Our infant might

Working class struggle before the gold rushes.

By TOM O'LINCOLN [email protected]

(This article first appeared in Reconstruction no 7, Autumn 1996.)

WHEN DID the class struggle begin? Unfortunately, history books generally date the origins of the Australian labour movement to the 1850s. This has serious political consequences. The six decades after 1788, so important in shaping Australian society, appear as a trite pioneer diorama, with class struggle confined to a handful of futile convict rebellions. It is a picture more conducive to nationalist myth-making than to socialist analysis. However in reality our society was divided along capitalist lines, between capital and labour, from early on.

Early Australian capitalism developed a distinctive, double-barrelled class structure. In the bush large landowners initially confronted convict labourers. Later the arrival of squatters and free labour complicated the picture, but relations between employers and employees remained sharply polarised. In the towns, by contrast, class lines were less sharp: "from craftsman as employee to craftsman as employer, from shopkeeper to merchant, from journalist to lawyer to lawyer-landowner, were no great leaps."(1 )

Even so, signs of worker organisation were discernible quite early. In fact they appeared among the convicts who were not really slave labour since, from shortly after the First Fleet landed until 1820 at least, some of their time was their own.

Under Phillip and the officer cabale which followed him, convicts’ "government" hours were limited so they could work extra hours for wages. Having seized large tracts of land, the officers had an incentive to allow this since "the settlers’ fields, granted for nothing, were crying out for labour, and there was no labourer but the convict."(2) They might have preferred not to pay, but the convicts were showing such determined sluggishness in performing unpaid labour that the officers had little choice. Governor Hunter’s attempted to reverse these concessions were largely ignored, and by 1798 he had fallen back on attempts to peg wages.

Generally convicts were paid by the piece, but Hunter set 10d as a sort of daily going rate, with free labourers getting an additional 2d. "Mechanics" (skilled workers) commanded higher pay than the unskilled. These were the official rates; actual pay could be two to five times as much, depending on supply and demand. The ticket-of-leave system provided further possibilities. Originally intended to reduce the numbers receiving government rations, tickets-of-leave were later used as rewards for good behaviour. Either way, they opened up the labour market.

From the 1820s the rights of convicts were scaled back as recommended by Commissioner Bigge, who wanted to make transportation more of a deterrent. Bigge sympathized with the landowners, saw the potential of the pastoral industry, and consequently proposed a turn away from public farming with a greater emphasis on assignment. Convicts were prevented from bringing capital to the colony and after 1825 emancipists no longer received grants of land. We should not, however, contrast a cruel Bigge with a kinder Macquarie. The Governor himself had sought to limit the wages of convicts to a maximum of ten pounds per year for males, seven for females. (The exclusives complained that this was still excessive: they thought three or four pounds was quite sufficient.) Tighter discipline for convicts of both sexes followed the construction of permanent prison buildings around 1819-20, before Bigge’s recommendations could take effect.

In the following decades, under hardliners like Darling in New South Wales and Arthur in Van Dieman’s Land not to mention the ghastly Morisset on Norfolk Island numerous convicts did face a reign of terror. In addition to chain gangs and places of special punishment, regulations governing assigned prisoners became harsher. Yet many convicts could still negotiate wages or other benefits. The 3-400 convicts assigned to the Australian Agricultural Company in the 1830s were allowed to do extra work in exchange for rations, and there is evidence that convict mechanics and domestic servants received wages in the late 1830s. Even Governor Arthur’s servants seem to have been paid wages. (3)

It could not really be otherwise in colonies where labour was scarce. Although there was an adequate supply of governesses, for example, domestic servants were in considerable demand, as were farm servants, washerwomen, needlewomen, and nursery maids. This caused endless headaches for a ruling class confronting a large and unruly working population. The 1841 NSW census showed that of the classified population (including assigned convicts but excluding government convicts, wives and children) 89 percent were servants of various kinds, and only 8 percent were employers. This situation, Elizabeth Macarthur complained, was both "a social evil, because it creates the greatest competition amongst employers for the services of labourers; and a political evil, because such a state of things tends to promote a democracy." (4)

In the twenties government immigration policies actually made labour scarcer, since they encouraged the arrival of persons with capital and since "nearly all the regulations ... discriminated against the poorer immigrants ..." (5) Bigge expected assigned convicts to meet the labour needs of the affluent arrivals, but actually by 1825 there were over 1600 unfulfilled applications for convict labourers. Belatedly after 1831 the authorities set about subsidising worker immigrants. Between 1832 and 1851 over 93,000 assisted migrants came to New South Wales compared to 31,000 who came unassisted. However labour shortages continued and the end of transportation in 1840 tightened the labour market further.

The early decades of the 19th Century were a period of transition between convict labour and free labour. In some ways the difference was subtle. The two groups "were employed in the same occupations and on the same farms and stations. They often lived in the same huts and houses and in rural areas they generally received the same rations." Living conditions were very austere for both, especially in the bush. (6) A mechanic, writing in 1852, recalled how the employers’ attitudes to free labour were shaped by the experience of convict assignment:

"Is not the free labourer here for our convenience as a substitute for convicts who can no longer be found in sufficient numbers to supply us? What more profit is one to us than the other? Why should we treat one better than the other? Such is positively the feeling." (7)

While convicts achieved elements of freedom, the liberties of "free" labour were circumscribed. Under the NSW Master and Servants legislation, domestics entering contracts placed themselves under the employer’s control 24 hours a day. There were special laws governing friendly societies, vagrancy, hawkers and peddlers, Sunday Observance, public entertainments, party processions and the behaviour of servants, apprentices and seamen. The criminal code was mainly devoted to punishing delinquency, securing property and safeguarding wealth. Moreover additional laws to aid in capturing escaped convicts and bushrangers were frequently used to harass working people, and magistrates were hardly neutral. "It should not be forgotten," said Governor Gipps himself of the Master and Servants laws, "that the administration of the Act will be in the hands of the masters." (8)

Industrial legislation was in fact partly derived from the laws used to control convicts. It differed in a number of ways from British labour law, reflecting the importance of rural industries and the high degree of state intervention the colonial bourgeoisie required its state to suppress Aboriginal resistance, provide extensive infrastructure, facilitate the supply of both convict and free labour, and discipline that labour. The need for such discipline was particular acute in the recurrent periods of acute labour shortage. The law condemned "absconding" and restricted worker mobility generally. Many such measures were designed with an eye to conditions in the bush and aboard ships, where desertion was a chronic problem. Consequently they were less effective against urban trade unions.

There were stiff curbs on domestic servants because colonial domestics could be remarkably rebellious, especially if their labour was in short supply. The colonial press reported in May 1845 on the "combination which at present exists amongst the female servants of Melbourne". Some twenty domestics had applied to the magistrate for summonses against employers for non-payment of wages. The "moment mistresses expressed dissatisfaction at finding work unperformed" the servants had "left them and told them to do their work themselves." When their employers withheld back pay, the magistrate reluctantly found for the domestics. The only means to defeat this outbreak of militancy was apparently to import fifty or more "respectable females" from Van Dieman’s Land. (9)

Trade unionism

Worker resistance in the backblocks was likely to take on individual and sometimes anarchic forms. Stable working class organisation could emerge more readily in the urban centres and on ships (which periodically came into port.) Not that there was a shortage of anarchic behaviour in the Sydney slums. The lower classes, who sustained about 800 licensed and unlicensed drinking establishments in a city of 20,000 souls drank partly as a form of social rebellion, a fact recognised and resented by the elite. The Sydney Morning Herald complained in 1837 that on one Sunday afternoon "a person could not turn a corner without running against a drunken beast". (10)

But attempts at trade unionism also began early. The first recorded "combination" of workers had been in 1795 among reapers harvesting wheat, while in 1806 four seamen were flogged around Sydney Cove for planning a "mutiny". In 1819 one James Straiter "tried to organise a combination among the convict-shepherds bonded to Hannibal Macarthur to secure higher pay during the lambing-period. Straiter drew upon himself a penalty of 800 lashes and surviving them, made a marvellous recovery, but was punished further by transportation from Windsor to Port Macquarie." (11) Waterside workers held protests over wages in the early 1820s and a coopers’ strike in 1824 spread to several other groups of employees.

The height of this early, semi-spontaneous round of class struggle was the "currency" strike of 1829. Crisis had descended on the colony’s jumbled money system when a sudden inflow of Spanish dollars caused confusion about the value of different currencies. With the value of local currency in doubt, the skilled workers of Sydney demanded payment in sterling, knowing this implied a rise in real wages. In seeking to achieve it the mechanics were simply attempting, like every other section of society, to turn the crisis to their own advantage, but the upper classes saw such self-assertion by the workers as a threat.

In "a new and startling note", complained the conservative Sydney Gazette, "labourers in many instances have combined to resist the commutation of wages." The typographers of the rival Australian newspaper led the movement, demanding one pound sterling in lieu of each 17s 4d or pound currency. The paper did not appear on Monday, 30 November and two days later consisted only of a sheet of advertisements and an explanation. "The police were appealed to," according to pioneering historian Leila Thomas, "but with little success, their sympathies probably being with the strikers." Although the Australian’s editor pledged to refuse the pay rise out of a "sense of justice to the Public in general and to employers of workmen in particular" lest it set a precedent for other enterprises, the typographers appear to have won a pay rise. In early December a meeting of journeymen carpenters held a few miles from Sydney decided on an indefinite strike. In addition the crew of a whaler refused to sign the ship’s articles until their demands were met. Other trades may well have been involved, "for the public excitement seems to indicate a more or less general movement". The agitation did not subside until the government intervened on 24 December to peg currency values. (12)

Although attempts were made to establish a Shipwrights’ Society in 1929, the currency agitation did not give rise to stable union organisation. Unions did not begin to cohere until around 1833, their formation undoubtedly assisted by the arrival of British immigrants with experience in unions and the Chartist movement. In the following years, up to the start of the 1850s, about 20 trade societies arose in Sydney to represent the "operatives" of the town. With the settlement of other colonies, union organisation emerged fairly quickly in other parts of the continent, with a dozen or so reported in Port Phillip (Melbourne), where in 1840 both the carpenters and the bakers went on strike. The latter "marched through the streets of the town, dodging stumps not yet removed by any Town Council" and burned an effigy of the boss. (13) Twenty-three attempts to form unions are recorded in Van Dieman’s Land (Tasmania) in the same years, along with fourteen attempts in South Australia. Even the tiny settlement in Western Australia experienced union activity.

The majority of strikes between 1815 and 1859 actually involved unskilled workers rather than skilled operatives. 914) However it was the latter who were better placed to form unions. They often began with friendly or benefit societies. This was partly out of a genuine need to provide health, unemployment and funeral assistance to members, and partly because the humanitarian rubric made it easier to avoid repression. The early unions also commonly sought to establish "Houses of Call", or union hiring halls. They were invariably motivated by a desire to establish common rates of pay in their trades and to secure control of entry. Knowing that employers would seek to keep the labour market well supplied and highly competitive, they sought after ways to limit competition.

The Cabinet Makers’ Society, formed in Sydney in 1833, aimed to help its members "insure their tools from loss by fire, and assist the widow and orphan in distress," but also to secure piece rates at London levels. Other early unions included the Coachmakers, Seamen, Engineers, Cordwainers, and the Boot and Shoemakers. "But the strongest of all these early societies was formed when the Typographers established a fighting union, always remarkable for its aggressive spirit. It has a definite nine years’ history, until June ‘44 at least." (15)

The early unions were generally quite craft-conscious and might not see the master as an adversary; or if conflict did arise they might not see it in class terms. Frequent reference to the "working classes" in the plural indicated a limited class consciousness, while the slogan "United to relieve, not combined to injure" signalled a defensive orientation. Strikes seem to have been rare in the 1830s, although the Boot and Shoemakers of Sydney struck for an advance in pay as early as 1831. But the caution was not just a matter of philosophy, it also reflected material conditions. Not only were the workers fragmented and isolated in small shops, where they were likely to feel a sense of responsibility for the survival of the business, they were also continually diluted by immigration. In addition there was the threat represented by convict labour. There were bursts of prosperity in the 1830s which allowed groups of workers to force wages up, but this was usually achieved through pressure short of strike action. The one recorded case of a fight for shorter working hours concerns the Assistant Drapers in Sydney, whose public agitation secured a reduction of hours from 14 to 12 for a year or so in the mid-forties.

Not all skilled workers joined the unions, although non-members would generally look to them for leadership in times of political agitation. Only thirty members attended the Compositors’ first anniversary celebration in 1836, but this represented a majority of the estimated 48 journeymen in the colony. At the end of 1840 there were perhaps 300 unionists in Sydney, however these were capable of calling meetings of 3-5000. As a rule the unions avoided long strikes, preferring short actions that could be repeated as a pressure tactics until a compromise was reached. Still there were some major battles.

The Compositors were one of the most confident unions in Sydney in the thirties. Although accepting a benefit society role, their constitution declared forthrightly that "the chief aim of this union is the protection of labour". The militant stance probably reflected the influence of that "red-hot radical" Peter Tyler, reputedly a Chartist and a "mop" (a drunk). Under his leadership the Compositors struck successfully for a pay rise of five shillings in 1837 or 1838. But at the end of the decade they came under pressure from increased immigration, which had been actively promoted by the employers. In 1840, after the Sydney Morning Herald began taking on apprentices to dilute union strength, the Compositors met and called for a set ratio of apprentices to journeymen. When the employers ignored the call, the Herald’s compositors struck work, whereupon the government provided convict labour to break the strike. Two compositors from the Gazette who got involved in the dispute were sentenced to two months’ hard labour for leaving work without permission, and another who claimed sore eyes as a reason for missing work got 14 days. (16)

The 1841 recession hit hard. Assisted migrants, male and female, arrived to find they had little hope of a job. The unions were obliged to fight a number of defensive struggles. In 1841 we find the bakers striking because one employer wanted to reduce wages, while another wanted to lay off workers and make the remaining employees do all the work. They won the first dispute, but lost the second when the government provided convict labour. Also in 1841, the Sydney bootmakers struck for a month but were defeated.

The level of industrial militancy tended to vary with the economic cycle. In NSW there were nine strikes in 1840 at the peak of prosperity, falling to four in 1841 as recession arrived. There were only two in the following three years; then the economic recovery years of 1845 and 1846 saw nine each. South Australia presented a similar picture, with strike activity peaking in 1839-1840 and again in 1846-47; the unions’ main objectives were to standardise or improve wages. The onset of recession in South Australia in 1847 was however followed by a major defensive struggle, ending in defeat, at the mining centre of Burra Burra. Thus it appears that union militancy followed the pattern we know from the later labour movement, with strikes generally more common when economic conditions raised workers’ confidence, but some defensive struggles occurring during times of economic slump. (17)

The Burra dispute was probably the largest strike in Australia prior to the gold rushes. This was a fabulously successful mine, whose shares had risen in value from 5 pounds to 300 pounds in fifteen months and which had paid gigantic dividends. In August 1848, a dispute broke over the terms of payment for a section of the work force, the "tributers", who were on what amounted to individual contracts. The tributers temporarily occupied the mine and soon won the backing of other mine workers. "Two men who went to work after these decisions were tied back to back and carried by the strikers on a hand barrow round the town and mine, followed by a crowd of several hundreds." (18) Within days, a Friendly Society had been formed with 343 members. The tributers won their demands; but a few days later the conflict revived and escalated to include all miners and even ore carriers when management, presumably encouraged by the recession in the wider economy, imposed a general cut in wage and carriage rates. The mine workers waged a series of strikes but had to concede defeat after three months, when the ore carriers returned to work. Although the owners had the benefit of large stockpiles, they were vulnerable due to financial mismanagement and the strikers’ defeat was by no means inevitable. (19)

The two groups of workers who engaged most frequently in collective struggle were whalers and merchant seamen. The close confinement in which they lived and worked fostered the growth of collective awareness and solidarity which made it possible to challenge the employer, despite the draconian punishments to which they were usually liable. They enjoyed considerable public sympathy. In addition to frequent desertion, there were numerous cases of collective disobedience or refusal to work in effect, strikes, though the term was seldom used. In the period 1829 to 1850 the Tasmanian press reported 20 such events.

Since the discussion so far has tended to generalise about conditions Australia-wide, let us consider the most important aspect of unevenness, that between Tasmania and South Australia. South Australia, settled under the Wakefield principles, was the colony where workers were most explicitly denied any hope of access to land and were therefore most likely to look to industrial organisation to better their lot. At the same time, it was free of the convict labour which put such pressure on unions elsewhere. Prior to 1840 the market for skilled labour was tight and wages were high, though they fell sharply in the recession of the early forties and did not fully recover even when the economy turned up. By comparison, Tasmania was dominated by its role as a prison settlement and free skilled labour was perpetually on the defensive (except for seamen and whalers, whose occupations were excluded from convict assignment).

Consequently, "in Tasmania there is evidence of only four strikes in the period to 1850 while in South Australia there is record of at least 25 in a shorter period (i.e. 1836 to 1850)." When skilled workers did strike, it was a defensive reaction to wage cuts; by and large the Tasmanian societies devoted themselves to a political agitation against convictism. A "cluster of petitions in the period 1834-1839 reflected an intense struggle by journeymen tailors, coopers, cordwainers and others to ameliorate the impact of convict assignment upon their wages and job prospects." The agitation was largely carried by individual trades; it did culminate in the formation of a "Trades Union" (i.e. an organisation representing all crafts) but this was short lived. (21) After assignment was abolished in 1843 the issue did not abate, rather there was a shift to more broadly based political agitation against other aspects of the convict system.

We can see the dire effect of convictism on workers’ industrial position by looking at wage levels. When Governor Arthur arrived on the island in 1824, wage levels were comparable to those in NSW. By the late forties, after Arthur and his successors had turned the island into a semi-Gulag, wages had fallen to around two-thirds of NSW levels by the late forties. (22)

Working class politics

Because the class divisions in a town like Sydney were so blurred, and the unions were so new, the societies were not always clear on to their role as independent organisations confronting the employer. "Without union," wrote Peter Tyler of the Compositors, "we are completely at the mercy of our employers," and the Painters also saw a conflict with the masters, because the latter "look for large profits and will not allow the workmen to do the work good or substantial ..." But on the other hand the Engineers sought to advance "the interests of the employer and the employed" and one unionist saw the formation of a House of Call as intended "not for the masters to give laws to their workmen nor for the workmen to give laws to their masters ... but merely to confer a boon upon the employer and upon those to be employed."

Workers were influenced by British theories, including political radicals ranging from Bentham to Robert Owen as well as the dominant ideas of contemporary political economy, and also various strands of Chartism, for Chartists were important in the trade unions and in early colonial politics.

British radicalism had a strong democratic content, but its main representatives offered little to address the specific concerns of workers. From mainstream political economy, meanwhile, trade unionists got a concept of wages which pushed them in the direction of compromise and collaboration with their employers. The Melbourne operative sawyers might announce their unwillingness "to become the dupes and slaves of those who think to monopolise our labour," but such attitudes were usually based on an assumption that some mutually satisfactory arrangement was possible. "We may see how very intimately the two classes are bound together," argued the pro-union Star and Workingman’s Guardian in 1844:

"one cannot prosper without the other, for should the labourer demand wages above the intrinsic value of work done, the result is the destruction of the source from whence the labour is derived; whereas on the other hand, should the employer not pay the fair value for the labour done, he finds his loss by the decreased demand and diminished value of the commodity upon which that labour has been expended." (23)

Chartism had a more revolutionary flavour, but as translated into the Australian context, it still did not go beyond a radical democracy ultimately compatible with the existing social order. One strand emphasised education of the working class, a second emphasised trade union organisation and demands, a third looked to the establishment of cooperative ventures either in the cities or on the land. There was agreement on the Charter itself with its demand for universal suffrage and other democratic reforms. Ultimately, however, universal suffrage was to prove quite compatible with British capitalism, and certainly it was achieved relatively easily in Australia.

The capitalists of the time were similarly ambiguous in their attitudes to the workers’ organisations. At times there was acute hostility. The Port Phillip Patriot growled in 1842 that "a dangerous feeling has of late evinced itself among a number of employed labourers who are daily to be seen idling at the door of the Registry Office and who appear to have combined in order to extort a rate of wages preposterously high." The paper quoted one Major St John who proposed, in his role as a magistrate, to commit them as rogues and vagabonds. Similarly we have the pro-government Sydney Gazette’s grumpy response to a newspaper strike: "We trust the Chartist leader of the Sydney compositors and one or two more whom we could name may yet enjoy the blessing of a chain gang." (24) Yet even a wealthy landowner like W.C. Wentworth could and did rub shoulders with workers and pro-union middle class radicals in a political movement when it suited him. Various currents in the bourgeoisie sought to mobilise the workers for their own ends, including rural interests, though it was the urban bourgeois radicals who were most successful.

Sydney workers first took an interest in politics because they faced unemployment. Large numbers of tradesmen had come out on assisted passage to work on construction of J.D. Lang’s Australian College. When construction stopped at the college in 1832, they were thrown out of work; then in 1833 sizeable numbers of additional migrants arrived. The earlier arrivals’ response displayed an irony to be repeated often in Australian history: the mechanics established a "Society of Emigrant Mechanics" to seek ... cuts in migration. One tactic adopted, also to be used in subsequent crises, was the dispatch of "authentic information" about conditions in Sydney to discourage prospective migrants. In addition "much excitement was caused" by a proposal to restrict convict labour, though this did not succeed. (25) The mechanics were not motivated by vulgar prejudice against the "government men"; indeed they seldom showed any hostility to emancipists. They simply saw competition from convict labour as a threat to their conditions.

The Emigrant Mechanics decided in the end against political agitation, moving instead towards a broad cooperative welfare organisation. Initial proposals for a "Trades Union Society" with a campaigning newspaper gave way in the end to the Australian Union Benefit Society, which was to confine itself to "the relief of the working classes in New South Wales in the times of sickness, and other pecuniary distresses". The AUBS survived well into the 20th Century, but always played a conservative role. (26)

The first major political movement in New South Wales was the Patriotic Association, formed in the mid-thirties to campaign for representative government. A large public meeting in January 1933 launched the campaign. Later in June 1835 further meetings approved proposals from W.C. Wentworth for a Directing Committee to take the lead. When Wentworth proposed that the Committee consist of all persons who subscribed 5 pounds, issues of class and democracy immediately raised their heads since Wentworth’s proposal would freeze out the workers, most of whom would be scratching to raise find one pound. Richard Hipkiss, a leader of the middle class radicals aligned with the unions, led an unsuccessful fight for a lower entry fee and the "trade union party" continued to argue for democratisation, both of the movement itself and of the proposed government structures. Wentworth was eventually forced to make concessions on the latter. In addition, the radicals argued in favour of land grants to small farmers as opposed to open slather for the squatters; a first airing of the land issue.

The unions initially relied on Hipkiss and a range of other middle class radicals to represent their interests within political movements. The key figures included William Duncan, Nathaniel Lipscombe, David Taylor, James McEachern, J. Bibb, W. Edwards, Henry Macdermott and Nathaniael Lipscomb Kentish; they formed an identifiable layer and were prominent in a series of organisations and movements. "From the Committee of Emigrant Mechanics to the Mechanics’ Institute they then proceed through the AUBS to the Patriotic Association and wider political agitation." (27) None of them were former convicts, and all seem to have been upwardly mobile, which perhaps helps explain the rightward political evolution which characterised their careers. By 1839 Macdermott was a leading Sydney merchant and major employer; in the same year Hipkiss, Wentworth’s opponent, was lining up with him to support continued transportation; Kentish, an advocate of cooperation and foe of convictism, had also moved to a pro-transportation stance by the late thirties. But it is equally likely that some of their original radical postures were opportunist. Duncan was later to write: "Whoever would lead the people of New South Wales must follow them in the first place ..." (28)

By the late thirties, therefore, the workers had grounds to be disillusioned with their supposed representatives. In 1838 the unions began electing their own delegates to participate in public discussions. These delegates did not attend simply as individuals nor yet merely as representatives of their crafts: they caucused periodically as a group, signalling an advance from craft consciousness to a wider class loyalty. Unfortunately the advance was not sustained beyond the early 1840s, but in the mean time the workers did make some impact on colonial politics.

The defeat of Gipps’ 1839 Corporation bill limiting the political rights of emancipists was partly due to agitation by the working class, prompting Duncan to declare they were becoming "much more independent in their habits than their predecessors, the assigned convicts, had been ..." A year later there was considerable worker opposition to a new Masters and Servants Bill. Duncan inaugurated the opposition campaign with a series of newspaper articles written in plain language for a worker readership. The operatives called a public meeting on 30 September which approved a petition; by 11 am the next day it had attracted 3000 signatures. The government was sufficiently impressed to water down the Act, and a stiffer one was not passed until 1845. It was the first occasion, wrote Duncan, when "the real colonists, the real producers of wealth first informed the drones of the hive ... that the latter were but drones ..." (29)

In September 1842 the squatters began agitating for the systematic introduction of Asian labour. This followed the recession, in which they had responded to lower wool prices by cutting wages. In union eyes, one threat had followed another, and the trades called a mass meeting on 16 January. Some of the agitation was undeniably racist: a mass petition warned of the "vices particular to the Natives of India" which would hinder "the growth of virtue and morality amongst us". (30) It was the start of a long and unfortunate tradition in the Australian labour movement. On the other hand the meeting, which showed signs of Chartist influence, also had a class dimension with one of the speakers, G.L. Nichols, arguing that "the present question was one between the whole body of the working class and the great flockmasters of the colony ..." (31)

The radical and working class movements in Sydney saw the "flockmasters" as the main enemy, partly because class differences in the town were comparatively blurred, and partly because calls for access to the land for small farmers had a great resonance. Most colonists assigned land and agriculture had a special importance, reflecting continuing resistance to the new way of life represented by capitalist industry. The people as a whole, and especially the common people, felt they had some inherent right to the land. Such ideas had an attraction even for those skilled workers who had no intention of heading for the back blocks, since an exodus of their fellow trades from the cities would have drained the market of potential competitors. This would assist them in their own desire to become affluent master craftsmen. What united both was the hope of independence from the oppression of wage labour.

In mid-year a campaign against convictism saw union delegates call a mass meeting at the Racecourse attended by some 3000 people. The crowd wanted to march on Government House, but was restrained by Duncan and Macdermott. Instead the meeting selected a group to go door to door gathering information about distress in the town. The facts they gathered put the authorities under enough pressure to extract some relief measures, but government rejection of the workers’ petition fuelled proposals for a new political party. The Mutual Protection Association, established on 29 August, grew quickly from 18 members to several hundred. It established its own paper, The Guardian, assisted by union funds and was able to get six candidates, clearly identified as representing working class interests, elected to the city council in 1844.

The MPA’s objectives included an "endeavour to impress upon all the community the need of cooperation" as well as a focus on economic distress, a pledge to "resist class legislation" and "watch over the interests of the working class", and also a commitment to "foster and encourage colonial produce and manufacture". (32) Thus the group’s platform contained elements of class struggle, but equally it raised proposals that would align workers with employers. However all the formulations were all fairly vague: the workers had not even arrived at the view that governments should intervene to regulate wages and working conditions.


The MPA marked a high point of the movement, yet because of its political contradictions it also heralded a collapse. While looking for an explicitly political form of expression, the workers did not take the lead themselves. (Perhaps their confidence had been undermined by the economic recession it was at this point that they abandoned their system of directly elected delegates.) The Association included non-unionists and members of the middle classes alongside the union members, and the leading figures were again drawn from the middle class.

The MPA seems to have been very active in the political life of the colony, generating innumerable meetings, petitions, deputations and inquiries, and apparently persuading the Legislative Council to appoint a Commission on Distressed Labourers in 1844. Among the petitions was one "signed by upwards of 1000 females, the wives and dependents of the working classes", saying that since the men’s unemployment and reduced wages forced them to take in washing, "that the washing establishments at the female factory, at Parramatta, might be discontinued." The Colonial Secretary apparently expressed agreement though in practice nothing was done. (33)

However by April 1844 the Association began to split. The original Guardian editor James MacEachern, who had flailed the "colonial autocracy", was replaced by Benjamin Sutherland who set a tone more sympathetic to the squatters. Frustrated by Gipps’ rejection of their demands and the indifference of the British authorities (to complaints that wages for relief work were inadequate, the Colonial Secretary replied that they were only meant to prevent starvation) a section of the MPA was attracted to the squatters’ cause because they, too, were in conflict with the governor. It appears that at least some of the workers in the Association favoured the pro-squatter line, while many of the middle class radicals were bitterly against it.

The Guardian argued that since the government had ignored appeals to provide work for the unemployed, there was no solution for unemployment but to revive the economy. It thought Gipps’ restrictions on the squatters would impede this revival. In this line of argument we see the dilemma of a movement trapped between futile appeals to an autocratic governor and falling in behind the reactionary landowners. The silver lining was that The Guardian was at least challenging the dominant notion that the landowners were the only enemy. Without a new class analysis to fill the void, however, the end result was confusion. By the end of the year the MPA was in terminal decline. Another attempt to form an "association of the working class" in 1849 met with little success.

Events in Tasmania and South Australia offer some useful comparisons with those in NSW. In these colonies, as in WA, workers were less likely than in Sydney to have realistic hopes of rising into the middle and upper classes. In SA, Wakefield’s principles dictated that land be sold at a premium to affluent settlers, with the proceeds going to import labour for their use. The high land prices were designed to keep workers from escaping the labour market. In Tasmania most of the land had been locked up by the end of the 1820s and wages were too low for most workers to get ahead. "In sum, these were colonies where opportunities for workers to become landowners, merchants or other employers were extremely limited and few could even aspire to the status of self employment." (34)

But while there were important union-based political mobilisations in both colonies, the issues were very different. In Tasmania, where convict competition undermined industrial organisation, opposition to it became a major political rallying point for labour. There is some evidence of worker agitation on the issue in the twenties, but the first significant mobilisation coincided with an initial phase of union organisation in the mid-thirties. In August 1844, at a time of widespread unemployment, the skilled trades developed a major campaign, presenting elaborate petitions to the Governor and the British Government calling for an end to the probation passholder system whereby convicts in the colony worked for wages under highly restrictive conditions. The agitation "gave rise to an identifiable worker leadership which was careful to avoid a divisive split between free emigrants and ex-convicts". (35) A permanent body called the Committee of Free Operatives arose in Hobart which remained active for well over a year.

In 1847 and again in 1851 labour protests against convictism revived in both Hobart and Launceston. The Operatives Committee revived as the Committee of the Free Working Classes, then evolved into the Hobart Town Trades’ Union which survived until 1852. These bodies represented most trades as well as labourers and other workers. When petitions proved ineffectual the activists organised contingents to public meetings. In 1851 the Trades Union was influential in securing the election of at least one anti-transportationist to the Legislative Council. The establishment of the Launceston Working Men’s Association in 1849 was also associated with the anti-transportation cause. The workers’ organisations collaborated with employers and other groups who opposed convictism, but the Hobart Town Trade Union was also to show, in its agitation against the amended Master and Servants Act in 1855-56, that it was an independent force.

In South Australia, amidst a diversity of issues, a major focus of political agitation was the slump of the early forties which hit South Australia particularly hard. Under Governor Gawler the colony had expanded rapidly, partly because of generous levels of public expenditure. then incompetent management of public finance led to a crisis of confidence in 1840, bringing Gawler’s replacement by Grey, whose draconian austerity policies provoked unrest.

In November 1841, 2427 persons, or nearly a sixth of the total population, were dependent on some form of government relief. When Grey cut relief payments, and eliminated them altogether for those refusing to go and work in the bush, unionists formed a Working Men’s Association to demand a change of policy. This campaign was unsuccessful, although a group of worker agitators almost captured a public meeting called by the Chamber of Commerce to consider distress in the community. In 1847 meetings in the working class suburb of Hindmarsh which condemned the government’s new Master and Servants Bill were accompanied by protests among rural workers and miners. "All three groups sent strongly worded memorials to the Governor pledging that they would have no truck with the new law" (36) and the agitation secured some modification of the Bill.

Finally in 1850, with self-government on the agenda, the workers of Hindmarsh set up an Elective Franchise Association led by militant bootmaker George Wells. It called for universal suffrage, vote by ballot, annual elections, no religious endowment by the state and abolition of British control of the land fund. This group was later joined by the Complete Suffrage League; the two organisations then merged to form the South Australian Political Association which "eschewed seeking middle class support for its objects". (37)

Probably because they had less hope of achieving economic independence, Tasmanian and South Australian workers seem to have been more consistently class conscious than their contemporaries in NSW, and in South Australia there was even talk of socialism. George Wells declared to one newspaper editor: "You speak of working men as degraded beings and willingly enter the lists on behalf of employers. The reason why, I suppose, is because they belong to your class." The view that workers’ labour was the source of all wealth was widespread, and the chairman of one trade society was prepared to argue that the interests of masters and journeymen were counterposed; combination, he added, was "socialism itself and therefore radically good". (38)

These were minority views. The early workers’ movement did not anywhere seriously challenge the social order. Its adherents tended to claim the "rights of Englishmen" or perhaps something a bit better: the hope that the evils of the old world could be avoided in the new. The slogan "United to Protect, Not Combined to Injure" was used not only to deflect criticism but quite sincerely to express a non-combatant outlook. Yet the unions’ very existence signalled the emerging division of Australia into the two great social classes, capital and labour, whose struggle has shaped its subsequent history.


1. Connell, Bob and Irving, Terry, Class Structure in Australian History: Documents, Narrative and Argument, Longman Cheshire, Melbourne 1980, p. 56.
2. Thomas, Leila, "The Development of the Labour Movement in the Sydney District of New South Wales", MA Thesis, Sydney University 1919, reprinted by the Australian Society for Labour History, Canberra 1962, p. 5.
3. Crowley, F.K., "Working Class conditions in Australia, 1788-1851," PhD Thesis, Melbourne Unversity 1949, p. 101-2.
4. Quoted in Crowley, p. 364.
5. Crowley, p. 349.
6. Crowley, p. 486.
7. Quoted in Crowley, p. 487.
8. Quoted in Crowley, p. 308.
9. First and third quotes: Port Phillip Gazette, 14 May 1845. Second quote: The Star & Working Man's Guardian, 31 May 1845.
10. Sydney Morning Herald, 15 June 1837.
11. Baker, John, Communicators and their First Trade Unions: A History of the Telegraphist and Postal Clerk Unions of Australia, Union of Postal Clerks and Telegraphists, Sydney 1980, p. 42.
12. All quotes on the currency strike are taken from Thomas, p. 27-8 except the Australian editorial which appeared 1 December 1829.
13. 'P.P. Bakers', Record, Melbourne Branch, Austalian Society for the Study of Labour History, No 52, June 1971.
14. See Quinlan, Michael and Gardner, Margaret, "Strikes, Worker Protest and Union Growth in Canada and Australia, 1815-1900: A Comparative Analysis of Available Data", Labour/Le Travail, St John, Newfoundland, Canada, No 36, Autumn 1995.
15. Quote taken from Thomas, p 29, followed by her own words, p. 30.
16. Quotes and details from Thomas, p. 40-41.
17. Details on NSW from Hume, L.J., "Working Class Movements in Sydney and Melbourne Before the Gold Rushes", Historical Studies, Volume 19 No 35, November 1960; details on South Australia from Quinlan, Michael, "Early Trade Union Organization in Australia: Three Colonies, 1829-50", Labour and Industry, Vol 1 No 11. October 1987.
18. Moss, Jim, Sound of Trumpets: History of the Labour Movement in South Australia, Wakefield Press, Adelaide 1985, p. 25.
19. For a detailed discussion of the strike see Davies, Mel, "Cornish Miners and Class Relations in Early Colonial South Australia: The Burra Burra Strikes of 1848-49", Australian Historical Studies, Vol 26 No 5, October 1995.
20. Quinlan, p.71-2.
21. As shown by a graph attached to Crowley's thesis.
22. Quotes taken from Terry, D.H.M.,"The Development of the Labour Movement in New South Wales 1833-1846", MA Thesis, Sydney University 1951, p. 61.
23. The quotes in these two paragraphs are taken from Terry, p. 71-4.
24. Quotes taken from Terry, p. 87, 77.
25. Thomas, p. 19.
26. Thomas, p. 22.
27. Terry, p. 148.
28. Quoted in Terry, p. 149.
29. Both quotes taken from Thomas, p. 66.
30. Quoted in Burgmann, Verity, "Capital and Labour", in Curthoys, Ann and Markus, Andrew (eds) Who Are Our Enemies? Racism and the Working Class in Australia, Hale and Iremonger, Sydney 1978, p. 25.
31. Quoted in Terry, p. 113.
33. Quoted in Thomas, p. 77.
33. The Guardian, 20 April 1844.
34. Quinlan, "Early Trade Union Organisation", p. 65.
35. Quinlan, p. 81.
36. Quinlan, p. 84.
37. Quinlan, p. 85.
38. Quoted in Quinlan, p. 87.

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