Celebrating the Centenary of the Warwick Egg Incident

Saturday, 18 November 2017 saw a long day of celebrations at Warwick, Queensland to commemorate the centenary of the Warwick Egg Incident (WEGGI), when a couple of local lads egged the Australian prime minister, Billy Hughes. While it might be a little known incident today, 100 years ago it excited the nation.

The egging occurred on 29 November 1917 when Hughes, on his way back from Brisbane to Sydney by train, stopped at Warwick to deliver a pro-conscription address at the railway station. Two Australian Catholics of Irish descent, Pat and Bart Brosnan, hurled eggs at the prime minister as he walked along the platform, resulting in a scuffle. Not satisfied with the Queensland police’s handling of the matter, Hughes set up the Commonwealth police force, the forerunner of the Australian Federal Police. He also used the press to spin the incident out of all proportion to embarrass the anti-conscription Queensland government, which he accused of being riddled with Sinn Feiners.

To mark the centenary, the citizens of Warwick last weekend celebrated in fine form their town’s “13 minutes of fame”, undeterred by a constant drizzle of rain. Many worked hard to make the day a success, but none more so than Julie Conway (a Brosnan), whose energy and enthusiasm brought it all together.

The day started in the morning with a public history event at which I, along with Rod and Robin Sullivan of the University of Queensland, addressed a receptive audience of more than 200 at St Mary’s Hall on the historical significance of the WEGGI. (My paper can be read here. A shorter piece published in The Conversation can be read here.) The event included a panel discussion and a round of songs by the Combined Unions Choir.

The next event was a re-enactment of the egg-throwing at the Warwick railway station, which included more songs by the Combined Unions Choir and a poetry recital. Those present to see the re-enactment far exceeded the 300 or so who witnessed the original event. (A YouTube clip of the re-enactment is here.)

Next it was the turn of the Australian Federal Police, who unveiled a plaque commemorating 100 years of Commonwealth policing. Fittingly, the plaque is located opposite the railway station in the newly established Billy Hughes Park, which is ringed – I kid you not – by Brosnan Crescent. Thereafter, across the road in O’Mahoney’s Hotel, a reunion of Brosnans got under way, some having travelled from as far afield as Perth. And that night, the long day’s activities came to an end with a dinner at the railway station hosted by Southern Downs Steam Railway.

All in all it was a wonderful community event that reminded us that while Australia’s soldiers 100 years ago were fighting on the Western Front and in Palestine, there was also conflict on the home front that saw the Australian people divided along ethno-religious and class lines. The good humour and conviviality of the day’s activities is testimony to the fact that for the most part those divisions no longer exist. Nevertheless, it is also a reminder that even in amiable Australia inter-communal harmony is fragile and vulnerable to shabby political exploitation.

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