One American Too Many: Boss Badger and the Brisbane Trams, by David Burke
Queensland Museum, (2012), Paperback, 126 pages
One of my interests that I rarely get a chance to indulge in these days is historic trams and trains. I have had a long-term interest in the history and fate of the tramway system in my own home city of Brisbane. Between 1897 and 1969, Brisbane had one of the best-run, most efficient and most popular electric tram systems in Australia. Then it was casually thrown away, for no particularly good reason other than to allow more cars on the roads, and its loss has been regretted ever since, even by those who were responsible for its demise in the first place. However, this book doesn’t deal with the unhappy end of Brisbane’s trams, but rather the triumphant beginning and somewhat turbulent early years. The central figure in this tale is Joseph Stillman Badger, a no-nonsense American technocrat who presided over the electrification of Brisbane’s horse-drawn network, and then ran the system with an iron fist for the next 25 years. Badger was an autocrat in the finest sense of the word. A non-drinker himself, he made his tram crews into teetotalers by enforcing a strict liquor ban. Not surprisingly he had a particular aversion to trade unionism, and fought vigorously and sometimes nastily to keep the trams de-unionized. This led to a major confrontation in 1912, when he banned tram drivers from wearing union badges to work and then stood down those who defied the edict. This galvanized the union movement and led to a crippling general strike, which paralyzed Brisbane for weeks. The strike eventually petered out and a court decision forced Badger to allow his workers to wear the badges, but Badger’s iron grip remained on Brisbane’s trams until 1922, when the Labor government effectively nationalised the trams, buying out Badger’s company for what he considered a thoroughly inadequate price. This is a fascinating work of history, with excellent pictorial accompaniment, and provides a great glimpse of Brisbane’s early years as it struggled from dirt-streeted settlement to modern capital city. Thoroughly recommended for all those interested, not just in Brisbane’s history, but of the development of public transport in the 20th century.