Trades Hall History

The Sydney Trades and Labour Council was formed in 1871 with plans to find a meeting place for Australia’s budding trade movement.


What is Trades Hall?

A Trades Hall would “bring us into closer contact, by which means we would have a better opportunity of understanding each other’s wants, and of cultivating that feeling of fellowship which is at all times desirable”. It is in this spirit that Trades Hall continues today – as a meeting place for unionists, workers and activists who seek to understand each other and improve conditions for all. Trades Hall as it stands today, began with just £3.00. The Trades Hall Committee quickly secured £6,000 from the conservative government and an offer of land near Circular Quay. But the site was deemed unsuitable as there was no hotel on adjacent land, which would serve alcohol. The Temperance Movement was at its peak in Sydney, and Trades Hall prohibited alcohol for many years, saying it was the source of ruin for many workers. Eventually, a block on the corner of Goulburn and Dixon Street, as suggested by Henry Copeland MLA, was settled on for a Trades and Industrial Hall and Literary Institute Association of Sydney.

Original union shareholders included the Ironmoulders’, Shipwrights, Bricklayers, Boilermakers, Stonemasons, Journeymen Tailors, Carpenters and Joiners, Typographers, Plumbers, Gas Fitters, Ironworkers, Coachmakers’, Journeymen Farriers, Drapers, Coopers and Saddle, Harness and Collar Makers. Construction began in 1888, and despite weathering an economic depression and various hurdles, Hon. Jacob Garrard officially opened the Trades Hall in 1895. A boost in union membership and saw the association purchase adjacent land in 1902 and 1907. The Hall was extended in 1909, and the auditorium was completed in 1917.

The literary and adult education function also developed in this period as the reading room on the ground floor and barbers’ shop were central to the day’s discussions and gossip. Over 40 newspapers were available, and the reading room’s Australian Red Cedar bookcases completed in 1914 remain today. In 1925 the Labor Council of NSW gained a radio licence and the new station, later known as 2KY, began broadcasting from the tower room.The Labor Council became a neighbour, at 377-383 Sussex street with the buildings eventually connected by a corridor that was once the banner room. Trades Hall became subject to a Heritage Preservation Order in 1983. Following the sale of 2KY in 2001, Trades Hall underwent restoration and refurbishment. It reopened with a new central atrium in November 2005.  

The Trades Hall building architecture

The origin of the Trades Hall building type lies in the English Guild Hall, a building type dating from the Middle Ages, when individual trades established guilds to protect their profession. Because Australian Trades Halls were not built until the late nineteenth century, their architectural styles were generally High Victorian in character, and not in the Georgian style of their earlier counterparts in Scotland. The Sydney Trades Hall was designed in the Victorian Commercial Italianate style, a particular form of the Italianate developed for use on commercial buildings in Great Britain and the colonies.


The Auditorium

Because the pressure for land in Sydney, it is the only multi-storied Trades Hall constructed in Australia. The design for the building arose from an architectural competition.  The winner of the competition was John Smedley, with a design he titled “Pro Bono Publico” – For the Public Good. Externally the building is of load bearing masonry construction, with sandstone detailing and face brickwork to the Goulburn and Dixon Street facades. Internally the construction is also load bearing masonry, with plaster encased steel beams providing clear spans in all the rooms, which in turn support timber floor joists. All stages of the building contained lodge room, halls and banquet rooms, designed to provide meeting spaces for trades and union related activities. was provided at the northern end of the ground floor.

This room was refurbished as part of the 2005 redevelopment works. any original internal architectural features of the building remain and have been preserved and conserved as part of these works.  These include the stairwells; the lift; toilets in the basement and on other floors; early tenant signage; marbling to columns and pilasters in the corridors and foyers; floor and wall tiling at ground floor entries; glass fanlights over doorways; glass bookcases in the Library; plaster ceiling detailing in many rooms including the Auditorium, and the pressed metal ceiling in the foyer of level 3.

Atrium and Sussex St entrance

In 2001 it was proposed by the Labor Council of NSW to redevelop the site to provide modern office and retail space for use by the Labor Council as well as other tenants.  A defining characteristic of the Trades Hall building was the series of lightwells common to all stages of the building that provided natural light to the interiors.  The refurbishment continued this design principle with the construction of a glass roofed atrium at the rear of the building.  Respecting the heritage significance of the original building was paramount. The Sydney Trades Hall, as the centre of the Trade Union Movement of NSW is recognised by the State Heritage Register as an item of state significance.  It is one of two major such buildings in Australia, the other being the older and larger Melbourne Trades Hall. 

The Sydney Trades Hall is a fine example of a High Victorian building, which retains many of its decorative features intact.  The significance of the building lies primarily in the rarity of the overall form, its use and its original internal planning that reflects the range of intended uses, and in the range of activities that have occurred within the building.  This significance is not just contained in the built fabric, it also rests with the moveable collection, in particular the collection of union banners.

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Unions NSW is the peak body for unions in NSW. Unions NSW organises, advocates and campaigns in NSW to ensure every worker gets a fair go.
Unions NSW began as the Trades and Labor Council of Sydney in 1871. We are proud of our role in making NSW a fairer and more prosperous place for working men and women to live.