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James Howard Catts (1877–1951)

by Arthur Hoyle

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

James Howard Catts (1877-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

James Howard Catts (1877-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366298

James Howard Catts (1877-1951), union secretary, politician and businessman, was born on 12 August 1877 at Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, son of James Catts, joiner and grocer, and his wife Amy née Hedger. As a child he lived with his stern Methodist paternal grandfather at Stanmore and attended Macdonaldtown Public School, leaving at 13 when the family business at Orange failed.

From 1894 Catts helped his parents run a bakery at Forbes, earning extra money in a brick-pit and as a shearers' cook. At 17 he became secretary of the Forbes branches of the Farmers and Settlers' and the Progress associations; in 1900-03 he was general secretary of the United Progress Association of New South Wales. A teetotaller and firm advocate of temperance, he was organizing secretary in Sydney in 1901-02 of the New South Wales Temperance Alliance. In 1903 he became general secretary of the 350-man New South Wales Amalgamated Railway and Tramway Service Association and editor of the Railway and Tramway Review (later the Co-operator), and in 1905 federal secretary of the Railway and Tramway Employees' Association. In 1913, when he resigned, the State union had 15,000 members. He was the workers' representative on the Railway Superannuation Board in 1910-15, general secretary of the Australian Union Federation and president of the Australasian Labour Federation in 1913-14, and founder of the United Secretaries' Association in 1915.

An unsuccessful Labor contender for Granville in the 1904 State elections, Catts won Cook in the House of Representatives in 1906, being the youngest member to that stage. He quickly became friendly with King O'Malley, supporting his Commonwealth Bank scheme, at the same time laying the foundations of a much-tried but firm friendship with W. M. Hughes. Despite a halting delivery he spoke frequently in parliament on many subjects, seeking to make up with persistence what he lacked in size and personality. He strongly supported protection and as a fervent Australian nationalist wanted legislation to ensure that only the Australian-born could become prime minister. He married Eva Alice Weber on 12 August 1907 at St James's Anglican Church, Sydney; they had one son and were divorced in 1920.

Catts's painstaking industry and ability were soon recognized: he became caucus secretary and directed the Federal and State Labor campaigns in New South Wales from 1914 until January 1922. A member of the Federal Parliamentary War Committee, he was New South Wales director of voluntary recruiting in 1915-16, producing the weekly Call to Arms and organizing the highly successful route-marches of country volunteers. In March 1916 he was appointed chairman of the Commonwealth Prices Adjustment Board, but soon resigned to lead the New South Wales no-conscription campaign. Loyal to the majority group when the party split over conscription, he was prosecuted seven times under the War Precautions Act (1914) for asserting that a pro-German Japan had designs on Australia.

After the war Catts denounced communism and the 'criminality, graft and corruption' of the Australian Workers' Union faction which controlled the State Labor executive under J. Bailey. Accusing him of sectarianism, the executive expelled him from the party in April 1922; he ran unsuccessfully at the December elections for the breakaway Majority Australian Labor Party. With his second wife Dorothy Marguerite, née Purcell, whom he had married on 8 September 1920 at St Stephen's Presbyterian Church, Sydney, Catts now established a successful printing and publishing agency, Associated Business Services, editing and publishing the Australian Home Budget and several suburban papers. As a (Federal) Labor candidate he failed to win the seat of Martin in 1931; he became a member of the party's State executive, opposed to the (State) Lang Labor Party. As a United Australia Party candidate he lost in East Sydney in 1940; he also failed to be elected to the Sydney Municipal Council in 1944, the year he retired.

Catts subsequently pursued his hobby of astronomy, becoming secretary and treasurer of the New South Wales branch of the British Astronomical Association. Survived by his second wife and their son and three daughters, he died on 26 November 1951 at Huntley's Point, and was cremated after a Methodist service.

Dorothy Marguerite Catts (1896-1961), businesswoman and writer, was born on 1 March 1896 at Beecroft, New South Wales, daughter of Peter Purcell, builder, and his wife Frances Eliza, née Lepherd. Through the Australian Home Budget she established the first large paper-pattern service in Australia and ran a medical and home guidance department by post. Well-known for her journalism and public speaking, she co-edited with Ruth Beatrice Fairfax the Countrywoman in New South Wales, and wrote eight historical novels with Australian themes, and biographies of O'Malley and her husband. A friend of (Dame) Mary Gilmore from childhood, she was a president of the Society of Women Writers of New South Wales, and foundation president of the Huntley's Point branch of the Australian Red Cross Society. She died on 10 March 1961 at Young.

Select Bibliography

  • British Australasian, 6, 13 Apr 1911
  • Punch (Melbourne), 1 July 1909, 17 Apr 1913, 23 Mar 1916
  • Australasian (Melbourne), 11 Apr 1914, 26 July 1919, 17 Apr 1920
  • Australian Worker, 11 Dec 1919, 10 May 1922
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 7, 12, 25 Jan, 8, 10, Apr, 7 July, 22 Oct 1922, 26 Aug 1940
  • D. and J. H. Catts papers (National Library of Australia)
  • King O'Malley papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Arthur Hoyle, 'Catts, James Howard (1877–1951)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

James Howard Catts (1877-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

James Howard Catts (1877-1951), by T. Humphrey & Co., 1908

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23366298

Life Summary [details]


12 August, 1877
Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia


26 November, 1951 (aged 74)
Huntley's Point, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.