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McDonnell, Francis (Frank) (1863–1928)

by M. R. MacGinley

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Francis McDonnell, 1924

Francis McDonnell, 1924

State Library of Queensland, 86881

Francis (Frank) McDonnell (1863-1928), draper and politician, was born on 24 January 1863 at Ennis, Clare, Ireland, son of James McDonnell, farmer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Bradish; his father died when Francis was 7. At 13 he began work in a factory, then returned to school to the Christian Brothers at Ennis. In 1879 he was apprenticed as a draper to Gallagher Bros of Ballina, a fellow employee being T. C. Beirne. Accompanied by his only sister, McDonnell arrived in Brisbane in 1886. On 31 December 1890 he married Mary Heffernan at St Stephen's Cathedral.

He worked as a drapery assistant with Finney, Isles & Co., then with T. J. Geoghegan and, in 1889-96, with Edwards & Lamb. In 1901 he established the drapery firm McDonnell & East in partnership with Hubert East, backed financially by Peter Murphy. He remained with the firm, alternating the managing directorship with East who balanced McDonnell's extroverted public-mindedness with quiet backroom efficiency. They thought highly of each other.

In 1888 McDonnell, as secretary, organized the Shop Assistants' Early Closing Association and the publication of the Early Closing Advocate with leading articles by William Lane. His zeal for industrial reform led to appointment in 1891 to the royal commission on shops, factories and workshops. Its findings formed the basis of a bill (rejected in the Legislative Council) and the less than satisfactory Factories and Shops Act of 1896.

As Labor candidate McDonnell unsuccessfully contested the Fortitude Valley seat in 1893, but as the 'clerks' hero' was victorious in 1896 on a large personal vote. He introduced the shops early closing bill unsuccessfully in 1897 but saw his cause finally successful in the 1900 Factories and Shops Act. That year he passed a resolution to establish a wages board. In 1899 he was party whip for the short-lived Dawson Labor government, a member of the central political executive of the Queensland Labor Party in 1898-1903 and treasurer in 1901-03. He emphatically opposed Federation in the belief that it would increase unemployment.

McDonnell was a strong advocate of improvement of conditions for the police and teachers. In 1899 he secured the extension of the grammar school scholarship system to other approved schools; taking effect from 1901, this measure was of particular benefit to Catholic schools and firmed the Catholic-Labor bond.

Not seeking re-election to the Legislative Assembly in 1907, McDonnell was immediately appointed to the Legislative Council. He continued to interest himself in Queensland's industrial development, seeking especially to promote the cotton industry. In 1915 he bought the entire crop, initiating a mattress and quilt-making industry.

McDonnell was an executive member of committees promoting Home Rule and sponsoring Irish Parliamentary Party visitors. In 1910 he was a founder and first director of the Hibernian Newspaper Co. Ltd which, in 1911, launched the Catholic Advocate. He attended the Irish National Convention in Melbourne (1919) but withdrew from further involvement in Irish politics on the establishment of the Irish Free State. He was one of the first trustees of the Brisbane Trades Hall, a member of the committee of management of the Queensland Blind, Deaf and Dumb Institution and an original member of the Senate of the University of Queensland (1910-22).

McDonnell died at Mater Misericordiae Hospital, South Brisbane, on 26 November 1928 and was buried in Toowong cemetery after a funeral at St Stephen's Cathedral. His wife, four sons and three daughters survived him. His estate was sworn for probate at £21,843. Some years after his death the Christian Brothers' Old Boys' Association established the Frank McDonnell medal for the highest State scholarship pass in Catholic schools.

Select Bibliography

  • J. O'Leary (compiler), A Catholic Miscellany (Brisb, 1914)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland Politics During Sixty (1859-1919) Years (Brisb, nd, 1919?)
  • R. Lawson, Brisbane in the 1890s (Brisb, 1973)
  • Queensland Shop Assistant, 11 Jan, 1 Mar 1929
  • Worker (Brisbane), 1 Mar 1890, 28 Nov 1928
  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 27 Nov 1928
  • Daily Standard (Brisbane), 28 Nov 1928
  • Catholic Advocate, 29 Nov 1928
  • J. Hunt, Church and State in Education in Queensland (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Queensland, 1959)
  • private information.

Citation details

M. R. MacGinley, 'McDonnell, Francis (Frank) (1863–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcdonnell-francis-frank-7343/text12747, accessed 24 September 2017.

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