Investigation 2

How was New South Wales affected by the labour crisis of the 1890s?

For years after the 1850s gold rush, New South Wales had a booming economy. However, the boom did not last. In the 1890s, all the eastern colonies of Australia experienced an economic depression and drought.

One effect of the economic downturn was a labour crisis. Many people could not find jobs and did not have money to support themselves or their families. Some unemployed men took to the road. They were known as ‘swagmen’ because they carried a ‘swag’ filled with their few possessions as they walked from place to place hoping to find occasional work. Workers who did still have jobs could not be sure of good working conditions or pay. In some industries, workers joined together as a group called a union. Unions organised strikes to fight for workers’ rights.

Your Task

Investigate the ways in which the labour crisis affected people and society in New South Wales.


  1. As a class, look at ‘The labour crisis’ cartoon and consider the following questions.
    • Who does the man on the right represent? Who does the man on the left represent? Provide reasons for your thinking.
    • What is the problem or situation they are facing?
    • What real problem in New South Wales might the situation in the cartoon symbolise?
    • What do you think the caption for the cartoon means?
    • Whose side do you think the cartoonist is on–the man on the left or the man on the right? Provide reasons for your thinking.
    • If the cartoonist had supported the other side of the argument, how might this cartoon have been drawn differently?
    • Does the cartoon suggest that the labour crisis is a win–win, win–lose or lose–lose situation? Provide reasons for your thinking.
  2. During the labour crisis, some people travelled country New South Wales by foot looking for work. They carried their possessions in a swag. If you had to carry all of your possessions, what would you take? Remember, your swag needs to have everything that you need for cooking, sleeping and working. You will need to take into account varying weather conditions too. Make a list of the items. Estimate or use scales to measure the mass of the things you would include in your swag. Combine your list with those of other students. Rank the items on the combined list in order of importance. Revise your group’s list so that you can only carry items with a combined mass of five kilograms per person. Share the group’s lists with the class.
  3. Read Andrew ‘Banjo’ Paterson’s ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and look at the photograph of the swagman. With a partner, write a conversation between two swagmen discussing their experiences. Consider the challenges they faced, how people treated them, the sorts of jobs they did and how they felt about life on the road. Perform your conversation for the rest of the class.