Inside the Collection

Industrial Revolution in Australia – impact on manufacturing in the 1800s

A Museum exhibit of a steam engine. It consists of a large flywheel attached to two pulleys. The engine sits on a large platform, bordered by a railing. Behind it is a mock engine shed wall with corrugated iron and an oil can sitting on a shelf.
The typical Australian factory or mill in the late 1800s was powered by a horizontal stationary steam engine like this one built by Marshall of Gainsborough, England, in 1909. Note the white insulated pipe on the right delivering steam from a boiler and the belt on the left attached to the overhead line shafting to power the factory’s machines. MAAS Collection, 85/304. Photo: Geoff Friend, MAAS.

When we think of the Industrial Revolution in Britain with its steam engines powering machines, the mass production of goods, thousands of poor farming families leaving the countryside to work in ‘satanic’ mills and factories and the rise of the wealthy middle class, it’s hard to see how this could be applied to Australia.

Australia and Britain were so different in size, population, history, climate, class structure, wealth and resources. As a penal colony we went from complete dependency on ships’ provisions, followed by near starvation in 1788, to New South Wales and Victoria being virtually self-sufficient in manufacturing by 1890. Queensland, which didn’t even separate from NSW until 1859, hadn’t cast a single piece of metal until 1862 but in less than 30 years the state was building its own locomotives. How did this all happen so quickly?

Australian manufacturing was supercharged in the 1800s by the enormous scientific, engineering, communications and transport advances occurring in Britain at the time on account of the Industrial Revolution.

In the colony, human and animal power gave way in the early 1800s to wind power. Sydney’s skyline was dotted with the sails of windmills powering flour mills. The first steam engine began operating in Australia in 1815, brought to Sydney by a Scottish engineer, John Dickson (1774-1843), who arrived in 1813. Local manufacture of small steam engines began as early as the 1830s.

A museum exhibit of a large steam engine comprised of a very large fly wheel, six tall columns, a piston, boiler and several large pipes.
This six-column, beam-type steam engine, made by Maudslay, Sons & Field of London in 1837, arrived in Australia by ship and was transported overland to Goulburn, NSW, in a bullock dray. It powered a brewery and flour mill. MAAS Collection, B558. Photo: MAAS.

A number of factors encouraged local manufacturing including our isolation, the high cost of freight, the likelihood of delays for goods or spare parts and a general disinterest from Britain to invest here.

Australian manufacturing relied heavily on imported technology from Britain and, to a lesser extent, America. Some had to be modified for local conditions. Local manufacturers had to come to grips with a country whose resources and climate were alien. Trial and error was used to determine, for example, the location of suitable clay for brick and pottery works; the strength and durability of local hardwoods; the suitability of flora for tanning to make leather; and the properties of different types of coal for gas-making and running steam engines.

Imported spinning machinery had to cope with fine Merino wool while iron and copper furnaces had to be altered to operate with the local ore impurities. Other industries faced difficulties on account of our hotter climate which led to over fermentation in brewing, excessive heat from millstones grinding flour not to mention the difficulty of transporting dairy products. This encouraged much enterprise and a colonial ‘can-do’ attitude to problem-solving developed.

Sepia photograph showing a tall brick chimney attached to a small house and surrounded by Australian bushland. To the right is a large cylindrical brick structure (the furnace) connected to an inclining track.
Photograph of the Esk Bank blast furnace at Lithgow, 140 km west of Sydney, shown here in the late 1800s. A steam engine in the engine house on the left powered a blowing engine which blew air into the cylindrical brick furnace. The works were later owned by William Sandford and greatly enlarged. MAAS Collection, P3157-26.

As few as a couple of hundred individual entrepreneurs with enthusiasm, skill, drive and tenacity established our most significant 19th century industries including: Thomas Mort (1816–1878) the NSW businessman who found a way of exporting frozen meat; William Sandford (1841-1932), the ironmaster whose vision was the Commonwealth Iron and Steel Company at Lithgow, NSW; and Walter Duffield (1816-1882) the miller and pastoralist who introduced roller flour mills to South Australia, producing fine white flour.

A museum artefact comprised of two painted metal towers. At their base and between the towers sits a wheel. At the top of each tower are various gears, knobs and levers.
This is a combined ammonia-type refrigeration compressor and vertical steam engine with a common flywheel. Made in Sydney between 1894 and 1909, this type of machine enabled the storage and export of perishable goods. MAAS Collection B1897. Photo: MAAS.

Governments generally didn’t undertake manufacturing other than printing and locomotive construction. Instead, in all colonies except NSW they encouraged local manufacturing by offering bonuses to the first firms to make goods such as pig iron, woollen cloth, paper and glass. Also, during the massive infrastructure building of the 1870s and 1880s, especially railways, governments in NSW, Victoria, and to a lesser extent in South Australia, awarded contracts to local manufacturers. They built everything from tram cars to hospital beds and railway tracks to portable lock-ups. This provided these firms with regular work to maintain a strong workforce and growth.

Country towns necessarily developed as self-sufficient outposts. They provided a range of goods and services to the local community and surrounding areas and processed primary products in meat works, boiling down works, soap and candle factories, coach works, butter factories, timber joineries, stone quarries, iron foundries, engineering works, agricultural implement makers, sawmills, brickworks, flour mills, cordial works, breweries, ice works, and rabbit freezing works.

Sepia photograph of a factory scene. There is a large bucket hanging from a chain and pulley assembly, with two men holding the handles either side of the bucket. A third man guides molten metal into the bucket from a large furnace.
Photograph of molten metal from a furnace being poured into a ladle before being put into moulds to make iron castings. It was taken in a large NSW foundry. Note the workers’ lack of safety equipment. MAAS Collection, P3098.

The mass production and importation of machines enabled manufacturing output to increase and the cost of goods to decrease. Hand-operated printing presses were replaced with powered ones enabling the establishment of newspapers which reported news and new technology. Brickworks introduced machines to replace hand moulding of bricks, with the increased output allowing for low-cost construction. Coach and buggy works introduced machines to make wheel spokes replacing handmade ones. Steam-powered sawmills replaced the pitsaws and roller flour mills changed from millstones. Imported Danish cream separators replaced settling pans enabling creameries and butter factories to proliferate all over the country, with the marketing of butter aided by refrigeration and rail transport.

A model of a complex machine with four interlocking gears attached to a set of pistons and two brick shaped moulds. The working model is mounted on an ornate timber base.
Working model of a ‘Platt’ brick press made by J Chadwick of Sydney in 1894. It is based on a brickmaking machine at Fowlers Pottery in the Sydney suburb of Marrickville. MAAS Collection B553. Photo: Tim Morris, MAAS.

Unlike Britain, where dispossessed families moved off the land to work in factories, Australian cities were highly urbanised from the start. Immigrants didn’t usually venture out into the bush. Instead they worked in city factories. The mass production of farm machinery saw less need for rural labourers.

Black and white photograph of a crowd of men standing in front on a series of factory buildings. There is a large chimney on the right.
A group photograph of the large workforce at Clyde Engineering Co. Ltd in the Sydney suburb of Granville. They are assembled in the yard outside the works timber office. MAAS collection, 2009/24/1-24.

Most of Australia’s manufacturing was undertaken in the capital cities and Newcastle, close to shipping and rail hubs. A new middle class of wealthy factory owners developed with a large corresponding working class to operate the machines in their factories. The shocking downside was the filthy city slums and shoddily-built houses where the workers lived close to factories. Sydney and Melbourne slums were said to be worse than London or Britain’s industrial Midlands.

Black and white photograph of two trams parked inside a large carriage workshop surrounded by a group of men. Some are wearing work aprons with others in vests and trousers. A sign on a pole in the background reads ‘CLYDE WORKS’.
Photograph of Sydney F class trams being made in the carriage workshops of Clyde Engineering in Granville. Note the young boys pictured in the centre who wouldn’t be in their teens. MAAS Collection, 88/289-1334.

City factories were little more than corrugated iron sheds or airless cellars full of unguarded machines with no regard for health and safety. A quarter of the workforce was women and, despite compulsory education, child labour was endemic. Children suffered horrific injuries being pulled into the rollers of printing presses, scalded from steam, and burnt from molten metal in foundries. The clothing and footwear industries were the worst, with children working long hours and taking work home to finish at night. At the time governments let manufacturers determine their own working conditions, hours and wages, with the factory output and profits coming before workers.

Black and white photograph of a group of female factory workers standing before four long conveyor belts packing biscuits into metal boxes. There are approximately ten women per conveyor belt.
Photograph of women packing biscuits into tins by hand in the Arnott’s factory at North Strathfield, Sydney, in the 1920s. The working conditions are a vast improvement on a few decades earlier but there is still danger from whirling belts running from the ceiling to operate the conveyors. MAAS Collection, 2011/78/1-10. Photo: Milton Kent.

The impact of the Industrial Revolution on Australian manufacturing was a double edged sword. It advanced the country and brought much wealth to factory owners but at great social cost.

Further Reading

Cannon, Michael, “Life in the Cities: Australia in the Victorian Age 3”, Currey O’Neil, Melbourne, 1975.

Linge, G.J.R., ‘Industrial Awakening: A Geography of Australian Manufacturing 1788 to 1890’, Australian National University Press, Canberra, 1979.

Written by Margaret Simpson, Curator, August 2018

7 responses to “Industrial Revolution in Australia – impact on manufacturing in the 1800s

  • This is an excellent overview, Margaret, with a great set of images. It presents a vivid view of an aspect of history that more Australians need to understand.

  • Dear Margaret, Thank you for the great article. I am researching Boiling Down Works as these were introduced in NSW and elsewhere in 1840’s because stock was almost wortheless. In particular i am trying to learn more of the Argyle Steam Boiling Establishment at Goulburn commenced operating 1842 or 43 and very much influenced by the pioneer Mr Henry O’Brien. But a generic layout would be ok . I have the description of the plant from when it was sold in 1852 which i would be happy to send. There were over 100 of these plants at the peak of their production ( which you probably know). I am attempting an overview of boiling down. Why it was needed. And what the process involved. There is plenty of material online and via trove but i have been unable to find description of the plant and process of the mid 1840’s. I would be grateful if you could give me any information on this topic please.
    cris georgr

    • Hi Cris,
      Thanks for getting in touch. I’ve asked Curator Margaret Simpson, who wrote this post, to contact you directly if she has any information that could assist you. Best of luck with your research.
      Sarah Reeves, MAAS

  • Thank you. Good article. Can you provide us with the reference in regards to children working within the clothing and footwear industries, and possibly a decade for context?

    • Response from Curator Margaret Simpson:

      Yes, the reference to children working in the clothing and footwear industries came from Industrial Awakening: A Geography of Australian Manufacturing 1788-1890, by G.J.R. Linge, p. 468-9. He notes that in 1862 a leading footwear manufacturer in Sydney introduced riveting machines enabling him to employ three or four boys making children’s boots. This meant that the boys had no future as they only undertook a small, repetitive and often unskilled part of the shoemaking trade.

  • Hi Margaret,

    I am researching the rights of workers in 19th century Sydney for my year 10 history paper. I loved your article, but I found that is contradicted other journal articles I read about the working conditions in Sydney. Such as this article, Fisher, S. H. “An Accumulation of Misery?” Labour History, no. 40 (May 1981): 16-28. – that stated living conditions for factory workers in Sydney superior to those of other industrialized worlds.

    Was there a shift in working conditions in Sydney after Britain’s Industrial revolution? Were new laws introduced to combat the exploitation of laborers?

    Anything would help!

    • Hi Felix,
      Sorry that no one got back to you sooner. Margaret retired earlier this year. I imagine we might be too late to help you with your history paper, but if you’re still looking for information, you can email and it will be forwarded onto one of our other Curators.
      Sarah Reeves, Powerhouse Museum

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