What does the 1901 census tells us about Scottish workers in New South Wales?

You can read more about my research on Scottish workers in Australia in History Scotland (Vol. 13, No. 1, 2013) and in Scottish Labour History (Vol. 48, 2013). More details of these publications are available on my Academia website.

Although we know all about the successful, prominent, and famous Scots in Australia’s past, most Scottish migrants were everyday folk like you and me. Sometimes their stories are hard to recreate, but as we saw in my previous post on Scottish settlement in Australian cities, historical records help to piece together a general picture of how things were in the past. Let us look at what the 1901 New South Wales census tells us about the kinds of jobs ordinary Scots took up on Australian shores.

In New South Wales in 1901, Scots worked in a range of occupations. The primary sector was the biggest employer of Scottish men at this time. Approximately 9.2 per cent were employed in agriculture, and 7.7 per cent were employed in pastoral industries. Scottish men were overrepresented in mines and quarries, and were over two times more likely to be employed in this occupation than anyone else. Scots were underrepresented in agriculture (but not pastoralism), fisheries, and forestry.

The propensity of Scottish men to work in Australian mines is reflected in their backgrounds in Scotland. The propensity of Scottish men to work in Australian mines is accountable by reference to their backgrounds in Scotland. In 1891, there were 87,406 mineworkers, and by 1901 there were 115,994 people working in mines. By 1921, there were 155,252 mineworkers in Scotland.

In Scotland, stereotypes emerged of Scottish colliers as wild, irreligious, and socially isolated “serfs”. Historians note that the life of Scottish colliers was similar to that of most coal miners; there was an emphasis on masculinity, egalitarianism, group solidarity, and a notable support for radical labour movements. Indeed, Scottish miners in Australia contributed greatly to the labour cause during the 1920s and 1930s.

Around 10.7 per cent of Scottish men were working in transport and communications, making it the next biggest employer of Scots. The regulation of sea and river traffic accounted for 6.6 per cent of the total proportion of employed Scots, and they were over three times more likely than the total population to be employed in this particular occupation.

Closely following transport and communications was construction, accounting for 10.5 per cent of working Scottish men. The majority of Scots in the construction industry were employed building houses and other buildings – 8.1 per cent of Scottish men in New South Wales were builders, and they were two-and-a-half times more likely to be employed as such than the total population.

Manufacturing accounted for 7.5 per cent of employment for Scottish men. Scots were engaged in manufacturing and producing books, sports equipment, watches and clocks, vehicles, saddlery and leatherware, furniture, and numerous other items.

Although there was only a small number of them in the occupation, Scots were still highly overrepresented in the manufacture of ships, boats, and maritime equipment. Almost 14 per cent of shipbuilders were of Scottish birth, meaning that Scots were over five times more likely than the total population to be working in this occupation. Similarly, Scots were around three-and-a-half times more likely to be employed in the manufacture of engines, machines, and tools, and they accounted for 9.3 per cent of all employees in this occupation.

The notable contribution Scottish workers made to shipbuilding in New South Wales and Sydney is to be expected, and echoes a similar contribution Scots made to shipbuilding in New Zealand. The Scottish iron industry was revolutionised in 1828 by the invention of the hot blast for smelting iron. Scotland subsequently became a centre for British engineering, shipbuilding, and for the production of trains and locomotives; steel replaced iron at the end of the nineteenth century.

After 1860, Clydeside shipyards specialised in steamships made of iron and steel. ‘Clydebuilt’ became the industry standard for high quality military and commercial vessels, and Glasgow took primacy as the world’s shipbuilding centre. Production on the River Clyde reached its peak in the first two decades of the twentieth century, and Glasgow firms completed 370 ships in 1913 alone – even more were produced during the First World War.

The biggest shipowners in Australia tended to have their best vessels constructed in Scottish yards. Nevertheless, a substantial shipbuilding industry grew up around Australia’s ports, with Sydney taking its place as the largest and most important of the Australian shipyards. Apart from having one of the best natural harbours in the country, Sydney was Australia’s first port and was the first to develop industry, and generally had better equipment and facilities as a result. It was also situated in close proximity to some of the world’s finest shipbuilding timbers, as well as nearby iron foundries and marine engineering works.

Overall, the apparent skew towards mining, manufacturing, and construction reflects the preponderance of industrial employment in Scotland at the time of migration and the dominance of mining and manufacturing in the Scottish economy. Shipping was a major part of Scotland’s urban economies, and the overrepresentation of Scots among shipbuilders reflects both this and the urban origins of Scottish migrants to Australia.

The data available for Scottish women in New South Wales tells a different story, and helps to round out our picture of Scottish employment. In 1901, 8,957 of the 12,151 Scottish women in New South Wales, or 73.7 per cent of them, were recorded as being “dependents on natural guardians”. Another 165 women were “dependents upon the state”.

Nevertheless, 3,024 Scottish women took home an income. The largest occupation for Scottish women was in the supply of board and lodging (3.4 per cent) and domestic service (6.5 per cent). There was also a considerable number of women (3.2 per cent) employed in the textile industry. Most of these women were employed producing clothing, although a handful were involved in the manufacture of textiles.

There were roughly three times as many Scottish women living from their own means than would be predicated from the size of their population, and around two-and-a-half times as many as we would expect were working in healthcare. Furthermore, Scots made up around 7.4 per cent of the total number of women working in property and finance – about four times more than would be expected.

As we can see from this brief look at just one state’s census data, Scots worked alongside Australians in a variety of common occupations. Although we often only hear about the ‘Great Scots’ in our history books, the everyday men and women who migrated from Scotland to Australia contributed greatly to the emerging industrial economy at the turn of the century.


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