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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McCue, John Robertson Thomas (1881–1975)

by Geoffrey Serle

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

John Robertson Thomas McCue (1881-1975), Baptist pastor and prohibitionist, was born on 7 May 1881 at Port Campbell, Victoria, fifth child of Michael McCue and his wife Agnes, née Robertson. Born in Ireland, Michael was a former soldier who had emigrated from India in the 1870s and turned to farming; Agnes was the daughter of a Baptist family from the Shetland Islands. Leaving school at the age of 13, Robertson found work in shearing sheds and as a woodcutter. At 16 he moved to Beulah where he had relatives, took a job in a general store, and returned to school intending to enter the ministry.

About 1902 McCue began home mission work, preaching at Kerang and Wonthaggi; he lived in a tent and played in the local cricket and football teams. After four years at the Baptist College of Victoria, during which he studied English literature and philosophy at the University of Melbourne, he was ordained in 1911. He then served as associate-minister at St Kilda. On 8 September 1914 he married Sarah Edith Annie Collins at the Baptist Church, Beulah. He was successively pastor at Kyneton, Castlemaine (where in 1920 he organized mass meetings which gained local option and the closure of four hotels), West Moreland and West Preston.

From 1930, while occasionally preaching, McCue worked almost full time for twenty-seven years as secretary and organizer of the Victorian Local Option Alliance (later the Victorian Temperance Alliance) and as editor of Clarion Call, its official journal. He was a prohibitionist, not a mere temperance man, who campaigned for the closure of public houses on Saturdays and believed that consumption of alcohol should be confined to those with a medical prescription. Described by the press as Victoria's most famous wowser and anti-liquor champion, he remained good-humoured and courteous in controversy.

His success was mixed. A vehement and articulate speaker and letter-writer to the newspapers, he was confident that he was following divine purpose. In the 1930 and 1938 referendums he led the campaigns for the reduction of liquor licences, but failed although polling well. In the late 1940s hundreds of barmaids recruited during World War II continued to work. McCue threatened legal action. The women were sentenced to dismissal, strike actions followed in their support, officialdom intervened, and they continued in employment.

As the Olympic Games were nigh, a referendum was called in 1956 to vote for or against the late closing of public houses. McCue was largely responsible for persuading more than 60 per cent of voters to 'Stick to Six'. In 1963, however, Premier (Sir) Henry Bolte and his deputy (Sir) Arthur Rylah skilfully arranged for a royal commission conducted by (Sir) Philip Phillips which recommended ten o'clock closing. Once Liberal Party policy had been altered, legislation enabled 10 p.m. closing from February 1966. McCue was sure that prohibition and sanity would eventually prevail in Victoria, but the cause was lost.

Mrs McCue was a founder (1924) and active member of the Victorian Women's Baptist Association, and a life governor (from 1955) of the Royal Women's Hospital. She died in 1971. Survived by his son and two daughters, Robertson McCue died on 22 April 1975 at Kew and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • F. J. Wilkin, Baptists in Victoria: Our First Century, 1838-1938 (Melb, 1939)
  • K. Dunstan, Wowsers (Melb, 1968)
  • P. Blazey, Bolte (Brisb, 1972)
  • Royal Commission into the Sale, Supply, Disposal or Consumption of Liquor in the State of Victoria, Parliamentary Papers (Victoria), 1964-65, 2 (22, 23)
  • La Trobe Historical Studies, no 3, 1972
  • Victorian Baptist Witness, 5 June 1975
  • Herald (Melbourne), 14 June 1956
  • Age (Melbourne), 17 July 1964.

Citation details

Geoffrey Serle, 'McCue, John Robertson Thomas (1881–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2000, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 15, (MUP), 2000

View the front pages for Volume 15

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