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Curtis, Walter (1861–1921)

by Martin Sullivan

This article was published:

Walter Cosens Curtis (1861-1921) shearer, trade union leader and cab driver

Birth:. 17 June 1861 at Portsmouth, Hampshire, England, son of George Curtis, corn and malt factor, and Ann, née Cosens. Marriage: 10 July 1909 at Hughenden, Queensland, to native-born Eva Jane McLean, late Cameron, a widow with two daughters and three sons. Walter and Eva had five daughters. Death: 2 October 1921 in district hospital, Hughenden. Religion: Anglican. 

  • Was well educated in England. Arrived in Melbourne aboard the Shannon with his younger brother Charles on 8 November 1882.
  • Had arrived in Barcaldine, Queensland, by 30 December 1889 when he penned an eloquent letter to the press supporting labour agitation to gain “those rights, both political and social, which have so long been withheld from it by combined monopoly”.
  • Was paid organiser of the Queensland Labourers' Union at time of 1891 shearers' strike. At Springsure around New Year's Day 1891 established Comet (River) branch of QLU. Reported to QLU's committee of management (Barcaldine) on anti-union sentiment in Springsure & recommended relocation of union office to Emerald, Clermont or Capella (Peak Downs), but nevertheless managed to enrol 52 members in early Feb. 1891. At time laid great emphasis on arbitration and conciliation with squatters, thus winning public sympathy, but also complained to individual squatters when Chinese & 'Kanaka' labour was employed. Opposed establishment of strike camps, favouring instead regional depots where strike rations could be distributed. Also wanted mass meetings of shearers and labourers in various centres and for Justice Charles Lilley to be appointed as arbitrator.
  • In March 1891, in response to previous police interference, notified sub-inspector of police in Springsure of intention 'to transact certain business' at Rainworth woolshed & threatened legal action against police for any attempt to 'intimidate or interfere with me while going about my lawful business'. Also complained to Police Magistrate over being refused access to activist in local lockup. Admonished by Central District Council of Australian Labour Federation, Barcaldine, for sympathy with squatters prepared to shear union. Yet did seek to enforce general call-out of 23 March 1891, organising rations and relief for strikers around Springshaw. Declared that “For pure genuine tyranny Queensland takes first place; Russia a bad second”.
  • Arrested and charged with molesting and obstructing free labourers in March 1891. Sentenced to three months hard labour in Rockhampton jail.
  • At annual general meeting of QLU in December 1891 was elected one of five paid organisers on salary of £200 per annum. Elected QLU secretary Febuary 1892. Disapproved of shearers' and labourers' liking for alcohol. March 1892 blamed drinking for downfall of J.H. Ormsby who had stolen QLU funds, but sought leniency for Ormsby under First Offenders' Probationers Act.
  • Resigned as QLU secretary in September 1899. Worked in Hughenden as a cab driver and was associated with the Carriers and Workers’ Union. Had a property across the river and a grazing farm downstream. Came into a legacy on the death of his father in 1916. Suffered from cancer for some time and underwent an operation.

Sources
Morning Bulletin
(Rockhampton), 3 January 1890, p.6; Townsville Daily Bulletin, 13 October 1921, p.4

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Citation details

Martin Sullivan, 'Curtis, Walter (1861–1921)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://peopleaustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/curtis-walter-32344/text40087, accessed 5 December 2022.

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