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Peter Bowling (1864–1942)

by Robin Gollan and Moira Scollay

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Peter Bowling (1864-1942), coalminer and union leader, was born at Dunfermline, Fifeshire, Scotland, son of Patrick Bowling, miner, and his wife Marguerite, née MacGuire. At 12 he began work in the local mines. Arriving in New South Wales at 20, he worked in several coal-mines around Newcastle. On 5 September 1889 at the Roman Catholic church, Branxton, he married Mary Ann Madden. In the early 1890s Bowling worked briefly in the Gippsland mines and helped to found a miners' union. Returning to New South Wales, in 1893 he was elected an official of the Back Creek (Minmi) miners' lodge.

From 1897 Bowling was a member of the Australian Socialist League. He was later influenced by the ideology of the anarcho-syndicalist Industrial Workers of the World and favoured strong union organization and direct action. In 1904 he became treasurer of the northern Colliery Employees' Federation and was president in 1906-10. Largely due to his influence, the unions on northern, southern and western fields were brought together in 1908 as the Coal and Shale Employees' Federation. That year he was vice-president of the Trades Union Congress in Sydney; at the 1909 congress he led a bitter attack on the State Labor politicians.

Unrest was endemic on the coalfields, aggravated by the nature of the work and the intransigence of the owners; a militant socialist, Bowling believed that a full-scale battle would win concessions, strengthen the new federation and establish the truth of the direct action philosophy. Taking advantage of an accumulation of grievances, he agitated for a general strike, which was called on 6 November 1909; he devised an ingenious scheme to finance it 'by keeping two mines independent of the Vend at work and sharing the profits with their owners'. Bowling and W. M. Hughes were the outstanding members of the Strike Congress of representatives of miners, waterside workers and coal-lumpers, formed in Sydney to manage the strike. Throughout, Hughes counselled moderation and urged the miners to accept the State government's proposal of a wages board. Defying the congress, Bowling encouraged the coal-lumpers to refuse to unload a Japanese ship carrying coal and openly differed from Hughes on tactics. On 4 December he returned to Newcastle and was arrested with two other union officials on a charge of conspiracy. Out on bail, he addressed a mass meeting and violently attacked Hughes.

Bowling was tried under (Sir) Charles Gregory Wade's amendments to the Industrial Disputes Act, rushed through parliament on 16 December. Sentenced to two and a half years imprisonment, he was taken to Goulburn gaol in leg-irons. By March 1910 the strike had been completely defeated. However, in April the issue contributed to the rout of Deakin's Federal government and in October, after an electoral campaign which featured posters depicting Bowling in prison-dress and in leg-irons, Labor won office for the first time in New South Wales. Bowling was promptly released.

Invited by the Federation of Labor, he visited New Zealand on a lecture tour and in his absence lost the presidency of the northern miners to a moderate. For a short time, until December 1913, Bowling was secretary of the southern miners, then worked in the Balmain colliery and at the Homebush abattoirs. In 1916 he actively campaigned in Newcastle against conscription, but he had four sons at the front, and next year changed his mind.

From about 1920 until he retired in the 1930s Bowling worked mainly on the Sydney wharves. At the time of the miners' strike he was of medium height, broad-shouldered and florid, with grey hair, a moustache and jutting chin. Aged 78 and survived by six sons and a daughter, he died of cerebral arteriosclerosis in the Sacred Heart Hospice, Darlinghurst, on 22 February 1942 and was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Woronora cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Gollan, The Coalminers of New South Wales (Melb, 1963)
  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes, vol 1 (Syd, 1964)
  • I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics (Canb, 1965)
  • E. Ross, A History of the Miners' Federation of Australia (Syd, 1970)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1896, 3, 835
  • Commonweal (Melbourne), 1 Dec 1910
  • Punch (Melbourne), 28 Nov 1907, 25 Nov 1909
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 9, 11 Dec 1909
  • Argus (Melbourne), 28, 29 Oct, 2, 17, 21 Nov, 23 Dec 1910, 10, 17 Jan 1911, 16 Sept 1913
  • Bulletin, 6 May 1926
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 16 July 1937
  • Common Cause (Sydney), 20, 28 Feb 1960
  • manuscript catalogue under P. Bowling (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Robin Gollan and Moira Scollay, 'Bowling, Peter (1864–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 14 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


Dunfermline, Fife, Scotland


22 February, 1942 (aged ~ 78)
Darlinghurst, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cause of Death


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