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Barker, Stephen (1846–1924)

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Stephen Barker (1846-1924), by T. Humphrey & Co.

Stephen Barker (1846-1924), by T. Humphrey & Co.

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22922009

Stephen Barker (1846-1924), trade unionist and politician, was born in Sussex, England, son of Stephen Barker, farmer, and his wife Hannah, née Nagle. Little is known of his early years: by the 1860s he was living in Melbourne. A presser by trade, he claimed to have been employed as a lad in Victoria's first clothing factory; he knew what it meant to work from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. and was to give vehement evidence in 1893 to the Factories Act Inquiry Board against 'sweating'. After employment in some of the largest clothing manufacturing houses, including Sargood, Son & Co. and Solcberg & Son, he worked in the retail and wholesale trade in Launceston, Tasmania, and in New Zealand at Wellington and Auckland. He was back in Melbourne by April 1874 when he married Jane Laughton, a servant, at St John's Church of England, La Trobe Street. He then worked for Godfrey Barthold and for Beath, Schiess & Co. until ill health forced him to leave. In the 1890s he operated a small business in North Melbourne as a tailor and dyer.

About 1875 Barker helped to found the Pressers' Society, but he was not a member until 1890; in 1894 he played a major part in its revitalization. He was president of the union in 1894-96 and 1900-01, secretary in 1899, and its delegate to the Trades Hall Council from 1892 to 1902 when the pressers, under his guidance, joined with the cutters and trimmers to form the Victorian Clothing Operatives' Union.

Barker was president of the T.H.C. in 1897-98, a member of the Eight-Hours Committee in 1896-98 and full-time secretary of the council in 1901-10, succeeding J. G. Barrett. As president and then treasurer of the T.H.C. Organizing Committee in 1900-02, he helped to set up wages boards for some sixty unions; he represented the clothing trade on its board from 1897 until 1907, when he lost the confidence of the union over his recommendations for a reduction in piece-work rates. Although he was exonerated by a T.H.C. committee and lauded as an 'honourable conscientious and hard-working colleague', he henceforth took his seat on the council as a delegate for the Musicians' Union, of which he was an honorary member.

The Bulletin remarked that Barker must have looked ironically on the eight-hours monument opposite the Trades Hall, for 'he worked about 96 hours a week'. His strength was as an organizer: the T.H.C. was administered with system and method and nursed to growing authority, as the movement took advantage of the slow return to prosperity after the long depression years. Barker helped to untangle many industrial conflicts: he abhorred strikes except as a last resort and won a reputation as a man of moral courage, fair, and trustworthy. As a public speaker, however, he was frequently militant, described as 'torrential' and 'unreportable'. He was said to have been the principal mover in the formation of the Political Labor Council in 1902, and was its secretary next year.

In 1899 Barker was defeated in the North Melbourne Council election, and made an unsuccessful bid against W. A. Watt for the Legislative Assembly seat of North Melbourne. He was a local councillor from 1901 and mayor from September to October 1905 when North Melbourne was formally annexed to the city of Melbourne; he received public congratulations for his part in the amalgamation. In December he stood unsuccessfully in the Melbourne City Council elections. After Federation Barker ran for the Senate in 1901, 1903 and 1906 before succeeding as one of Labor's victors in 1910; he was defeated in 1919, but returned in a famous victory over G. Swinburne in 1922.

Rotund and ruddy-faced, Barker wore a trim beard and moustache. A justice of the peace, he was prominent in the temperance movement and supported women's franchise; from December 1907 he was a council-member of the Working Men's College. A staunch anti-conscriptionist, he was a member of the parliamentary delegation to the Western Front. Long a resident of North Melbourne Barker made his home in St Kilda about 1911. Aged 79, he died of cancer on 21 June 1924 in a private hospital at Toorak, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. He was predeceased by his wife and survived by three sons and two of his four daughters. His estate was sworn for probate at £2327; he had given books from his extensive library to the St Kilda branch of the Labor Party, of which he was president when he died.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1895-96, 3 (44), 1902-03, 2 (31)
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 Mar 1906
  • Punch (Melbourne), 21 July 1910
  • Argus (Melbourne), 23 June 1924
  • Bulletin, 26 June 1924
  • Labor Call, 26 June 1924
  • Clothing & Allied Trades Union of Australia, Federal office records (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

'Barker, Stephen (1846–1924)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/barker-stephen-5130/text8581, accessed 22 November 2017.

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