BLF - IMPROVISING NOMADS
Opening The Australian Legend, Russel Ward reported that “[a]ccording to the myth the ‘typical Australian’ is a practical man … a great improviser, ever willing ‘to have a go’ at anything … He tends to be a rolling stone, highly suspect if he should chance to gather much moss.” Although Ward drew this version of the “nomad tribe” of improvisers from pastoral workers, he could have been writing about building and construction labourers who, moreover, shared the characteristics of drinking and gambling, mateship, independence and Irishness.
Ward faced difficulties of time and place
in explaining the persistence of the type. He dealt with the temporal
disconnect by showing how several of the conditions of working up
country before 1850 had been repeated during the gold rushes, before
being made mythic around bushrangers. To overcome the spatial divide,
Ward had to demonstrate how an outback legend had conquered while a
growing proportion of the population was settling into urban centres
along the coast.
He pointed to the Bulletin as
one conduit for how bush yarns and a rural ethos attracted city
The rural-urban divide affected class
This article unpicks four strands of improvising nomads in relation to building and construction labourers. First, their nomadism will be documented, showing also how their switching between industries required relocation. Secondly, the labourers’ movements gyrated around localities to which most attached themselves, for if many were nomadic, few were rootless; as ever, memories threaded together the flows across space and time. Thirdly, the pursuit of jobs spurred labourers “to have a go”, an improvising which required mobility up and down the trades, giving a twist to equality and independence. Finally, the analysis moves past the folklorist and literary approaches by returning the nomadic improvisers to their place within the dynamics of wage-labour versus capital.
Contractors hired coal miners to excavate
In the winter of 1916, the majority of ABLF members at Queenscliff “were at other work”.
These navvies were on the outer-suburban
line, but their kind drifted in and out of the metropolis and to the
reservoirs. At Mildura in 1890, the Chaffey Brothers complained that
their field labourers were working for “a short time” before they
got “a cheque and clear out,”
strikers as “a mob of wandering swagmen”.
During the 1890s depression and drought, “caprice” became
less convincing as an explanation for mobility as “the hordes of
artisans, labourers, clerks, larrikins, and social camp followers”
swarmed “out of the cities into the poverty-cursed country
At the same time, the three Hannah brothers shifted from
The experiences of one nomad, A. J.
Sullivan, exemplified the transitions between bush worker and
builder’s labourer. Although a progenitor of the AWU, Sullivan chose
to publish his memoirs in the Builders’
Labourers’ News (BLN).
Across fifty years, he went from farmhand to shearer, while shifting
back and forth between navvy, builder’s labourer and miner. As a
stripling, he shouldered his swag in 1872 to seek experience and a
fortune. He turned to navvying in 1878 on the rail line between St
Arnaud and Dunolly. As a fully-fledged shearer, he travelled around
Sullivan’s story was the kind of
evidence that the Australian Builders’ Labourers’ Federation (ABLF)
needed to gain a hearing before the Commonwealth Conciliation and
Arbitration Commission in 1913 by satisfying the constitutional
requirement under Section 51 (xxxv) of being involved in a dispute
“beyond the limits of any one State”. Union officials testified that
when firms accepted inter-State contracts they took labourers with them.
During 1912, the Victorian Branch had issued 200 cross-border
The sprawl of nomadism is confirmed by the clearances that the Victorian
Branch granted to its members in the late 1920s when Bro. C. Watt went
shearing, as did Bros Allen and Riley who followed the clip every year;
Bro. Scott had accumulated overdue fees of £4 12s 6d while
II. Nodes for
John Vans Agnew Bruce had charge of the
£3,357,000 contract to build a rail line from
If the movements of the men disrupted any
on-going organisation, the contacts made during their travels spun a web
of friends who sent gifts, or made loans, some from striking it lucky on
a gold field, just as the strikers themselves did a spot of fossicking
and panning. Simpson had warned Bruce that the men would wait for
agricultural jobs in the spring. The economic climate changed before the
season. No sooner had the navvies struck, than the first gold escort
The importance of localities for
itinerants recurred as they engaged in disputes which led to the
formation of unions. When
railway navvies near Tenterfield resisted a wage cut early in 1884, they
had not formed an association, yet their kind had come a good way since
the “mobs” of the 1860s. The
Victorian navvies went a step further in
August 1887 by forming the Australian Railway and Public Works Employees
Union (AR&PWEU). In each camp, the
The labourers’ unions of the late 1880s
highlighted the expanse of their mobility but also exposed a failure to
sink roots in many localities. Late in 1889, the Australian Labour
By the 1840s, Marx and Engels could see that the working classes might remake the world because modern industry brought wage-slaves together in factories and in cities, allowing them to develop collective strength as “new-fangled men”. Those structures could not instil consciousness, which required “human sensuous activity, practice” at every level of life. Illustrating why class consciousness had to be the outcome of social practices, Marx characterised the French peasantry as being “formed by simple addition of homologous magnitudes, much as potatoes in a sack form a sack of potatoes.”
Classes are divided by skill, trade and
industry. They are also fractured by mobility and locality; in turn,
localities are split along class lines, between landlords and tenants,
as well as employers and employees. Yet, those contrary forces
contributed to the labourers’ achieving a geographic expanse for their
unions. Identification with neighbourhoods deepened in the 1880s, for
instance, through football clubs,
while a continental awareness spread in forms of federation such as the
Inter-Colonial Trade Union Congresses between 1879 and 1891.
Williamstown workers rallied in 1873-74 to support
Pockets of the cities were isolated, as
at Williamstown and
The Builders’ Labourers’ Unions from
the five Eastern States federated in 1910 through a three-tiered process
of merging lodges within the cities, combining navvies with
tradesmen’s assistants, and by joining hands across State borders.
The movement of labourers between capital cities had established the
personal contacts to facilitate this combination. The NSW Secretary had
Employers displayed their class consciousness by recognising how being “settled” had dimensions of both place and social order. In 1884, and again in 1886, the NSW government offered to fund public works in municipalities and shires if they took in some of the metropolitan unemployed. Some local authorities declined, fearful, as one Shire Clerk put it, “that in the event of any Eight-hours men coming down here, they would spoil the regular farm labourers who have been settled here for some years.” The Penrith Magistrate agreed: “To import an unsettled section of the unemployed into the District, would to a great extent, tend to upset the settled portion of the working class of this place.” These agents of capital placed the long-term benefits from keeping a workforce disorganised above the gains from government spending on infrastructure, or any advantage from a downward pressure on wages brought by the “pedestral unemployed”, or “sundowners”.
Labourers projected the distant past or remote events into current disputes. In 1861, Kyneton’s navvies called one of their leaders “The Captain”. Whether this title resonated with “Captain Swing” of the agricultural rioters is not known,  but that such nicknames could bear a political significance was shown by Irish navvies in Queensland in 1866 who echoed the cry of “Bread or Blood” from England in 1816, while recalling the overthrow of Governor Bligh in 1808 and the attacks on Lord Elgin in Montreal in 1849.
Less surprising is the persistence across
decades of stories about local struggles. The need to raise track levels
on the Melbourne-Murray line in 1862 delivered a bonanza to Bruce but
gruel to his labourers, so that, seventeen years later, unionists
resented this injustice.
In 1922, a labourer recalled how builders, more than 30 years before,
had employed “runners” to set a faster pace “to get profit up and
finished as quickly as possible.”
Throughout the 1920s, the New South Wales ABLF Secretary painted a grim
Patterns of movement and locality within
metropolises deserve their own studies before being integrated with this
account of movement between cities and the bush. A starting point is the
English immigrant millwright and pattern-maker, Thomas Dobeson, who
recorded how he chased work around
At another job, applicants had the toes
out of their boots. Dobeson learnt to pursue every possibility,
following a cart of timber to ask the owner for a place. Despite
believing that tariff protection created a demand for his skills in
Because the AWU in Queensland claimed coverage for almost every unskilled and semi-skilled occupation, less diversity was apparent in Brisbane on 29 May 1928 when two-thirds of the 37 new members for the ABLF came from the AWU; the other 14 had been with the Boilermakers, Seamen’s, Engineers, Iron workers, Furniture Trades, Foodstuffs, Saddlers and Railways, while three had no union attachments. The July meeting admitted one ironworker, one seaman and two carters, two flour millers and a pair of storemen and packers, not to mention one from the Asylum Employees.
Vocabularies contribute clues about interchanges between industries. “Navvy” had its origins in navigator. The goldfields warning “yo-ho” that the traps were coming was later the call for knock-off time on building sites. To indicate that a site had been cleared of scabs, an ABLF organiser in 1913 used “Zambucked”, from a patent ointment, Zambuck, popular among cement workers and shearers. Much of the jargon and most of the knots used by scaffolders and riggers derived from seamen, known around the building game as “shellbacks”.
Craft barriers had fractured in an
economy where the demand for buildings outran the supply of tradesmen
who had served out their apprenticeship. Indeed, the new chum tradesman
found himself at a disadvantage because he lacked “colonial
experience”, a quality which involved a willingness to make-do, to
perform as an all-rounder and to get along with other workers without
Eight-Hours activist Ben Douglass had been apprenticed to a plumber in
Settlers adapted building methods to
local materials in processes memorialised as “Stringing bark and green
hide is the mainstay of
House-painting had turned into “a kind of casual trade for all sorts to enter.” The Trades Hall Gazette remarked in 1889 that a man could be a dish-washer one day and a “painter” the next. Next year, one Master Painter reported that he had dismissed seven men who had claimed to be tradesmen but, in truth, were failed “Tailors, boot-makers, grocers and drapers all.” He feared that such untrained brush-hands went from job to job picking up a knack here, or a trick there, until, after a few months, they styled themselves as contractors.
Bricklaying became less skilled from 1880
with a simpler criss-crossing, known as the Colonial Bond,
and after the standardisation of cement during the1890s.
Builders’ labourer was once synonymous with the hod-carrier who
oversaw the whole job, from preparing the mortar (mud) to keeping up the
supply of bricks, thereby learning enough to tender for a labour-only
contract to erect a brick wall, though not to set an arch or weave a
A navvy might assemble a gang to excavate, and, after the 1890s, to lay
the concrete foundations.
Just as the colour of cement drew its descriptor from Portland stone, so
did its application displace stonemasons, even for the facings of
The determination among tradesmen to hold
the line between themselves and their offsiders grew in reaction to the
porousness of demarcations around the jobs. As a bricklayer remarked in
1890: “It was not a nice thing for a man to have to work for a master
who at one time had carried bricks to him.”
Tradesmen got their own back each winter when, according to a
During the 1916 lockout in
The fraying of skill barriers contributed to equality’s coming to mean not just that Mick thought that he was as good as his master, but that Mick could become self-employed, even a master, if only for a time. The Master Builders’ Association in NSW declared itself “open to the ambitious mechanic who aspired to establish a business of his own.” Its official history observed in 1923 that “the ranks of the Master Builders” were still “recruited from those of the workmen.”  Nonetheless, freedom from a display of deference lasted longer for the proletariat than independence from wage-slavery did for individual labourers.
Their rising and falling added intricacies to the making of the Australian working class. Commentators once emphasised the differences between the tradesmen and the miners, shearers, tailoresses and boot-makers who established “New Unionism” from the 1870s. The quest for benefits was not the dividing line between the Craft Societies and the labourers whose need was greater because of their higher rate of harms. The AR&PWEU provided £20 for burials, or for any member who had to leave the trade. The ABLF and the ULPS also maintained funds for injured brethren, and buried their dead.
Previous discussions of the spatial dimension in the self-making of the labour movement have traced the creation of trust through local disputes. Students of skill demarcations have exposed the fissiparous effects on solidarity. Such investigations enrich our understanding and alert us to the variegated experiences within class consciousness. The next task will be neither to inscribe a stasis nor to track mobilities, but to plot the dynamics of their intersections within the needs of contending classes.
IV. Cycles of
To the extent that labourers became
nomadic improvisers in order to put food on the table, that
characteristic is peculiar neither to bush workers and builders’
labourers, nor to the nineteenth century.
The expense of maintaining two tables was a disincentive to married
wage-earners’ going away for a job,
while single workers who moved out of home lost the subsidy that
households provided to the socially necessary costs of reproducing their
When the ABLF
accepted a reduction in weekly earnings in 1913 to secure a shorter
week, one official explained that a “man could save a lot of
money by repairing his own and his children’s boots in the spare time
and could help to improve his house and do many things like that.” 
Another official assured Higgins that his men “would often make up for
the loss of wages by giving more time to the cultivation of vegetables
for the table in their little plots of ground.”
Higgins choice of “bizarre” to describe this preference for time
over cash indicated the distance between the life of the judge and that
of the navvy, a gap which afflicts scholars who overlook the persistence
of the domestic economy.
The situation of small holders was more time-bound, altering as the cash economy penetrated rural life, sending selectors and their sons away shearing or onto the construction of railways, silos and reservoirs. The more of their needs, both personal and productive, that the farmers had to buy in, the more of their produce they had to exchange for money. Once they concentrated on commodities for sale, they had taken the first step towards becoming commodities themselves, a challenge they met by improvising co-operatives and Country Parties.
The expansion of money-capital is not the same as its territorial extension, but can occur within a domain already dominated by a body of capitals through their nation-market-state. Although the expanded reproduction of individual capitals and of aggregate capital most often involves a spatial dimension in order to secure materials and customers, the purpose of that physical extension of production-capital and of commodity-capital is to contribute to the growth of money-capital. Its expansion depends, first, on the reach of the power of the state, and secondly, on the disciplining of labour time, with agents of capital extending the former to achieve the latter.
Capitalists are torn between the need for
mobility among their employees and the need to tie them down once they
start work. At issue is “not simple geographical mobility … but
mobility beyond the spatial boundaries of organisational coherence,”
as became apparent at Swan River in the late 1820s when Mr Thomas Peel
moved outside the labour discipline upheld by the state.
For as long as the outback was a terra
nullius as far as the capitalist mode of production was concerned,
employers replaced convict chains and the lash with Masters’ and
Those means of coercion had to be backed by the shadow, and sometimes,
the substance of the gun. The absence of armed force compounded the
problems that Bruce encountered around Kyneton in 1861 when the Imperial
contingent had been dispatched against the Maori,
limiting the state’s ability to uphold the law of supply and demand.
In later moments of crisis, the state sent
In addition to armed force, capital needs a reserve army of labourers to hold down labour costs, but also to be ready to begin work as soon as opportunities arise for adding value. Capitalists lose money if they incur interest charges while scrounging for hands. Moreover, an oversupply of labour helps a contractor to get one project finished in time to take on another before the business cycle has turned down.
Capitalists also lose money when they pay workers who are not adding value. A Bulletin contributor claimed in 1894 that “labour’s own legs brought labour without cost to capital’s door.” It was more precise to say that the rural employers’ provisioning of swagmen cost capital less than a rail ticket and on wages during travelling time, while labourers were not adding value. The safety bicycle reduced those times and costs, relieving pastoralists of feeding their shearers’ horses and allowing the teams to reach more sheds during a season.
On building sites, contractors stood workers down for blocks of 15 minutes while waiting for materials to arrive or the rain to stop. When Justice Higgins granted the ABLF a 20 percent loading for “lost time” in the 1913 Award, he contended that this higher hourly rate was to “the advantage of employers” who needed “to have a number of men holding themselves attached to the building trade, ready to take a job in that trade when it is offered, and waiting for the offer.” Higgins further argued that if workers lost too much time, they would quit the industry, depriving employers and the public of the benefits from those who served by waiting. Experience provided little support for Higgins’ argument. For as long as the level of unemployment ran between five and ten percent, Messrs Construction Capital did not need to pay a loading for lost time to attract labourers.
Marx recognised that, to minimise circulation costs, capital pursues “the annihilation of space by time”. This rule rarely applies to the structures on which building and construction labourers add value, since few can be moved from their point of production, despite the long experience with prefabrication. Money-capital moves more easily, generating a demand for office space as exemplified by the construction of Equitable Insurance offices for Melbourne and Sydney in the early 1890s. Apart from speculators, buildings usually have been sold before their foundations are dug. This arrangement shifts the time-costs of capital back to the client who, in turn, limits that charge through progress payments and penalties for delay, risks that the contractors pass on to their labourers through speed-ups, causing injuries to stay fifty percent higher in the sector than throughout the economy.
backward, glancing forward
The failure of that manoeuvre by radical
nationalists confirms why our understanding of the “myth” about
“‘the typical Australian’” cannot be advanced by adopting either
Humphrey McQueen is researching builders’ labourers and their unions.
 Russel Ward, The Australian Legend,
The bush labourer, A. J. Sullivan, recognised from his earliest
encounters with shearers and labourers in the 1870s “the
irreparable damage – mentally, physically and morally – that
John Barleycorn was doing, and had done. The saddest phase” of the
men’s drunkenness “was their cynical pessimism and their cramped
and distorted views on social subjects.” Builders’
Labourers News (BLN),
Ward returned to the urban question in “The Australian Legend
Studies, 18 (71), October 1978, pp. 183-90.
Beginning with words and ending with words, Graeme Davison, John
Hirst and John Rickard discovered that the makers of the legend had
had more in common with academics like themselves than with those
who were “sceptical about the value … of intellectual and
cultural pursuits generally.” (Ward,
Legend, op. cit., p. 2.) Graeme Davison, “Sydney and the Bush: an urban
context for the Australian Legend”, Historical
Studies, 18 (71), October 1978, pp. 191-209; J. B. Hirst,
“The Pioneer Legend”, Historical
Studies, 18 (71), October 1978, pp. 316-37; John Rickard,
“National Character and the Typical Australian’: An Alternative
to Russel Ward”, Journal of
Australian Studies, 4, June 1979, pp.12-21.
Similarly, a special issue of Australian
Cultural History on “The Cult of Practicality” in 1989
ventured no further into the world of work than ideas about
education and training.
Flemming Mikkelsen, “Working-Class Formation in
The 1834 Poor Laws spurred the
mobility of rural labourers while the abolition of protection for
grains during the 1840s aimed to reduce the costs of reproducing
labour. Debates continue around Karl Polyani’s 1944 account of the
interplay of those commodities, The
Great Transformation, Beacon Press,
Linda Clarke, Building
Capitalism, Historical Change & the Labour Process in the
Production of the Built Environment, Routledge, London, 1992; M.
B. and C. B. Schedvin, “The nomadic tribes of urban Britain: a
prelude to Botany Bay”, Historical Studies, 18 (71), October 1978, pp. 254-76.
Fifty building tradesmen from Sydney arrived in San Francisco in
October 1906 to help with reconstruction after the earthquake,
Michael Kazin, Barons of
Labor, The San Francisco Building Trades and Union Power in the
Progressive Era, University of Illinois Press, Urbana, 1987, p.
125; the foundation Secretary of the ABLF left for the USA in 1912,
National Archives of Australia (NAA), B1958 (B1958/1), 9/1912,
[hereafter 1913 Transcript],
Town and Country Journal,
25 July 1885, p. 171c-d, and 7 May 1892, p. 16d, mentioned by
Richard Waterhouse, “The Vision Splendid: Conceptualizing the
Bush, 1813-1913”, Journal of Popular Culture, 33 (1), Summer 1999, pp. 23-34. Morrissey
listed “labourer” as the occupation of a third of the Kelly
sympathisers, though the line between that category of work and the
selectors or shearers who made up the rest is likely to have been a
distinction with little difference, Doug Morrissey, “Ned Kelly’s
Studies, 18 (71), October 1978, pp. 293 and 296.
John Merritt, History
of the AWU, OUP, Melbourne, 1986, pp. 43 & 23. The
tussles between the AWU and the ABLF for coverage of several types
of labouring grew out of the mosaic of jobs that their members had
to create to keep food on their tables. Transfers between the ABLF
and the AWU multiplied because so many ABLF members went shearing.
After the United Labourers’
Protective Society (ULPS) exchanged tickets with the AWU in
1903, two ULPS members who went to
Jim Moss, Representatives
of discontent: history of the Communist Party in South Australia
1921-1981, Communist and Labour Movement History Group,
Melbourne, 1983, p. 8;
labourers from Broken Hill continued to move onto Adelaide, notably,
the last Federal President of the ABLF, Ron Owens, who started work
aged 13 in 1947 in a bakery, took station jobs and went shearing in
Queensland before returning to his birthplace to mine underground
and then left for Adelaide where he drove a truck for a soft-drink
company and started labouring on construction in 1964, interview, 7
Printed in Labour History,
40, May 1981, pp. 93-94; Patsy Adam-Smith, The
Lore of the Railwaymen, Macmillan, Melbourne, 1969; Terry
Coleman, The Railway Navvies,
The Men Who Made the Railways, Hutchinson, London, 1965.
West Australian (WA), 5 March 1897, p. 4g,
BLN, in six parts from 7 July
Henry Hannah, Affidavit, p. 5, NAA, A1007 (A10071/1) 1914/1.
August 1861, p. 5b; 150 followed a green flag emblazoned with
the Harp of Erin;
the Argus correspondent
thought that rumour had run riot more than the navvies.
August 1861, p. 4g; the navvies wanted 30s a week but not 5s a day
because broken time during the winter rains meant that they could
not earn 30s a week, Argus,
5 August 1861, p. 5d.
Argus, 4 July 1860, p. 3g,
and 3 October 1860, p. 6c; cf. letter from “A Navvy”, Age,
9 December 1870, p. 3g. For the Truck system as a method of labour
discipline see Samuel Cohn, “Keeping the Navvies in Line:
Variations in Work Discipline Among British Railways Construction
Crews”, Louise T. Lilly and Charles Lilly (eds), Class
Conflict and Collective Action, Sage,
Mt Alexander Mail,
Age, 6 August 1861, p. 5b;
Mt Alexander Mail, 8 August 1861, p. 6d, 21 August 1861, p. 2b,
and 23 August 1861, p. 3d-f; Herald, 7 August 1861, p. 4d.
Mt Alexander Mail,
The Argus fumed that, by
taking advantage of the labour shortage, the navvies were laying the
foundation for a future loss to themselves since high wages would
discourage investors from new projects when conditions returned to
whatever was normal in the colonies. Argus,
Letter from “A
Navvy” (Gisborne), Argus,
presence of families here unsettles the notion of a gender imbalance
of up-country life as a source of mateship’s compensating for the
absence of white women, Ward, op.
cit., pp. 88-90. The skerricks of information I encountered
about how itinerants related to the household economy neither
confirm nor deny the masculinist bias of the type. [see note 96
below] Similar questions arise about the relationship of the legend
to intellectual pursuits and religion if bush workers spent periods
of their lives in urban districts, and more so once schools followed
itinerants, see Graham Wilson, “Public Schools Along the Great
Western Railway Line from Tamworth to the Queensland Border”, Journal
and Proceedings, Armidale and District Historical Society, 50,
2007, pp. 71-83.
Denis Rowe, “The Robust Navvy: the Railway Construction Worker in
Trades Hall Gazette (THG),
General Labourers’ Union Records, NBAC,
what extent did the survival of the ASU and the success of the AWA
depend on the interweaving of the small selectors who went shearing
with the mining settlements, so that the Shearers’ Unions
piggy-backed on the more settled membership of the Miners’
Association? Mining was
ignored by Bede Nairn, Civilising
Capitalism, The Labor Movement in
In explaining why miners made
their stand around Ballarat late in 1854, and not earlier, or
elsewhere, Geoffrey Blainey stressed the more settled life around
the pits than on alluvial finds, The Rush That Never Ended, MUP,
Merritt, op. cit., p. 102;
Karl Marx and Frederich Engels, Selected
Works, Volume I, Foreign Language Publishing House,
Karl Marx, “Theses on Feuerbach”, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels,
Collected Works, Volume 5,
“In so far as millions of families live under economic conditions
of existence that separate their mode of life, their interests and
their culture from those of the other classes, and put them in
hostile opposition to the latter, they form a class. In so far as
there is merely a local interconnection among these small-holding
peasants, and the identity of their interests begets no community,
no national bond and no political organisation among them, they do
not form a class.” Marx-Engels,
Collected Works, volume
11, Lawrence & Wishart,
The Wren machine in Collingwood, like the Loughnans’ in Richmond
and Keegan’s in the Glebe, connected sport, religion and municipal
politics; Chris McConville, “John Wren, Machine Boss, Irish
Chieftain, or Meddling Millionaire?”, Labour
History, 40, May 1981, pp. 49-76; Janet McCalman, Struggletown:
portrait of an Australian working-class community, Penguin,
Richmond, 1988; Michael Hogan,
Local labor: a history of the
Labor Party in Glebe, 1891-2003, Federation Press, Annandale,
Lynne Strahan, At the edge of
the centre: a history of Williamstown, Hargreen Publishing Co.,
Williamstown, 1994, chapter 6.
ML MSS 262/6 (9); NSW
Industrial Arbitration Reports, 2, 1903, pp. 32-49 &
226-230; Peter Sheldon, “In Division is Strength: Unionism Among
Sydney Labourers, 1890-1910”, Journal
of Industrial Relations, 35 (3), November 1992, pp. 43-59.
Although a Western Australian attended a Sydney Conference in 1912
to form a national union of general labourers, the State’s
Builders’ Labourers’ Union did not join the ABLF until the
1960s; Argus, 26 June
1912: 13c, and 24 July 1912: 15d; Mark Hearn
and Harry Knowles, One Big
Union, A History of the Australian Workers Union 1886-1994,
Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1996, p. 126.
quoted in Anne P. O’Brien, “The Poor in
August 1861, p. 6b, 28 August 1861, 4f and p. 6b-c; see E. J.
Hobsbawm and George Rude, Captain
Swing, Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1969, chapter 14.
John Kellett, “Bread
or Blood, 1865”, Raymond Evans and Carole Ferrier (eds), Radical Brisbane, an unruly history, Vulgar Press, Melbourne, 2004,
Anxious for news, immigrants were
often closer to “home” in their thoughts than if they had moved
only to a different county in
Australian Building & Construction Employees and Builders’
Labourers’ Federation, Federal Council,
In the words of biologist Steven
Rose: “Memories are living processes, which become transformed,
imbued with new meanings, each time we recall them”, The
Making of Memory, From Molecules to Mind, Anchor, New York,
1992, p. 2.
ML MSS 2980, CY
Hannah rode a bike to
work, leaving his Northcote home at 7.10 am and getting back at 5.50
pm., though when he had worked at Rippon Lea, he set out an hour
earlier and returned over an hour later, to be away for nearly 13
hours a day, 1913 Transcript, p. 142; Victorian official Dick Loughnan told Justice Higgins that he
had had to travel to the outlying areas to find a job once he became
known as a union activist, 1913
Transcript, pp. 379 and 398.
25 August and
2002, a quarter of the members of the Construction Division of the
CFMEU had joined in the past year, and 45% in the previous three
years. Workplace Health and
Safety, Discussion Paper 6, Royal Commission on Building and
Ward, op. cit., p. 110; 1913 Transcript, p. 156.
“Benjamin Douglass (1830-1904)”, Australian
Dictionary of Biography, volume 4, MUP,
Higgins distinguished “skills” that required special training
from “knacks” to be picked up on the job, 1913 Transcript,
p. 320; in NSW, Judge Heydon had drawn similar lines, see Ben
Maddison, “‘The skillful unskilled labourer’: The Decline of
Artisanal Discourse of Skill in the NSW Arbitration Court,
1905-15”, Labour History, 93, November 2007, pp. 73-86; Charles Fahey,
“Unskilled Male Labour and the Beginnings of Labour Market
Regulation, Victoria, 1901-1914”, Australian
Historical Studies, 33 (118), April 2002, pp. 143-60. Labourers
knew that the skill they needed most was how to survive by
“following the job”, 1913
Transcript, p. 610.
Ward, op. cit., pp. 81-82.
Libby Robin, How
a Continent Created a Nation, UNSW Press, Kensington, 2007, p.
189; Henry J. Cowan, From
Wattle and Daub to Concrete and Steel, MUP,
Robin Boyd, Australia’s Home,
Penguin, Ringwood, 1968, p. 47; B&EJ,
11 February 1893, p. 58; the editor offered a Ruskinite critique of
an architecture in which art had declined because it did not pay, 22
April 1893, pp. 147-8.
“Deskilling Revisited: Continuity and Change in craft work and
apprenticeship in late Nineteenth-century
1 March 1890, p. 77; in the 1920s, ready-mixed paints encouraged
householders to do their own jobs, Decorator
& Painter, May 1929, p. 218; June 1929, p. 258, July 1929,
p. 277, August 1929, pp. 309-10; 311-13; competition was less acute
for decorators, August 1929, pp. 311-13. One Master Painter welcomed
the ready-mixed paints for their reduction of labour time,
characterising the resisters as being stuck with the view that
“there is only one paint – that is, one made from English white
lead, linseed oil and patent driers. They must dig the lead from the
can, knock it up with a stick and strain it through a piece of
Hessian or stocking.” September 1929, p. 355; for the impact of
pressed-metal ceilings on plasterers see Susan Bures, The
House of Wunderlich, Kangaroo Press, Kenthurst, 1987.
David Denholm, The
Colonial Australians, Penguin, Ringwood, 1979, chapter 5; Rich, op.
cit., p. 88; Nathaniel Lloyd, History
of English brickwork, H. Grenville Montgomery, London, 1925.
February 1892, pp. 56-7; 5 March 1892, pp. 99-100; 5 May 1894, pp.
139-40; Miles Lewis, (ed.), Two
hundred years of concrete in Australia, Concrete Institute of
Australia, Sydney, 1988.
1913 Transcript, pp. 419 and 468.
J. M. Pringle, A Jubilee
Record, MBA, Sydney, 1923, pp. 13-14, see also Pringle’s Australian
industrial legislation and the building trade 1902-1906; review of
Australian industrial Legislation and the Building Trade, 1926,
MBA, Sydney, 1928, p. 6.
When brickies’ labourers and scaffolders in
From 1912 to
1914, the Victorian Branch of the ABLF distributed £200 each year
from its Mortuary Fund, 1913
Transcript, p. 211. In
Examples range from Alan Walker, Coaltown, A Social Study of Cessnock, N.S.W., Melbourne University
August D. Webb, “The Building Trade”, Sidney Webb (ed.), Seasonal
trades, Constable, London, 1912, pp. 312-93, mentioned by
Higgins, 7 Commonwealth
(1913) 210 at 218; William Stanley Parker, “The Problems of
Seasonal Unemployment in the Building Industry”, International
Labour Review, 9 (3), March 1924, pp. 361-71; Gareth Stedman
Jones, Outcast London, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1971, especially Chapter 2;
Jan Kok, Kees Mandemakers and Henk Wals, “City Nomads: Changing
Residence as a Coping Strategy, Amsterdam, 1890-1940”. Social
Science History, 29 (1), Spring 2005, pp. 15-44.
1913 Transcript, pp. 133 and 522.
Seamus O’Hanlon, Together
apart: boarding house, hotel and flat life in pre-war Melbourne,
Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2003, pp. 32-34 and 47. Men and women contributed within the household and for barter, (see note
34 above). For instance, Dobeson helped his wife to make him
an overcoat, which they later sold, as
Mrs Dobeson did her dress-making in 1889, ML MSS 2980, CY
731. These earnings suggest that married women did more paid work
than appeared in Coghlan’s statistics; see also Ben Maddison, “
‘De-Skilling’ the 1891 Censuses in New South Wales and
Journal of Politics and History, 53 (4), December 2007, pp.
Access to a garden plot varied with
the suburb, but one employer complained that “all classes of
gardeners round Melbourne have a miniature general nursery at the
back of their cottage ready to supply those who will buy at a
cheaper rate than the legitimate nursery-men.” Journal
For the significance of rent see
Frederick Engels, The Housing
Question, Progress Publishers, Moscow, 1970, pp. 11-12 and 45,
and for the significance of labour which does not itself produce
surplus value, see Claude Meillassoux, Maidens, Meal and Money, Capitalism and the Domestic Community,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1981.
 Ellen Meiskins Wood, Empire of Capital, Verso, London, 2003; canals and railways offer intermediate cases, see Marc Linder, Projecting Capitalism, A History of the Internationalisation of the Construction Industry, Greenwood Press, Westport, 1994.
“Distance” subjected thinking about settler Australia to a
tyranny of cliché after Blainey reworked insights proposed by the
Tasmanian Marxist Ken Dallas, who argued back in “The Fallacy of
Historical Research Association, Papers and Proceedings, 16 (2),
September 1968, pp. 55-60.
For the three circuits of capital, Karl Marx, Capital,
II, Foreign Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1957; see my “What
happened in Globalisation?”, Journal
of Australian Political Economy, 51, June 2003, esp. pp. 115-26.
Doreen Massey, Spatial
divisions of labour: social structures and the geography of
production, Macmillan, Houndsmill, 1995 edition, p. 56; see also
Edward W. Soja, “The Socio-Spatial Dialectic”, Annals
of the Association of American Geographers, 70 (2), June 1980,
pp. 207-25; Jamie Peck, Work
Place, The Social Regulation of Labour Markets, Guilford, New
York, 1996; Ellen Meiskins
Wood, “Global capital, national states”, Mark Rupert and Hazel
Smith (eds) Historical
Materialism and Globalisation, Routledge, London, 2002, pp.
17-39; and Andrew Herod, “Workers, Space and Labor Geography”, International
Labor and Working-Class History, 64, 2003, pp. 112-138.
Social, cultural and political
dimensions of the move from convictism were surveyed by George
Nadel, Australia’s Colonial
Culture, Harvard University Press,
“Unhappy Mr Peel who provided for everything except the export of
English modes of production”, Karl
Marx, Capital, I, Foreign
Languages Publishing House, Moscow, 1958, p. 766; one solution was
to import convicts, Mathew Trinca, “The Control and Coercion of
Convicts”, Studies in Western Australian History (SWAH), 24, 2006, pp. 30-32.
Robert J. Steinfeld, Coercion, Contract and Free Labor in the Nineteenth Century,
Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2001; Douglas Hay and Paul
Craven (eds), Masters,
servants, and magistrates in Britain and the Empire, 1562-1955,
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 2004; Rob McQueen,
“Master and Servant Legislation as ‘Social Control’: The Role
of Law in Labour Relations on the Darling Downs 1860-1870”, Law
in Context, 10 (1), 1992, pp. 123-39. Capitalists supplemented
both convict labour and the Masters’ and Servants’ Acts with the
import of indentured workers, Hugh Tinker, A
New System of Slavery, the Export of Indian Labour Overseas,
1830-1920, OUP, London, 1974; K. Dallas, “Slavery in Australia
– Convicts, Emigrants, Aborigines”, THRA, P&P, 16 (2), September 1968, pp. 61-94; Jack Hutson, Penal
Colony to Penal Powers, AEU, Sydney, 1966.
By the twentieth century, the
stop-watch was “suggesting the whip of owners or taskmasters.”
Engineering and Machinery, 1 April 1913; Frank B. Gilbreth, Bricklaying
system, M.C. Clark, New York, 1909; Frederick Winslow Taylor and
Sanford E, Thompson, Concrete
costs: tables and recommendations for estimating the time and cost
of labor operations in concrete construction and for introducing
economical methods of management, Wiley, New York, 1912.
In the opinion of the Herald,
Karl Marx, Capital, II,
Foreign Language Publishing House,
Jim Fitzpatrick, Bicycle
and the bush: man and machine in rural Australia, OUP,
Melbourne, 1980, p. 210; Merritt, op.
cit., pp. 59, 73, 147 and 200; unionists breached the eight-hour
day to perform their 44 hours within five days in order to head home
over weekends when working on the SEC in the La Trobe Valley, ABLF
Minutes, 21 November 1936, NBAC, Z398/21, and on the construction of
the national capital, with the foreman carpenter at Parliament House
pedaling to Braidwood, Ann Gugler, Canberra
Construction Camps, early houses and selected documents,
privately published, Canberra, 2001, p. 94.
(1913) 210 at 218. Higgins made aggregate capital pay
builders’ labourers when they were not adding value so that their
weekly incomes approached the basic wage set in the 1907 Harvester
judgement. Elsewhere in the ABLF Award, Higgins ruled that “the
working time of the labourer is time purchased by the employer, who
has the exclusive right to it.” (7 CAR
(1913) 210 at 232)
 Only in an extremity did the demand for labourers upset the relative strengths of the buyers and sellers of labour-power. One such emergency was the demolition work following the Flinders street fire in 1897 when the ruins had to be knocked down as quickly as possible because they were a danger to passing traffic, Age, 22 November 1897, pp. 5-6, 25 November 1897, 5h-i, and BLN, 12 May 1916, p. 3. A second instance came during the Great War when a recruiting drive pushed the number of Victorian volunteers up to 26,000 in July-August 1915, causing the Master Builders’ Association to offer a 21.8% wage increase to match rises in the cost of living - but on the “secret” condition that the ABLF grant “absolute preference” in the supply of labourers to MBA members, NAA A106 G1921/2019. A few months later, the Masters offered inducements to the ABLF not to work for price-cutters, BLN, 4 August 1916, p. 4 and 18 August 1916, p. 5.
Karl Marx, Grundrisse, Penguin, Harmondsworth, 1973, p. 524.
Final Report of Royal
Commission on the Building and Construction Industry,
volume six, AGPS,
Like many intellectuals, Ward
joined the Communist Party to be a more effective anti-fascist, but
unlike several other Party members at the ANU, erstwhile or not,
such as D. W. A. Baker, Eric Fry, Robin Gollan, Bernard Smith and
Oscar Spate, Ward’s scholarly writings showed no sign of political
economy, and only traces of historical materialism, a criticism
which applied to A New
Britannia, but see the “Afterword” to its 2004 revision, pp.
250-90. However, Ward relied on the Marxist founder of Pre-History,
V. Gordon Childe, for more than the title of his 1955 school text, Man Makes History. Ward did manage to reconcile J. V. Stalin, F. J.
Turner and W. K. Hancock, “Ethos of the Pastoral Workers”, Ph.
D. Thesis, ANU, 1955, p. 537.
At the ANU, Professor W. K. Hancock established an interdisciplinary
Wool Seminar from 1957 to 1959, which can now be viewed as an
obituary service for “Old Australia”,
Geoffrey Bolton, “Rediscovering Australia: Hancock and the Wool
Seminar”, D. A. Low (ed.), Keith Hancock, The Legacies of an Historian, MUP, Carlton, 2001, pp.
N. G. Butlin,
“The State of the Australian Economy 1860-1890”, Economic
Record, 34 (67), April 1958, pp. 10-29; E. C. Fry, “The
Condition of Urban Wage-Earners in the 1880s”, Ph.D. ANU, 1956;
Nadel, op. cit.
Ward’s comparison coincided with the arrival at the ANU in 1953 of
H. C. Allen, author of Bush
and Backwoods, A
Comparison of the Frontier in Australia and the United States,
Michigan State University Press, Ann Arbor, MI,
1959; Ward did not mention Allen in his memoirs where he
attributed his awareness of Turner’s frontier thesis to C.M.H.
Clark, see A
Radical Life: the autobiography of Russel Ward, Macmillan,
Melbourne, 1988, chapter 10. The contrast of frontiers had been
illustrated in two motion pictures, Harry Watts’ 1946 The Overlanders and Howard Hawks’ 1948
“Censorship and the Child: Explaining the Comics Campaign”, Australian
Historical Studies, 23 (92), April 1989, pp. 229-233; Michael
Sturma, “ The Politics of Dancing: When Rock ‘n’ Roll Came to
and Bruce McFarlane, A History
of Australian Economic Thought, Routledge,