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Hancock, John (1846–1899)

by John Rickard

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Hancock (1846-1899), trade unionist and politician, was born on 21 April 1846 at Clerkenwell, London, son of Alexander Hancock, clerk, and his wife Elizabeth, née Russell. After six years schooling, in the course of which he was much influenced by a teacher with Chartist leanings, he went into the printing trade. His first job was as a 'reading boy': he was required to read aloud to the proof-reader Charles Dickens's All the Year Round. He was apprenticed as a compositor with the British Medical Journal and later worked for various newspapers and journals; in 1867 he had some five months in Paris as assistant reader for the Paris American.

On 15 October 1870 at St Giles-in-the-Fields, London, Hancock married Charlotte Jackson, daughter of a carpenter. In 1884 he and his family migrated to Melbourne where he worked as a reader for Sands and MacDougall. He spent a probationary period on David Syme's Leader; his failure to secure an appointment seems to have contributed to his later hostile relationship with the Age.

Hancock's wide London experience in the trade helped to gain him prominence in the Melbourne Typographical Society. In 1889 he not only became the society's secretary and the editor of its journal (retaining the latter position until his death) but also president of the Melbourne Trades Hall Council. During his presidency he did his utmost to reassure employers. He told a chamber of commerce dinner that the country needed 'not socialism but capital and stability'; like most Victorian trade unionists he loyally defended tariff protection; he even urged employers to follow the trade unions' example in combination. On the eve of the 1890 maritime strike he joined with James Service in a vain attempt at conciliation.

Hancock was involved in the strike's management as chairman of the Melbourne committee of finance and control. The crushing defeat suffered by the unions in some measure radicalized him. He was very conscious of the isolation of the labour movement, and he saw an alliance of parliament and press, not to mention pulpit, bench and army, as contributing to the unions' humiliation. He was soon active in moves to launch labour into parliament. Although at first reluctant, he agreed to contest in the Labor interest a by-election for Collingwood in April 1891. His success, in the face of the Age's opposition, was widely hailed as an augury of Labor's coming triumph in the eastern colonies.

Hancock's initial term in parliament was brief. In his maiden speech he was prescient in urging reform of the banking system. He was hounded for his tactless criticism; it was even claimed that his speech had had an adverse effect on the colony's credit in England. This incident hardly mattered in an electorate like Collingwood, but the trade unions' political organization, the Progressive Political League, was making little impact and Hancock could not even enthuse his own printing union in the cause of labour representation. In the 1892 elections he failed to win the second Collingwood seat by twenty-five votes.

In 1894 he was returned as Labor candidate for Footscray and retained his seat in 1897. Although he dutifully supported the Liberal Turner government, and the social reforms it introduced, Hancock grew impatient with the Labor members' subservience to the Liberal alliance. He was increasingly critical of W. A. Trenwith's leadership of the Labor group, particularly when Trenwith, out of step with the Trades Hall, campaigned for acceptance of the Federal Constitution in 1898.

Although a moderate, Hancock was more interested than many of his colleagues in developing an independent Labor Party. Tocsin described him as a Labor member who 'never compromised his principles, and never lost the faith of the workers'. He had a particular aversion to military display, and once told parliament that he hated the sight of a soldier. Hancock was, however, a genial, witty and convivial figure. Indeed it was said of him that had he been less popular he would have been more powerful.

Hancock died at his home at Footscray on 22 November 1899 after a bronchial illness which led to heart and kidney complications. He was buried in Melbourne general cemetery, the cortège journeying from Footscray past the Trades Hall. Although he had not been a church-goer he was also accorded a memorial service at St John's Church, Footscray. He was survived by his wife and five of his seven children, on behalf of whom the Melbourne Typographical Society launched an appeal.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hagan, Printers and Politics (Canb, 1966)
  • F. T. Fitzgerald, The Printers of Melbourne (Melb, 1967)
  • Australasian Typographical Journal, Dec 1899
  • Footscray Advertiser, 25 Nov 1899
  • Independent (Footscray), 25 Nov 1899
  • Tocsin, 30 Nov 1899
  • J. F. Lack, Footscray: An Industrial Suburban Community (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1976).

Citation details

John Rickard, 'Hancock, John (1846–1899)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/hancock-john-6545/text11247, accessed 27 September 2017.

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