Robert Hodder, Radical Tasmania

The Selected Histories, 2010, pp.55-56

[William Cuffay and the Masters and Servants Act]

The Bill’s weakness lay in a medieval desire for master-servant relations in a volatile capitalism; simply, it was past its use-by date even before it appeared in the law books. The formal legislation along with the concurrent culture of fear and loathing were countered with an extra-politics from the servants themselves: insolence, disobedience, idleness, feigned illness, violence and sabotage were their arts of resistance. It became commonplace for the use of that classic tactic of workers’ struggle: the good old go-slow. So a counter-culture of recalcitrance was easily grafted over from the convict legacy. Even tramps resorted to arson if land owners refused them a meal. The servants’ tactics won them a quiet victory. From 1860, the Bill largely fell into disuse. Tasmania settled down to decades of genteel repression. Defeated but not destroyed by this, the gentry still had a nasty trick to play on the emancipists.

Meanwhile, William Cuffay, “an old radical” as he now called himself, had been unflagging in his opposition to the Bill and the big end of town in general. The Hobart Town Courier scathingly named him as “the management” for a public meeting in opposition to the Bill. He was in fact voted up to chair the meeting. He later received a vote of thanks and, after tumultuous applause and cheering, took the liberty to remind the audience that the fight for democracy was what had landed him and others like him in Tasmania in the first place, and that was why the conservative press tried to smear him. Within days, the Hobart Town Daily Advertiser could not hide its disgust that men like Cuffay were agitating for the vote without property qualifications, and so it not too subtly implied that he was ignorant, injudicious and violent. In 1861, Cuffay had some revenge in helping a hostile crowd to eject the proprietor of the Hobart Town Daily Advertiser, C.W. Hall, who had done his best to disrupt their meeting.

Cuffay had numerous allies, emancipist and immigrant alike, agitating for universal suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, no property qualifications for members, payment to parliamentarians, a free press and better employment conditions for the working class. Men like Sylvenius Moriarty, Charles Walker, John Walker and Joseph Jones. In the election of 1857, Cuffay leant his political acumen to Maxwell Miller’s successful campaign. Then there where those whom a contemptuous conservative press could not even bring itself to give a first name, as though calling convicts to muster, like W.H. Thompson, W. Lemon, W. Williams, Richards, Jeffrey, Hurst, Harris, Drury, Hollis and Filer. Cuffay also threw his energies into supporting the short-lived, reformist Ministry of Thomas Gregson. He was involved in no less than four election campaigns over 1861 to 1862.

In 1866, Mary Ann died, and Cuffay, now in his seventies, sapped of strength, unable to work and forced by poverty to leave the little cottage in Patrick Street which he had shared with his wife for 13 years, withdrew from public agitation. He was in effect sentenced to endure his final days in that cruel, ruling class joke on emancipists: the Brickfields Invalid Depot, a prison for ex-prisoners who had nothing left to give up but their lives.

Tasmania’s Invalid Depots were a response to the growing number of old hands who arrived homeless in town streets when the labour cycle was in decline, especially for farm labourers, such as in winter. Rather than have the embarrassment of the gutters choking with the elderly freezing to death in frost or snow, the “traps” opened their gaol cells. For many ex-cons, it was an irony they had to gulp down with their breakfast skilly of oatmeal and water flavoured with a little dried meat. The government then institutionalised the process by converting convict labour hire depots into holding depots. At first, the emancipists could come and go as they needed. At this point, it might have seemed charitable. But the bourgeois, forever a bourgeois for the working class, was nervous. So prisons and charities, the two edges of the middle class sword of contempt for all things prole in Tasmania, were to meet at the brutal point of what the press nominated as a “stern necessity”. A law was passed in 1872 which made work in the depots compulsory (except for the ill) and which disallowed freedom of movement from the depots. Go to gaol: do not pass go: do not collect a pittance: sign here. Refuge became prison until death, if prison was not death itself for those too old for wage labour. The ageing innocents were then subjected to in-house discipline: drinking, gambling and swearing were prohibited, staff wielded considerable punitive powers, and the “inmates” had no substantial recourse to complaint. Just shut the door! Government reports smugly confided that the broken, old cons were well behaved.

This was William Cuffay’s final remuneration for services to democracy.

He had aggrieved to one of his last public meetings, “I’m old, I’m poor, I’m out of work, and I’m in debt, and therefore I have cause to complain.”

Destroyed but never defeated, he spent his last days as a quiet and an inveterate reader in the Brickfields Depot. Cuffay died of “Senilis” at the age of 82 on the 29 July 1870. He was buried in the Holy Trinity Church cemetery in North Hobart. By special desire, his grave was marked in case friendly sympathisers might have placed a memorial stone on it. But the Church was extended years later and the marked graves were moved to nearby St Andrews Park. Many of the headstones are now illegible. The remains from the unmarked graves were buried close to what is now the Campbell Street Primary School. It seems that children’s indifferent steps are now all that mark in memoriam the grave of the black Chartist.

Ah, Billy Cuffay! Ah, Tasmania!