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September 18, 2014

Moments in time #2 – The beef riots

Our city has a history. Sure, it’s not especially long or hugely interesting history – but it has its moments. These are them.

  • Words and pictures: Owen Lindsay

In January 1931, the streets of Adelaide were splattered with blood. One of the worst riots in the country’s history had erupted, with a 2000-strong mob of protestors clashing with police at the foot of the Treasury Building on King William Street.

In 1931, the Great Depression was in full swing. Australia’s unemployment rate had soared to nearly 35 per cent; a figure that was second only to Germany’s in severity.Unlike the Germans, however, South Australians did not turn to fascism. No, we had more pressing concerns to attend to: the government was making us eat mutton, and we wanted to eat beef. Goddamn it, we wanted to eat beef.


The decision had been made to begin substituting mutton for beef on ration tickets, which meant that the unemployed would now be forced to eat sheep-meat, like common medieval peasants. Understandably furious, the Unemployed Workers Union assembled a group of a thousand people to protest, and the mob marched its way from Port Adelaide into the CBD, picking up a thousand additional mutton-haters along the way.

The horde, singing jaunty protest songs and holding aloft signs that proclaimed WE WANT BEEF and (for some reason) DOWN WITH CHINA, made their way to the Treasury Building to demand an audience with State Premier Lionel Hill.

Fuelled by the underlying, festering climate of economic and social discontent, by the time they reached Victoria Square the mob was teetering on the edge of explosion into fully-fledged violent rebellion. Luckily, the Government knew just the trick to gently diffuse tensions: it would unleash a battalion of police to beat the absolute shit out of the demonstrators.

Instead of Premier Lionel Hill, out from the Treasury Building doors streamed a battalion of cops, head-cracking batons in hand and head-stomping boots on feet. It was an ambush.

Intense fighting ensued, in a scene that we can only assume looked like Braveheart but with more fedoras and pocket watches. Blood splattered onto the pavement, teeth tinkled along the gutters and the phrase “by jove” was probably used multiple times. Eventually, after 20 minutes of brawling, the mob was finally dispersed by police.

Surprisingly, when the dust had settled only 17 people required hospitalisation, and nobody had been killed during the riot. Sure, there were some arrests of protestors and, sure, some serious skull damage was probably done on both sides, but the important thing was that the riot was a success. Beef was restored to the ration ticket system, and mutton was never again eaten by a single South Australian, ever, for all time.

Because it is disgusting.

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