My Union Right or Wrong.
A history of the Ship Painters and Dockers Union 1900-1932
By Issy Wyner
From its inception, the reformed union established Balmain as the main centre for its activities and affairs generally. And it was central to the industrial activity at Mort’s Dock, Cockatoo Island and the many other yards that cluttered the foreshores of Balmain. While some members (chiefly those who sought employment on the "Sydney side") made sporadic efforts to move the centre away from Balmain, such efforts were given short shrift by Union meetings. The Union’s headquarters remained firmly entrenched in Balmain and remained so throughout its existence. It was also the headquarters of the Federal Union when that was formed in 1916.
In the early years of the new century, Union meetings convened chiefly in the main room in Dick’s Hotel, on the corner of Montague and Beattie Streets, Balmain. Where large attendances of members were expected, due to some major issue to be dealt with, and for half-yearly meetings, a larger room was booked in the Workingmen’s Institute or the Oddfellows’ hall, both in Darling Street or the Temperance Hall in Montague Street or other buildings in Balmain.
From the outset, efforts were made to obtain a property of adequate size and position. The office requirements of the Union were catered for in various premises in Mort Street and its was quite apparent that this street was regarded as central for the Union and its members.
Little more than 12 months after the reformation, the Secretary, Bob Mahony, ever keen to have the Union own a property and be independent of landlords and free from police and other harassments, still reported on his inquiries concerning "procuring an office" on a rental basis. One offer was for seven shillings and sixpence per week. Another was for five shillings per week and "build a partition ourselves"; and a third possibility was an offer of a piece of land rent free and pay the taxes (municipal, etc.) with an agreement drawn up to provide removal of any property placed on the land "when we thought fit". From this report on rentals, however, the meeting decided that the Secretary and the Trustees "be empowered to purchase a piece of land for the purpose of erecting a Room for this Union". (Minutes, 2/6/1902.)
At the next fortnightly meeting, it was decided that "a moveable office be obtained for telephone & placed on the land described by the Secretary that is, in Mort Street, adjoining the Star Hotel". This property was shown as "95 Mort Street" in the Sands Street Directory that year and for some ensuing years alongside the title "Painters and Dockers Union Office". The Star Hotel was a few yards up Mort Street from the Forth and Clyde Hotel which stood directly opposite the entrance to the Mort’s Dock property and both hotels no doubt benefitted from the custom of workers at Mort’s Dock. However, this land was not acquired, but simply leased and future action disclosed other moves to obtain a premises. But, the decision had been carried out and a portable shed was erected on the land near the pub and this continued to be the Union’s office while other sites were considered for a more permanent address.
A few weeks later, a report was given on a number of pieces of land looked at by the Committee. The meeting decided that Mahony should interview the agent for the land in Church Street (priced at £5 per foot) "on account of its convenience to the works" (Mort’s Dock). (Minutes, 28/7/1902.)
It was not until September, that the "Land Committee" reported that after further inspections, they could not recommend any of the pieces of land and the Treasurer advised that the land in Church Street had a church building on it and he was still further investigating it. What became of the various searches for a premises in this period was not further reported but, in 1903, when the Minute Book began to include minutes of meetings of the Management Committee, one such meeting was recorded as having taken place "at the Union Office Mort St", but no address was given (Minutes, 21/5/1903) No doubt the shed on the property next-door to the Star Hotel in Mort Street, was large enough for the Management Committee meetings (some six to eight members), but general meetings continued to be held in Dick’s Hotel or various halls in Balmain.
The case of the Secretary having to deal physically with a member coming to the Room and "using abusive language to him" appeared to still refer to the Mort Street address adjacent to the Star Hotel. (Minutes, 10/8/1903.)
However, in the following year, the Union received notice
to shift the office as the owners of the land intended to erect a hall on the site.
And it was decided that the Secretary make arrangements for shifting the office and procuring some temporary accommodation. (Minutes, 11/1/1904.) By June, Mahony reported that the best he had been able to come up with was an offer by member George Brennan to use a room in his home
part of which could be partitioned off for that purpose. Moved Mr E.Talbot & seconded by Mr.Collett that the offer be accepted & that a small sum be offered as rent & the Secretary to make arrangements. carried.
The amount of rent was later recorded as 5/-. (Minutes, 27/6/1904)
It may have been that Brennan’s address was at 104 Mort Street, which was shown as the Union address in the Sands Directory for a time.
When the Auditors presented their report in 1905, they included a recommendation that it was advisable to sell the office which the Union had erected on the land they were ordered to quit next-door to the Star Hotel, "as it was only going to rack and ruin where it was". Mahony was instructed to advertise it for sale. At that time, the office was functioning at some unnamed property in Mort Street and Mahony was told to come to some arrangement with the landlord on weekly rent. He reported to a later meeting that the owner wanted £2 per quarter plus 2/6d. per night meeting of the Management Committee. This was accepted and the Union appeared to be somewhat established until 1909 when Secretary Mahony reported to a special meeting of the Committee
that we had to immediately vacate the Union Office. The Inspector of Police had given orders to the Landlord that according to the Act he could not sub-let any of his premises. It was therefore necessary to consider what should be done. inquiries had been made and a room offered at 108 Mort Street, Balmain at a rental of 14/- per month. the owner of which stated that he would not make any alterations to premises or do it up. if we wanted it we would have to make our own alterations.
The Secretary was ordered to take the room and get the necessary work done. (Management Minutes, 23/8/1909.)
Mahony had quickly arranged for the place to be painted, cleaned, with new floor coverings and fuel for the heater. This site appeared to remain the centre for the Union until 1914 when it was decided to purchase a block of land in Balmain "for the purpose of erecting an office and waiting room". A proviso was attached to the motion to first seek to have the Government erect a "waiting room as was done for the Wharf labourers and Coal Lumpers". (Minutes, 6/4/1914) Seeking the Government’s support was of no avail, and, in June 1914, it was decided to go ahead with the purchase of a piece of land in Mort Street, priced at £3 per foot. In August, accounts passed for payment included £103 for purchase of the land from Edward Kane. (Minutes, 23/8/1915.)
At the next meeting of the Management Committee at the end of August, it was decided to have an architect draw plans and give an estimate of the cost for a building 30 feet x 24 feet x 12 feet. Two months later, the Committee considered four quotations and decided to accept the lowest from E.Williams for £290 after he was first asked "whether the job would be done on day labour principle at price quoted". In this latter regard, his response was undoubtedly satisfactory for a Union supportive of day labour, and work began.
However, the first problem with the project arose when Mahony reported to a meeting that the Balmain Municipal Council required the building to be set back 5 feet from the footpath and to be provided with an extra urinal. Mahony objected to the setback but agreed to the extra urinal. The Council apparently did not press the setback and the meeting authorised the additional toilet facility. (Minutes, 15/11/1915.) A further addition to the building came with a recommendation from the Management Committee
That a weatherboard room costing £18.10.0 be erected at the back of the building for the caretaker
And this, together with a proposal to ask the neighbour to share the cost of a fence, was adopted. (Minutes, 6/12/1915.)
A Special Meeting in the Oddfellow’s Hall, Darling Street, adopted the recommendation and also decided to have a special function for an official opening of the new premises. £10 was voted to cover the costs involved. Jack Adams, a grandson of Bob Mahony, told the writer that Mrs. Mahony had been given a gold key with which to officially open the building. The whereabouts of the key is now unknown.
Early in 1916, before the building was officially opened, the Management Committee met in its new premises and admitted Mr. E.Williams, the contractor, to its meeting and asked him to produce his accounts for the building of the Caretaker’s room
These proved that he (Mr. Williams) was at a loss over the transaction. He had also been fined 33/- at the instance of the Municipal authorities on account deficiency of cubic space
It was recommended that Mr. Williams be employed on the extra jobs required about the Hall & that the fine incurred by him be paid by the Union. (Minutes, 28/2/1916.)
However, for some unexplained reason, the general meeting rejected the recommendation and decided "to engage another contractor". (Minutes, 6/3/1916.)
Strangely, the Union’s minutes contain no record of the official opening. It is possible that the local throwaway weekly, The Balmain Observer, carried a report of the opening, but a copy of the paper for the relevant period in 1916, is not in existence. Other papers, including The Worker also do not appear to have any account of the function. It is also of interest that no mention was made in the Union’s records of the installation of some 100 hat-and-coat hangers which were set on timber rails fastened to the walls of the Hall about six feet above the floor. In the days when every man wore a hat or cap, it could be imagined how the walls would appear, festooned with bowlers, akubras and other types of hats or caps --- perhaps very few bowlers, which were generally worn by tradesmen and foremen.
By 1920, membership of the Union had grown to the extent that attendances at meetings were larger and unemployed members using the Hall during the daytime also increased. The answer by some members was to hold all meetings in the Trades Hall, Sydney, but this was met by an amendment from E.Murphy
That we extend the Hall at Mort Street Balmain so that we can hold all the meetings and transact all the business there
L.Walsh, moving for use of the Trades Hall, argued that it was "more central" and would "suit all parties" and was "most convenient". But Murphy submitted that
The hall was our own property and it was suitable for everyone. He was a poor unionist who would not put himself out to attend meetings in his own hall. (Minutes, 5/7/1920.)
A month later, plans and specifications for the extensions were considered and a report was given that the bricklayer who had built the Hall was prepared to supervise the additions for £6 per week plus 2½% on cost of materials, using day labour, and the meeting accepted this, (Minutes, 2/8/1920.)
In November, the Management Committee made a number of decisions concerning improvements to the Hall: Coating the walls (£3); Improved lighting (£3); Building commission (£10); Hire of scaffolding (£2). As well, it was resolved
That the official opening take place on Tuesday, December 14th at 8 p.m. The President to perform the official opening A smoke concert be held, admission by pence card
As well, after appointing Swadling, Ford and Everden to assist the Committee, it was decided to invite the Shipwrights, Ironworkers, Boilermakers, Seamen, Waterside Workers, Butchers & Bakers, and Marine Stewards Unions; to rent the Hall to anyone wishing to use it at 12/6d. per night of 3 hours, but members’ functions at 10/-d; increase insurance on the Hall and contents to £900. (Minutes, 6/12/1920.)
Among uses of the Hall was the R.A.O.B. (Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes). That organisation had sought to book the Hall every Saturday for 3 years at 12/-d. per night. The application was not proceeded with immediately because the President ruled that "the meeting was not large enough to give a lease of the hall for 3 years". (Minutes, 1/6/1925.) But the next fortnightly meeting agreed to a lease for one year. However, less than twelve months later, problems over the boisterous use of the Hall by the "Buffs" as they were known locally, was reported to a meeting by the Branch Secretary, John McDonald, who stated that he had notified the Lodge of
the rowdy conditions that prevailed in the Union Rooms and that things had been very quiet for some time. Complaints were laid by the people in the neighbourhood against members of the Lodge using vial (sic) language at their meeting on Saturday night May 29th. He had forwarded a letter to the Secretary of the Lodge notifying them of the complaint and that if any further complaints were made….we would have no alternative only to cancel their lease.
McDonald’s action was endorsed. (Minutes, 31/5/1926.) However, the rowdyism and fighting by the Lodge continued to occur on Saturday nights, a latrine cistern was broken and a meeting decided to give the R.A.O.B. "the least possible notice to vacate the premises". (Minutes, 28/6/1926) The R.A.O.B. accepted termination of the lease.
It is interesting that the necessary action was taken against the evidently very noisy Lodge, when it was equally clear that the Union’s own meetings, every fortnight, were far from placid gatherings.
A letter was received from the President Mr. P. Woods resigning his position of President of the Union. Moved & seconded that the Secretary be instructed to write to Mr. Woods asking him to reconsider his resignation & also apologising on behalf of the Members for the conduct of some members towards him. carried. (Minutes, 14/8/1900.)
Mr. Lawson caused a lot of trouble by continually interjecting using abusive language to the members in general. (Minutes, 25/3/1901.)
(A written apology was accepted at the next meeting and accepted with a caution against further disruption.)
F.Montgomery fined five shillings for insulting language to the President in the Rooms on March 3 and Mr. Jno Cunningham continually interrupting the meeting at this stage it was moved & seconded that he be expelled from the meeting & for bad language his case referred to Management Committee. (Minutes, 24/3/1902.)
The President had to repeatedly caution Mr. W. White for disorderly conduct and ordered him to leave the meeting. Mr. White refused. The President ordered that a fine of 5/- be inflicted on him. Mr. W.Johnson moved and it was carried that the outside Guardian be instructed not to admit any member to the meeting under the influence of liquor. (Minutes, 4/4/1910.)
At this juncture Mr.J.Kelty was requested to leave the meeting for continually interrupting same. He refused to do as requested and had to be forcibly ejected from the meeting.
This led to a motion to fine Kelty 10/-
for persisting in disorderly conduct after being cautioned by the President and he be allowed one month to pay.
At this juncture Kelty smashed a panel in the door, also the fanlight over the door. The previous resolution was withdrawn and substituted by
That J.Kelty be expelled from the Union for his action in refusing to leave the meeting when requested to do so by the President and in breaking the door and fanlight. (Minutes, 9/11/1931.)