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Thomas Smith (1823–1900)

by N. W. Saffin

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas Smith (1823-1900), trade unionist, was born at Leominster, Hereford, England, son of John Smith and his wife Mary, née Harper. He learned the mason's trade at Hampton Court and worked on the construction of the Houses of Parliament in London, the Hull and Stoke-on-Trent railway stations and the Birmingham lunatic asylum. He shipped as a carpenter's mate in the J. S. Ford and arrived in Melbourne in 1849. He worked at his trade on the Melbourne gaol and was the first president of the Operative Masons' Society in 1850-51. In a humorous toast to 'Success to Bluestone' at the opening of the Princes Bridge in November 1850 he forecast the success of the eight-hour movement. After working in Geelong on J. F. Strachan's mansion he returned to Melbourne, but when gold was discovered he dug with some success at Golden Point, Mount Alexander, Bendigo and the Ovens. He returned to Melbourne and was employed as Abraham Linacre's foreman, and then with Lawrence and Cain, working on many Melbourne buildings, including the Bank of Victoria, the Australasian Alliance Insurance Co., the Town Hall and the Melbourne Banking Co., where he lost the sight of an eye as a result of an accident.

In February 1855 the Masons' Society was revived after the disruption of the gold rush years; Smith, who had retained its early records, was re-elected president. On 5 March 1856 he attended a meeting of building operatives at the Belvidere (Eastern Hill) Hotel and became one of a committee of twelve elected to set the eight-hour idea into motion. On 26 March at a large meeting at the Queen's Theatre he moved a resolution, seconded by James Stephens, that an eight-hour day in the building trade was desirable, and seconded J. G. Galloway's motion that it take effect from 21 April; as first treasurer of the inaugural Eight Hours' Committee he presided over the celebratory banquet held on that date at the Belvidere. He was flag-bearer for the masons in their first anniversary march in 1857. Appointed to the central committee of the society on 9 June 1859, he was secretary from 8 December to 15 March 1860.

From February 1867 Smith was a government inspector of works, supervising the construction of buildings such as the Parliament House, Government House, Law Courts and extensions to the Public Library. He invested profitably in property in South Preston (as early as 1858) and in Collingwood, and on his retirement in 1886 visited England. On 6 April 1893 he defeated Ben Douglass for the presidency of the Eight Hours' Pioneers Association; at the time Douglass quipped that Smith had walked in procession thirty-seven years previously and had done nothing since.

Smith, aged 28, had married Harriet Dudley at Collingwood. He died at his home Ivy Bank, Oakover Road, South Preston, on 21 December 1900, aged 77, survived by two daughters and two sons, and an only brother. He was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery with a Wesleyan minister officiating at the service. His estate was valued for probate at £4050.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Sutherland et al, Victoria and its Metropolis, vol 2 (Melb, 1888)
  • W. E. Murphy, History of the Eight Hours' Movement (Melb, 1896)
  • Tocsin, 27 Dec 1900
  • W. E. Murphy, Formation of the Pioneer Unions, Historical Sketches of Unions and Trade Unionists, no 7, Trades Hall papers, item 4, letter-book (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

N. W. Saffin, 'Smith, Thomas (1823–1900)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


Leominster, Herefordshire, England


21 December, 1900 (aged ~ 77)
Preston, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

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