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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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McDougall, John Keith (1867–1957)

by Terry King

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

John Keith McDougall (1867-1957), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

John Keith McDougall (1867-1957), by Swiss Studios, 1910s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23381565

John Keith McDougall (1867-1957), politician, farmer, poet and Labor propagandist, was born on 10 August 1867 at Learmonth, Victoria, eldest child of Donald McDougall, farmer, and his wife Margaret, née Keith. Educated at Rossbridge Common School, McDougall was a bright pupil but left at 13 to assist on his parents' farm. The local schoolmaster and a Presbyterian minister encouraged further informal education and kept the young McDougall supplied with books—the classics, the English poets, ancient history—whose influence on his writing is readily apparent. He contemplated training for the Presbyterian ministry, but soon rejected all religion and channelled his zeal for social reform into politics, concluding that 'church and state were for the rich/And Labor stood alone'.

He formalized his commitment to Labor, joining the Ararat branch of the Political Labor Council on its formation in 1903; he was its first secretary and president in 1904. Involved in agitation to break up the large land holdings in western Victoria, McDougall stood for the Ararat Shire Council, succeeding on his second attempt in 1904. In 1906 he won the Federal seat of Wannon for Labor, despite a disastrous campaign-opening at Hamilton when he suffered acute stage fright and was unable to speak. His two terms in parliament were, by the usual criteria, undistinguished. 'J.K.' rarely participated in debate, and critics dubbed him 'the Silent Member', but he was an assiduous worker for his constituency. He was a member of King O'Malley's 'torpedo brigade' and, like O'Malley, was later to claim that that group had forced the Fisher ministry to implement Labor's pledge to establish a Commonwealth Bank. His defeat in the 1913 election was largely attributable to a general swing against Labor, compounded by an unfavourable electoral redistribution in Wannon. McDougall returned to his farm at Maroona, near Ararat, reappearing unsuccessfully as Labor candidate for Flinders in 1914, and for the Grampians in 1915 and 1917.

In countless contributions to the Labor press over four decades, McDougall used verse, letters, articles, and regular columns to denounce capitalism and castigate its adherents. He was equally outspoken in criticizing Labor's pragmatists and backsliders: Fisher, John Watson, Edward Theodore, James Scullin, and Labor 'rats' like Billy Hughes and Joe Lyons were all, in their time, victims of his scathing pen. His political verse was, if anything, more biting than his prose, but he also wrote what one admirer described as 'poetry of pure and delicate lyricism'. Five books of his verse were published, but his work remained largely unknown.

Temporary notoriety came when, in their 1919 election campaign, the Nationalists used reworded verses of his anti-war poem 'The White Man's Burden', written in 1900, as 'evidence' of Labor's contempt for the 'digger'. Stirred on by shameful publicity, a gang of returned soldiers dispensed rough justice, luring McDougall from his home to be tarred and feathered and dumped in an Ararat street. An openly partisan judge later fined the six men charged a paltry £5 each.

'J.K.' had married Margaret Ellen McGennisken on 3 March 1908 at Richmond. On his wife's death in 1952, McDougall retired to his daughter's Portland home to write his memoirs. A radical of a later generation, Brian Fitzpatrick, found him in 1955 to be 'an hospitable teetotaller and conserving iconoclast … still, at 88, physically and intellectually fit and active'. He died at Ararat on 11 April 1957 and was cremated. Two sons and a daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Hay (ed), Meeting of Sighs (Warrnambool, 1981)
  • Recorder, Oct 1976, p 5, Dec 1976, p 17
  • Overland, Aug 1979, p 43
  • T. King, ‘The tarring and feathering of J. K. McDougall’, Labour History, Nov 1983
  • McDougall papers (privately held)
  • S. Merrifield collection (State Library of Victoria).

Citation details

Terry King, 'McDougall, John Keith (1867–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 23 September 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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