Students majoring in History at the University of Melbourne complete a capstone subject, Making History, in their final year of study. In 2015, students completed both an archival research essay and a collaborative digital project using Omeka.net to showcase their archival research findings. This site has been developed from one of these projects, and contains student essays and previously undigitised material from archival sources.
The Trades Hall: Beginnings
18 August, 1855. Stonemasons working on construction projects in Sydney delivered an ultimatum to their employers, demanding a new kind of fair working conditions: “eight hours work, eight hours recreation, eight hours rest”. In seven short months, the aim was secured, but with a corresponding reduction in pay. Victoria’s stonemasons would not take the same treatment. On the 21st of April 1856, workers at the University of Melbourne downed their tools and marched on Parliament House. In just two years the eight-hour day with no loss of pay was well-established across all building trades, and rapidly spreading farther. For the first time anywhere in the world, trade unions were beginning to wield influence, and growing rapidly. The Eight Hours Movement in Australia was born.[i]
Trade unions in the Colony of New South Wales had begun to form in the 1840s, but the discovery of gold in 1851 was the catalyst in a transformation that would deeply shape the world of labour in Victoria, Australia, and the world. The population of Australia rose from 437,665 in 1851 to 1,168,149 in 1861, and gold by the ton rapidly made Melbourne an enormously wealthy city. [ii] The gold boom drove massive industrial expansion, particularly in construction: great buildings including Parliament House, the State Library, Customs House and the Melbourne Town Hall were planned and built astoundingly rapidly, fuelled by the price of gold and the influx of migrants looking for work at any cost. Many of the new migrants were British and Irish radicals experienced in labour organisation, protest techniques, who began to campaign for solidarity among “the true pioneers of the colony…the producing classes.” [iii] Often forced to work twelve- or fourteen-hour days, these labourers united to achieve better working conditions, first in the construction industry and then farther afield.
Even before the eight hour day was achieved, unions were beginning to consider producing a building, for healthy recreation and education for the labouring men, and for meetings of the trade unions.[iv] On 3 June 1858, a great fundraiser was held for the construction of the Victorian Trades Hall: as a poem read at the event had it, “a place where workmen may their minds engage, to useful purpose o’er the printed page…[a] people’s palace…built and own’d by hardy sons of toil.”[v] Melbourne’s Trades Hall, the first in the world was constructed of timber in 1859, and the great stone building that followed in stages from 1875 to 1926 became a site for events that would shape Australia’s history: the great industrial strikes of the 1880s; campaigns against conscription during World War One; anti-immigration agitation in the 1890s and again in the 1940s; and continuing fights for fair living conditions, working conditions and wages. Explore this site to find out more about the Victorian Trades Hall and its pivotal role in the Australian labour movement to the present day.