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Curley, James (1846–1913)

by Robin Gollan

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Curley (1846-1913), coal-miner and trade union official, was born in Durham, England, son of Thomas Curley, miner, and Elizabeth, née Hiddlestone. At 11 James also began work in a Northumberland coal-mine. He arrived in Victoria in 1873 and for the next two years moved between the northern and southern coalfields of New South Wales, before settling at Newcastle in 1875. As a miner in the Hamilton pit of the Australian Agricultural Co. he soon established himself as both an efficient worker at the coal-face and an effective advocate of miners' interests. He became treasurer in 1879 and secretary in 1880 of the Coal-Miners' Mutual Protective Association of the Hunter River district. For the next twenty-seven years, with a short break to represent Newcastle in the Legislative Assembly in 1889-91, he was secretary and best-known spokesman of the northern miners' union.

In an industry which has from early times been marked by the militancy of the workers and the intransigence of the employers Curley was a moderate. He believed in careful organization, the power of argument and the need for negotiation and conciliation. He was convinced that the interests of miners and colliery proprietors coincided, if they could only be made to see it. Thus he encouraged the proprietors to combine to keep the price of coal high, and on behalf of the miners argued for a fair share of the proceeds. However, the times were against him. In the 1870s the proprietors had combined in a vend to reduce competition which in favourable market conditions kept the price of coal, and with it wages, high. But coinciding with Curley's appointment as secretary, the market deteriorated, the vend was weakened, profits fell and downward pressure on wages followed. With brief periods of prosperity this was to remain the situation for Curley's whole period of office.

In the 1880s he negotiated a number of agreements which protected the miners from some of the pressure on wages and which in several ways improved their working conditions. But despite his opposition to direct action, Curley was sometimes forced, when negotiations failed, to lead the miners on strike. In addition to numerous small engagements there was a major strike in 1888 which, in the bitterness with which it was conducted and the widespread effects it had on the whole economy, anticipated the devastating coal-strikes of the twentieth century. In 1890-91 Curley was a member of the royal commission on strikes. In the 1890s economic depression caused extensive unemployment and reduced miners' wages by as much as 50 per cent. Curley's achievement in these circumstances was to keep the union in existence, although much reduced in membership and powerless to protect its members. In his last years of office his idea of negotiation and conciliation came under heavy attack. By 1907 when he retired, the doctrine that the interests of workers and employers were in direct conflict was strong on the coalfields. While deeply respected by his opponents as a leader and a man, he felt it necessary to pass on his office to more militant men.

In his short period in parliament, where he supported the government of Sir Henry Parkes, Curley appeared mainly as the spokesman of the miners. Not convinced of the need for a Labor Party he did not contest the election of 1891 in which three Labor Party members were returned for the northern coalfields. However, he continued his advocacy of miners' interests as a member of the three-man royal commission whose recommendations resulted in the passage of the Coal Miners Regulation Act 1896.

Curley died aged 67 at Newcastle on 27 March 1913 and was buried at Sandgate by a minister of the Methodist Church of which he had been a lifelong active member. In 1877 he had married Sarah Brown, and was survived by their two sons and five daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), Nov 1889–May 1891
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 1880-1907, 28 Mar 1913
  • Coal-Miners' Mutual Protective Assn, Hunter River District, Minutes, 1874-80 (privately held)
  • A. A. Co papers (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Robin Gollan, 'Curley, James (1846–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/curley-james-3300/text5023, accessed 24 September 2017.

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