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Waite, George (1860–1941)

by Verity Burgmann

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George Waite (1860-1941), trade union leader, was born on 27 September 1860 at Old Quartz Hill, Moonlight Flat, Victoria, third son of William Wait(e), an English-born miner, and his wife Agnes, née Blythe, from Scotland. On 4 September 1880 George married Emily Jane Hill at the Wesleyan parsonage, Tamworth, New South Wales, giving his occupation as labourer. They had six children. A self-confessed follower of Thomas Paine, he held socialist beliefs and was strongly influenced by libertarian ideals.

In 1886, living at St Leonards, Sydney, Waite was president of the North Shore branch of the Brickmakers, Brickmakers' Labourers and Pipemakers Union. He joined the Australian Socialist League in the 1890s and was a delegate for the Amalgamated Navvies and General Labourers' Union to the Trades and Labor Council of New South Wales, where he campaigned against sub-contractors on government works and Sunday employment. In 1891-92 he was active within the St Leonards Labor Electoral League.

Waite then moved to the 2100-acre (850 ha) Pitt Town Co-Operative Settlement, near Windsor, established under the Labour Settlements Act of June 1893 in response to demands for measures to reduce unemployment. Of the 500 settlers (100 married men with families), few had experience of farming and bush work, being mainly unemployed city workers. The socialist-dominated Board of Control had initially appointed an agricultural expert to act as superintendent, but dismissed him after three months for habitual drunkenness and appointed Waite as superintendent--although opponents later alleged that he could not tell a pumpkin from a melon.

When the settlement split, about twenty-five families wishing to continue on co-operative lines while some seventy-five demanded subdivision into individual blocks, Waite, an ardent co-operationist, resigned. He agreed to reappointment, however, after his replacement succumbed to alcoholism. The Australian Workman insisted that being 'of more than ordinary intelligence, honesty, and ability', he was the best man on the settlement for the post of superintendent. The 'individualist' party was so enraged at his reappointment in December 1894 that police were called to restore order. In June 1896 the government evicted the few remaining settlers and the settlement became a casual labour farm.

That year Waite moved to Broken Hill then to Western Australia. In 1897 he was selected as Labor candidate for the North-East Coolgardie electorate. Early in the twentieth century he became vice-president of the Boulder Labor Party, organizer of the regular workers' lectures held in the Workers' Hall and an agitator on behalf of the unemployed 'to relieve suffering humanity and better the conditions of Labor on these fields'.

During the early 1900s Waite also spent time back in Sydney, where he was active in the United Laborers' Protective Society from January 1900. Living again in North Sydney from about 1905, he served as an official (sometime assistant-secretary) of the U.L.P.S. from 1910 to 1924. A supporter of the Industrial Workers of the World, he was a member of the Sydney I.W.W. club and a propagandist for the local Detroit faction in 1908-17, serving on the State executive committee in 1913. He was acting-secretary of the Lithgow Unionists Strike Prisoners' Release Committee in 1912 and active in the Anti-Coercion and Political Freedom League in 1914. In 1916 he was honorary secretary of the committee campaigning for the release of Tom Barker and Louis Klausen, and chaired anti-conscription meetings. By 1919 he was prominent in the Social Democratic League of New South Wales and, in 1921, the Self-Determination for Ireland League of Australia.

A U.L.P.S. delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales, by 1921 Waite was an opponent of Jock Garden and the council's left-wing executive, which retaliated by expelling him. The U.L.P.S. withdrew its affiliation to the council, upholding Waite's objections to Bolshevism and to its Australian supporters, whom he depicted, in his pamphlet A Labor Man's Appeal to Labor (c.1922), as authoritarian extremists 'endeavouring to bring about a bloody revolution'.

Waite supported Sir Joseph Hector Carruthers's 'Million Farms' campaign of the early 1920s, claiming in Waite's Warning to Workers (1922) that these farms would find work for all the unemployed. He also justified his support on racist and nationalist grounds in his White Australians (c.1922). Although active in A. C. Willis's Australian Industrial Christian Fellowship in 1923 and a supporter of the J. T. Lang group within the Labor Party in 1924, by 1925 he was associated with Aubrey Barclay's right-wing journal, Sane Democracy, and hostile towards Lang's government. In December that year he resigned as assistant-secretary of the U.L.P.S. Campaigning against the 1925 seamen's strike, he claimed in Unionism Degraded (c.1925) that industrial strife would 'hamper the progress of white Australia'. Waite became a prolific letter writer to the Sydney Morning Herald. In 1926 and in 1930 he made world tours, during the latter visiting the Soviet Union. He remained active in the Sane Democracy League until May 1939.

Predeceased by his wife, Waite died on 16 September 1941 in Trescol Private Hospital, North Sydney, and was cremated with Anglican rites. Three sons survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • V. Burgmann, ‘In Our Time’ (Syd, 1985)
  • V. Burgmann, Revolutionary Industrial Unionism (Melb, 1995)
  • Labour History, no 18, May 1970, p 19
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 8 June 1891, p 5, 9 June 1891, p 8, 7 May 1921, p 13, 27 May 1921, p 8, 17 Aug 1921, p 12, 14 Dec 1925, p 11, 25 Nov 1926, p 12, 9 Sept 1930, p 10, 6 June 1932, p 8
  • Australian Workman, 19 May 1894, p 6, 16 June 1894, p 1
  • Westralian Worker, 24 June 1904, p 2
  • Australian Worker, 19 May 1926, p 1
  • Sane Democracy (Sydney), Dec 1937, p 12
  • C. Priday, Sane Democracy in New South Wales 1920 to 1940 (B.A. Hons thesis, Macquarie University, 1975)
  • P. Sheldon, Maintaining Control (Ph.D. thesis, University of Wollongong, 1989)
  • Waite papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Verity Burgmann, 'Waite, George (1860–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/waite-george-13231/text6655, accessed 26 September 2017.

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