During the 1880s the beginnings of an important shift occurred within the language of Australian labour. The relatively benign ‘employer’ of Australian colonial folklore began his metamorphosis into the exploitative and villainous ‘capitalist’. The little analysed 1885-86 Melbourne Wharf Labourers’ strike was an important example and practical catalyst for such discourses. This article primarily seeks to redress the neglect of this important strike and the related shift in terminology. A close reading of this strike also explores the gendered, populist nature of labour politics and its Victorian specificities. Above all, the article seeks to historically ‘rescue’ the ‘villains’ — in particular the leading employer Bruce Smith — of early labour discourse. As the strike in question reveals, the pre-1890s shift from ‘employers to capitalists’ was uneven, and at times contradictory, yet of unquestionable long-term significance.