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John Andrew Arthur (1875–1914)

by John R. Thompson

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Andrew Arthur, by Swiss Studios

John Andrew Arthur, by Swiss Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21224112

John Andrew Arthur (1875-1914), lawyer and politician, was born on 15 August 1875 at Castlemaine, Victoria, son of John Andrew Arthur, goldminer, and his wife Sarah Ann, née Elsbury. Despite frequent moves with his family around Victorian mining towns, he showed considerable promise as a scholar. He was awarded a state scholarship which took him to Grenville College, Ballarat, for three years. He went on to the University of Melbourne where he first read arts (B.A., 1895). Achieving brilliant results each year, including the award of the Wyselaskie Scholarship in political economy and the Exhibition in Roman law, he competed his Master of Arts (1897), his Bachelor of Laws (1898) and his Master of Laws (1901). At university he showed a deep interest in social questions; he stood out as a serious, natural scholar. Warmly regarded by his teachers, particularly Rev. E. H. Sugden, master of Queen's College, Arthur became a tutor at Queen's in logic and philosophy, political economy and history, and law, prior to his admission to the Victorian Bar in 1901. On 1 January 1903 at Maldon, he married Lillie Ada Dabb.

Arthur's entry into professional practice just preceded the establishment of the Federal courts: the High Court of Australia and the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration. He quickly earned a reputation as a skilful constitutional and industrial lawyer, particularly in cases before the Arbitration Court, and he was soon acknowledged as one of the leading authorities on trade unionism. In 1907 he represented the Agricultural Implement Makers' Union in the case that led to the Harvester judgment and the evolution of the basic wage concept. It is not surprising that this branch of legal practice should have led him to a career in Federal politics. As a member of the Australian Labor Party, he stood for Bendigo in 1913 and narrowly defeated Sir John Quick, its incumbent since Federation. Arthur entered the legislature as one of the most widely admired and promising politicians the young Commonwealth had seen. His speech on the 'test' bill on preference to unionists was the best in that important debate. At the same time, he continued his career as an industrial advocate, travelling frequently between parliament in Melbourne and courts in Sydney.

Following the double dissolution in 1914, Arthur easily held Bendigo. But the combination of heavy professional responsibilities as counsel for the Australian Tramways Employees' Association in a case before the High Court and the demands of the election campaign seriously strained his health. He knew his kidney complaint would be fatal, but was determined 'to die in harness'. An enforced rest following the election, which had brought his party into government, was broken by his attendance at the caucus of 17 September that elected him to the new cabinet. He was sworn in later that day as minister for external affairs before returning to his sick-bed. In the following weeks his health worsened; he lapsed into a coma and died on 9 December 1914, aged 39, at his home in The Avenue, Parkville; he was survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons.

Allowing for exaggerated estimates of a man's worth which follow an untimely death, there seems to have been every indication that Arthur was destined for an outstanding career. He was regarded as one of Labor's most brilliant recruits, and there were suggestions, even before his entry into Federal politics, that he would eventually be appointed to the High Court. His death was widely mourned and glowing tributes to his 'lovable personality' and 'fertile mind' were paid by members on both sides of the House before the state funeral and his burial in Coburg cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Punch (Melbourne), Nov 1912
  • Age (Melbourne), 10 Dec 1914
  • Argus (Melbourne), 10 Dec 1914
  • Australian Worker, 17 Dec 1914
  • Atlee Hunt papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

John R. Thompson, 'Arthur, John Andrew (1875–1914)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

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