As Paddy Crumlin explained, when The Hungry Mile received its official historical recognition, ‘‘The Hungry Mile is not just any place but somewhere symbolic; a symbolic place for working people and their communities; a place where workers lived, worked, fought and died in the pursuit of decent living and working conditions, not only in this country but internationally."
As Rowan Cahill explained:
A Sydney site that challenges this invisibility is the ‘Hungry Mile’, the name maritime workers gave to what was the mile of wharves between Darling Harbour and Miller’s Point, today a mix of pleasure palaces, tourist venues, and remnant maritime industrial facilities, accessed by strolling along Sussex Street and Hickson Road. In its day it was a political and industrial site that has claims to being the engineroom of a great deal of the wealth of the state of NSW, and of the nation.
It was to this mile of wharves that maritime labourers in the nineteenth century and on into the 1940s, tramped each day regardless of the weather to find casual, low paid work, because that was the nature of waterfront work in those days, meaning you had to live nearby to be on hand whenever work became available, in whatever lodgings you could afford and arrange, rented premises, shared housing, rooming houses, sublet rooms…..
The notorious ‘bull’ system prevailed, until a combination of factors including determined union campaigning and the wartime need by the Commonwealth Labor government to regularize manpower in an essential industry, ended the system during World War 2. The bull system pitted worker against worker, at times violently. For many labourers it was a despised, humiliating, demeaning experience. As historian Margot Beasley explains in her book Wharfies (1996):
Under this system, men assembled in a public place to be chosen for the day’s work by foremen or stevedoring agents of the shipping companies. Favourites for work were the “bulls”, men of such physical strength they work longer and harder than others. Such a system also favoured compliant and docile workers and facilitated discrimination against militant or troublesome men who might agitate for improved conditions. Bribery for work was another result.
For many maritime workers the Hungry Mile and their associated experiences, tramping for employment from pickup to pickup regardless of weather, being sized up by employers’ agents, scrutinised, selected, rejected, the daily routine, the competition between individuals and between gangs of workers, the angst, the uncertainty, the corruption, resulting senses of injustice, of being demeaned, victimised, came to represent the essence of capitalism, and helped shape the direction and colour of their politics, and their relationship with employers. For generations of maritime workers, the Hungry Mile lit the fires of social justice in their bellies.
Radical poet Ernest Antony (1894-1960) expressed the feeling in his classic “The Hungry Mile”:
They tramp there in their legions on the mornings dark and cold To beg the right to slave for bread from Sydney's lords of gold; They toil and sweat in slavery, 'twould make the devil smile, To see the Sydney wharfies tramping down the hungry mile.
On ships from all the seas they toil, that others of their kind, May never know the pinch of want nor feel the misery blind; That makes the live, of men a hell in those conditions vile; That are the hopeless lot of those who tramp the hungry mile.
The slaves of men who know no thought of anything but gain, Who wring their brutal profits from the blood and sweat and pain Of all the disinherited that slave arid starve the while, Upon the ships beside the wharves along the hungry mile.
But every stroke of that grim lash that sears the souls of men With interest due from years gone by, shall be paid back again To those who drive these wretched slaves to build the golden pile, And blood shall blot the memory out – of Sydney's hungry mile.
The day will come, aye, come it must, when these same slaves shall rise, And through the revolution's smoke, ascending to the skies, The master's, face shall show the fear he hides, behind his smile, Of these his slaves, who on that day shall storm the hungry mile.
And when the world grows wiser and all men at last are free, When none shall feel the hunger nor tramp in misery To beg the right to slave for bread, the children then may smile. At those strange tales they tell of what was once the hungry mile.