[Editor: An article about the Victorian financial and political crisis of 1878, known as “Black Wednesday”. Published in The Barrier Miner, 19 January 1907.]
Twenty-nine years ago.
Wednesday, January 9, was the anniversary of the day which has long been known in the political history of Victoria as “Black Wednesday.” On Tuesday evening, January 8, 1878, a Government “Gazette” Extraordinary was issued, containing notices of the dismissal of a great many of the leading members of the Public Service in nearly all departments. The public, however, was ignorant of what had been done until the morning papers appeared on Wednesday, January 9, 1878, and hence it was that the late Mr. Service, a few days later, in referring bitterly to the action of the Government, spoke of the day as “Black Wednesday” in the history of the colony. That name has clung to it ever since.
It would be a long task to recall and summarise all the political strife which lead up to the crisis in the affairs of the colony, of which the dismissals on “Black Wednesday” formed one of the most striking incidents. The Legislative Council had resisted with all its might the clearly expressed desire of the people for constitutional reform, but the issue which was made the basis for a trial of strength was the side one of payment of members. The country had returned Mr. (afterwards Sir Graham) Berry at the head of an enormous majority in the Legislative Assembly, pledged to carry payment of members among other constitutional reforms. The Council refused to agree, and took the extreme step of rejecting the Appropriation Bill.
There was a bitterness in the struggle among all parties and all classes that has never been equalled. The Berry Ministry complained that the Council, in its resistance of public opinion, was strongly and actively supported by the leading officials in the Public Service. Whatever truth there may have been in this assertion, it was not the ostensible ground on which the officers were dismissed. The reason given in the “Gazette” notices was “reduction in the Public Service,” and it was declared that the dismissals would enable the Government to effect important economies in the service, though, for the moment, there was difficulty in finding the money to pay the dismissed officers compensation they were entitled to under the provisions of the Civil Service Acts then in force.
Four leading officers of the service had been publicly mentioned some days before January 8 as having been marked by the Ministry for dismissal. They were Mr. T. Higinbotham (brother of the late Chief Justice Higinbotham), Engineer-in-Chief of Railways); Mr. Wardell, Inspector-General of Public Works; Mr. H. Byron. Moore, Chief Clerk of the Lands Department; and Mr. Labertouche, Secretary for Railways. When the “Gazette” notice appeared it was seen that the forecase was correct. The quartette named were among the most prominent of the “Black Wednesday” victims,” as they were called. Mr. W. H. Archer, Secretary for Lands, and Mr. Guthrie, Controller of Customs, were others.
The greatest consternation and surprise, however, were occasioned by the wholesale dismissals in the Law Department — dismissals which it was feared would paralyse the administration of the law. All the judges of the county courts and courts of mines, all the goldfields wardens, all the wardens’ clerks, all the police magistrates, all the coroners and deputy coroners, all the Crown prosecutors, and many others were dispensed with. Twenty-three clerks of courts were appointed wardens without extra salary, but the honorary justices were relied on to conduct the business of the inferior courts and to hold magisterial inquiries in place of coroner’s inquests.
In the Lands Department the services of 57 of the leading officers were dispensed with. The Department of Marine Survey, of which Captain Stanley, R.N., was then the head, was entirely swept away. The dismissals from the Customs Department included four principal officers and 10 inspectors of licensed premises and liquors. Two of the principal professional officers of the Water Supply Department were dispensed with, and 15 officers in the Department of Mines were dismissed.
Beyond question, if the Government of the day desired to cause consternation and dismay in the ranks of the Civil Service it undoubtedly succeeded. There was a great outcry from considerable sections of the community, and the Public servants who were left trembled at the fear that they might be the next selected to retire. The Conservative party and press of the day were altogether unrestrained in denunciation of what was by them described as terrorism and ruthless destruction of the political and acquired financial rights of the dismissed officers. However, no further dismissals followed, but it was still a long while before the differences between the two Houses were even temporarily adjusted.
The Barrier Miner (Broken Hill, NSW), 19 January 1907, p. 6
Graham Berry = (1822-1904) English-born Victorian politician; Premier of Victoria (1875, 1877-1880, 1880-1881)
R.N. = Royal Navy