Working class leisure
Paddle steamer Hygeia crowded with holiday-makers on the Queenscliff and Sorrento route over the Christmas season, c. 1910 [R. Thompson, photographer] – RHSV Collection: PC-1614.
The weather on Christmas day was all that could be desired for excursions by the water…
steamers were gaily decorated with foliage and Christmas devices and carried brass bands.
(The Argus, 27 December 1888)
Purpose built on the Clyde (Scotland), the PS Hygeia arrived at Melbourne in 1890 to join the highly competitive bay excursion business. Described as luxurious, the paddle steamer carried 1600 passengers and could achieve 23 knots. Vigorous commercial competition meant that a single ticket for the speedy one and a half hour trip to Sorrento cost as low as 1/6d.
John Lack, described working class leisure in 19th century Australia in a paper published in the RHSV’s Victorian Historical Journal (Vol 49, pp 49-65, 1978). A digest of this follows.
Day trips (such as those by steamers to the Nepean and Bellarine Peninsulas) were within reach of the working class. However annual holidays were yet to be awarded generally. Many companies did not pay wages for public holidays, nor for ‘sickies’ (absence from work for genuine or false illness). A 60 hour week without overtime pay was not uncommon.
The majority of Australian wage earners at the end of the 19th Century were manual workers. Competition for employees by labour-intensive enterprises and public works together with trade union action and a lowering cost of living pushed real wages to a level probably unequalled in the western world.
By the 1880s many segments of the urban workforce were to win the 48 hour week (ostensibly 6 days of 8 hours). Thus a Saturday afternoon half-day holiday was now becoming a reality. Even workers with longer working weeks found ways of achieving that newly created and sacrosanct free afternoon.
Work and leisure were not yet as divorced from each other, as they are today. Union meetings, social evenings and picnics were common. The working man had more contact with the boss. Segregation between employer and employee had not yet started, and in general there was cordiality between them. Larger businesses had ‘annual outings’ or ‘works picnics’. For example Colonial Sugar had a grand two day affair with a dance and sports day. It even paid wages for one of the days. (The Colonial Sugar Refining Company [CSR] established in Yarraville in 1872. It first started business in Sydney in 1855.)
Home life for the wife was an ever unending round of chores – the husband lucky to get two or three waking hours a day at home. Entertainment was largely sought outside the home, and mostly male orientated. Heavy manual work produced prodigious thirsts. So public houses competed for custom by offering billiards, quoits, marble alleys and tug of war contests.
The Footscray Independent championed home life, opposing the establishment of workingmen’s clubs as affording no good purpose and causing more male absence from the home. The newspaper supported attendance at Lodges, where membership often brought medical and sickness benefits. Mechanics’ Institutes and Schools of Art (themselves outlets for leisure and personal pursuits) probably suffered in the 1880s from the intense competition from the other leisure attractions. There also existed a vigorous Christian social and sporting life for a large minority of the working class.
Australian Rules football became something of a craze and a mass spectator sport in the late 1880s. Pre-match excitement, energetic barracking and avid post mortems were established features of the Melbourne weekend.
In the 1890s there was a boom in cycling. Athletics, rifle and rowing clubs were emerging. Women were increasingly seen at football matches. But generally the working-class house-wife had few opportunities to relax. Those young women who successfully avoided domestic work found themselves employed for long hours in shops and factories. While an 1885 statute limited females and children to a 48 hour week, this was regularly suspended in woollen mills, where a 56 hour week could be worked.
And who was the PS Hygeia named after?
Hygeia was the goddess of good health (and the origin of the word ‘hygiene’). She was a daughter and attendant of the medicine-god Asklepios, and a companion of the goddess Aphrodite. Her sisters included Panakeia (All-Cure) and Iaso (Remedy). Hygeia – certainly a fitting namesake for a vessel offering leisure and restoration of the spirit.
References and further information
- Lack, John, ‘Working class leisure’ Victorian Historical Journal, Vol 49, pp 49-65, 1978.
- Fitchett, T. K., Down the Bay. The story of the excursion steamers of Port Phillip. Adelaide, Rigby, 1973.
- Nepean Historical Society, Sorrento and Portsea – yesterday (4th. edition) Sorrento, 1992.
- ScreenSound, Bayside Reflections – Part 1 : the southern portion, 2000
- ScreenSound, Bayside reflections – Part 2 : the top end, 2002.
- Loney, J. K. and Holden, R., The South Coast story : Torquay, Barwon Heads, Ocean Grove, Point Lonsdale, Queenscliff Dimboola, c. 1972.
- Queenscliffe Historical Museum, Guesthouses: Queenscliff and Point Lonsdale Queenscliff, Queenscliffe Historical Museum Inc., 2010 [Queenscliff spelt without an 'e' on the end refers to the township of Queenscliff. Queenscliffe with the 'e' refers to the Borough of Queenscliffe municipality.]