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McGrath, David Charles (1872–1934)

by Peter Love

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

David Charles McGrath (1872-1934), by Richards & Co, 1910s

David Charles McGrath (1872-1934), by Richards & Co, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23474818

David Charles McGrath (1872-1934), storekeeper and politician, was born on 10 November 1872 at Newtown, Scarsdale, Victoria, son of Irish-born David McGrath, miner, and his wife Evelyn, née Horsefield, from England. Educated at Newtown State and Creswick Grammar schools, he joined the family store at Allendale where he came to share his father's interest in politics, although they later joined opposing parties. He claimed to have enrolled some 700 members while secretary of the Allendale branch of the Australian Natives' Association. A keen sportsman, McGrath made a name for himself as a stocky, energetic rover in the South Ballarat football team during the 1890s. On 24 May 1898 he married Elizabeth Johnstone Gullan at the Talbot Street Presbyterian church, Ballarat. They moved to Pitfield Plains in 1900 to open another McGrath store.

In 1902 he helped to establish the Hollybush Social Democratic Club and in 1904 won the Legislative Assembly seat of Grenville for Labor. He took a close interest in the mining industry, often speaking on behalf of mineworkers and small, independent operators who were threatened by larger capitalist enterprises. Outside the House, 'Bull' McGrath worked to expand the Labor Party's organization in country areas, undertaking an extensive tour of Gippsland with Frank Anstey in November 1904. 'We pedalled or pushed our bikes into country far remote from the railway lines'.

He won the Federal seat of Ballarat in May 1913 after a close tussle with H. V. McKay. In October he was suspended for the rest of the session after refusing to apologize for his allegations against the Speaker. In 1914 he held his seat with an increased majority and constantly pressed the government to improve soldiers' conditions. In March 1916 McGrath enlisted, embarking as a staff sergeant with the 22nd Army Service Corps, Australian Imperial Force. Promoted warrant officer in December 1916 and appointed to Australian Imperial Headquarters, he was transferred to No.1 Company, 1st Army Service Corps, France, in 1917. Following a serious illness, he returned to Australia in April 1918 and was discharged as medically unfit.

Although re-elected during his absence in 1917, McGrath was narrowly defeated at the 1919 poll. On appeal, the result was declared void and he was returned at a by-election in July 1920. During the early post-war years McGrath was a pugnacious advocate of repatriation benefits for servicemen and a stern critic of the means by which Imperial honours were awarded. He was a member of the joint committee on public works in 1926-29.

In the Scullin government McGrath was chairman of committees (1929-31) and, ironically enough, deputy Speaker. However, as the Depression overwhelmed that singularly luckless government, he was increasingly drawn towards Sir Otto Niemeyer's orthodox solution to the nation's financial crisis, and in March 1931 followed Lyons out of the Labor Party. At the subsequent election he retained his seat as a United Australia Party candidate, serving until 1934 in failing health. On 31 July 1934 he died at his home in Ballarat. Mourned by the many ex-servicemen he had served so well, he was buried with military and Masonic honours in the Ballarat old cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £944. He was survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons, one of whom (Sir) Charles became chairman of Repco Ltd.

Select Bibliography

  • M. M. McCallum, Ballarat and District Citizens and Sports at Home and Abroad (Ballarat, 1916)
  • Historical Studies, 18, no 72, Apr 1979
  • Tocsin, 19 May, 15 Dec 1904
  • Punch (Melbourne), 27 Nov 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Oct 1919, 10 July 1925, 5, 17 Mar 1931
  • Australian Worker, 4 Dec 1929
  • Ballarat Courier, 31 July 1934
  • Age (Melbourne), 31 July, 1 Aug 1934
  • Argus (Melbourne), 1 Aug 1934
  • F. G. Anstey papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Peter Love, 'McGrath, David Charles (1872–1934)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcgrath-david-charles-7361/text12787, accessed 24 November 2017.

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