Gawler Thematic History - Organising Workers and Work Places

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Type of thing Government
Date made or found 2020

Organising Workers and Work Places

In many service industries, working conditions in the later part of the 18th century were demanding indeed and one of the earliest unions to be set up was the Gawler Shop Assistants Union in 1864, to campaign for lower working hours since their hours were exceedingly long by Adelaide standards.

By February 1889, most Gawler shopkeepers were observing closure on Wednesday afternoons. By July 1891, the closing of all shops on Wednesdays by 1.30pm was a fixed practice. 101

During the 1890s, trade unions had significant hold in Gawler, more so than in other provincial towns in South Australia at the time 102. There were occasional strikes but in general relations between the employers and the District Trades and Labor Council was good. In the first thirty years of the 20th century, the socio-economic composition of the population and the age distribution meant that there were an increasing number of labourers, clerks, shop assistants and government, council and industry employees rather than self-employed merchants, shop keepers and tradesmen.

By 1908, the eight hour/day system of work and the half day holiday on Saturday had been in place for over thirty years, however the amount of time for leisure among the working population was to be curtailed, for with the passage of the Early Closing Act in 1914, the hard won general early Wednesday closing was discontinued and even the 'no Saturday work' ruling at Martin & Co. was revoked when Samuel Perry took over the works in 1915.

The uncertain economic climate in Gawler early in the twentieth century was reflected in the formation of Gawler branches of the Moulder's Union (1906), along with the Liberal and Democratic Union and the Australasian Agricultural Implement and Machinery and Ironworker's Association and the United Labour Party in 1907.

These comprised mainly workers from the May Bros. and James Martin & Company foundries who were also active in the local labour party organisation. The Agricultural Implement and Machinery and Ironworker's Association (subsequently known as the Implement Worker's Union) was responsible for a ten week strike of May Bros. and Gawler Implement Co. workers in 1911 for a closed shop, which put more than 300 men out of work, created conflict among the workers over the virtues of strike action and showed clearly the growing divisions within the town as population grow and became more segmented. The sense of interdependence was still strong within the town and the importance of the manufactories and foundries to local autonomy was evident to all 103 however the reality was that strikes and over unionism and working conditions were a debilitating feature of the last phase of Industrial activity in Gawler 104


This report has been prepared by the following people:

• Nancy Cromar (Flightpath Architects)

• Deborah Morgan (Flightpath Architects)

• Kate Paterson (Flightpath Architects)

• Douglas Alexander (Flightpath Architects)

The study team would like to acknowledge the assistance of the following people:

• David Petruzzella (Strategic Planner; Town of Gawler)

• Jacinta Weiss (Cultural Heritage Centre Coordinator; Town of Gawler)

• Jane Strange (Senior Development and Strategic Policy Officer; Town of Gawler)

Gawler History Team thanks: Flightpath Architects, Ryan Viney and the Town of Gawler for allowing us access to this important document of Gawler History.

Related Articles


  • 101 Whitelock D. p. 114
  • 102 Whitelock D. p.116
  • 103 Coombe G.E. p223-22
  • 104 Whitelock D. p. 143

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