Remembering ‘Honest’ Jim McGowen

Lucy Taksa

I would like to begin by acknowledging the traditional owners and custodians of the land on which we are meeting tonight, the Gadigal clan of the Eora nation and to pay my respects to their elders, past and present. I would also like to acknowledge all of the migrants who have made a contribution to this land, including James Taylor Sinclair McGowcn, who arrived in Melbourne in early September 1855, three weeks after he was born at sea during his family’s journey from England. Following the 1910 election at which the vote for Labor reached 48.9% and the number of Labor seats grew to 46 out of 90, Jim McGowen became the Premier and Treasurer of NSW.  In Bede Nairn’s view, McGowen’s leadership played an important part in securing this victory because he ‘assured voters that progress with the party would be judicious and safe.’1

As the Daily Telegraph reflected, there could be no contest over McGowen’s accession to the premiership. He had been elected to the NSW Parliament on six occasions and he had ‘the goodwill and confidence of his fellow-Laborites’ because his ‘straight forwardness and honesty of purpose’ were unassailable.2 I first came across McGowen in my research on the history of the Eveleigh railway workshops. He was one of twenty five Eveleigh workers who became Labor politicians in our State and Federal Parliaments after 1891. He was once of three who became Premiers of NSW, the other two being Sir William McKell and Joe Cahill. All these men contributed to the making of Labor-in-politics. Others Eveleigh workers made a less direct contribution. A few worthy of mention include: Paul Keating’s grandfather, William P. Keating, William’s father-in-law, Edward Harrington, Bob Carr’s father, Edward, and John Robertson’s father also did his time there.3 Still other Eveleigh workers had an impact on Labor politics by being members of the Party or through their unions. This is not the place to go into their role and impact, although I would suggest to you that their histories make the Eveleigh workshops site one of the most significant for our labour heritage.

Unfortunately, like the life and contribution of Jim McGowen, its significance has not adequately been recognised by the labour movement, the Party or any of the government authorities responsible for the site and its heritage. In the twenty years since the site’s traditional operations were terminated little funding has been provided by the NSW Government to make the site’s history, and more importantly its Labor heritage accessible to the broader community. The little funding that has been allocated for ‘interpretation’ has focused on celebratory activities, signs on machines and plaques. Whereas the Gallop Labor Government in Western Australia supported the construction of a Workers’ Wall at the Midland workshops after I put the proposal to the Midland Redevelopment Authority nearly ten years ago, no similar support has been forthcoming here in Sydney. Eveleigh’s role in the evolution of our State’s Labor/labour heritage has been effectively buried.

For this reason, tonight’s event is a momentous one and I would like to thank the organisers for giving me an opportunity to sketch out and celebrate McGowen’s contribution, which was certainly not limited to his short tenure as Premier. I think it is particularly fitting that I am talking to you about Jim McGowen here in Trades Hall because he was a strong advocate of its construction. As a result of his enthusiasm, he was elected as the Boilermarkers’ Union delegate to the Trades Hall committee in December 1884 and at a meeting of the Union’s Executive in October 1885, he explained that a Trades Hall was worthy of support because it would help to overcome ‘one of the greatest curses of the working classes’, notably the need to hold union meetings in pubs.4 For the next few years he was active in raising funds for the project and he even bought shares in his own right. This was not the only way he promoted the interests of working people.

In fact, McGowen’s commitment to the cause of labour can be traced back to 1873, when he joined the newly formed United Society of Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders of NSW and became its secretary not long afterwards at the age of 18. Ten years later, in 1884, he represented the Union at the Second Inter- Colonial Trades Union Congress and in 1885 he was its delegate to the Labor Council. By 1888 he had become President of both his Union and the Eight Hour Day Demonstration Committee, while working as a boilermaker at the Eveleigh railway workshops. Soon afterwards, in 1891, he was among the thirty-five labour candidates elected to the NSW parliament, and from that time until his death he remained faithful to labour’s cause, despite his support for conscription in 1916.

As I see it, McGowen played a pivotal role in ensuring the survival of labour-in-politics in the early 1890s, which deserves celebration as much as his twenty-two uninterrupted years as leader of NSW Labor, his nearly three years as the first Labor Premier of NSW and his thirty-one years in the NSW Parliament. But most importantly I want to pay tribute to what he stood for and how he attempted and largely succeeded in translating his principles into positive outcomes for Labor and the working people it represented. Now I am not suggesting that he was perfect as a person or as a Labor politician. He was not. But I do want to suggest that his achievements provided the bedrock for Labor in this country as many contemporaries recognised. George Black, who entered Parliament alongside McGowen in 1891, wrote that McGowen’s ‘unfailing truth and loyalty, were a tower of strength to the labour movement’ and his ‘rugged honesty and personal integrity’ made him the natural choice as party leader in 1894.

On 16 March 1911, the conservative Melbourne Punch admitted that ‘no man’s history’ was ‘more bound up in the history of the labour (sic) party’, than McGowen’s.5 Two years later, soon after McGowen had resigned as Premier in June 1913, William Holman commented that there were no other cases ‘on record of a man who, being elected as leader of a new movement’ continued in that role ‘until that movement became the dominant party of the day’.6 In March 1917, the boilermakers and shipbuilders society held a smoke concert to honour him and to recognise that ‘the prominent position of labour to-day had been obtained mainly through’ his instrumentality’. This recognition occurred despite the fact that five months previously McGowen’s endorsement as the Labor candidate for the forthcoming 1917 election had been cancelled by the Redfern Political Labor league, which instead nominated William McKell, who like McGowen had been a boilermaker at Eveleigh. Two years later, in 1919, the Freeman’s Journal stressed that McGowen ‘would carry the name ‘honest Jim’, which stood for ‘consistency, sanity and political honesty’, with him ‘to the grave’.7 Following his death on 7 April 1922 at the age of 67, Labor Premier Dooley said McGowen’s ‘labour principles were always sound’ and his integrity and honesty’ were never in doubt.8 At the unveiling of a cenotaph in his memory in 1923, William Hughes commented that ‘there was not a great reform on the statute books of this country – no great achievement made by industrial labour – that had not its foundation in some act or support of Mr McGowen … when he took the labour party in hand it was nothing: when he left it it was everything’. Here, too, the President of the Syrian Maronite association acclaimed McGowen’s efforts on behalf of his community by saying that ‘as long as there was a Syrian resident in’ NSW, McGowen’s memory ‘would be handed down from generation to generation.9 Clearly this did not happen among the Maronites of Redfern or in the annals of the labour movement.

I have struggled to understand and explain why he was forgotten and my views on this can be found in my chapter on McGowen in the book on the Premiers of NSW For now, however, I want to describe a number of things McGowen did in the years before his election as a way of showing you that the acclaim he received was highly deserved and not simply a matter of spin. Contrary to the views of some scholars, McGowen’s road into labour politics was not due solely to the Maritime Strike, which began on his birthday in 1890. Rather it can be traced to his involvement with the labour movement, which began in 1873 when he joined the newly formed united society of boilermakers and iron shipbuilders of NSW As I noted earlier, he became its Secretary as well as holding numerous other positions, while working as a boilermarker first at the NSW Redfern railway workshops from 1875 and the Eveleigh workshops from 1887 where he helped to gain a closed shop on behalf of his union.10 As the Melbourne Punch saw it rather disparagingly in 1911, once the ‘idea of unionism’ was implanted in McGowen’s ‘slow brain’, it was there to stay and his fidelity to this ideal provided the force which raised him to the highest office of the state.11By June 1891, McGowen and the Labour Council’s President, WHo Sharp, had been selected as candidates for Parliament by the Redfern labour electoral league. And at 36 years of age he was one of the thirty five labour candidates elected in the 1891 election but unlike many others who won office at this time, McGowen would remain committed to union principles. As Nairn informs us, these men were political novices who responded to their lack of political experience by drawing on trade union traditions.12

At the first caucus meeting of the new Labor party, George Black forrnalised this transfer of union practice to the political arena by moving the following motion:

(A) that in order to secure the solidarity of the Labor party, only those will be allowed to assist at its private deliberations who are pledged to vote in the house as a majority of the party, sitting in caucus, has determined; (B) therefore, we the undersigned, in proof of our determination to vote as a majority of the party may agree on all occasions considered of such importance as to necessitate party deliberation, have hereto affixed our names.13

Later known as the pledge, this motion was seconded by McGowen, and adopted with minor changes. From this point it was expected that endorsed Labour Electoral League candidates would sign the pledge, support the platform, sit on the cross benches in parliament and vote in accordance with the majority regardless of personal views. 1 Infortunarely, this was easier said than done because of the division over protectionism versus free trade.14

Eight Labor members who had campaigned as protectionists during the election, immediately refused to sign the pledge and although a compromise was reached it did not produce an adequate solution to the problem, as became patently clear when the Protectionist Mp, H. Copeland, put a motion in the parliament calling for duties to be imposed on imported commodities.15 McGowen’s speech in response was a sermon calling for a united front. He stressed:

Our unions have taught us to sink our individuality. When we formed the labour party we clearly indicated that if any legislation was to be enacted for the good of those we have the honor to represent, it would have to be by every one of us being prepared to sink our individuality for the good of the collective body,16

For McGowen, an ardent protectionist, this had immense personal implications. As he had informed the voters of Redfern in 1891, ‘I am more loyal to the cause of labour than I am to the cause of protection, and, if you think me worthy, I will enter the legislative assembly without considering myself as belonging to any fiscal party’. His commitment was put to the test a few months later when the leader of the protectionists moved a censure motion against the government. Again McGowen responded in accordance with a decision taken by the party’s caucus by voting with the free traders.

His commitment to the principles of loyalty and solidarity not only re-affirmed the caucus system but also ensured the survival of the Labor party. In Nairn’s words, ‘McGowen’s behaviour stood out like a beacon of unity’. 17It was on this basis that he became the Leader of the solidarity grouping after the 1894 election. From this time McGowen fought for ‘democratic’ legislation,18 which he believed was the best means ‘to turn this never-ending grind for a bare existence into something brighter – something more beautiful – something more worthy to live for’. Its ultimate aim was to ‘render life easy and comfortable’ for ‘all men and women”.19 For this reason, McGowen was a strong advocate of shorter working hours and early closing,20 as well as such social reforms as old age and invalid pensions,21 and also state enterprises. His rationale for this stand was quite plain. Public works and services and state enterprises ensured that the people would not be at the mercy of monopolists and syndicates’. They also created jobs, and gave workers better conditions, better pay and shorter hours.22

One of the most important reforms championed by McGowen centred on extending democratic rights and entitlements to working people. ‘In the interests of democracy’ and ‘to give the poor man the best possible chance upon the polling day’, he advocated the closure of pubs ‘during polling hours’,23 and the extension of polling hours until 7 pm to ensure that people could vote after work.24 To a large extent, he and other Labor parliamentarians translated their labour ideals into practical outcomes by supporting governments that included Labor’s planks in their legislative programmes.25 In the lead up to the 1901 state election, he warned that Labor would only support the next government if it introduced compulsory arbitration and extended the franchise to women and within two years both these two planks of Labor’s fighting platform were enacted.26 In 1902, he also spoke vehemently against an amendment that proposed gender segregated polling booths because he thought it undermined the ‘sale object’ of extending the franchise to women, which was to give them ‘the same power of voting … as was given to men’.27

Despite his prominence in parliament, McGowen maintained a high profile in the localities of south Sydney, where he spoke at public meetings and exhorted workers ‘to keep their Labor leagues alive and active in order to ensure representation in parliament’. Describing the launch of Labor’s election campaign in May 1904 at the Redfern town hall, which was overwhelmed by hundreds of people, the Worker newspaper commented that the people had, ‘great faith in Jim and what he says is gospel’.28At this election, twenty five Labor politicians were elected and the party became the’ official opposition. By the 1907s election, it became a ‘formidable electoral opponent for the liberal government’ with thirty-two men elected to parliament. These results were dwarfed by the success of 1910.

As Premier, McGowen’s commitment extended beyond the interests of urban workers. As he told the country press association in 1910:

We will try to mete out the same treatment to all sections of the. community whether in the metropolis or in the interior. I believe that with equity and justice to all … and privileges to none, we may, by fair conditions and increased opportunities, make progress by leaps and bounds … 29

McGowen’s efforts to support the: interests of different groups within the state did not undermine his commitment to his original values and goals. But he did face some major problems when he became Premier.

In the first place, his government only had a miniscule majority of two in the lower house, At times this was reduced to one and even none, when death and resignations intervened.  As George Black put it, this state of affairs made the first NSW labour ministry’s existence precarious and its career ‘troublous’, particularly since it gave the legislative council a rationale for defeating the government’s reform bills.30 Even so, in its first eighteen months in office, McGowen’s government did manage to implement some major reforms, It launched a public works program and established a state brickyard, timber yard and metal quarries, It introduced legislation for state coal mines and ‘for electoral reform to allow absentee voting and to extend voting hours’, Its Income Tax Act was progressive and its Industrial Arbitration Act of 1912 addressed issues that had been raised by unions and the Labor council. It also made provisions for cheap housing and educational opportunities for working class people, By introducing the Bursary Endowment Act and the University (Amendment) Act.31 It increased the regulation of apprenticeship and appointed a royal commission into this issue, as well as into Sydney’s food supply, the shortage of labour and the manufacture of locomotives.32 Such inquiries demonstrated that the government was receptive to labour movement concerns at least initially.

Subsequent differences, and McGowen’s absence for six months from March 1911, when he sailed to the UK to attend the coronation of King George V; enabled George Black to unleash a ‘peaceful mutiny’ at a meeting of the parliamentary party’s caucus on 23 October 1912, which called for Holman to replace McGowen, As a member of what the Sydney Mail called the ‘old school’ of ‘genuine labour movement’ pioneers, McGowen was clearly no match for a showman like Holman.33Despite his resignation as premier and leader of the Labor party in June 1913, McGowen remained in parliament as minister for labour and industry in Holman’s cabinet.

In 1916, however, he was expelled from the party for supporting the conscription referendum in contravention of Labor party policy.34 McGowen was devastated, with two sons at the front, one of who had been killed, he had mistakenly believed that he could follow his conscience on the issue, As he told the NSW Political Labour League, ‘I had hoped that a compromise would have been effected’, particularly ‘in my case after the many years I have been connected with the labour movement and the trades unions’ 35 But as the Freeman’s fournal concluded, ‘politics, like war is merciless and old friendships do not influence the ballot box’.36 When he stood as an independent in the 1917 election he stressed, ‘I am as true a labour man as I ever was, and happen what may, I will die true to the principles of a lifetime’.37Ironically, McGowen was nominated by Holman to the legislative council where he remained until his death, His commitment to and achievements for the labour movement cannot be disputed, Although many journalists of his day questioned his oratory and ‘capacity, this self-­educated man ensured party unity and support for ordinary men and women for most of his time in politics and for this he deserves our recognition and acclaim.

This is an edited extract of Professor Lucy Taksa’s address to the NSW ALP’s Central Policy Branch meeting, ‘100 Years of Labor Government’, held at the Trades Hall Auditorium, 15 November: It is also based on: Lucy Taksa (2006) James Sinclair Taylor McGowen’, in David Clune and Ken Turner (eds), The Premiers of New South Wales, volume 2, 1901-2006, Federation Press, Sydney, pp, 93-116


  1. Raymond Markey, In Case of Oppression: The Life and Times of the Labor Council of New South Wales, Pluto  Press, Sydney, 1994, p. 145; Ross McMullin, The Light on the Hill: The Australian Labor Party, 1891-1991, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 1991, p. 56; H.V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1954, pp. 154 and 177; ; Bede Nairn, ‘McGowen, James Sinclair Taylor (1855-1922)’, in Bede Nairn and Geoffrey Serle (eds), Australian Dictionary of Biography, vol. 10, 1891-1939, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1986, p. 274; Michael Hogan, ‘1907’, and ‘1910’, in Hogan and Clune (eds), The People’s Choice, p. 69, pp. 84-86, pp. 114-115.
  2. Daily Telegraph, 22 October 1910, p. 13.
  3. This information has been obtained from genealogical research conducted by Perry MacIntyre and Bob Carr and John Robertson.
  4. Desmond Martin Moore, ‘McGowen, the Boilermakers’ Society and the Birth of the Labor Party’, Unpublished Paper, University of Sydney, 1974, p. 2 (courtesy Mitchell Library).
  5. Melbourne Punch, 16 March 1911.
  6. Sydney Morning Herald (hereafter SMH), 13 June 1913, p.9
  7. Freeman’s Journal (hereafter FJ), 7 August 1919, p. 15.
  8. Australian Worker (hereafter AW), 12 April 1922, p. 5.
  9. SMH, 12/11/1923, p. 11.
  10. Bede Nairn, Civilising Capitalism: The Beginnings of the Australian Labor Party, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1989, p. 5.
  11. MP, 16 March 1911, pp. 2-3.
  12. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism, pp. 74-5.
  13. George Black, A History of the NSW Labor Party From Conception until 1917, Sydney, n.d., vol. 2, p. 13.
  14. Raymond Markey, The Making of the Labor Party in New South Wales, 1880-1900, NSW University Press, Sydney, 1988, pp. 176 and p. 179; McMullin, Light on the Hill, p. 11.
  15. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism, p. 79;
  16. NSW Legislative Assembly, Parliamentary Debates (hereafter PD), vol. 79, 15 August 1895, p. 1315.
  17. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism, pp. 85-6; PD, vol. 79, 15 August 1895, p. 131.
  18. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism, pp. 131 and 154.
  19. PD, vol. 53, 1 September 1891, p. 1317.
  20. Suburban Times, 22 June 1899, p. 3.
  21. Nairn, ‘McGowen’, p. 273; Moore, ‘McGowen’, p. 5.
  22. Suburban Times, 28 January 1899, p. 3; PD, vol. 5, 5 June 1902, p. 163.
  23. PD, vol. 53, 1 September 1891, p. 1443.
  24. PD, vol. 53, 10 September 1891, p. 1651.
  25. W.G. Spence, Australia‘s Awakening: Thirty Years in the Life of an Australian Agitator, The Worker Trustees, Sydney, 1909, pp. 232 and 240.
  26. Joan Rydon, R.N. Spann & Helen Nelson, New South Wales Politics, 190-1917, NSW Parliament and Department of Government, University of Sydney, Sydney, 1996, p. 4.
  27. PD, 2nd series, vol. 9, 18 December 1902, pp. 5788 and 5790.
  28. The Worker, 14 May 1904, p. 1.
  29. SMH, 28 October 1910, p. 7.
  30. Black, A History, vol. 6, p. 18.
  31. Peter Board, Report on Continuation Schools, NSW Department of Public Instruction, Government Printer, Sydney, 1912; Alan Barcan, Two Centuries of Education in New South Wales, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1988, pp. 187-9 and 192.
  32. Markey, In Case of Oppression, p. 160, p. 162; Wilfred Blacket, Report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry as to Whether the Supply of Locomotives is Adequate for Traffic Purposes and if inadequate, to inquire into the causes and reasons of such inadequacy, and as to how far future Locomotive Requirements can be met at Eveleigh Works, Government Printer, Sydney, 1912.
  33. Sydney Mail, 12/4/1922, p. 17; MP, 16/3/1911.
  34. SMH, 16 October 1916, p. 8; 7 November 1916, p. 7.
  35. SMH, 20 March 1917, p. 8.
  36. FJ, 15 March 1917, p. 22.
  37. SMH, 5 March 1917, p. 6.