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West, John Edward (1852–1931)

by Frank Farrell

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Edward West (1852-1931), by Broothorn Studios, 1910s

John Edward West (1852-1931), by Broothorn Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23567168

John Edward West (1852-1931), plumber, trade unionist and politician, was born on 27 January 1852 at Lambeth, London, son of John Edward West, brass finisher, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Hearne. Jack was apprenticed to a plumber and from the age of 17 was associated with the Ancient Order of Foresters. On 18 March 1874 at St Andrew's parish church, Holborn, he married Susannah Sarah Metcalfe (d.1925). After visiting New Zealand, they arrived in Sydney in 1875 and settled at Paddington. In time they 'reared a family of seven daughters and two sons—all native of East Sydney'.

Able to balance a belief in the worth of diligent improvement with a clear appreciation of the British class system and his place within it, West set up business as a plumber and by 1879 had brought together the operative plumbers, gasfitters and galvanized-iron workers into a single union, the Operative Plumbers' Society. Next year he was a delegate to the Trades and Labor Council and secretary of a committee of union organizations pressing for the introduction of technical education. Secretary of the Trades and Labor Council from 1880, West was president in 1887-1907. As chairman of its parliamentary committee, he supported the political Labor movement and saw the successful establishment of the Labor Party which owed much to the firm but meliorative approach championed by West and other T.L.C. leaders.

As a delegate to the Intercolonial Trade Union congresses held after 1879, West supported the proposed Commonwealth Constitution. He declined to stand for the first Federal parliament, preferring to concentrate his energies on maintaining progress with the Trades Hall building project which had occupied his attention for years. Although he belonged to the Master Plumbers' & Sanitary Engineers' Association and was an employer, he was active in the movement for an eight-hour day. He stood unsuccessfully against (Sir) George Reid for the Federal seat of East Sydney in 1906 and next year contested the State seat of King; West was eventually returned to the House of Representatives for East Sydney in 1910.

A natural back-bencher, he combined conscientious attention to his constituency with union commitments and his business as a master plumber. West was an 'unconscious humourist': he retained a Cockney-like speech and in 'his pebbly voice' hurled 'the most deadly insult in the most incomprehensible English at an opponent with all the rollicking amiability of a man who has just made a good joke'. He almost lost pre-selection in 1917, but throughout the 1920s steered a middle course in his electorate: he criticized the Bruce-Page government for the slow progress of the temporary parliament house in Canberra, campaigned for the priority of the Australian flag on all Commonwealth office buildings, opposed the deportation of Tom Walsh and Jacob Johnson, and argued that all talk of Labor's association with 'Bolshevism and Communism was moonshine'. West's public boast about family life and local achievement, which he made after Labor's Federal victory in 1929, typified his approach to society and underlined his commitment to establishing an 'improving community'.

As the rift between the Scullin and Lang governments widened in late 1930, speculation was rife that West would at last have to vacate his seat at the next election, leaving it open to the angry young men at Trades Hall. Survived by nine children, West died at midnight on 5 February 1931 at his Darlinghurst home and was buried in Waverley cemetery. His successor as member for East Sydney was the fiery Eddie Ward. Tributes to West's parliamentary service ranged from that of his close friend Scullin to those of Lang supporters and conservatives; in 1932 a bronze memorial to West was unveiled at the Sydney Trades Hall building, itself a testimony to his practical drive.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Studies
  • Selected Articles, M. Beever and F. B. Smith eds, (Melb, 1967)
  • M. Easson (compiler), 110th Anniversary of the Labor Council of New South Wales (Syd, 1981)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 Oct 1911
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Jan 1917, 18 Nov 1919, 10 May 1922, 3 May 1924, 14, 22 Sept, 21 Oct 1925, 30 Mar, 15 May 1926, 24 Nov 1930, 6, 7, 9, 19 Feb, 3 Apr 1931, 29 Feb 1932
  • Australian Worker, 13 Feb 1919, 11 Dec 1929
  • Bulletin, 11 Feb 1931
  • Queenslander, 12 Feb 1931.

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'West, John Edward (1852–1931)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://labouraustralia.anu.edu.au/biography/west-john-edward-9051/text15949, accessed 27 September 2017.

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