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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Toomey, James Morton (1862–1920)

by John Merritt

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

James Morton Toomey (1862-1920), trade unionist and Labor Party organizer, was born on 28 November 1862 at Gribbin station, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, son of native-born parents James Henry Toomey, superintendent, and his wife Sarah Jane, née Morton. He grew up in the Riverina and in 1886 helped to found the Wagga Wagga Shearers' Union. Moving to Young in March 1888, he was elected secretary of a new branch of the Amalgamated Shearers' Union of Australasia. Soon after, he established a branch of the Amalgamated Miners' Association and the Young District Carriers' Union, becoming secretary of both. He then formed a trades and labour council of which his three unions were the only members. Although his lone drive to mobilize labour at Young failed, Toomey was enthusiastic and energetic; he was also a forceful public speaker whose letters to newspapers were clearly argued.

In June 1888 he arranged a conference between the Young branch of the A.S.U. and the Young and Lachlan Districts Sheepowners' Association; W. G. Spence was present and G. H. Greene of Iandra station led the pastoralists. The result was a formal agreement which specified shearing rates and working conditions for local sheds. Toomey and Greene were given most of the credit for negotiating the first such agreement between the union and a pastoralists' association: it was to serve as a model for the four-colony agreement negotiated by the A.S.U. and the Pastoralists' Federal Council of Australia in 1891.

When it seemed that Queensland's bitterly fought shearers' strike would spread into New South Wales in June that year, Toomey approached Whiteley King, secretary of the Pastoralists' Union of New South Wales, and helped to bring the P.F.C.A. to the conference table in August 1891. Spence and David Temple, secretary of the A.S.U., alleged that Toomey had weakened their bargaining position by defying an executive ruling to leave negotiations to senior officials. Temple, however, had allowed himself no room for manoeuvre through his unyielding statements; a conference became possible only after Toomey had shown willingness to compromise.

Although he described himself as a socialist, Toomey was at heart a pragmatic reformer. His strengths were his ability to reconcile differences and his indefatigable pursuit of those objectives he considered worthwhile. That the fledgling Labor Party—prone to urban and rural factionalism, and divided over policy and the candidates' solidarity pledge—managed a united effort at the 1894 elections was largely attributable to his exertions. Toomey was tireless in his attempts to organize a Labor vote in country electorates. At several party conferences and on the executive of the shearers' union (forerunner of the Australian Workers' Union), he put the case for unity with verve and courage. The work he did in these years helped Labor to develop a strong rural base in New South Wales. Defeated for the Legislative Assembly seat of Boorowa in 1894 by the adroit Protectionist organizer T. M. Slattery, Toomey might have won if he had contested Young, but in the interests of unity he had persuaded J. C. Watson to stand for that seat.

The decision to make way for Watson marked a change in Toomey's fortunes. He never again won pre-selection for the Labor Party and in 1896 the A.W.U. abolished the Young branch to cut administrative costs. Bitter at being deserted by Watson, Toomey drifted in and out of jobs. He represented the Creswick (Victoria) branch of the A.W.U. at Federal conferences in 1898 and 1899, before returning to Young where he was declared bankrupt in 1905. At St Patrick's Catholic Church, Sydney, on 26 December 1906 he married Elizabeth Mary Post, a dressmaker from Maitland. He later became an accountant and paymaster on the northern coalfields, only to lose his job when he supported striking miners. He was working as a commercial traveller when he died of chronic nephritis at his Lambton home on 1 April 1920; he was buried in Sandgate cemetery, Newcastle; his wife and 12-year-old daughter survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • J. Merritt, The Making of the AWU (Melb, 1986)
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 3 Apr 1920
  • bankruptcy file 16399 (State Records New South Wales)
  • Watson papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

John Merritt, 'Toomey, James Morton (1862–1920)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 28 September 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

View the front pages for Volume 12

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