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Henry Daglish (1866–1920)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Henry Daglish (1866-1920), public servant and politician, was born on 18 November 1866 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of William Daglish, engine driver, and his wife Mary Ann, née James. Educated in Geelong, he matriculated, and was apprenticed to mechanical engineering in Humble & Nicholson's foundry. On 28 July 1883 he joined the public service as a clerk in the Police Department. Nicknamed 'the lean and hungry', he was a teetotaller and protégé of Samuel Mauger in temperance action. He was also interested in the labour movement. By June 1895 he was temporary secretary of a new United Public Service Association and in September he went into business. Next year he was at the bottom of the poll in a South Melbourne by-election on a radical programme.

Daglish went to Western Australia in 1896 and joined the Police Department next year. He settled in Subiaco and soon became involved in local politics. He was a municipal councillor from 1900 and mayor in 1903-04 and 1906-07. He joined the Subiaco Political Labor League, and in 1901, after winning Subiaco with the biggest majority in the State, he became whip of the parliamentary Labor Party of six, all of whom, except Daglish, represented goldfields seats, and had no administrative experience. He first became prominent in a defiant statement to the labour congress of 1902, asserting the right of members of parliament to independent judgment. Party leader Robert Hastie then offered to stand down for him.

Withdrawal of Labor support from the (Sir) W. H. James ministry in August 1903 led to a general election in June 1904. The twenty-two Labor members were the biggest single party in the new House. After strong opposition Daglish became leader. He was described by a parliamentary official as 'tall and of fine presence with a powerful if not pleasing voice'; but Melbourne Punch thought him 'thin and consumptive' with 'big goo-goo eyes, cadaverous cheeks', long neck and 'floppy ears'. The government's attempt to include an expression of confidence in the governor's address was defeated; James resigned, and Daglish became the first Labor premier of Western Australia. With serious financial problems and an inexperienced ministry drawn mainly from warring goldfields unions, Daglish had no easy task and his aloofness made it more difficult. Fortunately caucus permitted him to choose his own colleagues: he administered the Treasury and the Education Department.

His keynote speech, delivered at Subiaco on 23 August without consulting anybody, was a blunder. Obsessed by financial difficulties, he forecast a 'mark time policy', an expression he was never allowed to forget. Militant supporters felt other aspects of the speech to be a rejection of the fighting platform. His appointment of James as agent-general was regarded by some as political dishonesty; the ensuing by-election was lost, but an agreement with a loose group of independents saved the day. A hostile Legislative Council rejected much of the government's programme and its one major success was a new Public Service Act. Radical supporters resented acceptance of the council's actions.

During the Christmas recess Daglish reconstructed his ministry. His replacement of George Taylor and John B. Holman by Thomas Bath and Patrick J. Lynch was clumsily executed but in June 1905 he defeated a caucus vote of no-confidence. Though publicly rebuked by the State labour congress for the exemptions in his land tax legislation, Daglish won some support for deferring conflict with the Legislative Council, and for his refusal to accept non-alienation of crown lands. In the second session he sought a coalition with the Independents; when they proposed that C. J. Moran replace him as premier, the scheme collapsed. In August there were further fruitless negotiations for a coalition with the Opposition. When faced with a no confidence motion, however, the Independents voted with the government.

The ministry had decided to offer £1,500,000 for the assets of the Midland Railway Co.: its opponents believed the price excessive. When Daglish sought parliamentary approval on 17 August, the motion was lost. On 22 August he announced his ministry's resignation and on 27 August resigned as party leader. In apologizing to his constituents, he said that he had never been happy about the party pledge but had temporarily accepted it and believed that it was cancelled with the dissolution; he had found caucus impossible to satisfy and experience had shown him that the party's policy of non-alienation of crown lands was impractical. In Kalgoorlie his deputy W. D. Johnson hinted that the resignation may have been partly a strategy that misfired when Opposition leader C. H. Rason was unexpectedly successful in forming a ministry.

At the next election in October Daglish won Subiaco as an Independent Labor candidate. When he urged in July 1907 that there was no need for party warfare in Western Australia, because there was no fundamental difference between the parties, old colleagues attacked him in the press. In August he was elected chairman of committees and, after winning his seat again in 1908, drifted into the Liberal camp. From September 1910 to October 1911, he was minister for works in the Frank Wilson ministry.

Daglish was defeated in 1911 and became an estate agent. In March 1912 he was appointed employers' representative on the State Arbitration Court at £6 a week. He died of cancer on 16 August 1920 and was buried privately in the Congregational section of Karrakatta cemetery. His estate, valued for probate at £342, was left to his wife Edith, née Bishop, whom he had married at Carlton, Melbourne, on 20 August 1894. They had two children.  A small suburb within the municipality of Subiaco was proclaimed a townsite in his honour in 1928.

Hostility to Daglish in the Labor Party died quickly because he was consistent and sincere and never became a real opponent. In 1910 he was not contradicted when he claimed in the House that his political views were totally unchanged. When elected leader he was the only possible choice but he had no real understanding of the labour movement. The opposition of party radicals to him only hastened an inevitable outcome.

Select Bibliography

  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labour in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • P. Loveday et al (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • University Studies in History, Sept 1955, 32-61
  • Argus (Melbourne), 11, 26 May 1896
  • Bulletin, 13 Oct 1904
  • Punch (Melbourne), 9 Feb 1905
  • Southern Times (Bunbury), 30 Mar 1905
  • West Australian, 10-12, 17 Oct 1905
  • Western Argus (Kalgoorlie), 17 Oct 1905
  • Labor Call, 26 Aug 1920
  • E. S. Buttfield, The Daglish Ministry 1904-5 (M.A. thesis, University of Western Australia, 1979)
  • A. R. Grant memoirs, MS 280 (ML)
  • CO 418/33/494, 40/521
  • CSO 3401/96, 1612/97 (State Library of Western Australia)
  • Files 1895/B7, 153, P1895/1786, 7153, P1896/3306 (Public Record Office Victoria).

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Daglish, Henry (1866–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


18 November, 1866
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


16 August, 1920 (aged 53)

Religious Influence

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