Collingwood Notables Database
Helen Lothan Robertson
1848 - 1937
Trade unionist, tailoress
Scottish-born Helen Bigg landed in Australia in December 1852 as an assisted immigrant with her parents and would live in Collingwood for over 80 years. At the age of 14 she began working as a seamstress and came to be regarded as a heroine of female trade unionism, honoured in the Trades Hall. She was a prominent member of the Tailoresses’ Association and a member of the foundation committee of the Female Operatives’ Hall constructed at the Trades Hall. From 1894 she became a long-standing member of the Eight Hours’ Committee, and following the formation of the Federated Clothing Trades Union in 1907 she was a member of the Victorian branch executive.
What sort of background drew this young woman to a prominent role in the rise of women’s unionism? Her father was a joiner and carpenter, and the little family was living in Glasgow when they decided to make their momentous voyage. Scotland was experiencing semi-destitution among agricultural workers as a result of the Highland Clearances, as well as overpopulation, and the financial support from the British and Australian governments was an enticement to immigration that was magnified after the 1851 discovery of gold. When the Bigg family (sometimes transcribed Biggs) set sail from Liverpool in August 1852, they were the odd ones out, not because of their nationality but because Joseph was a skilled tradesman, and both he and his wife Elizabeth were literate. The ship was largely filled with Scottish agricultural labourers and shepherds, plus a smattering of people from Somerset and Ireland.
If the couple set sail with high hopes for a bright future, there must have been many times when they regretted their choice, and the first time would have been after only a few weeks on board when typhus broke out on the Ticonderoga. Their voyage went down in history as an overcrowded and disastrous journey with one hundred deaths. The Point Nepean quarantine station was set up to contain the remaining passengers, more of whom died after landing. Given that many of the deaths were children, they must have been relieved that Helen survived and that a little brother, William, was born in 1853. However a daughter and son died at the age of one month in January 1856 and February 1857 respectively.
Whether the Bigg family first spent a little time on the goldfields (as many of the agricultural labourers and shepherds would have been planning) or settled in 1853 in Collingwood where Joseph’s brother William, also a joiner, was living, is not known, but they were definitely living in Collingwood by 1856. The Biggs might have gone to a new country on the other side of the world, but Collingwood in the 1850s was a community of immigrants, and of these a very substantial proportion were from Scotland. In the strongly networked and face-to-face society of the mid-nineteenth century, new arrivals connected with fellow countrymen through localised and densely built neighbourhoods, trade and business connections, shopping, church attendance, and schools. St George’s Presbyterian Church was located just a few blocks away in Wellington Street. Joseph also joined the Britannia Lodge of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, rising to the rank of Noble Father and Grand Master. Helen would also have seen her father taking a leadership role in their neighbourhood when he and Duncan McFarlane attended a meeting of the Collingwood Council Local Board of Health on behalf of 91 residents in the Glasshouse Road area, to lodge a petition regarding the noxious effluvia from the Rae Dickson and Company candle works which operated in the former glassworks, the source of their street’s name.
The Bigg family would remain residents of this small neighbourhood for many decades, the adult children and grandchildren moving to streets near Joseph and Elizabeth’s weatherboard house in Glasshouse Road. The closeness of the extended family is also indicated by the traditional naming patterns, with first names of grandparents, parents, uncles and aunts being re-used, as well as maiden names as middle names, and the fact that Joseph Bigg, contractor, is mentioned in Family notices, thus highlighting his status as paterfamilias.
Helen was educated and learned to write a fine flowing hand, but where? One possibility, located a stone’s throw from the Bigg’s house, is the Peel Street Free Presbyterian School which was opened in 1856 by the rambunctious young Scot John Grierson Broadfoot (though Helen would have been taught by the lady assistants). But the 1850s and early 1860s also saw the establishment of a plethora of little private schools, many of which were conveniently located in Wellington Street. See this map for the location of schools.
In the early 1860s Helen began work as a seamstress; in April 1870 she and James Robertson, a Cupar-born Scottish carpenter, were married by the Rev William Main, the minister of St George’s. The early years of the marriage were to bring much heartache as the three eldest children died. Their second daughter died within a year; then the period 1875 – 1876 witnessed Melbourne’s worst epidemic of scarlet fever, a disease which primarily affects children, and was probably the cause of the death of Elizabeth and Joseph on 14 September 1875. A further three children, survived, the last born in 1881.
Despite her family responsibilities, and the generally self-effacing role of women at the time, in 1874 Helen and a small group of activists organised their fellow workers during the campaign for factory regulation. The clothing trade benefited from the prevailing philosophy of Protectionism, which ensured a tariff against ‘cheap imports’, but when demand subsided or local labour was temporarily in surplus, manufacturers lowered the operatives’ piece-rate. The proportion of female factory hands was high in the clothing industry but from the late 1870s there was also a rapid increase in the number of female pieceworkers employed outside the factory – referred to as ‘sweating’. In December 1882 women employed at Beath, Schiess were told their piece rates were to be further reduced, and walked out (initially at the Flinders Street factory but later joined by women at the Collingwood factory). At a meeting they advocated the formation of the Tailoresses Union.
While David Beath lived in splendour at Ivy Grange in Kew, his workers, especially women on their lower salaries, struggled to make a decent living. They often took work to complete at home at the end of their shift. The strike continued in 1883 and there was considerable moral and financial support from the press and public opinion when the miserable working conditions were exposed, although The Argus and its readers were inclined to ask why the ‘girls’ didn’t go into respectable domestic service instead.
While secondary sources tend to credit Helen with a leadership role in the 1882-83 strike, there is no evidence of this. Nor that she worked at Beath, Schiess, despite the Collingwood location of their 1882 factory. In fact we do not know where she was working at that time, and she may well have been boycotted by clothing factories in response to her activism, and therefore limited to working from home.
Eventually the tailoresses obtained an improved log of wages and conditions. Later in the 1880s women’s involvement in unionism was acknowledged with the building of a special Female Operatives Hall next to the Trades Hall. But in reality the new rates were often evaded, and the prevalence of ‘sweating’ increased. In the early 1890s the Victorian banking collapse and economic depression severely undermined any advances in pay-rates and conditions and the Tailoresses’ Union lost many members.
Helen’s personal life also faced a difficult stretch in the 1890s. A niece died in 1891, followed by Helen’s father in 1892. Although he owned three houses in Glasshouse Street, by the time his expenses and debts were paid Helen and her three brothers received about £13 each. In 1896 another niece died, and Helen’s husband James who had been suffering a lengthy illness was diagnosed with stomach cancer. By this time the children were old enough to be contributing to the family income as tailoresses and carpenter, and James managed to purchase a house at 64 Rupert Street Collingwood with a mortgage from the Langridge Building Society. Unfortunately this could not be sustained and by 1901 the family were renting 3 Montague Street where James died at the age of 69. Within a year or two Helen had moved around the corner to 61 Rupert Street, where her son John George Robertson and daughter-in-law Gertrude later joined her.
Throughout this time Helen continued her work with the union, and joined the Eight Hours’ Committee in 1894. She was one of two delegates of the Tailoresses’ Union on the Trades Hall Council and was elected a member of the executive in December 1900. In 1907 when the Federated Clothing Trades Union absorbed the Tailoresses’ Association she continued as a member of the Victorian branch executive until 1925 and served a term as vice-president. Helen began to withdraw from the public sphere in the late 1920s and was living with her daughter Helen Buchanan on the other side of Rupert Street at the time of her death in 1937, aged 89.
Women are rarely immortalised in public sculptures, so it is an outstanding tribute to this true Collingwood heroine that a relief sculpture commemorating her has recently been installed in the Trades Hall. (The Female Operatives Hall was demolished in 1960).
Helen’s residence in Rupert Street along with the neighbouring house on each side has been for some years an employer of female labour. What would Helen have thought of her home as a brothel? No doubt she would have encouraged the women to join a union to ensure safe working conditions and a fair rate of pay.
61 Rupert Street (middle of three) in 2012
|Birth Date||Birth Place|
|Spouse Name||Date of Marriage||Children|
|James Stuart (sometimes transcribed as Stewart) Robertson, 1832 - 20 May 1901||15 April 1870||Elizabeth Baird, 1871 - 14 September 1875; Helen Stuart, 1873 - 1873 Joseph Bigg, 1874 – 14 September 1875; Helen Bigg, 1876; Jessie Stuart, 1878 - 19??; John George, 1881 – 1961.|
|Home Street||Home City||Status of Building|
|14 Glasshouse Road||Collingwood||Demolished|
|216 Wellington Street||Collingwood||Demolished|
|64 Rupert Street||Collingwood||Demolished|
|3 Montague Street||Collingwood||Demolished|
|61 Rupert Street||Collingwood||Extant|
|62 Rupert Street||Collingwood||Demolished|
|St George's Presbyterian Church, Collingwood|
|Death Date||Death Place||Cemetery|
|22 June 1937||62 Rupert Street Collingwood||Melbourne General Cemetery|
Please note that a number of secondary sources, including the Australian Dictionary of Biography, are inaccurate in certain significant details.
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