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
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!