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John Daniel (Jack) Fitzgerald (1862–1922)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

John Daniel Fitzgerald (1862-1922), by May Moore

John Daniel Fitzgerald (1862-1922), by May Moore

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085129

John Daniel (Jack) Fitzgerald (1862-1922), compositor, journalist, barrister and politician, was born on 11 June 1862 at Shellharbour, New South Wales, son of John Daniel Fitzgerald, schoolteacher, and his wife Mary Ann, née Cullen, both from Limerick, Ireland. He was educated at the local public school, then at Fort Street and St Mary's Cathedral schools, Sydney. Apprenticed as a compositor at Bathurst, by 1885 he was working on the Evening News in Sydney and active in trade unionism and radical politics. He joined the Typographical Association, was president in 1887-88 and its delegate on the Trades and Labor Council, where he was elected to the executive and became a leading exponent of advanced political and social reforms. He was a member of the Socialist League and the founder of a republican league. An insatiable reader of progressive literature, he was a keen student of British socialism and trade unionism. In 1891 he was a foundation councillor of the Womanhood Suffrage League.

Jack Fitzgerald was in the forefront of the maritime strike of 1890. In September he went at his own expense to England on behalf of the Labor Defence Council to publicize the dispute; he also wanted to 'foster the spirit of kinship which has so recently developed between the old world workers and the new', following the Australian donation of about £38,000 to London dockers in their 1889 strike and his own awareness of the similarity of gross squalor in London and Sydney slums. He travelled widely, addressed many meetings and gave impetus to the 'hands across the sea' concept which, in English-speaking countries, was modulating the grim doctrine of the class war. He met prominent radicals and liberals, including Mr Gladstone, John Burns, Keir Hardie, Tom Mann, George Shipton and R. B. Cunninghame Graham; he studied municipal socialism and urban renewal in London and elsewhere, also visiting France, Germany and Italy. He later corresponded with several of his overseas friends. In March 1891 he published in the Nineteenth Century 'A reply' to H. H. Champion's attack on the leaders of the maritime strike.

Fitzgerald returned to Sydney in time to take an important part in the final stages (March) of the founding of the Labor Electoral League (Labor Party) by the T.L.C. He was one of the four party members elected for West Sydney at the June general election, and became a member of the five-man committee of advice that attempted to lead thirty-five Labor parliamentarians. A confirmed protectionist, he was not happy with the party's support of the Parkes Free Trade ministry. In October the more suitable Dibbs government took over, by which time the Labor Party was in disarray. In December a split occurred and Fitzgerald became one of the protectionist Labor members keeping Dibbs in office.

A more serious party conflict broke out in September 1892 during the Broken Hill strike: (Sir) George Reid, the new Free Trade leader, moved a simple censure motion, but would not bring the government down on a Labor amendment condemning the handling of the strike; Fitzgerald voted for the latter but, with ten other Labor protectionists, refused to support Reid's censure, and Dibbs remained in office. Of the eleven, only four, including Fitzgerald, were still regarded as belonging to the party; they were execrated by all sections of Labor and were formally expelled at a conference in November 1893. By then Fitzgerald's radicalism had acquired firmer ideological bases, influenced by the British Fabians, and by the middle-class reformism of Alfred Deakin and C. C. Kingston, with whom he corresponded. He had lost some of his trade union, Labor pragmatism and now sought social and political improvements by democratic, knowledgeable, alert and concerned professionals, operating at various levels of government.

Fitzgerald was of medium build, handsome, with a style and assurance complemented by a well-trimmed moustache and Vandyke beard. He had returned to England in 1892 and, on 26 May at Chelsea registry office, married Octavie Camille Clara Ernestine Roche: John Burns was a witness. Fitzgerald's wife was a cultivated Frenchwoman; she fostered his growing cosmopolitanism and interest in music (he played the piano), literature, art and architecture. In 1893, when registering the birth of his only child, Maria Galatea (Ara), he described himself as a painter. The same year he was a commissioner for the Chicago exhibition.

W. M. Hughes, the 'solidarity' Labor candidate, beat him at the 1894 general election. Fitzgerald lost again in 1895, at Bathurst, where he had Catholic connexions. He went back to journalism, contributed to radical papers, and edited Fairplay, the journal of the liquor trade. He worked for a time at Rockhampton, Queensland, and was editor of the Sydney Freeman's Journal in 1899-1904. In 1897 he was in London again. With the help of his brothers Tom and Dan, who had made a success of Fitzgeralds' circus (wound up in 1906), he studied law and was admitted to the New South Wales Bar on 30 April 1900. Supporting (Sir) Edmund Barton, Fitzgerald was a Federationist and contested the seat of Robertson in 1901, but lost. He was an alderman of the Sydney Municipal Council in 1900-04, and in the latter year failed as an independent to win the State seat of Belmore. In 1903 he became a member of Central Board for Old Age Pensions.

The Sydney council had not been responsive to Fitzgerald's views on the role of local government in the modernization of cities but, probably more than any other individual, he prepared public opinion for improvement in New South Wales. In 1899 he had published his Toynbee lecture, Municipal Statesmanship in Europe, What Municipal Reform has Done. He refreshed his ideas with a trip to Japan in 1903; in 1906 he stimulated discussion with Greater Sydney and Greater Newcastle; and next year 'Sydney, the cinderella of cities', in the Lone Hand, exposed some unpalatable facts. His hope that (Sir) Joseph Carruthers would be able to pass appropriate legislation was unfounded. He respected and remained loyal to Deakin, but Federal politics offered no solutions for town-planning. With the Fusion of the conservative parties under Deakin in 1909, Fitzgerald returned to the Labor Party, but was beaten by (Sir) Daniel Levy for the middle-class State seat of Darlinghurst next year, when Labor won office for the first time.

He again became active in the party and was a member of its executive in 1911-16 and vice-president in 1912. He revisited Europe in 1913 and attended the funeral of August Bebel. Fitzgerald was Labor Party president in 1915-16, marking the temporary retention of party control by the premier, W. A. Holman, and the remaining precarious influence of intellectual socialism opposed to the syndicalism and trade unionism of the 'industrialists'. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1915, and was vice-president of the Executive Council (until July 1919) and representative of the government in the council (until June 1918). Feeling keenly the plight of France and Belgium in World War I, and with his wife and daughter in Rome, he was a founder in 1915 of the Universal Service League, which sought total commitment to the war. With many others he was again expelled from the Labor Party in 1916 for supporting conscription.

In Holman's National government of that year Fitzgerald also became minister for public health and for local government. The conservatism of his new colleagues, his heavy work-load, his declining health, and wartime exigencies retarded his still-vital reformism, but he improved his departments and, building on the work of F. Flowers, facilitated progress in mother and child welfare and in the treatment of tuberculosis and venereal disease. He was president of the Health Society of New South Wales and founded the Society for the Prevention and Cure of Consumption. He provided effective leadership in the State campaign against the influenza pandemic in 1918-19.

On the death of J. R. Dacey in 1912, Fitzgerald had become chairman of the Housing Board; he helped to initiate and, with the aid of (Sir) John Sulman, controlled the early building of the 'garden suburb', Daceyville. In 1913 he was on the royal commission for a greater Sydney. A foundation member and vice-president of the Town Planning Association of New South Wales that year, he was chairman of the first interstate conference in Adelaide in 1917 and of the second in Brisbane next year. Against increasing difficulties—which included six months sick leave in 1917 when he visited the United States of America—he managed to work on a local government bill; passed in 1919, it remains a landmark in its field, although, in the end, it was a pale projection of Fitzgerald's ideas and aspirations. In 1919-20 he was solicitor-general and minister of justice.

For his assistance to French charities and to Frenchmen passing through Sydney, Fitzgerald was awarded the Légion d'honneur in 1919. He was close to Archbishop Kelly, especially in the war years, Secretary of the local Irish National League, after years of work for Home Rule—he kept in touch with John Redmond—he was isolated by the Dublin Easter rising in 1916. He was a trustee of the Public (State) Library of New South Wales in 1912-22. In 1915 he published The Rise of the N.S.W. Political Labor Party; in 1922, a novel, The Ring Valley; in 1923, stories of circus life, Children of the Sunlight, and next year, Studies in Australian Crime. He also chanced his arm at poetry and play-writing.

Fitzgerald died of cancer in his home at Darling Point, Sydney, on 4 July 1922 and was buried in the Catholic section of Waverley cemetery. He was survived by his daughter who, as Maria Galatea Clarke, achieved some notice in America for her singing. His estate was sworn for probate at £904. A portrait by Longstaff, his close friend, is in the Sydney Town Hall. Fitzgerald Avenue, Maroubra, is named after him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • P. Spearritt, Sydney Since the Twenties (Syd, 1978)
  • J. Roe (ed), Twentieth Century Sydney (Syd, 1980)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 11, 12 Mar 1891
  • Punch (Melbourne), 23 Sept 1915
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 9 May, 6 June 1916, 23 Nov 1917, 18 June 1918, 25 Feb 1919, 5 July 1922
  • Edmund Barton papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Alfred Deakin papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Carruthers papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. D. Fitzgerald papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Fitzgerald, John Daniel (Jack) (1862–1922)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

John Daniel Fitzgerald (1862-1922), by May Moore

John Daniel Fitzgerald (1862-1922), by May Moore

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an3085129

Life Summary [details]


11 June, 1862
Shellharbour, New South Wales, Australia


4 July, 1922 (aged 60)
Darling Point, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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