Australia in the 1880s


The early 1880s saw a series of successful strikes by skilled tradesmen and workers for improved wages and conditions of work. In 1882, the Amalgamated Miners' Union was formed. In 1886, the Shearers' Union, formed by WG Spence, grew to 9000 members in its first year and had members in many regional centres across Australia. By early 1888, the Sheep Farmers' Association formed to resist demands of shearers for higher shearing rates.

Simultaneously, women began to enter the workforce. Many young girls sought factory employment, finding it far preferable to the constraints and 24 hour-a-day supervision of life as a house-servant. On 15 February 1882, more than half the 4000 tailoresses working in Melbourne factories went on strike, led by Helen Lothan Robertson, against employers cutting their rates of pay. The previous December they had formed the first organised women's trade union. The strike sparked mass demonstrations and received popular support. Two months later, the employers bowed to public pressure and agreed to the log of claims put forward by the women including the maintenance of their rate of pay.

A snapshot of 1888

  • January
    • Non-Indigenous Australians celebrate 100 years of colonial settlement.

  • May
    • A demonstration against Chinese immigration takes place outside Sydney Town Hall and a month later an Intercolonial Conference on the Chinese question is held.
    • In Queensland, Thomas Glassey becomes the first trade union candidate in any colonial parliament.

  • December
    • The Centennial International Exhibition opens in Melbourne in the newly built Royal Exhibition Building.
    • Henry Lawson's first story, His Father's Mate, is published.
    • The women's magazine, The Dawn, begins publication with editorials by Louisa Lawson, mother of Henry Lawson, and advocates voting rights for women and divorce law reform.
    • It also included household hints, a short story and poetry as well as fashion news. Established by Louisa it was prepared and printed by women.


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