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John Barnes (1868–1938)

by Norma Marshall

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Barnes (1868-1938), by Vandyck Studios

John Barnes (1868-1938), by Vandyck Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23125466

John Barnes (1868-1938), trade union official and politician, was born on 17 July 1868 at Hamilton, South Australia, son of John Thomas Barnes, a drover who had emigrated from Somerset, England, and his wife, Mary, née Comerford, from County Clare, Ireland. He was educated at the local state school but went to work as soon as possible, for when he was 6 his father had died. He had numerous jobs; tar-boy, rouse-about; picker-up, shedhand, shearer, timber-getter and handyman. At 17 he became an itinerant worker, carrying in his swag works by Adam Smith, Henry George, Robert Blatchford and Henry Lawson. In his own words, 'You could hardly get a job, let alone one that was well paid'.

In 1886 Barnes moved to Broken Hill, where he met E. Grayndler. Next year he joined the Shearers' Union (later the Australian Workers' Union) and almost fifty years later could still display his first membership ticket. While at Broken Hill he became the A.W.U. agent, and was subsequently its first organizer in South Australia. In 1908 he succeeded Grayndler as secretary of the Victoria-Riverina branch at Ballarat, and remained in this post until 1913 when he was elected to the Senate.

Barnes was on the parliamentary executive of the Labor Party in 1914-16, and in 1916-17 was a member of the Commonwealth Prices Regulation Board. He retained his connexions with Ballarat, where he was known as a forceful anti-conscription speaker. Defeated in 1919, he returned to the A.W.U. until 1922, when he was re-elected to the Senate. In 1923-25 he was again one of Labor's parliamentary executive. He was a member of the Victorian executive of the party for sixteen years, having been president in 1918.

Barnes was president of the A.W.U. from 1924 until his death; the union's support gave him formidable strength within the Labor Party. In the Scullin government he was assistant minister for works in 1929-31, and vice-president of the Executive Council in 1931-32; his policies were moderate, and he faithfully supported the prime minister. He was party leader in the Senate from 1932 until defeated in the 1935 election. He was re-elected in 1937 but, after a long illness, died of cancer in the Mercy Hospital, East Melbourne, on 31 January 1938. In 1898 at Kapunda, South Australia, he had married Ellen Charlotte Camba Abbott; she and their son and five daughters survived him. After a state funeral conducted by Canon Crotty of Christ Church, St Kilda, Barnes's funeral procession passed through the city, paused outside the Trades Hall, and continued to the Melbourne general cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £1018.

Natural shrewdness and physical and mental vigour compensated for Barnes's lack of formal education. He was not an initiator of policy, but was a skilled politician and unfailingly supported his party and union. The Australian Worker commented at his death: 'In days when Labor has so often been betrayed by self-seekers and lovers of loot, it is good to be able to say of a representative of the workers that he was incorruptibly faithful from the beginning to the end of a long and strenuous career'. He was a forceful debater, but his charm, good nature and freedom from malice ensured his popularity.

Barnes appears to have embodied the characteristics of the legendary and archetypal bush worker. Sir George Pearce described him as 'a breezy, unconventional character … with a whiff of the shearing-shed about him'; he was also a notorious practical joker. In his days at Ballarat, he, A. N. McKissock and J. McNeill were known as the 'Three Musketeers of the Trades Hall'. They made a pact that when one of them died, the survivors would plant a Cootamundra wattle on the grave, and the union would do the same for the last of the trio. In July 1938 McNeill planted a wattle by Barnes's grave, where another memorial was erected by the A.W.U. in 1943.

Select Bibliography

  • G. F. Pearce, Carpenter to Cabinet (Lond, 1951)
  • Labor Call, 18 July 1912, 3 July 1930, 3 Feb 1938, 18 Feb 1943
  • Australian Worker, 21 Feb 1934, 2 Feb 1938
  • Argus (Melbourne) 1 Feb 1938
  • Ballarat Mail, 1 Feb 1938
  • J. Barnes material (privately held).

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Norma Marshall, 'Barnes, John (1868–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

John Barnes (1868-1938), by Vandyck Studios

John Barnes (1868-1938), by Vandyck Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23125466

Life Summary [details]


17 July, 1868
Hamilton, South Australia, Australia


31 January, 1938 (aged 69)
East Melbourne, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cause of Death

cancer (not specified)

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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Political Activism