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John (Jack) Bailey (1871–1947)

by Martha Rutledge

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John (Jack) Bailey (1871-1947), trade union leader and politician, was born on 14 June 1871 at Manus Creek, New South Wales, second son of native-born parents, Thomas Henry Bailey, labourer, and his wife Rosanna, née Reilly or Colman. He left school at an early age to help his father, then worked as a shearer. On 20 November 1891 he married Esther Elphick at Tumut, where he lived until 1917.

'A bare-knuckles fighter', Bailey 'literally fought his way upwards' in shearing sheds. Determined to improve country working conditions, in 1901 he joined the Political Labor League and became an organizer for the Australian Workers' Union. 'Quick of temper and rough of tongue', he 'aimed to be the ruthless party boss', according to Jack Lang, one of his opponents. He was president of the A.W.U. central branch in 1915-33 and New South Wales vice-president of the general executive in 1914-23 and 1927-33. A member of the central executive of the State branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1916-18, he had helped to organize opposition to conscription, and the unions' take-over of the party and changes of the rules. He shunned newspaper publicity, rarely made long speeches and preferred to operate behind the scenes. In 1917 he had been defeated for the Federal seat of Eden-Monaro, but next year won a by-election for Monaro in the State Legislative Assembly; he represented Goulburn in 1920-25.

From 1916 Bailey and the A.W.U. had played a powerful role in the State executive, surviving a challenge from 'One Big Union' enthusiasts in 1919. Frustrated in his ambition for cabinet office, he supported J. J. G. McGirr and indulged in faction fights, plotting in 1920-22 against successive Labor premiers John Storey and James Dooley; Bailey's allegations involved Dooley and T. D. Mutch in a royal commission on charges of bribery. For much of the 1920s, with the A.W.U., he was embroiled in a bitter struggle with A. C. Willis and the Coal and Shale Employees' Federation to dominate the State Labor party machine. In 1922 he stirred the sectarian issue which contributed to the defeat of Labor at the general election, and, to win Catholic support, had J. H. Catts expelled from the party by using faked delegates' badges.

At the 1923 State A.L.P. conference, Bailey was accused of complicity in the use of sliding-panel ballot-boxes. A committee chaired by Willis found him guilty. Allegations were also made about the 'crook' delegates' badges and 'his diabolical plotting to ruin his adversaries'. He was expelled from the party, as 'a menace not only to the Labor Movement, but also to the body politic'. Supported by H. E. Boote, he was exonerated by the A.W.U.'s own inquiry, but next year E. G. Theodore investigated the ballot-box scandal for the party's federal executive and found the charges against Bailey proven, thereby earning his enmity. In 1925 P. C. Evans won £50 damages from Bailey who alleged that he had been financed by the Nationalist Party in the 1920 election for Goulburn.

Unable to contest Goulburn in 1925 as a Labor candidate, Bailey fought a rearguard action with the backing of the Australian Worker. He flirted with the Communists in 1924 but, after the 'Red Rules' were carried at the 1927 party conference, he railed against foreign plots and any connexion with Moscow. He denied responsibility for implicating Theodore and P. E. Coleman in charges respecting the sale of Federal seats. In December 1929 Bailey, after 'a spectacular libel suit', won £4500 damages from Willis and others for their report which had led to his expulsion from the party in 1923.

In the 1930s he was strongly anti-Lang and, as vice-president of the New South Wales federal branch of the Labor Party in 1931-34, found himself working with Theodore; in 1931 he was defeated for the Senate. Early in 1933 he and his lieutenants were out-manoeuvred and defeated in the A.W.U. State elections; but he made a surprise comeback as State president in 1938, only to have the ballot voided by the union's federal executive. He had spent part of the intervening years gold-prospecting. From 1930 he was honorary chairman of the Central Australia Gold Exploration Co. which financed an expedition to find L. H. B. Lasseter's lost reef. In 1931-32 he was a director of the World.

Survived by his wife, two sons and two daughters, Bailey died after falling off a ladder at Stanmore, Sydney, on 26 October 1947 and was cremated. His estate was valued for probate at £4822. In his lifetime he contributed substantially towards the improvement of conditions of rural workers. To the Sydney Morning Herald Jack Bailey was a legendary figure—'a sort of emperor in the world of rural labour, and the most theatrical figure in his union's history'.

Select Bibliography

  • I. L. Idriess, Lasseter's Last Ride (Syd, 1931)
  • J. T. Lang, I Remember (Syd, 1956)
  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • I. Young, Theodore (Syd, 1971)
  • Australian Worker, 14 Nov 1918, 26 Sept, 3, 10 Oct, 21 Nov 1923
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 8 Mar 1919
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 11, 13, 16 Aug, 17, 19, 21 Nov 1923, 22 Apr, 24, 25 Nov 1924, 16 Jan, 19, 20 June 1925, 4, 8 Aug 1928, 27, 29, 30 Nov, 3-6 Dec 1929, 4 Mar, 9 Dec 1931, 7 Mar 1933, 18, 19 Jan 1938, 27 Oct 1947
  • I. E. Young, Conflict Within the New South Wales Labor Party 1919-1932 (M.A. thesis, University of Sydney, 1961)
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Ph.D thesis, Australian National University, 1975)
  • Bailey papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martha Rutledge, 'Bailey, John (Jack) (1871–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

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