History SA curator Dr Jude Elton tells us about a recent donation that celebrates a major South Australian achievement
The winning of reduced working hours and an eight hour day in South Australia by some groups of workers in 1873 was a major achievement for South Australian trade unions. The significant reduction in working hours from generally 9 or 10 hours in an unregulated labour market had to be won workplace by workplace. The unions continued the fight, but obtaining an 8 hour day for all South Australian workers would take another 30-40 years. This trunk played a small but significant part in the battle for the 8 hour day.
Not surprisingly achievements were celebrated with dinners and processions where floats, huge union banners, badges and ribbons proclaimed the ‘888 goal’ for all working people (8 hours work, 8 hours recreation and 8 hours rest a day). The first 8 Hour Day holiday was granted by the South Australian government in 1882 and celebrated the following year on 19 September. In 1900 1 September became the official 8 Hour Day (later Labour Day).
The 8 Hour Day holiday became the focus of not only union parades throughout South Australia, but also a time for working class community picnics and sports events organised by trade unions. Combined union committees organised parades and associated events with gusto and panache.
Eight Hours Celebration Committee
Combined union committees such as the Eight Hour Day Celebration Committee would not have had their own premises, but have kept them at a location such as Trades Hall on South Terrace. Records could have been kept in the trunk while the committee was active. The trunk may also have stored items associated with celebrations and used to transport them to events. Records of the Eight Hour Day Celebration Committee 1883-1910 are now lodged with the State Library of South Australia as part of the SA Unions collection.
Later use of the trunk
The secret ballot in government elections was first introduced in Tasmania in February 1856, Victoria in March 1856 and in South Australia April 1856, ahead of other Australian colonies (1858-1893) and the United Kingdom (1872).
A slot has been cut into the top of the trunk to enable it to be used as a voting box later in its life. Given that the trunk was stored with the United Trades & Labor Council (later SA Unions) for many years, it is likely that it was used for secret ballots at Council and/or Executive meetings. The secret ballot potential of the trunk makes it a significant example of the way voting developed in elections of all kinds during the late nineteenth century.
A potent reminder
The Eight Hours Celebration Committee trunk may be a bit battered and bruised, but it is a reminder of the efforts of working people in trade unions to improve the quality of their lives and the lives of the people around them. It holds memories of both struggle and celebration at a time when trade unions were an integral part of local communities and at the forefront of democratic change. Much was achieved with very little – apart from solidarity and determination - not much more than you could fit into a trunk.