At the edge of Chinatown is the Sydney Trades Hall, a Victorian-era office building, four storeys high, with an octagonal tower jutting from the corner like a lantern. When it opened in 1895, this area was near the wharves, railyards, and industrial areas on the city’s fringe, areas that employed many of the workers who belonged to the trade unions who had offices inside the building.
On the main staircase there’s a list of the union offices that once were found within Trades Hall. It’s an index of the city’s past occupations, among them bread carters, sailmakers, glass bottle makers, food preservers, Pyrmont Sugar Workers, milk and ice carters. The building would have been a lively place, with all of these offices, a literary institute library, and nightly social activities, concerts and dances and meetings.
Now the building is part-offices, part-museum, after being refurbished in the 2000s. I’ve come on a tour as part of Sydney Open, the annual weekend on which buildings of historical and architectural interest are open to the public. On the ground floor I walk in past an old, wooden elevator with a banner for the Lift Attendant union displayed inside it. There are other such banners hanging in the nearby hallway, for cleaners and for watchmen, and a framed painted list of offices, with a delicate painted hand pointing upstairs.
The building houses objects related to its history: the signs that once hung in the hallways, the banners that unions used in marches and processions, and the certificates and banners used by the unions to signify or reward membership. The large painted banners are ornate and symbolic, decorated with gold leaf.
Their painter was Edgar Whitbread, who worked for decades, well into his 70s, at a small studio in the glass-domed Victoria Arcade. His name can be seen printed modestly at the base of these banners, which were once used in the processions and demonstrations that would bring thousands of people onto the city’s streets. Their detail and meticulous craftsmanship are surprising to the contemporary eye, and we can imagine them held aloft, as the workers they represented marched with them.
It was in the 1960s, the heritage officer leading the tour tells us, when the building was under threat of demolition, that thought was given to whether the banners should be preserved. That they were owes much to the Trades Hall secretary, Lorna Morrison, who advocated for their restoration. The banner had been stored in a part of the building that was at the time opened up as a walkway between the original building and the new Labour Council building behind it, a grey office block with painted advertisements for the on-site broadcaster, 2KY radio, on it.
Other objects on display, he said, were found piled up in the basement during the refurbishment in the 2000s. These objects now tell the story of the building, but also of the world of work, and how Sydney’s workers have shaped the city.