pm, the plate glass windows of shops in Bourke Street and elsewhere began to cave in (with assistance) and looting began. All told, 78 shopfronts were smashed, two people were killed and hundreds injured.

The crowd roared each time a plate glass window shattered.

Organised crime, in the form of Melbourne’s notorious local “pushes” (gangs) and even the network of notorious Melbourne underworld figure “Squizzy” Taylor, was sometimes blamed for the spree of lawlessness and opportunism. But subsequent analysis of court records suggests those charged with offences related to the rioting were typically youths and young men with no significant criminal history or gang connections.

Order was eventually restored to the metropolis with the assistance of a much more substantial force of special constables, most of them returned soldiers, of whom 5000 had been enrolled by Melbourne Cup Day under the leadership of First World War hero General Sir John Monash.

The running of the Cup was watched peacefully by a crowd of 125,000 at Flemington. The race that famously “stops a nation” probably had a role in stopping the riots, too.

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