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Ernest Henry Farrar (1879–1952)

by Ken Turner

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Ernest Henry Farrar (1879-1952), by unknown photographer

Ernest Henry Farrar (1879-1952), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 37857

Ernest Henry Farrar (1879-1952), trade unionist and politician, was born on 3 February 1879 at Barnsley, Yorkshire, England, son of Henry Farrar, ironmoulder, and his wife Mary Elizabeth, née Buckley. Brought to Australia as an infant, he was educated at Granville and Petersham Superior Public schools, Sydney, and attended Methodist Sunday schools. He became a shearer and later a saddler and wool-presser, working in New Zealand and Tasmania for a time and on H. E. Kater's Mumblebone station, New South Wales about 1904; at 17 he joined the Australian Workers' Union.

In 1902 Farrar helped to found the Saddle and Harness Makers' Union, becoming its State secretary, and was foundation president of the Australian Saddlery Trades Employees' Federation in 1907-12. A member of the executive of the Political Labor League of New South Wales from 1908, he was vice-president in 1909-10, 1911-12 and 1915-16, and president in 1912-14. He was also president of the Labor Council of New South Wales in 1910. In 1912 he was nominated to the Legislative Council and in 1915-22 served as president of the Board of Fire Commissioners of New South Wales.

Although in September 1915 Farrar protested against the unauthorized attachment of his name to the Universal Service League manifesto, when conciliation proved impossible and voluntary enlistment seemed insufficient, he later campaigned vigorously for conscription. He attacked the expulsion from the Political Labor League of W. A. Holman and his followers, pointing out months after the split that, since no one could get his job, he had not been expelled although he had travelled the State supporting Holman. At State and Federal levels, Farrar helped to draft the constitutions of the new National Party, was a State vice-president in 1917-32 and regularly attended interstate meetings.

Minister for labour and industry in Sir George Fuller's ministry in 1922-25 and under (Sir) Thomas Bavin in 1927-30, Farrar was in a 'hot seat'. Despite his impressive industry, Fuller had to defend him in May 1922 against rumours that cabinet colleagues were critical of him. However by 1924 registered unemployment had declined from 14,500 in April 1922 to a monthly average of 8790 in 1924. Occasional deputations which became offensive or violent had to be ordered out of his office. He was also singled out for Labor abuse: in 1926 the Labor Daily called him 'a conceited and shallow but ambitious … political renegade … ever the most venomous enemy of those he has betrayed'.

Farrar could claim ministerial credit for some major public works, for dedicated effort and accessibility as a minister and for personal generosity to and concern for the unemployed, yet he fully shared his contemporaries' failure of comprehension and vision at the outset of the Depression. By April 1930 there were 50,000 registered unemployed in New South Wales. Although the numbers employed on public works did increase, the early measures of the Council for Prevention and Relief of Unemployment (of which Farrar was deputy chairman) were restricted and heavily dependent upon private initiatives and support.

Although as late as September 1931 Farrar was still strongly non-Labor, he saw himself as still in some way a union man. In 1932 he became honorary chairman of the Employment Council of New South Wales and chaired sessions of the first State convention of the United Australia Party; in 1933-34 he sat on its council. On the reconstruction of the Legislative Council in 1934 and in 1946 he was elected for twelve-year terms. With the waning of the J. T. Lang threat, Farrar moved towards the final phase of his career—the 'above politics' parliamentary officer. From May 1934 until April 1946 he was chairman of committees in the council, besides being acting-president for almost six months in 1938 and deputy-president for three months in 1941. Unanimously chosen president in 1946, he continued in office after Labor won control of the council in 1940. Both sides respected his fair and efficient management of debates and his scholarly study of procedural authorities and traditions. In 1946 his casting vote defeated the Legislative Council abolition bill.

Throughout his career, Farrar was active in the Empire Parliamentary Association and his feeling for the Empire remained strong. After playing an active part in its planning from mid-1922, he went to England as an executive commissioner for the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1924. On his return he promoted British immigration. He was also a Freemason, a trustee of Ku-ring-gai Chase, the Australian Museum, Sydney, and Sydney Grammar School, a founder and president of the National Club, and a member of Manly Bowling Club.

On 6 February 1911 at Forest Lodge he had married Susan Priscilla Whitfield with Baptist forms; they lived at Manly. Farrar died in hospital at Manly with coronary occlusion on 16 June 1952 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his son.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Roe (ed), Social Policy in Australia (Syd, 1976), Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 1952-53, p 7, 19
  • Australian Journal of Politics and History, Aug 1964, p 205
  • P. D. and E. H. Farrar papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

Ken Turner, 'Farrar, Ernest Henry (1879–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Ernest Henry Farrar (1879-1952), by unknown photographer

Ernest Henry Farrar (1879-1952), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 37857

Life Summary [details]


3 February, 1879
Barnsley, Yorkshire, England


16 June, 1952 (aged 73)
Manly, Sydney, New South Wales, 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.

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.