Working Man's Paradise
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The economic depression of the 1890s was a formative experience for the Australian colonies. For the first time, thousands were without work. For the few who were lucky enough to have a job, conditions were hard - long hours, little pay and dangerous circumstances. While the social impact of this experience was enormous, there were also political implications. People began to ask why there was so much human suffering when there was so much technological progress.

Photo of men making bricks by hand in South Australia. Courtesy of the State Library of South Australia.

For an increasing number of people, the answer was greed on the part of the owners of industry. This led to the beginnings of the labour movement in Australia in an effort to enforce better working conditions as well as employment opportunities for the workers. One expression of this was the birth of the Labor Party in Queensland in 1891. Another was the formation of unions and the attempt to use strikes to force industry owners to come to the bargaining table. The 1890s, then, was a decade in which the workers began to argue for a place in decision making at the very time when the various colonies were beginning to debate whether or not to federate. This meant that any discussions on the role of a Federal Government had to take on the concerns of the working people.

Some of these issues are reflected in the political cartoons and other pictures of the day. These images record some of the effects of the economic depression and give glimpses into the lives of the working class and their attitudes towards their bosses.

Livingston Hopkins, "Envy - An everyday Street Scene", Bulletin, 6 October 1894, p.5. By permission of the National Library of Australia.

Drawing of the "Geelong Woollen Mill" showing working conditions. By permission of the National Library of Australia.

One of the results of the economic depression was a shortage of jobs. This meant that employers could exploit their workers in the knowledge that there were plenty of other people to take their place. As one of these cartoons indicates, jobs

were very scarce and most people envied those who had one no matter how menial.

Working conditions were very poor. The average labourer worked 10 hours a day. There was no minimum wage and exploitation was frequent. The effect on families was devastating - people lived in shanty towns and even then they lived in fear of losing the roof over their heads.

Photo of a family in Paddington, Sydney. Courtesy of the Mitchell Library, State Library of NSW.

Livingston Hopkins, "Jack's Landlord - Halves Please!" Bulletin, 1 July 1893, p.1. By permission of the National Library of Australia.

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