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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Carroll, Robert Joseph (1877–1940)

by D. J. Murphy

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

Robert Joseph Carroll (1877-1940), trade union and Labor Party official, was born on 16 June 1877 in Dublin. Migrating in 1882 with his mother and sister, he was educated at St Joseph's College, Brisbane, worked as a shop-assistant, and was apprenticed to the Australian United Steam Navigation Co. in 1892. Qualifying as an engineer in 1897, he served in ships trading with China and Japan. He joined the Amalgamated Society of Engineers in 1897, and was president of the Brisbane branch when he left Australia early in 1902 for the South African goldfields.

Carroll held office in the A.S.E. in South Africa, became the first secretary of the Kimberley Trades and Labour Council, and was dismissed by the De Beers Co. for inducing the Cape Colony parliament to reject 'contracting out' provisions in a workers' compensation bill. On 28 March 1904 at Cape Town, he married Edith Maude Robinson, who had come from Brisbane for the wedding; they had three children.

A foundation member of the South African Labour Party, Carroll campaigned successfully for a Labour candidate against his own mine-owning employer in the Transvaal provincial election of 1907. Labour fared badly in the election: Carroll lost his job and returned to Australia where, unable to find work at his trade, he went pineapple-farming at Cribb Island near Brisbane. Employed at the South Brisbane dry dock in 1911, he became secretary of the Brisbane district committee of the A.S.E. and was spokesman for engineering workers during the 1912 general strike. In February 1913 Carroll toured Queensland organizing for the union and in July became its first full-time official; in two years membership almost trebled. He represented it on the Trades Hall board of management, on the Brisbane Industrial Council and on the Trades and Labor Council when it was reconstituted in 1922. Elected to the central political executive of the Australian Labor Party in 1917, he remained a member till his death; from 1920 he was on its executive committee and was its returning officer in 1919-34. In 1920 he was appointed to the Legislative Council and next year his vote helped to abolish it. He stood unsuccessfully for the Senate in 1934.

Usually a militant, Carroll opposed conscription strongly in 1916-17 and was one of several unionists imprisoned in June 1919 for flying the red flag. He was released from Boggo Road Gaol on 1 August under a peace amnesty after an unsuccessful Supreme Court appeal by T. J. Ryan against the sentence. Despite his militancy and vocal contempt for arbitration, he abided by his party's policy and became a competent and respected advocate in the Industrial Court; he shared with Tim Moroney the presentation of cases for the combined railways' unions. He was also appointed secretary of the Trade Union Research Committee set up in 1925 to assist the investigation into the basic wage commissioned by T. W. McCawley. Carroll's children saw little of him at night and remember him as always either attending a meeting or working at home on a case for the Industrial Court.

He became a director of the Daily Standard in 1918 and as chairman in the 1930s was able to persuade the Australian Workers' Union to continue financing the paper until it closed in 1936. Carroll was a senator of the University of Queensland from 1920, and was active in the Ambulance Transport Brigade, the Authors and Artists' Association and the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia. He was also a trustee of the National Art Gallery.

By the early 1930s, Carroll was one of the most powerful Labor leaders in Queensland, the confidant of W. Forgan Smith and of the central executive president Clarrie Fallon. He resigned his union office in 1935 to become a full-time organizer for the party and in 1937 succeeded Lewis McDonald as secretary. He codified and modernized the confused party rules while rebutting charges of Catholic domination.

Though born a Catholic, Carroll had abandoned all religion when young. When he died of intestinal neoplasm on 7 February 1940, it was found that he had willed his body to the university medical school. His estate was valued for probate at £1508. In December his remains were cremated and the ashes scattered in the bush. He did not believe in stone memorials.

Select Bibliography

  • K. D. Buckley, The Amalgamated Engineers in Australia, 1852-1920 (Canb, 1970)
  • T. Sheridan, Mindful Militants (Cambridge, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland, 1915-57 (Brisb, 1980)
  • Particulars Relating to the Working Life of Robert J. Carroll (privately held).

Citation details

D. J. Murphy, 'Carroll, Robert Joseph (1877–1940)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 22 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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