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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Barrett, John George (1858–1928)

by Carlotta Kellaway

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

John George Barrett (1858-1928), by unknown photographer

John George Barrett (1858-1928), by unknown photographer

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an22922270

John George Barrett (1858-1928), tinsmith and politician, was born on 17 December 1858 at Carlton, Melbourne, fourth child of George Barrett, carpenter, and his wife Jane, née Elliott, both London-born. His father had been active in early agitation for reform of working conditions and was for seven years secretary of the North Melbourne branch of the Victorian Industrial and Protection League; John remembered being taken as a child of 8 to a (Sir Graham) Berry rally at the Princess Theatre.

Barrett attended St Mary's Anglican School at Hotham from 1863 to 1870, when he was apprenticed to a firm of tinsmiths. At school he was 'diligent and industrious', carrying into later years a taste for study and general reading, especially in the fields of history, political economy and trade union literature; no athlete, he would watch an occasional cricket or football match.

In 1883 with F. H. Bromley and a former schoolfellow David Wyllie, Barrett founded the Tinsmiths' Society, and won reforms in hours and wages. Barrett succeeded Bromley as secretary of the society, which both men represented on the Trades Hall Council. Later he held office as T.H.C. secretary in 1893-1901, having been twice president and a leading member of its executive and of its parliamentary committee, which worked for the election of union candidates to the Victorian parliament. After the maritime strike of 1890 he was a council delegate to a conference which considered establishing a court of conciliation and arbitration, and was one of a sub-committee of four set up to draft a scheme for legislative action. He served as a council-member of the Working Men's College in 1888-95, and in 1899 he was appointed a member of the royal commission on technical education.

In 1892 Barrett contested the Legislative Assembly electorate of Carlton South. He won the seat in a by-election in March 1895, but lost it in 1897 by a narrow margin. He was described as a thoughtful man, of medium height, slender with a rather delicate appearance and a 'quiet grave, pale face'. Later a commentator recalled his cherub-like expression as he 'talked Labour Socialism in a Sunday School voice'. Among the political principles to which Barrett was pledged were an unimproved land tax, reform of the Legislative Council, protection to native industry, female suffrage, prohibition of Chinese and coolie labour, and Federation. His two-hour speech criticizing the weak points of the first Federation bill led to many requests for him to speak on the subject in country centres. In 1897 he served on a royal commission on law reform.

In 1901 Barrett was elected as one of Victoria's six senators to the first Federal parliament. He left the Labor Party before the 1903 election, when he was defeated as an Independent. He then directed his energies to temperance work, becoming secretary of the Victorian Alliance in 1904 and superintendent of the department of law and vigilance for the Victorian Prohibition League. In 1907 and 1917 he made two further attempts to re-enter State politics.

Barrett died on 19 May 1928 in a Melbourne hospital of pulmonary embolism after an operation for gastric ulcer, and was buried in Fawkner cemetery. On 29 April 1882, the day before her death, he had married Mary Henderson Duncan, a victim of Bright's disease. Three years later, at the High Church Presbyterian Manse, Geelong, he married her sister Anne Isabel Claudina Duncan, who predeceased him; he was survived by their five daughters and a son.

Select Bibliography

  • Australasian Hardware, 1 July 1902
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 29 Mar 1895, 25 Apr, 9 May 1901
  • Leader (Melbourne), 23 Mar 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 July 1906
  • Argus (Melbourne), 21 May 1928
  • C. J. Kellaway, The Melbourne Trades Hall Council: Its Origins and Political Significance, 1855-1889 (Ph.D. thesis, La Trobe University, 1973)
  • H. B. Higgins papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Eight-Hours Anniversary Committee, minutes, 1877-93 (State Library of New South Wales and Trades Hall Council, Melbourne).

Citation details

Carlotta Kellaway, 'Barrett, John George (1858–1928)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 30 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

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