May 26, 2024

The Eight Hour Day

170 years ago, most people worked 6 or 7 days a week, and about 12 hours each day. But the eight hour day, was coming. And it started right here in Victoria.

James Stephens

James Stephens was born in Wales in 1821.

His father was a tradesman and Stephens followed in his footsteps; leaving school to become a stonemason while still a teenager. When he was 18, in 1839, Stephens was seriously injured when he fell from a construction site scaffold. Unable to work, and with no requirement that his employer support him or assist with medical treatment, Stephens had to rely on his family, and church charity.

The experience would steer him towards the organised labour movement.

Once he regained fitness, Stephens joined the newly formed 'Chartists', a political protest group that drew support from the skilled trades. The Chartists were named after 'The People's Charter' a political manifesto produced by six radical members of British Parliament, that called for electoral reform and better conditions for workers.

Workers at this time enjoyed almost no legislative protection.
There was no minimum wage, no unions, no standards of occupational health and safety, and no social security net. It was a laissez fair system, where employers set the rules and their employees had no political recourse to demand better treatment.

Chartist demonstration, Kennington Common

Chartism spread rapidly, from its origins in the working class in England’s north, to the major population centres in the south.

Stephens moved to London in the early 1840s, from where he was able to see the movement at its peak. Enormous demonstrations, attended by hundreds of thousands of workers, were organised, and a petition of 3 million signatures submitted to Parliament, demanding action on the groups reform agenda.

But the Chartists also attracted controversy.

Chartist flyer.

They were viewed in conservative circles as little better than anarchists, determined to overthrow decent, orderly society.

Stephens role in the movement came at a price; he was sacked from a lucrative job working at Windsor Castle when his affiliation was discovered. Other Chartist leaders called for strikes and civil disobedience and were arrested, which lead to rioting and violent confrontations with police.

Meanwhile, the movement was frustrated politically.

Their petitions, which now included a call for an 8 hour work day, were rejected by Parliament, and they saw no significant progress towards their objectives. Stephens felt this frustration as well, and began to look around for new opportunities.

Boom town: Melbourne, circa 1854

Melbourne was founded as an agricultural outpost in 1835; with a small city centre, limited industry, and its early wealth derived from its prosperous farms.

This would change during the Gold Rush of the 1850s. An influx of wannabe gold prospectors, many of whom did hit it rich, caused the economy to boom. This brought new industries, and new jobs, in manufacturing, mining, and public works.

But working conditions in these new industries were tough:

'Most manual labourers in cities worked in factories.


These factories were poorly ventilated, lacking in basic amenities, and were overcrowded. The temperatures often reached over 40 degrees Celsius in summer, and in the winter were cold and damp. They were also dangerous. There was a lack of protective equipment, and injuries were common.


Most people worked 10 hours a day, six days a week. Many worked even longer hours than this, without provisions for overtime or paid leave. Most workers were too scared to complain, out of fear of losing their job.'


- '19th Century Working Conditions in Melbourne', Skwirk Online

One of Gold Rush era Melbourne's biggest growth sectors was construction.

Awash with cash, the city effectively set about rebuilding itself. The low, wooden, and very basic buildings that had been constructed during the city's foundation years were largely replaced by grand edifices, many stories high and built of stone.

It was a boom time for Melbourne's stonemasons but, despite high demand for their services, they suffered the same treatment as the city's factory workers; low pay, dangerous conditions and very long hours.

Enter James Stephens.

Stonemason organisation banner

Stephens arrived in Melbourne in February 1853, like many others, looking to make his fortune.

Work was plentiful, and he was soon employed on one of the city’s many construction sites. But, disappointingly, he found pay and working conditions much the same as they had been in England.

He also found the local labour movement to be more or less non-existent.

While disgruntled, Melbourne’s tradespeople were not well organised politically, and lacked strong leadership. Stephens, with his Chartist experience, was a natural authority figure.
In February 1856, Stephens, and local tradesman James Galloway, formed the Operative Masons Society at the Clark Hotel in Collingwood.

Eight hour day protest banner

The objective of this group was simple; to agitate for a mandated eight hour work day, which had become priority number one, for labour groups across the industrial world.

Having been in the organised labour movement for nearly twenty years without much tangible success, Stephens was now in a hurry. The Operative Masons decreed that the eight hour work day would be in place by April of the same year.

On the 21 April 1856, Stephens took decisive action:

'It was a burning hot day, and I thought the occasion a good one.


So I called on the men to follow me, and I marched them to a new building being erected on Madeline Street, thence to Temple Court.


The men at all these works immediately dropped their tools, and joined the procession.'


- James Stephens

Starting at a construction site at the University of Melbourne, Stephens convinced the workers there to down tools and join him on a march to the State Parliament on Spring Street.

Along the way, they detoured past several other construction sites in the city and picked up more supporters. Eventually, a crowd of a few thousand gathered at the Parliament steps for a boisterous, though peaceful, demonstration. Stephens addressed the crowd, and reiterated their demand for an eight hour day.

While the protest had the look of spontaneity, Stephens had planned the moment carefully.

8 Hour Day protest, Melbourne

In the weeks leading up to the demonstration, Stephens, and other local labour leaders, had met secretly with business groups and members of Parliament. They let them know that the protest was coming, that it would be the first of many, and that the movement was determined to get what they wanted.

Their arguments were convincing. With the advance notice afforded them, the Victorian parliament had already decided to accept Stephens’ demands. And so, a Parliamentary delegation met Stephens during the demonstration on April 21, and he was able to subsequently inform his supporters that the eight hour work day had been agreed to.

Members of the protest then marched on to the Belvedere Hotel in Fitzroy, where a rowdy, boozy celebration lasted until early the next morning, and spilled across several adjoining streets.

Poster commemorating the 8 Hour Day

Legislation introducing an 8 hour work day was passed by Parliament shortly afterwards.

While this still meant a 48 hour week for most workers, as most still worked six days, this was viewed as a great victory, the first by organised labour in the modern era. Victoria was the first district on earth to mandate the eight hour day.

A celebratory parade through the city was organised for May 12, and would continue as an annual event. It became so popular, in fact, that in 1879, the Victorian Government made it a paid public holiday, the first the state had ever known.

John Stephens was lionised as a hero. Sadly, it wouldn't last.

In the years following his great success, Stephens saw the local labour movement he helped found expand and diversify. But Stephens' support for sub-contracting, then a novel idea, alienated him from the movement's newer leaders, who saw it as a way for employers to cut wages.

Coin marking James Galloway's role in the 8 Hour Day Reforms

Stephens claimed that his enemies in the union movement had him effectively blacklisted, and he struggled to find work. His opponents also sought to re-write history, now emphasizing James Galloway's efforts in regards to the reforms of 1856, at the expense of Stephens’ role.

Impoverished, sickly and slowly going blind, by the 1880s Stephens had largely been forgotten by Victorian society. A collection taken up for him by the Trades Hall in Carlton provided for Stephens somewhat in his final years, but when he died in 1889 he was destitute and left no estate.

The parade that he helped inspire did not last either.

Labor Day parade, Melbourne, 1923

For nearly a century, the Labour Day parade was a fixture in Melbourne, replete with floats, live entertainment and a carnival atmosphere.

Large holiday crowds turned out each year to celebrate the 8 hour day, among other subsequent labour reforms. But by the 1930s, crowds were waning, as the Great Depression created a sombre mood. World War II further diminished the parade's popularity, and it was discontinued altogether in 1951.

The Labour Day holiday had been moved by this time to March, and is now capped by the Moomba festival.

8 Hour Day statue, shortly after it was erected.
Top of the statue, present day: the 8-8-8 marks the labour movement slogan

But one landmark to the reforms of 1856 remains; a monument, on Victoria Street, just opposite Trades Hall. Designed by Percival Ball, and paid for by union subscriptions, the 8 Hour Day monument was erected in 1903 and still stands in the same spot, to this day.

James Stephens is not mentioned.


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