Labour Australia

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Browse Lists:

Givens, Thomas (1864–1928)

by D. J. Murphy

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas Givens (1864-1928), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

Thomas Givens (1864-1928), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23418844

Thomas Givens (1864-1928), miner, sugar worker, newspaper editor and politician, was born on 12 June 1864 at Cappagh White, Tipperary, Ireland, son of Robert Givens, farmer, and his wife Mary Ann, née White. In 1882 he arrived in Queensland and, after a brief period on the North Queensland sugar plantations, spent the following sixteen years on the Charters Towers and neighbouring goldfields, with sorties to New South Wales and Victoria. At Eidsvold he formed a miners' union of which he was successively secretary and president; but as the gold petered out at Eidsvold in the late 1880s he returned to Charters Towers where he became an Australian Workers' Union organizer.

In 1893 the new Labor Party was contesting its first election. Givens was typical of the early Labor candidates. He nominated against S. W. Griffith's protégé and solicitor-general, T. J. Byrnes, for Cairns, where he had established a branch of the A.W.U., and campaigned on an anti-'Kanaka' platform. Byrnes won by 416 votes to 311. Givens contested the seat against another Liberal in 1896 but was again beaten, by 43 votes. In 1898 he established and edited the Cairns Advocate and next year, when the Liberals did not field a candidate, won Cairns against the former Labor leader John Hoolan. He married Katie Allen at St John's Church of England, Cairns, on 6 April 1901; they had three sons and three daughters.

Givens's speeches in the Queensland parliament were not notable apart from those on Pacific islands labour. He was strongly opposed to the use of black labour in the canefields and advocated a restriction on the employment of Pacific islanders in factories or within five miles of a factory. During his term in the Queensland parliament, he established a friendship with Andrew Fisher that was to assist him in his later career. On his defeat at the 1902 State election he returned to the editorship of the Trinity Times with which the Advocate had merged, but in 1903 he won a Senate place and remained a professional politician for the following twenty-five years.

In Federal politics, although never a possibility for cabinet, Givens was considered a 'good Party man'. Melbourne Punch described him in 1910 as a pugnacious man with a marked Irish brogue, 'over six feet tall, limbed and muscled on a colossal scale'. From 1908 he was a Queensland delegate to the Labor Party's Interstate (Federal) Conference. In 1912 his compromise proposal to have the conference structured on a basis similar to that of the House of Representatives rather than on a strictly Federal basis was defeated by one vote; the idea waited seventy years for implementation. In 1909 Givens was a member of the Senate select committee on the press cable service; he was temporary chairman of committees in 1910-12 and served on the 1912-13 royal commission on the pearl-shelling industry. When Henry Turley, a Queenslander and president of the Senate, stood down after the 1913 election, Givens was elected in his place and held the presidency until 1926. His decisions in the chair revealed a wide knowledge of the standing orders and rules of debate.

As the first Federal president of the Labor Party when the Federal Executive was formed in 1915 Givens gave loyal support to Hughes. Following the withdrawal of the proposed prices referendum in November 1915, he played a major part in having the censure motion against Hughes recommitted and dropped. After Hughes had lost the conscription referendum in October 1916, it was to Givens and (Sir) George Pearce that he turned for advice. Givens left the Labor Party with Hughes and became a Nationalist. He retained the presidency of the Senate and wore the president's wig, in contrast to Turley's practice of appearing bareheaded.

Givens did not attract the same opprobrium from his former Labor colleagues as did some others who left the party over conscription. On his death at Canterbury, Melbourne, of cardiac disease, on 19 June 1928, the Labor newspapers in Queensland were generous about his early role in the party. After a state funeral he was buried in Box Hill cemetery. He was survived by his wife and children and left an estate valued for probate at £9986.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, The Australian Federal Labour Party 1901-1951 (Lond, 1955)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Prelude to Power (Brisb, 1970)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, The Little Digger (Syd, 1979)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1897, 4, p 253
  • British Australasian, 21 June 1928
  • Worker (Brisbane), 14 Jan, 1, 8 Apr 1893, 22 Jan 1910
  • Punch (Melbourne), 22 Sept 1910
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 June 1928.

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Givens, Thomas (1864–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/givens-thomas-6395/text10931, accessed 27 September 2017.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012