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Thomas Glassey (1844–1936)

by Ian Lipke

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Thomas Glassey (1844-1936), by Swiss Studios

Thomas Glassey (1844-1936), by Swiss Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23431938

Thomas Glassey (1844-1936), politician, was born on 26 February 1844 at Markethill, Armagh, Ireland, son of Wilhelm Glassey, mill hand, and his wife Susannah, who died when Thomas was an infant. First employed at 6 in linen mills, he became a letter-carrier and then at 13 left an unhappy home to live with a married sister in Scotland and work in coal-mines. Self-educated, he became a trade-union activist, was blacklisted and was forced in 1867 to move to Bedlington in Northumberland, England. At Airdrie, Scotland, on 3 August 1864, he had married Margaret White; they had six sons and four daughters. Overwork in organizing a franchise reform campaign sent him into a Dublin hospital in 1877. He then worked in a Bedlington co-operative store, became an auctioneer and was a member of the Bedlington Local Board in 1881-83.

Glassey and his family sailed for Queensland in the Merkara on 23 September 1884. Settling first at Bundaberg, he soon moved to Brisbane, joined the Post Office briefly, then became an auctioneer in Fortitude Valley. At the request of coalminer friends, he called the meeting in 1886 at Bundamba which created the Ipswich Coal Miners' Mutual Protective Association of which he became secretary.

Elected to the Legislative Assembly in May 1888 as a trade union candidate supporting the Liberals, he was soon respected for his pugnacity and devotion to principle. Although his zealous moralizing irritated other members, it won votes from newspaper readers who did not have to listen to him. His radical notion that only those few with capital had the opportunity to practise the classical liberal creed and that laissez faire liberalism merely gave ideological legitimacy to the maintenance of social and moral evils, was premature in Queensland.

Accepted by the Australian Labor Federation, Glassey accompanied Gilbert Casey and Albert Hinchcliffe on a triumphant organizing trip in the north and west. His effective membership of a factories and works commission ensured radical recommendations, and his defence of union interests after the shearing strike of 1891 made him the idol of unionists but most unpopular in parliament. When three more Labor members were elected, the party held its first convention in August 1892; Glassey presided as central executive chairman.

At the 1893 election he joined Sir Charles Lilley in an attempt to unseat Sir Thomas McIlwraith from North Brisbane. It was a miscalculation. Glassey himself was defeated and failed again when he tried Bundamba. Financed by a public subscription, he toured New Zealand and the United States of America for his health. On his return John Plumper Hoolan resigned his Burke seat in May 1894; Glassey won it and succeeded Hoolan as Labor leader. Slightly built, with a loud voice, he was eminently honest and respectable, yet lacked ability as leader. He abandoned Burke in 1896 to challenge a ministerial supporter in Bundaberg, won easily and for some time was able to pacify the opposing factions. In 1898 the Labor Party finally became the formal parliamentary Opposition and in his role as leader he represented Queensland on the Federal Council of Australasia. He was now increasingly falling out with his party colleagues.

Following the death of his wife in 1899 Glassey declined nomination as leader and began to urge the unpopular causes of Federation and support for the British in South Africa. He refused to join the short-lived ministry of Andrew Dawson, then resigned as Labor member for Bundaberg, renominated as an Independent and resoundingly defeated Hinchcliffe, the endorsed Labor candidate.

Standing as a Protectionist Glassey became a senator for Queensland in 1901. Although his White Australia speech was one of the most effective delivered in the new parliament, he was defeated in 1903. Inclined now to rural populism, he maintained a keen interest in reform, contested Bundamba and Fortitude Valley in 1904 and 1907 and tried again for the Senate in 1910, but was always defeated. He served the State government in 1911-12 as an immigration officer in England, and in 1917 was a founder of the Nationalist Party in Queensland. A director of the New Aberdare Colliery Ltd from 1913, he lived simply, died in Brisbane on 28 September 1936 and was buried in Toowong cemetery with Presbyterian forms.

Select Bibliography

  • JRHSQ, 4 (1946), no 2
  • Brisbane Courier, 21 May 1886, 27 Feb 1891, 16 Aug, 8, 12, 15, 17 Sept 1894
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 26 May 1886, 2 Mar 1896, 27 Feb 1934
  • Queensland Times, 26 Apr, 10 May 1888
  • Boomerang, 23 June 1888
  • Worker (Brisbane), 2 May, 25 July 1891, 3 Dec 1892, 22 Apr, 13 May 1893, 15 Sept 1894, 12 Dec 1903
  • I. Lipke, Thomas Glassey … (M.A. qual thesis, University of Queensland, 1975)
  • S. A. Rayner, The Evolution of the Queensland Labor Party to 1907 (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1947)
  • Glassey papers (State Library of Queensland).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Ian Lipke, 'Glassey, Thomas (1844–1936)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 20 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Thomas Glassey (1844-1936), by Swiss Studios

Thomas Glassey (1844-1936), by Swiss Studios

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23431938

Life Summary [details]


26 February, 1844
Markethill, Armagh, Ireland


28 September, 1936 (aged 92)
Brisbane, Queensland, 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.

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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.