|The Courier Monday 26 March 1855 p. 3.|
A PRELIMINARY meeting of the working classes was called by advertisement and holden last week at the room adjoining Mr. Mitson's, Union Inn, Liverpool and Campbell-sheets.
The business of the meeting commenced soon after seven, when Mr. Richards, Murray-street, on the motion of Mr. Partridge, seconded by Hollis, was appointed Chairman.
The Chairman said the business of the evening was quickly told. They were all aware many acts had emanated from that "collection of wisdom," the Legislative Council but the one to which particular reference was made, was that defining the relations between the employer and the employed, or masters and hired servants.
Many of those interested in this Act felt that it was wrong, that it was an injury, and the opposition to it might lend to fearful consequences. This excitement it was now wished should be led in in a proper way, and should be carried on only in a constitutional way. (Loud cheers ) A great cry hid arisen concerning the freedom of this island, but (whether Downing-street or any other place should be charged with it) the cry did ascend into the air, and that cry was, " Tasmania is free!"
But no sooner was this done, than their great men found out that while they had freed the island, they had given an opportunity to the free to show their independent spirit and their manhood, and lest it should be found too easy to dwell in the colony, they emanated and were continuing that system which they said they had intended to abolish. For this purpose strangers were imported and sent out, for it was well known that when the labour market was glutted the labourer's price must in some measure be subdued.
Upon the statements put forth, men thought they would come in freedom of spirit and of independence ; but, if the truth were known, who but a prisoner in England would ever come here ? The next thing to be considered was. what is as to be done to crush those who came out when they came here, and on their arrival ? It was said that in the human " bosom burned brightly the love of liberty," but if they wished to see what that liberty was, let them look at the Masters' and Servants' Act. (Hear, hear )
He had no party feeling in this business—almost all present were working men; and if he was not a servant, he did not know whether he might not yet become so, nor whether all his children might not be. One daughter he had who was with a good master, but this was not the case with all—(No, no)—but let them, as working men, think and strive for them- selves, for their own interest, for if they did not they would soon be forgotten. (Applause)
Mr. Hollis, Murray-street, wished the requisition he should present to them had been put into better hands, as he felt he was not able to do full justice to this most important measure. He had been twelve months in this colony, and soon after arrival here he found the Masters' and Servants' Act before the Legislative Council, and he had paid special attention to its progress through that assembly ; he had watched with deep anxiety every clause of that fatal measure. From its first introduction into the Council until its final conclusion he had not known, as a working man, what it was to lay his head on his pillow in security. He had a most honourable employer, but at that time he did not know what moment might deprive him of his liberty. The watching of the progress of that measure—of that Act before them to which he had drawn attention excited in his mind the greatest disgust and indignation ; and he then began to look around him tor some mode of relief by opposition.
He wrote to Mr. Kermode, of Campbell Town, the only representative of the people who opposed that measure; and to that gentleman's honour, be it said, that he, and he alone, stood up against that infamous clause committing to prison for three months a helpless servant girl. (Great cheering.) This confinement might by a police magistrate here, under that Act be made solitary for the whole period, a punishment which in England was only inflicted upon the oldest and most hardened offenders ; and this clause, as he had before remarked, lind been discussed and had been passed by a Council which had pretended so much anxiety to change the whole penal character of this fair colony. (Applause.)
When be saw this he wrote a letter to the Courier upon the subject. That letter appeared on the 27th September, and in the course of a few days the sum of £2 was sent to him by some gentlemen as a testimony of their respect to him for so advocating the working man's cause. He thought be could not better expend that sum than by having copies of that letter struck off, that servants might know how they were situated, and he did so, and conies of that letter were now in the hands of the meeting before him. It was the law because it was the law—that upon complaint of the master the poor friendless servant might he committed to prison because she refused to do anything her master ordered her to do ; she might be given into the care of a rude constable, by that rude constable she would be taken to gaol ; when she came out from there she must go back to the same master, or be dragged back by that same rude hand. (Hisses.)
His heart sickened at instances of cruelty towards some of the poor girls in this colony. He would instance the case of one who hired herself to a tradesman here, at which time there was one other servant in the same employ. Presently one goes, and the new girl has the duties of the two. What then ? why this—if she refused to do it she is given into custody. This poor girl was from Ireland, perhaps from a poor and humble hut, but still in the, home she had left she no doubt had been surrounded by hearts that loved her. She did refuse, and was torn away from the house, taken before a police magistrate, and by bim sentenced to seven days' imprisonment, and now she is actually serving in that same family.
From Melbourne he came here penniless, and he had met with a kind and honourable master ; but what would have been his fate had he fallen into the hands of some common huxter, or some petty vender of trumpery tarts? It might have been this, that both him self and his wife might have spent the remainder of their days in a prison. He had instanced himself, and stood there as a testimony of respect to a good master. (Hear, hear ) He did not come there to complain of the masters, but of the Act which gave them such power. Suppose a man, not strong enough to do his allotted task, says he cannot do it, the master replies, " Yes, you can, you are as much able as Bill, Tom, or Harry." Suppose he replied, " No." Then comes " disobedience" of orders ; he is taken before a magistrate, and sent to prison for 14 days. Now, suppose at that time there should be twelve weeks' salary due to himself and his wife when he failed to obey orders; the magistrate sends him to prison, and those wages are forfeited. Was this honest? Was it just? Was it fair? Was this the object which the inhabitants of this country wished carried ont ? No ; they must make some allowance for the Legislative Council, but must so proceed that, like Mr. Miles, of East Somerset, each supporter of this unjust Act must hide his diminished head. (Cheers)
Mr. Hollis then read the preamble of the Act, to show that by the term " labourer" all branches of labour were included in the penal consequences of this measure, which was one of the most monstrous ever introduced into the Legislative Council ; an Act which included, either by themselves, their wives, or their families, six-sevenths of the whole population of Australia. True, a man might have engaged that if he did so and so, his master should do so and so ; but let them remember that this would not avail them, as the Act was retrospective, which only made it the more monstrous. To be sure, it was declared by clause 5 that wages should be paid quarterly, unless it were otherwise expressly agreed ; but what did this mean ? It meant that a larger amount of wages should lay in the hands of the employer. He did not intend to imply that the Legislative Council had any dishonest motive in view when this clause was inserted, for no doubt the greater part of them were strictly honourable men ; but still there was no doubt that just about that time gold was to be discovered at Macquarie Harbour, and they must know very well that when "gold " was put in one scale and " honesty "; in the other, which would go down. (Laughter and cheers )
The speaker then said that there were many good masters, instancing a case well known to him, where the master was kind as a father, and his lady as gentle as a mother. That master was the proprietor of one of the newspapers here, and he would say that he always found those who advocated their own principles on public grounds alone, to be in private life the most amiable and best of men. In reference to the sixth clause, by which a servant refusing to perform his service was liable to three months' imprisonment with hard labour, or to forfeit the whole of any portion of his wages at the discretion of the justice, Mr. Hollis said he would again refer to the case of the poor girl which he had previously spoken of.
That girl could not do the work of two servants, and the family washing in addition Three days after his letter appeared—but it was not then known by whom it was written—the then Attorney General came down to the Council and wished the punishment to be converted in such cases into a fine not exceeding £20—twenty pounds for a poor servant girl to pay, or to be kept for fourteen days in solitary confinement ! The work must be done, and should be done in a " diligent, careful manner," but they knew there were some people, let them do what they would, who never did do their work in a " diligent, careful manner." They might as well try to take an observation of the lunar planet as to do their work in the estimation of some either in a "diligent, careful manner," or in a reasonable manner at all.
He then referred to the 9th clause of the Act which empowers the master in the event of his servant being drunk to give bim into the custody of a constable, by whom he would be taken before the justice, who might commit him for three months and forfeit all his wages. A servant girl had £11 due to her and she gave a month's notice of her intention to leave, as she was about to be man wed. The master refused to accept the notice, and because the girl left, she was brought up on the plea that she had agreed to serve for 12 months, and singular to state she was fined just £11 (shame.) an amount which would pay twice over the most brutal assaults ever coming before the magistrates in England. They would look at the monstrous effects which could be produced by such a clause. Let them suppose that just as a servant's wages were due, the master charged him with some offence ; the wages-would be forfeited, and the servant returned to be charged again just as more wages were due. Why, a man might be kept in a state of perpetual servitude by his master with- out any expense. Could they then wonder that the colony wanted freedom, when servants could by such means be had for nothing?
He next referred to clause 16, which enacts that where imprisonment is awarded with hard labour, the justice may direct the offender to be kept in solitary confinement for a portion of such time not exceeding thirty days. This dreadful punishment might, perhaps, be imposed upon a servant because he might not be able to carry a bag of sugar or to drag a bag of salt. Servants ought to be punished by the common law ; but there should be no special clause for servants, except such a clame as would apply in the same way to free citi- zens. He was a tree citizen, and why should the law meet him or any other free citizen with such a twenty-fold punishment?
In the 17th clause, in consequence of the letter they had before them, the then Attorney-General, (meek-hearted, amiable man !) Wished the maximum penalty to be £20, and in default of payment, 14 days' solitary confinement. It was a farce to suppose that any servant could raise it, and therefore she must go to gaol, and this perhaps because the windows were not cleaned, or the door-knocker not brightened, for which in England she would only be slightly admonished.
Under the 19th clause in cases of ill-usage, the servant had power to complain against the work. To do this, a summons must be obtained, but whilst the servant was gone to fetch the summons, the master could give the servant info custody for absenting herself without his consent. If the summons was obtained—if the servant girl got a verdict—What then ? What was the penalty? She might have been beaten, she might have been half starved,—but what was the penalty? Was the master imprisoned? Oh ! no ! but if convicted he would be ordered to pay a sum of money not exceeding £20, just the sum of money which could be levied upon a poor girl for a slight offence. (Hear, hear.)
Now this be thought could not be equalled in any country where freedom roared its head. They might talk of the Russian barbarians, the barbarians against whom the allied forces were then engaged, but he questioned if even amongst those barbarians such an enactment could be found to exist. (Cheers.)
Say that an improper liberty had been taken with a poor servant girl, and she should refuse to serve again in the house where persons had done its worst—treason against a free subject, treason against the Imperial Majesty of Great Britain, upon each refusal she would be re-committed, and thus would be subjected to perpetual imprisonment. Such a state of things was enough to arouse them to apply for a repeal of this barbaric enactment, for those who came to this country free might find the prison bars close upon them, those who bad never thought of such.
He had attended before the candidates upon this Act Dr. Crooke was " disgusted ;" Mr. Walker thought it was " most objectionable " (and he knew nothing of it until he was reminded); and Dr. Bedford said "nothing." Was it not extraordinary—was it not most extraordinary—that those influential gentlemen should not know anything of this Act, but had to give it their " serious attention ?"
The speaker then read a letter from Mr. Kermode, to whom he had written upon this subject, and that gentleman had thus replied :
"Mona Vale, Ross, March 20, 1855.
"Sir,—I am just on the point of leaving my home on a journey to the north and of the island, and can therefore only briefly acknowledge the receipt of your letter of yesterday's date, in which you inform me that a public meeting of a preliminary character is to be held to-morrow evening at Hobart Town, for the purpose of taking into consideration the Masters' and Servants' Act, with a view of preparing a petition to the Legislative Council, praying for a total repeal of the Act, or for such a modification of it as will make the labouring man's condition more secure than it is at present, and in which you further inform me that you are requested to invite me to present the said petition to the Council. I need only say in reply that I sympathise fully with yourself and others in the object you have in view, and, while it is not probable, that I shall have an opportunity of attending at any of your meetings I can nevertheless assure you that it will afford me very sincere pleasure to present your petition to the Council, when I trust, indeed I doubt not, every consideration will be given to your just and reasonable com- plaints. "I am. Sir, " Your obedient Servant, " R. Q. KERMODE."
There must be (said Mr. H.) some law for the control of both servants and masters, but he would like to see the sound old English method adopted, where a master would tell his servant that if be did not do his work he would discharge him at the end of a month's notice, and where a servant could do the same; but he did not like to see such barbaric and such severe laws at these in any country at this day. (Loud cheers.)
Mr. Hollis then read the following resolution. " That a petition be presented to the Legislative Council at earliest sitting embodying the grievances of which the servants cause, and just cause, to complain," and praying,
- Firstly.—For a repeal and extensive modification of the Act known as the Masters' and Servants' Act.
- Secondly—That a committee of the House be appointed to receive evidence showing the injurious tendency of the said Act.
- Thirdly—That the House will be pleased to order return showing the number of servants, male and female, committed under this Act to the various prisons in the colony, the terms of their engagement, their length of servitude, the nature of their offences, the various periods of their imprisonment, whether solitary or otherwise, together with amounts of fines inflicted, at well at the amount of wages forfeited. Fourthly,—That returns be ordered showing the number of employers against whom complaints shall have been made, the nature of such complaints, the number of convictions, together with the amount of fines inflicted, whether paid or otherwise.
- And lastly, that the Legislative Council will take immediate steps to secure from rash and reckless encroachments the liberty of every free subject of the Imperial Majesty of Great Britain—that it will remedy the great social wrong inflicted on a large proportion of the population of this colony by the unwise, the cruel, the imprudent legislation of the last session—that it will guarantee alike to all classes the invaluable blessings of freedom, and thus lay a sound and solid basis on which to build the future prosperity and greatness of Tasmania."
Mr. Partridge seconded the above resolution, which was received with boisterous applause and carried unanimously.
On the motion of Mr. Tyler, seconded by Mr. Sharp, Murray-street, a committee of five, with power to add to their number, was appointed.
Mr. Hollis was unanimously requested to prepare the petition to be laid before the Legislative Council.
Subscriptions to carry out the objects of the meeting were then given in, and the Press having heen thanked for their attendance (a compliment to which Mr. Cox, of the Colonial Times, responded,) Mr. Mitson was appointed treasurer, (Mr. Cox declining the office,) a vote of thanks was passed to the Chairman, and to Mr. Hollis, and the meeting separated.