Daily Archives: March 8, 2010

Masters and servants: a Labour Day reflection

It’s Labour Day here in Victoria, celebrating the awarding of the eight hour day to the stonemasons employed at Melbourne University in 1856.  The idea of eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest seems rather quaint in our deregulated, open-all-hours economy.

During Judge Willis’ time in Melbourne, labour relations (a terminology not even dreamed of at the time) were governed by Master and Servant legislation.  Such legislation was an empire-wide concept whereby relationships between employers and employees were governed by contracts that were enforceable by magistrates and where breaches by employees were punished.  The New South Wales legislation promulgated in 1828  was even harsher than the corresponding English statute because it provided up to six months imprisonment for absenteeism and desertion, double the penalty in the English legislation.  Labour shortages were an ongoing problem in the colonies, although during the 1840s depression workers were exhorted not to keep insisting on their wages because it would only push their employers into insolvency (huh- I’ve heard THAT before!).  The legislation applied to the overwhelming majority of workers including, at first, independent contractors as well as hired servants and apprentices.  Domestic servants, and especially female domestic servants were expressly included because of perceptions of scarcity and troublesome character, and to prevent them absconding.  The Act was modified in 1840 but still remained heavily weighted towards the employer, although cases for non-payment of wages were reported in the newspapers as well.  This legislation was generally heard by the Police Magistrate in the Police Court.

So, in the Port Phillip Herald on the 24th January 1843 we have an item headed “Female Impudence”

At the police office, on Thursday, Jane Kelly preferred a charge against Mr J. Cade of the River Plenty, under the Masters’ and Servants’ Act, inasmuch as she had been in the service of the said Mr John Cade as a maid of all work, he refused to pay the balance of wages due to her, 24s.  The defendant on being asked by the Police Magistrate if he denied “the soft impeachment” ungallantly said, the fair Jane had got drunk last Sunday evening, disturbed the whole family with her vagaries, while in that unenviable state of oblivion and would not go to her own bed, but wanted to come to his, and to effect her purpose broke open the window of his bed-room. Here an angry discussion ensued between the parties as to who had the best right to the bed in question, the complainant contending the bed was hers, and the defendant with equal pertinacity urging his claims to it.  The bench consisting of the police magistrate, Mr Airey, and Capt. Smith endeavoured to solve the point by ascertaining its position in the house, but nothing definite from the conflicting statement of the parties could be arrived at. The complainant at last said the least the defendent said on that subject the better as he had bit her finger and endeavoured to take liberties with her, which charge was indignantly denied by the defendant, who expressed his honest indignation at her impudence in endeavouring to force an entrance into his bed-room. The court and bench were frequently convulsed with laughter at their mutual recriminations, and the police magistrate suddenly discovered her as an old acquaintance who had formerly endeavoured to force an entrance into the bed-room of Mr Boyd, who was so alarmed on the occasion as be compelled to have recourse to the protection of the police: she had since been in gaol several times for misconduct, and under all the circumstances the bench dismissed the case, to the no small mortification of Miss Jane, whose countenance, which had been before sprightly and gay, now assumed a dark and down-cast hue.

Or, another report in the Port Phillip Herald of 28th June 1842 where  a servant girl took her employer to the Police Court for non-payment of wages.

On Saturday, at the Police Office, in a case for the recovery of wages, by a servant girl from her master, Mr Murray a late arrival, the defendant stated in his defence that in the place where he came from, in Scotland, three pounds per annum was the rate of wages which he was willing to allow her, but as she had made an application for the return of a certificate she had received from her clergyman, and which he held, he refused to give it up, he having himself paid 2s 6d for it before leaving home.  Major St John [the police magistrate] after having patiently heard both sides of the case, immediately directed the payment of the wages due, and that the certificate of character should immediately be given up, and that he would himself pay the half-crown, which he presented to Mr Murray.  The latter, however, said he could not give it up as he had it not, whereupon the Major ordered him to sit down and write her out a receipt for the document, which Mr Murray did without specifying whether it stated that her character was good, but was forthwith directed to add the fact to the receipt, as the poor girl, like many others, had nothing but her character on which to depend.

It wasn’t just women who fronted the courts.  An item headed “Cakes” of 4th January 1842:

A person whose name like his trade was A. Baker, summoned his master on Saturday last to the Police Office for wages due: the latter in his defence stated that the man engaged with him as journeyman Baker, but proved a traitor to his name and profession, being neither baker nor tradesman, having lately spoiled a family Christmas cake, by flattening the nose of the white sugared Queen seated thereupon. On being reproved therefore he offered to perform the like service for his master “if he was game” for which the latter stopped payment until advised to stump up by the Bench.

It seemed fitting to spend Labour Day at the movies seeing George Clooney in “Up in the Air”

I assume that the last segment of talking heads was just to reassure us, in case we didn’t already know, that life is really about family and loved ones in your backpack.  And I just shake my head in amazement that somehow Americans assure themselves that they can stand on their own two feet and don’t need “big government” and that having a health insurance system tied so closely to employment status is a good idea. Sheesh.


Michael Quinlan ‘Australia 1788-1902: A Workingman’s Paradise?’ in Douglas Hay and Peter Craven Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Britain and the Empire, University of North Carolina Press, 2004

Review of ‘Masters, Servants and Magistrates in Smith Book Review

‘The Europeans in Australia A History Vol 2: Democracy’ by Alan Atkinson

2004 , 339 p. & notes.

I’d been looking forward to reading this book for some time.  I bought Volume 1: The Beginning some time ago at an incredibly cheap price, courtesy no doubt of some intricate global book industry policy structure, and was instantly engrossed by such a different way of telling.  So- what to do?  Relish the series and honour its author’s vision by reading it in its intended order starting with Volume 1?  Or jump ahead into Volume 2, which after all, is the period that I am more interested in, and go back to Volume 1 later? In the end the exigencies of library renewal periods and the imperative to actually write this section of my thesis (as distinct from doodling around reading it)  won out, and so Volume 2 it was.

I was reassured in reading the Foreword that perhaps I would not be too hampered by not having read Volume 1.  He reprises some of the main themes, and speaks of how he is going to pick them up and introduce new themes in this second volume. The series, he says, is meant as “a history of common imagination in Australia” (p.xii)- not identity, but imagination- not just through the views of powerful individual men, but the imagination of large numbers of people considered together.  The change over the decades 1820s-1870 was in part generational, and also a product of the revolutions in communications, literacy and ‘systems thinking’.   He identifies the broad argument of the book and how the chapters contribute to its larger themes.

Which is a good thing, because I have to admit that during the reading of the book, I kept berating myself for not “getting it”.  Despite the title, which suggests a political text, this is a book about imagination, experience and ideas- all intangible entities that are best seen through their expression in individuals’ actions.  I enjoyed his vignettes and careful interweaving of the experiences of men and women, convicts and intellectuals, but I kept feeling as if the bigger themes were running through my fingers like sand.  In a review of the book, Ged Martin observes that

The reviewer too must soar to catch the author’s winged heels: this is a pointillist history…Atkinson’s meaning flows subliminally and is not easily pinned down. As he enigmatically puts it: ‘ vivid things are to be glimpsed merely on their passing our window.’ (p. 286)

I’m relieved to read this: I was beginning to think that perhaps I was being particularly thick. Within the parameters of his large, important themes, the detail is written almost as a stream of consciousness that meanders between ideas.  An example- Chapter 13 Railway Dreaming, which was perhaps my favourite chapter.  I’m not alone in focussing on this chapter- other reviewers (see below) seem to have been attracted to this chapter too.  Why, I wonder? Is it because, like me, they shook themselves and sat up straight and ordered themselves to “Start concentrating!”?  Or was it because, over half way through, suddenly you become aware of how Atkinson is working through his argument?  Is it the writing, or the reader?  He starts this chapter speaking of the democratic settlement- a three sided concept with politics on one side, commerce and enterprise on the other, and the way government worked as the third section.  He talks about systems, which are exemplified by gynaecology as a form of objective tenderness, and studies of inner-urban slum life and disease where disease was  often caused by water supply. Australia was now a richer place; chemistry and consumerism led to the development of glass bottles; glass and iron was used in London’s Crystal Palace and also in railways- Dickens wrote of ‘railway dreaming’ and the Moonians.  Railway dreaming in Australia included ideas of federal co-operation; there was thrill and terror in train-travelling; and Australia’s first serious train accident occured in 1858.  Mrs de Courcey, a travelling piano-teacher was injured in it.  She needed to work because her husband was ‘deranged’, and she said that she herself became ‘deranged, almost, for a time’ from the injuries she sustained.  Lunatic asylums were developed; a leading physician was Frederick Norton Manning, who was an apostle among the lunatics of Queensland. Queensland itself was a kind of hallucination; and then follows a potted history of the development of Queensland.

I found myself just letting go,  swept along by this assured and insistent whirlpool of ideas, but often found myself gasping for air, wondering where on earth I was going. It was with almost a sense of relief that at I turned to the Afterword and discovered that, really, I had understood the direction after all.  Turning back to the Foreword at the start of the book again, I  found that, yes,  he had done all that he had promised and more and that yes, there was an argument there had I had followed, almost without realizing it.

This series is written after Atkinson has spent thirty years reading, study and talking.  The period of time covered in this book (from about 1820s to about 1870s) is very much Atkinson’s ‘patch’, given his work on Push from the Bush which accompanied the 1838 volume of the Australians series. It has been likened to Manning Clark’s opus in its vision, and as with Clark  it is a creative,  idiosyncratic and personalised sweep that tells much, but certainly doesn’t give you “what happened and when”.  It is not a book for novices.

The book itself is divided into three sections, each prefaced by a description of insects in Australia to highlight a theme:  a locust swarm “Still they Kept Coming”;  the noise of cicadas “Their Method of Utterance”; and the disturbance of tightly packed insects in a decayed log of wood “The Masses Unpacked.”  The final image of the book is of a log that contained two ant nests: the first forming a thick crust, which when broken open revealed a complex labyrinth of ant-architecture.

The two ant-nests, old and new, might be taken to stand for the two generations that are described in this volume- the generation that coloured life around the 1830s and that of the goldrush years and after.  The notion of an intricate way of life given over and replaced by something new certainly matches what I say here.  At length, the habits of earlier days seemed to be, in the minds of the young, as dried up and useless as Moore’s “great city”. The Europeans in Australia made for themselves another mental habitation, like the ants.  Like the ants, moreover, they were gatherers from the world beyond, living by traffic and communication.  In rehousing themselves they drew their main materials, all that coloured glass, all those entrancing ideas, from Britain and the United States. (p. 339)

The poetry of his narrative, the bravery of his history-writing, the aurality of his perspective (because this is a ‘noisy’ history) are all breath-taking in their novelty and audacity.  I did enjoy the book once I reached the end of it, a bit like reaching the end of a water slide.  It was a long climb up; I wondered on the way down whether I was going to go over the edge; and probably- probably- I’d like to climb up and do it again.

Some other reviews:

Ged Martin review-  I can’t get the link to work but it’s a PDF document that should download at  http://www.nla.gov.au/openpublish/index.php/ras/article/download/288/346

Marion Snell’s review at Politicalreviewnet at


Paul Pickering http://www.api-network.com/main/index.php?apply=reviews&webpage=api_reviews&flexedit=&flex_password=&menu_label=&menuID=&menubox=&Review=4493