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Higgs, William Guy (1862–1951)

by H. J. Gibbney

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Guy Higgs (1862-1951), by Falk Studios

William Guy Higgs (1862-1951), by Falk Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23436192

William Guy Higgs (1862-1951), printer and politician, was born on 18 January 1862 at Wingham, New South Wales, son of William Guy Higgs, Cornish storekeeper, and his Irish wife Elizabeth, née Gregg. In 1869 the family moved to Parramatta and in 1872 to Orange. Higgs was educated at public schools, but when his Anglican parents settled near a convent school, he attended it, waiting outside while others took religious instruction. At 13 he left school and was apprenticed to the Western Advocate at Orange.

Higgs arrived in Sydney as a journeyman printer of 20, worked briefly for the commercial printers, John Sands & Co., and for the Daily Telegraph, then settled in the composing room of the Sydney Morning Herald for four years. He joined the New South Wales Typographical Association on 18 March 1882, was elected to the board on 24 July 1886 and on 31 August became its full-time paid secretary. Described as 'a burly well-looking man with a beaming black eye and a nobby head of hair of the same colour', Higgs had inherited from his Celtic forbears a strong religious streak. His Anglican upbringing did little to satisfy it but unionism did. He rapidly became an enthusiastic activist and was said to have coined the expression 'Socialism in our time'. On 18 April 1889 at St Paul's Church of England, Redfern, he married Mary Ann Knight: they had three children.

The following July Higgs resigned as secretary of the union and, with a fellow unionist S. D. Townsend, established the job printing firm Higgs & Townsend in Oxford Street. For three months they published the Trades and Labour Advocate, and supported moves on the Trades and Labor Council to found a Labor Party. Higgs was chairman of the first annual conference of the Labor Electoral League in January 1892. In February, having failed the previous year to enter the Legislative Assembly as Labor candidate for South Sydney, he accepted the editorial chair of the Australian Workman vacated by 'Dr Oswald Keatinge'. Twelve months later, disgusted by faction fighting, he resigned and returned to printing on the Evening News. Then, in August 1893 when Ernest Blackwell resigned as editor of the Queensland Worker, Higgs, who had sworn never again to be a Labor editor, accepted the position. Presented with an illuminated address in Sydney at a public dinner presided over by George Black, he reached Brisbane in mid-August and signed his first leader on 2 September. He later described his term as 'a daily dish of sorrow'. Probably his most useful work for the party in this period was his sustained, intelligent attack on the curious affairs of the Queensland National Bank. He admitted himself that he had not given entire satisfaction—some thought his policy too extreme but he succeeded in enlarging the paper and making it a powerful voice.

Higgs had not lost his political ambitions: in 1895-96 he was a member of the Labor Party's central political executive and in February 1899 he was elected for the North Ward to the Brisbane City Council. Later that year he and Frank McDonnell convincingly won Fortitude Valley in the Legislative Assembly. In March 1901 he became one of the first Queensland senators in the Commonwealth parliament. With a mind described as 'disciplined rather than vivid and original', a reputation as an agitator and conspirator, a voice like 'distilled sorrow' and gifts of cross-examination and dead pan humour, Higgs was an immediate asset to the party and felt at home in its idealistic atmosphere; he became chairman of committees and member of the royal commission on the tariff in 1904. Defeated in 1906 by a State-rights reaction in Queensland, he was temporarily lost but found a living by establishing William Guy Higgs & Co., auctioneers, in Pitt Street, Sydney. In December 1907 he was appointed to represent the Queensland government in securing settlers for Queensland. When the original agreement proved too loose he was appointed director of the Sydney branch of the Queensland Intelligence and Tourist Bureau at £150 a year.

Elected to the House of Representatives for Capricornia in April 1910, Higgs became one of the more respected figures in the party hierarchy. He was among the parliamentary delegation to the coronation of George V and when W. M. Hughes constructed his first cabinet in 1915 Higgs, who two years earlier had challenged Andrew Fisher for the leadership, was elected by caucus and appointed treasurer. In October 1916 he resigned his portfolio together with the anti-conscription group. When the smoke of conflict died, Higgs found that many old friends had left the party and the rump contained an uncomfortably high proportion of radicals. Once a firebrand himself, he had begun to turn again to religion, taking up Christian Science. Deputy leader from June 1918, he revolted from Labor at last over Hughes's renewed attempts in 1919 to increase Commonwealth powers over industry and commerce. Believing that the proposals were still sound, Higgs urged a 'Yes' vote; the Queensland Central Executive advocated 'No'. At the declaration of the poll in Rockhampton for the general election of December 1919, he denounced the domination of the central executive and declared that, were he able, he would abolish the cast-iron pledge. People, he said, would not be educated to some planks of the party platform for 100 years. He urged coalition with the Country Party. Assailed violently from all over Australia, he was expelled from the party on 15 January 1920. He joined the National Party in September and was defeated as a Nationalist candidate at the 1922 general election.

After his defeat Higgs retired to his home at Kew, Melbourne, and became a Christian Science practitioner. In 1929 he chaired a royal commission on the effect of Federation on the finances of Western Australia but gradually sank into obscurity. Seeking a cause, he came across evidence of maltreatment of mental patients, became an active president of the Society for the Welfare of Mental Patients in 1929, and published a Plea for Better Treatment of the Mentally Afflicted (1931). During World War II he unsuccessfully peddled a scheme for securing peace by gaining the adherence of Germany to the Atlantic Charter. He died, a widower, at Kew on 11 June 1951 and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £14,683.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Hagan, Printers and Politics 1850-1950 (Canb, 1966)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Queensland), 1895, 1, p 595, 727
  • Parliamentary Debates (Commonwealth), 1910, 39, p 6216
  • Worker (Brisbane), 26 Aug 1893, 18 Mar, 8, 15 Apr 1899, 2 Mar 1901, 8, 22 Jan 1920
  • Street, 5 Mar 1898
  • Punch (Melbourne), 6 Apr 1905, 13 Oct 1910, 4 June 1914
  • Australian Worker, 23 Nov 1932, 20 June 1951
  • Typographical Assn mMinutes (Australian National University Archives)
  • Industrial Workers of the World, correspondence (MS 3516, National Library of Australia)
  • Boote papers (MS 2070, National Library of Australia)
  • Philp papers (State Library of Queensland)
  • PRE/A271/347 (Queensland State Archives).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Higgs, William Guy (1862–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/higgs-william-guy-6665/text11491, accessed 25 September 2017.

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