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Robertson, Helen Lothan (1848–1937)

by Peter Love

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Helen Lothan Robertson (1848–1937), tailoress and trade unionist, was born in 1848 at Glasgow, Scotland, daughter of Joseph Biggs, carpenter, and his wife Elizabeth, née Baird. The family came to Victoria in 1853. At 14 Helen 'started with her needle at the trade'; clothing machinists were then paid 10 shillings to 12s. 6d. per week, about half the rate for unskilled male labourers. On 15 April 1870 at Fitzroy she married with Presbyterian forms Scottish-born James Stewart Robertson, carpenter. In the next eleven years they had six children, three of whom died in childhood. She probably combined home duties with outwork, the endemic, lowest paid form of employment in the garment industry.

Helen Robertson was reputedly involved in trade union activity as early as 1874. In 1880 she led Melbourne tailoresses in their campaigns against oppressive work practices, or 'sweating', in the garment industry. That year she and some workmates established the Tailoresses' Association. They made little headway against recalcitrant employers and the resistance of tailoresses anxious about being blacklisted, but eventually convened a meeting and approached the Trades Hall Committee, which was reluctant to support them. After agitation against sweating in the printing and retail industries led to a royal commission in 1882 the working conditions of female workers attracted wider public sympathy.

Confident in the support of the Age newspaper and reforming Liberals, on 10 December 1882 Robertson and her colleagues led a deputation, sponsored by the Tailors' Union, to the Trades Hall to protest at wage cuts in a leading clothing factory. The T.H.C., anxious to expand its role in co-ordinating industrial disputes, responded by establishing the Tailoresses' Union on 11 December, with an all-male executive and a committee of seven women, including Robertson. Public support for the women's plight was such that the Age raised £1000 in the first week of an appeal for funds. Trades Hall officers drew up and negotiated a 'catalogue of claims' that was largely accepted by most protectionist employers by March 1883. The royal commission heard evidence from Robertson and other tailoresses in August that year. The 1885 Factory Act, inspired by the commission's report, included some improvements, despite Legislative Council amendments.

By the late 1880s Robertson and her comrades had expanded the role of women unionists to such an extent that the newly established Trades Hall Council agreed to the construction of a Female Operatives' Hall, with Robertson a member of the foundation committee. However, the economic collapse affected the clothing trade so severely that by 1890 the Tailoresses' Union membership had fallen to a mere one hundred. Virtually moribund for most of the decade, like many unions, in 1906 it merged with the Tailors' Society to become the Tailors' and Tailoresses' Union. Despite this dramatic decline, Robertson and a few others carried on the struggle. In 1896 they had obtained their first Wages Board. She had begun her long-standing membership of the Eight Hours' Committee in 1894.

Following the formation of the Federated Clothing Trades Union (1907) she continued as a member of the Victorian branch executive until 1925 and served a term as vice-president. A photograph showed her as big, strong and resolute. Her husband had died in 1901. Revered as a pioneer of female trade unionism in Australia, Robertson progressively withdrew from the public sphere in the late 1920s. She died on 22 June 1937 at Collingwood and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. Two daughters and a son survived her.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Serle, The Rush To Be Rich (Melb, 1970)
  • M. McMurchy et al, For Love or Money (Melb, 1983)
  • B. Ellem, In Women’s Hands (Syd, 1989)
  • Clothing Trades Gazette, 15 May 1922, p 6
  • Recorder (Melbourne), no 120, Feb 1983, p 9
  • Labour History, no 44, May 1983, p 27
  • Age (Melbourne), 24 June 1937, p 12
  • Labor Call, 1 July 1937.

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Citation details

Peter Love, 'Robertson, Helen Lothan (1848–1937)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 29 January 2023.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (Melbourne University Press), 2005

View the front pages for the Supplementary Volume

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