Australia in the 1850s


The 1850s saw the beginnings of the trade union movement. The unions stood for the protection of workers and their rights. Initially, these unions represented the urban crafts and trades, and then those working in construction and transport were included. For example, in 1850 the Operative Stonemasons Society was formed in Melbourne, but was disbanded when all its members left for the goldfields. The United Operative Masons, later known as the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of New South Wales, was formed in 1853. Other unions that were established included the Typographical Association (1851), the Amalgamated Society of Engineers (1852), and the revived Operative Stonemasons' Society (1856).

In 1856, a mass meeting of employers and operatives of the Operative Stonemasons' Society in Melbourne resolved that the eight-hour day had to come into force in April. Two contractors refused to comply with the eight-hour day. James Stephens (18211889) led a demonstration to the Victorian Parliament on 21 April to demand regulated working hours with no loss of pay. The action taken by the stonemasons led to the establishment of the eight-hour day, which is recognised internationally as a world first for workers' rights. New unions formed, some of them inspired by Chartist migrants from England who had previous experience of unionism there. By 1858, the eight-hour working day had become the standard condition for stonemasons in NSW and Victoria.

A snapshot of 1858

  • January
    • A telephone line opened between the Sydney GPO and South Head.

  • May
    • New South Wales followed the lead of Victoria and South Australia to become the third colony to introduce the principle of manhood suffrage for parliamentary elections.

  • June
    • A huge gold nugget named the Welcome Nugget weighing 68.98 kilograms was found at Ballarat.

  • August
    • The Aborigines' Friends' Association (AFA) was formed at a public meeting in Adelaide in South Australia.

  • September
    • The first recorded game of Australian Rules Football was played between Scotch College and Melbourne Grammar.

  • October
    • The first intercolonial electric telegraph line was officially opened between Adelaide and Melbourne.


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