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William Peter (Bill) Barry (1899–1972)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Peter (Bill) Barry (1899-1972), trade union official and politician, was born on 30 June 1899 at Northcote, Melbourne, fifth child of William Barry, miner, and his wife Susan Agatha, née Robinson, both native-born. William senior was a founder of the Quarrymen's Union and an organizer of the Municipal Employees' Union. Educated at St Brigid's School, North Fitzroy, and St George's School, Carlton, young Bill became a foundry worker at the Newport railway workshops. At 17 he joined the British Australasian Tobacco Co. Pty Ltd where his duties included tobacco-tasting; for the rest of his life he was an inveterate pipe-smoker. On 16 August 1924 at St Mary's Catholic Church, West Melbourne, he married a machinist Mary Moodie.

An aggressive debater and prominent member of the Carlton branch of the Australian Labor Party, Barry was secretary of the Tobacco Workers' Union in 1924-31. Having won a surprise pre-selection victory over William Slater, in July 1932 he was returned at a Legislative Assembly by-election for Labor's blue-ribbon seat of Carlton. 'Something of a favourite' of John Wren, Barry led the right-wing faction and was secretary of the parliamentary Labor Party in 1938-55. Minister of transport in the four-day Cain government of September 1943, he held the portfolios of health, housing and forests under Cain in 1945-47 and was again minister of health in Cain's cabinet in 1952-55.

Bill was a genial man with a flair for publicity, but his use of invective often embarrassed his colleagues: he labelled (Sir) Archie Michaelis a 'refo'; he said of (Sir) Wilfrid Kent Hughes that 'a few years in the Jap camps did not do him much good'; he accused Melbourne city councillors of 'racketeering'; he forced Cecil McVilly to resign as chairman of the Hospitals and Charities Commission and branded him a 'Sawdust Caesar'. Barry never lacked ambition. He contested the deputy-leadership after the death of Herbert Cremean in 1945 and hoped to displace Cain as leader. Barry's wife Mary, 'a woman of notably independent and outspoken mind', served on the central executive of the Victorian branch of the party in 1950-55 and was secretary (1947-55) of the women's central organizing committee.

The Barrys had little to do with the industrial groups, but were staunch anti-communists. In the split of 1955—an event which Barry tried to avert—both were expelled from the Labor Party. Barry became joint-leader (with Patrick Coleman) of the Anti-Communist Labor Party (later the Democratic Labor Party). When Barry led his breakaway group across the floor in April 1955—in support of the no confidence motion which brought down the Cain government—thirty pieces of silver were thrown at his feet. In the ensuing election the contest for Carlton was 'the bitterest and most violent of the campaign'. Barry received dead rats in the mail. Defeated by Labor's Denis Lovegrove, as a D.L.P. candidate Barry unsuccessfully contested Fitzroy in 1961 and Greensborough in 1967.

A member (1939-55) of the Melbourne City Council, Barry had been its representative on the Melbourne and Metropolitan Board of Works (1945-55) and on the Olympic Organising Committee (1952-55); he was also a trustee (1946-55) of the Exhibition Building. Kate White's biography of John Cain has referred to allegations that Barry was corrupt when minister for housing, but there is no evidence of personal wealth. After losing his seat, he ran a milk bar and later a licensed grocery. In his last years he lived in an East Brunswick hotel owned by his daughter and son-in-law. Survived by his wife, three sons and four daughters, he died on 21 December 1972 at Fitzroy and was buried in Melbourne general cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1972)
  • K. White, John Cain and Victorian Labor, 1917-1957 (Syd, 1982)
  • Herald (Melbourne), 30 June 1953, 21 Dec 1972
  • private information.

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Barry, William Peter (Bill) (1899–1972)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


30 June, 1899
Northcote, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


21 December, 1972 (aged 73)
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.