A Win for the Workers

The next time you’re burning the midnight oil at work, spare a thought for how it used to be, when the ‘midnight oil’ was a feeble lamp lighting the piecework taken home by women after a long day on the factory floor. And give thanks to the campaigners for workers’ rights, who fought hard for better conditions (and who still do so).

My new book, Murder in the Devil’s Half Acre, was inspired by the events of 1890, in New Zealand’s biggest and wealthiest city (at the time), Dunedin. Many workers slaved for long hours in appalling conditions, although arguably with better conditions than they had faced in Britain, from whence most of the population had immigrated since 1840. Some workers even managed to get an eight-hour day, as first celebrated fifty years later, in October 1890, by our first Labour Day. (The cartoon lampooning the Employers’ Union Labour Day float is from the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

After the depression years of the 1880s, any job was better than none, even if the pay scarcely covered a subsistence living. Families often fended off starvation by sending their women and children to work.

Enter the Reverend Rutherford Waddell and his widely publicised sermons on the ‘Sin of Cheapness’. Waddell was the minister of the St Andrew’s parish, in an area so notorious for drinking and debauchery that it became known as the Devil’s Half Acre. It was so bad that Walker Street, which is the epicentre of events in the story, was later renamed Carroll Street in an attempt to blot out the taint. (Waddell photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

Waddell’s powerful advocacy helped to establish the first union for working women, the Dunedin Tailoresses’ Union. The first vice-president of the union was Harriet Morison, one of New Zealand’s (and the world’s) pioneering feminists, who later played an important role in the campaign for women’s suffrage and the temperance movement. (Harriet Morrison photo courtesy of the Alexander Turnbull Library.)

The government responded by setting up the Sweating Commission, which first convened in Dunedin on the tenth of February 1890, with Waddell as one of the commissioners.

Here’s a sample of one inspection by the Sweating Commission: ‘Factory crowded to excess. Badly lighted, and not ventilated. The building has three flats. In the upper one the sewing girls and clickers are in one room, and some of the employees are juvenile in appearance. The ground-floor is crowded with machinery and men, and the cellar is utilised as workroom for considerable number of men. The cellar from floor to ceiling is not more than 6ft. high, and two boys there are practically working in the dark.’

The photos below, of women working a clothing factory and looms at a woollen mill, are from the early 1900s, when conditions had improved significantly (Source: Alexander Turnbull Library).

The commission concluded that sweating did not exist, in the sense of the accepted definition, albeit with three dissenting commissioners, including Waddell. However, the evidence of long hours, poor conditions and inadequate pay was undeniable. The Liberal government subsequently made significant changes to labour laws, including the Factories Acts of 1891 and 1894.

For anyone interested, I’d highly recommend Ian Dougherty’s fascinating biography of Waddell – Pulpit Radical: The Story of New Zealand Social Campaigner, Rutherford Waddell (2018, Saddle Hill Press, Dunedin, New Zealand).

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