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Thomas (Tom) Garland (1893–1952)

by Martin Shanahan

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas (Tom) Garland (1893-1952), trade union official, was born on 1 June 1893 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of James Garland, ironworker, and his wife Agnes, née Weldon. The experience of being sent to primary school barefoot and hungry sparked Tom's determination to improve the social system and began what became a lifelong crusade. Indentured at an early age, he first tasted trade unionism when he organized and led fellow youths in the engineering shops on Clydeside. From 1910 he was an apprentice fitter with A. & J. Inglis, engineers and shipbuilders; later that year he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. When war broke out in August 1914 he began full-time service as an engine-room artificer, and completed his apprenticeship in that capacity. He went to sea in H.M.S. Drake (1914-15) and Caroline (1915-16), and saw action in the battle of Jutland. From November 1916 he trained boy artificers at Portsmouth, England, until invalided out of the navy on 25 September 1919.

Attracted by Australia's promise of peace and prosperity, Garland emigrated to Victoria in 1921 and worked for the State Electricity Co., first as a leading hand constructing the Yallourn to Melbourne power network, then as a fitter at the Yallourn plant. At St Brigid's Catholic Church, North Fitzroy, on 9 February 1924 he married Edith Mary Downey. A local shop steward for the Amalgamated Engineering Union, he was dismissed from his job for his part in establishing a combined unions' committee to represent the workers. With his wife he moved to Adelaide, where he worked for Holden's Motor Body Builders Ltd.

In 1928 Garland gave the initial lecture at the Marx-Engels Club. Next year he was elected president of the Adelaide district committee of the A.E.U. and was its delegate to the United Trades and Labor Council of South Australia. Attracted by its promise of a better society, he joined the Communist Party of Australia and was on the council responsible for the waterside workers' strike in 1930. He was also secretary of the Unemployed Prisoners Relief Committee which assisted those arrested in the 'beef riot' of 10 January 1931. After organizing two effective strikes, he was sacked by Holden's in 1932.

Garland put his personal comfort and that of his family second to his fight for workers' rights. His struggle to achieve a better society found expression in factory-gate meetings, in pamphlets such as Contrasts (1932) and The Slums of Adelaide (1940), in newspaper articles and in radio broadcasts. Standing on a communist, socialist or independent ticket, he was defeated in elections for the House of Assembly (1933 and 1941), the House of Representatives (1934) and the Senate (1940). Although self-educated, he was a trenchant debater. His mordant wit, principled and passionate views, and oratorical skills made him an entertaining speaker. At the University of Adelaide in 1934 he debated the motion 'That in the opinion of this house Communism, so far from being a menace, is a necessity to any civilised country', and lost by only seven votes.

In May 1933 Garland had become secretary of the Anti-War Council (from 1934 Council Against War and Fascism). In 1935 he was a U.T.L.C. delegate to the Australasian Council of Trade Unions congress which declared 'uncompromising hostility to capitalist wars'. Following Hitler's and Stalin's non-aggression pact in August 1939, Garland's house was raided and documents were seized. The incident in no way deterred him. At Prospect, on 26 June 1940, he addressed a meeting of the League Against Conscription, thereby contravening the regulations of the National Security Act (1939); in November he was convicted and fined. By 1942, however, after Germany had invaded Russia, and Australia was directly threatened by Japan, Garland publicly criticized opponents of conscription.

World War II applied a strong brake to industrial disputation, while providing opportunities for employers to challenge workers' wages and conditions. Meanwhile, concern that economic depression might recur with the resumption of peace led some people to plan for reconstruction. Garland directed his energies towards both issues. He fought to maintain industrial working conditions, and helped to resolve several major disputes, including those at Holden's in 1944, and the railways and tramways strikes in 1945. In the latter year he resigned from the C.P.A., citing a difference over tactics in dealing with 'liberal bourgeois organisations' as the reason. The difference arose mainly from his membership of Common Cause, a movement based on 'a common denominator of patriotism and self sacrifice' which aimed to implement a better postwar society. After Garland and the Rev. Guy Pentreath had each published his vision for the future in the Adelaide Mail in August 1942, Garland and J. W. Wainwright, with twelve others, founded the movement. Common Cause sought a better deal for workers and a more peaceful society. The movement initially attracted support from a wide spectrum of South Australians, but was disbanded in 1949.

In 1937-46 Garland had been secretary of the Gasworkers' Union, the first C.P.A. member to be a trade-union secretary in the State. He led the 'stay-in' strikes that advanced his members' conditions. President (1936-37 and 1943-45) of the U.T.L.C., he became its secretary in 1946 and immediately resigned from all positions which he thought might compromise his office. The succeeding years witnessed a period of tension and dispute between workers and employers. In 1949, following a newspaper campaign against him and a swing towards a more conservative U.T.L.C., Garland lost the secretaryship. Again he paid for his activism, finding it difficult to obtain work, but he was finally offered the post of secretary-clerk at the McKechnie Iron Foundry.

Although he was short in stature, Garland's energy and willingness to argue for his convictions made him appear a much larger man. In his efforts to improve social outcomes, he gave little thought to his own employment security or material well-being. These attributes led many to regard him as being 'without peer' in the union movement. He suffered from heart disease and attributed it to the extreme conditions he had endured between decks as an artificer. Survived by his wife, son and daughter, he died of coronary thrombosis on 14 February 1952 at his Kilkenny home and was cremated. On hearing of his death, George Ball wrote:

His spirit still survives
and beckons to the fight,
to help our comrades in distress
and win the cause that's right.

Select Bibliography

  • J. Moss, Sound of Trumpets (Adel, 1985)
  • Torch, 31 July 1946
  • Journal of the Historical Society of South Australia, 16, 1988
  • Herald (Melbourne), 21 Oct 1940
  • Worker's Weekly, 14 Sept 1934
  • Mail (Adelaide), 15, 29 Aug 1942
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 16 Jan, 16 Nov 1940, 5 Apr 1944, 15 Feb 1952
  • J. Playford, History of the Left Wing of the South Australian Labour Movement, 1908-36 (B.A. Hons thesis, University of Adelaide, 1958)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Martin Shanahan, 'Garland, Thomas (Tom) (1893–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


1 June, 1893
Glasgow, Lanarkshire, Scotland


14 February, 1952 (aged 58)
Kilkenny, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia

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