Robert Pillans: The First Labor Mayor of Lithgow

Greg Patmore

In January 1911 the Australian Labor Party gained control of the Lithgow Council in regional New South Wales for the first time, winning eight out of twelve seats. The new Labor Mayor was Robert Pillans who was born in Scotland in 1860 and arrived in NSW in 1885. He was a keen Presbyterian and prominent Lithgow labour activist. Pillans was a miner at the Hoskins’s Lithgow Ironworks Tunnel Colliery, where he had served as lodge union delegate and became the Western Miners’ Union auditor in May 1911. He had also worked for Hoskins Ltd. at the Lithgow Ironworks, where he had become President of the defunct Eskbank Ironworkers’ Association. He was a foundation member of both the Lithgow Cooperative Society and the Hartley Eight Hour Demonstration Committee. Pillans also contested Hartley for the Labor Party in 1901 and 1904, narrowly losing pre-selection in 1907. He obtained his seat on Lithgow Council through a vacancy in May 1910.

The Labor Party’s campaign for Lithgow Council was a challenge to the elite of businessmen who had dominated the council since incorporation in 1889. He noted during the 1911 campaign that the council was a ‘set of cast-iron Tories who were too old and useless to take notice of anything but their own sweet wills’. The Labor Party campaign called for: voting based on universal suffrage rather than the payment of rates; preference to unionists in council employment; the resumption of land for a recreation reserve; and more public lavatories.

The new Labor-controlled Lithgow Council became involved in the 1911-12 Ironworks Strike, which was sparked by the dismissal of a union delegate at the Lithgow Ironworks Tunnel Colliery in July 1911. The strike spread to the Lithgow Ironworks and Steelworks and lasted until April 1912. Mayor Pillans participated in the Lithgow Ironworks Tunnel Colliery strike and was subsequently prosecuted by Hoskins under the Master and Servants Act and the Industrial Disputes Act. The strike ended with the reinstatement of the dismissed union delegate.

The Lithgow Council was generally sympathetic to the strikers. The council authorised inspections of the Lithgow Ironworks barracks for strikebreakers following union complaints concerning breaches of housing and health regulations. The Lithgow Council also permitted the Strike Defence Committee to hold a public meeting in Lithgow Park in December 1911 and allowed tables to be set up in Main Street for the signing of a petition calling for the release of imprisoned strikers. During the strike the Labor Party improved its position on Lithgow Council by gaining an additional alderman in an uncontested by-election.

Pillans continued to serve as Mayor of Lithgow until 1918 and served a further term as Mayor from 1923 to 1927. He was also a NSW Labor Member of the Legislative Council from 1925 to 1934. In 1928 Pillans ran against Ben Chifley in the pre-selection for the federal seat of Macquarie. The pre-selection campaign, which highlighted the rivalry between Labor supporters in the towns of Lithgow and Bathurst, resulted in Pillans losing to Chifley by 1,042 votes to 1,308. Chifley won the seat in the subsequent federal election. Pillans died at Lidcombe in August 1941.

Greg Patmore is editor of Labour History and Professor of Business and Labour History and Director of the Business and Labour History Group at the University of Sydney.