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William Morris (Billy) Hughes (1862–1952)

by L. F. Fitzhardinge

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Morris Hughes (1862-1952), by unknown photographer, 1915-23

William Morris Hughes (1862-1952), by unknown photographer, 1915-23

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12266389

William Morris (Billy) Hughes (1862-1952), prime minister, was born on 25 September 1862 at Pimlico, London, son of William Hughes, a carpenter from North Wales employed at the Houses of Parliament, and his wife Jane, née Morris. His father was Welsh speaking, a deacon of the Particular Baptist Church and a conservative in politics. His mother, a farmer's daughter from Llansantffraid, Montgomeryshire, who had been in service in London, was English speaking and Anglican. She was thirty-seven when she married, and William Morris was her only child. She died when he was seven and for the next five years Hughes lived with his father's sister at Llandudno, where he went to school, spending his holidays on the Morris farm. In 1874 he became a pupil-teacher at St Stephen's School, Westminster, where he had large classes of boys little younger than himself, but where he was well grounded in English history and literature. A lively youth, fonder of games than of lessons, he won a prize for French and caught the eye of the inspector, Matthew Arnold. He remained as an assistant after his five years apprenticeship, and joined a volunteer battalion of the Royal Fusiliers nearby.

Why Hughes decided to migrate is unknown. Long hours in ill-ventilated and overcrowded classrooms had probably affected his health, and his deafness may already have begun. In October 1884 he embarked for Queensland as an assisted migrant on the Duke of Westminster, reaching Brisbane on 8 December. For two years he led a roving life, taking various jobs and acquiring knowledge of the outback, as well as material for reminiscences that grew more colourful with time. Finally, as a galley-hand on a coastal boat, he arrived at Sydney. After a period of acute poverty he found a steady job as assistant to an oven-maker and domestic stability in a boarding-house near Moore Park. He married his landlady's daughter, Elizabeth Cutts, and in 1890 moved to Balmain where he opened a small mixed shop, took on odd jobs and mended umbrellas.

It was a time of ferment, not least in Balmain, where industry was encroaching on a mainly middle-class suburb. Hughes's shop sold political pamphlets, and the back room became a meeting-place for young reformers, among them W. A. Holman and (Sir) George Beeby. The visit to Sydney that year of Henry George stirred their imagination and Hughes made his political début as a street-corner speaker for the Balmain Single Tax League. In 1892 he joined the Socialist League and debating societies at Balmain and the Sydney School of Arts; he had probably already joined the Balmain Labor Electoral League.

He apparently took no part in the election of 1891 which brought the first Labor Party into parliament; next year it was split by older and shrewder politicians and lost the balance of power. Hughes and Holman followed J. C. Watson's lead to convert the Labor Electoral Leagues to 'solidarity' and to win new supporters. Hughes spent eight months organizing in the central west under the auspices of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union, returning to Sydney to win pre-selection for Lang for the 1894 election. His electioneering in the harbour-side city seat was enlivened by his and his friends' production of a weekly newspaper, the New Order; when he won by 105 votes he was drawn in triumph through the city in a dog-cart, his supporters having first bought him a decent suit. In parliament he proved a shrewd tactician and effective speaker. When (Sir) George Reid failed to deliver the legislation Labor wanted, in 1899 Hughes helped to replace him with (Sir) William Lyne.

Hughes, a free trader, had opposed Federation on the terms proposed, but he turned at once to the Federal arena where he foresaw that the issues which interested him most—defence, immigration and industrial relations—would be dealt with. He won West Sydney, which included his State electorate, in 1901 and held it easily until 1916. In the first parliament, in which Labor backed the Protectionists under (Sir) Edmund Barton against Reid's Free Trade Opposition, Hughes supported the Immigration Restriction Act; he feared that migrants of a lower standard of living would undermine wages, while a wide difference in cultural and political experience would thwart the development of a democratic society. On defence, he opposed the government's proposal for a small professional army backed by a levée en masse, advocating compulsory universal training on the Swiss model, a cause to which he returned until it was finally introduced by Alfred Deakin in 1909.

Following the Deakin government of September 1903–April 1904 Labor briefly held office under Watson. Hughes, who had qualified for the Bar in November 1903, showed uncharacteristic modesty in refusing the post of attorney-general and took external affairs, with second rank to Watson. This was the first Labor government anywhere to last for more than a few days; it demonstrated that 'ordinary working men' could handle administration, and it gave the leaders practical experience. The government was defeated by the Reid-McLean coalition in August, but in July 1905 Deakin returned to power with the support of Labor, held office for three years, and carried out many of the policies common to both parties.

Politics was not Hughes's only activity. In 1899 he organized the Sydney wharf labourers, whose union had been shattered by the early 1890s strikes. Sheltered from intimidation by his place in parliament, he was a match for the employers in negotiations. By the end of the year the union had 1300 members; Hughes remained secretary until 1916. With his toughness, his eloquence and his argumentative ability he became a kind of mascot to his members. He could win over the rowdiest meeting and any attempt to step out of line in his absence was quelled on his return. As a sideline, he organized the Trolley, Draymen and Carters' Union and became its president. He took advantage of the Federal parliament's location in Melbourne to organize the Waterside Workers' Federation; the executive was recruited from the members of parliament for the various ports, and again Hughes was president. As chairman of the royal commission on navigation (1904-07) he became familiar with conditions on the ships as well as on the wharves, and made useful contacts with other maritime unions.

In 1907 Deakin appointed Hughes and Lyne to represent Australia at a shipping conference in London. Hughes's knowledge of the industry and his clear arguments impressed everyone, especially the chairman Lloyd George. This was his first return to England: he visited the Morris family in Wales and addressed a meeting of the National Service League chaired by Lord Roberts. A meeting of the Fabian Society led to a heated argument with Ramsay MacDonald over White Australia—Hughes found the Fabians unpractical, poor men to be in a strike with. He also noted the visit to England of the Japanese Prince Fushimi and, returning home through the United States of America and Canada, noted the trouble caused by Japanese migration to California and British Columbia. The trip launched Hughes into journalism. From October 1907 to October 1911 he contributed a widely read weekly column to the Daily Telegraph. The articles, some of which were published separately in 1910 as The Case for Labor, sparkled with wit and humour, and ranged discursively over all Labor policies; they did much to disarm middle-class hostility and prepare the way for the party to win office.

At Hughes's insistence the Sydney wharf labourers were among the first to register with the New South Wales Arbitration Court in 1902, and they later registered with the Commonwealth commission. An exception to his general opposition to strikes came in 1908 when his clever, month-long orchestration of strikes and non-co-operation by wharf labourers, carters, seamen and the engineers and officers he was currently representing in the court, forced coastal shipowners to drop their opposition to the wharf labourers' award. Eighteen months later Hughes, as chairman of a congress of all the unions involved, attempted to apply similar tactics to a coal strike. This led to a bitter dispute with Peter Bowling, the leader of the coalminers, who broke away from the congress. The strike dragged on for some time, the miners gained nothing and Hughes, now a national figure, incurred the undying hostility of an extreme section of the labour movement.

The replacement of Watson by Fisher as Labor leader in 1907 led to cooler relations with Deakin; next year Fisher ended the alliance and formed a short-lived government in which Hughes was attorney-general. The other parties regrouped in the Fusion which took office in 1909 under a somewhat reluctant Deakin, supported by (Sir) Joseph Cook; the improbable arrangement occasioned some of Hughes's choicest invective. This marked the end of the 'three elevens'. At the 1910 election Labor won large majorities in both Houses. Hughes, again attorney-general, was Fisher's chief lieutenant.

At last Labor looked to be in a position to effect its policies, but already under Deakin reform had reached the constitutional limits as interpreted by the High Court of Australia. In 1911 and 1913 referendums to widen Commonwealth powers over trade and commerce, industrial relations, corporations and monopolies were defeated, while the judgments of the High Court in the Vend (1911) and Colonial Sugar Refinery (1912) cases defined the limits more sharply. Nonetheless the achievements of the government were considerable. It established the Commonwealth Bank and note issue, introduced a Federal land tax, took over the Northern Territory from South Australia and began work on the national capital at Canberra. The election of 1913 gave Cook a majority of one in the Lower House with a minority in the Senate. A double dissolution was followed by an election on 5 September 1914.

The campaign was interrupted by the outbreak of war. Both parties at once proclaimed their support for Britain. Hughes, carried away by emotion, tried hard to stop the election, but both Fisher and Cook rejected the idea and Hughes returned to the fight with refreshed enthusiasm. The result was a clear win for Labor, with thirty-one out of thirty-six seats in the Senate. This gave a mandate for the vigorous conduct of the war, but in view of the nature of the campaign, for nothing else. In the new cabinet Hughes, attorney-general, held a key position, becoming the most active and vocal of the ministry.

His attention was early drawn to the base metals industries, zinc, lead and copper, which were vital both for munitions and for the Australian economy. The metals were tied by long-term contracts to a small group of German firms which had monopolized the market and in the case of zinc the refining facilities. With the help of W. S. Robinson Hughes bullied or persuaded the producers to cancel their contracts. To keep the industries going and ensure that German interests were excluded after the war and control kept within the Empire, and as far as possible in Australia, Hughes set up the Australian Metals Exchange to control exports, with (Sir) John Higgins as government representative and chairman. Marketing associations of zinc and copper producers were formed, existing works for smelting lead and copper expanded, and arrangements made for the production of copper wire and cables. The Electrolytic Zinc Co. was established by W. L. Baillieu with refining facilities in Tasmania. All this was done by private enterprise with government control and monetary guarantee. Sugar, wheat, wool and meat were similarly regulated, arrangements differing only in detail. The pattern was set by Hughes who, while relying on expert advice for each industry, was himself the only common factor.

When Fisher, his health undermined by the stress of war and growing party division, resigned as prime minister in October 1915 Hughes was unanimously chosen to succeed him. He had already devised a referendum to give the Commonwealth powers over commerce, monopolies and industrial relations and, as prime minister, he pressed on the campaign. But there was strong criticism and the proposals were disliked by many Labor men in the States, especially Holman in New South Wales and T. J. Ryan and E. G. Theodore in Queensland. Hughes accepted a compromise at the Premiers' Conference in Melbourne in November whereby the powers were to be handed over for the duration of the war. In the event none of the States transferred the powers, which in 1916 were given to the government by the High Court in the case of Farey v. Burvett. There were charges of betrayal from the left wing of the party, which attributed to Hughes the 'blushless impudence of Iscariot'.

When he took office Hughes received from the governor-general, Sir Ronald Munro Ferguson, information about the intentions of Japan in the Pacific which convinced him that discussions with the British government and the prime ministers of Canada and New Zealand were urgent. The Colonial Office was unenthusiastic, but Hughes interpreted a cool suggestion that he might come to London by himself as a special invitation. Just before leaving he found time to set up the Advisory Council of Science and Industry. Travelling by way of the Pacific he talked briefly with the New Zealand prime minister, W. F. Massey, and spent a crowded four days in Ottawa, where he was made a member of the Canadian privy council (cabinet), then a unique honour.

Hughes reached England on 7 March 1916. His public activity, in which he urged greater economic pressure on Germany and more co-operation with the dominions, was strenuous. Coming at a time of apparent stalemate these speeches (collected as The Day—and After (1916)) were electrifying and widely reported. Some even thought Hughes might be the leader the country needed to replace Asquith. That this flamboyant rhetoric should have had such an effect now seems incredible, but at the time Hughes swept his hearers off their feet.

More important was the incessant round of interviews with politicians, generals and public servants by which he sought to know at first hand the men responsible for directing the war and to find out how to make Australia's voice heard. He renewed his acquaintance with Lloyd George, the bustling minister for munitions, in whom he found a kindred spirit; and he took part in two meetings of cabinet and two of the war committee, forming a low opinion of most of the ministers and especially of Asquith.

Hughes was also constantly engaged in difficult negotiations to sell Australian products and, even harder, to find ships to carry them. His support staff was negligible, but he received valuable help from Robinson in the negotiations on zinc and from (Sir) Keith Murdoch in public relations. Under the strain of overwork and the English winter he broke down at the end of March and was confined to bed for a fortnight, after which the hectic round was resumed.

In June he went as one of the British delegation to an allied conference in Paris to determine economic policies towards Germany, having with difficulty won from Asquith the right to speak independently on behalf of Australia. He agreed with the French that drastic restrictions should be imposed on German trade after the war. This was the first participation of Australia at an international conference and, as in the link forged by Hughes with the French, it was an important precedent for the eventual peace conference, on which Hughes's eyes were already fixed. While in France he visited the front, where Haig told him of the coming offensive on the Somme and where contact with the Australian troops deepened his devotion to them. Just before leaving for Paris, unable to get ships to lift the Australian wheat crop by any other means, he had secretly bought fifteen cargo vessels. On his return to England, at a lively meeting of the war committee he successfully defended the purchase against threatened requisition. The ships were the nucleus of the Commonwealth Shipping Line.

Hughes landed at Fremantle on 31 July. He found a country in which attitudes to conscription had polarized and he was forced to make a quick decision. Almost all his associates, including his defence minister (Sir) George Pearce pressed the need for conscription, and he was not fully aware of the strength of opposition within the trades unions and the Labor Party. He had returned half convinced of the need for compulsion and wholly determined to give the troops at the front whatever reinforcements they needed. Talks with the Foreign Office and the Japanese ambassador in London had confirmed his suspicion of the Japanese. Now mounting casualties on the Somme and falling enlistments decided him. Unable because of a hostile Senate to legislate for conscription, and believing that a majority of the people would support him if the issues were fully explained, he hit on the expedient of a referendum which, while having no legal force, would give him a mandate clear enough to override the Upper House. He opened the 'Yes' campaign on 18 September: voting was on 28 October. Increasingly aware of the opposition even within his cabinet, Hughes fought with growing desperation. On the eve of the ballot three ministers, provoked by an ill-judged regulation, resigned. The referendum was lost by a comparatively small majority of the total vote and in three States.

For his advocacy of conscription Hughes was expelled from the Labor Party. Long afterwards he said with some truth: 'I did not leave the Labor party. The party left me'. The Labor Party that emerged was indeed very different from that of the 1890s, and most of his older colleagues followed him out. He formed a cabinet from these, hoping to build around them a new party which would maintain the social radicalism and the Australian nationalism of the early party. He had misread the signs and was soon forced to merge with the Opposition in a National, or 'Win the War', Party. The Senate prevented endeavours to prolong the life of the parliament and, amid charges of attempted bribery and sharp practice, Hughes called an election for 5 May 1917. The new party won a sweeping victory in both Houses. Hughes, abandoning West Sydney, was returned with a large majority for the formerly Labor seat of Bendigo, Victoria. But his victory was a hollow one. Cut off from his political, social and even geographical roots, expelled by the party and the union which had been such a large part of his life, distrusted by his new supporters, he never, for all his public triumphs, regained the authority and confidence of his early days.

In the election campaign Hughes had promised not to reopen the conscription issue unless 'the tide of battle which flows strongly for the Allies turns against them'. In November 1917 this seemed to have happened and Hughes, under strong pressure, announced another referendum for 20 December. This time passions rose even higher, inflamed by mounting hysteria in Hughes and by the cold, Irish logic of Archbishop Daniel Mannix. There was a degree of violence unusual in Australian politics, which turned to farce when Hughes, after being struck by an egg on the railway station at Warwick, Queensland, promptly established a Commonwealth police force to combat disloyalty. The referendum was lost by a larger majority than before. Hughes had unwisely declared that he would not govern without conscription. He accordingly resigned, but the governor-general, unable to find anyone else who could command a majority, recommissioned him with the same cabinet as before.

The turmoil of local politics had prevented Hughes from attending the first session of the Imperial War Cabinet in 1917, so there was all the more reason why he should go to the meetings planned for 1918. On his way through America he met, and failed to impress, President Wilson, and in a widely reported speech in New York he called for a 'Monroe Doctrine' to exclude Japanese expansion from the Pacific. He reached London in June and the meetings, alternating with the Imperial War Conference sessions, lasted till August. Each of these bodies, the membership of which was the same, met on two days a week, the remaining time being occupied by meetings of the prime ministers and of committees. Hughes was active in both: in the cabinet he argued for greater use of tanks and aeroplanes to avoid the drain on manpower which he foresaw would place Britain at the economic mercy of the United States and he chaired a committee on reparations; in the War Committee, which dealt with intra-imperial questions, he pressed for the bypassing of the Colonial Office in communications between prime ministers. After the meetings Hughes stayed on in England, immersed in negotiations for the sale of 'copper, glycerine, tallow, butter, wheat, hides, leather, meat and rabbits'.

He was still in England when the armistice was signed in November. His first reaction was of furious protest that he had not been consulted and that Australia's vital interests had been compromised by the acceptance in the armistice of President Wilson's 'Fourteen Points'. Then, by calculated obstruction, he ensured that Australia would be represented at the peace conference not only within the British Empire delegation but in its own right.

At the peace conference which sat in Paris from January till June 1919 Hughes's irreverence and impish humour made him something of an enfant terrible to the more dignified delegates, especially Wilson, and the joy of lesser fry who delighted in circulating stories about him, some of them true. The aged French premier Clemenceau and Lloyd George appreciated his audacious pugnacity and shared to some extent his dislike of Wilson. In the conference Hughes concentrated on three questions which he considered vital to Australia and likely to go against her by default. On reparations he had already taken a strong line in the Imperial War Cabinet. Now on the Reparations Commission he was primarily representing Britain, though Australian interests were also involved. The problem was whether Germany should be held liable for all the costs of the allies or, as Wilson insisted, only for material damage, in which case France and Belgium would get the lion's share, Britain little and Australia nothing. Hughes argued against John Foster Dulles that the criminal should pay all costs, Dulles that the acceptance of the 'Fourteen Points' in the armistice constituted a binding contract. Eventually a compromise suggested by Smuts of South Africa included pensions under the heading of damage, thus giving Australia a small and Britain a larger claim on reparations.

The other two questions concerned the Pacific, vital to Hughes, peripheral to all others except the Japanese. The first, fought out with Wilson before the Council of Ten, concerned German New Guinea. 'No annexations' was to Wilson a vital principle, enshrined in the 'Fourteen Points'; to Hughes full control of German New Guinea with power to exclude Japanese entry was essential to Australia's defence. Hughes, claiming to speak for '60,000 dead', held his ground even when Wilson threatened to leave the conference. Eventually Hughes gained the substance of his claim by the creation of a special class of mandate which permitted the subject territory to be administered as 'an integral portion' of the mandatary and under its laws.

On the remaining question Hughes had to work indirectly through the British Empire delegation and by private lobbying, and even by a threat to go outside the conference and arouse the American press. The Japanese wished to insert in the covenant of the League of Nations a guarantee of the 'equality of nations and of equal treatment of their nationals'. Hughes saw in this a threat to White Australia and rejected all wordings suggested, while the Japanese, though denying any intention to apply the formula to immigration, refused to exclude it explicitly. After many fruitless meetings between the parties, the Japanese put their amendment to the final meeting of the Commission on the Covenant. Wilson, known to favour the Japanese amendment, was in the chair. The British representative opposed it, but it was clear that a majority would support it. The United States delegate E. M. House, passed a note to Wilson that if the amendment was carried 'it would surely raise the race issue throughout the world'. Wilson called a vote, and when twelve out of sixteen voted in favour, declared the amendment lost because the vote was not unanimous. Again Hughes had his way.

His conduct at the conference has often been criticized; his methods were certainly unorthodox, but they were probably the only ones that would have succeeded. (Sir) Ernest Scott, the official historian, wrote: 'By characteristic methods he had gained single handed at least the points that were vital to his country's existence'.

'Billy' Hughes came home to a hero's welcome, but with the end of the war his political base had become insecure. Many of his ideas were still those of pre-war Labor and seemed 'socialistic' to his Nationalist colleagues. He encouraged the Commonwealth Shipping Line to compete with the private shipowners, and he brought the government further into commerce with joint ownerships of Amalgamated Wireless and Commonwealth Oil Refineries. This alienated businessmen as his desire to maintain orderly marketing of primary products alienated the farmers. He was very tired, and though still fertile in ideas he had no longer the drive to carry them through. In 1920 £25,000 was subscribed for him in recognition of his services to Australia and the Empire.

Only at the Imperial Conference in London in 1921 did Hughes's old form return. He prevented the termination of the Anglo-Japanese treaty sought by Canada, securing its retention until some better arrangement in which the United States would participate could be found. He prevented Smuts's proposals for a formal constitution for the British Commonwealth from even reaching the conference; instead he urged bold exploitation of aviation and wireless to make possible direct consultation. The conference closed in a confused flurry of proposals for a conference on Pacific security involving both the United States and Japan. From this came the Washington Treaty of 1922, which gave some, though not all, of the protection Hughes sought. His continued loyalty to the Imperial idea was later expressed in The Splendid Adventure (1929).

The election of 1922 gave the Country Party the balance of power, and when its leader (Sir) Earle Page refused to work with Hughes he was forced to give place to a coalition led by S. M. (Viscount) Bruce with Page as deputy and treasurer. Hughes may have hoped for an early recall, but for any chance of this he had to lie low for a time. A friend arranged a lecture tour of America in 1924; the lectures were not a success, and in New York Hughes became seriously ill.

Back in Australia he returned to Sydney from Melbourne, where he had lived since 1917, buying a house at Lindfield but keeping his farm at Sassafras, Victoria. Hughes had already, in 1922, exchanged Bendigo for North Sydney as his electorate. For a time he kept his dislike of Bruce under control, but after the 1925 election his criticism of Bruce's handling of industrial relations and Page's extravagance became increasingly outspoken. With economic depression looming he held secret talks in 1929 with Theodore, and together they prepared a policy on lines similar to those being suggested by (Lord) Keynes in England. In August, when the government sought to abandon industrial arbitration to the States, Hughes, with a small group of Nationalist malcontents, organized its defeat by one vote. The result in doubt till the last, Hughes is said to have mounted guard over one waverer in the billiard-room to prevent him from being 'got at' during the dinner break. Bruce secured a dissolution and was soundly beaten, losing his own seat.

J. H. Scullin became prime minister with Theodore as treasurer. Hughes, expelled by the Nationalists, tried, as in 1916, to form a new party. At first he supported Scullin, but when the opposition of the Senate and the Commonwealth Bank, caucus faction and Scullin's timidity combined to paralyse the government and when Theodore was hounded out of office and replaced by Lyons he became progressively disillusioned. He vehemently attacked the mission of Sir Otto Niemeyer and was dismayed by the Premiers' Plan which resulted. In March 1931 he voted against the government on a no confidence motion by (Sir) John Latham, along with Lyons who became prime minister in January 1932. Hughes, his own party in tatters, joined Lyons's United Australia Party which replaced the old National Party.

The fall of Bruce was the last time Hughes directly influenced political events, but he remained a force to be reckoned with. In 1932, as a delegate to the General Assembly of the League of Nations, his attention was drawn to the international situation in Europe and the Far East and for the next eight years he carried on a lone crusade on the need to prepare for war. In 1934 he became minister for health and repatriation and vice-president of the Executive Council. Because of his support of the George V Jubilee Fund he became known as 'minister for motherhood' and he linked this with defence in the slogan 'populate or perish'. In July, under the auspices of the Defence of Australia League, he published The Price of Peace. Next year publication of an updated version, Australia and War Today, in which he described economic sanctions as 'either an empty gesture, or war', coincided with a parliamentary debate on Abyssinia in which the government asserted the precise opposite; Hughes was forced to resign, but was soon restored to office. In 1937 he became minister for external affairs, though with no effective control of policy. His attacks on Hitler and Mussolini and especially on their colonial claims, to yield to which would, he said, be 'like giving a snack of sandwiches to a hungry tiger', and his new slogan 'what we have we shall hold', angered the German consul-general and embarrassed Lyons. Munich, which Lyons and Page hailed with satisfaction, left him dismayed and apprehensive.

In March 1939, when (Sir) Robert Menzies resigned from the ministry, Hughes became attorney-general and minister for industry. On 7 April Lyons died unexpectedly, and two weeks later Menzies became prime minister. Hughes retained his new portfolios (later exchanging industry for the navy) and was elected deputy leader. On the formation of a Labor government in October 1941 he was made leader of the United Australia Party and deputy leader of the Opposition. He remained a member of the War Advisory Council, and often found it easier to co-operate with the Labor prime minister, John Curtin, than with his own party. Deputy leader after Menzies returned to the leadership in 1943, he was in 1944 expelled from the party for rejoining the Advisory War Council after the party had left it.

With the war ended, Hughes joined the Liberal Party, formed by Menzies from the wreckage of the United Australia Party, and in 1949 moved from North Sydney to the new seat of Bradfield. At last he seemed to mellow, though there were still eruptions of the old fire and the wit, evident in his reminiscences Crusts and Crusades (1947) and Policies and Potentates (1950). At the time of his death he was preparing an attack on the government for its proposal to sell its share in Commonwealth Oil Refineries. On 25 September 1952 all parties joined to give him a dinner in honour of his eighty-eighth (actually his ninetieth) birthday. A few days later he caught a severe chill followed by pneumonia, and on 28 October he died at his Lindfield home. After a state funeral at St Andrew's Anglican Cathedral, he was buried in Northern Suburbs cemetery. His estate was valued at £70,886 in New South Wales and £45,759 in Victoria. Hughes's first wife died in 1906, leaving six children who all survived him. On 26 June 1911 at Christ Church, South Yarra, Melbourne, with Anglican rites, and without the knowledge of colleagues or press, he married Mary Ethel Campbell (D.B.E., 1922); their only daughter died in 1937. Dame Mary, by her social gifts, tact and management, gave Hughes the domestic background he had always lacked and provided precisely the feather-bedding that his restless activity and frail physique required.

Hughes was slightly built, 5 ft 6 ins (168 cm) tall, with a large head and long bony hands. In youth he had been handsome; in middle age his face became deeply lined and in old age a pronounced stoop and wizened frame gave him a gnome-like appearance. He suffered all his adult life from severe deafness, occasionally turned to good account, and from chronic dyspepsia. His voice was harsh and monotonous, but he trained himself to use it effectively—it was particularly suited to the satire at which he excelled. Like many whose health is precarious, he was a physical fitness fanatic. When young he enjoyed rowing and cricket; later his favourite exercise was horse-riding. He loved motoring, and his driving terrified passengers and other road-users alike. Lacking time for a honeymoon, he took his second wife for a drive after the wedding and overturned the car.

A controversial figure all his life, he remains so still. To some a great statesman and patriot, to others he was a renegade and mountebank. He aroused extremes of admiration or hatred, but never indifference. Abrasive and ruthless, he could also be charming and amusing. Often mean, he could sometimes be very generous. He would fly into violent rages, which would soon be forgotten. A gift to cartoonists, he became in old age a figure of fun to those who knew nothing of his prime. Flexible as to means, his broad objectives were remarkably consistent. These were 'to fight for the under-dog' and to defend the right of Australia to develop its own form of democratic society, combining the best of British traditions and institutions with the maximum of freedom and equality. His old opponent Lord Bruce said of him after his death: 'he had two qualities which are very rare and very important in a politician: he had imagination and he had courage'. With all his faults, his place in Australian history is secure, no less for his contribution to the early labour movement than for his achievements as a national wartime leader and on the world stage.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Fitzhardinge, William Morris Hughes vols 1-2 (Syd, 1964, 1979) and for bibliography
  • W. J. Hudson, Billy Hughes in Paris (Melb, 1978)
  • M. Booker, The Great Pprofessional: A Study of W. M. Hughes (Syd, 1980).

Related Thematic Essays

Citation details

L. F. Fitzhardinge, 'Hughes, William Morris (Billy) (1862–1952)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 May 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

William Morris Hughes (1862-1952), by unknown photographer, 1915-23

William Morris Hughes (1862-1952), by unknown photographer, 1915-23

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an12266389

Life Summary [details]


25 September, 1862
London, Middlesex, England


28 October, 1952 (aged 90)
Lindfield, 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.