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Edward William O'Sullivan (1846–1910)

by Bruce E. Mansfield

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Edward William O'Sullivan (1846-1910), printer, journalist and politician, was born on 17 March 1846 at Launceston, Van Diemen's Land, second son of Irish-born Peter O'Sullivan, leather-dealer, and his wife Mary Anne, née Burgoyne. He grew up in Hobart Town and, after his father's desertion, was educated mainly by his mother. Ned began as a printer's devil on the Hobart Mercury in 1857, learned typesetting and began to write. He visited Sydney in January 1869 with his brother Peter, boat-builder and sculler, and made his first acquaintance with its political and sporting life. Returning to Hobart in 1871, he founded an evening newspaper, the Tasmanian Tribune, at first of 'somewhat rugged size and diminutive appearance', but later enlarged. It promoted democratic reforms and rational planning of economic development.

O'Sullivan moved to Melbourne in 1874 and again launched a newspaper, the Evening Tribune, a co-operative of printers and journalists. It soon failed for want of capital, leaving O'Sullivan 'on the shores of bankruptcy'. He was relieved in 1875 by appointment as editor of the St. Arnaud Mercury. He tired of provincial life after three years but at St Arnaud learned about the problems of the selectors and supported (Sir) Graham Berry's National Reform and Protection League in the elections of 1877.

In Melbourne from 1878, O'Sullivan married Agnes Ann Firman, a milliner, on 17 December at Fitzroy Registry Office. He worked as a journalist on the Argus, was active in trade unions (president, Melbourne Typographical Society, 1881) and found Berry an 'ideal democratic leader'. In Sydney from 1882, at first as overseer of the printing-room of the Daily Telegraph, he represented the New South Wales Typographical Association on the Trades and Labor Council and became president of the council for six months from March 1883. As a labour leader he was controversial because he wanted to associate the council with political movements, especially protection. He succeeded in carrying a motion in favour of a 'judicious and discriminating' tariff for New South Wales at the Intercolonial Trades Union Congress in October 1885.

At a mass meeting at the Prince Albert monument in January 1884 O'Sullivan founded the Democratic Alliance to be the political voice of working men. It failed through lack of organization; its associated newspaper, the Democrat, also failed. The Land and Industrial Alliance of New South Wales, of which O'Sullivan was secretary in 1885, was for a time more successful, bringing together unions and farmers and selectors' organizations at a conference in July.

Defeated in 1882 for the Legislative Assembly seat of West Sydney, O'Sullivan in the elections of October 1885 unsuccessfully contested South Sydney, then turned to Queanbeyan. Connexions made with John Gale, proprietor of the Queanbeyan Age, and L. F. Heydon, assisted his return. He represented Queanbeyan for nineteen years. By the election of February 1887 he had, he said, 'converted the young farmers' of the district to protection; Sir Henry Parkes campaigned against O'Sullivan and was harassed by noisy crowds. O'Sullivan used the same weapon against another premier trying to oust him, (Sir) George Reid, in the 1898 election. There was sectarian bitterness in the electorate, especially in 1887, but O'Sullivan's supporters were not restricted to Catholics.

O'Sullivan was physically sturdy with a 'quasi-pugilistic' appearance. He spoke 'with tremendous energy even on the simplest subjects', and was a wide, if not particularly discriminating, reader, arriving at positions on many public issues early in his career and holding them with unusual consistency. O'Sullivan despised dilettante politicians and pursued his own career as a public man with professional earnestness. He could, said the Bulletin, be 'roughly described as a combination of Samuel Plimsoll, Cicero, John L. Sullivan, and Caius Gracchus'.

In parliament O'Sullivan represented the protectionist cause: protection, he believed, advanced national independence and self-reliance and defended the interests of the productive classes, the workers, manufacturers and farmers, whom O'Sullivan wanted to organize into a coalition. Protectionist numbers grew steadily in the later 1880s. His relations with (Sir) George Dibbs, a conservative pragmatist who led the party in 1887-94, were uneasy. While O'Sullivan established effective discipline and organization in the party, at least during elections, he had to accept both a more conservative leadership and a tilt within the proposed coalition towards the farming interest.

O'Sullivan sat on numerous select committees, was active on the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works (1889-94) and in 1896 chaired the select committee which recommended the introduction of old-age pensions. When Dibbs formed a ministry in October 1891, O'Sullivan was included until T. M. Slattery warned Dibbs against appointing more than two Roman Catholics (Slattery and R. E. O'Connor). O'Sullivan gave the government only grudging support, condemning the tariff it introduced as less than protectionist. With the collusion of some of the new Labor members, he formed a parliamentary group (the 'retrenchment party') committed to reducing expenditure, especially on high salaries. Otherwise his relations with Labor members in the 1890s were bad, though he shared most of their objectives.

His political difficulties persisted under Reid's free trade administration in 1894-99 which, with the support of the Labor Party, introduced reforms, especially direct taxation. O'Sullivan fought hard for protection, while admitting that he would in other circumstances have supported Reid's reforms. After vacillating for some years, he became a strong supporter of the draft constitution bill in June 1898: the worsening international situation, he argued, required Australian union. He edited the Freeman's Journal in 1898-99, combining his own political ideas with congenial elements in contemporary Catholic social thinking.

After Reid's fall in September 1899, O'Sullivan served as secretary for public works in (Sir) William Lyne's ministry. He was the most active and visible of Lyne's ministers. He established a minimum wage on government work and increased the use of day labour instead of contractors—reforms welcomed by the Labor Party with which O'Sullivan was reconciled. The most spectacular of his public works was Central Railway Station, Sydney, which he located at Devonshire Street, half-way between the old Redfern terminus and the city centre. O'Sullivan's sketch for it, said the Bulletin, had 'all the salient features of the Colosseum, St Paul's, the Kremlin and a Yankee skyscraper'.

After hesitating, O'Sullivan decided not to contest the first Federal election in March 1901. He retained his portfolio under the new premier (Sir) John See who, with his Labor allies, won a comfortable majority in the elections on 3 July. New South Wales was afflicted by severe drought and high unemployment in both city and country. O'Sullivan believed in state action to promote economic activity and provide employment. He continued an active public works programme, developing the electric tramway system, expanding railways, harbour and sewerage works, and tried to provide Sydney with a proper water-supply. He was accused of aggravating the difficulties by extravagance with borrowed money.

Despite his avowed principles, O'Sullivan could not avoid interfering in government enterprises on behalf of the men, as a royal commission into the administration of the government docks at Cockatoo Island demonstrated in 1903. The Opposition was well organized by (Sir) Joseph Carruthers, who attacked the 'system of huge state expenditure'. On the ministerial or Progressive side there were tensions between the government's country following and its Labor allies: O'Sullivan was accused of pandering to Labor and neglecting country needs by his provision for the unemployed. See responded by enforcing economies and curtailing public works. In June 1904 he was replaced by Thomas Waddell who appointed O'Sullivan secretary for lands.

O'Sullivan won Belmore in Sydney in the August elections that year, redistribution in Queanbeyan having worked against him, but the Progressives were virtually wiped out. O'Sullivan sat on the cross-benches until August 1909 when he joined the Labor Party. He represented Cook Ward on Sydney Municipal Council in 1906-10 and was a member of the royal commission for the improvement of the city of Sydney in 1908-09.

He had three melodramas, Coo-ee, Eureka Stockade and Keane, of Kalgoorlie, produced. His other writings included Under the Southern Cross (1906), essays on national and historical themes; pamphlets on the Power of Mounted Riflemen (1894) and Protection or Stagnation: Which? (1897); and a substantial part of The History of Capital and Labour in all Lands and Ages (1888). 'From Colony to Commonwealth', his unpublished reminiscences, is in the Mitchell Library, Sydney.

O'Sullivan was a practising Catholic and a 'devout believer' in prayer. His wife was converted to the faith. Briefly a republican in the 1880s, he was both an Australian patriot and an advocate of the unity of the 'Anglo-Celtic race'. He patronized sport of all kinds and was convivial; in 1906 he joined W. P. Crick and others in the Sporting League to oppose puritanical legislation. A testimonial raised £1050 that year, enabling him to settle comfortably at Mosman. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, O'Sullivan died at home on 25 April 1910 of blood poisoning and was buried in Waverley cemetery after a service, attended by a great multitude, at St Mary's Cathedral. His reputation was based on his honesty, enthusiasm and humanity; his 'very blunders seemed to endear him to the hearts of the people'.

A portrait by H. J. Thaddeus is in the Town Hall, Sydney.

Select Bibliography

  • B. E. Mansfield, Australian Democrat
  • the Career of Edward William O'Sullivan, 1846-1910 (Syd, 1965) and for bibliography
  • J. Hagan, Printers and Politics 1850-1950 (Canb, 1966)
  • E. Lea-Scarlett, Queanbeyan District and People (Queanbeyan, NSW, 1968)
  • P. Loveday, A. W. Martin & R. S. Parker (eds), The Emergence of the Australian Party System (Syd, 1977)
  • Journal of Religious History, 4, no 1, 1966-67
  • Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, 53, 1967
  • O'Sullivan papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bruce E. Mansfield, 'O'Sullivan, Edward William (1846–1910)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 15 July 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


17 March, 1846
Launceston, Tasmania, Australia


25 April, 1910 (aged 64)
Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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