Saving History Workshop

Shirley Fitzgerald

Shirley Fitzgerald is the City Historian, the following is an edited version of a paper she presented to the Saving history workshop, organised by the Sydney Branch Society for the Study of Labour History on Sunday 9 February 2003.

One of the points of this afternoon is to explore the nexus between the timing and the nature of events/movements and the location of their happening. By definition, this geographical perspective has always been integral to the work of local historians but often their work has been amateur in the sense of being bereft of conscious theoretical construction or deconstruction. I suspect this kind of history writing has actively contributed to the tendency of the historical profession to undervalue the significance of place.

However all this has been changing. One of the things that interested me in the recent publication Working the Nation, (Pluto Press 2001, edited by Greg Patmore and Mark Hearne) was the number of contributions that were directly concerned with this question of the significance of place. And with the conundrum that focusing on the local, far from making the task of history writing ‘easy’, actually spins it out into ever expanding circles of complexity. ‘Local’ includes everything you choose to glean from the local orbit, and then some, as local issues and people and movements connect through to the wider world, and the wider world impinges on the local.

In that volume, Glenda Stachan and Anne Dunne’s unravelling of the federation referendum voting behaviour of the agricultural town of Dungog and Greg Patmore’s work on the industrial town of Lithgow all argued that crude economic indicators will not tell us enough. The actual and real interests of the citizens must be told alongside understandings of the social ad intellectual capital of the particular place. And Ray Markey argued that the things that gave life to labour organisations in his patch of the wood were as much about ‘community’ and local affection as they were about class interest. And so on. And so …to the links between the local and labour history.

In the case of my bailiwick, we are talking City of Sydney. For the rest of the afternoon you are going to hear a fair bit about the failure of local government to keep its archival record, so it might come as a pleasant surprise to begin the afternoon with the news that the records of the City Council are fabulous, extensive and complex. Since the start of the corporation in 1842 there has always been a strong culture of keeping the record. Now I checked out this claim with the City Archivist (there’s been one of those since 1976) – he reckons there is a palpable falling off of the standard of record keeping in the post WW2 years, but that this is across the board and not peculiar to the City Council. Any study of the sociology of work would need to establish what it was about this period that led to the downgrading of recordkeeping to something that ‘the girl who did the filing’ could do. I offer that observation because it is probably right and there might be someone here who could comment on it. But from the point of view of the student of labour, it’s rich pickings.

Viewed holistically, the City Archives can be theorised as the records of a paternalistic organisation engaged in a compact with its constituency to provide certain things –primarily jobs – but in a far more complex way than the straightforward exchange of jobs for labour that the private sector engaged in.

A bit of historical context: the council was formed in 1842. Around the time that convict labour was starting to dry up. The convicts, as prisoners of the crown, were not free but neither were they free to starve because the government was obliged to support them. When they were no longer available to build the roads and so on the City Corporation was set up to do these jobs. Indeed the Carters’ Barracks, where the tools of the convict road gangs were stored were simply handed over to the new City Corporation and used as its first works depot. Here the men reported to work, just as the convict gangs had done.

The role of the Council as dispenser of jobs for the needy was articulated from the start: Alderman George Allen observed at the first meeting in 1843 that the Council should employ people whose families were supported by the Benevolent Society. In 1873 Ald John Macintosh told a Select Committee that there were always indigent persons around and the Corporation, ‘as guardian of the City, is in a manner forced to step in and give employment to individuals of this description’.

Positing aldermanic behaviour as benevolent in this way is only one way of looking at it. A less charitable way of putting this was that it was ‘perks in exchange for votes’. There is no doubt that things worked both ways.

Ray Cowling, who was a mixing plant operator at the Wattle Street Depot put it like this in an interview in 1987: If you wanted a job on the railways or a government department or council, you had to go and see an alderman or a member of parliament. You’d usually join the Labor League. Everyone’d join the Labor League at some time in the inner city areas. Then you were never out of a job. You’d always get a job on the Council or the County Council…our family was always friends with Pat Hills. He was Lord Mayor.

For many aldermen of course that was the point. This kind of patronage might not sit easily with current employment practices. It doesn’t conform to the current notions of equal opportunity and transparency. But then these men would have argued that nothing was equal and that their role was precisely to intervene in the market place to generate opportunities for work for the inner city poor. What the ruling class might call ‘featherbedding’, the good citizen alderman might call ‘looking after the workers’.

There were various systems of allocating jobs involving ballots and a careful allocation between wards.

A job might be on staff at the Council. Or a flower cart or fruit barrow licence. Until the end of the 1960s, a market stall. For the inner circle of favoured residents there would be not only a job. There might be a Council flat (there are lots of records about them). And at the end of it all there might also be a council car to take your widow to the funeral.

In addition to extracting what they could from an alderman, the workers also went the route of organised industrial strength through organised trade unions. The Council’s workers belonged to a variety of these and there are endless files on quibbling over clauses in awards for anyone brave enough to use them. Some trades operated under outside awards. The electrical workers had their own Council based one. Most important are the files dealing with the MEU which was registered in 1903. The elected council see-sawed over ‘preference for unionists’ in the early years of the century – it depended on the colour of the Council – until it was written into the award in 1927. The MEU encompassed salaried professional and clerical staff as well as waged workers, which worked to the advantage of the clerical staff who had little industrial muscle alone, but with the power of the garbo behind them they could achieve a lot, and the City Council was able to set the pace for industrial agenda for the public sector in the early years of the century. The MEU secured three weeks annual leave in 1912 which flowed through to the rest of the public service, and led the way for the 40 hour, 5 day week.

The records contain information on strikes – Garbo strikes, electricity strikes. The time the blockboys struck in sympathy with their dads in the great strike of 1917 and none of the horse shit got swept from the roads.

Then there is the actual site of power. You need only think Town Hall for a few minutes and everyone in the room will have knowledge of heaps of things – strike meetings in the lower hall for instance. Its just a hall for hire, and the record the Council holds will not be the details of the meetings, just the list of hirers. But even this list is revealing. The most frequent hirer of the hall in the 1950s and the 1960s was the Sydney Branch of the Waterside Workers, according to Margo Beasley, though she goes on to say, in her Sydney Town Hall: A Social History, that it now has but a fraction of its earlier membership and ‘no longer needs a large space for monthly stop work meetings. Nevertheless old habits die hard and the funeral of Pat Clancy, Secretary of the Building Workers Industrial Union, who died in 1987, was held in the lower Town Hall, no doubt because of the significance of its links with a life dedicated to trade unionism.’ Labor Party Conferences, anti Vietnam rallies, public meetings … The records answer questions of who gets access and why?

Then there’s the question of who’s flag gets flown and why? The Eureka flag. The Aboriginal flag. Even the national flag was a contested issue around World War One, when Bill Lambert, Lord Mayor and AWU official insisted on raising the Australian one and the Town Clerk insisted in taking it down in preference for the Union Jack.

Enough about the Council. What about the city itself as ‘place’?

That’s going to include the headquarters of just about everything, the sites of many important meetings, strikes, marches, the place of the articulation of important ideas. The ‘spaces of the city included the wharves, the markets, the railway workshops(sometimes depending on boundaries) and the sites of many private workshops and factories large and small.

Take the Trades Hall precinct – Goulburn Street, Dixon Street – Sussex. Piecing the physicality of the social mix of the place together from the kinds of records that tell you who occupied what when …No. 10 Dixon Street – CPA/Chinese Youth League. Proximity to wharves… Chinese Seamen’s union…links with the mainstream waterfront…Fred Wong taking truckloads of veggies collected at the nearby markets to Port Kembla during the famous strike of 1938.

Just hanging around the place metaphorically through familiarity with the precinct records will give a complexity to stories that the formal records of the organisation will never reveal. Events and movements happen in time and because of ‘the times’ but they also happen in ‘place’.