4 October 2019

An Old Building with a Violent Past


(Originally published in Norma King's "Colourful Tales of the Western Australian Goldfields", 1980. Revised by Lorraine Kelly October 2019)


In Kalgoorlie at the lower end of Hannan Street, in-between Lionel and Lane streets (number 421), there was an old stone and brick building. For many years its front faced with weatherboard. The shabby structure scarcely rated a second glance. It is hard to imagine that anything of great interest or excitement could have taken place there. But if the old stone walls could have spoken, they would have told of at least two violent incidents.

The building was originally the All Nations Hotel. It was probably built in the early 1900s around the same time as the Home from Home Hotel was built in the same area. It was a small, two-storey building on a narrow, 8-metre-wide block. Locally quarried stone and steamed bricks from Coolgardie were used to make its walls.

The hotel was one of the main meeting places of the local Italian community. Some of them were from the wood-lines, which played a vital part in the early mining operations of Kalgoorlie's Golden Mile. Wood was the primary source of power and fuel and in 1901 the thirteen big mines on the Golden Mile alone used 6096 tonnes of firewood a week. Three companies, the Kurrawang, Lakeside, and the Kurramia had their private wood-lines running out into the bush. Small locomotives hauled the laden wagons back into Kalgoorlie for the hungry furnaces and boilers on the mines and power-houses.

The cutting and loading were all done by hand and the workers, many of them Italians and Slavs, lived in little settlements on their cutting areas. When one section became cut out, the whole camp moved out farther, and more rails were laid to the new timber areas. Living conditions were relatively primitive, and work was hard, so the chance of a job in town was seldom refused. Some job opportunities came when miners left to fight in the first World War.

However, by 1919, a large number of soldiers had returned from the war and were having difficulty finding work. They resented the fact that foreigners were working on the mines while they were unemployed. A recession in the mining industry caused a shortage of jobs.

One night in September, the situation became violent.

Workers at Kurrawang and the other wood-lines had been on strike since the previous month. Hundreds of men were in Kalgoorlie and Boulder waiting for the dispute to be settled. A large number of these men were Italians. The strikers and the unemployed ex-soldiers spent many idle hours in the local hotels. Late on this particular evening, a group of soldiers was harassing some Italians. A twenty-three-year-old woodcutter from Kurrawang named Giacomo 'Jim' Gatti, became very frightened. He dashed into the kitchen of the Majestic Cafe in Hannan Street, saying that he needed something to protect himself with, as men were chasing him. He picked up a knife and ran out the back door and up a lane into Porter Street. It was then about midnight.

A fight broke out soon afterwards between a large crowd of Australians and Italians. During the fray, Gatti stabbed a young returned soldier named Thomas Northwood in the buttock. The soldier did not receive prompt medical attention and died in hospital from loss of blood a few hours later. Early the next morning Detective Sergeant McColl visited the Glen Devon Hotel where he arrested four Italians, including Jim Gatti. The incident caused a lot of bad feeling in the town and rumours were quickly spreading. Before noon a crowd had gathered near the Glen Devon Hotel. Councillor Schwarm and Harry Axford, who were members of the Ex-servicemen's Organisation, told the hotel's proprietor John Paoli that 'it would be judicious if the Italians on the premises left for parts unknown'.

In the afternoon a resident magistrate, Mr Walters, addressed a large crowd of ex-servicemen in the grounds of the Returned Soldiers' Institute in Dugan Street. He spoke at some length and appealed to the soldiers' good judgment. He warned them that any illegal act on their part to avenge their mate's death would be foolish and would reflect poorly on them. Another speaker also advised the crowd to allow the law to take its course. After the meeting, a small number of soldiers marched up Dugan Street and headed for the Glen Devon Hotel. They were joined on the way by several other young men. The police were guarding the main door of the hotel, so the ringleaders went in through the side and corner doors. Some looted the liquor store while others searched for Italians. When they discovered that they had all left, the thwarted men then smashed doors and windows, freed caged cockatoos and pigeons, and released horses from the stables at the back. The soldiers then decided to make for the All Nations Hotel and marched along Egan Street into Cassidy Street and then headed down Hannan Street.

By the time the men reached the hotel, their numbers had grown to between 3000 - 4000. Councillor Schwann and Harry Axford asked the soldiers to remember the resolution they had made at the meeting and tried in vain to stop them from breaking down the closed doors of the hotel. While the crowd was surging and pushing under the verandah, Mr E. Orsatti, the licensee, appeared on the balcony with his wife. He asked the group what he had ever done to deserve such treatment and begged them to show consideration for his wife. However, some men had already broken into the hotel. They climbed the stairs and went out on to the balcony. Police Sergeant Fortescue prevented a young man from forcing Mr Orsatti over the verandah. The police then took Orsatti and his wife away to safety. In the meantime, others overtook the bar and bottles of spirits, beer, and wine 'disappeared as if by magic'. Doors, windows and fittings were smashed in the rampage that followed. The intruders were eventually driven out by the police, assisted by several civilians. Lieutenant Stahl then persuaded the returned soldiers to go home, but the rest of the mob had not finished their day's work.

Some broke into the near-by Kalgoorlie Wine Saloon and carried off a quantity of liquor. Others headed for the Queensland and Royal hotels in Forrest Street but, finding no Italians there, left without doing much damage. In the evening the disturbance spread to Boulder where four or five hotels and one cafe were damaged. The crowd gradually dispersed following the arrest of one of the ringleaders.

A day or two later, leaders of the ex-servicemen met a delegation of Italians led by Mr Orsatti. A spokesman told the delegation that it would be advisable if all single Italians left the twin towns to make their jobs on the mines available for returned soldiers. If they complied, they were assured there would be no further trouble and the married Italians and their families would not be harassed. The Kurrawang wood-line was willing to employ the single men. The Italian community agreed to these demands, and there was little further racial trouble during this period.

In the following December, the charge of murder against Giacomo Gatti failed, and he was acquitted. His counsel, Mr Haynes, based his defence on Section 248 of the Criminal Code, pointing out to the jurors that 'if a prisoner had reasonable apprehension of death or grievous bodily harm it was lawful for him to use such force as was necessary to protect himself, even if the use of such force can occasion death or bodily harm'.

The All Nations Hotel was repaired after the riot but was among several hotels de-licensed in 1924. It was then run as the All Nations Boarding House. The second violent incident occurred near the building during the 1934 riots. These riots were also triggered by the death of an Australian at the hands of an Italian. This Italian man was also later not to be found guilty of murder.

The Australia Day weekend in 1934 was very hot and dry. The hotels made a brisk trade, in spite of a large number of unemployed men in Kalgoorlie and Boulder. It was still the time of the Depression, but the price of gold had risen, giving new life to the mining industry. Hundreds of unemployed flocked to the goldfields, but there were not enough vacancies for all those seeking work. As was the case before the 1919 riots, the unemployed deeply resented the Italians and Yugoslavs who had jobs. They were accused of bribing shift bosses to ensure their jobs.

On Sunday night, George Jordan and Claudio Mattaboni were fighting outside the Home From Home Hotel. This hotel was across the road from the All Nations Boarding House. Mattaboni struck Jordan who fell heavily to the pavement and hit his head. Jordan later died from the injury. The subsequent inquiry revealed that he had a thinner-than-average skull that had easily shattered. But this information came too late to stop the vast amount of damage to property, the burnings, the injuries, the injustices, and heartaches that followed. All the ill-feeling against foreigners came to a head with the news of the death of Jordan. He had been a leading member of the fire brigade and a well-known footballer. There were even rumours that he had been stabbed.

By early Monday evening, a high number of men who had been in the hotels most of the day began to assemble outside the Home From Home Hotel. Someone, supposedly a fifteen-year-old boy, threw a stone through one of the windows, and this was the trigger that set off a violent chain reaction. The crowd stormed through the front doors to find the bar empty as the few foreigners who had been drinking there had disappeared out the back way as soon as they heard the smashing glass. The intruders grabbed all the bottles from behind the bar. They smashed some but stowed most of the bottles of Champagne and other expensive drinks down their shirts, or drank them in the street. Some raided the cellar, rolling beer casks out into the street; others went on a smashing rampage. When everything on the ground floor was destroyed, they repeated the performance upstairs. Someone attempted to set fire to the hotel, while most of the rioters turned their attention to the Kalgoorlie Wine Saloon on the other side of the street. They smashed in the plate-glass frontage, removed the cash box and some liquor, then broke the furniture, piled it into the centre of the room, and set it alight. The wood and iron building was soon a mass of flames and the house on its eastern side was under threat. The Kalgoorlie and Boulder fire brigades were called as furniture and belongings were carried outside.

Some then set fire to the licensee's new car in the garage. The firemen turned their hoses on the garage to protect a near-by house. They also shot a few jets of water towards the spectators to keep them back. Instead of dampening their enthusiasm, it seemed to inflame the rioters who then began attacking both the plainclothes and uniformed policemen who were trying to prevent the destruction. The outnumbered police had to seek protection from the flying bottles and other missiles that were being hurled towards them. One policeman was hit over the eye and taken to hospital.

The rioters, with the help of some blasting powder, finally set fire to the Home From Home Hotel, which was soon burning fiercely. When firefighters tried to put out the fire, their hoses were chopped through with an axe.

Some of the crowd then turned their attention to the All Nations Building. They smashed in the front and began systematically wrecking the place while others raided the fowl-yard at the back. A few charges of dynamite set off in the rear portion of the building quickly started a fire which swept through the two-storey stone structure and eventually gutted it.

After the burning of the three buildings, the crowd then followed the ringleaders up towards the main section of Hannan Street. Every business on the way that was owned by a foreigner became a target for the rioters. They smashed and looted until Hannan Street resembled a battle-ground. There was broken glass, shop fittings, and goods and produce littering the street. Hundreds of spectators, including women and children, followed and goaded the 200-300 rioting men.

Outside a ransacked restaurant in Boulder after the riots ca 1934. Courtesy EGHS.

They then commandeered trams to take them 5 kilometres to Boulder. They burnt and destroyed buildings frequented by foreigners, including two hotels, the Cornwall and the Main Reef, and the newly built International Club.

The Boulder Block after the 1934 riots. Photograph courtesy of Di Stockdale.

Boulder Block after 1934 Riot. Photograph courtesy of Di Stockdale

The Cornwall Hotel. Photograph provided courtesy of Criena Fitzgerald
The next morning the miners decided to strike until all foreigners were dismissed from the mines. Later in the day a pitched battle developed in an area behind the Boulder railway station where a large number of southern Europeans lived in miners' cottages or camps. The Italians, Slavs, and other residents of the area, some with wives and children, fled into the bush to suffer the heartache, frustration, and anger of watching smoke and flames destroy their homes and possessions. The destruction of houses and camps near some of the other mines even sobered some of the rioters.

Palmira Alfirovich and family eating after 1934 riots. Photograph courtesy of Palma Alfirovich.
Considering the number of homemade gelignite bombs combined with rifles and gunfire that exploded, it is a miracle that the casualty list was as small as it was. One foreigner, Joseph Katich, was shot through the head, one Australian, Charles Stokes, died as the result of a stab wound, and several others were injured.

A few other attempts at vandalism or arson followed but were comparatively minor and in some cases were thwarted by Australians appalled by the actions of their countrymen. A special contingent of police was sent up from Perth, but they were no longer needed. Many of the rioters were arrested. They were charged with either disorderly conduct or for being in possession of the stolen property. But in no way did the punishment fit the crime and the whole episode was a dirty page in the history of Kalgoorlie.

When the mines reopened a week later, some Australians made efforts at reconciliation with their foreign workmates and helped them to rebuild their homes. The State Government provided money for a rebuilding program. In March the Chamber of Mines fulfilled a promise that had induced the men to lift the strike ban and conducted English language tests among 448 foreigners. Ironically, the only man who failed the test was a naturalised British subject.

Today the Home From Home Hotel operates as the one storey Hannans Hotel and the rebuilt Kalgoorlie Wine Saloon became the Amalfi Restaurant. The All Nations Boarding House was for a time used as a laundry. The third and final assault on the building was it's demolition and Kalgoorlie lost a historic old building.

Sources: Karlkurla Gold A HISTORY OF THE WOMEN OF KALGOORLIE-BOULDER - http://www.womenaustralia.info/exhib/wikb/migrantexperiences.html Outback Family History. http://www.outbackfamilyhistory.com.au/records/record.php?record_id=746

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