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William Bird (1899–1978)

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This entry is from People Australia

William Bird (1899-1978), seaman, trade union leader and Communist 

Birth: 20 January 1899 in London, England, son of William Henry Bird, cabinetmaker, and Harriett, née Fuller. Marriage: 20 February 1930 in St Patrick’s Catholic Church, Mackay, Queensland, to Agnes Mary Smith, shop assistant. They had one daughter.  Death: 12 August 1978 in Princess Alexandra Hospital, South Brisbane, Queensland. 

  • Arrived in Australia aged five; attended school in Adelaide.
  • 1914 joined Tingara, naval training ship and Royal Australian Navy. Changed to Australian Imperial Force in order to see more military action. In 1922 joined Seamen’s Union of Australia (SUA), employed mainly in sugar trade, Mackay. In 1927 joined Communist Party of Australia and its Militant Minority Movement (MMM). Had a minor role in waterside workers’ strike in 1928, which led to employer victimisation.
  • Let membership of CPA/MMM lapse, but rejoined later. Active in seamen’s strike in Sydney in 1935.
  • Moved to Brisbane, Queensland, in late 1930s, worked on Brisbane River tugs and formed ‘historic partnership’ with Eliot Valens Elliott.
  • Secretary, Brisbane branch SUA, 1941-43.
  • At behest of John Bramwell Miles he relocated to Melbourne. Secretary, Victorian Branch of SUA, 1943-1958. Brought Melbourne tug crews into SUA. Successfully agitated for changes in Melbourne Pilot Service Award and need for Australian overseas shipping line.
  • A primary target of Menzies government among communist trade unionists. Was subpoenaed during Petrov Royal Commission.
  • An ‘almost legendary figure among seamen during the ‘fifties’ his ‘political style often was expressed in terms of physical violence’. Clashed with Elliott and Victorian cadres of CPA who believed he ignored party directives and was an ‘adventurist’. In 1958 he resigned and returned to work on Brisbane tugs.
  • In 1963-64 challenged Elliott for national secretaryship of the SUA and was narrowly defeated.
  • Retired in 1975.

Brian Fitzpatrick and Rowan J. Cahill, The Seamen’s Union of Australia: a history, (Sydney, 1981); John Playford, Doctrinal and strategic problems of the Communist Party of Australia, 1945-1962, PhD thesis, ANU, 1962; Seamen’s Journal, January 1945, March 1959, Sept 1978.

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Citation details

'Bird, William (1899–1978)', People Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


20 January, 1899
London, Middlesex, England


12 August, 1978 (aged 79)
South Brisbane, Brisbane, Queensland, Australia

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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