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William Somerville (1869–1954)

by Stuart Macintyre

This article was published:

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

William Somerville (1869-1954), arbitrator, was born on 24 October 1869 at Merewether, New South Wales, son of Scottish parents, John Somerville, coalminer, and his wife Margaret, née Laird. They lived in a slab cottage and William attended public school before training as a blacksmith at Morrison & Bearby's foundry, Newcastle. Completing his apprenticeship to a boilermaker in 1889, he joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers. After working in Sydney for about a year, he was laid off and tramped the city streets for months before taking to the road. In the 1890s he humped a swag across New South Wales and Victoria and the experience 'burned deep'. He recalled that when younger and a member of the 'tin gods' (the craft elite of the engineers), he had despised the unemployed until he discovered 'that in our sunny Australia in times of depression if a man has too stiff a back to beg then he can starve like a dog'.

In 1895 Somerville went to Fremantle, Western Australia. On the morning that he landed, he hunted up the union secretary at his breakfast and by starting time had found a job as engine-smith on C. Y. O'Connor's harbour works. He became a leader of the local labour movement, was active in the 1899 lumpers' strike, and represented the A.S.E. on the new Coastal Trades and Labor Council (president 1901). On 30 March 1899 in Wesley Church, Fremantle, Somerville married Agnes Spunner, schoolteacher; they lived in Mosman Park, a bushland suburb, and Agnes shared her husband's political activity. They had a daughter and three sons.

The elected worker representative on the Western Australian Court of Arbitration from 1905, Somerville was critical of the court's excessive legalism but championed industrial arbitration. 'The law involved is negligible', he insisted. 'There never is—there cannot be—any important argument as to the facts; they are as plain as the nose on one's face'. Mistrustful of lawyers' class sympathies and impatient with arguments from precedent, he saw the court as performing 'the work of a subsidiary legislature'. He supported, and urged his colleagues to award, improved wages (anticipating Henry Higgins's enunciation of the family wage), shorter hours, enforcement of apprenticeship provisions and other improvements for unionists. While repudiating arbitration's implied circumscription of the claims of labour—'The worker should, without ceasing, constantly struggle toward the goal, “his full share of the wealth he helps to create”' —he upheld the court's authority over unions seeking to overturn awards by direct action. In Twenty-One Years of Arbitration Court Work (1926) he asked 'Has the long grind been worth while? And my answer is sincerely, and I hope not boastfully, “It has!”'

A significant figure in the Australian Labor Party's early history in Western Australia, Somerville stood for State parliament, sought preselection for Federal parliament and was a delegate to pre-war A.L.P. federal conferences. He was an unforgiving anti-conscriptionist in 1916, severing a friendship with (Sir) George Pearce over the issue. During the secession crisis of 1933-34, the Commonwealth chose him as one of the authors of The Case for Union.

Somerville was an assiduous speaker and newspaper correspondent: on nationalism, the White Australia policy, the tariff, economic development, conservation and education. Awarded an honorary LL.D. by the University of Western Australia in 1941, he had been chairman of its adult education committee and a foundation member in 1912 of its senate. Often acting chancellor, he frequently reminded the professors, in blunt and colourful language, of his undertaking to the premier John Scaddan that he would guard it as a university of the working class; (Sir) Walter Murdoch was an adversary. Less contentious were his efforts to beautify the grounds and to plant Norfolk Island pines, his 'cathedral of trees', on the university campus. The open-air Somerville Auditorium at Crawley is his memorial. He was also a member of the boards of King's Park and Rottnest Island, where he instigated an ambitious afforestation scheme, and a trustee of the Public Library, Museum and Art Gallery of Western Australia (from 1908).

A cataract of the eye forced Somerville's retirement from the court in 1941, but an operation allowed him to write Rottnest Island (1948) and several manuscripts: 'A Blacksmith Looks at a University', 'Western Australia came of Age', and 'An Economic History of Western Australia with Special Reference to Trade Unions and the Influence of Industrial Arbitration'.

Somerville was a pipe-smoking, free-thinking teetotaller. Large-framed and straight-backed, he became bald early. His pleasures were solitary: gardening, fishing, reading and writing in his study, or working in the smithy at his weekend cottage at Chidlow. He disliked idleness or frivolity; his daughter was once instructed to 'stop that knitting and read something'. Humourless, he could be stubborn and dogmatic. As he said, 'There is a good slice of the big-headed Scotchman in me'. He was disdainful of Perth's business and professional elite but sensitive to their slights, and rebuked the governor for backing 'that small section of the community who with insular arrogance arrogate to themselves the title of society'. He cast an equally censorious eye on old comrades whose achievement of ministerial office caused them to succumb to creature comforts. He continued to live in his modest weatherboard house and saw his children pass from government schools to the public university. He was a member of the Australian Round Table. Somerville died at Fremantle on Christmas Eve 1954 and was cremated. His children survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Alexander, Campus at Crawley (Melb, 1963)
  • K. D. Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920 (Canb, 1970)
  • Mosman Park Review, 2, no 7, Feb 1955
  • A. Clover, Biography of William Somerville (manuscript, 1958, State Library of Western Australia)
  • B. Latter, Dr William Somerville, (manuscript, 1980, State Library of Western Australia)
  • Somerville papers (State Library of Western Australia and University of Western Australia Library.

Citation details

Stuart Macintyre, 'Somerville, William (1869–1954)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 24 June 2024.

© Copyright Labour Australia, 2012

Life Summary [details]


24 October, 1869
Newcastle, New South Wales, Australia


24 December, 1954 (aged 85)
Fremantle, Western Australia, Australia

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