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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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