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19th century working life in photos

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Monday 21 July 2014 2:56pm


Working Lives c.1900: A photographic essay gives a rare and fascinating view into working class life and the nature of work in New Zealand’s first industrial suburbs.

“The selection of photographs focuses on Otago and the city of Dunedin for good reason,” says author Erik Olssen. “In the 1870s the city became the colony’s leading commercial, financial and industrial captital.”

Working Lives is a visual testament to the nature of work and a visual record of the dramatic transformation of the land: from wilderness to industrial and urban landscape.

The images portray the day-to-day circumstances of work in factories and shops; and the rituals that created cohesion among workers such as staff picnics or fellow workers’ weddings.

The values and habits of life that evolved among the working men and women of the industrial areas in Dunedin came to permeate the city and the entire country. A belief in the positive value of work and the dignity of labour lay at the heart of the new culture.

“Work played a crucial part in the individual life, and the way work was organised fundamentally influenced how society developed,” says Erik Olssen. “Our ideas about fairness and equality were shaped by this period – we are the products of this era.”

Erik Olssen ONZM, FRSNZ taught at Otago University for 33 years and was Professor of History 1984–2001. He has published over 70 articles and chapters on American and New Zealand history and has also written several books. For over 20 years he directed the multi-disciplinary Caversham Project, the country’s largest investigation of urban social structure.

The photographs, rich with fascinating detail, include spontaneous moments: working men resolving a dispute with a round of boxing, navvies at work and women on the job in factories. Most have never been published before.

Working Lives c.1900 goes beyond what words alone can do – giving us a visceral sense of what working life was truly like in 19th-century New Zealand.

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