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McGowen, James Sinclair (1855–1922)

by Bede Nairn

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Sinclair Taylor McGowen (1855-1922), boilermaker and politician, was born on 16 August 1855 on the Western Bride, 'three weeks sail from Melbourne', son of James McGowan, boilermaker, and his wife Eliza, née Ditchfield, both from Lancashire, England. McGowan senior came to Victoria with an agreement with the government to work on bridges. The family moved in 1867 to New South Wales where McGowen helped his father on bridges at Yass, Bathurst and Aberdeen.

After some schooling McGowen was apprenticed in 1870 as a boilermaker in Sydney to P. N. Russell & Co. and was involved in the 1873-74 iron trades strike; he joined the United Society of Boilermakers and Iron Shipbuilders of New South Wales on its formation in 1873, and was its secretary intermittently from 1874 to 1890. After employment at the Atlas Foundry & Engineering Works and FitzRoy Dock, in 1875-91 he worked at the railways' workshop at Eveleigh. McGowen became a devoted trade unionist; a delegate to the New South Wales Trades and Labor Council, he was on its executive in 1888-91 when he was also president of the Eight Hours Demonstration Committee. As an executive-member of the Trades Hall Committee he played a major role in the erection of the Sydney Trades Hall in the late 1880s. In 1884 he represented his union at the second Intercolonial Trades Union Congress in Melbourne. On 18 April 1878, at Redfern with Wesleyan forms, he had married Emily Towner.

McGowen served the boilermakers' well, helping to gain the closed shop without any major dispute, and by 1890 he was well known, respected and liked in working-class circles. Of medium height, he was heavily built and dark, with an overflowing moustache, abundant cropped hair, a large nose and protruding ears. He conveyed an air of ponderous and amiable integrity. But his appearance was deceptive: he had been a good cricketer, and helped to form a district competition in Sydney, replacing the old, and often exclusive, clubs—later he became a keen lawn bowler, and was playing in Redfern Park in January 1903 when Victor Trumper scored 335 runs in an afternoon and hit several balls out of the adjoining oval on to the bowling-green. And McGowen's deliberate speech and apparent slow thinking fitted his invulnerable honesty, adherence to principles and loyalty to individuals that more than counterbalanced his lack of brilliance. He was a religious man, active in the relief of distress in Redfern where he lived; he was superintendent for thirty-five years of the Sunday school at the local St Paul's Anglican Church, and sat in the diocesan synod in his later years.

The Labor Electoral League (Labor Party) was founded by the Trades and Labor Council in 1889-91 without any notable contribution by McGowen. But from its first electoral successes in 1891 he believed it should be independent and 'a distinct power in the House'. He won a Redfern seat and held it until 1917; 21 of the 35 elected were under 40 years, and McGowen was the most experienced trade unionist among them. His steadfastness proved invaluable in parliament in 1891-94 when the party split twice on the question of free trade or protection and discipline was almost lost. His speech on 10 December 1891, when he declared that although he was a protectionist he had been elected 'as what is called a Labour man', helped to set the basis of the party's survival and of his own accession to its leadership. However, (Sir) Joseph Cook became the first official leader in October 1893. By March next year the Labor conference's demand for the adherence of parliamentary members to its form of pledge had been accepted only by McGowen and two others.

At the 1894 elections the Labor Party nominated 74 'solidarity' candidates for 125 seats; 14 won, including only J. H. Cann, T. M. Davis and J. Kirkpatrick, as well as McGowen, of the original 35. The 'non-solidarities' won 13 seats, but were soon absorbed by the old fiscal parties. In Labor's electoral success McGowen's indefatigable and increasingly skilful work in the Legislative Assembly had complemented J. C. Watson's role in the non-parliamentary structure. Watson and W. M. Hughes were among the members who elected McGowen unanimously as leader in August. At 39 he was the second oldest Labor parliamentarian. He always looked older than he was, and even then was known as often as 'Old Jim' as 'Honest Jim'.

He agreed with W. S. Landor's ideal of a government that would provide for honest and humane living. But that was a distant objective for Labor in the 1890s. McGowen led a novel and complex mass party with a detailed programme for radical social and political reform, subject to constant non-parliamentary as well as parliamentary pressures. Some very talented and restless young men were colleagues; as he exerted authority he convinced them of the need to come to terms with a cautious electorate. The Labor Party was on probation, but McGowen was not a probationary leader. He was wary of what he saw as the links between social unrest and socialism.

McGowen was pleased with the party decision to keep the reformist Reid free-trade government in office. Some legislative concessions, including land taxation, were gained, and some administrative changes, notably the gradual employment of day in place of contract labour on public works. McGowen remained active in parliament, and in 1896 he claimed that Labor was 'the propellor in the legislative machinery'. But in 1895-99 Federation slowly became the dominant political issue; Labor was officially committed to a Federal system, but in practice was ambiguous about it, being fearful of its obvious conservative aspects and anxious to continue the party's mission to reform New South Wales. In 1897 Labor nominated a bunch of ten candidates for the Federal convention: they all lost, with McGowen polling best.

After the 1898 elections Reid's majority was precarious. But the orderly and quick acceptance of Federation by New South Wales depended chiefly on him. McGowen, with help from Watson, persuaded the Labor Party to maintain its support of the government at least until the formalities of founding the Commonwealth had been completed. Early in March 1899, with the executive's backing, he and Watson spearheaded an agreement between the party and Reid to have four Labor men appointed to the Legislative Council as part of the plans of the premier to submit to a referendum the final form of the Federal Constitution. Despite strong opposition from Hughes and W. A. Holman the appointments were made and the referendum was held. McGowen adhered to party policy and opposed the acceptance of the Constitution, but the colony approved it.

Reid, however, had lost his reforming impetus, and several Labor parliamentarians wanted to depose him in favor of (Sir) William Lyne who was prepared to make further concessions to the party. McGowen was in the minority of eight to eleven when caucus finally decided to vote Reid out. But, as the sole party speaker in the censure motion in September 1899, he announced the decision and paid a sincere tribute to Reid.

McGowen narrowly lost the election for the Federal seat of South Sydney in 1901. Back in the State parliament he was on the Public Works Committee in 1901-04 and the State Children Relief Board in 1900-08. As Labor gradually became the official Opposition in New South Wales he found that honesty and loyalty were not enough for a modern political leader. Holman's election as deputy party leader in 1905 reflected the feeling that McGowen needed guidance. But he remained popular and was on the party executive in 1906-09. His presence reassured voters that progress with the party would be judicious and safe. His leadership was an important factor in Labor's win at the 1910 State elections. But he soon revealed that he could not control let alone inspire his ministry of individualistic and talented men. His premiership of 1910-13 saw much reforming legislation, but Holman, with some difficulty, ran the government. Cabinet problems and vacancies resulted in McGowen also being treasurer in 1910-11, colonial secretary in 1911-13 and minister for labour and industry in 1913-14. He enjoyed his six-month trip to the British Isles in 1911 for the coronation of George V, travelling widely, addressing the Derby Boilermakers' Society, breakfasting with Lloyd George, and interviewing John Burns.

During Holman's absence in England in 1913 McGowen tried to settle a strike of gasworkers by warning them that he would allow 'free workers' to take their jobs: a decision that went against the grain of his whole career, reflecting his weakened health and failing concentration, and appalled the labour movement. Holman returned on 6 June and replaced McGowen as premier on 30 June; R. D. Meagher defeated him for the Speakership.

During World War I McGowen had three sons at the front; one was killed at Gallipoli in 1915. He saw the war as a struggle for civilization between the British Empire and Germany; and when in 1916 the Labor conference decided to oppose conscription for overseas service he disagreed and was expelled with many others from the party. At the elections in March 1917 he stood as independent Labor, but spent the campaign in hospital in Hobart with a broken leg and lost to (Sir) William McKell. Holman had him appointed to the Legislative Council in July, and prevailed on him to be president of the National Association in 1917-18.

McGowen's style as 'a Labour man' endured and was reflected in his speeches and votes in the council. J. T. Dooley, Labor premier, in 1922 appointed him 'vigilance officer in connection with moving pictures', after the abolition of the Housing Board of which he had been chairman since 1912. McGowen died of heart disease on 7 April 1922, and was buried in the Anglican section of Rookwood cemetery, survived by his wife, five of their seven sons, and two daughters. Dooley spoke with genuine regret: 'we all loved and respected him [because of his] honesty and integrity'. A cenotaph for McGowen was dedicated at St Paul's Church in November.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1942)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • British Australasian, 6 July 1911
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 3 June 1891
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 22 Oct 1910, 10 Nov 1916, 15 Mar 1917, 8 Apr 1922
  • Punch (Melbourne), 31 Oct 1912
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 15 Mar 1917
  • Australian Worker, 12 Apr 1922.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'McGowen, James Sinclair (1855–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgowen-james-sinclair-7360/text12785, accessed 23 November 2017.

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