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Ernest Herbert Shea (1884–1959)

by Chris Cunneen

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Ernest Herbert Shea (1884-1959), printer, was born on 11 December 1884 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, eleventh child of William Shea, Tasmanian-born building contractor, and his illiterate Gloucestershire-born wife Mary Ann, née Davis. Ern spent his boyhood and was educated at Subiaco, Perth, where he had 'his first smell of printers ink'. Reputedly, his attempt at about 15 to enlist for the South African War was foiled by his mother. He was a printer living again at Fitzroy when he married Lily May Boreham with Free Christian Church rites on 15 February 1904.

In February 1906 Shea, described as a 'pushful printer … battling hard with the world', persuaded the exhibitor of Holman Hunt's 'The Light of the World', then touring Australia to a rapturous reception, to allow him to sell postcard-size reproductions of the painting. Shea 'clamped himself, wife and small child to the entourage like barnacles', travelling with it to Sydney, New Zealand—where he was fined for selling on a Sunday—Queensland and Western Australia. In July 1907 he accompanied the painting to South Africa.

By 1913 Shea was living at Darlinghurst, Sydney. Agnostic and radical, he may (his family believe) have associated with the Industrial Workers of the World. Active in the Letterpress Machinists' Industrial Union, in 1920 he was dismissed by photo-engravers Hartland & Hyde, reinstated, then elected to the board of management of the new Amalgamated Printing Trades Employees' Union; he was its president in 1922-23 and delegate to the Labor Council of New South Wales. In 1922 he was again sacked, for industrial action in support of Anzac Day pay; and in a campaign for a 44-hour week his union was deregistered.

On 2 March Shea was appointed teacher of letterpress machining at Sydney Technical College; in 1928 he became head-teacher. He, his students and those of his friend Rayner Hoff produced two stylish year-books, Art and Printing (1929, 1931), the latter on the sculpture of Eileen McGrath. Tenacious, idealistic, sometimes irascible, he was stocky, with a slight printer's stoop, and sported a thin moustache.

With special permission from the Public Service Board, in 1931 Shea set up Sunnybrook Press in his Mosman house. Here he produced a remarkable series of limited editions: Trio (1931), poetry and drawings by Raymond Lindsay, W. E. Pidgeon, Kenneth Slessor and others; Katharine Susannah Prichard's The Earth Lover and Other Verses (1932); The Attorney-General of New Barataria (1932), a reprint of Daniel Deniehy's 1860 work; Sculpture of Rayner Hoff (1934, using the collotype process, rare in Australia); (Sir) John Ferguson's The Howes and Their Press (1936); Herbert Rumsey's Pioneers of Sydney Cove (1937); and a reprint of Raffaello Carboni's The Eureka Stockade (1942), edited by Bert Evatt. He printed these works in editions of 75, 100, 120 or 150 on an 1874 Albion hand press. Later he used a reconditioned Viktoria Merkur vertical press. In 1932 he also produced three maps by cartographer James Emery. Shea was an organizing member of the Australian Limited Editions Society in 1936. He corresponded with such literati as Hugh McCrae and Peter Hopegood over possible publications.

World War II ended the series. Retiring in 1944, Shea moved to Leura. Survived by his wife and daughter, he died on 20 September 1959 and was cremated. A reviewer had written, in 1934, 'Shea lives for printing—for printing of the sort that aims at perfect harmony of type, paper, layout, and illustration'.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Mackaness, Bibliomania (Syd, 1965)
  • J. Maas, Holman Hunt and The Light of the World (Lond, 1984)
  • Daily News (Perth), 22 July 1933
  • Letterpress, Machinists' Industrial Union of Employees of New South Wales (Australian National University Archives)
  • Amalgamated Printing Trades Employees' Union minute books (Australian National University Archives)
  • private information.

Citation details

Chris Cunneen, 'Shea, Ernest Herbert (1884–1959)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 19 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


11 December, 1884
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


20 September, 1959 (aged 74)

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