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Arthur Samuel Drakeford (1878–1957)

by Frank Bongiorno

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Arthur Samuel Drakeford (1878-1957), by Ronald Esler, 1940s

Arthur Samuel Drakeford (1878-1957), by Ronald Esler, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23609281

Arthur Samuel Drakeford (1878-1957), engine driver, trade unionist and politician, was born on 26 April 1878 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, second son of Samuel Finch Drakeford, a jeweller from England, and his Victorian-born wife Elizabeth Margaret, née Josephs. On leaving school, Arthur found work as a railway-engine cleaner at Benalla. At the local Presbyterian manse on 9 May 1902 he married a widow Ellen Tyrie, née Warrington (d.1906). In 1903 he participated in the Victorian railway strike and became secretary of the Benalla branch of the Locomotive Engine Drivers' and Firemen's Association. He also joined the Labor Party.

Having qualified as an engine driver, in 1908 Drakeford transferred to Melbourne. On 19 April 1911 he married Ellen Unger at the office of the government statist, Queen Street. Elected to the State executive of the L.E.D.F.A., he was its vice-president (1914-15), president (1916-17) and general secretary (from 1918). On the formation of the Australian Federated Union of Locomotive Enginemen in 1920, he was chosen as federal secretary. He made arrangements for the union's registration with the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, and expertly argued its case for a Federal award in 1924-25. An energetic organizer, he was national president (1929-48) and a life-member (from 1929) of the A.F.U.L.E. Drakeford had been a founder of the Commonwealth Council of Federated Unions in 1923 and was senior vice-president when it was superseded by the Australasian Council of Trade Unions in 1927. He was a consistent advocate of the standard railway gauge.

After his union affiliated with the Australian Labor Party, Drakeford became senior vice-president (1928) and president (1929) of the Labor Party's Victorian central executive. He represented Essendon in the Legislative Assembly from 1927 until he was defeated in 1932, mainly as a result of his opposition to the Premiers' Plan. In 1934 he won the Federal seat of Maribyrnong from the Labor renegade J. E. Fenton. Maurice Blackburn's decision to give Drakeford his proxy secured John Curtin's election to the party leadership next year. The Menzies government made Drakeford a member of the Manpower and Resources Survey Committee in 1941.

In October Drakeford was appointed minister for air and for civil aviation in the new Labor government; he was to hold both portfolios until 1949. Initially, he relied on the guidance of senior departmental and Royal Australian Air Force officers. He endeavoured to resolve the R.A.A.F.'s higher command problems, did not feign expertise on air strategy, and generally confined his attention to budgetary matters and to the allocation of manpower and resources. Airmen admired him for advancing their interests. A member of the War Cabinet in 1941-46, he was briefly minister for the navy in 1946. He stood unsuccessfully for the deputy-leadership of the Labor Party that year.

Drakeford's most enduring achievement was in laying the foundation for the expansion of Australian civil aviation after the war. He had long favoured the nationalization of the domestic airline industry. In 1945 he introduced the Australian national airlines bill which, when enacted, empowered the Australian National Airlines Commission to take over interstate services. Next year the commission established Trans-Australia Airlines. A decision by the High Court of Australia invalidated Drakeford's attempt to create a government monopoly and T.A.A. was forced to compete against private companies. In 1946-47 he oversaw the government's purchase of Qantas Empire Airways Ltd, Australia's major overseas carrier. Vice-president (1946) of the Provisional International Civil Aviation Organization's conference at Montreal, Canada, he was president of the first assembly of the permanent body in 1947.

Although he was a moderate socialist, Drakeford campaigned vigorously against the 1951 referendum proposal to ban the Communist Party of Australia. He narrowly lost his seat in 1955, a casualty of Labor's split. Small and bespectacled, he was an energetic man who carried into political life the qualities of honesty and loyalty which had characterized his trade-union career. He was clear minded rather than brilliant, and won respect for his 'obvious personal integrity'. Devoted to his family, Drakeford read widely and loved sport, especially horse-racing and Australian Rules football. His support aided Melbourne's successful bid for the 1956 Olympic Games.

Drakeford died on 9 June 1957 at his Moonee Ponds home; following a state funeral, he was cremated. His wife and their four daughters survived him, as did the son of his first marriage, Arthur Harold Finch Drakeford, who represented Essendon (1945-47) and Pascoe Vale (1955-58) in the Legislative Assembly.

Select Bibliography

  • D. Gillison, Royal Australian Air Force 1939-1942 (Canb, 1962)
  • S. Brogden, Australia's Two-Airline Policy (Melb, 1968)
  • N. W. de Pomeroy and R. Gilbert (eds), Men of the Footplate (Melb, 1992)
  • Locomotive Journal, 8 Nov 1941, p 30, 11 July 1957, p 2
  • Essendon Gazette, 5 May 1932
  • Labor Call, 15 Jan 1942
  • ALP (Victoria Branch) minutes, 1924-29 (State Library of Victoria)
  • Drakeford papers (National Library of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

Frank Bongiorno, 'Drakeford, Arthur Samuel (1878–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Arthur Samuel Drakeford (1878-1957), by Ronald Esler, 1940s

Arthur Samuel Drakeford (1878-1957), by Ronald Esler, 1940s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23609281

Life Summary [details]


26 April, 1878
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


9 June, 1957 (aged 79)
Moonee Ponds, Melbourne, Victoria, 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.