Shirley Fitzgerald, Rising Damp, Oxford Uni. Press, 1987

Chris Keane

This scholarly study is a very readable account of daily life and society in mercantile Sydney between 1870-90. It is also a welcome contribution to ‘the standard of living’ debate on the ‘Long Boom’ period of nineteenth century colonial Australia. For Fitzgerald the question of colonial living standards’ could not be answered by reference to soaring national income and consumption levels’. (p.2) Rather, she employs the ‘bricks and mortar’ method of urban and social historians to reconstruct the working and living conditions of an urban population. The people of Sydney whose labour helped to create the wealth and splendour of the Victorian age are observed in their mundane surroundings – the street, the house and workplace.

Fitzgerald’s book is a product of the ‘new urban history’ of the 1970s and is based upon her doctoral thesis ‘Life and Work in Sydney 18701890’. Influenced by the pioneering work of urban sociologists Harvey and Castells, the writer argues that the ordering and exploitation of scarce social space in a city corresponds to the needs. of the ruling class rather than the inhabitants. (p.15) It is this process which helps determine the physical standards of the population more than any measure of per capita income. As such, by drawing upon a wealth of contemporary material including official records, parliamentary papers, personal files and marriage registers, Fitzgerald suggests that the quality of urban life and work in Sydney deteriorated markedly during the closing decades of the nineteenth century hence the title Rising Damp. Further, Fitzgerald argues that the resultant urban discontent contributed to the sharpening of class antagonisms and the collapse of consensus politics in the 1890s.

Fitzgerald’s approach will not please everyone. The use of stratification theory, for instance, to trace the level or lack of occupational mobility for women in Sydney is certain to incur the displeasure of Marxists disposed toward more dynamic class analysis. Orthodox economic historians will probably lament the absence of conventional statistical series on wage rates, profits and unemployment. However researchers of labour history are sure to gain valuable insights into the workplace, the labour process, technological change, and the importance of casual employment and societal power relations in colonial Sydney.

The myth that colonial Australia was a ‘worker’s paradise’ cannot be sustained in the light of Fitzgerald’s important work. Indeed, by 1890 the population of Sydney faced fewer employment opportunities, widespread deskilling, overcrowded housing conditions and an archaic public health system. Overall, Shirley Fitzgerald’s book is well worth reading. Anyone wishing to know how daily life and labour was experienced in Sydney a century ago cannot afford to ignore Rising Damp.