Labour History

Completing the Order’s History Down Under: The Knights of Labor in Australia

Labour History (2016), 110, (1), 1–18.


The rise and fall of an American movement, the Noble and Holy Order of the Knights of Labor, in the Australian colonies between the 1880s and the 1900s is a neglected chapter in labour history. This unusual movement, at once a fraternal order, trade union, political grouping and co-operative enterprise, became the first truly national organisation of American workers. The Knights also became a global movement with branches in England, Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, Belgium, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia. Scholars have explored the parameters of the Order’s North American history in great detail. They have not given anywhere near the same level of scrutiny to the Order’s history in other parts of the world, however, and this discrepancy is particularly striking when it comes to their branches in Australia. Australian labour historians have never neglected the American ideas, individuals and institutions that helped to shape the early history of the Australian labour movement. Henry George, Edward Bellamy, Laurence Gronlund, Daniel De Leon and the Industrial Workers of the World, amongst others, all have major studies devoted to their activities and influence in Australia. The Australian Knights of Labor, by contrast, have been the subject of only several pages in a small selection of books and articles. This article provides their future historian with the necessary material to fill this gap in the scholarship and mount a proper study of their history. It provides a narrative of their activities in the various Australian colonies, so far as we can ascertain them, and draws attention to the many holes and unclear parts of that narrative. It then provides a series of questions to inform future research into the Australian Knights, compares with them with the histories of Knights in other non-American countries, and connects them to wider fields of historical scholarship, including imperial and global labour history. This article is, in other words, the first sustained study of the Australian Knights of Labor; it also provides the foundation from which a larger study might hopefully come.

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*The author would like to thankLabour History’stwo anonymous referees for their very helpful suggestions, and Elizabeth Wiedenheft for reading earlier drafts of this article. Google Scholar

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Author details

Parfitt, Steven