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Oral History: Work

Paid Work: Working Men

Throughout the period 1890 to 1940 the principle of the male breadwinner wage was the basis of paid work. No matter how able-bodied men were employed, they expected to be paid enough to sustain a family. Employers as well as their workers accepted this idea. Social and political developments in New Zealand from the 1890s reflected this consensus.

The working class families of the southern Dunedin suburbs had modest economic aspirations. These were based on owning a home and section, maintaining economic independence and social respectability, securing jobs and future prospects for their children.

Fletcher Brothers timber yardMost people on 'the Flat' worked with their hands. What you did for a living determined your place in the scheme of things. There was a community consensus respecting skill and independence and the capacity for hard physical work. The yardmen at Fletcher Brothers timber yard are show in this photograph dating from 1925. Yardmen did not serve an apprenticeship but had to be fit, orderly and strong. (Fletcher Challenge Archives)

ToolsCaversham was sometimes called 'the carpenters' borough'. In 1902 over 33% of its skilled workers (137 men) were in the building trade. They were mainly carpenters but there were also joiners and cabinet-makers. These men were highly skilled and proud of their craft. They worked mostly in small business partnerships and banded together in the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners to maintain a tight control of their work environment and conditions. This photo shows a range of tools that belonged to Archibald McLaren who employed eight men in his business in South Dunedin in the 1930s. (Otago Settlers Museum Collection)

advertisementCarpenters worked with hand-held tools such as saws, hammers, augers, chisels, straight and moulding planes, and each tool had a number of specialised variations. Well-made joints in timber were complex, often with connected wedges and pegs. By the 1870s, however, dressed timber could easily be bought along with an expanding range of joinery and kitset houses. This advertisement from the late nineteenth century shows the range used. (Caversham Project Archives)

Hillside WorkshopsThe Hillside Workshops, established near Ogg's (now Cargill's) Corner in 1874, were Dunedin's biggest engineering factory and the largest enterprise in South Dunedin. Skilled metal workers made up over 20% of the Caversham male population from 1902. Like the carpenters, the men of the metal trades shared a craft culture that was maintained and passed on in the workshops of 'the Flat'. This scene from the Hillside Railway Workshops of the 1920s shows the machine shop. The skilled craftsmen are dressed in suits and ties in contrast to the unskilled labourers found in other parts of the workshops. (Timeframes Online Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa)

Wax Vesta MatchWhile many southern Dunedin workers commuted to work sites in the city, there were also some large locally-based industries other than Hillside. The Wax Vesta Match factory provided many young women with jobs. This machine, photographed in 1920, patented in 1854, made the matches. About 20 lengths of cotton were passed from a large cylindrical down through a waxing machine, they were then dosed by passing through another machine, and the process repeated until the wax coating was sufficiently thick. The tapers were then rounded, cut, and set in dipping frames. The entire process had been mechanized and one person could prepare and dip 50,000 matches a day. The boxes, however, had to be made and fitted by hand, and women did this work. In 1905 the South Dunedin factory employed 50 women. (Timeframes Online Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library, National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Matauranga o Aotearoa)

'Hori'The advertising of the 1930s would not meet our modern expectations or standards. Here 'Hori' and his grandfather illustrate the march of Western industrial progress. (Caversham Project Archives)


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