BLF - WILLIAM H 'BILL' MELLOR AND THE PERTH-FREMANTLE BUILDING TRADES STRIKES OF 1896 - 97
H ‘Bill’ Mellor and the Perth-Fremantle building trades strikes of
Bill Mellor lost his footing on a ten-metre scaffold in 1897, that
misstep cost him his life, his wife and three children their provider,
the Builders’ Labourers’ Society in Western Australia its most
energetic official, and socialism a champion. On Thursday, 11 June, the
35-year old Mellor had been working on the Commercial Union Assurance
offices on St Georges Terrace when he tumbled backwards, breaking his
back, to die in hospital a few hours later.
the days that followed, the labour movement rallied to support
Mellor’s family. Bakers, boot-makers, printers and tailors sent
subscription lists around their workplaces;
the donations from twenty building jobs totaled £174 9s 4d, while
Mellor’s employer and associates contributed £50.
The Kalgoorlie and Boulder Workers Association forwarded their
collections with notes of appreciation for Mellor’s organising in
Melbourne and Sydney.
The Perth and Fremantle Councils provided their Town Halls without
charge for benefit concerts.
The Relief Fund realised £45 from the sale of Mellor’s house and
allotment, in Burt Street, Forrest Hill, a housing estate in North
The Fund’s trustees paid out £15 on the funeral, to which a florist
while a further £6 3s went on a headstone. The passages for Mellor’s
family to England cost £35. After further expenses of £125, including
£54 for two canvassers,
the Fund was left with £193, the equivalent of sixty-five weeks wages
for an experienced labourer at the rate of ten shillings a day.
I – ‘He was a man’
burial was preceded by a gathering at the Labour Church, indicating his
Pall-bearers included his comrade, Monty Miller, who, on the evening of
the funeral, took Mellor’s place on the Labour Church platform to
speak on the dead man’s chosen subject, ‘Woman’s Position as a
Worker’. Four weeks before, Mellor had set down his principles when he
took as his text ‘the poor ye have always with ye’, a remark which
the rich perverted to justify their inequities. He saw his task as
encouraging the exploited in fellowship: ‘As matters stood, men worked
side by side, and very often did not know, and did not seek to know each
years earlier, as depression laid waste to Victoria, Mellor had
organised Melbourne’s unemployed. In January 1892, he had been one of
four delegates, alongside the anarchist ‘Chummy’ Fleming,
to the Progressive Political League which agreed to join a committee
with the Trades Hall Council to ‘guide and control the unemployed
Far from exercising restraint over the desperate, Mellor led them in
Rent Revision, evicting bailiffs and re-repossessing chattels from
an active service which caused a reform-minded weekly, Commonweal, to lump him in with ‘men of doubtful calibre’.
June 1892, Mellor complained that, despite the recent entry of a handful
of Labor representatives into the legislature, the Assembly had spent
more time debating the stock tax than on providing work. Voicing what
one contemporary called ‘The Bitter Cry of Outcast Melbourne’,
Mellor alleged that the workers’ tribunes had kept quiet. When a union
official replied that the ministry had to be dealt with ‘in the proper
spirit’, Mellor shot back ‘Crawl!’ He articulated the anger among
the jobless in the Trades Hall gallery by denouncing these ‘so-called
labour members’ who ‘owed their position to the Trades Hall and the
unemployed and should be governed by them’.
One of those backsliders was the Labor member for Richmond, W A Trenwith,
himself once a paid agitator for the unions, who now distanced himself
from ‘indecent excesses’.
1893, Mellor moved north to resume his Rent Revisions in Sydney.
Although he became a delegate to the NSW Trades and Labor Council and
secretary of the Darlington Branch of the Political Labour League, his
heart and brain swept him past from those channels.
After a spell with the Australian Socialist League, he became foundation
secretary of the Social-Democratic Federation for which he lectured
every Sunday in its Pitt Street rooms after addressing crowds of up to
1,000 along Bathurst Street. In Perth by 1896, he distributed the
Federation’s paper, the Socialist, collecting £5 5s 6d for the ‘Socialist Imprisonment
months before Mellor’s fall, he had been the foremost leader of the
biggest strike that Perth and Fremantle had known. Seeing beyond the
assumptions of the Trades and Labour Council (TLC), he warned a mass
meeting from all the building trades that their employers were ‘their
natural and fierce opponents’. Craft unionism, he explained, had
served its purpose and now had to be replaced by an industrial union
with the strength to boycott scabs and to sustain a strike fund.
At the peak of the dispute, building workers selected Mellor to chair
their strike committee, and a wider group of unions later chose him to
preside over the eight-hours committee.
Through the Democratic Reform League and the Labour Church, he organised
May Day celebrations on the Esplanade, greeting all those across the
world who were struggling for reform.
II - Getting organised
May 1883, a few workers met in Perth to press for an eight-hour day, but
to little effect. Fremantle carpenters made a start in trade unionism
during 1884 by forming an outpost of Britain’s Amalgamated Society of
Carpenters and Joiners (ASC&J). Other building tradesmen, including
the labourers who assisted them, followed their lead, as did printers,
railwaymen, miners and wharf lumpers. An eight-hours committee in May
1886 included four labourers. By August, many employers had conceded a
nine-hour day, though with a proportionate cut in wages.
The incipience of the labour
movement was on show when officials from the ASC&J had to speak for
the navvies laid off from a rail project after loan funds dried up in
A revival of the eight-hour committee in October 1889 again brought
little success. Sometime later, and before most other workers, navvies
did win the boon, stressing extreme heat as justification. The shorter
day was easier to apply to navvies than to builders’ labourers who had
to keep working at least as long as the tradesmen they assisted.
prospect of striking it lucky freed workers from the worst of their
fears of losing their places if they took action on the job. This
combination of a demand for labour with an escape hatch to the
goldfields helped the building unions to make an eight-hour day their
standard by the end of 1892.
the emergence of unions, some of their activities were illegal under the
Masters and Servants Acts, with two strikers gaoled in 1885 over the
struggle for eight-hours.
The Carpenters lost the doubtful protection under the Friendly Societies
Act, when the 1894 amendments excluded trade unions. As late as 1900, a
union secretary was convicted under an anti-Jacobin law from the 1820s.
Next year, that Act was repealed and a Conciliation and Arbitration Act
only mark of that deadly sin during the 1897 dispute was defeat under
the leadership of the new arrivals.
English-born Charles Henry Oldham (1863-unknown) immigrated to Victoria
before moving to the West in 1892 as a carpenter. Within a year, he was
president of the coastal Trades and Labour Council. Despite his becoming
an employer in 1894, the TLC congratulated him on his election to the
Assembly from May 1897;
in the days before payment of members, a wage-slave could not afford to
attend to his parliamentary duties. Oldham’s career is a reminder that
skill barriers were far from fixed, fluctuating with the cycles in the
building trade, with the seasons, and from year to year as labourers
became tradesmen, and even contractors, while tradesmen took turns at
labouring, indeed, working as navvies to put food on the table.
the carpenter George Pearce (1870-1952) arrived from Adelaide in April
1892, he chaired the meeting to revive a TLC in December. He failed at
prospecting during 1894 before resuming his trade in Perth, to become
president of the ASC&J. During the 1897 dispute, he was foreman in a
joinery shop, a status and a workplace which put some distance between
him and his members on site.
(Monty) Miller (1839-1920) came from Melbourne early in 1896, with his
son who was also a carpenter. Miller senior claimed to have been present
as a lad at Eureka in 1854; sixty-two years later, aged around
seventy-seven, he was convicted of sedition for his support of the
Industrial Workers of the World and their direct action in opposition to
the imperialist war and all forms of conscription.
As an advocate of all-grades New Unionism, Miller was happy to associate
with labourers and navvies. Neither father nor son belonged to a union
in 1897, but Monty was accepted by the unions as spokesperson for a
large number of non-union carpenters whose lack of apprenticed training
made them ineligible to join the ASC&J.
to arrive, the bricklayer Martin Hannah (1865-1953) came from Melbourne
with his labourer brother Henry, a few days before the 1897 dispute
started. A week later, Martin lost his place for showing sympathy for
the unions. Returning east, he became secretary of Victorian Bricklayers
and of all the building trades during their 1906-7 dispute, and then
Labour member of the Assembly for Collingwood.
Henry was founding secretary of the Australian Builders’ Labourers’
Federation in 1910. The brothers embodied the persistence needed to
create and maintain organisations.
30 June 1896, the BLS insisted on nine shillings as the daily rate to
take effect four weeks later.
After the employers refused the tradesmen eleven shillings, the two
unions met on 1 August. The secretary of the newly reformed Builders and
Contractors’ Association (B&CA), Mr Cohen, attended to seek peace
but only three employers turned up at the negotiations. The BLs struck a
By the middle of the month, all ‘reputable’ employers were paying
the higher rate for an eight-hour day. The only hold-out had two
government contracts. Union officials reported that ‘utmost good
feeling prevailed between employers and employees’.
Perth labourers gathered in Jacoby’s Café de Paris for seven
newcomers to be welcomed by the 130 present in mid-August 1896. Next
month, the annual meeting elected Mellor as president. On the eve of the
eight-hour day celebration in October, 150 turned up to initiate
eighteen applicants, with ten more signing on a fortnight later.
The BLS grew by taking up the everyday demands of its members, for
instance, pressing for trains to run at the times needed to get the men
to and from work.
The Society also called for a scaffolding inspector,
and a lien bill to deal with contractors who absconded without paying
III – The wages push
Mellor wrote to newspapers in the East cautioning labourers against
taking ship to the West because of reports of nine shillings a day, he
added that conditions were harsher. For instance, few dwellings had
reticulated water. Paying for each gallon added to the cost of living
and reinforced the wage demands. Another union official warned of
‘flies and black sand’.
Industrial and environmental discontents interlocked for the 1897
The B&CA secretary, Mr Fred Groome, claimed that labourers had been
content with four shillings for beer but now wanted ten shillings to buy
Groome’s belief in ‘the labourer[‘s] being happy with his five
shillings a day and a bottle of beer’
was confirmed in part by consumption levels, which were high even
allowing for the predominance of males in the population. The first year
for which statistics are reliable, 1899, recorded an average of
twenty-four gallons for every settler, twice the volumes in Victoria.
Beer was attractive since water was almost as costly, often as hard to
obtain and likely to prove deadly.
was a further instance of unequal distribution. On one January day in
1897, 195 users took two-sevenths of the supply from carts.
Delivery north of Wellington Street sometimes did not start until
midnight, provoking locals to stone the carts when they did turn up,
frustrated at being served last and inadequately. The carts lacked hoses
to reach inside dwellings to fill tubs or baths, and few householders
could afford enough large utensils to fill up out on the street.
With no water waiting for them at home, outdoor workers could not
re-hydrate for the following day, still less wash their dirty and
sweat-incrusted clothes, or afford the Chinese laundries.
want of water was a graver problem for navvies because they had no
supply on sites until after their excavations. In warning labourers in
the East against being attracted by reports of higher wages, BLS
secretary Mellor noted that, even in the established areas, his members
had to seek water from neighbours with wells, a problem made worse on
days when temperatures soared.
Perth endures scorching summers with scarcely a drop of rain, relieved
only if an afternoon sea breeze – ‘the Fremantle doctor’ - reaches
the city. As the mercury went from 38 to 41°C in mid-January, the city
feared a repeat of the 1896 summer, one of the hottest on record. The
first day of the strike was a mere 25°C but, by Thursday, the
temperature had risen to 40°C, and rarely went below 32° while the BLs
were in dispute, frequently nudging a century of the Fahrenheit scale.
affected the conduct of the dispute since both Pearce and Mellor were
off sick during its final week. Mellor’s home was on the odourous path
to the Sanitary Depot. Pearce could not chair the ASC&J meeting on
Saturday afternoon, 6 February.
Mellor was out of action three days later and so had been unable to
arrange for the mass meeting as the strike was the edge of collapse.
IV – The second bout
BLS campaign was part of a swell of activism with the boom. The
Operative Painters and Decorators’ Union and the Plumbers and
Gasfitters Union were both established by August.
During September, the Carpenters won a further increase to eleven
as did Plasterers and Bricklayers.
In November, the labourers who carried sanitary pans asked the City
Council for ten shillings a day but, with no organisation, their action
a workplace injury incapacitated BLS secretary Martin, Mellor took his
place pro tem from December
1896, with Thomas Joyce acting as president.
The officials around Mellor knew that their Society was in its infancy,
with four non-unionists in the industry for every member. Hence, the BLS
called non-members to a meeting at Jacoby’s on 12 January 1897. Sixty
enrolled on the spot, several signing on because the strong stand taken
by the Society in July-August had forced the employers to concede the
nine shillings. With British investments flowing in, Mellor expected
‘no difficulty’ in making the higher rate universal. This assessment
encouraged the men to think that the employers’ refusal was a
TLC had been represented at the BLS meeting on 30 June 1896 at which the
labourers insisted on nine shillings.
When Mellor and his supporters asked the TLC to involve itself in the
next dispute, its secretary, Underwood, declined on the grounds that the
Council could not take up particular struggles.
Carpenters’ secretary Diver thought it appropriate that the TLC remain
‘perfectly neutral’. 
Two weeks later, in offering full support for the strikers, the new
president (W J Kensitt, from the Furniture Trades) overlooked this
excuse when he regretted the tardiness with which the building unions
had approached the Council.
these nuances was the pressure on those who had crossed to the ‘golden
West’ to support the families they had left behind. A man who had
earned only five shillings a day in South Melbourne said he was no
better off on nine shillings in Perth after he sent home all but one
pound. Several declared they would rather return East than continue on
At the start of the strike, another recalled that even the lower wages
in Melbourne did not compel them ‘to live with our families in one
room, where if you swing a cat round you will knock out its brains’.
A labourer explained why he needed more than B&CA secretary
Groome’s notion of a ‘humpy’ and a ‘ration’ for the natives:
ASC&J secretary Diver put it: ‘The conditions of living in Perth
are not particularly good, and the men should have some inducement to
remain here if they are to sacrifice home comforts’.
men turned indignant at the failure of the employers to reply to the BLS
letter, looking upon the silence from the Contractors’ Association as
‘tantamount to a refusal’. Nonetheless, few expected to have to stop
earning in order to win.
Most had faith in the law of supply and demand, believing that the
employers could never obtain enough workers at the lower rates. Diver
underpinned this conviction by pointing to the unbroken record of union
victories since 1891. He thought that the matter would be settled within
a week, which was less hope-filled than those of his members who said it
would be over in ‘two days’.
the regular BLS meeting on Tuesday, 26 January, Mellor read
correspondence from labourers’ unions in the eastern colonies
reassuring the West that there was no chance of ‘skilled labourers’
being attracted by nine shillings. In addition, the Fremantle men had
written to say that they stood ready to join the struggle. Thirty
labourers signed up that evening. Most members were already getting the
ten shillings. To make that rate universal, they voted ‘to withdraw
all union men … not in receipt of ten shillings per day, after a
friendly interview’ with individual employers. To prepare for any
emergency, the BLs appointed a strike committee and collected funds. The
Society announced a public meeting on the Esplanade for Saturday to hear
reports and called for a Special meeting in a week’s time.
the Special, the collapse of a four-storey wall reminded all building
workers of the risks they faced. Operations on that hotel site were
proceeding because the owner, acting as his own contractor, had agreed
to pay the higher rates.
The workmen were fortunate that the structure had begun to crack two
hours before it tumbled into Wellington Street. The city engineer and
several councilors acknowledged that jobs were not inspected to ensure
that they were being erected in accordance with the plans on which they
had been approved. Enforcement of the Building Act remained ‘urgent’
for a further twenty-seven years before the appointment of government
inspectors. Municipal control meant no control.
claimed that he ‘loyally carried out its direction’.
The extent to which his expectation of defeat made this loyalty less
than enthusiastic remains debatable.
week later, on the Saturday before the official starting day, 1
February, some 400 carpenters were either on strike or had been locked
The ASC&J officials offered to accept a daily rate of eleven
shillings if the employers made it universal. The employers refused in
the expectation that workmen would flood into the colony and depress
One contractor told a reporter that carpenters in Victoria were
accepting two shillings sixpence a day, with an average of six
their labourers, the Master Builders twice failed to set up an
association between 1887 and their coming together in May 1896.
The relative strengths of the classes were being transformed by the
appearance of an employers’ organisation to resist this ‘bushranging’,
and with a fighting fund of £500. A spokesperson expected the strike to
collapse before the weekend. If not, the employers would import men from
the East. In Fremantle, some Masters spoke of responding with a
protecting their pockets, the employers drew on experience from dealing
with the strikes in the eastern colonies up to 1894. Step one was to
form a fighting force of their own. The B&CA set up a Defence
Association to defeat the new demands. Some thirty-five employers met,
in camera, on 27 January in the offices of B&CA secretary Groome.
The need for a separate body arose from a division within the B&CA
over the willingness to pay the higher rates, with as many as fifteen
being prepared to concede.
Only twenty-eight of the forty-one employers agreed to levy themselves
£10 each to import ‘free labour’. All held back until they saw
whether the men did stop on Monday, 1 February.
the battle lines were drawn on the jobs, the Contractors regrouped,
turning its Defence Association into a phalanx as the Employers’
Association with the president of the B&CA, Mr Deague, at its head..
The new Association announced arrangements with the Builders’ and
Contractors’ Associations in Melbourne and Sydney to recruit
seventy-five men from each city.
After the Employers’ Association first meeting, its representatives
drove around the city urging their fellows to hold out. When the Perth
officers called Fremantle builders and contractors together that
evening, the seventeen locals resolved to resist the unions and to back
the new Association.
The Carpenters’ secretary, Diver, was naïve enough to welcome the
Defence Association because it meant dealing with one opponent and not
employers continued to conduct their deliberations in
camera, releasing press statements rarely, though a journalist on
the West Australian secured
what we would now refer to as inspired leaks. By contrast, the workers
held most of their discussions on the Esplanade. This tactical, even
strategic advantage for the employers came through what the West
Australian called their ‘policy of silence’ and was easier to
sustain among fifty-six Masters than some 3,000 workmen.
The Plasterers moved their meeting on 13 February to inside Jacoby’s
from the Esplanade ‘as they did not deem it wise to have the
with even a partial withdrawal of labour from February 1, the employers
strengthened their organisation. Their Monday afternoon meeting in St
George’s Hall confirmed the transformation of the Defence Association
into a permanent Employers’ Association to take over from the
B&CA. Membership had grown from forty to fifty-six, including the
Timber Merchants’ Association. Some Masters had succeeded in pushing
wages for labourers on some sites down from ten to nine shillings.
contractors relied on architects to manage their projects, the two
groups had conferred in September on how to deal with the threat of a
second stoppage, meeting again just before the strike started.
The architects had not been organised until May 1896 when they
established their Institute.
During February, some tried to use their supervision of works to prevent
contractors from paying the higher rates.
One architect felt that twelve shillings was fair but the firms needed
two months notice; another thought that the carpenters would succeed due
to shortages of labour.
Diver wanted an architect to be on conciliation committee and to have
the deciding vote.
With his keener understanding of the ‘enemy’, Mellor denounced an
alliance between landowners, ‘spurious’ contractors and architects
against the workers and the ‘genuine’ contractors.
The fight is on
only had the BLS failed to insist on a blanket withdrawal across the
industry but allowed men who got the higher rates to keep working
alongside those who had not. It was common practice for employers to pay
more for men with experience or knacks. Instead of using those workers
as leverage for the rest, the unions left the employers with the means
to undermine the campaign. Even where all the labourers had struck,
employers were able to bring in ‘a few of the best labourers in order
that the work would not be altogether stopped’. On the Stock Exchange
building, the most skilled carpenters and labourers got the higher rate
until the contractor heard what his foreman had done, whereupon he
dismissed all the men, including the foreman. Confusion was twice
confounded at the Bank of Australasia on St George’s-terrace when a
member of the Employers’ Association paid the higher rate to the
labourers but not to the carpenters.
Although such arrangements breached the unity of both classes,
site-by-site settlements did more harm to the loosely organised
unionists than among the Masters who were tightening the controls over
their own kind.
a reporter on the West Australian
visited sites early on the Monday, he found that ‘the usual noise and
bustle incidental to building operation had greatly slackened’. The
unionists gathered in knots discussing the likelihood of their
demand’s being met but soon realised that the employers were not
bluffing. A number of non-unionists then went to work despite
‘contemptuous remarks from the strikers’ who hung about for hours.
Only at the extensions to Baun’s Palace Hotel in William Street was
indignation voiced in ‘impolite terms’ such as ‘You -------- scab,
boo-hoo!’ The reporter retreated from his inspection of one site where
a ‘burly striker’ mistook him for ‘another blanky hod-carrier
looking for a job at nine bob a day’.
strikers were even more outraged by the sight of Italians labouring on
public buildings for that lower rate.
After four were taken on, one dropped his hod and walked off but the
others kept unloading bricks until dismissed because bricklayers and
plasterers refused to work with ‘coloured’ labour, one hoddie
identifying the Italians as Asiatics.
A contractor for public works replaced unionists with Italians on a
lower rate of pay. Mellor called them ‘Italian slaves’, alleging
report raised the prospect of the unions’ rescuing the Italians. After
all, on May Day, he had spoken in support of those struggling for
reforms everywhere. Instead, the stonemasons walked off rather than
‘work with alien labour’. Mellor understood what the bosses were up
to but failed to follow through on his socialism to defend the Italians
as doubly exploited.
The West Australian’s reporter concluded that ‘the majority’ of
carpenters and labourers had ‘departed’. Although few other
tradesmen were affected on the first day, a handful of plasterers and
bricklayers had to be stood down because there were no hod-carriers to
supply mortar and bricks. The plasterers accepted the situation because
they had served notice of joining the action from the following Monday,
8 February. The bricklayers had just won the twelve-shilling rate so
that ‘[h]ere and there one would see a single bricklayer loading his
barrow and hauling it to the top and continuing his work’. Such
‘dual capacity’ was commonplace on smaller jobs at any time since
any number of bricklayers were ‘jumped-up’ hod-carriers. Of the
tradesmen, the carpenters were the most determined and united in their
refusal to work for less than the twelve shillings as they squatted on
the footpaths, ‘their tools carefully packed up’, waiting for their
employers to yield.
When the Stonemasons met that night, they agreed to go after the
increase - once the others had succeeded.
site-by-site approach by the unions allowed both sides to claim success
at the close of that first day, with the reporter for the West
Australian recalling that the wage dispute in August had generated
opinion rather than fact. Late Monday, the Employers’ Association
declared that thirty-nine of the fifty-six firms it represented had
suffered no stoppage upon denying the demand. A few men walked away from
seventeen sites which nonetheless were able to continue. A reliable
estimate was that 100 men had stopped while thirty jobs were still ‘in
full swing’. For their part, the unions pointed to twenty firms paying
the higher rate. Diver acknowledged that only 200 of the 800 carpenters
were getting the increase, though he himself had been taken on that
morning for twelve shillings.
officials collected the names of workmen who were continuing on the old
wage so that they might be spoken with. The unions had yet to appoint
committees to call upon those who were working at the lower rate.
Two days later, picketing and interviewing were still being arranged.
the crowd, a rank-and-file carpenter raised the fatal point when he
being told that the ASC&J allowed each man to make his own
arrangement, the workman replied:
views of the complainant attracted more support as the Masters showed no
sign of retreat. Groups on the fringes of the gathering on Wednesday
afternoon debated whether the unions should have begun by calling a
general strike until everyone got the higher rates. The prospect of a
victory for the employers convinced a body of the strikers that it was
fast becoming time to withdraw those who had won the increase.
the first morning, a few stopped for a brief while but no member of the
ASC&J had walked off, according to its branch secretary. Carpenters
in government joinery shops continued as usual. During the August
dispute, the Commissioner of Works had promised to match the standard
rate in non-government employment. Some tradesmen employed by the
government were getting only ten shillings or ten shillings and
sixpence, which Diver said was their ‘own fault’, an explanation
which did not speak well of the Society’s organisation.
unidentified official from the Employers’ Association later felt that
the resumption of work had removed any need to recruit men from the
A fortnight after the dispute had ended, another anonymous source denied
that their plan had been a ploy, telling a reporter that the Association
had contracted seventy-five men from Melbourne, but had not finalised
arrangements for an equal number in Sydney before deciding not to
proceed. He expected that the Melbourne contingent would allow employers
to weed out the ‘duffers’, which might have included militants.
The West Australian did not
report the arrival of their seventy-five from Melbourne during March. No
doubt, individual builders continued to hire tradesmen from the Eastern
colonies, and it was perhaps their arrival that the Morning
Herald noted after the Carpenters had returned.
more grit than many other sections of the building trades, the Fremantle
Plasterers voted that the two-thirds of the locals in receipt of the
higher rate should contribute half of their earnings to support those on
The branch remained resolute, deciding to stop the few jobs where the
higher wage was not in force. On Saturday, 13 February, they voted to
withdraw all those not getting the twelve shillings from Monday.
Maintaining their ‘very determined position’, eight members there
struck, with only one failing to do so.
On Saturday, 20th, the branch accepted a compromise under which the
strikers would return on eleven shillings until 1 March after which the
higher rate was to become universal.
the Perth Plasterers joined the strike after it had been going for a
week. When the branch met on Wednesday evening, 10th, some
reported that employers were ‘boycotting’ unionists and compliant
sub-contractors, and were making eleven shillings the general rate,
though they continued to pay extra for special categories of workers.
The men argued for several hours over whether to call out those on the
higher rate, before pledging to follow the decisions of the mass meeting
of all the building workers on the coming Saturday.
fact, the Plasterers ignored the disarray of the Carpenters and
Labourers by voting ‘unanimously to continue the struggle to the
bitter end’. Although their officers claimed to have ‘plenty of
funds’ to support the six of their fellows not getting the twelve
shillings, the branch doubled the daily levy on those at work to two
When the fifty plasterers met again on Wednesday, 17 February, they
provided strike pay for fifteen men not in receipt of the extra
and non-union plasterers met on Saturday 20 February, and again on the
following Tuesday, by which time all but three were on the higher rate.
The meeting decided to push on for them too, confident of complete
success since Masters were asking the union to supply men at the top
On Saturday 27, they again agreed to persevere to make the higher rate
By 6 March, all were in work, and almost all had the twelve shillings so
that the branch decided to call off its strike and refund the unused
They had started later and lasted two weeks longer than the carpenters,
and were in a stronger position than the painters.
often favored such discriminations because they were more likely to be
in demand than the drifters.
Builders’ labourers were divided between navvies and those with
knacks, such as hod-carriers and scaffolders, with the latter expecting
more pay, a distinction which drew on experience, energy and competence,
not formal training.
all grades in every trade resented an employer’s setting their wages
according to his estimate of their worth.
The Masters wanted to pay for results, using piece-rates to push up
output and by allowing one man a few pence more to set a cracking pace
for the rest so as to intensify exploitation.
For craftsmanship, they paid top money, as with decoration in paint or
plaster, and weaving an arch or chimney.
building unions elected Mellor to chair their strike committee and
endorsed a mass meeting for Wednesday 10 February to debate whether to
end the dispute, or to call out all building workers.
When he fell ill and was unable to arrange this crucial event,
Carpenters’ secretary Diver promised to book a room but could not find
one suitable for the Wednesday. He felt that Thursday was ‘an
inconvenient day’. After consulting Mellor, he secured a room at the
Oddfellows for Friday.
What happened next was closer to sabotage than farce. The Carpenters’
Society held a smoke night on the floor above the strike meeting. Diver
explained that the dispute had caused that social to be postponed to
this Friday; he and Pearce felt that ‘they must keep faith’ with
those who had paid for their tickets.
labourers and tradesmen argued about how to proceed. Overshadowing their
differences was the fact that fewer than 300 had come and many left
before the votes were taken. The wording of Mellor’s initial motion
conveyed that the campaign was in a mess:
Bricklayers’ secretary seconded the proposal, listing three
peculiarities of the industry as grounds for supporting closer ties:
first, the tradesmen and labourers depended on each other to perform
their tasks; secondly, they all worked on an hour’s notice and thus
needed a body which could act promptly in their interests; thirdly, the
new council could respond according to the conditions across the
unanimity behind Mellor’s motion dissolved as soon as others suggested
steps requiring immediate action or further sacrifice. Martin Hannah
from the Bricklayers wanted ‘all workers employed on buildings where
the increased wages are not being publicly paid … to cease work on
Saturday next’. Mellor and Monty Miller spoke against on the grounds
that no one knew who was getting the increase. Mellor declared that the
only way to get over that confusion was to call everyone out tomorrow,
which was carried by a large majority of the small attendance. The
Plasterers’ secretary, Furniss, contended that the motion made them a
‘laughing stock’ because barely five percent of the 3,000 building
workers were present to support it; he blamed the Carpenters’
officials, Pearce and Diver, for instructing their members to return on
Monday, a betrayal evidenced by their absence.
the carpenters met on the Esplanade on the next afternoon, they peppered
Diver and Pearce with uncomplimentary remarks for recommending a return
to work ‘pending negotiations’. Monty Miller had already compared
Pearce’s attendance at the social instead of the mass meeting with
while a voice from the crowd accused Pearce of ‘drinking champagne
Pearce rebutted Diver’s explanation for the debacle of the previous
night, declaring that discussions with the Masters had convinced him
that his members would be best served by refusing to join an
industry-wide stoppage, ‘and that was the reason for the absence of
the society from the mass meeting’. The fault, he averred, lay with
the lack of organisation in the trades,
to which a carpenter interjected: ‘Why didn’t you think of that
attributed the disarray to Pearce’s mismanagement. Miller complained
that Pearce and Diver had not kept him informed as a leader of the
non-unionist section of the strikers. Miller’s son admitted that,
while he had gone out for two weeks, he had been forced to return by
‘dire necessity’ and because of the disorder inside the ASC&J.
The vote on a motion to extend the strike exposed how chaotic matters
had become when ‘derisive laughter’ greeted Pearce’s declaration
that the motion had been lost although only seven had raised their hands
VI - The making of classes
gap existed between the condition of the classes globally and the level
of its development in the colony, which had been self-governing since
only 1890. The newcomers on both sides of the class divide brought
experiences from elsewhere in Australia and from the United Kingdom, but
many of their organisations were less than a year old, for example, the
Master Plasterers did not form their Association until the 1897 dispute
had been running for two weeks.
strike spotlights a perennial dilemma for working people: is the best
way to build up a union by initiating a campaign to attract members, or
by constructing a fortress before taking on the boss? There are plenty
of examples of neither succeeding. To move too soon is as likely to end
in defeat as waiting for maximum strength is sure to result in inertia.
That the defeat in February weakened the Builders’ Labourers’
Society was clear in June when only twenty attended, though seven
conduct of the strike highlighted the weaknesses in the unions.
Confusion reigned over who should have stopped. Few insisted on one out,
all out. Even Mellor went along with calling out only those on jobs
where the claims had not been met for all workers. In those cases, there
was no suggestion that tradesmen should stop in support of labourers.
Had the industry been organised thoroughly, it might have been sensible
not to call everyone out at once. As it was, the failure to mobilise all
the unionists was disastrous, if explicable given that so many had
joined in the belief that they would not need to struggle. As a result,
workers had difficulty in recognising the line between unionists and
non-unionists, between strikers and non-strikers, or even between
strikers and scabs. Instead, a cry of blackleg against Miller junior was
rebuffed with a call to show towards each other ‘the kindness and
sympathy’ not displayed by ‘the Weld Club’.
approach of the Furniture Trades Union to securing the twelve shillings
suggested lessons for the others. An agreement with the employers
required that the union give a month’s notice of any alteration. A
meeting on 27 January voted to inform members of the proposal to enforce
the higher rate by summoning them to a special meeting to decide on a
course of action should the employers refuse the improved terms. The
union also warned members who continued to work below the new minimum
rate that they were to be fined or expelled.
These preparations contributed to the cohesion needed to bring success,
given that the Union had only £15 in the bank.
Of course, the furniture trade was easier to arrange because the Union
had fewer members, they were settled in workshops and were fairly well
skilled. They were also united by their obsession with excluding
Although rejection of the Chinese and Italians fractured the class,
opposition to them added to the solidarity among the majority.
1896, preparations for a parliamentary voice in a Labor Party
contributed to a sense of class beyond each trade, industry and locale.
The impulse towards this representation gained from the campaigns to
support Federation so that, by March-April 1901, the party attracted a
quarter of the votes for the State Assembly and a third for the
inaugural House of Representatives. 
Such achievements added to cohesion at the expense of militancy.
the unions had to overcome distinctions between Perth and Fremantle,
between the coast and the goldfields, between labourers and tradesmen,
in addition to the fracturing caused by differential rates within the
same trade. The effort required was more taxing around building sites,
where men were forever coming and going, than at workshops. In Perth
during the gold boom, these difficulties were compounded by blow-ins
chasing a day’s pay to tide them over. Mellor had lamented that
workmen did not know each other’s names. One way to overcome this
isolation was through campaigns such as the 1897 dispute, which brought
hundreds together for the first time. Other methods were the parades on
Eight-hour day in October and for May Day, the speakers’ platforms on
the Esplanade every Sunday, followed by discussions at the Labour
Church. In like vein, four weeks after the strike collapsed, a BLS
social attracted 120 paying guests, including representatives from the
other building unions and the TLC, where ‘mirth, music and good
fellowship’ flowed from recitations and clog dancing.
The benefit concerts for Mellor’s family were more examples of
cultural endeavours, which, though not counter-hegemonic, at least were
distinct from the offerings of entrepreneurs and the official ideologies
under compulsory schooling. Labor still no voice in the press.
the audited accounts of the Mellor Relief Fund showed £54 paid to
canvassers, an anonymous correspondent to the West
Australian lamented that no friend or comrade of Mellor’s had
emulated the principles practiced by the deceased.
The prospect of a volunteer’s succeeding has to be seen against the
difficulties that the Bakers’ Society had in collecting donations,
which was drawn out over two months while retrieving its subscription
Its honorary officers relied on members attending branch meetings, which
was never easy because of their early morning starts. With no paid
staff, the unions employed canvassers, as did most charities. On
becoming secretary of the coastal TLC in April 1898, Fred Davis, a
bricklayer, was the colony’s first fulltime union official.
weaknesses were sooner overcome than ideological ones. The utopianism in
labour thinking, and not only in the West, became apparent shortly after
the 1897 strike when Monty Miller accepted the presidency of the
Theosophical Society, at which he presented Madame Blavatsky’s
critique of Darwin.
Miller never faltered in advocating reform, speaking on the Esplanade
every Sunday in 1899, indeed, to any gathering that would have him.
That year, he proposed anti-capitalist resolutions at May Day,
contending that ‘monopoly’ caused ‘social misery, mental
degradation and political dependence’.
He warned the Henry George League against bi-metallism in favour of
‘labour notes’, a notion popularised by the Frenchman, Pierre Joseph
Miller favoured a single-tax on land but only in as much as it precluded
His opposition to the colony’s joining the Commonwealth differed from
the arguments of the comrades he had left in Victoria, who endorsed the
Federal principle but rejected the draft constitution as undemocratic.
Miller idealised the federalism of the Swiss because it was rooted in
Fearful that Western Australia was too immature to survive federating,
he presented a lyrical defence of life on the land and of the local
farmers whose interests would be swamped by the political and economic
forces entrenched in the Eastern colonies.
Into this medley of philosophical and political schemes, Miller wove his
leadership of the Social Democratic Federation from 1901.
Mellor was more scientific than Miller in seeing the employers as ‘the
enemy’, he too was subject to the belief that land-owning monopolists
were the root of the social question: ‘Strikes in the long run have a
bad effect upon almost everyone but the landowner, and he goes smoothly
along through it all’. Mellor accused the urban landholders of using
‘dummy’, or ‘spurious’ contractors, in an alliance with the
architects to impose a ‘tyranny’ over the ‘genuine’ contractors
who would otherwise have met the higher rates.
what we have seen about Mellor as proletarian protagonist, what can we
say about how the labour movement in the West might have differed had he
Although ‘what if?’ invites vacuity, we can suppose that, even had
he gone into parliament, he would have countered, for a time, the
cautiousness of Pearce and of Henry Daglish (premier in 1904-05) who
both found their way into non-Labor parties. What can be said with
greater confidence is that had Mellor stayed on in the West, the story
of its builders’ labourers would have been different. Following
Mellor’s death, a shuffle took place among office-bearers in July, by
when Martin had recovered sufficiently to serve as treasurer, and C A
Ellis became secretary and J Ede president.
With Mellor’s presence, it is less likely that their Society would
have collapsed between 1898 and 1908, or that, thereafter, its
successors would have remained a minor player until the 1970s.
grounds for these hypotheses are Mellor’s role during the 1897
dispute, which carried forward the militancy, intelligence and span of
sympathies that he had exhibited throughout his career, and the respect
that these qualities evoked when he met his death by a means so common
among builders’ labourers as to defy being called an accident.
Of this much more we can be certain: Mellor would have answered the call
from the 1899 Trades Union and Labor Congress at Coolgardie:
West Australian (WA),
We can assume that this money came from sale of land and for the
small amount that Mellor had paid off the mortgage. In May 1897, a
four-room house in Subiaco sold for £150, on a £60 deposit, Morning Herald (MH),
Commonweal, 6 February
1892, [p. 2].
Bruce Scates, A New
years later, Mellor declined to welcome Trenwith when he passed
through Perth on his honeymoon to England,
WA, 23 September 1896, p. 4; Mellor failed to find a seconder
for his objecting to the TLC’s having spent £3 17s 4d on a cable
to Trenwith asking him to break his journey; Mellor argued that the
account should have been met from the funds collected for that
purpose through a subscription list, WA, 26 February 1897, p. 2. The Council’s interest in Trenwith was
part of its moves to create a Labor Party for the 1897 elections, J
H Gibbney, ‘
Mellor combined with Hugh de Largie who had come across to
WA, 3 May 1897, p. 4,
sentiments supported by the Rev. Dr Zillman, a free-thought speaker
from the United States, who could also lecture on Mahometanism, WA, 5 February 1898, p. 4.
J M Freeland, The Making of a
Profession, A history of
the Growth and Work of the Architectural Institute in Australia,
A&R, Sydney, 1971, chapter 6; Ray and John Oldham, George
Temple-Poole, architect of the golden years, 1885-1897, UWA
Press, Nedlands, 1980.
prejudice of bourgeois historians shows in the failure of Margaret
Pitt-Morrison and John White, writing on ‘Builders and
Buildings’, to lift their sights beyond architects and
businessmen, few of whom ever laid a brick, let alone raised a
building, C T Stannage (ed.), A New History of Western Australia, University of Western Australia
Press, Nedlands, 1981, pp. 511-50.
Coghlan, Labour and Industry
See my ‘Improvising Nomads’, Journal
of Australian Colonial History (JACH),
10 (2), 2008, pp. 238-43.
Transcript of the 1913 Award Hearings in the Commonwealth
Conciliation and Arbitration Court, Australian Builders’ Labourers’
Federation v A W Archer, B 1958 (B/1958) 9/1912, pp. 72 and 132; Builders’ Labourers’ News (Melb.), 12 May 1916, p. 2.
third brother, Robert, had been secretary of the South Australian
Bricklayers and the first secretary of the colony’s United Trades
and Labor Council in 1884, before being killed on a Melbourne job on
Gibbney, Thesis, p. 65.
Six weeks before Mellor’s death, the Under-Secretary wrote to the TLC to say that the Crown Law offices had advised that the appointment of an inspector would be useless, that such a person would be trespassing and without the power to prosecute. Since these problems could be overcome only by legislation, the authorities promised to ‘bear the matter in mind and consider what steps, if any, can be advantageously taken, whenever the opportunity may offer’, WA, 23 April 1897, p. 6. The government did not appoint its own scaffolding inspectors until 1924, see my Framework of Flesh, Builders’ labourers battle for health and safety, Ginninderra, Port Adelaide, 2009, pp. 41-42.
told a mass meeting that ‘they could not expect anything like
justice from those who ran the newspapers in
Freeland, The Making of a
Profession, pp. 116-18; for pen sketches of a slightly later
cohort of contractors see J S Battye, Cyclopedia
of Western Australia, volume I, Cyclopedia Company, Adelaide,
1912, pp. 648-60.
Freeland, The Making of a
Profession, p. 117.
Shields, Thesis, pp. 107-10; Sydney
 WA, 5 March 1897, p. 4, 20 March 1897, p. 5, 3 April 1897, p. 4; Jill Roe, Beyond belief: theosophy in Australia 1879-1939, University of NSW Press, Kensington, 1986, pp. 36 and 118; Hearn, Labour History, November 2003.
Mellor’s death was one of several where promise was cut down, such
as Victorian Frank Hyett in 1919, who died from the Spanish Flu, A
Dictionary of Biography, vol. 9, MUP, Carlton, 1983, pp. 422-3,
and Percy Brookfield, Industrial Socialist MLA for Broken Hill, who
fell to a madman’s bullet in 1921, Paul Robert Adams, The
Best Hated Man in Australia’: The Life and Death of Percy
Brookfield 1875-1921, Puncher & Wattmann, The Glebe, 2010.
In addition, there is the loss of the unknown worker-soldiers who
did not survive the battlefields that shook the faith in capitalism
of survivors such as the West Australian Bert Facey, A
Fortunate Life, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 1981,