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The Convict Origins of
the Trade Union Movement

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

During the period from the foundation of white settlement at Sydney in 1788 to the gold rushes of the 1850s, Australia grew slowly from a penal colony (a military prison) toward becoming a civil society whose economy was sustained by the export of primary produce. Convicts, native-born Australians and, later, free immigrants provided the labour to grow this transformation.

In Australia, the white population grew from 859 in 1788 to 405,356 in 1850. This increase was primarily achieved by the steady inflow of convicts. Thus the society that grew up did so under the shadow of the scourge, where the officer class was the authority and aristocracy of the day.

Free immigration was not encouraged during this early period, other than for "gentlemen of name and quality" who were being offered free land and the slaves to work it, but a small trickle of free settlers did arrive to supplement  the overwhelmingly convict population. The main exceptions were South Australia, which has never had transported convicts, and for a short period in the beginning so did Western Australia. The vast majority of the population was in the south-eastern corner of New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.

The first industrial action in Australia occurred in 1791 when convicts went on "strike", demanding that they receive rations daily instead of weekly. In England meanwhile, the country was in chaos, largely caused by the invention of the steam engine and the social and industrial upheaval resulting therefrom. This chaos produced a steady stream of convicts to Australia, primarily for the crimes of Trade Unionism and the poverty and desperation that the birth of the Industrial Age was causing.


The Luddites were a group of convicts transported to the Colony of New South Wales for organizing bands of handicraftsmen to riot and destroy the textile machinery that was displacing them. The movement began in the vicinity of Nottingham toward the end of 1811 and in the next year spread to Yorkshire, Lancashire, Derbyshire, and Leicestershire.

The "Ludds", as they were commonly referred to, generally wore masks and operated at night. Their leader, real or imaginary, was known as King Ludd. They generally avoided violence against persons and often enjoyed local support for that reason.

In 1812 a band of Luddites was shot down under the orders of a threatened employer named Horsfall (who was afterward murdered in reprisal).  The government of Robert Banks Jenkinson, 2nd Earl of Liverpool, instituted severe repressive measures culminating in a mass trial at York in 1813, which resulted in many hangings and transportations. Similar rioting in 1816 was caused by the depression that followed the Napoleonic Wars; but the movement was soon ended by vigorous repression and the revival of the economy.

The Colonial authorities were aware of events in England and made attempts to prevent such Luddite-like behaviour in Australia. In 1828 the Masters and Servants Act of NSW provided that: "servants could be imprisoned and have their wages forfeited for refusal to work or for destruction of property", while on  the other hand, masters found guilty of ill-usage were only liable to pay damages of up to 6 months wages.

Australian workers, especially South Australian miners and shop assistants, who were free, but also skilled urban tradesmen in the other colonies who were overwhelmingly assigned convicts were also taking collective action over their working conditions at this time. 

In 1822 James Straighter, convict shepherd, was sentenced to 500 lashes, one month solitary confinement on bread and water, and five years penal servitude for: "inciting his Masters' servants to combine for the purposes of obliging him to raise the wages and increase their rations". In 1829 typographers, supported by carpenters, successfully struck against currency reform, which was  threatening the value of their wages.

The Last Labourers' Revolt

Back in the Mother Country, a slump in the English economy and a rise in the price of staple foods toward the end of the 1820s brought forth more political unrest that, after 1830, landed the largest single group of industrial protesters in Australia. These "criminals" were sent to Australia because they believed in their right to honestly work to feed their families.  Most of them were tried and convicted in the southern counties, where farm wages were lowest.

The figurehead around whom they rallied was, again, a possibly fictional leader to whom custom gave the name of Captain Swing. He was a bogeyman to the propertied class, and in his name threatening letters were tacked on gateposts and shoved under front doors in the dead of night. These were known as the "Swing Letters" and the disturbances they promised were dubbed "The Last Labourers' Revolt".

Captain Swing stood for several issues. He expressed grievances against the loss of common land by the policy of Enclosure and he also protested against high wheat prices; but the principle issue behind the Swing Riots was mechanisation. The impact of steam-driven farm machinery on unskilled rural labour was disastrous. One threshing-machine, rented out and hauled from farm to farm, could put a hundred men out of seasonal work. The farm worker in 1830 saw this as a cruel denial of his natural right to work. So, like the Luddites before them, the Swing Rioters went for the machines, breaking the rollers, holing the boilers, jamming the gears with crowbars. 

The rioting of 1830-31 spread rapidly across the southern counties of England, where rural wages were about one-third the national average. Men marched, burned and broke machines in Kent and Surrey, Shropshire and Lincolnshire, Berkshire, Wiltshire, Hampshire, Essex, Oxfordshire, Dorset and Norfolk.

These "curiously indecisive and un-bloodthirsty mobs" were harshly met by Lord Grey's new Whig government. It offered the enormous reward of £500 for the capture and conviction of arsonists and machine-breakers, and it also sent army detachments and locally organised posses against them. Some counties raised their own squads of mounted yeomanry to ride down the protesters; and all the while Lord Melbourne was enjoining his magistrates to maintain "a firm resistance to all demands."

To frighten protesters, the Whig government now began an orgy of prosecution.  Nearly 2,000 insurgents were tried in 34 counties. Of these, 252 were sentenced to death but, in the usual way of showing "Royal Mercy", only 19 of them were actually hanged and the rest had their sentences commuted to prison or transportation. In this roundup, 481 Swing followers were shipped out to Australia, for terms of seven or fourteen years.

The Tolpuddle Martyrs

The Tolpuddle Martyrs were undoubtedly the most famous trade unionists to be transported. They were six English farm labourers who were sentenced in March 1834 to seven years' transportation to the penal colony in Australia for organizing trade union activities in the Dorsetshire village of Tolpuddle. Their leaders, George and James Loveless (or Lovelace), established a lodge of the Friendly Society of Agricultural Labourers.

The Whig government, alarmed at the depth of working-class discontent, arrested six Tolpuddle labourers, the Loveless brothers, James Brine, Thomas Stanfield and his son John, and James Hammett, ostensibly for administering unlawful oaths but actually for combining to protect their already meagre wages. What makes the Tolpuddle Martyrs so very different from all other trade unionists sent to Australia up until that time was the total absence of violence. Nevertheless, they were convicted and sentenced by a hostile judge and jury, and duly transported.

The six men instantly became popular heroes. There was an immediate public reaction in all parts of the country, particularly in London, where there were large-scale demonstrations. The government largely ignored this popular sentiment, and it was not until March 1836 that their sentences were finally remitted.

The Currency Lads and Lasses

At about this time gold was discovered in New South Wales, a development which caused alarm in the Colony, especially among the ruling class. It threatened a mass migration of free settlers that would destroy the convict slavery-based economy of the day and weaken the privileged place of the officer class and the landed gentry. As a result, the relevant governors refused to register the finds.

Also in the 1830's another phenomena was occurring that would have a huge bearing on the development of Australia's economy and the organisation of labour in New South Wales. A new group or class was emerging, the currency lads and lasses. They were the free-born children of the convicts and evictees, so named because of their unique habit of demanding payment in cash for their labour. At the same time assigned convicts were being told that their rations were their "wages". The system was facilitated by the  Masters and Servants Act, which was then being used to conceal what amounted to wholesale slavery in Australia. 

Skilled people were desperately needed to build and run the economy but the authorities found that they had to offer inducements of wages and conditions to make assigned convicts to utilise their trade skills. On the other hand, the convict obviously did not want to be imprisoned and the employment of his trade skill was one of the few ways he had available to provide himself with a comfortable life. Thus this tension was being played out, with assigned convicts pretending to be free men in employment while the bosses and cockies preferring to treat all workers as convict slaves.

The currency lads and lasses were free of the shadow of the scourge. And with this new constituency to support the skilled convict workforce, things gradually started to become more organised. Between 1828 and 1850 workers established about 100 trade societies in Australia. Trade union formation peaked in the late 1830s, declined with the 1840's depression, and revived in the second half of that decade. Generally, though, these early trade societies collapsed within a few years. They were usually tied to a particular town and they had very small memberships—the average was probably between thirty and sixty members.

These unions were mainly confined to skilled tradesmen, but there were exceptions. Indentured Chinese shepherds in Western Australia formed a club in 1842-3 to provide friendly society benefits and protection against a recently revised Masters and Servants Act, while South Australian shop assistants established organisations to fight for early closing, or a shorter working day, in the late 1840s. Even so it has been estimated that there was probably no more than 1,000 trade unionists in the whole of Australia at any one time prior to 1850.

In colonial Australia these early unions generally operated in pubs—which were the major meeting places for workers at that time, especially in Sydney—because pubs provided an additional advantage over other venues.  While constables attended all public gatherings held elsewhere, they were not permitted to enter pubs.

The Anti-Transportation Movement

Selective free immigration was being used extensively to fill the skill gaps in the local economy but also as a bargaining chip in labour negotiations, so immigration became the subject of union action. Similarly, the use of convict labour to weaken the power of the free workers was commonplace, so the transportation of convicts also became a matter of union interest. As the free population grew as a percentage of the total, so too did the issues they were dealing with. Large numbers of workers from different trades combined to take political action on issues such a immigration, unemployment, convict labour and the Masters and Servants Act.

As early as 1827 Tasmanian tradesmen formed a society in an attempt to restrict the assigned employment of convicts. In 1833 Sydney tradesmen formed the Society of Emigrant Mechanics to oppose free immigration and convict assignment. And in 1835 and again in 1847 Tasmanian workers later established organisations to fight convict transportation.

While these actions were hardly decisive, in the 1840s transportation to New South Wales was finally discontinued and the colony began the process of evolving away from being primarily a slave-driven society towards becoming a truly free economy.

Because they had no direct representation in the legislatures, workers had to organise petitions, hold public meetings and present deputations to get their message across. In 1840 the Society of Compositors campaigned to restrict the number of apprentices being trained but the government used convict compositors as strike-breakers. During the 1840s' Depression, Sydney workers founded the Mutual Protection Association to  sponsor petitions against assisted immigration and convict labour;  and on another occasion at about this time one thousand women petitioned the government against job competition from female convicts who were then washing clothes at the Parramatta Female Factory. 

In 1844 the Early Closing Movement sought the reduction of working hours from 14 to 12 per day and in 1848 political activity by the working class led to the formation of the Anti-Transportation League.

In 1845 a Friendly Society of Carpenters and Joiners was formed in Sydney and in 1850 an Operative Stonemasons’ Society was founded in Melbourne. In 1851 compositors set up a Typographical Association.

In 1852 a number of prominent members of the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, who had been driven to leave Britain by victimisation back there, resolved, on board the ship bringing them here, to establish a branch of their union in the new country. Thus, by the early 1850’s trade unionism was sending down deep and durable roots into Australian soil.

The Gold Rush in Victoria

In 1851 gold was discovered in Victoria and the newly appointed Sir Charles Hotham made the mistake of registering the find. The ensuing rush to the "diggings" left many employers without workmen and must have had the same detrimental effect on the young trade unions. However, the slowdown was short-lived and ultimately trade unionism, like most other things in the colonies, received a new impetus from the gold rush.

R.J. Hibberd PhD


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