A J Sullivan
Shearer and indefatigable publicist for shearer unionism, A J Sullivan is one of the unsung heroes of the late nineteenth-century Australian labour movement. In 1884-85, while shearing in Tasmania and NSW, he contributed correspondence to the Australasian, Australian Town and Country Journal and other newspapers on shearers’ grievances, particularly high ration charges and poor accommodation – and on the need for unions as a corrective to the power imbalance inherent capitalist labour markets. In October 1885 Sullivan spoke at a meeting at Wagga Wagga supporting the formation of a shearers’ union and in February 1886 he helped form a union at Longford, Tasmania. His advocacy of an intercolonial shearers’ union did much to assist the birth of the Amalgamated Shearers’ Union (1887), of which he became an organiser.
Here, we republish a series of six autobiographical pieces which Sullivan penned for the Sydney Worker between July and October 1916 – amid the horror of World War One and in the shadow of the first great Labor split in 1916-17.
In doing so, we wish to acknowledge our debt to historian and social critic Humphrey McQueen, both for drawing these remarkable testimonies to our attention and for furnishing The Hummer with a full set of copies. Special thanks also to Sydney Branch member Sue Tracy, who prepared Sullivan’s letters for publication. It goes without saying that, in the Australian context, working class autobiographical writing in this genre is quite rare. N.B. The letters have been edited lightly to improve readability.
Letter 1 (The Worker, 7 July 1916)
In the beginning of August, 1872, I shouldered my swag and set out to seek experience and my fortune. Prior to 1872 I had gained some experience as a boy while working for “cockies”, but it was both bucolic and local, and was not to be compared with the riper and mature experience which comes from years of association with all sorts and conditions of men. One grand lesson the “cockies” taught me I found a very valuable asset when I launched out in the world. The lesson was to always keep on working.
In those days there was no Rural Workers’ Union and no Rural Workers’ Log, and your hours were from 4 or 5 a.m. till 8, 9, 10 or 11 p.m. The one redeeming feature in that sort of life was the fact that blankets and all sorts of bedding cost you very little, and the irreducible minimum was sufficient covering, “You see you were always so busy that you had no time to sleep.”
While working for the “cockies”, I heard many wonderful stories about the great cheques made by shearers, some romancers going as far as to say that, if a man had a good run of shearing and harvesting, he could take a trip to one of the big centres and live like a lord the rest of the year. As soon as I got amongst the shearing sheds, and bought and paid for my first experience, the contrast between the real and imaginary was so great that I was almost dumbfounded.
Here is a description of the shearers’ hut at Longerenong Station, in the Wimmera, where I graduated. Longerenong was then owned by the gentleman who very shortly afterwards became Sir Samuel Wilson. The knighthood came along soon after donating £30,000 to the Melbourne University. Perhaps before describing the hut I had better quote the price per hundred paid at that station for shearing. Shearers were in those days paid the large sum of 11/- per hundred sheep, with rations. You only received that sum if you completed the shearing. If you were discharged before the completion of the shearing, or ceased work on your own account, you were paid 9/- per hundred. The food in those days was vile, judged by our standards to-day. The huts were built of pine logs and bark. The bunks on Longerenong hut were four tiers high, the dining table was in the centre, whilst the cook-house was in one end of the hut, and at night the cook used to sleep on top of the bread trough. Then in the centre of the hut, close together, the horsemen’s saddles, bridles etc, were stacked on ladders running from wall-plate to wall-plate. The sheep washers and all hands about the shed, with the exception of the wool pressers, were paid from 15/- to £1 per week. All hands had to sign an agreement, drawn up by the squatter or his agent. No shearer, sheep-washer or shed-hand had a say in drawing up the agreement, and large numbers of them didn’t consider it was any of their business to criticise it. Although very young in those days, scarcely knowing B from a bull’s foot, several things struck me very forcibly. First, the number of very intelligent and cultured men there were knocking about; secondly, the large number of men who seemed to revel in wandering about from station to station, living on rations cadged from the squatters; and thirdly, as young as I was, I realised the irreparable damage – mentally, physically and morally – that John Barleycorn was doing, and had done, to some of those men. The saddest phase of these men’s inebriety to me was their cynical pessimism and their cramped and distorted views on social subjects. The very readiness with which a number of them admitted they were fools was always a puzzle to me. In latter years, when I knew Adam Lindsay Gordon’s verses well, I always thought of those men when this verse from Gordon’s “Wormwood and Nightshade” flashed through my mind:-
“And as one who pursues a shadow,
As one who hunts in a dream,
As the child who crosses the meadow,
Enticed by the rainbow’s gleam.
I, knowing the course was foolish,
And guessing the goal was pain,
Stupid and stubborn and mulish,
Followed and follow again.”
I followed up shearing from 1874, when I became a full-fledged shearer, until 1886, without a break during that period. I then went to New South Wales, Tasmania, and New Zealand, became an extensive reader, knew the shearers, harvest hands, navvies and general workers’ condition in the whole of those colonies, and was far-seeing enough to know that they could not last. One of the surest signs was that a good many men preferred books instead of beer. When I first when to New Zealand in 1879 the New Zealand shearers detested the New South Wales, Victorian and Tasmanian shearers, blaming them for breaking up a union which the New Zealanders started some years previously. The charge was, I am sorry to say, only too true. However, a large number of the New Zealand shearers had their revenge later on by coming over to New South Wales and blacklegging on the A.W.U.
Letter 2 (The Worker 15 July 1916)
In my last number I promised to give an historical account of the formation of the A.W.U., or to be more correct, the A.S.U., for in the early days of the union it was called the Australian Shearer’s Union.
No description of the commencement and growth of the greatest organisation in the Southern Hemisphere would be complete without some reference to the causes which led to the formation of the Union. I will affirm, without fear of contradiction, that, collectively speaking, the greed and utter onesidedness of the squatters in all parts of Australia, coupled with their utter disregard of the rights of their shearers and shed hands, was the main factor in opening men’s eyes to the necessity for concerted action.
Even in those pre-union days there were a few squatters who paid higher rates per hundred to their shearers, provided the best food, and always had good huts for their men to live in; in fact, treated their men like human beings. John Cummings, of Derrinalum, John Ware, of Yalla Y Poora, Ross, of “The Gums” (near Penshurst), and John Clarke, of Happy Valley (near Lintons), were the cream of the good sorts in Victoria. I called at John Cumming’s, in 1874, and found a nice library provided for employees. Here are some of the tricks of the bad sorts. First of all, let me say that Victorian squatters paid their shearers so much per hundred sheep, and found the shearer food and hut accommodation. In Tasmania and New Zealand, it was the general practice for the squatter to pay the cook a weekly wage – and a small one at that – the cook depending on the men tipping him well at the end of the shearing to make his wages up to a decent figure.
Some squatters in New Zealand introduced a new system of tuckering their shearers and shed hands, viz., giving a cook sixpence per meal, or 10/6 per week, for every man in their employ, and either allowing the cook to get his stores where he liked or compelling him to buy his provisions from the station store. Sometimes under this system the men were exploited by squatter and cook. The squatter would work off on the cook all his old and stale stock, and the cook, in trying to clear as much money as possible out of the cooking contract, would stint the men. Another favourite dodge with some squatters was to make the shearer eat up all the ram-stags, there being no demand amongst the general public for that kind of sheep. The shearer was a veritable godsend to thrifty squatters.
In New South Wales, Queensland and South Australia it was the general rule (of course there were some exceptions in each State), amongst the squatters to pay so much per hundred sheep for his shearing, compelling the shearer to find himself in food, the said food having to be purchased at the station store, at prices ranging from 20, 30, 40 or 50, up to 100 per cent, above ordinary prices.
Then there was the agreement, drawn up with all the subtleties of the trained legal mind. I distinctly remember the first one I appended my name to. It ran something like this:
“We, the undermentioned shearers, hereby agree, individually and collectively, to shear all sheep depasturing on such and such a station, belonging to Mr So and So, and we hereby individually and collectively agree to shear said sheep to the satisfaction of the said Mr So and So, or any person he may place in charge of the shearing shed. In consideration of the said shearers performing their allotted tasks, the said Mr So and So agrees to pay the said shearer the sum of (in this case 10/- per hundred). In the event of any shearer being discharged for bad shearing, or leaving of his own accord before the completion of the shearing, the said shearer of shearers will be paid-off at the rate of (in this case 9/- per hundred.”
Some agreements had a clause giving the squatter power to let any sheep he did not think properly sheared run; that is, he neither counted them nor paid for their shearing.
Sometimes the squatter marked each sheep he did not consider up to the standard with a piece of red or blue raddle on the back; that being an indication to the shearer that he had done so much work for nothing. Sometimes the shearer on seeing five or six sheep in his pen of shorn sheep with the fatal red or blue mark on, would go out and run a similar mark on every sheep in his pen. After a while the squatter would, perhaps, come up and say, “Smith, I have raddled six of your sheep.” Smith, with astonishment, would say, “Six, be d—d! You have raddled the lot.” The squatter, equally astonished, would say, “I only raddled six.” Then Smith, looking the very personification of innocence and simplicity, would say, “Well, which six did you raddle? And, if you only raddled six, who the h—l raddled the others?” The squatter, of course, could not either pick out the six he raddled or give a satisfactory answer to Smith’s simple question, and was generally compelled, for diplomatic reasons, to count the whole of the sheep.
Letter 3 (The Worker, 18 August 1916)
Years ago every shearer, whether he was a Victorian or not, always yearned for a trip to New Zealand. In 1879 I made a shearing tour of New Zealand, going over in the ill-fated Tararua. I saw very many interesting things in New Zealand, including Mount Cook, and some other wonderful scenery, and perhaps the view of the Solanders, that group of rocks rising sheer out of the sea, was one of the best sights. Again, a whale spouting was a never-to-be-forgotten sight, and on another trip, this time on the Te Anau, I saw two large blackfish or thrashers, dealing with a very large whale in real pugilistic fashion. Those days in New Zealand Sir Julius Vogel was in power, and emigrants and borrowed money were the principle imports. My first railway journey in New Zealand was an eye-opener: fare, 11/10, distance 71 miles. But even in those days you could go anywhere on Saturdays and come back on Mondays for the single fare.
Altogether I put in two seasons in New Zealand, one in South Canterbury in the Waimate district, and the other in Otago, close to the old Dunstan diggings, and on the Manioto plains. I earned good money shearing there, and good money harvesting. It was all piece work, and it was pure slavery, as far as hours and speed were concerned. The food was good, the people homely: we were all young, strong and willing, had good constitutions, and were temperate, and the work did not hurt us. Our members of a racing turn of mind will be interested to know that while in New Zealand I saw the great Australian Steeplechaser, Lone Hand, who carried 13st 6lb to victory over Flemington course, having a go, and a sorry figure he cut. He would not take to the work in New Zealand, and was a dead frost. In July, 1880, I also had as shipmates on S.S. Rotomahana (which was in those days the fastest steamer in the Southern seas) the great New Zealand horse, Maa, and the ex-Victorian, Camballo. Both horses were coming over to compete in the Melbourne Cup won by Grand Faneur. There was a scandal over Mata’s running in the Cup, and horse and trainer were disqualified.
Politically, in those days New Zealand was run by Conservatives and Liberals. There was, as the Irishman would say, no difference between them. Both were bad, only one lot was worse than the other.
Both going and coming from New Zealand in those days we tried to get a boat which called at Hobart. On our arrival in Melbourne from New Zealand in July, 1880, we made two discoveries of great importance. One was that Geelong had beaten Carlton, and the other was that Ned Kelly had to face the music at the City Court for the first time on the next morning, Monday, we having landed on Sunday. I thought it a bit of a coincidence that on Saturday, October 26, 1878, I left Brookong station, near Urana, New South Wales, and that day the Kellys shot the police. In 1881 I had a trip to New South Wales, shearing, afterwards going right across from Albury, through Beechworth, Myrtleford, and Harrietville to Omeo. Up to that time I was like hundreds of other Victorians, and imagined that there was no scenery worth looking at in Victoria; but how my silly ideas were shattered while gazing on that wonderful panorama which is always on view at the Buffalo. I will never forget the early morning I spent right on the very summit of Mount Bawley. The sun was shining on the snow, still lying thick in some places, although it was the middle of November. The prismatic colours scintillated in every direction, and I realised that life was indeed worth living.
While on this phase of bush life, it has often struck me as a most extraordinary thing, the small number of Australian workmen who know and want to know anything about our fauna or flora. They cannot admire or see any beauty in our kurrajong, the lemon-scented gum, the scarlet flowering gum, the wild cherry, the blackwood, the lightwood, the different varieties of wattle, the wild musk, boronia, sarsaparilla, and other beautiful shrubs and flowers; and as for our beautiful birds, they are a sealed book to hundreds. Our rosella parrot is to some the only parrot we have. They seem to, collectively speaking, have no knowledge of our beautiful King Parrot, fast becoming extinct, in Victoria; our blue mountain, the rock pebble, and smoker, the blue bonnet, the buln buln, or ring neck, the shell parrot or mudgeregong, the red lourie, freen leek, and the cockatoo parrot and others. The white or sulphur crested cockatoo is the only one of the cockatoo family known. The corella, one of the finest talking birds in the world if properly trained, is unknown to numbers, was well as the wee juggler or Major Mitchell.
In my earlier years, while knocking about Australia, I came in contact with hundreds of Tasmanian natives, and splendid workmen they were, whether as axemen, shearers, navvies, harvest hands, hand reapers, timer squarers, or sleeper cutters and hammer and drill men, and the hundred and one different things the workers have to take on; but I was unable to account for so many of them being unable to read or write. In 1883 I went on a shearing trip to Tassy, as we used to call it, and was not long in discovering the cause. In Tassy the fearful effects of a long reign of Conservative rule had left its blighting and withering effect on the people. I have often heard advanced workers cursing the apathy and indifference of the average Tasmanian worker in days gone by. I have often wondered whether (had they and their fathers and mothers been reared under similar condition) they would have been any better.
Next paper will deal with the early days of the Shearers’ Union, and the causes which operated and caused its formation.
Letter 4 (The Worker 4 August 1916)
Just after the collapse of the land boom in 1892 I heard a lady of small means deploring the fact of having two daughters married to tradesmen. The lady said: “I have one daughter married to a man who has knocked about the Australian bush, and he can do so many different classes of work that he is hardly ever out of work and I have not any occasion to draw upon my scanty resources to assist his wife to the same extent that I have to assist my other daughters.” Although the uninitiated may smile at the lady’s statement, those who have knocked around the bush know it is true. I, like many others, was compelled to take on all sorts of work.
From 1873 to 1878, I followed harvesting in different parts of the State, and my love of beautiful sunsets and sunrises was largely influenced owing to the early and late hours I worked. One curious fact I discovered while battling at all sorts of work, was that the bigger the scale which the boss – were he squatter or cockie – carried on his operations, the harder he wanted one to work and the less he paid in wages and the poorer the food he supplied. In the month of February, 1878, I made my debut as a navvy, under a firm of contractors named Mooney and Mattison, on the new railway from Dunolly to St. Arnaud. Prior to that time I thought I had worked hard and done some heavy work – but I will never forget my first half-day’s work. The clearing gang had started in the morning. I asked the ganger for a job, and he said, “Take this axe and set in over there.” Now, over there were a nice lot of fair-sized saplings. I was fit, willing and foolish, and the falling axe did not seem too heavy, and I banged away for all I was worth. The day was fearfully hot, and, as my pace was 200 per cent, too quick, I (to utter a colonialism) cracked up in no time, and had to keep my eye on the boss and slow down considerably.
While I was getting my wind I noticed that the man cutting on my right hand would very soon have to bog into a very knotty butt of a stump about eight feet high and all of four feet thick. Now, although I pitied that man his luck, I was glad I had not to tackle that stump. The next time I was sparring for wind (as the pugs say), I looked over and saw my right-handed supporter deliberately leave the big stump and come over and start on my preserve of small saplings. I at once wanted to know what he was doing, and he said: “I am running a bye, ‘old horse.’” When I asked him who gave him instructions to come on my ground, he simply said, “What the h—l do you want to know for?” He further told me if I didn’t like it I could come over and take it out of his hide. Just at that identical moment the ganger came up and said to my opponent, “Here, get into this stump.” My opponent said, “No, old man, I would sooner the job.” Needless to say, he got his time, and I fell in for that stump- hand and how I suffered before that stump laid prone on the ground. As long as memory lasts I shall never forget that stump. I must have drunk gallons of water that afternoon: in fact, I took water inside and outside, dipping my head and face in small water holes to cool myself. Kindly remember there were no ice-cream carts in those days. And, oh! What a night I passed- too tired and sore to sleep- and when morning came I was hardly able to drag myself out of bed, and my blistered hands were as hot as fire.
After I had battled for a week and done a lot of wind-sparring, I was right. Now, I feel sure, after the lapse of 38 years, that, had I let some other fellow cut that big stump down, and from that moment lived on my friends or someone else, or their friends, I would quite probably either be engaged, lecturing on national efficiency or one of the chosen delegate to go to America and study the American shirkers’ system to make the other fellows work. As it is, I am still working. However, I am not complaining if I lost some sweat, as I also gained an insight regarding the way to scamp work and how to buy shovels at 3/6 and 4/- and sell them for 7/- to men eager to become nationally efficient.
In June, 1878, I crossed into New South Wales, and worked on the railway in course of construction from Wagga Wagga to Albury. There the evils of sly-grog shanties were very forcibly impressed on my mind, and it made my blood boil to see men stupid enough to work like slaves from month to month, and then squander their money in drink, to say nothing about keeping a class of the very worst parasites loafing about. And here I would like to draw attention to the fact that the need for a union, or some organisation to better their conditions, decreased to a vanishing point wherever the shanties were numerous. Any criticism or historical reference to the railway workers in times gone by would be incomplete without some reference to that shocking product of bygone days – the old-time railway pincher ganger. How someone did not kill numbers of them after being made victims of their displeasure, which always resulted in a tirade of abuse, “punctuated” with obscene and profuse expressions, which, for vileness and filth, were hard to be beat, I don’t know. Their only redeeming traits were their readiness to share their last bob with a pal, and their eagerness to help him spend his last one.
Letter 5 (The Worker, 29 September 1916) At last issue I explained some of the causes which finally led up to the formation of the Australian Shearers’ Union. Like every other movement in the world which had for its basis the betterment of certain people, or members, socially, morally, politically and financially, the A.S.U., or, as it is now known, the A.W.U., was only made possible by the continued struggling and suffering of a number of people prior to the organisation becoming what Thomas Carlyle would call an actuality. Then again, strange as it may appear to some people, the men who, like myself, battled years before W.G. Spence or anyone prominently connected with the A.W.U. to-day ever dreamt of, or moved in the direction of starting a union, are unknown to the great bulk of the shearers and those gentlemen who gobbled up all the good billets, political and otherwise, after the organisation lost its swaddling clothes and success was assured.
Now, in order to dispel any doubts which may exist in the minds of some as to whom the credit is due, I will affirm that to no single individual belongs the credit of fathering the Shearers’ Union.
Whatever credit is due belongs to a large number of men, who, prior to June, 1886, in different parts of the different colonies, harangued their mates, and wrote in different papers advocating the formation of a Shearers’ Union. Mr. Spence, in his history of the A.W.U., admits that several attempts to form a union were made prior to 1886, and as far back as 1874; and he, like all men who come into a thing at the psychological moment, attributes the failures to the incompetence of the men connected with the movements. Personally, as far as I am aware, several men, including myself, took the first step towards realising our dream of a Shearers’ Union at Wagga Wagga N.S.W. on October 24, 1885. Prior to that a letter of mine on “Shearers’ Grievances” appeared in the “Australian” newspaper on January 12, 1884. In that letter I told shearers throughout Australia that the one and only way to get their grievances redressed was to form a union on similar lines to the Amalgamated Miners’ Association. W.G. Spence was at that time secretary of the A.M.A.
In October, 1884, I again wrote on the same subject in the Melbourne “Leader” while I was shearing at the Yanko Station, N.S.W., and shearing at Pevensey Station on the Murrumbidgee River, I wrote in the Sydney “Town and Country Journal” and the Hay “Advertiser”, or Riverina “Grazier” (I forget which). On the same subject, about October 22, 1885, while I was shearing at Kindra Station, in the Coolamon district, N.S.W., belonging to a Mr. Stinson who was one of the best men that I ever worked for, a young lad handed me a telegram, which read as follows:- ”A monster meeting of shearers will be held in the Temperance Hall, Newton, Wagga, on Saturday night next October 24, commencing at 8 p.m. You must attend. We want your assistance in forming a Shearers’ Union.” The telegram was signed “F. Hill”. I at once made arrangements to attend that meeting. I left Coolamon by the mail train from Hay on Saturday afternoon. As soon as I stepped from the carriage at Wagga I was met by a shearer whom I knew some years, and who informed me first that he had been deputed to meet me and, secondly that the affair was doomed to failure. However, as soon as I had something to eat, my friend took me along and introduced me to the man who was running the show. The introduction was quite formal – something after the style of Dennis’ “Sentimental Bloke”. My friend simply said, “This is Sullivan: not a bad b—y sort.” Now, the man who was running the show was a half-caste Australian black. He was named after a well-known Western District squatter. Tommy, such was his name, was a good scholar, a fair all-round athlete and a good cricketer. He was a good conversationalist and fairly well read. But Tommy was like hundreds of other well-meaning men of Australia. He was fond of the beer, and like most of his sort, was full of brilliant ideas when he was full of beer. I was informed by Tommy, who was then carrying a big load of beer, that the meeting was to be an eye-opener, that a bell-man had been engaged, and everything was properly fixed up. About 7.30 I made my way to the meeting. I have attended meetings before and since that date, political and otherwise, but that meeting beat all others out of sight. There were a large number of shearers and shed hands present. A young man who was in the stock and station line was voted to the chair.
Although a good few men in the audience were what we call “three sheets in the wind”, things went on smoothly until Tommy began to speak, and started to use the metaphors which the audience did not understand – and I very much doubt whether Tommy, in his then beery state, understood them himself. Interjections were frequent, and the climax came when someone called Tommy “Tarpot”. Another man followed that up by singing out in a voice like a foghorn “Chuck him out!” That brought the retort from another beery gentleman, “You try to chuck him out and I’ll chuck you out.” Now, both these men were what pugs would call heavyweights, and, as the result of a lot of challenging they finally charged each other like two bulls, upsetting chairs, forms and tables in their mad fury. Soon others, who knew even less about fighting than the two heavyweights, were at it for all they were worth. Just as things were slackening off a bit, in dives the bell-man, full of beer ringing his bell as if his life was depending on the noise. Furthermore, he became abusive, and wanted to know where the h—l his 7/6 was coming from. I came to the rescue, and promised to pay him if he would keep quiet. There was no use going on with the meeting on account of the fighting and the picturesque and lurid language that was used.
We adjourned the meeting until the following Wednesday night. I discovered on Wednesday night that Tommy had been commissioned by a lot of shearers, who were shearing at a station called Binya, in the Merool country, to come to Wagga and organise that meeting. Instead of proceeding straight to Wagga, Tommy did what hundreds of others have done, and will do again, viz., “got on the spree”, and landed in Wagga days behind time-weary, worn and sad, with a fearful thirst. Tommy’s remissness had the effect of alienating the sympathies of some of the good sorts. When a motion was moved that all present put in a £1 each towards working up a union, only four of us responded. However, our efforts were not without some practical result, as in the following July that money was utilised in bringing into existence the Wagga Wagga Shearers’ Union, which, later on, was absorbed by the A.S.U.
In February, 1886, a number of shearers, including myself, succeeded in forming a Shearers’ Union at Longford [Tasmania]. I was elected president, and later on branches were formed at Campbelltown, Oatlands and Hamilton. The whole of those organisations collapsed; but the reason for their collapse was because the right time had not arrived, and the shearers wanted education and organising. No better proof of my statement is needed than the failure of the A.W.U. to make any headway in Tasmania for a number of years.
To-day, more than any other time in my life, I am prouder of the fact that it was others as well as myself who were working in the direction of forming a Shearers’ Union years before W.G. Spence ever dreamt of such a thing that made it possible for him to push himself to the front and be continually in the limelight, while we, who made his position a sinecure for years, are now spoken about by latter-day unionists and politicians, of the Hughes and Long variety, as mongrels, simply because we insist upon them doing what they agreed to do.
In next number I will relate my 17 years’ experience as a miner in the Rutherglen district and I will throw some sidelights on the mining policy of the present State Government
Letter 6 (The Worker 13 October 1916)
1891-2-3 are years which most laborers and tradesmen with good memories will remember with feelings of sadness, while those men, who like myself, battled for years to bring into power a Labor Government, learnt many valuable lessons as the result of the privations we personally endured, and the many sad scenes we witnessed in those years. And, Mr Editor, if there is anything in this world which ought to make every one of us keep our Labor party intact by getting rid of the shufflers, it is the knowledge that the shocking state of the country in those years was the logical outcome of years of Conservative, Liberal and Coalition political bungling. It is at times somewhat amusing to me when I hear young men boasting about what they have done, and can, and won’t do, and the wages they have earned.
Let me give an illustration or two by way of contrast. In 1878 I made my debut as navvy on the St. Arnaud and Donolly railway. The wages paid then was 6/6 a day, a few good jumpermen and hammer and drillmen getting 7/-. How we had to work! If you faltered in your stride or lost step your time was placed in your hands and someone else hopped into your place. In 1879 the same wages were paid on the Carlsruhe to Daylesford railway. In 1883 I worked in a big cutting just at the back of the Royal Park on the Coburg railway. The wages were on a similar scale to the other lines mentioned and the work was even harder. In 1882 I worked with the plasterers on the big gasometer at Tooronga on the Glen Iris railway, and there we got 6/-. The best of tradesmen only got 7/- a day, and the pace set for both plasterers and laborers was a scorcher. In 1893 I worked on the quarantine station at Portsea. I was carrying a hod, and my boss was a good sort. He was a bricklayer, and had the brickwork from the contractor, whose name was Waterman, on piecework. He had during some of the time two other bricklayers working for him. Arthur Bundy, such was his name, paid me 7/- a day and when the job was finished he told me I had earned more money than he had made out of the contract. In 1893 I knew men who were getting as low as 12/- a thousand for laying bricks, and men have told me they knew of men getting as low as 10/- a thousand. I knew in that year men to be getting as low as 5/- a day hod carrying. A particular friend of mine did the staircase work on a villa at Malvern, and his wages were 6/- a day. He was a “bonzer” tradesman.
In that same year I made up the quantities of a circular tank, and some trenching and other works. The tank was 34 feet in diameter on top and 32 feet on the bottom, with a depth of lift 6in. on one side, tapering away to 12ft. 6in. on the other side, and the contract was taken to excavate it for £5. Another lot of working friends of mine put in £19/12/- as a price for which they were willing to do some work at Doncaster. They reckoned on earning 6/- a day at that price, and every man amongst them was a bullocker. When the tenders were opened it was found that another party of men were willing to undertake the work for £10 and they got it.
After I finished my job on the quarantine station I went shearing, and as soon as I had finished shearing I went up to Rutherglen, landing there on the 20th of December. As soon as I appeared on one of the mines a man who was leaving to visit his native home for the Christmas holidays engaged me to work in his place during his absence. Next morning I started work at 8 a.m. Now, I was complete novice at mining, and when a man knows he is a novice he generally looks out that his mate is not a novice. In the Rutherglen and Chiltern district all the driving and blocking, with the exception of wet drives, was done on the contract system. The men worked in parties of six, two going on at 8 in the morning, and working until 4 in the afternoon; two more went to work at 4 in the afternoon and worked until 12 o’clock at night. The other two men went on at 12 p.m. and worked until 8 o’clock next morning. You see, under that system of working the trucks and tools were hardly ever cool.
I was lucky in getting a good mate, one who was a great grafter and knew his work, and who was careful and took no risks. Had my mate and I both known nothing about mining the chances are that we would have both been buried. My mate, who was a German, was a marvel on the zither, and while I am writing I fancy I can hear him playing the Blue Danube Valse [sic] in a very enchanting manner. I worked ten shifts with Harry, when the man I was working for came back. I was paid at the rate of 9/10 per shift. The wages paid at the mine at that time by the company was 7/6 per shift to a faceman and 6/8 to a trucker. Mining is the only occupation I know of that you can send a man to work for you if you are unable to go yourself. Some men working in contract crowds when paying the man who worked for them would only pay them bare wages. To explain: I am working in a crowd on contract. The amount we collectively earn will, when divided, give each man a sum equal to 10/- per shift. I have lost four shifts in the month; Tom Smith takes my place and works those four shifts. Pay day comes. I pay Tom Smith 7/6 per shift. I am paid 10/- per shift and by staying home four shifts. I am sorry to say that some men who called themselves good men were guilty of those sort of tricks.
Here is another peculiarity about contract mining during my time in Rutherglen. If you met any two members of a six or nine man party and asked them how they, as a party, were doing, they answer would invariably be, “My mate and I are doing all right, but the other four are “messers”. Mining in the Rutherglen district was awfully laborious work and what with the pace set and bad air and want of air, you had a merry time, and if you had a weak spot anywhere it would soon make its presence known and felt.
In the summer months the temperature was often 110 and 112, and once I saw 114 in the shade registered. When you were night shift, sleep during the day was almost out of the question, and when it was time to go on to work you felt like a drowning rat, and you were as a rule crabby and peevish. If you were married you could relieve your feelings by “rousing” on the old woman and blame her for all your troubles.
Although mining is a shockingly unhealthy occupation, to the intelligent observant man it presents plenty of room for thought and study. We can, I think, safely take it for granted that all our alluvial leads were in some period far back rivers. Some were big, wide, swift flowing rivers, and some were small and sluggish, and perhaps sentimental beings like ourselves in the dim long ago fished, sailed, rowed and wooed on them just the same as we do to-day; and then perhaps one of those mighty convulsions of nature buried them under hundreds of feet of different stratas.
In the Great Southern No. 1 mine a tree was unearthed at a depth of over 300 feet. There it lay just as it fell centuries before. At another mine we went through a great quantity of ashes, all proving to my mind that mighty forces were at work. Rutherglen did not differ from other mining fields, as far as matters from a unionistic standpoint was concerned. All the managers, shareholders and directors of companies had not time for trade unions or trade unionists, and some of the miners were no better. There were exceptions, of course, but they were too small to make any appreciable difference to the general trend of things.
Sullivan’s recollections end at this point although the last article was evidently ‘to be continued’. Readers in possession of further details in A.J. Sullivan’s life and labours are very welcome to draw them to The Hummer’s attention.