Chapter one

1,984 words

Victoria’s Master Builders made their attitudes towards safety clear early in 1890 when they demanded the sacking of the Colony’s coroner, Dr Richard Youl, who had been unpopular with employers ever since his appointment in 1853. Youl believed that his duties went beyond establishing the cause of “accidental” deaths to preventing their recurrence. His latest offence was to attribute the death of a bricklayer to the Vice-President of the Builders’ and Contractors’ Association. The employers’ Building and Engineering Journal (B&EJ) blamed the victim for “his own imprudence and recklessness, which led him to lean upon the green brickwork.”[1]

A fatality in the following year, 1891, highlighted the legal obstacles confronting Dr Youl. After a jerry-built wall crushed a plasterer to death, the authorities laid manslaughter charges against the architect and builder. A defence lawyer warned the jury against relying on the testimony of experts. The accused walked free.[2]

A similar verdict followed the death of Robert Hannah when a scaffold collapsed during alterations to the Eastern Market on Bourke Street in 1894. The coronial jury agreed that there had been neglect, but not criminal neglect; it called for greater protection for passers-by, not for the workmen. This time, the B&EJ condemned such pussy-footing: “it was evident that there was neglect in both construction and overloading.” The journal adopted this stance because the accused were price-cutters whose shoddiness allowed them to underbid “professional men”.[3]

Time meant money and speed spelt danger. Builders incurred penalties for running late. After rainy spells, they urged their labourers to go faster. Because wet weather made the sites slippery, the men needed to be more than usually careful. On a Sydney job in the late 1880s, the boss put haste above safety. One of his labourers imagined an exchange with his Master, replete with the sanguinary adjective:

Boss: Why don’t you get that Red roof onto that Red building. The Red timber is getting Red green mould. If you don’t get it on quick you get no Red money. I will take Red good care of that.

We generally say, look here Boss. You will get a severe cold if you open your Red mouth too wide.[4]

The non-unionist dared not speak these thoughts. Desperate for a job, he accepted the risks, confining his objections to his diary.

When the NSW government named an Inspector of Scaffolding in December 1891, one puzzle about his appointment was that he had no regulations to enforce. The Inspector described himself as an architect. The B&EJ deplored the selection of this “political agitator of some note” who was so old and so fat that he could no more climb a ladder than judge a scaffold. As the Legislative Assembly debated his appointment, some on the Labor cross-benches feared that contractors would use a stamp of approval from the incompetent inspector to escape from those sections of the Employers’ Liability Act that required labourers to prove neglect in order to secure compensation.[5]

Scaffolding terms

gantry – a platform to support machinery, such as a crane
ledger - a horizontal supporting standards
purlin  - a horizontal piece along the length of the main roofing rafters
putlog – a horizontal supporting planks (also called a putlock)
standards – uprights, verticals
struts – horizontal or vertically sloping members carrying compressive loads
tom – a temporary vertical strut[6]

Labourers who stayed in the building industry picked up knacks, helped by their workmates. Victorian ABLF organiser Dick Loughnan recalled that most scaffolders had, like him,

started excavating and concreting and hod-carrying on the ground. Many of them stopped at that. Others improved themselves by being taught knotting and splicing and getting the breaking strain of a rope and a knowledge of blocks and tackle.
The man would get a good mate who would teach him outside of working hours or shove him on as much as he could while at work. I have taught any amount of knotting and splicing of a Sunday.[7] (p. 421)

Scaffolders found their own tools, which included a “tomahawk, a marline spike, a needle and palm for sewing, pinch bars, plugging chisel and saw.”(p. 354)

“Under-below” was the call for workmates or passers-by to watch out for falling objects or when loads were being shifted. The cry was never effective and became useless as buildings went higher and sites noisier. Other dangers multiplied with the storeys in the 1880s. Two workers died on the Sydney GPO clock tower as did a couple of lads working on the Sydney Lands Office with the “parting of a cable”.[8] The methods and materials for constructing scaffolds up to 10m. were inadequate at 46m. Multi-storey structures, therefore, brought new forms of scaffolding on which labourers extended their capacities through trial and error. At twelve storeys, the Australia Building in Melbourne remained the tallest in the country after the abandonment of a Melbourne scheme to replicate the Eiffel Tower.[9] The Age editorialised that the “immense cost of land makes the sky-scraping structure an economic necessity.” The land for the Equitable Life Insurance building on the corner of Elizabeth and Collins streets had cost £363,000 in 1890, or £8,300 a metre of frontage.[10]

If taller buildings heralded progress for capital, they brought no advance in safety. Six deaths during the construction of the Equitable Life offices led to the site’s being nicknamed the “slaughter house”. Pieces of skull and brain splattered along Elizabeth Street when an engine exploded. After three winch-men fell 35m. to their deaths as the crane-jib shattered, a coronial jury attributed “no blame” to any of the professional men in charge. A passer-by died when another explosion hurled a 3kg hunk of metal through the air, severing one arm and rupturing his liver. When Equitable Life opened its doors for business, the stone tableau over its entrance depicted “Charity being kind to the poor”.[11]

As buildings went higher, the weight of their foundations became enormous. Some stones were two metres thick. For lifting such weights, architect-engineers adapted principles older than the Gothic Cathedrals. Loads were now raised by steam cranes set on a platform (gantry) which stood above the building. Until the cranes were operating, the crews had no machinery which meant that the cranes had to be hauled up by hand. (p. 311) An alternative had been to attach a traveling set of pulleys to the top of the scaffolding: “The erection of the upper tier of such scaffolding, especially the first sections was rather anxious work, and was generally a job for Ship’s Carpenters.” Those “shellbacks” were also useful in erecting the gantries, although labourers supervised some.[12]

Seafaring had been the prime preparation for many scaffolders.[13] The term “rigger” came ashore with them, along with their knack for tying knots. Nonetheless, a scaffolder observed that even these “shellbacks” needed “some time before they can put up a scaffolding the way required by the men working on it.” Because the ex-sailors “stand on the scaffolding, with no guard rail or life-line” they usually needed “one hand for themselves and one for the shop, as the saying is.” (pp. 316-7)

The scaffolds used for minor repairs were among the most hazardous. A man could fall to his death from the roof of a single-storey terrace, or off a 2m. ladder. Few of the injuries resulted from the collapse of a scaffold. Nonetheless, even the firmest structure was a hazard if it did not have enough planking and handrails; in addition, the rails had to be strong enough to withstand the weight of a labourer who stumbled against them. Hence, the unions wanted those supports to be of Oregon .

Loaded with twelve or more bricks, a hod-carrier needed a solid plank to walk along. Safety required that the planking be broad enough for him to wheel a barrow without watching every step. One unionist left a job because the foreman would not allow him to use enough flooring:

As a rule for barrowing I generally use nine planks. … it is always necessary to use nine planks if you are above a storey. That is allowing three to wheel on and six for the tradesman to work on. (p. 548)

If a man lost his balance because the planking was too narrow, he let go of his materials and tools to grasp for support. Thus, narrow planking increased the likelihood of bricks and equipment tumbling onto those below. Loughnan recalled the challenges he had faced in steering a loaded barrow along a plank 30cm. wide:

The least cant, or if you strike a little bit of brick on the plank, you have to bear your weight on the opposite side of the barrow, or the lot will carry away. Some of our men have hung to the barrow with the result that they have been maimed for life. A man at Cameron’s Tobacco factory heaved on the barrow to prevent it overturning, with the result that he fell as well, and went down 60ft; the result is that one of his legs is 6 inches shorter than the other. (p. 366)

Loughnan had wheeled 20m. above the ground with “absolutely nothing to guard the workman at all.” (p. 366) A labourer on the Victoria Brewery was wheeling bricks about 6m. up when he overbalanced on a scaffold with no guard-rail. When he landed on some tubs, his intestines burst.(p. 357)

Demolition was the most hazardous form of labouring because the men worked without scaffolds, standing on the structures they had to knock down. In cleaning up the city block along Flinders Street that had been destroyed by fire late in December 1897, a labourer fell 11m. when an arch collapsed under him.[14]

Among navvies, blasting the way for rail track was the deadliest of jobs. Fifteen men died along a single section of the New England line in the four years leading up to the 1884 strike; by then, seven lives had been sacrificed at a single cutting.[15] Late in 1891, the young artist Arthur Streeton depicted a similar death in one of his blue-gold landscapes, “‘Fire! Fire’s On!’”, at the Lapstone Tunnel in the Blue Mountains . His letter about the incident touched on responses not found in statistics:

BOOM & then rumbling of rock. the navvy under the rock with me & watching says, Man killed – He runs down the sheltered side and cries “man killed!”; another takes it up and now it has run through the camp. more shots and crashing rock we peep over & he lies all hidden bar his legs - & now men, nippers & 2 women hurry down a woman with a bottle and rags … - & they raise the rock & lift him on to the stretcher, fold his arms over his chest and slowly 6 of them carry him past me. Oh how full of dread is the grey mysterious expression of death – ’tis like a whirlpool for the eyes - … but the poor chap, who I was speaking to only yesterday haunted me  … - I asked a navvy if the chap was married – “No Sir. But one of the Shannon girls is a good bit cut up” … The men didn’t go back to work – this sort of thing skeers em a bit. go tomorrow all right I suppose.

When they did return, so did the cycle of blast and injury. A week later, Streeton wrote of a labourer with

his legs crushed, & two ribs broken. A navvy ran back to raise rock - but failing in he impossible had to run – all over - & it took about 10 men to extricate him – Darkie Wright – 7 bob a day – the hardest worker in the country for the money I’ll bet – He may live yet …[16]

[1] Australian Dictionary of Biography, volume 6, MUP, Carlton , 1976, p. 450; Building and Engineering Journal (B&EJ) 15 March 1890, pp. 93-94, 22 March 1890, pp. 99 & 104, 19 April 1890, p. 137; Jeff Rich, “Victorian Building Workers and their Unions, 1880s”, Ph.D. Thesis, ANU, 1993, p. 101.

[2] B&EJ, 28 March 1891 , p. 121; Australasian, 25 April 1891 , p. 812.

[3] B&EJ, 1 September 1894 , p. 64.

[4] Thomas Dobeson memoirs, Mitchell Library (ML), MSS 2980; see also South Australia , Industrial Reports, vol. I, 1916-18, p. 205.

[5] B&EJ, 26 December 1891 , p. 277; NSW, Parliamentary Debates (PD), volume LV , 16 December 1891, pp. 3748-65; see also United Labourers’ Protective Society, Minutes, 23 April, 20 June and 2 July 1900 , ML MSS 262 (6)/9.

[6] Guide for scaffolders, Department of Labour and Industry, Sydney , 1958, p. 34; Scaffolding: course notes, Department of Industrial Affairs, Perth , 1972, pp. 10-13.

[7] Transcript of 1913 Award Hearings in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Commission, Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation v A. W. Archer, Australian Archives B1958 (B1958/1) 9/1912, the page references are given in brackets.

[8] B&EJ, 24 May 1890 , p. 183; two other workmen had died on the GPO Tower , B&EJ, 31 August 1889 , p. 171, and Building Materials, August-September 1964, p. 54.

[9] B&EJ, 22 February 1890 , p. 68, and 30 August 1890 , p. 305.

[10] Age, 23 November 1897, p. 4; Michael Cannon, The Land Boomers, MUP, Carlton , 1966, p. 16; cf. B&EJ, 21 June 1890, p. 214, and 17 January 1891, pp. 17-18.

[11] B&EJ, 22 July 1893 , pp. 37-38; Robyn Annear, A City Lost and Found,  Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne, Black Inc, Melbourne, 2005, pp. 123 and 145-49; demolishing the Equitable in 1960 was hazardous but free of fatalities, Annear, p. 146. Despite the depression, the Age, 15 January 1894 , p. 5h, reported eight building fatalities during 1893.

[12] Architecture, November 1924, p. 7.

[13] B&EJ, 8 August 1891 , p. 71; PD, South Australia, 12 September 1906, p. 460; Architecture, November 1924, p. 7.

[14] Age, 30 December 1897 , p. 5g.

[15] Denis Rowe, “The Robust Navvy: the Railway Construction Worker in Northern New South Wales , 1854-1894”, Labour History, 39, November 1980, pp. 37-41.

[16] Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, postmarked 17 December and later in December 1891, Ann Galbally and Anne Gray (eds), Letters from Smike, The Letters of Arthur Streeton, 1890-1943, OUP, Melbourne, 1989, pp. 39-41. 


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