Stonemason societies began to emerge in New South Wales and Victoria during the early 1850s with groups including the United Operative Masons (later known as the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of New South Wales) and the Independent Society of Operative Stonemasons of Victoria (later known as the Friendly Society of United Operative Stonemasons of Victoria).
In 1918 the Operative Stonemasons’ Society of Australia formed as a result of the amalgamation of a number of state-based stonemason societies in Victoria, Queensland, New South Wales and South Australia. It was formally registered in 1919.
The 1850s were a particularly significant time for stonemason and other skilled building trades workers including carpenters, plasterers, bricklayers and cabinet-makers, as they began to campaign strongly for an eight hour work day. The premise was that workers would have eight hours work, eight hours recreation and eight hours rest each day with the main arguments being that this would allow workers some respite from the searing summer heat and also give workers time for education and self-improvement. Historically it was common for workers to work up to 14 hours a day, six days per week, with no sick or holiday leave entitlements. An Eight Hour League was formed and stonemasons in New South Wales and Victoria began to agitate for change.
In 1855, Sydney-based stonemasons warned their employers that they would shortly commence working an eight hour day and members of the Friendly Society of Operative Stonemasons of New South Wales, who at the time were working on the Garrison Church and Mariners’ Churches in The Rocks, decided to strike. This was followed by a two week strike by stonemasons working on the Tooth and Company Brewery site. These strikes resulted in the workers winning the right to work an eight hour day, the first Australian union to achieve this. Although it is noted that it did result in a reduction in wages.
In Victoria, the eight hour day campaign was spearheaded by two masons both by the name of James. James Galloway (1828-1860) was a young mason who had arrived in Melbourne from Scotland in 1854. James Stephens (1821-1889) was a Welsh mason who migrated to Melbourne in 1853. Stephens and Galloway became President and Secretary respectively of the Operative Stonemasons’ Society.
In 1856 Stephens led a march of Victorian stonemasons who were working on the University of Melbourne site. The men downed tools and marched on Parliament House along with a number of members of other building trades unions. This action led to peaceful negotiations with the government and ultimately the achievement of an eight hour working day with no loss of pay.
By 1858, the eight hour working day had become the standard condition for stonemasons in NSW and Victoria, although it was quite some time before this ideal was achieved in other states and even longer before this was achieved for women, children, or Aboriginal and Chinese workers.
This historic win was celebrated with a parade which became known as the Eight Hours Procession. The first parade in Victoria was held on 12 May 1856 with a grand march from Carlton Gardens to Cremorne Gardens in Richmond, followed by dinner, speeches, games, festivities and fireworks. The parade became a major annual event for almost 100 years, becoming a paid public holiday in 1879 and being renamed Labour Day in 1934. The last Labour Day parade was held in 1951, and in 1955, it was replaced by the Melbourne Moomba Festival parade.
Despite the fact that stonemasons were acknowledged to be highly skilled and their union ties were strong, the profession and the union were highly dependent on a strong construction industry and downturns in the industry coupled with changes in practices ultimately led to the demise of the union and the Operative Stonemasons’ Society of Australia was deregistered in 1991.
The Noel Butlin Archives Centre holds several deposits of records belonging to the New South Wales, Victorian and South Australian Branches of the Operative Stonemasons’ Society in addition to related Friendly Society records and records of the related Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union from the mid-1800s to the 1990s.
Parliament of Victoria 2017, Heritage note no. 1 – the origins of the eight-hour day in Victoria, <https://www.parliament.vic.gov.au/publications/research-papers/download/36-research-papers/13812-heritage-note-no-1-2017-the-origins-of-the-eight-hour-day-in-victoria>
Pyrmont History Group 2018, Stonemasons, <https://pyrmonthistory.net.au/stonemasons?rq=stonemasons>
State Library of Victoria n.d., James Stephens, <http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/fight-rights/workers-rights/james-stephens>
State Library of Victoria n.d., Winning the 8-hour day, <http://ergo.slv.vic.gov.au/explore-history/fight-rights/workers-rights/winning-8-hour-day>
Tout-Smith D 2003, James Galloway, Leader of the Eight Hour Day Movement (1828-1860), <https://collections.museumvictoria.com.au/articles/2099>