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A stonemason whose legacy was to sculpt a fairer working day

The working day we take for granted began with an uprising more than 150 years ago. Stonemason Thomas Topping was part of that movement. Zara Hastie continues our Graveyard Shift series, exhuming lost stories from the Melbourne General Cemetery. 

Eight-hour day banner, Melbourne, 1856. Source: Wiki Commons

Words by Zara Hastie
 
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Topping was a stonemason. He was expected to work at least 10 hours a day. But on April 21, 1856, he and fellow workers downed tools. They wanted their day divided into eight-hour lots: work, recreation and rest. They were part of a movement that stretched back to Topping’s homeland, England.

Topping’s tombstone bears the symbol of that April day: three eights balanced in a triangle.

An obituary of Topping, who died in 1895, says: “Few of the workers of the present day who enjoy the fruits of the labours of that little band of pioneers sufficiently honour the work done for the benefit of all.”

Topping emigrated to Australia from Manchester in the mid-1850s. In a 1993 article in The Age reflecting on the movement he became part of, David Adams wrote that within two years of arriving in Australia, Topping had become a founding member of the Operative Stonemasons Society, and worked to successfully reduce the standard working day to eight hours.

William Emmett Murphy, a former secretary of Eight Hours’ Anniversary Committee of Victoria, wrote a history of the movement, which recalls that on the morning of April 21 Topping was working on the University of Melbourne quadrangle when he and other stonemasons downed their tools.

They refused to return to work until their demands were met: eight hours of work, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of rest.

Near the university, a group of tradesmen – Murphy estimated around 700 or 800 – had gathered. The tradesmen formed a procession, in which Topping and the other stonemasons were given “the place of honour”, and marched down the city streets towards Parliament, passing construction sites along the way and being joined by more tradesmen as they went.

In the following months, negotiations continued until the stonemasons won the eight-hour day, with no reduction to their wages. The action is described by the National Museum of Australia as the first of a hard-fought campaign of victories that led to Australia having one of the most progressive labor environments in the world by the early 20th century.

Following the success of the movement, Topping remained an active member of The Eight-Hour Pioneers Association – a collective of the tradesmen who took part in the movement.

Topping was also politically involved in his community. In 1857, he attended a contentious public meeting reported in The Argus to discuss separating Fitzroy from Melbourne municipality. A heated argument occurred between the chairman of the meeting and an attendee – a Mr Riley – with Topping siding with Riley, who argued that the chairman should be replaced with a Fitzroy citizen. They were unsuccessful.

In 1859, Topping contested a Fitzroy municipal council election. However, he could only muster 84 votes.

Over the years, the stonemason took an active role in commemorating the eight-hour movement. In an article published in The Argus in 1895, he addressed a meeting of the Eight-Hour Pioneers Association and read a message from a local undertaker, who had offered to supply a “drag and four horses” to the upcoming anniversary of the movement. While many of the members were interested in the offer, they decide to pass because a funeral procession would be inappropriate at a “happy celebration”.

Dr Sean Scalmer, a labour historian at The University of Melbourne, says the act of memorialising the victory of the eight-hour movement helped further the movement’s message.

“The celebration of the anniversary of the victory helped to signal the growing power of labour within the colony, and to encourage the confidence of the developing labour movement,” Dr Scalmer said.

“The parades and anniversaries are no longer really celebrated. The nature of the struggle and the achievement are little known and whereas Australians were once in the vanguard of reducing hours of work, this is no longer the case.”

Dr Scalmer said it was important to remember the movement’s weaknesses, along with its successes. “The 19th century labour movement was hostile to Chinese workers, even when they sought to develop their own unions,” he said. “This should also be considered in any recuperation of the eight-hour movement.”

Topping had several children with two wives, according to the registry of Births, Deaths and Marriages.

In 1947, the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration approved the standard eight-hour working day for all Australians, to take effect from January 1, 1948.

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THE CITIZEN is a publication of the Centre for Advancing Journalism. It has several aims. Foremost, it is a teaching tool that showcases the work of the students in the University of Melbourne’s Master of Journalism and Master of International Journalism programs, giving them real-world experience in working for publication and to deadline. Find out more →

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