[Editor’s Note: Here is another excellent story of how the workers of Kyneton, a central Victorian town, fought back against economic depression in the middle of the 19th century. Why do I feel that Humphrey McQueen’s words could easily describe our current global crisis and the need for better worker organisation?]
From ‘We Built this Country – Builders’ Labourers and their Unions’ By Humphrey McQueen
The Golden Age wound down during 1854. The unemployed protested; some formed associations. Many got relief work at minimum rates. All were denounced in the Press and from pulpits as loafers. A number served three months gaol for vagrancy, others for breach of contract in violations of the Master and Servant Act. By 1858, colonists looked forward to the start of railway construction as a second rush. Many applied as navvies but few were chosen. Some unionists called for tariffs to protect infant industries in order to provide quality work.
Labour was in such over-supply that even skilled mechanics felt the pinch. Labourers went bush looking for work; they came back declaring that times were harder up country. A failed prospector, J. Watmuff, eventually found work at blasting the Keilor plains. His wage was 10s for the days when it did not rain. Irrespective of the weather, he had to pay 5s a day for his food and for a spot in a tent without bedding. Three weeks of such abuse was as much as he could take.
Nominal wages rates fluctuated so wildly during the 1850s that it is more than usually difficult to discern how well off the workers were. An article in the Argus (8.10.63: 5e) estimated that weekly earnings for an artisan exceeded expenses by 2s 6d in 1850, by £1 2s 4d in 1853, and by 15s 5d in 1859. If we accept those figures, and assume that the socially necessary costs of keeping a labourer’s family were not much below those for an artisan’s, then the labourers saved next-to-nothing during 1859 or 1860.
To make matters worse, as tax revenues fell by almost a half between 1855 and 1861, the government reacted by selling off land alongside the rail tracks before they were finished. The railway labourers who had set up a ‘snug’ dwelling for their families on Crown land close to their worksites had to abandon their squats. They then sought rental accommodation, increasing the amount they needed to survive. (Argus, 11.5.60: 7b)
There are too many variables to be confident of any conclusion about earnings. Rents might have been lower for labourers, especially those in the country. Costs of foodstuffs depended on whether the rural navvy had access to town shops or was in thrall to the sub-contractor’s store. In that case, he was likely to be more like a peon than a free labourer. As ever, the gravest concern was that the wages he earned would not be paid at all. Men on public works were owed up to £10 by ‘speculative contractors’. Labourers at Buckleys, for instance, were told that they were to be paid monthly but got nothing except abuse from clerks who sore ‘like navvies’. (Argus, 4.7.60: 3g) The workers’ representative, Charles Don, introduced a bill in March 1960 to impose a lien on wages and impose penalties on defaulting masters. (Argus, 8.2.60: 4e; 28.2.60: 5g)
Bruce the bastard
Although the rail contractors were known as Bruce & Cornish, Cornish had died in March 1859, leaving John Vans Agnew Bruce in charge of the £3,357,000 contract to build the line from Melbourne to the Murray. Bruce was a bastard of a master and corrupt, using his control of government funds to bribe officials and politicians. Late in 1860, he broke down the Stonemason’s Society which paid out thousands of pounds in strike pay but was beaten by the economic collapse.
Action against Bruce ran throughout 1861. The Stonemasons went out in January over a cut in their wages. (Argus, 14.1.61: 5d) Three months later, they struck again against their work being sub-contracted. They feared that they would never see any money if it
did not come from the main contractor. Bruce imported German and Swiss masons to break the union, but they also struck against their labour being sub-let. (Argus, 29.4.61: 5e) The overseers for Bruce became the sub-contractors. When one of them shot through with the money, the men took Bruce to court in late May, but lost. The Government had to decide who held the contract. (Argus, 24.5.61: 5a) Within days, the contractors recruited black-legs from among Melbourne’s long-term unemployed. Two weeks later, the masons returned after conceding to the contractor’s demands. (Argus, 18.5.61: 5e; 11.6.61: 5g)
Before the end of July, Bruce had cut the labourers’ wages. This phase of the dispute centred on the repair gangs, chosen from the most efficient. They were called out in all weathers, even Sundays if needed. Their wages were to be slashed from eight to six shillings. The gangs refused a compromise of seven. (Argus, 5.8.61: 5d) Ordinary navvies would continue on five shillings. Even the Argus suspected that the general labourers could not live on that sum, and suggested that the contractors reduce the prices they charged for necessities. (Argus, 7.8.61: 4g)
The navvies struck. On 31 July, they marched down the line towards Kyneton, upending equipment as they went. The Police Magistrate calmed the situation by agreeing to take their demands to Melbourne. The government responded by sending 100 police, under the command of the Chief Commissioner who enrolled ninety special constables. In Kyneton, a parade of the local Volunteers alarmed those whom they were supposed to protect. (Mt Alexander Mail, 7.8.1861: [3c]) The banks sent their gold under escort to Melbourne. Bakers boarded over their shopfronts. The Age received telegrams from Kyneton and Woodend prophesying murder and mayhem. The follow-up messages reported that all gatherings had been peaceful. (Age, 6.8.1861: 4d-e.)
The Argus correspondent sent up from Melbourne decided that rumours had run riot more than had the navvies. The Herald was even more scathing about the unreliability of its rivals: ‘A pot-house quarrel between a couple of inebriated labourers will be reported as a serious riot, and a little rough work on the part of a handful of angry “navvies” will be telegraphed through the colony as a rebellion.’ Yet the willingness of the Press to allege that ‘some terrible catastrophe is impending at MUDFOG.’ (Herald, 8.8.1861: 4c-d) drew on memories of recent clashes. Who could forget Eureka, or an affray outside parliament the year before, or the anti-Chinese riots at Lambing Flat from February to June just past?
Behind the banner ‘No Surrender’, 300 strikers paraded through Castlemaine. From Kyneton, Harcourt and Castlemaine, 600 “‘urn-outs’ marched to Woodend on 4 August; with 150 following a green flag with the Harp of Erin. (Argus, 6.8.61: 5b) Some speakers at their rally complained about the uncertainty of employment. Others stressed the loss of time and money from the wet weather. All denounced the sub-sub-contractors who blew through with the wages. The men agreed that they could live on a guaranteed 30s a week. They could not exist on 5s a day, since so many days were lost to broken time. The navvies knew that their situation could be worse. Stonebreakers on public works got only 4s a cubic yard, and that took a day to crush. Those on private contracts were getting even less. (Argus, 5.8.61: 5d)
A deputation travelled from Woodend to meet Bruce and his chief officials in the Menzies hotel. Mr Simpson spoke up for the labourers. The Press noted that he had been on most of the delegations during the previous three years. Simpson was not overawed by meeting Bruce and his henchmen in the grandest hotel in the metropolis. Given the fluidity of society in the colonies, it is possible that Simpson had begun life as his Master’s equal. Simpson had not come to negotiate a compromise. He wanted to be certain that Bruce was set on 5s a day. If so, he had to make it clear that the labourers were equally determined to refuse that rate. He promised that there would be no more violence. Neither would there be any return to work. Whether Bruce tried to bribe Simpson is unknown. If so, he did not succeed. (Argus, 7.8.61: 4g)
These scraps are as much information about Mr Simpson as survives. Yet they are enough for us to appreciate the stamp of man he was, and something about the kind of organisation he represented. Simpson was a type well known to everyone in contact with working people, then or now. He is in the style of the labourers we meet throughout history. It has been a thousand like Mr Simpson who have raised the flag of stars in the making of the Australian working class.
Although Simpson had become well known from a series of disputes, the navvies did not form an organisation of their own, with elected officials, a statement of aims or a set of rules. To that extent, they were less structured than the Ballarat Reform League that led to Eureka in 1854. Yet they did not see their struggle as being confined to a few miles of track. They expected help from their fellows far and wide.
None of the strikers could have built up savings during the wet weeks before the strike. Yet they went without pay for several weeks. Since they could not live on hot air, where did their money come? Five labourers based at Porcupine signed a letter to the Mt Alexander Mail asking the citizens of Castlemaine to support a town meeting to raise funds for the strikers. That gathering set up the Castlemaine Railway Relief Committee to collect supplies from merchants and storekeepers, and seel subscriptions door-to-door. One small businessman called on his fellows to remember their own experiences as labourers. The chairman complained that some leading citizens had absented themselves. (Mt Alexander Mail, 14.8.1861: [3a]; 19.8.1861: [2c-d]) Nonetheless, the labourers were not isolated. The town shopkeepers resented the monopoly that the sub-contractors had over supplying Bruce’s workforce. In addition, Kyneton had a Mechanics’ Institute, a Manchester Unity Oddfellows Lodge, a Total Abstinence Society and a multitude of churches with which railway labourers associated.
The movement of the men disrupted any on-going organisation. At the same time, the contacts made during these travels spun a web of friends to send gifts, or loans. Some donations came perchance from mates striking it lucky on a gold field, while the navvies did a spot of fossicking and panning themselves.
That the labourers did not establish an industrial union does not mean that they were without political aims or organisation. Victorian politics had never settled down after the rebelliousness of 1853-54. From 1857 to 1859, tens of thousands from every town and hamlet elected representatives to the Land Convention, which was an alternative parliament. The slump added urgency to the cry ‘Unlock the lands!’ The disorder at protest meetings against a Land Act favourable to the squatters spooked the Assembly to voting in its favour. The campaign to put settlers on the land was welded onto demands to democratise the Legislative Council for which candidates had to hold £5,000 in freehold property and electors £1,000. The rail strike coincided with the elections at which a fresh phalanx of reformers won twenty-two of the twenty-seven seats on the goldfields, although Kyneton Boroughs was not among them.
Moreover, the labourers’ struggle in the winter of 1861 was no sudden outburst. The men had stuck up for their rights along every mile of the track, which reached Woodend on 18 July 1861. Three years earlier, in July 1858, Bruce’s employees had protested at being paid in kind rather than cash. When the leader-writer for the Argus opined that the drop in wages was no more than the workings of the law of supply and demand, one labourer provided a different explanation. The sub-contractors had conspired to dismiss all the men, before offering them their jobs back at a lower rate. When one sub-contractor continued to pay seven shillings, Bruce threatened to allow him no more work. Did not such dealings, the
epistolary labourer asked, amount to an ‘illegal combination’? (Argus, 16.8.61: 5g; for earlier correspondence in this vein, 4.7.60: 3g; 3.10.60: 6c; 11.5.60,: 7b; 7.1.61: 5e)
When the strikers met in Castlemaine on 17 August, one declared that he would rather steal than accept 5s a day; another said that he would not steal, but would do ‘many desperate things’; a third asserted that by standing firm ‘the working men of the colony had it now in their powers to crush the monopoly that employers of labour had hitherto enjoyed.’ (Argus, 19.8.1861: 5b)
Other strikers believed that Bruce could afford to wait them out because he had bribed the government into releasing him from the penalties for not completing the contract on time. The truth was that Bruce had been let off because the government had bowed to popular pressure to redirect the line through Kyneton. That change of plan provided him with an escape clause from the set cost. (Mt Alexander Mail, 19.8.1861: [2c-d]).
Once most of the police were withdrawn, the ‘turn-outs’ again drove the black-legs off. The remaining police got themselves out of the way, their commander taking himself to Melbourne to seek reinforcements. Ninety police returned the next day. (Argus, 14.8.1861: 5a; 15.8.61: 5b&e) The Press claimed that a majority of the navvies stayed on strike only out of fear, waxing indignant at the damage to property and at the driving off of black-legs. (Argus, 17.8.61: 5g; 18.8.61: 4g) Even allowing for exaggeration, some of the labourers did bash, or threaten those who signed on at 5s. The violence – physical and verbal – was a sign that many of the navvies had a different view of ‘seeing reason’ than that of the newspaper owners. If so, reporting fear as the explanation for the prolonged strike tells us much about the inability of the rich to grasp the realities of working life.
When strikers blocked the line and attempted to derail a train, the authorities offered rewards of up to £200 and a free pardon. The police used spies to gain convictions, a tactic from the gold fields. The memory of Eureka, seven years before, spurred both sides. Sent to Melbourne for trial, the ring-leaders were accused of firing shots and telling others to ‘bash the brains out’ of a sub-contractor, Mr Duxbury. (Argus, 17.8.61: 4g and 5g; 18.8.61: 4g)
Some of the men charged with incitement to riot and assault called witnesses to establish their sobriety and character. Several had their families with them along the line. How much credence can we place on this testimony? The magistrate accepted enough of it to acquit one accused and to be lenient towards the rest, sentencing them to fourteen days, when fourteen years would not have been out of place in a criminal trial for attempted murder. On the same day, a magistrate sentenced a Melbourne man to a month’s hard labour for stealing a coat. (Argus, 28.8.61: 6b)
Did the light punishments indicate that the sympathy voiced by the country Press for the labourers extended to the capital city? They were not tried in the local courts for the same reason as the Eureka rebels had been taken to Melbourne, this time to the court of petty sessions, and not before a jury of their peers. On the other side, the outcome of the trials can be seen as a wish to appease the navvies in the changed economic situation and out of a distaste for the methods of Bruce as the malefactor.
The police identified one of the ringleaders as Peter Henry, whom the others called ‘The Captain’. (Argus, 28.8.61: 4f, 6b-c) Whether this title had any political significance is not known. Thirty years earlier, ‘Captain Swing’ and his following among agricultural labourers had smashed machinery and attacked their masters before 481 were transported. The persistence of such memories was not unique. In 1865, rioters in Brisbane recalled Governor Bligh, the stoning of Lord Elgin in Montreal in 1849 and rallied behind the cry ‘Bread or Blood’ from England in the 1820s.
Simpson had told 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 Age announced that the first gold escort had reached Dunedin from the Otago rush, establishing the field as ‘an ascertained fact’. (6.8.1861: 5b) The Castlemaine paper, the Mt Alexander Mail, warned labourers against deserting the devil that they knew for the new Eldorado. (8.8.1861: [6d]; 21.8.61: [2b]; 23.8.61: [3d-f]) Nonetheless, thousands of Victorians headed for New Zealand. (Argus, 9.9.61: 4f) They followed the British troops who, in the opinion of the Herald, had been ferried from Melbourne since April 1860 to shoot ‘down the New Zealanders as savages because they won’t sell their land to the Government for an old song.’ (7.8.1861: 4d)
The absence of those troops and of 2,500 volunteers limited the government’s reliance on force. Those who believed that supply and demand decided the level of wages dreaded the loss of armed might to balance the scales of economic equilibrium.
Supply and demand
On 19 August, Bruce sent up a large body of men from Melbourne on 6s. The day after, his agent was offering to restore the 7s rate. Before the month was out, contractors on the Geelong to Ballarat line had to pay 10s. (Argus, 21.8.61: 4g; 22.8.61: 5b) It is surprising that Bruce’s death from apoplexy in April 1863 at age forty-one had not come nineteen months sooner.
The law of supply and demand had swung back in the favour of the men. The Herald considered that the rebalance of class forces was ‘due to higher causes … They are such as nature herself and destiny allot … To bear is to conquer our “fate”.’ (8.8.61: 4d) The Argus fumed, but could not abandon the law of the supply and demand as a law of nature, as approved by the Almighty. The worst fate that the Argus could predict for the navvies was that, by taking advantage of the labour shortage, they were laying the foundation for a future loss to themselves. High wages would discourage investors from new projects when conditions returned to whatever was normal in the colonies. (Argus, 16.8.1861: 4e)
State violence remained one pillar of that normality. In September, police escorted scabs to break the strike of day labourers at the Soldiers Hill cutting on the line to Ballarat. (Argus, 20.9.61: 5e) Exploitation, swindling, resistance and repression returned on the line around Kilmore in December 1870, (Age, 6-9.12.70: 3) as they must under he rule of capital.
We Built This Country is a broad-brush look at builders’ labourers and their
unions since the convict era.
‘It’ll have to be an unofficial history because no two officials
would agree about anything.’
The late John Cummins, Victorian BLF secretary Builders’ labourers build this country socially and culturally as well as with concrete. McQueen pictures them as ‘improvising nomads’ who contributed to the Australian legend. We follow the membership as it shifts between ‘Weird Mobs’ of Irish and Italians.
Led by Norm Gallagher and Jack Mundey, the BLF became the most
controversial union to erupt out of the rebellious Sixties. Builders’ labourers
rocked Australian cities with green bans and worker control.
Their struggles are retold by digging into campaigns from each State. The
stories are pitched against the demands of Messrs Construction Capital. The
experiences of the builders’ labourers thus open a window into the making of
the Australian working class.
We Built This Country is a companion to Framework of Flesh, Builders’ Labourers Battle for Health & Safety (Ginninderra Press, 2009).
Humphrey McQueen is a Canberra-based activist and freelance historian.