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Harold George Nelson (1881–1947)

by David Carment

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Harold George Nelson (1881-1947), by Tom Glover

Harold George Nelson (1881-1947), by Tom Glover

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6479875

Harold George Nelson (1881-1947), engine driver, trade union official and politician, was born on 21 December 1881 at Botany, Sydney, son of Scottish-born John Nelson, shopkeeper, and his wife Elizabeth Ann, née Tighe. Little is known of his early years and nothing of his education. As a young man he was an engine driver in Queensland, where he mainly lived at Gympie and Mount Perry. He married Maud Alice Lawrence with Presbyterian forms at Mount Perry on 17 March 1904.

With his wife and five children Nelson moved to Pine Creek, Northern Territory, in 1913. There he was an engine driver and organizer for the Australian Workers' Union. In July 1914 he became the A.W.U. organizer in Darwin and in 1917 first secretary of the union's Darwin branch. An able administrator and a fiery orator, he was largely responsible for a substantial increase in the A.W.U.'s Territory membership. In 1917 he was also elected to the Darwin Town Council.

Nelson was a dominant figure in the campaign of boycotts and strikes which forced Vestey Brothers to raise wages for their meatworks employees in Darwin. He campaigned for Northern Territory representation in the Commonwealth Parliament and called for removal of the administrator, J. A. Gilruth, who had often clashed with the trade union movement. On 17 December 1918, in an incident later described as the 'Darwin Rebellion', Nelson marched with a few hundred supporters to Government House and demanded that Gilruth leave. Continuing agitation resulted in the government recalling the administrator in February 1919. The subsequent royal commission which investigated Gilruth's administration generally supported Nelson, but the commissioner, Justice N. K. Ewing, was criticized for using Nelson's paid assistance at its hearings.

In April 1921 Nelson stood down as A.W.U. secretary. He was gaoled briefly in June after refusing to pay taxes in a campaign for 'no taxation without representation' that resulted in the Territory being allowed a non-voting member with limited rights, in the House of Representatives. Nelson was elected narrowly as the Territory's first Federal parliamentarian in December 1922. He stood as an Independent but had trade union support and shortly after his election joined the Australian Labor Party. He spoke ably and frequently in parliament, yet had little success in his attempts to obtain greater expenditure on the Territory or some form of self-government. Defeated by a conservative opponent in September 1934, he later worked as an agent at Alice Springs. He died there of cardiac failure on 26 April 1947, survived by his wife and five children. A son John Norman was to become a member of the House of Representatives and administrator of the Northern Territory.

Nelson's appearance was unimpressive—of medium build, he was quick to put on weight. His spirited speeches, however, nearly always aroused great passions. Trade unionists often saw him as a hero in their struggle for economic and political rights while many others viewed him as a dangerous revolutionary. He was certainly prepared to threaten violence but for the most part believed in a steady accumulation of gains for working people rather than great leaps forward. He closely identified his personal ambitions with those of the movements he supported.

Select Bibliography

  • A. Powell, Far Country (Melb, 1982)
  • F. X. Alcorta, Darwin Rebellion 1911-1919 (Darwin, 1984)
  • P. F. Donovan, At the Other End of Australia (Brisb, 1984)
  • Northern Perspective, 4, no 1, 1981
  • Northern Standard (Darwin), 2 May 1947
  • Blain papers (Charles Darwin University Library)
  • private information.

Citation details

David Carment, 'Nelson, Harold George (1881–1947)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 23 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Harold George Nelson (1881-1947), by Tom Glover

Harold George Nelson (1881-1947), by Tom Glover

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an6479875

Life Summary [details]


21 December, 1881
Botany, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia


26 April, 1947 (aged 65)
Alice Springs, Northern Territory, 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.