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Guthrie, Robert Storrie (1857–1921)

by Peter Cook

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Robert Storrie Guthrie (1857-1921), by Hammer & Co., 1900s

Robert Storrie Guthrie (1857-1921), by Hammer & Co., 1900s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23419685

Robert Storrie Guthrie (1857-1921), seaman, trade unionist and politician, was born on 17 November 1857 at Patrick, near Glasgow, Scotland, son of Andrew Guthrie, joiner, and his wife Elizabeth, née Storrie. He was educated at Glen's School, Glasgow, and in 1872 became a ship's apprentice; in later years he spoke with nostalgia of his long experience as a seaman, albeit with bitterness at the appalling conditions. In July 1878 Guthrie transferred to the South Australian coastal trade. He married Janet Deer on 8 November 1881 at Port Adelaide and left the sea to settle there in 1887.

Guthrie became secretary of the South Australian branch of the Federated Seamen's Union of Australasia in January 1888 and was later federal president for many years. A delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, he served on its executive in 1889-91 and was also president of the South Australian Maritime Council in 1890. That year he was a delegate to the Sydney conference of unionists on the maritime strike and in 1902 was made secretary and treasurer of the newly formed Federated Council of Australasian Labor Unions. Guthrie was elected to the South Australian Legislative Council as a Labor representative for Central District in 1891 and retained his seat until 1903 when he won election to the Senate. Re-elected as a Labor senator in 1910 and 1914, he won as a Nationalist in 1917 and 1919 after leaving the Labor Party, and earning expulsion from the Seamen's Union, over conscription.

Throughout his political life Guthrie pursued two main interests: the trade union movement, in whose cause he frequently negotiated during strikes; and the maritime industry, where his concern for working conditions was intense almost to the point of obsession. His most notable contribution to politics was made as a member of the royal commission on the navigation bill, 1904-07; the resulting Act was sometimes spoken of as the 'Guthrie Act' and Guthrie himself called 'the Australian Plimsoll'. He also served on select committees on the press cable service (1909) and the Fitzroy Dock, Sydney (1913); he was a member of the parliamentary delegation to the coronation of George V in 1911 and Australian representative at the second International Labour Conference at Genoa, Italy, in 1920.

'Bob' Guthrie was short, and spoke with a distinct Scots burr. His close friend, W. M. Hughes, described him as 'a shell-back—a real sailor' who still 'woke … at 4 a.m. … rolled heavily in his gait', and retained 'the poorest opinion of steamships'. He always wore a square pilot coat and billowy pants. A sociable, unpretentious man, he was given to forceful and plain expression of his views. It was said of him that 'he was true to his mates' and that he had many of them. He was a Presbyterian and a district ruler of the Independent Order of Rechabites in Adelaide.

On 19 January 1921 Guthrie was knocked down by a tram in Melbourne and died next day. After a state funeral his body was taken to Adelaide and buried in Cheltenham cemetery. He was survived by his wife, three daughters and two sons; two sons were killed in action in World War I.

Select Bibliography

  • H. T. Burgess (ed), Cyclopedia of South Australia, vol 1 (Adel, 1907)
  • T. H. Smeaton, The People in Politics (Adel, 1914)
  • W. M. Hughes, Policies and Potentates (Syd, 1950)
  • Observer (Adelaide), 30 May 1891
  • Age (Melbourne), 21 Jan 1921
  • Bulletin, 27 Jan 1921
  • Westralian Worker, 4 Feb 1921
  • United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia, Minutes, 1888-91, 1903 (microfilm M15, Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Peter Cook, 'Guthrie, Robert Storrie (1857–1921)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/guthrie-robert-storrie-6510/text11173, accessed 24 November 2017.

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