Looking forward: Freedom of contract in 1923 [satirical article, 15 March 1893]

[Editor: This satirical article focuses on the concept of “freedom of contract” (a tactic used by employers to undermine union awards); written in 1893, this fictional story was set in 1923 (30 years in the future). It was published in The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (Newport, Vic.), 15 March 1893.]

Looking forward.

Freedom of contract in 1923.

(From the Coonadubbo Kootoo.)

The Coonadubbo Criminal Sessions commenced yesterday before His Honor Sir Rotund Cashleigh. Mr. Purpleconk officiated as Crown Prosecutor.

Jurors fined.

James Jones, storekeeper; Henry Johnson, publican; William Dobson, draper; and Alexander Wilkins, blacksmith, were each fined £5 for permitting the collector of the jury list to omit their names.

Johnson, who was present, stated that the collector of the roll had been drunk for three months, and had not been within fifty miles of his place.

His Honor said that the statement of Johnson was not only a wanton waste of the valuable time of the court, but was a gross aggravation of his original offence. That Mr. Soaker, the collector of the jury list, had had the misfortune to be drunk for a lengthened period was a matter for sincere regret, and he deeply sympathised with that deserving officer. He considered that Johnson, being a publican, was, to a very large extent, responsible for the affliction that had befallen Mr. Soaker. He pointed out that even if Mr. Soaker had not been near his (Johnson’s) hotel, circumstances pointed to the fact that he got on the booze at some other publican’s place, where the liquor might not be so good as at Mr. Johnson’s, and it was clear that this greatly added to Mr. Johnson’s criminality. It was plain as daylight that if Mr. Soaker did not get tight at Mr. Johnson’s, he must have got tight somewhere else, and, according to a well-known principle of law, Mr. Johnson was guilty all the same, if not more so. He would mark his sense of Mr. Johnson’s conduct in permitting this valued officer of the court to become tonicked by fining him a further sum of £10. If he heard that Mr. Soaker had been overcome in a similar way again he would fine every publican in the district £100. He would show them that the dignity of the court was not to be trifled with.


James Scott, George English, and Patrick Ireland, storekeepers, were charged that they, on a certain day, did unlawfully conspire to prevent Henry Longwool, Esq., from purchasing certain goods, which he, the said Henry Longwool, desired to purchase. There were a number of minor counts in the indictment — alleging intimidation, riot, threatening language, arson, embracery, stealing from the person, bushranging, breach of promise, bigamy, and feloniously preventing other storekeepers from pursuing their lawful avocations. Mr. Brassyphiz officiated as Crown Prosecutor, and Mr. Fewbriefs for the defence.

Previous to the Crown Prosecutor opening the case, His Honor briefly alluded to the growing insolence of the lower orders, who of late had the audacity to employ counsel for their defence when charged with any offence. The privilege of employing lawyers was one exclusively pertaining to the upper class, but this privilege, it appeared, was being encroached on. He would, on his return to Sydney, induce the Governor to issue a proclamation, forbidding such unseemliness as a member of the legal profession appearing for people of such a class as storekeepers. If such a practice were permitted to continue, right-thinking people would soon be unable to live in the country.

The Crown Prosecutor stated the case at some length, and dwelt upon the dangerous revolutionary spirit that was pervading the country. The case before the court was one of unusual atrocity. His client, who was one of the most respected members of the community, had gone into the store of the prisoners, and had desired to purchase certain articles at certain prices. These degraded wretches had, however, declined to let him have these articles at his own price. It was part of the common law that a man should be permitted to transact his business in his own way, without any molestation from anybody. But it would be clearly shown that prisoners absolutely refused to allow Mr. Longwool to take away the goods he desired, alleging the excuse that they could not sell them at that price, as they cost them more than the price offered. The price prisoners would pay for the goods had nothing to do with the case. The only thing that the jury had to consider was whether Mr. Longwool offered to pay anything. Under the principles of “freedom of contract,” a customer was at liberty to offer any price he liked for goods, and if the storekeeper refused to accept that price he was guilty of felony. There were several Statutes under which this prosecution could have been laid, notably those passed in the reigns of Artaxerxes II., Rehoboan, Pharaoh, Boadecia, and Jugnotha, but he might state that the case was
brought under the common law, which enacted, as he said before, that a man should be allowed to transact his business his own way, and should not be interfered with. Now it was clear that the prosecutor, Mr. Longwool, had desired to purchase certain goods in his own way and at his own price and that defendants refused to let him have them, and this was dearly a gross infringement of his liberties as a citizen of this free country. The argument he believed his learned friend would set up for the defence was that the price offered was much less than the prisoners purchased them for, and that if they sold goods at that price they would very speedily be ruined. But the law, in its infinite wisdom, did not consider such trivial matters. The question of the ruin of the prisoners was not before the jury. What the jury had to consider was whether the prisoners refused to sell the goods at the price offered, and if they found they did so, it was their duty as citizens of a free and enlightened country to find these prisoners guilty on all the counts of the indictment. It was intolerable that a man could not go into a store and get goods at his own price. That a man could not do so, pointed to a widespread conspiracy among storekeepers, which must be put down with the strong arm of the law. He would not detain them further, but would call the prosecutor.

Mr. Longwool, who up to this time had occupied a seat beside His Honor, was about to step down into the witness box, when His Honor said it was quite unnecessary for a gentleman in Mr. Longwool’s position to enter the witness box and be sworn like a common person. He could sit where he was and answer the questions which might be put to him, and he warned the counsel for the defence not to be impertinent to Mr. Longwool. There was no necessity for him to be sworn.

Henry Longwool said that he was the owner of Jumbuck Vale. On the 17th or 18th of the previous month he went over to the store of prisoners. It might have been a month or two before or after the date he stated, as he didn’t trouble much about dates. He hired a bookkeeper to look after dates. When he went into the prisoner’s shop he wanted to buy some things. He selected the things he wanted, and told prisoners he would give a certain price for them. English said that he could not sell the goods at the price, as they cost more in Sydney. Witness did not get excited. He simply and in a pleasant way told them they were a —— lot of thieves, and as freedom of contract prevailed in this country, he would have the goods at his own price, or lay an information against them for conspiracy. He also told them that if the prices he wanted to buy the goods for were less than the firm had to pay for them, English and his mates could settle with their creditors as best they could, as it had nothing to do with him. “Freedom of Contract” meant that he (Mr Longwool) should get anything he wanted at any price he liked to offer. That included labor. Under freedom of contract he had a right to go into any store, take an article, and give what he pleased in payment. There would be no living in the country if a storekeeper could refuse to sell goods at a price a customer liked to offer. He had heard that it was proposed to form a storekeepers’ union. If a storekeepers’ union was formed, it would have to be put down.

Cross-examined by Mr. Fewbrief — He was owner of the Jumbuck run, and employed a number of men. He paid them very high wages, and was considered a liberal employer. He paid 3s. 4d. per week, and found the men in flour and salt. He allowed 6 lbs of flour and half a pound of salt per week per man. Three and fourpence per week was considered high wages. He allowed his men to get kangaroo if they wanted meat. The nearest place where they could get kangaroo was the Gulf of Carpentaria. The men could go to the Gulf of Carpentaria on Sundays to shoot kangaroos. He never interfered with their liberties on that day, as long as they were back at 6 o’clock on Sunday night to be ready to start at 4 o’clock on Monday morning he did not care what they did. It would be difficult to go to the Gulf of Carpentaria on foot. But there was no necessity for their going. They could go if they liked, however, and had to go there if they wanted meat. He had had four of his men imprisoned because they would not go to work. One of the men who were imprisoned died of
consumption in gaol. The others said they were ill, and although they were in the hospital they were shamming, in his opinion.

His Honor remarked that the cross-examination had shown that Mr. Longwool was an exceptionally liberal employer, and Mr. Fewbrief’s cross-examination had tended to greatly injure the case of the prisoners.

The Rev. Zebediah White-tie gave the prisoners a very bad character. They only attended his church rarely, and when they did only put half-crowns in the plate, although they knew that a sovereign was the least coin he cared about. Scott and Ireland had refused to subscribe towards the purchase of a set of gold-mounted teeth for Mrs. White-tie’s pug dog, and they also frequently attended another church. He had intended to prosecute them for not attending his church, and had frequently told members of his church not to encourage such bad characters by dealing at their store. He thought they ought to be severely punished.

Mr. Fewbrief said he would like to call some witnesses for the defence.

His Honor said Mr. Fewbrief had wasted so much time in cross-examination, that he would not allow any witnesses to be called for the prisoners. He would not allow his time, which was the time of the country, to be frittered away.

His Honor summed up, and instructed the jury to find a verdict of guilty with aggravating circumstances. He further ordered them to find their verdict within five minutes, as Mr. Longwool had invited him to dinner, and he did not desire to keep that gentleman waiting.

After a retirement of about five minutes, His Honor called the jury in.

The foreman stated they had not agreed.

His Honor said he had never seen such an obstinate and stupid jury in his life. He had told them plainly to find the prisoners guilty, and what more did they want? He would commit them for contempt of court if they did not at once return a verdict according to his directions.

The jury again retired, and returned a verdict of guilty, with a recommendation that the sentence be a severe one. His Honor was glad that the jury had at last come to a sense of its duty. He would sentence the prisoners to 14 years’ hard labor each, each Sunday to be spent in solitary confinement for their conduct towards Rev. Zebediah White-tie.

Mr. Fewbrief remarked that the wives and families of the prisoners would starve.

His Honor said that law could take no notice of trivialities like that. The wives and families need not starve. The children could be sent to the Benevolent Asylum, and there was a Chinese camp near the town, the inhabitants of which, he heard, was very hospitable to ladies in distress. (Laughter.) The women could go there. This was a free country.

His Honor further said he was deeply pained at Mr. Fewbrief appearing on behalf of such degraded criminals. He would make it his business when he went back to town to have his name struck off the rolls. Mr. Fewbrief might say this would take his living away; but he considered it only a slight punishment for his infamous conduct. Doubtless Mr. Longwool, who, as they had seen that day, was a generous man, would give him some employment among his men, who, he must say, were too well paid and had too many privileges for the common working classes.

The court then adjourned, and his Honor went to lunch with Mr. Longwool.

The Shearers’ and General Laborers’ Record (Newport, Vic.), 15 March 1893, p. 4 (column 1-3)

Editor’s notes:
—— = two em dashes (or a variant number of em dashes) can be used to indicate swearing, just as “****”, “$#*!”, “#$@&%*!”, or similar, can indicate swearing (a series of typographical symbols used to indicate profanity is called a “grawlix”); an em dash is an extended dash (also known as an “em rule” or a “horizontal bar”), being a dash which is as wide as the height of the font being used (em dashes may also be used in place of a person’s name, so as to ensure anonymity; or used to indicate an unknown word)

avocation = an additional occupation engaged in, in addition to one’s primary occupation; a minor occupation; a hobby; may also refer to someone’s primary occupation or usual employment

d. = a reference to a penny, or pennies (pence); the “d” was an abbreviation of “denarii”, e.g. as used in “L.S.D.” or “£sd” (pounds, shillings, and pence), which refers to coins used by the Romans, as per the Latin words “librae” (or “libra”), “solidi” (singular “solidus”), and “denarii” (singular “denarius”)

embracery = the crime of illegally attempting to influence a juror (whether by money, persuasion, promises, entertainments, or any other form of bribery or entreaty, or by threats) so as to influence the verdict of a jury (in modern times any attempt to influence a jury is usually legally dealt with by a charge of “obstruction of justice”, “attempting to pervert the course of justice”, or similar)

hospitable = friendly and welcoming to guests, strangers, and visitors; someone who is fond of entertaining or hosting social gatherings; a pleasant or sustaining climate or environment, a place which is favourable for living in

lbs = pounds; plural of “pound” (a unit of measurement); the abbreviation of “pound” is “lb.” (plural: lbs.), derived from the Latin “libra pondo” (meaning “a pound by weight”), being an ancient Roman unit of measurement (a “libra” was a balance or scales, with which items were weighed)

run = a property on which stock are grazed, such as a “cattle run” or a “sheep run”

s. = a reference to a shilling, or shillings; the “s” was an abbreviation of “solidi”, e.g. as used in “L.S.D.” or “£sd” (pounds, shillings, and pence), which refers to coins used by the Romans, as per the Latin words “librae” (or “libra”), “solidi” (singular “solidus”), and “denarii” (singular “denarius”)

tight = (slang) drunk

tonicked = (slang) drunk

[Editor: Changed “citized of” to “citizen of”; “of the the law” to “of the law”; “could go the Gulf” to “could go to the Gulf”; “in in his life” to “in his life”; “hospital” to “hospitable”; “Doubtless Mr Longwool” to “Doubtless Mr. Longwool” (added a full stop, in line with the other instances in the same article); removed the line break after “witness box, when”.]

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