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Edward John Kavanagh (1871–1956)

by Barrie Unsworth

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edward John Kavanagh (1871-1956), by unknown photographer

Edward John Kavanagh (1871-1956), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 22738

Edward John Kavanagh (1871-1956), trade unionist, politician and public servant, was born on 30 October 1871 in Sydney, eleventh child and second surviving son of William Kavanagh, publican, and his wife Ellen, née Carty. His parents, both Irish, died when he was 2 and he was reared by an elder sister. Educated at Gladstone Public School, Balmain, and Marist Brothers' College, North Sydney, he excelled in amateur boxing as a featherweight. At 16 as a steward he shipped to the Pacific Islands and San Francisco. He boxed in the United States of America but his variable weight division was a handicap. He went to England, worked his passage to Sydney and was briefly a boxing instructor.

In 1888 Kavanagh became an apprentice presser and joined the Pressers' Union; he eventually held every union office including that of delegate to the Trades and Labor Council. Among the issues for which he fought was that of a minimum wage for children. In 1902 he won the legal right for apprentices to articles of indenture — it was the union's first case and the second in the New South Wales Court of Industrial Arbitration. The experience influenced him and he consistently urged arbitration rather than strike action. In 1905 he was elected president of the Labor Council and in 1906-18 was its full-time secretary. He established an arbitration section within the council to help affiliated unions present their cases. In 1915-18 he was a government nominee to the Senate of the University of Sydney.

During the transport strike of August-September 1917 which began in the railway and tramway workshops in protest at the introduction of the Taylor job-card system, Kavanagh was a leading member of the strike defence committee. The National government quickly carried repressive legislation and Kavanagh with three others, including A. C. Willis, was arrested and charged with conspiracy. When apprehended Kavanagh had a notebook containing in a form of shorthand the points he had made in speeches about the strike. The police paid £200 to have the notes translated, hoping they would assist in securing Kavanagh's conviction; instead they recorded his opposition to general strike action and ensured his acquittal. Next year Kavanagh was appointed a commissioner representing the unions on the New South Wales Board of Trade.

Kavanagh had been a member of the Legislative Council since 1912. Under the Storey government of 1920-21 he became leader in the Upper House and vice-president of the Executive Council. Following Storey's death he served in addition in 1921-22 as minister for labour in the Dooley cabinet. He remained on the Board of Trade after Labor's defeat in 1922 and in 1926 was appointed by the Lang government to the State Industrial Commission as deputy industrial commissioner — the first layman in a judicial position able to act alone and to make determinations from which there was no appeal. He had long argued for lay participation in industrial arbitration, believing that 'laymen having practical knowledge and experience and a closer touch with the people … should be in a better position to give a decision likely to satisfy both sides without legal hair-splitting'. He held the office for five years. In 1931 after he had lost the support of the 'Jock' Garden Trades Hall group Lang did not reappoint him.

In 1931-37 Kavanagh practised privately as an industrial advocate and adviser, retained by both employers and unions. Unsuccessful in the reformed Legislative Council elections of 1934, he was permitted to retain the title 'Honorable'. In 1937 he became an apprenticeship and conciliation commissioner in the Department of Labour and Industry and in 1941 succeeded J. B. Chifley as director of labour in the Department of Munitions, responsible for the allocation of manpower during World War II. He retired in 1948.

Kavanagh had married Agnes Jane Cousins in the Glebe Congregational Church on 31 December 1894. He died a widower on 10 October 1956 at Concord, and was cremated. Of his three sons and three daughters, one daughter survived him. His estate was valued for probate at £636. He was a good example of an underprivileged man whose innate skills and compassion were developed for the benefit of the community by his experience as a trade unionist.

Select Bibliography

  • V. G. Childe, How Labour Governs, F. B. Smith ed (Melb, 1964)
  • J. Iremonger et al (eds), Strikes (Syd, 1973)
  • New South Wales Industrial Gazette, 13 (1918), 30 (1926)
  • Australian Worker, 17 Nov 1910
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 15 May 1920, 15 May 1926, 19 June 1931, 23 May 1941, 18 Oct 1956
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 7 June 1941
  • private information.

Citation details

Barrie Unsworth, 'Kavanagh, Edward John (1871–1956)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012