“Unemployed at last!”

“Out of work again.” With that cry, Thomas Dobeson opened his reminiscences of five years of being in and out of work around Sydney in the late 1880s. He had trained as a machinist in England before immigrating with his wife and children in 1886. Machinists were not skilled craftsman but factory-hands who turned out fittings. He had been attracted by publicity about New South Wales as “the workingman’s paradise, where they pay 10/- a day and eight hours work and everybody happy.”

In his 20,000-word narrative, Dobeson made no mention of unionism. His social outlook was progressive, though not radical. As a person, he remained aloof, clinging to a view of himself as a superior kind of worker even as he chased pick-and-shovel jobs.

Dobeson tracked the need that working people have to turn their hands to whatever would put food on the table: he sharpens saws at sixpence a time; finds a day’s work as a poll clerk; is caretaker for a Town Hall; tenders for building repairs; fails as a shopkeeper.

His anecdotes make it clear why he concluded that looking for work could be harder than the work itself:

Let us go together kind Reader and look for work. We take a morning’s paper and go into town. I will take you to one advertisement. Wanted 6 good ______s, apply Sussex St at 9 o’clock. We go there at half past eight and find the place easily. There is a crowd waiting for the same purpose. We will count them. I would say without doubt there are about 120 here now and it wants five minutes to nine. Many men are picked out before I see who the boss is. The successful ones get two days work and then they are thrown out again.

But I am not done with you yet. The day is early and we must not tarry. We will see what is in the tenders. Here is one. Tenders wanted for thoroughly doing up a house. Apply _________ Hotel … No sign of the owner but there is a mob of painters, carpenters and labourers etc. We wait for two hours. There are about 30 men here now and a lot more at the end of the street. They don’t like to come nearer.

The not entirely sober boss finally turns up to show the men what he wants done:

This painted. That colored. Those broken squares of glass replaced. All this kitchen floor repaired which is cement. Fence repaired. In fact everything like a new penny, says Mr Public House Keeper in a loud voice. And so we all made out our tenders and delivered them into his hand. This was to find material and labor. My tender was ₤4.5.0 and what I would make out of this would be very little about 3/- a day.

The publican went for the lowest bid, ₤2.10.0. “That is the way we do it in this glorious country. Now dear reader it is time to go home. Nothing to find after this time in the shape of work.”  

Dobeson later got a contract to put on a roof. He quoted ₤12. A rival offered to do it for six. The contractor recognized that the work could not be done for so little, so Dobeson prepared to start:

I have the usual wait of two or three days for stuff. I get started. The heat is intense. Being out in he glaring sun all day it peels the skin off, but I begin to feel my old self again. Nothing like a bit of work to pull you together.

Dobeson learned to chase every possibility. He followed a cartload of timber to ask its owner for work. The job had been let, but the Master asked him to quote. Weeks passed. Then, one Sunday, the cart-owner gave Dobeson a start: “Hard graft. Boss stands over you all day, with his lamps on a fellow. The wage is a little over ₤2.10.0 a week. I am very grateful for this little spell of work.”

Meanwhile, Mrs Dobeson had earned six shillings from dress-making. Her effort indicates that married women with children did more paid work than Mr Coghlan registered in his statistics. Dobeson sold his overcoat for the cost of the material, giving away the labour that he and his wife had put into its making.

ML MSS 1920 CY 731