Shipwrights Union Card issued to Thomas Cleave; 1883; 2014.04


Port Macquarie Museum


Shipwrights Union Card issued to Thomas Cleave

About this object

This Shipwrights Provident Union Card was issued to Thomas Cleave, a Shipwright who worked at the Hamilton (now Hibbard) shipyards and slipway on the Hastings River near Port Macquarie between 1884 and 1916.

The Sydney Shipwrights Association was formed in 1829 and is believed to have been the first trade society formed in NSW. The Sydney Shipwrights Association later widened its membership to other tradesmen involved in the shipbuilding industry and became the Federated Shipwrights’ and Ship Constructors’ Association of Australia in 1862. The Shipwrights Provident Union was also instituted in 1862, on 1 October. It was a fund to support the welfare of injured workers and their families and carried the motto “United We Stand….. Divided We Fall”

The card is aesthetically pleasing with a symmetrical design featuring heraldry and a crest conveying an association with England. The crest is supported by scrolls containing the motto, and with English oak leaves on one side and Australian gum leaves on the other. It also includes drawn pictures of the Australian emu and kangaroo, ships and flags, and a variety of shipwrights’ and carpenters’ tools of trade.

Membership of a trade union was not essential for everyone seeking employment in the latter part of the 19th century, but it appears that, for skilled tradesmen such as shipwrights, preference may have been given to union members, and possibly because of the hazards and dangers associated with ship building yards and docks during the nineteenth century, it was advisable for all to also join a ‘provident union’ for the protection of themselves and their families.

Thomas Cleave arrived in Australia in 1881, so maybe it was necessary for him to join the union in order to obtain suitable employment in Sydney at that time, or perhaps he had experienced unfavorable working conditions as a young boy and as a shipwright in England, and was already aware of the changes and improvements that could be made by union members if they all joined together.

However it seems that union membership was either not a concern for workers in Port Macquarie, or that there were insufficient experienced shipwrights in the town in 1884. In March of that year, John Hibbard a prominent businessman and owner of the Hamilton timber mill and slipway wrote to Thomas seeking his assistance in re-floating the coastal steamer, the Richmond which was aground on rocks in the Hastings River near the entrance to Port Macquarie. Mr Hibbard told Thomas that he would “give constant employment at the wages you stated, £2.15.00 per week, but we shall require you at once.”

Early attempts to re-float the Richmond using local personnel had been unsuccessful, and it appears that Thomas's reputation as a shipwright with first class skills and an excellent work ethic, were the qualities Mr Hibbard needed in order to raise the stranded steamer. Thomas led a team of four shipwrights and faced many challenges trying to save the ship, but he too was unsuccessful and the steamer remains to this day, buried in sand under Port Macquarie’s southern breakwall.

Thomas, however, stayed in Port Macquarie, and with his wife and four girls he made his home at Blackman's Point on the northern side of the Hastings River. He continued to work for the Hibbard family as a shipwright at the Hamilton shipyards and slipway until his death in 1916.

The Union Card, which is in excellent original condition, is a rare item related to the early development of the Union movement in NSW, and to the tradesmen involved in the shipping industry where there were ever increasing hazards due to the introduction of new technology and changing practices in both the shipyards and dry docks.

Margaret Blight
26 July 2014

Date Made


Medium and Materials



120mmL, 90mmW

Object Type

Identity cards

Object number


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