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Cohen, Laurence (1874–1916)

by Janet McCalman

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Laurence Cohen (1874-1916), by Burlington Studios, c1916

Laurence Cohen (1874-1916), by Burlington Studios, c1916

University of Melbourne Archives, UMA/I/2608

Laurence Cohen (1874-1916), trade unionist, was born on 22 March 1874 at Paradise Point, Gaffney's Creek, Victoria, sixth child of John Cohen, miner, a London Jew, and his Parisian wife Louisa Clotilda, née L'Estrange. He was brought to Melbourne as a child where he became a boyhood acquaintance of John Wren. Leaving school early, he had various jobs until he came under the influence of George F. Atyeo, of a noted family of monumental masons. Apprenticed to Atyeo as a letter-cutter, he formed a close relationship with the family and three of his sisters married three of Atyeo's sons. Cohen became a fine tradesman. He later left an inimitable tribute to Donald Macdonell of the Australian Workers' Union when, alone under a blazing sun for two weeks, he carved the inscription on the granite memorial at Stuart Mill, Victoria.

Laurie Cohen's trade union career began in the select fraternity of his craft with the Marble and Stone Workers' Union. He was secretary from 1905 until 1913 and made his first appearances in the Trades Hall Council as a union delegate. A strong believer in the modern amalgamated union, he effected his union's amalgamation with the Operative Stonemasons' Society in 1913. He rose quickly through membership of the executive of the T.H.C. to the presidency in 1913. That year he was appointed to the salaried position of assistant secretary. Cohen established himself as a 'professional' in the Trades Hall: one of the most active members of the Industrial Disputes Committee, he became a shrewd, diplomatic and always well-prepared advocate. He eschewed histrionics and faction-fighting, seeming to understand better than many of his contemporaries the demands modern industrial capitalism placed on trade union leaders.

Convinced of the trade unions' need for a strong political arm, Cohen distinguished himself in the Political Labor Council with his organizational skill and dedication. He emerged as a powerful leader in 1914 when, as president of the P.L.C., he quashed the Catholic Federation's campaign to infiltrate the party. As he had earlier denounced the Socialists as electorally divisive to the labour movement, so he now fought to keep the Labor Party secular and comprehensive. In 1915 the P.L.C. paid him the then signal honour of re-electing him to the presidency. He was a Victorian delegate to the Federal Conference that year.

In February 1916, as the most prominent Laborite outside parliament in Victoria, Cohen was sent on the delegation to negotiate Senator (Sir George) Pearce's offer of a forty-four hour week with the striking miners at Broken Hill. After a mixed reception and with the strike partially settled, he returned exhausted to Adelaide on 11 February. After speaking at a fund-raising meeting for the Broken Hill strikers, he retired to bed. At 12.45 a.m. he was found mortally injured in an alley, having apparently fallen eighteen feet (5.5m) from his bedroom window. His death remains a mystery. Cohen was survived by his wife Sarah, sister of John Lemmon; their marriage at the Trades Hall, Carlton, on 27 January 1909 was performed with Presbyterian forms. They had no children. Laurie Cohen was widely mourned and the T.H.C. erected a noble memorial on his grave in the Coburg cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Dale, The Industrial History of Broken Hill (Melb, 1976 edn)
  • C. Hamilton, ‘Catholic interests and the Labor Party … 1910-1916’, Historical Studies, no 33, Nov 1959
  • Socialist (Melbourne), 1 Dec 1906, 11 Feb 1910
  • Labor Call, 13 Mar 1913, 17, 24 Feb 1916
  • Australian Worker, 17 Dec 1916
  • N. W. Saffin, History of the Workingman in Victoria, vol 3, part 3 (privately held)
  • private information.

Citation details

Janet McCalman, 'Cohen, Laurence (1874–1916)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/cohen-laurence-5715/text9665, accessed 26 September 2017.

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