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The Wharfies Mural

Date: 1953-1965
Medium: Paint on plaster, steel
Credit Line: ANMM Collection Gift from Maritime Union of Australia
Object Name: Mural
Object No: V00040188

User Terms

    The Sydney Wharfies Mural was painted by wharfies and artists from 1953 to 1965 on the walls of the lunchroom at the old Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) headquarters on the 'Hungry Mile', now Barangaroo. The mural expresses the history and political philosophy of the WWF and other maritime industry trade unions. Its subjects range from the late 19th century to the 1940s and include the struggle for the eight hour day, union leaders, anti-conscription, the general strike, police confrontations, and the Communist Party.
    SignificanceThe Sydney Wharfies Mural is an iconic example of working class cultural expression. It is held in great esteem by ex and current maritime workers as part of the history of waterfront trade unionism and waterside workers' role in Australian history. It captures the ideals and aspirations of a movement that was cirtical to the industrial development of Australia and to the achievement of better working conditions, often beyond the maritime industries.

    The mural is a rare example of a collective artwork by maritime workers and their supporters. It reflects the long tradition of leftist politics that was central to the WWF for many years. It is a rare example of Australian painting in the socialist realist tradition and reflects an outward looking internationalist vision at a time of insular Australian politics and society.

    HistoryThe mural was produced mainly in the 1950s at the height of the influence of and support for the Waterside Workers Federation (WWF) . The trade union organisation for maritime workers on the docks and at the ports around Australia had conducted many campaigns to achieve better working conditions for their members. Their work was historically dangerous, casual and back-breaking. By the 1940s it was more permanent and well paid - at a time when goods were still carried manually onto ships. The WWF had its largest membership of 12,000 in Sydney.

    The mural illustrates major themes of Australian history that influenced the trade union as well as events that the union were involved in. The first panels include the first industrial campaigns in the 1850s, and continue through to the end of World War II. The mural reflects the concerns of a generation of waterside workers who had grown up during the 1930s Great Depression and lived through World War II.

    Originally conceived by Rod Shaw, the mural reflects an active cultural movement in the union. Shaw's concept was that the major themes of waterside history, labour history and Australian history portrayed in the mural would be woven like a tapestry. The mural was executed on the plaster walls of the union's canteen or lunchroom in paint, crayon, pastel and pencil, by a number of trained artists and waterside workers between 1953 and 1963. Various scenes were painted in monochrome sepia, with blank spaces left to be filled by colour cameos of significant people and events.

    The mural originally covered 11 different adjacent surfaces of varying shapes and sizes as it snaked around door frames and even a chimney piece in the canteen building. The building was situated at the heart of the waterside workers activity at 60 Sussex Street, Sydney, an area also known as the 'Hungry Mile'.

    A number of trained artists as well as amateurs were involved, including Rod Shaw, Harry McDonald, Evelyn Walters (Healy), Vi Campbell (Collings), Sonny Glynn, Pat Graham, Clem Millward , Harry Reed and Ralph Sawyer.

    During 1991 and 1992 the mural was removed, conserved and installed at the Australian National Maritime Museum.

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