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

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