Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


School of Humanities and Social Inquiry - History and Politics


Songs and poems about work and working conditions in Australia provide a rich lode for the historian. This thesis examines the origins and uses of this lyrical material as an important part of the culture that influenced the way the Australian labour movement developed. Analysis of the one hundred and fifty songs and poems produced across a time frame ranging from colonisation to the Second World War and cited in this work reveals a long history of composition, publication and performance of this lyrical material. The material describes and argues a contending world view among organised workers, especially about rights and the way inequality affects those who labour. These popular vernacular narratives also indicate the transplanted culture of those who were transported to Australia and demonstrate the refashioning of this culture to meet the very different circumstances they faced in the new colony.

The Australian labour movement with its trade unions and political organisations, its banners, meetings, marches, speeches, its connections to similar movements overseas, its defeats and victories, has at its heart a significant tradition of working song and poetry. At the core of this lyrical material lies a determination to assert what power and agency is available in each period to gather support in order to bring about radical social change. Embedded in the songs and poems is powerful evidence for the historian of a rebellious tradition that proclaims working class attitudes and concerns. This thesis examines the provenance and the use of this lyrical material from the colonial beginnings to the Second World War, reflecting on its trajectory over time. Symbolically, it can be argued, this lyrical material reinforces the legitimacy of the rebellious traditions of the labour movement, essential to the legitimacy and agency of the movement itself. My aim in this thesis is to significantly expand our understanding of the role played by lyrical material in the Australian labour movement and how the existence and continued production of such material constitutes a heritage where meaning and values are always under discussion and are revised by continuous negotiation.

History from below encourages attention to the cultural traditions of the labour movement especially those that show a radical approach and determination to change class society, opening it up to embrace equality as fundamental. The Australian labour movement has proved itself capable of extending rights to benefit the whole of society, even overcoming its own prejudices in the process of exposing, challenging and often confounding self-interested hegemonic ruling power.