Trade Union Banners and Certificates

Trade union banners

Before World War One the Eight Hour Day processions were the greatest annual celebrations in Australia. They originated with the triumphal march held on the 12 May 1856, to celebrate the gaining of the Eight Hour Day on 21 April 1856. 

Australian trade union banners only appeared in public for Eight Hour Day processions. This contrasts with their British counterparts, which were used in strikes and demonstrations supporting progressive causes. While the original 8 Hour Day banner was made of bunting, most of the early trade union banners were either silk or calico. These were vulnerable to the weather, and many were reportedly destroyed by high winds, so from the 1980s more robust canvas banners became common.

Banners were mounted onto horse-drawn drays and later onto lorries, as they were too large and heavy to be carried by hand. Then from early in the 20th century, complicated frames were made so the banners could be lowered as they passed under the power and tram lines that were becoming part of the cityscape. There were more than 200 Victorian banners made between 1856 and 1950, but only about a dozen survive. It is thought that many were burnt in a Collingwood fire in the mid-1960s.

Designs incorporating 888, the depiction of native flora and fauna, and coats-of-arms are typical motifs in Australian trade union banners. British motifs adopted in Australian designs include work themes, i.e. work places, skills and processes, tools and machinery; men in uniform symbolising their work; clasped hands as a symbol of mutual help and friendship; and bundles of sticks. The sticks represent the power of organised labour: a single stick is easily broken but a bundle cannot be destroyed. Images of flags and the globe signal international ties.

Women were frequently used as allegorical representations of countries or virtues such as truth, justice and peace. They virtually never appear as workers in the old banners, a situation the modern banner artists sought to address in the 1980s. Historical and biblical figures, associated with craft skills or industry, added legitimacy to trade unions; e.g. printers depicted Caxton, and carpenters depicted Joseph of Nazarene. Some figures are portraits of union members or officials.

Slogans usually underlined themes of unity, for example 'United to Assist, Not Combined to Injure' and 'Unity is Strength'.


Banner artists 

George Grant

George Grant was born in Ballarat, Victoria and studied art and design at the Ballarat School of Mines before attending the School of Art associated with the National Gallery of Victoria during the 1880s.

He developed a reputation as a good painter, with examples of his artworks being held by the Victorian Parliament and Ballarat Art Gallery. However, he initially struggled to find sufficient work and took on work as a house painter and interior decorator to supplement his income.

Grant was a committed unionist, member of the Painters and Decorators’ Union and active in the Australian Labor Party. Between 1910 and 1916, Grant painted several trade union banners, including banners for the Victorian Branch of the Australian Tramway Employees’ Association (shown here), Fuel and Fodder Union, Operative Coach Makers Society and Australian Meat Employees’ Union.   

At least some of his banners were painted at his house in Kensington, where he erected a roof above the path down the side of the house, and stretched the banners against the wall of the house.

Grant died in Melbourne in 1935.


Edgar Whitbread

Edgar Whitbread was a member of the Painters and Decorators’ Union and painted a large number of banners for trade unions during the early 1900s including the Australian Boot Trade Employees’ federation New South Wales Branch (shown here) and the Federated Stovemakers’ and Porcelain Enamellers’ Association of NSW. Most of this work was conducted at his home workshop in Earlwood in Sydney. Whitbread would also repair the banners after each year’s parade, repairing damage inflicted by wind and rain.

Whitbread died in Sydney in 1958.


Kift & Smith

Kift & Smith was a Ballarat-based firm of commercial painters and decorators. During the 1890s they were commissioned by local trade unions, including the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, Blacksmiths, Fitters, Patternmakers, Turners and Machinists, to produce banners to be used in the Ballarat Eight-Hour Day Procession.


W.G. Dunstan

W.G. Dunstan was a Melbourne-based painter and sign writer, and member of the Operative Painters and Decorators Union.

He is known to have produced five trade union banners between 1912 and 1917, including for the Victorian Branches of the Operative Painters and Decorators Union and Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners.



Trade Union Certificates

Trade Union certificates, particularly during the 1800s and early 1900s, were often incredibly elaborate and featured fine-detailed and colourful drawings. These illustrations commonly depicted union members and their work, alongside historical and biblical figures, and emblems or mottos specific to the particular union. 

These certificates ranged from general membership certificates through to large commemorative presentation certificates.