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McVicars, John (1877–1958)

by Andrew Reeves

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John McVicars (1877-1958), coalminer and union secretary, was born on 9 December 1877 at Ipswich, Queensland, son of John McVicars, a migrant Scottish collier, and his wife Jane, née Beveridge. He began work at 14 as a trapper at the Mount Kembla colliery, on the Illawarra River, New South Wales, where his family had moved seeking employment. In 1893 he accompanied his father to the newly opened Victorian coalfield at Korumburra, in south-west Gippsland. Here McVicars worked for the Coal Creek Mining Co., becoming secretary of the Victorian Coal Miners' Association lodge at that mine.

In 1903-04 an attempt by local mine owners to reduce wages precipitated a seventy-week lockout. When organized resistance ceased, the union had been destroyed and its members dispersed. McVicars travelled to Queensland, but soon returned to Gippsland to act as secretary of the South Gippsland Miners' Association, a recently formed competitor to the reviving V.C.M.A. But after 1909 miners at the newly established Wonthaggi State Coal Mine held the key to the recognition of competing Victorian mining unions, and here the V.C.M.A. reasserted its strength. In 1910 McVicars sought work at Wonthaggi, becoming a V.C.M.A. branch committee-man the following year. In 1913 he was elected to the joint office of branch and Victorian district secretary, a position he retained until his retirement in 1946.

For McVicars, the defeat of 1903-04 exemplified the catastrophes that could overtake mining communities. It determined his industrial philosophy throughout his career as a union official. Conciliation was preferred to confrontation, negotiation to strike action. In a newly established mining community conscious of the opportunities offered by economic expansion, such an attitude accurately reflected a consensus among the workforce. McVicars stood aloof from the wave of syndicalism that swept Australian coalfields after World War I, and it was due to his influence that the Victorian district continued to support arbitration in contrast to the Miners' Federation's preferred policy of direct action.

Depression destroyed Wonthaggi's fragile security. Mass retrenchments from the State mine after 1932 eroded support for the conciliatory tactics which McVicars espoused. His opposition in February 1934 to a branch decision to strike in defence of victimized mineworkers undermined his 'constitutionalist' position. Branch elections held during this strike returned a majority of communists or their supporters. McVicars alone among constitutionalists held his position, but from 1934 until his retirement twelve years later he lacked his former political influence within the union.

McVicars was at the height of his influence during Wonthaggi's optimistic years, when miners and entrepreneurs alike anticipated its becoming a 'Newcastle of the South'. These were also years of Labor Party ascendancy. Active in the party since his years in Korumburra, McVicars was also a leading member in Wonthaggi, serving for a decade as a borough councillor and twice as mayor. He was also a trustee of the Union Theatre and the Miners Co-operative Dispensary. On retirement he became a caretaker at the State mine.

McVicars had married Ethel Louise Dobell at Korumburra on 10 January 1901. Predeceased by her and survived by seven of their nine children, he died at Wonthaggi's district hospital on 8 July 1958. He was buried in the local cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • Sentinel, 10 July 1958
  • Powlett Express (Wonthaggi), 10 July 1958
  • A. P. Reeves, Industrial Men: Miners and Politics in Wonthaggi 1909-1968 (M.A. thesis, La Trobe University, 1977).

Citation details

Andrew Reeves, 'McVicars, John (1877–1958)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/mcvicars-john-7448/text12969, accessed 22 November 2017.

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