Black Berry Wednesday

Graham Berry was a Premier of Victoria who fought against the “securely entrenched men of property” who made up the Legislative Council in the 1870s. He was a radical liberal who led “those who believed that the good things of life in Australia should not be reserved for the exclusive benefit of squatters and importers.”

The Legislative Council didn’t fancy payment of members of Parliament as this meant that candidates would be able to secure seats in the Legislative Assembly who had no income from property and who, consequently, might not be in sympathy with the property-owners’ point of view.

In his battle with the Upper House of Parliament, Berry tried to ‘tack on’ permanent payment for parliamentarians to a Money Bill. The Legislative Council had no power to alter this provision so they rejected the bill.

James Thompson, a journo at the time, wrote, years later:

That there was something brewing was evident, but not a ripple appeared on the surface. At the close of a morning Cabinet meeting one Tuesday I walked down Collins-street with Peter Lalor, then Commissioner for Customs. The one-armed hero of the Eureka Stockade was always chatty and reminiscent and we entered Oliver’s Cafe next the “Argus” office. He took brandy and water. “I feel getting on in life now,” he said. “In the old Ballarat days some of us could get through four or five bottles of Battle-axe every day and not feel it a bit. It was dark brandy at that—but now a single bottle, is all I can stand.” When I dropped a hint that something concerning the frequent meetings would be something interesting he quietly remarked that within 24 hours everybody would know all about everything.

The next day, 8 January 1877, in what became known as ‘Black Wednesday’, Berry sacked 200 public servants claiming the government had no funds to pay them. The dismissed included county court judges, magistrates, goldfields wardens, coroners and heads of Government departments.

What a hideous howl there was about this matter! From one end of Australia to the other, the shrieks of the dismissed bureaucrats (and their friends and relatives) pierced the atmosphere.

The infamous crime of Black Wednesday, when, in order to gratify the vindictive malevolence and dastardly malignancy of the roughs in power, many of the ablest and most incorruptible of the public servants were dismissed at a moment’s notice ; the administration of justice in the inferior courts was brought to a standstill ; scores of capable and industrious men, in the receipt of less than £300 a year, some of whom had been upwards of twenty years in the service of the State, were sent adrift and were treated with less consideration than a man would exhibit for his horse or his dog.

For the next two years Berry clung to office while the colony was gripped with class conflict, including huge torchlit processions through Melbourne sponsored by The Age (pro-Berry) and The Argus (anti-Berry) – although, remarkably, there was almost no violence. The ongoing socio-economic turmoil came to be known as the “Berry Blight”.


Gaily the Berrydoer touched his guitar,
As he was hastening home from afar,
Singing, “from Westminster, hither I come,
Victoria, Victoria, welcome me home.”

Hark! ’twas the Berrydoer, breathing her name,
Under the battlements softly he came,
Singing, “from Westminster, hither I come,
Victoria, Victoria, welcome me home.”

Sad for a moment he sounded his name
“Two can play, Jamie*, mon, your little game,
Called back from Westminster, selfishly done,
Again in this happy land, I made alone.

Cheerfull he again swept his guitar,
For he had heard wooing, borne from afar,
Singing : Sir Noble Knight, pivotwards* come,
Thy old constituents, welcome them home.

The lovely illustration and rhyme (above) relate to Berry’s return from England as Victoria’s Agent-General in 1892. Later that year he once again became Treasurer in a Victorian government : here’s an account of his budget speech and the introduction of an excise duty on beer….

…the Treasurer rises again, and with a hasty glance at the labour members, announces in husky tones, as if he were introducing the Chairman of Committees to a most unwelcome guest, the Beer Tax. “Mr. Mason,” he says, “there is one other duty, for which provision is to be made, and that is the excise duty on beer.” This wakes up a member of the Council, who sits bolt upright and stares into vacancy, as if all his hopes had suddenly gone bung. The temperance members (what there is left of them) are radiant. Those who sip the dew off Ben Nevis are indifferent. The shadow is on the labour members alone. Down through the Iong vista of ages the shortened allowance of that “delightful and necessary beverage brewed from pure malt and hops” looms large. The great Collingwood tribune himself, as we all know, was “werry partial” to the popular “long-sleever” on hot summer days, and for the matter of that, through the long winter months too. The art with which he raised the pewter goblet to his mouth, and the grace with which he removed the froth by that majestic sweep of his left sleeve across the encircling rim, can only be forgotten when memory ceases”

Australasian (Melbourne, Vic. : 1864 – 1946), Saturday 6 August 1892, page 40

All his life Berry retained a broad London accent, which many Victorian conservatives found offensive or amusing. In Parliament he once asked the Speaker: “What is now before the ‘Ouse?” To which the Leader of the Opposition interjected: “An H!”

On his death, in January 1904, the Prime Minister, Alfred Deakin, wrote:

He was a sterling Radical, both in principle and in practice, and an indefatigable advocate of the rights of the people and of the pre-eminence of the popular Chamber, of the doctrine of protection, the demand for an equitable land tax, and the establishment of a united Australia. Conspicuously able, earnest and consistent, he was finally triumphant after prolonged strife. No man was ever  more “bitterly and unscrupulously assailed by his opponents”….  In Victoria he deserved and enjoyed the confidence of the great mass of his fellow citizens, together with the warm affection of friends and associates, without interruption, to the close of his many days of usefulness and fruitfulness.

[Note: * Pivotwards is a reference to the town of Geelong where Berry lived. Geelong was known as a pivotal rural hub and became known as Pivot Town – their footy team as the ‘Pivotonians’. Jamie* no doubt, refers to the new Victorian Premier, James Munroe].

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