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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McCourt, William Joseph (1851–1913)

by G. N. Hawker

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

William Joseph McCourt (1851-1913), by Crown Studios

William Joseph McCourt (1851-1913), by Crown Studios

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 09470

William Joseph McCourt (1851-1913), newspaper proprietor and parliamentarian, was born in March 1851 in Monaghan, Ireland, son of James McCourt, farmer, and his wife Bridget, née Smith. Aged 2 he was brought to New South Wales by his parents who settled at Wollongong. He was educated at Wollongong National School and at 13 entered the office of John and Thomas Garrett, before being apprenticed as a printer with the Illawarra Mercury. He read avidly, played cricket with the Illawarra team and enjoyed shooting.

Soon after completing his articles, McCourt founded the Moss Vale Scrutineer and West Camden Advocate in 1874 and made a local reputation before selling it in 1886. He was vice-president of the Berrima District Cottage Hospital board, a director of the Berrima District Butter Co. and, a Freemason, was worshipful master of the Bowral lodge. At Holy Trinity Church, Berrima, on 18 May 1882 McCourt married Emily Elizabeth Galbraith, daughter of a storekeeper; later they lived at Berrima. He travelled extensively in Australia, speculated in land in New South Wales and Western Australia and in 1887-1913 was chairman of the Intercolonial Investment, Land, and Building Co. Ltd.

Defeated in 1880, McCourt had been elected to the Legislative Assembly for Camden in 1882. He did not contest the 1885 election, but represented that seat in 1887-94, Bowral in 1894-1904 and Wollondilly in 1904-13. A strong if conventional Free Trader, he supported Sir Henry Parkes and became a close follower of (Sir) George Reid. He foresaw financial problems in Federation, opposed payment of members and life appointments to the Legislative Council, was suspicious of squatters and financial institutions and supported female suffrage. His interventions in debate were few and short, largely confined to local matters. Elected chairman of committees in 1894, McCourt resigned his seat in February 1895 when the calling in of a bank guarantee forced him into bankruptcy. Although he was not discharged until July, the by-election was uncontested and he was re-elected chairman of committees in March, holding this position until elected Speaker in June 1900, with the support of (Sir) William Lyne's Protectionist government.

His remarkable achievement was to be elected to the two presiding positions of the assembly over sixteen years without having his candidature contested. Faced with certain defeat by the Labor candidate J. H. Cann McCourt did not stand for the Speakership in November 1910. More than any other presiding officer before or since, he expressed the tradition, often notable by its entire absence, of an impartial Speaker enjoying support from all sides of the House. With thick, dark eyebrows and walrus moustache, he owed his success more to a dignified geniality than to intellectual distinction. W. A. Holman thought that McCourt's 'amiability of temperament made him disposed rather to overlook offences than pursue them with any rigour'.

About 1907 McCourt moved to Sydney; he was an alderman on the Vaucluse Municipal Council in 1908-11 and in 1912 served on the royal commission into legalising and regulating the use of the totalisator, which he favoured. On 22 June 1913 he died of intestinal obstruction at Darlinghurst and was buried in the Church of England section of Berrima cemetery. His estate was valued for probate at £2592. He was survived by his wife (d.1923), two sons, and three daughters including twins Myall and Mallee; the elder son William Rupert was clerk of the Legislative Assembly in 1930-47.

Select Bibliography

  • Cyclopedia of N.S.W (Syd, 1907)
  • R. A. Arnold (compiler), Decisions of Honorable William McCourt (Syd, 1910)
  • G. N. Hawker, The Parliament of New South Wales, 1856-1965 (Syd, 1971)
  • Illustrated Express, 27 Apr 1887
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 6 July 1894
  • Town and Country Journal, 25 Dec 1907, 25 June 1913
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 June 1913
  • Fighting Line, 19 July 1913
  • bankruptcy file 9317 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Henry Parkes papers (State Library of New South Wales).

Citation details

G. N. Hawker, 'McCourt, William Joseph (1851–1913)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 22 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

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