Down and out in Sydney and Newcastle

Harry Holland and the early labour movement in Australia and New Zealand, Part 3. For earlier parts, click on links for Part 1 and Part 2

Harry Holland’s new job at the Australian Supplements Printery must have seemed like a promotion into management responsibilities and a ticket to a secure future. In reality, the owner of the business was an alcoholic, the business was insolvent, and Harry’s relatively good wage was never paid in full.

Street scene, Sydney circa 1890. George St from Bathurst St

After a year scraping by on short wages, his wages arrears had grown to £40 (roughly equivalent to Australian $9,000 in today’s money). The employer then offered to pay the arrears not in cash, but in stationery supplies. These could be used to open a small shop selling stationery, which Annie Holland would manage. They accepted the offer. In order to fit out the shop and pay the first instalment of rent, Annie had to advance the only valuable thing she owned, a sewing machine, as collateral to a money lender. Income from the shop failed even to cover the rent on the premises, let alone the interest on the loan, and Harry’s wages were still short paid at this most critical time. Annie writes, “We were short of food and our clothes were far from good. There were hundreds of unemployed desperately seeking work in Sydney. I do not think they were in worse plight than we were.” In the end the money-lender foreclosed on the loan, and the Hollands lost everything, including the sewing machine.

Worse was to come. The Printery boss died after a drinking bout in 1890, and the business passed into new hands. The new owners dismissed Harry. His workmate Fred had offered to do the job for a lower wage. The circumstances of his dismissal – being undercut by a man whom he had considered his best friend, and after whom he had named his first son – he found deeply troubling.

He now joined the hundreds of unemployed workers roaming the streets of Sydney. Annie writes, “There was no work to be had in the printing trade. I dreaded facing the landlord without being able to pay our rent, so for a while we sent a piece of furniture each Saturday to the auction rooms to be sold.”

Harry made a few shillings working as a shop assistant on Saturday nights, but it was only temporary work. “Harry turned his hand to many efforts in trying to get sufficient to buy food. Picture-framing, selling papers, any honest means that held out the slightest reward. It was a period of sheer poverty. Harry  worked for the Citizens Life Insurance Company for a short while, on industrial insurance, but only until he discovered that industrial insurance was not as good as it should be for the people who were so innocently paying their weekly contributions.” He returned to Queanbeyan in the hope of finding work at his old job, but only got a few weeks work, after which he returned to Sydney.

“Another out-of-work printer, Tom Batho, became acquainted with Harry, and together they tramped the sole-leather off their boots hunting through the city and suburbs in search of work. Tom Batho was a young man with strong socialist ideals, so they had much in common. Together they decided to work up a newspaper round… Our home during this period was the small-shop-with-residence type…”

Cover of Australian Workman 8 November 1894

“Shortly afterwards he got work on the Australian Workman, a Labour paper published by the Shearers’ Union. When he went on to the paper he knew that the men in control had difficulty in keeping it going, so he agreed to take part of his wages and leave the rest as shares in the paper. That went on for some months, until the men in control found it impossible to meet their liabilities. They discussed the position with the staff… and suggested that the staff take over the paper and run it, rather than lose what they had put into it in wages. Five of the staff agreed… they all suffered the same worries and physical hardship.”

“The five had an unenviable time when they took over the Workman especially during the last 18 months of the life of the paper. When the crash came… auditors disclosed that for the last 18 months, the five men averaged 5 shillings [= approximately $50 today] each a week. Theirs was one of the hardest and cruellest experiences suffered by men in a newspaper venture.”

“In addition to publishing the Workman they did job printing, but as times were hard businesses were cutting down their printing orders and demanding that their work should be done at ridiculously low charges. It had become a habit with a large number of firms when dealing with small printing houses to pay for their printing by bartering goods from their own stores…so they made a profit both ways.” Harry acquired a suit that way, when they did some work for a tailor. On another occasion a butcher patronised them, and Harry brought home a leg of mutton as his share of the payment. But they had no money for the firewood they needed to cook it.

The Holland family was often unable to pay their 10 shillings a week rent. Although their landlord was patient and understanding, Annie Holland writes that “Knowing I would probably have to face him most Mondays and Thursdays in the same hopeless way constituted one long period of worry.”  The shopkeeper from whom they had bought some replacement furniture on time payment, fearing that the landlord would seize the furniture in payment of rent arrears, pressured Annie into doing a runner, leaving the rent unpaid. When she refused, the furniture was repossessed – a week before the birth of their third son, Roy, in 1894. “I sat by the bedroom window on a draped box of baby clothes, and wept.”

Experiences such as these impelled the Hollands towards the growing political ferment. Harry’s first impulse was to shine a light on the sufferings of the unemployed workers, to speak and write about their plight. One night he went out with friends to count the number of unemployed sleeping rough in the Domain. They counted 893 people sleeping outdoors – in the Domain, even crowded together on an exposed ledge over the harbour at The Rocks.  Annie comments, “Bad as our conditions were, we were more fortunate than these men, as we were not without shelter, and we had three meals on most days, even though most of the meals consisted of dry bread and golden syrup. The syrup was not more than 6d a tin, and a two-pound loaf of bread cost 2½d.” On this diet, Harry Holland was suffering from fainting spells on an almost daily basis.

These experiences also led him to question some of his most cherished beliefs. When the paper round he did with Tom Batho required him to work on Sundays, it posed the question of his adherence to the Salvation Army, whose members were forbidden from working on the Sabbath. Holland quit the Army. He had to be all in or all out.

William Booth, founder of Salvation Army, in about 1900

It was not just a matter of expediency. In 1891, William Booth, the founder of the Army in the United Kingdom, had toured the Australasian colonies, speaking to large and rapturous crowds in Sydney. Booth’s aim was to promote an emigration scheme: he proposed to alleviate poverty in England by bringing the surplus population of that country to Australia and starting co-operative enterprises on the land.

However, Booth’s scheme for colonial emigration was deeply unpopular in Australia, which had its own surplus population of unemployed bearing down on the employed workers. Booth found himself having to defend his scheme against the ‘prevailing misconceptions,’ insisting that he did not intend to send “half-reformed criminals and drunkards to prey on the population of these colonies” but only “the deserving poor.” “Questioned as to whether these workers would be allowed to join trades unions, General Booth said that they would not be so allowed, so long as they remained on the farm colony.” “Nor had the working men any ground to fear competition from them,” Booth claimed.

Competition for jobs was the essential condition of the working class. Ultimately it was the cause of Holland being dismissed from his job at the Supplements Printery, and of the degrading conditions he had been forced to accept ever since. At a deeper level, Holland’s experiences led him to question the Army’s doctrine that poverty and misery could be overcome by winning the poor and miserable to the path of righteousness – with its clear implication that the destitute were responsible for their own destitution. Holland himself was now destitute, despite his own strenuous efforts to care for his family and maintain an honest and righteous way of life. In discussions with Tom Batho, Holland came to see that poverty, unemployment, the soul-destroying competition between workers, and their abject dependency on the wealthy owners of business were all social ills, woven into the entire fabric of society. These social ills required social and political solutions, beginning with workers joining in union to overcome the competition that tore them apart. Having reached that conclusion through a prolonged internal ideological struggle, he was unshakable in this belief from that moment on.

The hardships and destitution faced by the young Holland family were not theirs alone. In the late 1880s the Australian colonies had entered a protracted depression, at the end of a boom fuelled by land speculation. The lowest point was reached in 1893, when eleven commercial banks collapsed in Victoria, New South Wales, Queensland and Tasmania within the space of just a few weeks. Then, just as a recovery was developing, 1896 brought six years of widespread droughts which devastated the colony’s agriculture.

The Maritime strike of 1890 was a response to the early stages of this depression; the defeat dealt to the workers only compounded it. Whereas in New Zealand the defeat of the Maritime strike quickly led to a new political stability under Liberal Party rule, in New South Wales and the other Australian colonies, the defeat resolved nothing. In the midst of the ongoing depression, there were further major strikes by sheep-shearers in Queensland in 1891 and again in 1894, and by miners at Broken Hill in the far western deserts of New South Wales in 1892. Mass agitational meetings and electoral campaigns echoed across the public spaces in all the big cities.

Mass demonstration during London Dock Strike of 1889

The Maritime Strike was also part of a wave of strikes and other working class struggles that swept across the globe in those years. Very much on the minds of workers in the Australasian colonies was the victorious strike by 100,000 London dock workers in 1889, one of the first big strike movements in England that encompassed the masses of unskilled and casual workers. Also known and discussed were the growing electoral successes of the Socialist Workers Party in Germany, despite the Anti-Socialist Laws of Otto von Bismarck. News of this was brought from Germany by a steady stream of migrants fleeing Bismarck’s repression and ‘Blood and Iron’ militarism.1

US labour leaders framed up for Chicago bombing in 1886. Five were executed.

But above all, it was the rapidly expanding working class movement in North America which inspired their efforts, in particular the agitation for the eight-hour working day. The struggle for eight hours had come to a head in 1886, with strikes involving hundreds of thousands of workers, mass demonstrations, and the frame-up and execution of some of the leaders of that movement in Chicago.  Ever since the mid-nineteenth-century gold rushes in California, Victoria, and Otago and the West Coast of New Zealand, there had been a traffic of ships bringing mails and goods, workers and other migrants, across the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean in both directions, linking the workers movement in Australasia with the west coast of the United States in a single labour market. Ideas flowed back and forth along the same routes, in the form of letters, books and pamphlets, itinerant preachers and agitators, but especially in the thinking and conversations of the workers themselves who travelled these routes.

Ernest Lane was one such young socialist-minded worker from Brisbane who had spent some time in the United States before returning on the eve of the Maritime Strike. Lane has left us with a vivid picture of the moods and ideas circulating among Sydney workers at the time in a memoir written in the 1930s. Lane notes about himself that “One of the most epochal events in all Labour history, the trial, conviction and execution and life imprisonment of the so-called Chicago Anarchists, at the latter end of 1886, deeply stirred me and profoundly accelerated my rapidly growing revolutionaryism.”

Lane arrived on the Sydney docks just as the first major effort to break the Maritime Strike  got under way.

“…As I was proceeding to the Socialist League rooms in George Street, the first lot of “scab” wool was on its way from Darling Harbour railway station to Circular Quay via George Street. It was an historic event and Sydney seethed with excitement and dread. The lorries loaded with bales of wool were heavily guarded by mounted police, with special constables riding on the lorries and on the tops of the bales. Many thousands of angry workers demonstrated against this blatant show of force and the feeling ran high. The first lorry in the procession was challengingly driven by Lamb, one of the most bitter squatters fighting the unions.

“On the way to Circular Quay stones were thrown and at the corner of George and Market Streets the police arrested a man and rushed him into a waiting cab. In a minute the crowd had smashed the cab to splinters and the police were fleeing in terror. The hostility of the crowd was accentuated and became alarmingly threatening when the wool arrived at the Quay. The Riot Act was read by a magistrate standing on the gangway of a wool store, but had no effect in dispersing the people. The mounted troopers then furiously charged and by this means law and order triumphed and another defeat administered to the workers.”

Lane comments, “The failure of the maritime and shearers’ strikes brought in their train a stern realisation to the defeated workers of the power and callousness of organised employerdom. With the unrestricted support of all the State governments, the entire machinery of the law was eagerly placed at the disposal of the squatters and shipping companies to crush the unions and teach the workers a lesson.”

“Scabbery [strike-breaking] was exalted by the blatant capitalist press as the sacred duty of every freedom-loving Australian worker. To Queensland, where the fight raged most fiercely, shiploads of “scabs” were brought from Victoria and Tasmania. Military and police were used to protect the “right” of employers to do as they desired with their ill-gotten gains. Union officials were arrested, oft-times chained like convicts and viciously sentenced to long terms of imprisonment. Such was the treatment gleefully meted out to the workers of Australia throughout the nineties, when, with a newly-awakened determination to obtain a place in the sun, unionists united their forces and vainly attempted to break through the ring of steel that surrounded them.”


  1. It is easy to overlook the relatively large number of German and Austrian migrants to Australia in the nineteenth century, since the waves of anti-German chauvinism during both the World Wars have partly erased their history. In both Australia and New Zealand persons of German and Austrian descent were interned as ‘enemy aliens’ during World War 1. Many of these were deported after the war, and of those who remained many Anglicised their names. In the 1891 census about 40,000 people listed Germany as their place of birth (compared to about 550,000 who listed England, Ireland or Scotland.) Alongside these there was approximately an equal number of Australian born persons of German descent.

One response to “Down and out in Sydney and Newcastle

  1. Pingback: The muddy waters of early Australian socialism | A communist at large·

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