The Early History of the N.S.W. Operative Bakers Society 1863-1912

Norman Jeffery, from the Pan Pacific Worker 1.3.1931

(This is an extract from the N.S.W. Railway and Tramway Cooperator, 7th October 1912.)

As far back as 1860, the journeymen bakers of Sydney were formed into a Union to protect and forward the interests of the workers in this industry.

The organisation was named the Sydney Operative Bakers’ Friendly Society, “enrolled agreeable to law,” the meetings being held at Mother Gorden.s Hostel, Market-street, and the contributions were one pound entrance fee and 1/- per week, and besides being an industrial organisation, was a benefit society with sick and funeral funds.

It was registered on the 26th of March, 1863, by the then secretary, Jeremiah Delury, and the certificate of registration was signed by John G. Hargrave, the then Attorney-General. In 1865 the records show that Mr. W. McMurrish was president and Mr. W. Mather secretary, the former gentleman being hale and hearty today, and still a member of the Operative Bakers. Union.

When the Union was registered, as shown here, the entrance fees were fixed at from Ll for members under the age of 25 years, to L3 for members over the age of 45 years, and “it was discretionary with the Society how much they charge over these sums,” the weekly contributions being fixed at 6d.

Leading up to the year 1868-9, the Society found itself in a moribund state, the membership having dwindled very largely. In 1869, however, the workers in the baking trade became very dissatisfied with the conditions ruling. There were, in these days, about 6 or 8 bakers who employed four or more hands, the balance of the trade being in the hands of small tradesmen employing one or two hands. The wages in the larger businesses were on a fair basis, but in the smaller bakeries the men received from 1 pound to 30/- per week and keep. The conditions of “keep” are worth notice, in these days of State regulation. The baker who was kept by the employer made his bedroom, in numerous cases, on the top of the oven, the stable being usually built very close to this “sleeping accommodation.”

The men had also to work unlimited hours and seven days a week. In these days, too, there was a system of dinner baking which kept the men working on Sundays from 8 or 9 o’clock in the morning till 1 and 2 o’clock in the afternoon. In 1869, therefore, the operatives felt the necessity for action to effect an amelioration of these conditions, and a meeting of the bakers in Sydney was called for October 12th, 1869, at Hinchey’s Hyde Park Hotel. There being no opposition from the employers (indeed, many of the master bakers favored the formation), the Union was formed, and was named the Operative Bakers’ Association. Mr. John Campbell being elected President and Mr. Wm. McMurrich Secretary, what was left of the old Benefit Society being merged into the new Union. The fees were now fixed at Ll entrance and 6d. per week, and from this time up to 1890, the Union progressed in its membership and funds.

It must be noted here that just about the time of the formation of this Union in 1869, a circular was sent around from the Eight Hour Conference, asking the Bakers’ 50ciety to appoint delegates to represent the Union on this conference. Messrs. McMurrich and Mather were selected to attend the meeting, which was held at the Albion Hotel, corner of Elizabeth and King Streets. It might also be mentioned that the bakers’ delegates were the only trade, outside the building trades, represented at this meeting.

Immediately upon the formation of the new Union in 1869, it being registered under the then existing Friendly Societies Act, a move was made to redress the grievances which the trade suffered under. The Sunday dinner question was one tackled, and the introduction of what is known as the “Colonial” oven made it possible to abolish this work. The working of unlimited hours was the next question to be tackled. It was quite common for bakers in these early days to work the double round of the clock, and the Union decided to agitate for 10 hours’ work. After considerable fighting, the Union demand for a reduction of hours to 10 hours per day was secured during the year 1873.

Other reforms desired by the Union were the abolition of boarding employees on employers’ premises, a minimum wage of L2 5/- per week, and a reduction of hours from 10 to 8. In 1884 they went in for for straight-out eight-hours’ work from 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. There was plenty trouble in these days the Union struck for day work, but a few of the prominent ones were locking up under the law existing then, and that put the stopper on the trouble. A co-operative bakery was established by the Union, but they did not long control it. It passed into the control of other Unions. About this time there was a queer happening–a gruesome discovery made outside the bakehouse door of Spring’s old bakery, in Pitt-street–that of the body of a murdered woman done up in a flour sack. It caused a sensation in the city, and with bakers was a fruitful topic of conversation for many months.

About 1885-6, a new and in those days novel system of bread-baking was introduced. A man named Thompson introduced to the colonies a new yeast called Spontaneous yeast. This made it possible to abolish a great deal of broken time work, and enabled the men to work in a straight shift. The old ferment sponge process went right out of date, and today it is getting quite hard to find operatives who understand the old system. One master baker in Sydney, however, still sticks to this old method of making ferment doughs, and stoutly maintains that the quality of his bread is superior to the present day process.

Most of the Society’s demands were granted by employers, but it was found that from time to time the ‘smaller employers would break away from the conditions secured by the Society. This led to the Union publishing in the press a fair list and a black list of employers. The Union also arranged to try and induce the public to withhold its support of the employers placed upon the black list. It accordingly paid two of its members to follow in a sulky the carts of those black-listed bakers when delivering bread, to place the Society’s case before the customers.

Fair progress was made in this Society up to 1890, the membership standing at about 400 members, and the funds were also in a flourishing condition.

The great Maritime Strike in 1890-91 had the same effect on the Bakers’ Society as it had on other Unions, the Union practically receiving its quietus during this great struggle. Unionists seemed to lose heart in the struggle for better conditions, and the Union became altogether moribund. This condition was in evidence right up to the period of Federation; unionists and non-unionists worked side by side, and most of the old conditions prevailed in the industry. In the year 1900, however, new life was infused into the Union, and it began to progress again, due to a great extent to Mr. R.D. Robertson, who wrote a powerful article, and compiled figures showing in a very plain manner, that £40,000 per annum was being lost to the operatives of New South Wales through their disorganisation. Interest was at once aroused, meetings were held every Saturday, many new members were enrolled, and an organising committee was formed, one among whom was a new member, David Moon, who was destined to become a power in the ranks, and who was at the next meeting of the Society appointed secretary. He was a born organiser, and much of the progress of the Society in those days was due to him. No man had a more faithful following than David Moon had. What meetings they used to have! The very walls of tile largest room in the Trades Hall seemed to bulge out month after month, to hold the number of members attending.

Directly after its appointment, the organising committee met and sat far into the night forming a scheme of attack; propaganda work was commenced outside; a great wave of enthusiasm spread among the men, and it was decided to submit an ultimatum to the masters–“That on the 1st of September, 1901, the ages for operatives was to be £2/l0/a week of 48 hours.” This was submitted to the employers, who asked for a conference, and after much opposition, it was agreed to, and signed on behalf of both parties.

A conference of operative bakers was held in Sydney on September 26, 1904, and following days, delegates from West Australia, South Australia, and Victoria being present.

The chief matters considered were the provision for an eight-hour day’s work throughout the Commonwealth, with uniform starting time, each State to fix the hours most convenient, and each State was recommended to fix the local minimum rates of pay. Also, a resolution was drafted in favor of the Watson Arbitration Bill, or, failing that measure being passed, an Arbitration Bill for each State of the Commonwealth at present without such an Act. The conference decided that strikes should be prevented at all hazards.

It would be interesting to mention many of the members who took part and worked so hard without reward; but space will not permit of that; sufficient to say that Andrew Hunter, a late president; John Hawkins, ex-secretary; Duncan Mackenzie, ex-treasurer; Chas. Craigie, and many others were a power for good, and their work lives long after them.

From September, 1901, to September, 1902, matters went well with the Society. At the latter date the agreement made with the employers came to an end. The Arbitration Court came into existence at this time, and registration was secured under that Act. This time the master bakers sought a conference with the men, and an agreement was drawn up similar to the previous one, the wage was raised from £2/10/- to £2/12/6 for 48 hours, the agreement being registered in the Arbitration Court. Here, then, showed the benefits of unionism, increases in wages from 30/per week to £2/10/-and then to£2/12/6, had been secured, the hours, which were anything from the clock round daily, had been reduced to 48 hours per week; and many other benefits had been won.

Under the Arbitration Act of those days, an agreement made between masters and men could be made a Common Rule applying to the whole of the trade, and about this time the butchers had obtained a Common Rule for an agreement. An appeal was made against this, and it was held that the Common Rule could not be enforced under the Act. This gave an opportunity to employers in other industries, and the bakers were not slow to profit by the example of the other master tradesmen. At this time, too, matters connected with the Society began to go away, and chaos and neglect reigned supreme, within the Society. The masters took every means possible to bring about the old working conditions, and what with the law being ultra vires, and the Society’s officials being lax in their duties to their fellows, the trade went from bad to worse, and as far as the Society was concerned, a sort of dry rot seemed to have set in and the membership got to a very low ebb indeed. The climax came when Andrew Hunter resigned and shortly after this, David Moon, the secretary, resigned. In the meantime, all the books and records of off1ce had disappeared; things were then in a state of chaos. However, not to be daunted, Mr Henry R. Burton (recently elected President), Mr. Arthur Mackenzie (Secretary pro tern.), and Mr. Halliday (Treasurer) began to make investigation as to how the Union stood. The result was disastrous. Accounts were found owing to the extent of L75 the funds were depleted, and the membership was scattered. Undismayed, however, they decided to go right on. Meeting: were called through the press, and gradually the records, torn, and tattered, were got together, somewhat slowly, but surely. At this time a very wise appointment was made. Mr. P.G. Halliday being appointed secretary, and straight away he and Mr. Burton put their whole energy into the Society, and endeavored to get some agreement in the Arbitration Court to govern the trade. Under the Arbitration Act, it was necessary to get the employers to agree before a case could be taken into the Court. Many umployers were interviewed with this object in view, but all resolutely refused to “carry the baby.” There was no one to file a dispute with, and this went on for some time, until a friend in need was eventually discovered in the person of Mr. C. J. Von Hagen, the Society being then enabled to go to the Court, before Mr. Justice Street. The resultant award worked fairly well, and from this on the Operatives. Society went ahead by leaps and bounds, the membership increasing to about 700 members.

The slaves of the night, or night work, in bakehouses, have been the cause of agitation for a very long time. Night work was evidently brought about by some old-time bakers who did not care how they lived, but with an insatiable greed took to sitting up o’nights to bake, delivering the loaves themselves in the morning. If these men’s names could be excavated from the ruins of antiquity, they would be held up to public execration by the operatives of the present day. No man who works by night and sleeps in the day time is leading a natural life, and he must suffer in some way. This is a great and serious question for the baking trade, and like many others it can only be dealt with by organisation. Australia has led the world on questions such as the eight-hour working day, early closing, and the like, and there is every reason why it should lead the crusade against night work in practically all industries.

On March 11th, 1908, the Operative Bakers made their undOdvor to obtain better conditions before the Arbitration Court. Their claims were briefly 48 hours a week, minimum wage £2/12/6 week or 1/6 per hour, jobbers 10/- day, and preference to unionists. The Board was composed of Mr. Justice Street (chairman), T. E. Spencer (employers’ representative), and E. Riley (employees’ representative). The award was given in Apri1, and was of a satisfactory nature. The operatives received £2/12/6 minimum, jobbers 10/- per day; 48 hours’ week was obtained, and preference to unionists.

On Thurday, June 25th, 1908, five delegates from the Master Bakers’ Association and five from the Operative Bakers’ Society met to confer on the subject of changing present system of working to day labor. Messrs. Halliday (secretary), Murrich, McCaull, Carroll, and Fagan represented the operatives, and Messrs. Gartrell (president) Holder, Freeman, McCausland and W. Hunter represented the I masters. All the delegates took an active part in the long discussion that ensued on the matter of day work vs. night work, and it was finally left in the hands of Mr. Halliday to submit the proposals to his society and to draft a scheme to be placed before the Premier. There Wl1S no gainsaying the fact that the movement in favor of dl1Y work was making considerable headway. A Tory Government was in power, however, and the day system did not receive the necessary legislative support to enable it to be universally brought into operation. It had to be left to individuals, and even at the present time very few bakeries have the day labor system in vogue. Further efforts are being made in this respect, and it hoped that this system will eventually be the rule. In Broken Hill, during the agitation for the day system in Sydney, the operatives issued a “white list,” giving the names of all employers prepared to assist the Union by baking in the day time. There were sixteen master bakers on the list, and the public and workers were asked to support them only. “White men, support the white list,” was the text of the circular issued.

In October, 1908, the operatives were awarded second prize for “best trade display” in the Eight Hour procession They made a striking display” and an equally striking appeal to public consideration.

In April, 1909, the operatives had two resolutions pass by the Trade Union Congress. “That a bill be introduced a.’ the next session of Parliament with a view of effecting the complete abolition of night work in all bakehouses, and the substitution of day work.” “That, on account of the introduction of machinery, the maximum week’s work be limited to forth-four hours” It may be stated here that those resolutions caused a slight panic amongst the master bakers.

In April, 1911, the old award expired, and a new Board was constituted, Mr. H. M. Hamilton being chairman. New conditions secured under the award gave increased wages and overtime, whilst for the first time in the history of the bakers a clear holiday was granted for the annual picnic.

The award proved so complex, however, that the men found themselves little better off, and in some cases worse off, and this caused intense dissatisfaction amongst the operatives. After the discontent simmered for some time, it broke out, and at the end of 1911 there started an agitation for drastic action to remedy the conditions. The president of the Union resigned about this time, and was succeeded by Mr. J. H. Pye, whose first duty was an endeavour to secure a variation of the award.

On November 4th, 1911, the largest meeting in the operative history was held, and it was resolved to put their grievances before the employer. Six delegates were appointed to meet the master bakers thereon, and in the event of the delegates not receiving due consideration, another mass meeting was to be held to take further steps. To cut a long story short, another mass meeting was held on 18th November, and there were over 600 members present. The meeting lasted four hours. Both the president (Mr. J. H. Pye) and secretary (Mr. P. G. Halliday) counselled the exhaustion of pacific methods before any serious step was taken. However a motion was proposed that the men should be called oul lho following evening. Just at this moment the Minister for Labour (Mr. Carmichael) arrived, and in a strong address to the men pointed out the waste of time and money in going on strike. He would have the Board called together on Monday to re-open the case if they agreed. Mr. Carmichael’s mediatory endeavors proved successful. As a final result of the conference between masters and men, which lasted some lime, satisfactory increases were gained, and accepted by both parties.

On May 26th, 1910, the first issue of the Baking Trades Gazettewas published. It was brought about in an endeavor to bring the Unions concerned into close contact with each other; to infuse fraternal feeling with all fellow men, and to generally elevate the whole of the baking trade in N.S.W. Articles were contributed to the first edition by Mr. J. Larter (President Bread Carters) , Mr. W. Rae (President Pastrycooks), Mr. H.R. Burton (President Operative Bakers), Mr. W. Darling (President Milling Employees), Mr. Andy Spence (Secretary Bread Carters) Mr. P. G. Halliday (Secretary Operative Bakers), all of which were of an interesting and educational nature.

The brief history concerning this Union would be incomplete without referring to the famous McKye case. The first award had been in operation for three years, and worked fairly well. Unfortunately, a number of prosecutions had been instituted against the masters, and in almost every case cited the court held them proven. The one case that stands out alone is the McKye case. He had been a previous offender, and agreed to abide by the award, and paid £50 into the Union as settlement. It was thought this had been l1 lesson to all. The self-same employer, a few months afterwards, was again indicted, and fined £l50, the judge dealing at some length on the gravity of the charge. But what happened? In the course of a few weeks, a sympathetic Premier reduced the fines by one-half, viz., £75, in spite of the fact that the time and wages book showed that almost £100 was owing to his employees. Within the last month this same employer was again called to account by the Union in protection of their members, and the verdict against the employer amounted to over £IOO.


Much has been said in connection with the Union and its different adventures at various times in the past. And when we look back to the old officers, and note how handicapped they were at the different stages of the Union’s existence, we cannot help congratulating them on the improvements that were accomplished in the trade for the operative baker, nor does the younger member realise the amount of work and energy put into the Union by those grand old trade unionists, many of whom have passed from this world with the highest honors the Union could bestow upon them.

Today the members as a whole are much more enlightened, because we have been much more considered by Parliament. We are working under an award legalised by an Act of Parliament, permitting our Union organiser, Mr. J. Tracey, who has the sanction of the master bakers to enter the premises and see the Union time and paysheets are kept in accordance with the away. This has proved a great benefit to our Union. All our working conditions set out for each and every member, also preference to Unionists, and for lockout and strikes the punishment so severe that we need never more worry about them, and to show how we appreciate what has been accomplished by our union, it is worthy of mention that 99 per cent of the bakers in the metropolitan area are members of the Union, numbering just on 900, the highest yet reached, and in spite of the productivity of machinery. We have during the last two years established branches at Woollongong, Bathurst, Goulburn, and our fellow-workers in the northern towns are being organized into a branch which promises to be the largest branch in the State in the very near future. Our Union will then have almost reached the boundary of the state, which is very creditable to every member of our organisation. Our last annual balance sheet is worthy of mention, to show our financial strength. assets, £492/l6/-1 Trades Hall shares £6OO, at £l per share, with a balance of over £1,000.

Again, it may be asked if the members at the present lime have done their duty in carrying on the noble work sot out for us by those grand old pioneers, who have gone before? Confidently the answer will be “Yes.”

For future issues of Hummer, we would be pleased to receive interesting historical pieces from labour movement publications or reminiscences of labour movement personalities.