Lithgow is a place with a proud history as a union town. The origins of broader community solidarity lie in the early industrial development of the town and the development of unions. The Lithgow Pottery dispute of 1890 was a key event.
Lithgow Pottery was a part of the industrialisation of inland Australia. Author Ian Evans found that it had its origins in 1879 with the arrival in the district of James Silcock. He was an employee of the Colliery that was a thriving sector because of the westward expansion of the railways by the Colonial government.
Greg Patmore, a historian of Lithgow and localism has documented the coalminers as being amongst the first to unionise in the area with workers at the Vale of Clywdd forming their own lodge as early as 1875. In 1886 a slightly broader union formation in the Western District Miners’ Union was established. As Patmore notes many of the workers into the area in the coal industry and the iron works were potters from Staffordshire and, with the name above in mind, Welsh miners.
The potters then were first put to work in the area when it was determined that the clay was suitable for brick manufacture. Ian Evans, in his beautifully illustrated history of the pottery puts 1876 as the year the brickworks began. Pipe making was ready to go by October 1877 and began under the auspices of the Lithgow Valley Colliery Co with the first pipes not appearing until March 1878, with a distinctive kangaroo emblem. So confident was the area in the quality of its bricks and pipes that it took part in the Sydney International Exhibition of 1879.
Silcock first started making pots in May 1879. He was an employee of the brickworks but after a few trial runs and a show to the owners of his pottery talents he found that “The shareholders were so pleased with them that they asked me to get some more clay ready of a better kind and make a many more”. The importance of such good relations between bosses and workers was emphasised in his following comments:
“It was very pleasing to me to give such satisfaction and I thought of the great difference between being here and being at home [Brampton, Derbyshire where he had been an apprentice to Mathew Knowles Earthenware Pot manufacturer], as the Master there never did appreciate a good man.”
Serious production work began in June it seems and continued with part of the exhibit to Sydney being some of the works of the Pottery.
He did not maintain such a warm view of labour-capital relations however. He left Lithgow in 1886 with the view that Abbott, his co-worker and later tenderer to the company for the manufacture of pipes, was a “treacherous man”. Silcock went on to work at East Maitland in Fieldsend’s Pottery and later to Turton’s Pottery at Waratah near Newcastle where he later became the owner.
Workers first seem to have begun asserting their collective rights in 1884 when they petitioned management for a closure of the works from 1.00pm on Saturdays. Management agreed but only when it was agreed that the number of hours worked remained the same. Those hours amounted to 57 per week.
That the paternalism of work in such a place remained strong and the importance of local community relations was a factor was seen when a serious injury to potter, J. Bowkett. Abbott as manager took him to hospital in Bathurst and the company paid for all treatment and expenses.
However real industrial trouble first came in 1890. That was a year of general downturn in the colonies and union battles with owners and mangers generally ended in severe defeats for workers in the early 1890s. Evans gives a good version of the strike at the pottery that began in June.
The 57 hour working week was a part of this, and many of the workers often did double shifts on top of those usual hours.
The pottery was operating separately to the larger brick and pipe works. The hours and conditions issue resulted in the formation of a union of workers from both places with an initial membership of 26. The Lithgow Pottery & Brickworkers Industrial Union of Employees was registered under the NSW legislation of 1902 but we can assume it must have been previously formed under the earlier Trade Union Act.
They first met on a Saturday to claim the eight-hour day and a minimum rate of 1/-per hour. For their trouble 17 of the brick and pipe workers were sacked without an official explanation. The sacked men appealed to their fellow workers in the Pottery who stopped work on the Monday.
Here we start to see the importance of community and locality, as Greg Patmore emphasises in his accounts of industrial history of Lithgow. A public meeting was called and a deputation consisting of the Mayor of Lithgow, a clergyman, the editor of the Lithgow Mercury and the President of the Western Miners’ Union was formed to discuss the dispute with Mr Gell the managing director.
Gell denied that the men had been discharged for forming a union and claimed the sackings were because of a need to repair machinery. (No redundancy pay then, as Howard and co want in the very near future.)
The miners had already passed a motion at their on meeting supporting the strikers and saying that the men had been victimised for upholding the principles of unionism.
Gell seemed to be ready to settle the dispute but when workers returned the following Monday they were informed that only two were required. The men refused to return under the conditions outlined, as they saw acceptance of the right to in the union as at the core of the dispute. Some potters who had not joined the union remained at work throughout.
The next development was the involvement of the broader trade union movement with the Secretary of the Sydney Trades and Labour Council, P.J. Brennan arriving in Lithgow to help negotiations. The feelings of the union members was running high. Edward Smith, one of the strikers, set out the conditions in the works in a letter to the Sydney Daily Telegraph:
We worked 57 hours a week. The average pay of the brickmakers is 9d a week. The potters are on piecework and their pay at the best of times barely comes to £3.00 a week, very often it is much less. …As the men are paid by the hour or by piecework the management has the legal right to summarily dismiss them, as there was no union they could do so in the most arbitrary fashion, without assigning a cause. …the potters have to work under the most trying and unhealthy conditions. Their business ought to be classed as a noxious trade, as far as its effects on their systems is concerned. The men in the pipesheds, for instance, have to work in a sweltering heat in the midst of a most insidious and hurtful dust. This fine powdery dust gets into the head and lungs of the men though the nostrils, eyes and ears…The pipeshed men are in a constant state of ill-heath and frequently laid up.”
Gell next actions made things worse and also, with the above arbitrary dismissal powers, show us again that the federal government is heading back to the future. He revealed that all the bricks and pipes would in future be made under contract and that thus striking potters would not be re-engaged. Brennan headed back to Sydney and reported to the TLC meeting on the deplorable conditions at Lithgow Valley Colliery Co. Thomas Wilton of the Colliery office I Sydney was in furious disagreement with Brennan’s description of conditions. He said that the men wanting to go back to work showed how good conditions must be!!!?? Brennan pointed out that the men in the pottery and brickworks had never seen Mr Wilton making any inspections of the workplace which was “a disgrace to civilisation.” Also the men needed to go back to work because so many lived in houses built on company land and could only sell to other company employees.
So after six weeks the strike was no closer to an end. This in itself indicates the support the workers must have received and maintained from the community as they would have needed food, rent money etc for themselves and families.
Interesting the Pottery did keep operating during the strike, and the men who were staying out seem to have tolerated the continued work of Hugh Austin (who began at the works in 1889) and some English throwers imported by the company.
The miners maintained their support and sent an ultimatum to the manager, Brough, that “unless the men now at work under the agreement desist from burning the kilns or doing outside work, the…pits will be laid idle.” The miners voted to begin to stop supplies to the Pottery beginning on 5th August. The English potters were given a chance to defend their position and they agreed not to perform work outside their own branch. The miners agreed then to not supply coal hewn by union miners to non-union labourers.” The non-union potters were then stood down.
The Colliery directors seem to have decided it was time for negotiations and the Board received a deputation consisting of members of the Western Miners’ union and a representative from the newly formed Potters’ Union. The company offered and the workers agreed, to reduce hours by half a day with the same pay rate to still apply. The strikers had had to suffer through eight weeks but won reduced hours (down to a mere 54 per week). All who had been o strike were re-employed. The Potters’ Union had been established in Lithgow.
Community and workplace solidarity as the Depression of the 1890s set in won reduced working hours and a new union. The Lithgow community, including the media, local government and religious figures supported the workers right to organise, to have more leisure and better working conditions. The workers united, with the miners being a crucial element in achieving rights for other workers, without any monetary benefit to themselves. They did achieve long-term community solidarity, as demonstrated by the later formation of an Eight Hours Demonstration Committee, which began a tradition of marches to celebrate shorter hours that continued until the 1960s. These marches became the most important event in Lithgow’s social calendar and were accompanied by banquets, sports carnivals, smoke socials and dances. The Eight Hours Demonstration Committee also provided the impetus for the establishment of the Lithgow Trades Hall Society, which eventually ran two picture theatres in the town and provided office accommodation for unions. These traditions may have faded, but Lithgow remains the home of the western district miners, the Union Theatre is being restored by local people, the Workies is thriving, the coal mines have supported the pool construction and the Workies sponsor many community sports groups. Lithgow is a town very aware of the commonality of experiences, and the early days of union activity were the original cement for the town and its people.
Ian Evans. The Lithgow Pottery. (Sydney: The Flannel Flower Press, 1980) A beautifully produced book, with a well written account of the rise and decline of the Pottery, and a great selection of photographs, recipes for the clay, employee list, catalogue of commercial products.
Greg Patmore. Localism, Capital and Labour: Lithgow 1869-1932.(Paper presented at the 1998 Association of Industrial Relations Academics of Australia and New Zealand Wellington, N.Z, 3-5 February)