work practices, organised and unorganised labour

From a very early time the Gringai people were recruited to perform work for the newly arrived European settlers of the Williams and nearby river valleys. Gringai work practices are unknown except as they were interpreted by Europeans who wished to employ them as cheap alternative labour. In general, this impression was of good workers while they were at it, but who could not be prevented from wandering off after a short period. However, it is known that the making of stone axes and other traditional tools took a great deal of time and perseverance, while the tendency of Europeans not to pay native people equally was seen, by at least one observer, as the reason for their less than consistent work practices.

In the European settlement period, the overwhelming mass of work undertaken within the Williams, Paterson and Allyn Valleys has been agricultural and forestry, with the majority of people either working for themselves or for owners with comparatively small capital. The exceptions have been a handful of large landowners who generally employed small numbers of workers, those working for stores and commercial enterprises in the towns, and a narrow range of professional workers such as teachers, nurses, doctors and others. The tradition of unionism in general seems not to have been strong.

Aboriginal workers

In 1832, Charles Boydell on the Allyn River brought in his tobacco crop ‘with the assistance of the blacks’.[1] A decade later, John Lord on the Williams River stated that: ‘I have employed them, however, in washing sheep, in which I found them quite as useful as white men; I should hardly have got through the washing last season without them …’[2] And in 1846, it was reported that many around Paterson used local natives as a substitute for expensive white labour:

“On several farms we hear that the blacks have been employed to reap the wheat, and that they have done their work very creditably; but unfortunately their habits of industry are not of long duration, and they could not be kept long enough at work to make themselves really valuable.”[3]

Another observer felt that given adequate compensation instead of the ‘daily supply of broken victuals’ that was usual, then harder and more persistent work was likely:

“They have certainly exhibited an industry, perseverance, and skill in the execution of their task which cannot be surpassed by Celt or Saxon.”[4]

This is not to say that the Gringai people did not have their own attitudes to work that differed from that of the newcomers. A glimpse into how the Gringai people saw the work practices of the newcomers is provided by their interaction with workers brought from India:

“… the natives of William’s River are upon good terms with the Coolies on Mr. Lord’s estate. The two people laugh at each other, because the Coolies work, and the other because the native wanders and has no comfort, nor good and regular food. The native tries to seduce the Coolie into the bush, and the Coolie to persuade the native to take service.”[5]

Despite the evidence of benefits to the contrary, it seems payment in ‘broken victuals’ was the more usual, and the regular employment of Gringai people never became part of their relationship with European settlers. This attitude of European employers is not unremarkable, as their attitude to labour in general was one of seeking the cheapest possible workforce, which at the beginning of European settlement was provided in the form of convict labour.

Convict workers

The early work practices of the Europeans were determined by the convict system in which some worked and others oversaw that work. For those doing the overseeing, life, for some at least, could be comfortable. As Christopher Lean and Jonathon Wilce, who both eventually settled in Fosterton to farm without convict help, reported of their early days in the colony:

“I had a regular routine of duties, but no laborious work. On the whole, time passed away very comfortably.”[6]

“I have no work to do except sow the grain and look after the men.”[7]

For the ‘men’ in these cases, that is transported convicts, work practices could involve working as part of an iron gang, sent to walk many kilometres to take up ones assigned position, having set amounts of work to perform, payment in kind, compulsory bank accounts, travel restrictions, being hauled up before a magistrate for failing to work sufficiently, and being scourged as part of work-related punishment.[8]

Side by side with convict labour was what were termed ‘free’ workers; those who had come to the Colony without being sentenced. It was common for such workers also to receive rations as part of their payment and when Christopher Lean took up a position as a ‘sheep overseer’ at £30 per year, he also received a weekly ration of 12 lbs beef or mutton, 10 lbs of flour, half a pound of tea and 2 lbs of sugar. Christopher thought this an ‘ample’ amount.[9]

Wage rates

Contracts varied and the £30 per year mentioned by Lean may have been less the supplies provided.[10] In 1822/23 for example, the convict wage was set at £10 but only £7 if clothing was provided. This government wage was repealed in 1823 when money was to be earned only in extra time, though many employers continued to pay a wage to their convict workers.[11] John Lord’s evidence in 1841 gives us a clear comparison of the cost of the three possible types of workers then available: Free = £41/18 per year, a prisoner = £16/17/4, a coolie = £18/8.[12]

Sunday rest

The protestant dominated culture of the Europeans meant work was not supposed to be performed on Sundays, and that this rest day was expected to be a time of prayer rather than amusements. This contrasted with the significant number of Catholics, whose interpretation of Sunday rest was always more convivial. Other holidays were observed in addition to Sunday, and, at one point St Patrick’s Day and St George’s Day were granted as holidays on alternate years.[13]

Work related accidents

Early work practices under the convict labour system did not emphasise safety, and accidental deaths while working were not uncommon. At ‘Cairnsmore,’ the estate of Crawford Logan Brown, according to a deposition taken by Dungog Magistrate Cook in 1837, William Mitten was ‘killed by an explosion of gunpowder which he himself had placed in a well for the purpose of blowing up the rock’.[14] That same month, an inquest was held into the death of a servant of W J Forster, named William Wilson, killed by a falling tree.[15] Two months later, there was another death by falling tree, this time on Australian Agricultural Company (AAC) property, of Robert Launders, who had just come to the colony. Magistrate Cook was moved to think in terms of prevention and wrote to fellow Magistrate, and sometime Commissioner of the AAC, Edward Ebsworth that, as this was one of four such cases in four months and that as many such accidents were due to ‘inexperienced youth’, such people should be paired with ‘old hands’ to provide training.[16]

No more convicts

A most significant change in the organisation of labour occurred with the ending of transportation in 1840, with assignment to private settlers ending the following year.[17] This immediately led to efforts to replace this cheap labour force with another just as cheap. In 1840, the Australian Immigration Association was formed to find a new source of low-cost labour, including Indian labour, and in December 1840 a Paterson and Williams District Committee was established.[18] Petitions were submitted requesting Indian coolie labour be introduced, with public meetings at Paterson in 1842.[19] Despite these efforts, the supply of labour would remain focused on immigration, largely, though not exclusively, from Britain and Ireland.

By 1844, the Dungog Magistrate Cook stated that the average wage was now £20 a year.[20] If accurate, this would imply a small increase only over the cost of a convict given by Lord (£16/17/4) a few years before. In the post-convict era, the self-employed or small-scale nature of much of work within the Williams River district meant that the majority of work practices took place within the agricultural, pastoralist and forestry industries.


One specific class of worker was servants and the employment of servants was intimately tied up with class difference. The nature of this is clearly shown in the many examples of purpose-built servant’s quarters that were left unrendered in what were otherwise fully rendered interiors.[21] Similarly, the position of these quarters next to the kitchens, often with no access to the main part of the house, demonstrates the degree of distance and separation built into the very architecture.

Child Workers

Another level of servants were the various child workers. From the 1870s through to the 1950s, various government and charitable organisations sent young boys and girls to the farms, shops and homes of the Williams Valley area to work as farm hands, apprentices and servants. Variously known as Vernon Boys (after a ship in Sydney Harbour) or Barnados Girls, they appear occasionally, usually in family recollections, but are rarely named.

The working conditions of these young people are difficult to judge, but cupboards and storage areas are often referred to in family stories as the sleeping places for these children. In one instance in 1916, Mr Saxby, a teacher at Glen William school reported on the abuse of State Wards as a ‘modern form of slavery’ by local farmers and at least one child was removed.[22]


While unionism has not been strong within the Dungog region, other forms of labour organisation which have had a strong impact are co-operatives and partnerships. With the rise of the dairy industry, the favoured form of organisation for these mostly small producers was co-operatives that allowed the setting up of the necessary milk processing factories on an equitable basis. This form of organisation remained intact even as the local co-ops gradually merged into larger units.

Types of labour arrangements

Within the dairy farms themselves the main labour force was provided by the family, with wives and children providing a great deal of unpaid labour for much of the period. Also common, particularly before the subdivision of the estates, was a form of shared farming in which a dairy was operated on a share basis with the owner of the land.

While mining has not played a major role within the Dungog Shire area, the mining that did take place was largely in the form of partnerships on a small claim with sometimes sufficient capital to operate a stamper.[23]

The forestry industry was perhaps the largest single employer of labour, as the saw mills required a modest amount of capital. The timber getters themselves were paid on the basis of the estimated value of the wood cut and brought to the mill.

The closest thing to factory work within the Dungog district was during the operation of Wade’s Cornflour Mill, and when the Fit-Rite clothing factory set up in the Victoria Hall Dungog in 1945, and then again in 1966 when Steven’s Knitting Mills was established in the former Grierson’s store on Dowling Street as a Shire Council subsidised operation. All these factories employed largely women; in the mill as packers and the clothing factories as seamstresses.[24]

One group of workers within the district which was highly unionised was railway workers. These workers brought into Dungog some examples of the facilities that such workers could demand. Thus the railway barracks, now a pre-school, gave the large crews needed to operate steam trains some measure of comfort and a place to rest. As did the change rooms provided in the post-war Dungog railway station. Even the gangs that passed through building the new line to Dungog in 1911, were well organised and struck at least once over their medical protection, for which they paid 6d per week, and which they felt was not providing them with quality care. Around the same period sleeper cutters, who would have been independent contractors, also requested an increase in the price paid per sleeper, although it is unclear what the result was.[25]

Teachers & Nurses

In addition to the railway workers, two groups of workers which largely came from outside the Williams River district were teachers and nurses. At first teachers were in the many one teacher schools scattered around the district and were accommodated nearby or in purpose built-schools with teacher accommodation attached. The poor quality of such accommodation was often a source of complaint. As Dungog and other schools grew and required several teachers, these teachers were often accommodated in dormitory style or boarding house type residences. Teachers are now highly unionised and those of the Williams Valley early began to organise themselves into a ‘Teachers federation’, at first for the purposes of information sharing and learning.[26]

As Dungog Hospital grew so did its nursing staff, leading to the building of nursing accommodation, including a tennis court. Both nursing and ‘domestic’ – kitchen and cleaning – staff were accommodated in the same building but were expected to not to socialize together. These facilities were generally provided through community fundraising activities. As the control of health has been taken over by regional bureaucracy outside the district itself, the conditions and pay of health professionals has been standardised with little local variation.

In recent times, the major change in the organisation of labour has been the tendency for many workers not be employed within the Williams Valley where they reside but instead to make use of improved roads and cars to work in distant locations. Paralleling this is a rise in the number working from home utilising the Internet.

Heritage Survivals

  • Servants’ rooms

  • Railway barracks

  • Teachers’ accommodation

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.36.
  2.  The Sydney Herald, 4/10/1841, p.1S.
  3. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.103 & Maitland Mercury, 26/12/1846, p.2.
  4.  Maitland Mercury, 2/12/1848, p.2.
  5.  The Colonist, 19/12/1838, p.4.
  6. Lean, The Lean Family History, p.47.
  7. Lean, The Lean Family History, p.48.
  8. See 2.2 Convicts.
  9. Lean, The Lean Family History, p.47.
  10. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.38.
  11. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.52.
  12.  Sydney Herald, 4/10/1841, p.1S.
  13. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.64.
  14. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 10/8/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  15. Cook to Colonial Secretary, 17/8/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  16. Cook to Ebsworth, 6/10/1837 (Dungog Magistrates’ Letterbook).
  17. Walsh, Voices from Tocal, p.115.
  18. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.76, Australian, 8/12/1840, p.3.
  19. Sullivan, Charles Boydell, p.204, Australian, 14/11/1842, p.3.
  20.  Sydney Morning Herald, 5/3/1844, p.2.
  21. Williams, Ah, Dungog, p.16 & p.71.
  22. Gorton, Glen William Public School, p.31.
  23. See Mining.
  24. Hazell, A Centenary of Memories, p.78 [1945] & p.108 [1966].
  25.  Dungog Chronicle, 4/5/1909 & Hazell, A Centenary of Memories, p.29 [1909].
  26. See Education.