The first eight-hour day procession
On 12 May 1856, over a thousand building workers celebrated winning an eight-hour working day. They marched through central Melbourne behind a banner declaring ‘Eight Hours’ Work, Eight Hours’ Rest, Eight Hours’ Recreation’, to a fete and sports event at Cremorne Gardens in Richmond.
Gaining the eight-hour day
A few months earlier, stonemasons working on some of Melbourne’s major buildings, including The University of Melbourne, Melbourne Public Library and Parliament House, instigated a movement to reduce their daily working hours from ten to eight. They argued that eight hours a day was appropriate in the Australian heat, and that it would give stonemasons time to improve their ‘social and moral condition’. From February 1856, employers conceded the eight-hour day to masons, carpenters and joiners, bricklayers, plasterers and slaters, and then to painters, quarrymen, saddlers and harness-makers.
The gain of the eight-hour day was an astounding international precedent, contributing in later decades to Australia’s reputation as a ‘workingman’s paradise’. New Zealand and Sydney building workers had gained the eight-hour day by 1848 and early 1856 respectively, although Sydney’s gains were short-lived. However, unlike their Australasian counterparts, Melbourne’s building workers did not concede pay or other conditions, and they promoted themselves as national and international pioneers, setting a precedent to which working men of the imperial world should aspire.
The eight-hour day procession and trade union banners
From 1857 the Eight-hour Day procession was held on 21 April. It became Melbourne’s biggest annual procession, growing in popularity when the Eight Hour Day became a public holiday in 1879, and reaching its peak just before World War One, when tens of thousands of spectators watched 13 000 ‘eight-hour men’ march.
Eight-hour Day procession in Bourke Street, Melbourne, 1914. The banner of the Carters and Drivers Industrial Union is in the foreground.
Source: State Library of Victoria
The major spectacle of the processions was the union banners, mounted and carried behind horse-drawn carriages. Costing between £100 and £200, each banner provided an ‘object lesson’ in industry. Banners were mostly about three by four metres, and made from canvas and silk. One side of the banner was usually a realistic depiction of the elements and conditions of the trade, including the materials, tools and skills required to carry it out, while the other side was often more symbolic, referring to the ancient lineage and ideals of the trade.
During the 1910s an especially large number of Victorian unions commissioned banners, and the Museum holds most of those which survived from this period. Many are now in a fragile condition.
In 1915, The Argus described the procession:
‘Eight Hours Day dawned grey and unpromising, with a raw wind and a threat of rain. The faint booming of drums from the Trades Hall kept the waiting people happy and hopeful, looking down the street whence swept majestically the first banner, its colours subdued by the distance, and led by the professional musicians. The banner of the timber-workers, drawn by white horses, gaily decked, was followed by a good muster of workmen. The banner of the painters and decorators was in a florid style, one of the best designs in the procession. It was one of the new banners for the year. Leading the tinsmiths were two knights in shining armour, they gleamed like animated tinware booths, and were very impressive.’
Banner of the Operative Painters and Decorators Union of Australasia, Victorian Branch
Artist: W. D. Dunstan, 1915 / Source: Museum Victoria
The procession date changed in 1927 and again in 1949, and in 1934 the Eight-hour Day was re-named Labour Day. Moomba, first held in 1955, superseded the Labour Day procession. Trade unions continue to march with banners in the Moomba procession, May Day and other industrial marches and events. Many unions commissioned new banners in the 1980s.
Museum Victoria 2000. Australian Children’s Folklore Collection. Information Sheet 10118.
Museum Victoria 2000. Museum Victoria Social History Collections, No. 1. Information Sheet 10121.
Museum Victoria 2000. Museum Victoria Social History Collections, No. 2. Information Sheet 10122.
Murphy, W. E. 1896. History of the Eight Hours’ Movement. Volume One. Spectator Publishing Company Limited, Melbourne.
Murphy, W. E. 1900. History of the Eight Hours’ Movement. Volume Two. J. T. Picken, Melbourne.
Stephen, A. and Reeves, A. 1986. Badges of Labour, Banners of Pride: Aspects of Working Class Celebration. Trustees of the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences/George Allen & Unwin, Sydney.
Reeves, A. 1990. Another Day Another Dollar: Working Lives in Australian History. McCulloch Publishing, Carlton North.