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George Mure Black (1854–1936)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

George Mure Black (1854-1936), by unknown photographer

George Mure Black (1854-1936), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/Black, George

George Mure Black (1854-1936), politician and journalist, was born on 15 February 1854 at St James's Square, Edinburgh, son of George Stevenson Black, messenger-at-arms, and his wife Isabella, née Mure. Educated at Thorburn's School, Leith, he matriculated in the faculty of arts, University of Edinburgh, in 1871; two years later he transferred to medicine but left in 1877 without graduating. According to his own account, he 'mixed with the fast set in my youth at home' and migrated to Australia to work as a station book-keeper for 'a wealthy cousin' in Gippsland, Victoria; on the voyage, probably in 1877, he took up with Mrs Georgina Duggan, née Johnson (1850-1924), fought with her husband and was placed in irons; in the colony the liaison led to his early dismissal. About 1878 he moved with her to New South Wales and filled a wide variety of occupations, including billiard-marker and country journalist; in 1889 he settled down in Sydney as sub-editor of the Bulletin. By 1891 he had fathered twelve children (five of whom had died) by Mrs Duggan, and was a well-known Domain speaker, School of Arts debater and member of the Socialist and Republican leagues.

In May 1891 Black joined the initial Labor Electoral League formed in West Sydney, which returned four members to parliament. Selected as one of the Labor candidates in June, he campaigned strongly at the general election, stressing the independence of the new party. Labor won all the seats in West Sydney, and thirty-one elsewhere in a House of 141. Black at once set his sights on party leadership, and at the first caucus in July had the original pledge adopted. He followed it up with a cogent parliamentary speech stating Labor's policy of 'support in return for concessions'.

Black's private life hampered him politically. He broke violently with Mrs Duggan and formed an attachment with Mrs Rosielinn (Rosalind) Clarkson, née Singleton (b.1866). Anxious to have her company at the 1891 Melbourne Cup, he described her as his wife and got a free railway pass for her. In December W. P. Crick obtained a select committee to investigate the incident; it reported in March 1892 that while Black had acted improperly, he had believed that he had conformed with customary parliamentary practice. No action was taken, but Crick and John Norton pilloried 'Baldy Black' in Truth. He replied in kind in the Australian Workman — which he edited in 1891-92 — and lectured on 'The polecat element in politics'. In June he sued Norton for £5000 and was awarded one farthing. At St Paul's Anglican Church, Hornsby, on 21 June 1894, he married Mrs Clarkson, nine days after her divorce.

Black's literary and oratorical talents kept him active and influential in the Labor Party. As the party's annual conference and central executive tightened discipline over the parliamentarians in 1891-94 he emphasized their independence and their problems: 'do not trammel them with impracticable regulations', he advised in 1893. Single-member seats applied at the 1894 general election and Black won as a 'non-solidarity' against the endorsed Labor candidate in Sydney-Gipps, the Millers Point area of West Sydney; but when that year's conference reworded the pledge he rejoined the party and retained his seat at the 1895 election. He supplemented A. Griffith's efforts in presenting a theoretical case for Labor and in giving the party a comprehensive appeal: W. Astley had written to him in 1891 that 'The thoughtful, cultured advocate of labour interests … is wanted in the House, even more than the labourer himself'. Black was a skilful pamphleteer and his Labor in Politics (1893) revealed the portentous 'educational effect' of the parliamentary party, and he pointed out that the Labor members had ensured in the third session that 'The House … never was counted out. An entirely new experience for the Parliament'.

Labor selected its ten best candidates, Black among them, to run for the Federal Convention in 1897. None was elected. His discerning analysis of the reasons for the defeat helped to set the stage next year for the withdrawal from the party of members of the Socialist League. He was lukewarm to Federation, and in April 1898 wrote forcibly against the Constitution bill in the Australian Worker. But his self-esteem, never exiguous, had outstripped his political stature and at the election that year he told his electorate that he would not beg for votes. He lost his seat. Next year he failed at a by-election for Northumberland and in St George at the 1907 election.

Black's marriage proved sustaining and he settled down as a successful, though somewhat humourless, journalist. The first editor of the Barrier Truth in 1898, he edited the Australian Worker in 1900-04, and the Bathurst National Advocate in 1908. In 1901 he published In Defence of Robert Burns, and later consolidated much of his occasional writing and became the party's first historian with his valuable, if self-centred, History of the N.S.W. Labor Party (1910) — in 1926-29 he extended and enhanced it in the 7-part A History of the N. S. W. Political Labor Party. When his wife died, childless, in 1917 his grief was expressed sensitively in To Perpetuate the Memory of Rosalind Singleton Black … (1918). He plunged into poetry with An Anzac Areopagus and Other Verses (1923).

Black was elected to the Labor Party's executive in 1901, 1903, 1911 and 1915-16. He returned to parliament as member for the Namoi in 1910, and won again in 1913. He had to mark time until 1915 to join the cabinet: minister for agriculture from 23 February to 15 March, from then he was colonial secretary and, concurrently, minister for public health from 27 April to 15 November 1916. Touches of the ridiculous marked his ministerial career; once, having stumbled over some women in a tram, he announced that he would make leg-crossing illegal on public transport. Like many other early members of the Labor Party, Black's radicalism had strong nationalist and imperialist overtones. He favoured conscription for World War I and when the party split on the issue he was expelled. He was disappointed when W. A. Holman did not include him in the new National ministry in November 1916, and he lost his seat at the 1917 general election; he was appointed to the Upper House that year and was granted retention of the title 'Honourable' for life. In 1918 he became a member of the Federal Film Censorship Board.

In the 1920s Black continued his newspaper writings, being much concerned with the growth of Communism, especially in China, and with reminiscenses of Scotland. On 11 April 1928 at Randwick he married Priscilla Verne Kelly, née Jones. He was granted £52 from the Commonwealth Literary Fund in 1930. Survived by his wife, a son and three daughters he died in the State Hospital, Lidcombe, on 18 July 1936. After a Presbyterian service he was buried in Waverley cemetery. His assets were valued for probate at £627, his liabilities were £802.

Select Bibliography

  • C. Pearl, Wild Men of Sydney (Lond, 1958)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1891-92, 5, 751, 1894-95, 1, 969
  • Australian Workman, 19 Dec 1891
  • Daily Telegraph (Melbourne), 21 Dec 1891, Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 17 Mar 1897
  • Australian Worker, 16, 23, 30 Apr 1898
  • Punch (Melbourne), 4 Nov 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 July 1936
  • George Black papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Black, George Mure (1854–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

George Mure Black (1854-1936), by unknown photographer

George Mure Black (1854-1936), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, Original : P1/Black, George

Life Summary [details]


15 February, 1854
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


18 July, 1936 (aged 82)
Lidcombe, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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