Life

Time-travelling tradies: A glimpse into the past

27th July 2017Author: Professor Miles Lewis

If you were a tradie in years gone by, what would your job have looked like? We take a trip into the past with Professor Miles Lewis, academic and former architectural historian at the University of Melbourne.


A tradesman of the nineteenth century would barely recognise what his successor does today. Hours and conditions have improved enormously, and hard physical work and tedious repetition have been almost eliminated by machinery.

A golden opportunity

In the 1850s, many British tradesmen, especially stonemasons, bricklayers, and carpenters, came to Australia in search of gold, or in search of the opportunities created by gold.

The very fact that they chose to emigrate tells us that they were enterprising men (for at that time they were all men), and the line between employer and employee was often blurred. A commentator at the time remarked that a man might take on a contract and employ his friends, then a week or two later himself be working for one of them. He could be independent like this because he owned a horse-drawn cart, which would be abnormal in Britain. Many were also able to invest in property – buying a block of land, building a house, and over a period of years extending it into a complete terrace.

Some of those who arrived in 1852 became contractors or businessmen in a big way, like James McEwan, who established what was claimed to be the world’s largest ironmongery (hardware) business – the remains of which were digested by Bunnings in modern times.

Along came the eight-hour day

This independence really showed itself in the eight-hour-day movement. Then, a working day was ten hours, and a working week included Saturday morning. Stonemasonry was a particularly demanding trade, and the stonemasons of Dunedin managed to obtain an eight-hour day in 1844, followed by those of Sydney. In Melbourne, the masons achieved an eight-hour day in 1856.

Another controversial issue in the nineteenth century was piecework, in which the tradesman was paid by the work produced rather than the time spent. In a competitive market, they inevitably ended up being paid less. This practice was largely eliminated with the co-operation of the more enlightened employers.

Learning by doing

Systems of apprenticeship and training developed during the nineteenth century, and one remarkable development was the introduction in 1901 of the Swedish sloyd [originally slöjd] training in woodwork, though this was directed more at school pupils than apprentices.

In 1915 Ted Goette, an apprentice carpenter, would attend technical school three times a week, and pay for it himself, later transferring to the Working Men’s College (now RMIT). The college was opened in 1887 by the philanthropy of Francis Ormond, and its operation was funded by a two-shilling-and-sixpence levy on all trade union members. Once Goette finished his training, he was at first paid two shilling and sixpence a week. This was raised to seven shillings and sixpence at the end of his first year as a carpenter, and rose to twenty-seven shillings and sixpence at the end of his five-year apprenticeship.

Much trade training was very conservative. Apprentices in the painting trade were required until quite recently to master techniques like graining, marbling and gilding, which are of little use today.

After World War II the Commonwealth took a role in the training of tradesmen, and the Department of Labour and National Service published textbooks on plastering, painting and decorating, bricklaying, and so on. This was an important development at a time when most of the available textbooks were British or American, and not geared to Australian conditions.

New technology, new techniques

If you were a carpenter, the biggest challenge in your work would be to frame a roof with the angles and lengths of the rafters correct. In order to do this right, apprentices were required to make a small scale model before the job was undertaken. One such model was found in the roof of a house of the 1920s – the loss of it must have caused the apprentice much anguish. The process of joining boards gives an idea of the sort of work we have now forgotten – the boards had to be heated with irons to prevent the glue congealing.

A carpenter would wear a white apron, but the joiner, who was a superior creature, would arrive in a bell topper (a kind of top hat), which he took off on the job and stored in a special box on the bench, replacing it with a white cap, and the usual apron.

The concreting trade expanded with the introduction of reinforced concrete in the early twentieth century, and used advanced technology for mixing the material. But even then it’s surprising how much manual labour was required to place it, using wheelbarrows.

Author bio:

Professor Miles Lewis is a Melbourne-based academic and architectural historian.


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