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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Osborne, John Percy (1878–1961)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

John Percy Osborne (1878-1961), politician, was born on 1 December 1878 at Deniliquin, New South Wales, son of English-born parents Alfred John Osborne, contractor, and his wife Jane, née McCoy. He was educated at country public schools and worked at the Captains Flat mine and later in a country store. He joined the Labor Party about 1900 and in 1902 went to Sydney where he worked as a shop assistant with Mark Foy's Ltd.

Osborne played an important part in influencing many of the 20,000 retail employees in Sydney to support the Labor Party, a necessary step in its growth in the State. He was secretary of the Shop Assistants' Union of New South Wales in 1902-07, and president in 1908-11. He saw the need to rationalize the working days and hours of his members and was secretary and treasurer of the Saturday Half-holiday League in 1907-10. He became a delegate on the Labor Council of New South Wales. In 1910 he was his union's advocate for an award, visiting many country areas with the Wages Board, and helping to obtain a satisfactory settlement. Concurrently he was active in Labor politics, especially in his Paddington branch in an area where many shopworkers lived. He failed to win the local parliamentary seat in 1907, but his success in 1910 indicated the widening appeal of the party, which won the elections and formed a government under J. S. T. McGowen. Osborne had married Julia Rosenfeld in Sydney on 3 February 1907. He became a justice of the peace in 1911.

He proved an energetic parliamentarian, adapting his organizing skills to the demands on a party holding office for the first time, but with a majority of only two. He found his salary of £300 insufficient for his growing family and formed an estate agency with his parliamentary colleague G. A. Jones in 1912: it was not a success and was wound up in 1913. In 1914 Osborne and Jones were mildly criticized by a royal commission for having voted in parliament on a matter that involved their agency.

In 1921 Osborne published Nine Crowded Years (Sydney), a perceptive and well-written account of his industrial and political activities. With some wry humour he details the grinding routines of organizing branches, attending meetings and rallying apathetic, and sometimes antagonistic, followers. He also gives a valuable account of the problems confronting the first and second Labor governments in New South Wales in 1910-16. Osborne was attached to W. A. Holman, but did not join him in the National Party when Holman was expelled over conscription in 1916.

But Holman appointed him to the Metropolitan Meat Industry Board in 1919 and Osborne resigned his seat. He remained on the board until 1928. He was a director of the Benevolent Society of New South Wales in 1913-33, and a life governor of Boys' Town, Engadine. A Presbyterian, he died on 19 February 1961 at Roseville and was cremated. His wife, two daughters and one son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1909, 5, p 820, 1914-15, 5, p 93, 115
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 17 Oct 1910.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Osborne, John Percy (1878–1961)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 24 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (MUP), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

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