Review: The making of the Australian working class

by Diane Fieldes • Published 20 January 2019

Michael Quinlan, The Origins of Worker Mobilisation: Australia 1788-1850, Routledge

This is a remarkable, and remarkably useful, book. It is the outcome of an exhaustive project – over 30 years of excavating the history of workers’ struggles, exactly the kind of work that the neoliberal university has no time for. From those decades of systematic and comprehensive trawling through the colonial press and an enormous variety of official and personal records, Michael Quinlan has created an updateable data base (the empirical material on which the book is based) from which the earliest history of class struggle in this country can be fully appreciated.[1]

Using both qualitative and quantitative material, Quinlan brings to light formal and informal working class mobilisation. Strikes, court appearances, demonstrations, on-the-job action, mutual insurance schemes, trade union organisation, sabotage, mass absconding, petitions, political meetings and general rebelliousness all make an appearance. Prior to 1851 he has documented 5,047 instances of organisation by convict workers and 1,379 by free workers. Organisation by free workers is evident from 1790 but only grew strongly from the late 1820s and by 1841-50 had outstripped organisation among convicts. From these 6,426 instances of worker mobilisation there is evidence of 135 formal organisations/unions, including at least one union peak body, and over 20 instances where workers mobilised politically. The 6,426 figure represents, in Quinlan’s estimation, around 60-70 percent of worker organisation for which written evidence survives.

The book is awash with fascinating information from which political conclusions can be drawn, whether it is the critical role of urban centres for formal union organisation, or the way in which employment-related court cases (there were at least 330,000 such cases between 1788 and 1850, in colonies that only reached a population of 405,000 in 1850) reflect class conflict. Class organisation was not just a product of the second half of the nineteenth century, as much of the previously available historical research has tended to imply, but a living, breathing part of colonial society from the original invasion. These early struggles were frequently small-scale, and often ephemeral. But residues were left and those who came later were not starting anew. The Origins of Worker Mobilisation fills a notable gap in the historical record. For example, peak union organisation in Australia is commonly seen to originate in the 1850s with the eight-hour day movements and the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. There is evidence of organisation 15 years prior to this. Quinlan’s own summary indicates the breadth of his achievement:

[T]he book considered a wide array of worker organisation, formal and informal, involving unfree and free workers, men and women, European and non-European, all industries and occupations, industrial and political. It also considered a wide array of forms of collective action… Confining analysis to formal organisation, or failing to examine the relationship between formal and informal organisation, arguably provides a misleadingly narrow picture of worker mobilisation. The trajectory of mobilisation is more complex and previously neglected groups or industries assume more significance.[2]

The book is far more than just the empirical recording of facts which would put it in the “worthy but dull” category. It is alive with the humanity of those involved. Resistance is given not just voice but names, identities and personalities. It is not accidental that The Origins of Worker Mobilisation calls to mind the work of E.P. Thompson. Quinlan makes little reference to Marx, but he explicitly shares the passion and theoretical framework of the Marxist historians around Thompson who insisted that in making history the working class also make themselves. Like Thompson’s, Quinlan’s book makes clear that the working class is made not just by patterns of capital accumulation and market competition (about which there is plenty in chapters 5 to 10), but also by the struggles of workers striving to influence the conditions of their lives.

The book is also a contribution to a broader debate about labour history. Verity Burgmann’s intervention into this debate in 1999 summed up the problem as “a dismissive approach to Marxism, the significance of class and the emancipatory role or even potential of workers’ movements…has become the new dogma of much academic debate”.[3] Quinlan makes explicit reference to the way in which, mirroring the global decline in union density, a class struggle analysis in historical writing has given way to “a wider social history perspective and more recently identity analysis influenced by post-modernism and the rise of neoliberalism and the individualised discourse it promotes”.[4] In response, he argues (and the book illustrates) that “[t]hough no longer so fashionable, class remains an elemental characteristic of capitalist society”.[5] At a time when unions in countries like Australia are at a very low ebb of both membership and industrial action, Quinlan is concerned to defend the importance of strikes and union organisation. He points out that the results of his research suggest that formal organisation and strikes significantly improved outcomes for workers, further encouraging those who could to form unions:

[T]he transition to unions was rapid once there were barely enough free workers belonging to a trade and there were relatively few informal disputes once unions were established in a town. The relatively rapid shift to unions in the trades was not surprising given centuries-old experience and their generally stronger bargaining power.[6]

Far from having had their day, “[u]nions are a pivotal response to inequality at work under the capitalist mode of production. With all their limitations, unions were and remain the clearest and most undiluted expression of worker organisation that enhances class identity. This helps explain why after 700 years the role and influence of unions remains deeply contested even in countries where they have legal recognition.”[7]

Finally, as this argument about the importance of union organisation and strikes indicates, Quinlan’s historical analysis is never simply about the past. He explicitly relates contemporary examples of the class struggle to the early mobilisations that his book brings to light. Now as then, what workers get is always contested, never merely given.

The class struggle – sometimes open, sometimes hidden

One of the great strengths of The Origins of Worker Mobilisation is the way in which it gives a sense of the working class “making itself”. E.P. Thompson observed that the poor largely come to notice in historical records when they collide with the law. In chapter 2, “The Law, the Courts and Inequality at Work”, Quinlan points out that “[t]he pre-goldrush Australian colonies were replete with such collisions, hundreds of thousands of them, documented in convict conduct records, government gazettes, court bench-books and colonial newspapers. They provide a wealth of evidence on struggles over the inequality inherent in capitalist work arrangements”.[8] Such court appearances capture a tiny fragment of workers’ lives, yet despite involving workers as individuals, they form part of the development of a collective, class identity as workers generalise from their own experience of exploitation and oppression.

Quinlan’s numerous examples of the conflict between workers in the Australian colonies and their masters and mistresses bring the words of the Communist Manifesto to mind: “The history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggles. Freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf, guild-master and journeyman, in a word, oppressor and oppressed, stood in constant opposition to one another, carried on an uninterrupted, now hidden, now open fight”.

Although The Origins of Worker Mobilisation clearly focuses very heavily on the working class side, Quinlan stresses that the class struggle has two sides. The ruling class is never truly absent, whether through the exploitation and oppression that workers reacted against and that drove them to mobilise, or through the political rallying points of vicious labour legislation or the court system, where for example in rural districts “employer-cum-magistrates played musical chairs trying each other’s servants”.[9] Bosses intruded into every aspect of colonial workers’ lives, demanding demeaning rituals of supplication to authority such as removal of hats in their presence or punishment for failing to add “sir” when stating “here” at roll-call. Workers sought to throw off these shackles, rejecting the obsequiousness and status gradations to which their employers aspired.

Class sentiment is never far away. George Wells – a bootmaker and prominent spokesman for Adelaide working people – told one newspaper editor: “You speak of working men as degraded beings and willingly enter the list on behalf of employers. The reason why, I suppose, is because you belong to their class”. Another Adelaide trade society official declared master and journeymen interests were inimical and combination was “socialism itself and therefore radically good”.[10] The court records are full of accounts of workers’ desire for revenge on their employers. Many aggrieved servants took the opportunity to damage their masters by, for example, destroying their property or absconding. Court appearances also often resulted from the insolence or insubordination which was one of the ways open to workers to resist their employers’ never-ending demands. “Informed his master (Tilley) wasn’t much impressed with riveting of a brass knob onto a piece of iron, assigned mechanic John Hopner told Tilley to ‘do it himself’ (seven days confinement on bread and water). The same month Mary Wood assigned to Mrs Gould Pitt Street Sydney refused to wash six sheets belonging to Gould’s brother. A female servant hired to do washing refused to do ironing.”[11] It was often a small step from this to collective action. Individual refusals to work were common and employers were well aware how easily this could move to collective refusal – a strike. Some court cases involved workers charged with insubordination because they had refused work in the hearing of others, which was seen as inciting collective action. Songs and satirical mimicry were another common form of both collective affirmation and protest. Some vivid examples involved women, as did the construction of a dialect known as “talking flash”, designed to upset their “betters” while also disguising the true meaning of their words. Convict women in Female Factory protests were especially adept in its use, including sexual overtones they knew would affront their often religiously-inclined superintendents.[12]

Quinlan is concerned to reflect the colonial working class in all its diversity, and as these few vignettes illustrate, women workers stood their ground. In fact there were constant ruling class concerns about incarcerating women, largely a fear that far from having a salutary effect, it rendered them even more disrespectful of authority. As convict transportation wound down, the female component of the working class began to increase, and the class became more racially diverse. Employers began to look for what they perceived to be other sources of cheap subordinate labour in India, China and the Pacific. Indentured under worse conditions than free European workers, these workers (like the women) didn’t prove as tractable as hoped. “In 1846 Captain Robert Towns imported 30 (some sources suggest 17) Indian ‘coolies’ – as newspapers labelled Indian and Chinese labourers – under four-year indentures. The workers struck on their arrival in Sydney, demanding higher wages before they would proceed to Town’s sheep-station. They complained about rations and ill-treatment on the voyage, having to work pumps on the Orwell to pay for their passage.”[13] The same year five Indian shepherds were jailed for refusal to work unless given the same conditions as other workers. It seems not to have had the desired effect, with the Maitland Mercury reporting their response as “gaol very good, no work gaol”.

Not by bread alone: working class political mobilisation

Chapter 11 illustrates the intersection of economic and political issues for early working class mobilisation. Terry Irving has demonstrated in The Southern Tree of Liberty that worker mobilisations in the 1830s and 1840s were a driving force in the push for democratic government and the franchise in New South Wales.[14] Quinlan’s work extends this to all the colonies. Beyond the various unions and proto-unions, Quinlan has found 20 working class political organisations prior to 1851. Industrial activism connected to political activism, involving many of the same people. Union leaders played a pivotal role in wider alliances of workers, indicating the importance of existing traditions and individuals. While the class conflict built into capitalism generated struggle, the agency of individuals in the shaping of those struggles is also brought out strongly in The Origins of Worker Mobilisation. Quinlan details the shared experiences, solidarity and networks facilitating and shaping worker organisation from “centuries-old traditions and methods used by craft workers to uphold their interests as well as a heritage of collective action amongst miners, seamen, seasonal labourers and others… Convicts and emigrant workers brought this social DNA to the colonies, many having prior knowledge of, if not involvement in, collective action”.[15] Those with experiences of political struggles in Britain played a conspicuous role. Captain Swing rioters, like William Jeffries (a blacksmith) and shepherd Isaac Hurrell, or machine-breaking transportees like Anne Entwistle and Mary Hindle, led strikes and riots, and accumulated charges.

From the early 1830s workers began to mobilise politically, sometimes in alliance with middle class radicals or local manufacturers, but far more often independently as political activities broadened the sense of working class identity. By far the most substantial political mobilisation of service workers in the 1840s was the early closing movement, unsurprising when working hours and trading times typically ran to at least 10-12 hours per day, six days a week. It predated by a decade the much more widely known eight-hour movement amongst tradesmen. Many organisations were short-lived, but some large and influential bodies were established.

Once again, the clash with the ruling class was a key factor. Wealthy landholders like Alexander Berry and those with a propertied middle class view of democracy like W.C. Wentworth stood against this working class political agitation. For example, convict competition was a key target of political protest. It intersected sharply with the industrial struggle when employers attempted to obtain convict strike-breakers, as the Sydney Herald did in 1840. In Van Diemen’s Land the Boot and Shoemakers Benevolent Society held public meetings and wrote to newspapers to oppose convicts and promote free labour. Importantly, this agitation didn’t mean ticket-of-leave holders or emancipated convicts were excluded from unions. The Hobart Journeymen Tailors Benefit Society (1846–1852) included both ticket-of-leave holders and wage-entitled probationers in its ranks. Punitive legislation was also a target of political mobilisation. An 1840 compositors’ strike escalated when several strikers at the Sydney Gazette office were jailed for unauthorised absence under the Masters and Servants Act.

Another target of political agitation was immigration. Given the colony’s origin as a white outpost of empire in Asia, where the source of immigration was outside Europe a racist response was present among workers. It was employers’ racist beliefs about subservient non-Europeans that was central to their importation. As Quinlan points out: “Few explore the relationship between non-European and European workers in ways that give recognition to how labour markets and regulation were deliberately structured in ways to weaken unions and pit groups of workers against each other”.[16] For example, efforts to introduce indentured non-European labour aroused working class protests, frequently in conjunction with their rulers. In January 1843 the mayor was persuaded to convene a public meeting at the Sydney racecourse to rally opposition to “coolie” immigration. On the other hand, class interest could cut across the racism. Quinlan gives instances of newspapers complaining about how rapidly non-European workers were apprised of “acceptable” wages and working conditions. He also indicates the contradictions:

Without denying the racist element, the structural conditions shouldn’t be ignored or employers’ clearly racist presumptions that they could (and did) exploit these workers more intensively than their European counterparts. This is identical to employer use of guest-worker/temporary visa-holders and undocumented workers today, but employers’ racist presumptions are seldom confronted in policy debates.[17]

Conclusion: the past is not past

As the quote above illustrates, anyone viewing these injustices as historical anachronisms has missed the point. In both the introduction and the conclusion of the book Quinlan notes that while capitalism continues so too will the class struggle and the need for workers to mobilise. He points out, for example, that “work arrangement analogous to indenturing flourishes today, including the provision of third-world crews by crewing agencies to the shipping industry and the exploitative use of foreign guestworkers and seasonal workers in rich/middle income countries who are bound by a combination of agency/employment agreements, debts and residency/visa requirements. Even more oppressive controls and fear of detection are to be found with regard to undocumented immigrants”.[18] The book is an invaluable source of evidence of how the working class has fought and organised, with a clear understanding that this is not of merely historical interest. It combines this with an approach that foregrounds the agency of workers in fighting in whatever circumstances capitalism throws them into. E.P. Thompson, in a memorable passage in The Making of the English Working Class, writes that he seeks “to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ handloom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity”.[19] Quinlan has followed the same path in relation to early working class mobilisation in Australia.


Burgmann, Verity 1999, “‘The Point of Change’ and the Health of Labour History”, Labour History, 76.

Irving, Terry 2006, The Southern Tree of Liberty. The Democratic Movement in New South Wales Before 1856, Federation Press.

Quinlan, Michael 2018, The Origins of Worker Mobilisation: Australia 1788-1850, Routledge.

Thompson, E.P. 1982, The Making of the English Working Class, Penguin.

[1] Sadly the book is currently available only in hardcover for the princely sum of $221. Given that it deserves to be widely read, it would be a service to all potential readers if everyone contacted university and other libraries to buy it.

[2] Quinlan 2018, pp293-294.

[3] Burgmann 1999, p172.

[4] Quinlan 2018, pp3-4.

[5] ibid., p285.

[6] ibid., pp231-232.

[7] ibid., p286.

[8] ibid., p43.

[9] ibid., p64.

[10] ibid., p280.

[11] ibid., p61.

[12] ibid., p103.

[13] ibid., p181.

[14] Irving 2006.

[15] Quinlan 2018, p99.

[16] ibid., p9.

[17] ibid., p183.

[18] ibid., p8.

[19] Thompson 1982, p12.

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