19. British immigrant farm workers prior to WW1

When WW1 broke out, there was a large group of single, young men working in the Shire of Alberton who had only recently immigrated from the UK. As a general rule, they were working as farm labourers and they were among the first to enlist. The story behind this group throws additional light on the way migration policy was employed at the time.

An earlier post – The Defence of the Nation: The White Australia Policy looked at how migration policy was used to protect the purity of the English race in Australia. Indeed, it was commonly believed, across all political points of view, that Australia offered the last and best chance for the full flowering of English – or at least White – civilisation. In this post the focus is more on the industrial agenda driving the same policy.

As the labour movement began to take on more formal and institutional power, at first in the separate colonies and then, post Federation, at both the State and Commonwealth levels, its political wing used migration policy to protect the perceived interests of its constituents. The policy was used to ensure that local jobs were not lost to immigrants and that immigration could not be used to force down wages or compromise hard-won conditions. In this context, the gravest threat was seen as coming from any unregulated and large-scale immigration of cheap “Asiatic” labour. White Australia and white Australian workers had to be protected from cheap Asian – and other non-White – labour. While this line was generally accepted across the political spectrum, the ALP went somewhat further, in the sense that it saw potential threats coming from even White immigrants workers. The ALP’s position was thrown into sharp relief by the so called ’Six Hatters’ affair of 1903.

The background to this affair was that when the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901 was drawn up, the ALP insisted on the inclusion of a clause (g), under prohibited immigrants S.3, which identified as a class of people to be prohibited – any persons under a contract or agreement to perform manual labour within the Commonwealth. At the time, the assumption was that this was just another provision, amongst many others, to prevent the immigration of cheap, non White labour. However what happened with the Six Hatters affair was that the provision was used to stop the immigration of six British workers.

The episode was highlighted in The Argus of 12 December 1903 (p.17) under the outraged headlines: The “Six Hatters” Scandal. Britishers Blocked At The Wharf. Socialism Run Mad. According to The Argus, the 6 British workers had come to Australia on the RMS Orontes under contract to work in Messrs. Charles and Anderson’s new hat factory in Sydney, at union rates. However, they first disembarked at Melbourne where they were in fact welcomed by members of the local union who showed them round the city and entertained them generously. At this point the British workers gave a copy of their agreement to the local unionists, and it was this contract that triggered the application of clause (g) of the 1901 Immigration Restriction Act. As The Argus told its readers:

The men returned to the steamer. When they reached Sydney they were refused a landing on the evidence of the document [the contract of work], because those whom they had trusted had induced the Ministry to set the Immigration Restriction Act in motion to accomplish something it was never intended to be used for. When Ministers were condemned on all hands for their unpardonable yielding to Labour political pressure, the Prime Minister suddenly discovered that Messrs. Charles and Anderson had to show cause why the men should be exempted from the act before they could be admitted. He began an inquiry, and found that he had no option to allow the men to land.

While the British workers did enter Australia and take up the work – much was made of the claim that it was outrageous to discriminate against British subjects in such a way, and that being ‘British’ carried the same rights across the entire Empire – the episode certainly demonstrated how the labour movement in Australia saw migration policy as a tool to serve the industrial interests of Australian workers. Moreover, when clause (g) of the 1901 act was in time replaced by the Contract Immigrants Act of 1905 the new legislation still placed heavy requirements on any employer seeking to recruit immigrant workers. For example, equivalent labour had to be unavailable in Australia; contracts had to be in writing; and award wages had to be paid. But this new legislation did at least make it clear that British workers could not be denied entry to Australia. Under the new law, the Minster would approve any such contract (to perform manual labour) only if, in his opinion: 5. (2) (b) there is difficulty in the employer’s obtaining within the Commonwealth a worker of at least equal skill and ability (but this paragraph does not apply where the contract immigrant is a British subject either born in the United Kingdom or descended from a British subject there born)

The Australian population did not reach 4 million until 1904; and against the labour movement’s determination to employ migration policy to protect workers’ interests, there was a growing push after Federation to promote the immigration of British people. In large part, this was to strengthen the White Australia Policy. It was commonly accepted, by all parties, that White Australia could not be guaranteed – nor even protected or defended – if the population did not increase. The fear of not being able to hold onto an underpopulated and unprotected White Australia against the ‘teeming masses’ of Asia was a political constant, particularly as one Asian nation – Japan – had emerged as a genuine major power with formidable military and naval assets. WW1 would only strengthen the paranoia surrounding the White Australia Policy. Fear of Asian immigration would surface in the ranks of the AIF during the conscription debates of 1916 and 1917. The claim would be that the white working class of Australia was being so decimated that Asian immigration would be required to make up the labour shortfall. After the War, PM Hughes, when he returned to Australia from the Treaty of Versailles, where he had been instrumental in striking out claims of racial equality, boasted openly of his success in maintaining the White Australia Policy in the face of international opposition, and was applauded widely by the Australian press. Overall, throughout at least the first half of the 20C, Australia, as a nation of untold potential but limited population, had to be defended as both a far-removed but integral part of the Empire and as a unique society where the White (British) race could aspire to some kind of higher order, characterised in large part by the industrial and political rewards made possible for the working man. Hence the push for the immigration of British stock.

In the years between 1906 and 1914, 150,000 British assisted immigrants reached Australia, with the key period being 1910-1913. Over this time the individual States established Agents-General in the UK and promoted various assisted-migration schemes. The primary targets for such schemes were agricultural settlers and farm workers. The Commonwealth was increasingly forced to subsidise such individual programs and, of course, it used its legislative powers to maintain the racial integrity of the overall immigration process and protect the pay and working conditions of Australians.

The focus on farm labourers was widely accepted. British lads and men were encouraged and supported to come as immigrants and take up work in rural districts. Rural Australia was seen as the natural and uncontested focus for immigration. For a start, there were not likely to be industrial obstacles. Small scale selections and the practice of family farming meant that the workforce was not heavily unionised; and there was little prospect of a unionised workforce developing, particularly outside regional centres. Moreover, even though the mechanisation of agricultural production was speeding up there was still high demand for casual rural labour. Also, it was hard to hold onto such labour – pay and conditions were weak and the nature of the work cycle and, even more importantly the work environment, meant that it was difficult to support family life – so the prospect of a regular injection of young, single immigrant rural workers was an essential reassurance. Sitting behind such practicalities were the more ideological beliefs of how the vast interior of Australia had to be ‘opened up’ to the economic benefits of primary industry and how the nation’s very future depended on attracting an ever increasing number of rural settlers. Canada was cited constantly as the most relevant example of what had to be done and the benefits – particularly vastly increased agricultural production and dramatic population growth – that would inevitably flow. Besides, country life was believed to be of a higher order. The vices, unemployment, poverty and temptations of the city, whether here in Australia or back in Britain, gave way to a more natural, wholesome, community-minded and more character-building life, one which was held to be particularly valuable for young, unaccompanied British lads.

Idealised views of the British immigrant and what migration could achieve were tempered by some realities. It was difficult to attract immigrants to Australia. Canada was a far more desirable destination. The States were in competition with each other for a limited resource. It could prove very difficult to keep the immigrant work force in the rural districts after they reached Australia. This was hardly surprising if the young lads came from large British cities – with no experience in farming – and found themselves working on a small family selection, miles from the nearest country town, which was itself only small and also hundreds of miles from a city like Melbourne or some other large regional centre. Not surprisingly, one of the constant criticisms of the migration system was that it did not attract the “right kind” of immigrant. Essentially, this was code for those who were not prepared to live and work out in the rural districts. There were many laments in the media of the day. For example, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative of 9 January 1914 (p.4) featured in its Melbourne Letter from a Special Correspondent, a rather negative assessment of the outcomes from migration:

What is wrong with the immigration work. It is certain that it is not what it should be. It does not seem to be possible to get adequate results from any of these State enterprises, and in this instance the fact the good results are not being obtained is more serious than in some others, because this is work that can be handled in no other way than by the State. Moreover, it is vitally important that it should be carried out. The need for population is generally acknowledged. There has been much money spent in the efforts to fill that requirement, and a fair number of people have been brought from the old country. But it is useless to delude ourselves by laying the flattering unction to our souls that the majority have been the right kind. They have not. And, in addition to that, there is the evidence of figures to show that during the past year
[1913] there has been a decline in the numbers as well as in the class of immigrants.

According to this article, the number of “new arrivals” for Victoria over 1911-1913 were as follows: 1911 – 6,770; 1912 – 14,106; 1913 – 12,112. The article also noted that to ship the total group of immigrants who arrived in Victoria in 1913 – just over 12,000 people – some 125 vessels had had to be chartered. The large number of vessels and the obvious logistics involved give some idea of the challenges at the time in managing a large-scale immigration policy. Organising migration to Canada was more straightforward.

This is the background to the large number of young, single, British-born agricultural labourers who enlisted in the AIF from the Shire of Alberton at the outbreak of WW1. The origins of this group can be traced through the pages of the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative over 1914, accepting that some of them would have arrived as early as 1911, and possibly even earlier.

In the edition of 10 April (p.2) the editorial referred in detail to the migration program, highlighting its value:

Two large parties of lads, numbering altogether about 400, are expected to reach Melbourne during this month from Great Britain. They are coming out specially to engage in farm work, and though many of them are without previous experience in work of this kind, they are very willing and anxious to improve their position and prospects. The lads vary in age from 16 to 20 years, and their services are available at from 10s per week and keep. The Immigration Bureau is desirous of placing them immediately upon arrival on farms where they will have opportunities of gaining good experience and receive fair treatment… A considerable number of similar lads have already arrived in the State, and they have on the whole given very satisfactory service, a great many excellent reports having been received from farmers who have engaged them.

In the edition of 15 May (p.2) advice was given that another party of 500 lads was to arrive in Melbourne on the SS Indrapura on 27 May. Again local farmers were encouraged to contact the Immigration and Labor Bureau.

The edition of 5 June (p.2) reported on the next contingent of lads arriving from Great Britain for farm work. This time there was no indication of the number, but the conditions were the same.

The edition of 15 July (p.2) noted that another 380 British lads for farm work, station work, or other country employment were due to reach Melbourne on 25 July on the S S Hawkes Bay. The lack of any background in farming was still not seen as a problem: … although, generally speaking, they are without rural experience, they readily adapt themselves to country work and rapidly become good helpers, having come out specially to be employed in the country districts.

The edition of 22 July (p.2) advised of another group of potential farm workers, although this time they were described as two hundred men, some of whom were married.

Even after the War started, there were groups of immigrant workers from the UK on the high seas heading for Australia. In the edition of 20 September (p.2) it was reported that the steamer Themosticles would arrive in Melbourne in early October with a party of 70 lads whom it is desired to place in employment in country districts as soon as possible. The editorial also noted that whereas drought conditions in the north of the State had depressed the need for farm labour, the situation in Gippsland was far more buoyant:

With the dairying season in operation under propitious conditions in the western district and in Gippsland, it is expected that evidence of a considerable demand for labor of this description will be forthcoming.

The last advice of a group of potential farm workers came in the edition of 13 November (p.2). On this occasion it was a group of 60 men and 108 lads. The men were experienced in farm work and a few of them were immigrating with their wives as married couples. And in the edition of 18 November (p.3) there was a report of a special appeal by Rev. W Thompson, on behalf of the same group of immigrants. A Presbyterian minister, his title was given as Immigration Representative of the Presbyterian Church of Victoria. He was in Yarram when he made his special appeal:

Rev W Thompson put in a plea for the employment of of 108 lads and 60 men (some married couples) to arrive in Melbourne on 28 inst. He looked to the farmers in Gippsland to do what they could in the direction of finding work for those who booked and paid for their passage to Victoria before the war broke out. He appealed to Presbyterians in particular, but no matter what denomination, Protestant or Catholic, he was prepared to personally select those he considered most suitable for positions offering. He considered it a duty in these times of stress to help those less favorably situated. In other words, to stretch a point in order to find employment for those who have crossed the big waters in the hope of bettering themselves.

In addition to all the advice written in the editorial section of the local paper, there was also a series of related advertisements, prepared and lodged by the (Victorian) Immigration and Labor Bureau, which appeared in the classified ads section of the paper. Obviously, the scheme to bring out lads to work as farm labourers was not restricted to Gippsland but applied across all the rural districts of Victoria. The same advertisements and editorial attention were repeated in other rural locations.

The lads and young men from the UK who came to the Shire of Alberton in the period immediately prior to WW1 to work as farm labourers came as a cheap labour source for the non-unionised farming sector. They also came to strengthen the integrity of White Australia. When the War came, they enlisted in large numbers. There was no doubt a popular conception in the local community that they should be the first to enlist. It was, after all, their home land that was under direct threat. They had a duty to return to fight for Britain. Moreover, there were very few obstacles to prevent them from enlisting. The normal regulations covering parental approval for those under age did not apply. It is also worth repeating that many of these young people had grown up in the major cities of Britain. They had not come from a rural or farming background. As unaccompanied minors, they had travelled to the other end on the world and eventually found themselves working in isolated, both socially and geographically, rural settings. Lastly, the pay of 6/- per day in the AIF was considerably better than the 10/- per week they were supposed to receive as immigrant workers.

References

For a general overview of migration policy and practice in Australia in the early 20C see the National Archives of Australia research guide:
More People Imperative: Immigration to Australia, 1901-39

For a background the fear of Japan see National Library of Australia, Occasional Papers Series , Number 1:
Fears & Phobias: E. L. Piesse And The Problem Of Japan 1909-39

Immigration Restriction. An Act to place certain restrictions on Immigration and to provide for the removal from the Commonwealth of prohibited Immigrants. No. 17 of 1901. Commonwealth of Australia.

Contract Immigrants. An Act relating to Immigrants under Contract to perform Manual Labour in the Commonwealth. No. 19 of 1905. Commonwealth of Australia.

The Argus

Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

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