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Robert Aloysius (Bob) Hartley (1897–1991)

by Bobbie Oliver

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Robert Aloysius (Bob) Hartley (1897–1991), trade union official and political party organiser, was born on 30 December 1897 at Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, England, only son and elder child of John Hartley, cotton weaver, and his wife Isabella, née Sumner. The family migrated to Western Australia in 1911, and Bob and his father found work at the timber mill at Wuraming, near Dwellingup, in the south west of the State. The mill was among several public enterprises established by the State’s first majority Australian Labor Party (ALP) government, led by John Scaddan. Hartley worked as a timber loader.

On 22 September 1915 Hartley enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a gunner. His father joined the AIF in March 1916 and died of illness in England in December; his mother died in Perth in February 1917. Hartley served on the Western Front in the 12th (Army) Brigade, Australian Field Artillery, from March 1917, and was promoted to bombardier the next year. Returning to Australia in June 1919, he was discharged from the AIF on 30 August. At the time of his marriage to Ellen Veronica Vettler at St Mary’s Catholic Cathedral, Perth, on 5 July 1922, his occupation was blacksmith and hers was dressmaker. She had grown up in a Labor family and was actively involved in union and party activities, including as a member of the Perth Labor Women’s Organisation and as president (1946) of the Labor Women’s Central Executive.

Involved since his youth in the ALP and the union movement, Hartley was a delegate on the Metropolitan District Council, and a member of the State executive. In 1940 he became secretary of the Cleaners’ and Caretakers’ Union. He was also a regular speaker on radio 6KY, a union-owned radio station. In 1943 he was elected secretary of the Metropolitan District Council and Perth Trades Hall which, until an independent Trades and Labor Council of Western Australia was created in 1963, was under the control of the ALP. He was later elected to the State Disputes Committee (1944–50), which settled conflicts that crossed ALP council boundaries.

As secretary Hartley inherited a run-down, inoperable system. He had only one staff member, who was his typist and filing clerk; they shared a small office. The filing system was ‘a real shambles’ (Reid 1992, 13). He purchased a new alphanumeric filing system to enable the easy location of correspondence. In addition to managing an organisation of eighty affiliated unions, he ran State and Federal elections in metropolitan seats. If a Federal member came to Perth, Hartley was expected to organise functions and speak at them. He also had to work with Labor and non-Labor parties both in government and in opposition, as well as with employers and the press. People responded well, he felt, to his honesty, even if they disagreed with his views. Later he recalled: ‘How on earth I kept it going I don’t know. If it hadn’t been for my wife, and … for the good sense of the committee who assisted me, I could never have got through it’ (Reid 1992, 14). A man of strong principles, he never drank alcohol during working hours; he felt that the job was too demanding, even if there was value in fraternising socially. This principle resulted in his once refusing a drink with Ben Chifley.

During the 1950s tensions between the left and the largely Catholic right factions of the ALP caused a party split, resulting in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP) forming. As a practising Catholic, Hartley was sometimes suspected of being a DLP sympathiser. He firmly believed that religion and politics did not mix and that his faith, which he maintained throughout his life, did not influence his allegiance to the ALP. Although he had several altercations with F. E. (Joe) Chamberlain, the ALP State secretary (1949–74), they were both fierce opponents of the DLP. Hartley chaired a meeting in 1957 which passed a resolution that the ALP Federal member for Perth, Tom Burke, who supported the DLP, had ‘expelled himself’ (Reid 1992, 20) by claiming that a story that he might quit was maliciously leaked to the Sydney Daily Mirror. It was a questionable decision but one Hartley did not regret.

Hartley retired in 1962 when an independent Trades and Labor Council replaced the ALP’s district councils. Characterised as a party ‘stalwart’ (Reid 1992, 1), he had provided strong, steady leadership, and was a moderate voice in a period of ferment, when the party split into opposing left and right factions, and some of its members left to form the DLP. In retirement he served in an unpaid position as secretary of the Watchmakers’ and Jewellers’ Union (1963–70). He was made a life member of the ALP in 1984. Predeceased by his wife and survived by their three daughters, he died on 25 June 1991 at Inglewood, Perth, and was buried in Karrakatta cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Hartley, Robert. Interview by Stuart Reid, 1990. Sound recording. State Library of Western Australia
  • National Archives of Australia. B2455, Hartley R. A
  • Oliver, Bobbie. Unity is Strength: A History of the Australian Labor Party and the Trades and Labor Council in Western Australia, 1899–1999. Perth: API Network, 2003
  • Reid, Stuart. ‘Bob Hartley 1897–1991: A Tribute.’ In Lenore Layman and Charlie Fox, eds. Papers in Labour History, no. 9 (June 1992): 1-4
  • Reid, Stuart. ‘Bob Hartley’s Story.’ In Lenore Layman and Charlie Fox, eds. Papers in Labour History, no. 9 (June 1992): 5-23

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bobbie Oliver, 'Hartley, Robert Aloysius (Bob) (1897–1991)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 25 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


30 December, 1897
Walton-le-Dale, Lancashire, England


25 January, 1991 (aged 93)
Perth, Western Australia, Australia

Cause of Death


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.

Military Service
Key Organisations
Political Activism