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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Skurrie, Joseph (1858–1949)

by Nigel H. Sinnott

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

Joseph Skurrie (1858-1949), goldminer, freethinker and socialist, was born on 8 January 1858 at Glasgow, Scotland, son of Joseph Skurie, journeyman tinsmith, and his wife Jane, née Duncan. The family migrated to Melbourne in 1864 and soon settled on the Bendigo goldfields. As a boy Joseph was quiet and studious with a liking for practical jokes. He started work aged 9 and left school completely at 11. For most of his working life he was employed in the mines, mainly as an engine driver, blacksmith and rockdrill fitter. On 27 September 1882 at Eaglehawk he married Ellen Milligan; they had two daughters.

As a young man Skurrie became a vegetarian, teetotaller and political radical. In 1886 he came across the Liberator, a militant freethought weekly edited by Joseph Symes. He became a contributor and an active member of the Australasian Secular Association, of which Symes was president. In Melbourne he entertained secularist soirées with melodramatic songs and recitations from Robert Burns.

In 1889 the association completed its Melbourne premises, the Hall of Science in Victoria Parade, Fitzroy (now part of St Vincent's Hospital). Skurrie, installed as hallkeeper, helped to defend the building when an anti-Symes faction in 1890 tried to take it by force. Next year when the courts gave the anti-Symes group possession Skurrie returned to Bendigo where he became corresponding secretary of the Eaglehawk and Bendigo branch of the Australasian Secular Association and a committee-member of the Eaglehawk women's franchise movement. In 1893 he was prosecuted for profanity, obstruction and trespass after giving a freethought lecture in front of Eaglehawk Town Hall, but was convicted only on the third charge.

The depression of the 1890s forced Skurrie, like many skilled working men, to travel in search of work. He visited Adelaide and Tasmania, was employed briefly in the Brisbane area and at Adelong, New South Wales, but eventually settled for some fifteen years at Kalgoorlie, Western Australia. He saved sufficient money to enable him to attend the sixth International Esperanto Congress in Washington in 1910, travelling to the United States of America via Scotland to see Burns's birthplace.

Skurrie returned to Melbourne about 1915. He joined the Victorian Socialist Party, took part in the anti-conscription campaign, and in 1916 was imprisoned under the War Precautions Act for his outspoken views, in a lecture chaired by R. S. Ross, on Christianity and war. In 1918 he joined the newly formed Rationalist Society in Melbourne. Divorced in 1917, he married Winifred Snowden Froggatt on 28 March 1918 at Hawthorn.

In photographs Skurrie appears alert, serious and clean-shaven, with large ears and a prominent nose. He never succeeded in his ambition of becoming a professional lecturer but in 1948 his novelette, Unlicensed Union, was published in Melbourne. It served as a robust and imaginative vehicle for his views on marriage, politics and religion. Another manuscript, 'An Esperantist's journey round the world', remained unpublished. He died at Hawthorn on 12 December 1949 and was cremated. A daughter of his first marriage survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • N. H. Sinnott (ed), Joseph Skurrie's Freethought Reminiscences (Lidcombe Nth, Sydney, 1977)
  • Liberator (Melbourne), 12 Oct 1889, 28 June, 5 July 1890, 18 Feb, 4 Mar 1893
  • Ross's Magazine, Feb, Mar, May 1916
  • N. H. Sinnott, ‘Joseph Skurrie, child of the sun’, Freethinker (London), Sept 1978
  • Skurrie manuscripts (Merrifield collection, State Library of Victoria) and manuscript (H. H. Pearce collection, National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Nigel H. Sinnott, 'Skurrie, Joseph (1858–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 28 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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