• Emma Miller gives evidence before the Shops, Factories, and Workshops Commission

  • The 1891 Shops, Factories and Workshops Commission is one of the most important sources relating to working women in Queensland. Emma Miller, co-founder of the Female Workers’ Union, gave evidence before the commission 22 April, 1891 and helped start the long journey towards gender equality.

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    QSA Series ID 192, Photographic Black and White Negatives of Queensland Industr…
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QSA DID 3113: Freedman's clothing factory, Fortitude Valley, December 1966
News of the day

Daily Standard, Saturday 5 April 1913, page 11



There are fewer names more familiar to the people of Queensland than that of Mrs Emma Miller, the frail-framed but mentally-sturdy fighter for the rights of the people as opposed to the injustice of Capitalism and Monopoly. Yet, although Mrs. Miller's name is such a household word, her active interest in the people's cause has so dominated her personality that the facts surrounding her private history offer an unexplored field of interest. A few of those facts are here set forth in full assurance that they will be read with interest.


Mrs. Emma Miller was born at Chesterfield, in Derbyshire, on June 26, 1839. She was the daughter of an ardent Chartist, which term it is almost unnecessary to explain, signifies one of a body of political reformers in England, originating about 1838, and advocating as their leading principles universal suffrage, no property qualification for a seat in Parliament, annual Parliaments, equal representation, payment of members, and vote by ballot. All of these privileges they demanded as constituting the People's Charter. Those were stormy times. Suppression of the Chartists by force was attempted, and riots were frequent. The Chartists though sturdy and determined were comparatively few in numbers, and were classed as revolutionary extremists. Yet, Mrs. Miller has lived to see established in Australia almost every claim which they advocated. Born as she was into such times, it is not unreasonable to suppose that the spirit of freedom which impregnated the mental atmosphere of her father’s home entered into her mentality in her earliest years, ever to remain there. Her father, who was one of the few educated men in Chesterfield, opened a Workmen’s Cottage Reading Room, with a view to enlarging the mental scope of the men of Chesterfield and Mrs. Miller, when only a little lass, used to keep the reading rooms clean, receiving as remuneration for such services the sum of one shilling a week. In those days newspapers cost a shilling each. As very few of the working-men, who frequented the rooms could read, Mrs. Miller's father read aloud to them.


As a small child Mrs. Miller attended a dame school. There were other educational establishments in Chesterfield except a charity school and a boarding school. Mrs. Miller and her parents were Unitarians, and she credits the Unitarian Sunday school, which she attended on Sunday afternoons, and at which secular lessons were given, with having done much more than the dame school in furnishing her with a simple primary education. When only 12 years of age she set out from Chesterfield in company with her father to a place 12 miles distant to hear Fergus O'Connor speak on the Corn Laws of England. They missed the train, and had to walk the whole distance.


When only 15 years of age Mrs. Miller had to enter a London hospital to undergo an operation. That was the period of the Crimean War, and the little girl from Chesterfield, who busily assisted in making bandages for war ambulance purposes in the month during which she waited in the hospital pending her operation, came under the influence of Florence Nightingale. She eagerly volunteered for nursing service in the Crimea, but when she was sufficiently recovered to go, her father refused to supply the necessary consent, and she returned to Chesterfield.  The incident serves to show that Mrs. Miller had a very early association with noted persons, and the work of humanity.


After living in Chesterfield till she was 17 years of age, the subject of this sketch married a Mr. Calderwood, and went to reside in Manchester. At 22 years of age she was left a widow with four children. It was necessary for her to work very hard at her trade as a white shirtmaker to keep herself and her small family. “Stitch, stitch, stitch" for 16 or 18 hours a day at the current rates of pay, which then were very small. But no matter how hard the times might be, she scorned charitable assistance and taught her children the virtue of self-reliance. " I have always had an abhorrence of charity," she says. She had learnt her trade very thoroughly at Morris and Co.'s shirt factory, St. Ann's-square, Manchester, and continued to make shirts to the satisfaction of Finney, lsles, and Co., and other employers after she had come to Queensland.


Shortly after going to live in Manchester, Mrs Miller, or, as she was known then, Mrs. Calderwood, became associated with Miss Lydia Baker, the first female member of the Manchester School Board. She was in Manchester when Ernest Charles Jones, the great Chartist reformer, died. She walked in the procession which followed his funeral, which was the largest ever seen in Manchester up to that time.

Ernest Charles Jones is best known to Australians as a barrister associated with Sir Frederick Cavendish in the defence of the men charged in connection with the Phoenix Park murders. Mrs. Miller re-married in Manchester, and eventually left there with her husband and children for Australia. The last speech which she heard delivered In England was made by Mr. W. F. Gladstone from the balcony at Hawarden Castle. There was no Labor party in those days, but Mrs. Miller was associated with the most advanced section of the Liberals — a different type to the so-called Australian " Liberals."  Eight hundred of the Manchester Liberals, Mrs. Miller among them, went to Hawarden Castle for a picnic, and by request Mr. Gladstone addressed them very fully on the Eastern question. The last sermon she heard preached in England was delivered by Rev. W. H. Gaskell, husband of a distinguished writer. Mr. Gaskell, who was a very brilliant preacher, was for 60 years pastor of the Cross-street Unitarian Church, Manchester. Another of Mrs. Miller's English recollections attaches to the funeral of John Stephenson, inventor of the steam engine. She watched the cortege from the steps of a church.


Mrs. Miller and her family, including her second husband, came to Queensland in 1879, a period prior to the establishment of the Queensland Labor party. They came provided with a letter of introduction to Sir Samuel Griffith. Later, Mrs. Miller's second husband died, and some years afterwards she married once more. “Yet,” says the old lady in unmistakably true accents, "I never Iooked for a husband in my life." Mrs. Miller entered the Queensland Labor movement when the first local agitation was made for female franchise. In the long interval which had elapsed since the days of her girlhood among the Chartists she had been an omnivorous reader of newspapers and useful literature, and had thus acquired a practical education which stood her in good stead when she began to actively engage in the Labor and Woman’s Franchise movements.


The first woman's franchise movement started in Queensland was organised by women who were not in sympathy with the adult franchise ideal. They desired that certain restrictions should be placed on the female vote, and that certain qualifications should be essential, but Mrs. Miller and other sturdy champions of the people gathered together a majority of Democrats and defeated the Conservative section of the Woman's Franchise Association on a motion which demanded that the franchise should be placed on an adult basis. Next morning the report of the meeting appeared in a newspaper under the heading “Labor Women Capture an Association.”

After the retirement of the Conservative members, Mrs. Miller was elected president, and held that position for the 11 years in which the association remained in existence to see the accomplishment of its desires. During that period only two meetings lapsed for want of a quorum. She was associated in its work with Mesdames Johnson, Firman, W. H. Higgs, Snell, and other women of large intellectual capacity. The first secretary of the reorganised association was Miss May Jordan, afterwards Mrs. McConnell, wife of the superintendent of the Brisbane Technical College. Mrs. Miller speaks in the highest terms of Mrs. McConnell's accomplishments and sound democratic principles, and emphasises her opinion that Brisbane suffered a severe loss when that estimable lady and her husband went to reside in America.


The reorganised Women's Franchise Association included in its operations a social club for girls, which for a time had a large membership. Mrs. Miller speaks very gratefully of the magnificent and self-sacrificing work done by Mr. Frank McDonnell in the matter pf organising shop and factory workers. It was through his influence that a large number of shop girls were induced to join the social club. Unfortunately, however, cliquism and snobbery — those banes of human progress —crept in. Some shop girts would not sit at tea with factory girls or domestics, and all the best efforts of the club leaders were nullified.

Mrs. Miller emphatically attributes to this spirit of snobbishness, which is in all its aspects so foreign to Christian ideals and a belief in life beyond the grave, most of the setbacks which the people's movement has experienced. Mrs. Miller gave evidence before the Factory and Workshops Commission which commission mainly owed its origin to Mr. Frank McDonnell’s efforts.


Although now 74 years of age, Mrs. Miller is still locally the most active woman in the Labor movement. Her interest and activities are not spasmodic but are constantly exercised. She receives the title of Mother from all her male associates in the Labor organisations and conventions, and certainly has a fine, sturdy set of adopted sons. Of her own children three survive, two daughters and a son. She is also great-grandmother to a child of which Mr. Matt Reid, whose name was so long associated with Labor politics, is a grandfather. Mrs. Miller proudly claims that all her descendants are staunch Laborites. Within the Iast few weeks Mrs. Miller sat In the Labor Convention as the delegate for Townsville W.P.O., and last Monday she attended Mr. Fisher's meeting at Maryborough as the delegate of the Ithaca W.P.0. Her capacity for enjoyment remains undiminished. She loves music, and is capable of fully appreciating it in its higher branches. She delights to see young people -dancing and at W.P.O. socials dispenses refreshment as actively as any of the girls. One of her latest treats was an evening at the performance of “Kismet." Her hostess on that occasion was Mrs. Espie, a democrat from Charleville, and Mrs. David Bowman was also one or the party.



The 1891 Shops, Factories and Workshops Commission is one of the most important sources relating to working women in colonial Queensland. Comprising approximately 15 per cent of the colony’s total workforce, evidence presented to the Commission revealed that many women employed in the manufacturing and retail industries were considerably exploited, with piecework, or ‘sweating‘, common throughout the metropolitan districts. The latter involved female needleworkers completing articles of clothing in their own homes at rates well below the minimal factory wage.  Among those who gave evidence was Emma Miller, one of Queensland’s most prominent labour activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Having gained extensive knowledge of the clothing trade in England, Miller emigrated to Queensland in 1879 and while employed as a pieceworker had joined with May O’Connel to form the Female Workers’ Union in 1890. She also served as an Organiser for the Australian Workers’ Union and played a major role in the establishment of the Women Workers’ Political Organisation. The evidence of Miller and other female workers in 1891 was crucial to the enacting of legislation which set minimal rates of pay for pieceworkers and thereby reduced its economic appeal to exploitative employers. The 1891 Commission thus stands as an important step in the lengthy campaign to achieve gender equality in the workplace. 


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