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Much progress was being made at the turn of the century, with the motor car appearing in the street and electric lights starting to replace candles or kerosene and gas lamps. For the working class, however, who were unable to afford these new technological luxuries, their difficult lives went on just the same as they had before.


For working-class Australians at the turn of the century, there was almost no time for anything other than work because their lives revolved around their jobs. Many men felt pressured to work because of the popular belief that the man should be the 'breadwinner' (the person responsible for supporting the family). Women and children from poor families also had to seek employment because a single wage was often not enough to provide for the entire family. 

They usually had to work exceptionally long hours, in poor conditions and received little pay in return. Awards, such as the four weeks annual leave that Australian workers are entitled to today, were inconceivable at the turn of the century. (For more detail, refer to Chapter 1: Life and Working Conditions)


The housing of the working class was dangerous, unsanitary and overcrowded. At the turn of the century, the size of the average family was much larger than it is today. It was not uncommon for families to have in excess of eight children. In low-income families, the more children they had the more people there were to help out with household duties or to earn a wage outside of the home.

Houses were smaller than they are today, which left many city-dwelling families having to squeeze into homes in small, inner-city terraces or houses built in clustered rows alongside factories. These houses were usually owned by landlords. Semi-skilled and unskilled workers of the working class were unable to afford to buy a house. They often struggled to meet their rent payments. See image 1

Houses occupied by the working class in Melbourne were in the suburbs of Collingwood, Richmond, Port Melbourne and Footscray. In Sydney, they were in Surry Hills and Pyrmont which are now considered to be relatively exclusive areas.
The buildings were usually poorly built and made from cheap materials which, in some cases, proved to be hazardous to their occupants. They also often did not have sewerage and a standard water supply. Indoor, flushing toilets and even baths, were rarities. Rather than a flushing toilet as we would have today, the toilet was a 'dunny' or a 'privy' which consisted of a can with a seat resting on the top of it. The dunny was situated in a small shed outdoors, often in the backyard and near a back alley where the waste could be removed by the 'nightmen.' As waste was unable to be flushed away, disease was able to quickly spread. See animation


Poor housing conditions often led to dangerous health conditions for the working class. A lack of sanitation meant that infectious diseases such as whooping cough, tuberculosis and diphtheria, were rampant in the slums. It was these diseases which were the cause of death for many people, especially young children, until vaccines were introduced.

In 1900 there was an outbreak of the bubonic plague in Sydney which caused the deaths of over 500 people nationwide. It rapidly spread via fleas which fed on infected rats that were living in abundance in the filthy conditions of the working-class urban slums. For an infected individual, the symptoms usually included a high fever, black spots under the skin and large pus-filled glands. In response to the outbreak, houses were fumigated, cleansed and disinfected. The worst affected slum buildings were demolished and their contents, such as lounges, were burnt to ensure that the fleas could not spread. See image 2

The vast majority of those who died from diseases were members of the working class because they were often unable to afford medical fees. Even for those people who could afford to go to hospital, medical staff were not yet fully aware of how to prevent infection from spreading and sufficient technology had not yet been developed. This meant that infant mortality rates were high and average life expectancy was low. In 1901, the infant mortality rate was 103.6 deaths for every 1000 live births. For the first decade of the 20th century, male children had a life expectancy of 55.2 years and females 58.4 years. Today, the infant mortality rate has dropped to 4.63, while the average life expectancy of males is 77.64 years and females 83.52 years.

Social problems

The people of the working class had hard working conditions and poor living conditions. They had no time for leisure because they had to work long hours simply to survive. They did not possess the funds to engage in leisure activities such as attending the theatre or playing sport. As a result, a number of social problems were associated with the working class. It has been suggested that the working class often involved themselves with crime, prostitution and drunkenness. Gambling was also popular amongst low-income earners, as it seemingly provided them with the opportunity to win a large amount of money in a very short time and required very little effort. They were known to spend much of their income on illegal bets made in hotels and alleyways.

Many poor children dropped out of school early so that they could take up employment to support their families. Without an education, some believed, these school dropouts had not developed a sense of discipline. Working-class youths (particularly, young men) had the reputation of going around in gangs and exhibiting rowdy, drunken and even hostile behaviour. These youths were often referred to as 'larrikins,' with larrikin gangs once being a major part of working-class street culture. See image 3


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1. What best described a 'larrikin' at the turn of the century?

A likeable but deviant young man whose actions were more often seen as cheeky than lawless.

An upper class youth who defied the law by engaging in illegal activities.

A working-class youth who belonged to a gang and displayed anti-social behaviour.

An old man who was jobless and homeless and spent most of his time drunk and making illegal bets.


No thanks. Remind me again later.