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Beeby, Sir George Stephenson (1869–1942)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

George Stephenson Beeby (1869-1942), by unknown photographer, 1912

George Stephenson Beeby (1869-1942), by unknown photographer, 1912

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an23198551

Sir George Stephenson Beeby (1869-1942), politician, judge and playwright, was born on 23 May 1869 at Alexandria, Sydney, second son of English-born Edward Augustus Beeby, book-keeper, and his wife Isabel, née Thompson. Educated at Crown Street Public School, on 3 July 1884 he became a pupil-teacher at Macdonald Town (Erskineville) Public School under Peter Board, but because of defective eyesight he soon left and drifted into several jobs—in a bulk iron store, as a debt-collector, as a book-keeper and stenographer in the law firm of Creagh & Williams, and as an accountant. In 1890 he attended Henry George's meetings and became a single taxer; next year he was secretary of the first Labor Electoral League formed at Newtown and helped in the return of two local Labor candidates at the general election. In 1892 he became editor and manager of the Bowral Free Press and on 9 March married Helena Maria West at Camperdown Church of Christ.

Unemployed by December, Beeby returned to Sydney; early in 1893 he went to Hillgrove and organized Labor in the New England district. He had become one of the chief propagandists of the new Labor Party, stressing the need for parliamentary solidarity. In August he represented the Hillgrove league at a meeting in Sydney, and argued for a conference 'representative of all Labor leagues, trade unions and democratic political organizations'; but the radical groups were excluded from the resulting Labor unity conference held in November. By then he had left the single taxers—who labelled him 'bumptious Beeby' while he referred to their 'idiotic effusions' and had joined the Australian Socialist League. He gave significant support to J. C. Watson, who led the campaign for Labor solidarity based on a party pledge and the sovereignty of annual conferences. Beeby became his deputy, ably defending the executive, mainly against George Black. He ran for Labor at Armidale in the 1894 elections and, as editor-proprietor, began the New England Democrat with £50 capital and one compositor. He fought a long and active campaign, consolidating his knowledge of rural problems, but lost narrowly. Joined by W. A. Holman, he moved his newspaper to Hillgrove, but it soon failed and they returned to Sydney broke. Next year with Watson, Holman and others he was charged with conspiring to defraud in connexion with the short-lived Labor paper, the Daily Post, but he was cleared.

Beeby survived the mid-1890s depression by intermittent clerical work and freelancing. His difficulties increased with the birth of three children. He obtained work at 35s. a week with the legal firm of Lawrence & Rich and studied law. In 1901 he was with M. J. Brown and on 16 November was admitted as a solicitor, afterwards founding the firm of Beeby & Moffatt, which specialized in industrial matters. He had remained active in the Labor Party and in 1904 ran for Leichhardt, but lost. In 1907 he failed at a by-election in Blayney, a country seat, but won it at the August general election. He soon ranked third behind J. S. T. McGowen and Holman as a leading Labor parliamentarian. His industrial expertise helped him, with Holman, to obtain an amendment to (Sir) Charles Wade's 1908 Industrial Disputes Act to make the trade or industrial union an effective unit in the arbitration system. He was admitted to the Bar in 1911.

Beeby had developed as a vigorous speaker, not brilliant but effective and well prepared. Of medium height, he wore trim spectacles and waxed and curled his spruce moustache. He was almost painfully aloof, upright and formal; he preferred to be addressed as 'Beeby', and in 1911 was still writing to his old comrade as 'Dear Watson'. But a subtle sense of humour had gradually modified his youthful earnestness as his reading extended to Oscar Wilde and G. B. Shaw. He was a great theatre-goer and a bad chess-player.

Beeby became minister of public instruction and for labour and industry in the first Labor government in 1910. He at once co-operated with Board in having regulations approved under which public high schools were to be established and conducted; he also encouraged Board in his plans for continuation schools. On 11 September 1911 he was transferred from public instruction to the lands portfolio: the objective of his Land Act next year was to assist settlers with little capital to make a living. But most of his time and energy were devoted to new labour legislation, resulting in the Industrial Arbitration Act, 1912. On balance the Act stressed the need for social harmony rather than the interests of employees; it set up a new system of conciliation; it removed imprisonment as a penalty, but tightened up the collection of fines, and involved unions in the conduct of their members, with a maximum penalty of £1000. It purported to 'repress' rather than 'prohibit' lock-outs and strikes, but prosecutions against strikers continued to increase. Beeby's adherence to Labor was seen to be sapped at the very time he was chafing at the party's direction to its members to support the transfer of certain State powers, including labour, to the Commonwealth.

Beeby was disillusioned with the form political parties had taken; and argued that the Labor Party had developed a conservatism of its own. He wanted more freedom of choice for voters and more independence for candidates. He was not a States righter but sought a complete review of the Federal Constitution to vest 'in the central Parliament … all functions, with power to allocate duties to State Legislatures'. His persistent radicalism showed in the demand 'either for the abolition of the Senate or equality of franchise in [its] election'. On 9 December 1912 he resigned from parliament and the Labor Party. Rumours that Holman and others would join him in a 'Centre Party' were not substantiated. He regained his seat on 23 January 1913 after a bitter campaign. At Armidale in March he proposed the formation of a 'National Progressive Party', and in July began negotiations with the Farmers and Settlers' Association. At the general election in December he ran thirteen candidates, but all lost—including himself at Waverley, to the Labor man. He renewed his discussions with the F.A.S.A. in July 1915 and the Progressive Party was founded with Beeby as leader; it proposed preferential voting, extension of Federal powers and the formation of new States. In February 1916 a pact was reached with the Liberal Party to combine against the Labor Party.

The conscription crisis of that year split the labour movement and in November Holman reformed his government as a National ministry. Although Beeby had grown apart from the premier, he joined the new cabinet as minister of labour and industry with a seat in the Legislative Council; at the 1917 general election he won Wagga Wagga in the assembly. He soon examined the need for a review of industrial law; he denounced 'the revolutionary doctrines preached by some militant union leaders' and reaffirmed his belief in arbitration. Next year he amended the Industrial Arbitration Act declaring certain strikes illegal and setting up a Board of Trade with power to declare a living wage; overall, according to H. V. Evatt, the Act 'would make any effective strike punishable'. While piloting the arbitration amendment bill through the assembly in February, Beeby threatened to resign over the terms of the government contract with H. Teasdale Smith & Co., but Holman placated him.

Beeby's leadership of the Progressive Party was questioned in October prior to his trip to the United States of America and Britain in December: the F.A.S.A. wanted to make it more of a country party and his urban style now grated with farmers. He returned on 9 July 1919 and soon resigned his portfolio. The Sydney Morning Herald said he had resigned three times from two cabinets; but his political base seemed insecure, and he had long been disgruntled with Holman; specifically he objected to four administrative acts of the government, especially to a contract negotiated by W. C. Grahame, minister for agriculture, for the sale of wheat without public tenders.

In August Beeby strongly supported J. Storey, leader of the Labor Party, in a demand for a second inquiry, and widened the attack on Holman to include alleged dubious dealings with H. D. McIntosh. A further royal commission was inconclusive, but Beeby's charges and his campaign embarrassed the government in the March 1920 elections. Labor won, Holman lost his seat and Beeby was returned for Murray, but W. E. Wearne defeated him for the leadership of the Progressives in April. On 9 August Premier Storey announced Beeby's appointment as a judge of the Industrial Court of Arbitration and president of the Board of Trade, which the government intended to administer new legislation on profiteering and price control. In September he was appointed a royal commissioner to inquire into the effects of a proposed decrease from 48 to 44 hours per week in the iron and building trades; his report supported the reduction.

In 1912 Melbourne Punch had predicted that 'a judgeship is [Beeby's] real objective'. He also aspired to be a playwright and over the years had recorded details of his wide experiences, which he now began to put into dramatic form. In 1923 he published Concerning Ordinary People, containing four long and two short plays, ranging from tragedy to farce. They all feature dialogue rather than action, argument rather than plot; but they engage attention with their warm, human understanding. Beeby's characters tend to be garrulous silhouettes, but their humanity glows through his respect for them. His debt to Shaw is clear, especially in 'Potter and clay', 'a comedietta in two episodes'. His intimacy with the law and industrial relations enabled him to present a compelling court-room scene in 'Point o'view', and authentic portrayals of men on strike. In a speech from the stage on 11 July 1925 he explained that the play's central idea was to stress the need for tolerance and mutual respect in the settlement of strikes. He supported 'little theatres' and sought municipal and state aid for them. He was a founder of the Players' Club, which produced several of his works, including Merely Margaret on 10 September 1927.

Beeby kept his sense of humour apart from his public life. But it emerged clearly in his comedies and farces: in 'The banner'—in which the author draws on his country newspaper experiences—Golly, a remittance man, reveals that 'Boondi has five hotels, three general stores, two blacksmiths, three churches, a dancing academy, a philharmonic society, a Band of Hope, and five poker schools. What more can civilization offer?' This play is the basis of 'The Lost Plantagenet' (Golly), serialized in the Australasian early in 1928. In Quest of Pan (1924), a vacation fantasy, convincingly satirized in verse certain contributors to Vision and Poetry in Australia, and uncovered a bawdy streak in Beeby:

Above the waist
Let them be chaste
Most ornately descriptive.
But lower down,
To save a frown
Use phrases more elusive.

He also wrote several short stories and a light novel, A Loaded Legacy (1930).

In 1920-22 Beeby complemented on the bench much of the industrial legislation of the Storey-Dooley Labor governments. On 1 January 1921 he became the judge of the Profiteering Prevention Court, and next month he sat as a Special Court in connexion with the Eight Hours (Amendment) Act 1920. His decisions lent support for a general 44-hour week and helped to stabilize prices. But, with the (Sir George) Fuller government in 1922-25, he reverted to routine Industrial Court work. In 1926 the J. T. Lang Labor ministry reformed the arbitration system, abolishing the Board of Trade and establishing an Industrial Commission to replace the court: A. B. Piddington was made industrial commissioner and Beeby took over District Court and sessions work. The same year the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration was reconstituted with full judicial powers and he was appointed to it on 21 July. By December he had clashed with the Waterside Workers' Federation, and in March 1927 he suspended the hearing of a case involving it. In November, concerned about attacks on the 44-hour week, he sought advice from H. B. Higgins about the 'serious danger of the [Commonwealth] court being used to defeat State Labor legislation'; he asked 'Can the C'wealth without power to directly legislate on hours of employment give to [its court] power to legislate on such a question?'

In July 1928 Beeby broke his leg in a Melbourne street and did not return to the bench until December 1929. By then the effects of the Depression were being felt and in the coalminers' case next February he asked, 'Will not the whole of Australian profits, prices, values, and probably wages have to come down to a lower plane?' Again his notion of social harmony jarred with the labour movement. In September 1931 the Scullin Federal government appointed him as a royal commissioner to inquire into the prosecution of J. Johnson in 1928; he reported that no miscarriage of justice had occurred. He visited England in 1936 on six months leave. On his return his popularity with trade unionists continued to decline and, as president of a coal-mining conference, he was criticized by R. James, M.H.R., in 1938. But he was made chief judge of the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in March next year, and in June was appointed K.B.E. Seriously ill, he retired in 1941. On 18 July 1942 he died at Killara, Sydney, of cerebro-vascular disease and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife, a son and three daughters survived him.

Unlike Holman and W. M. Hughes before their defections, Beeby had not achieved the highest parliamentary office through the Labor Party, though he knew in 1912 when he seceded that the premiership was within his grasp. By then he understood the peculiar outlook and needs of country people and realized that a significant number of them, however progressive, could not identify with city people, especially trade unionists: concurrently, he had come to see that 'All civilized countries are searching for a way' to foster agreement between labour and capital. He remained a radical, but he saw the Labor Party as constricting and conservative, with an alien and nihilistic element adhering to it in 1916. He proved a notable judge, often in conflict with militant unions, but ensuring the growth of the whole arbitration system on a socially harmonious base. At the same time he emerged as a successful author and playwright, demanding attention for the authenticity of his characters and situations.

His daughter DORIS ISABEL (1894-1948) was born on 30 July 1894 at Stanmore. She was educated at Sydney Church of England Grammar School for Girls and at the University of Sydney as an unmatriculated arts student. In September 1920 she became her father's associate and moved with him to the Commonwealth Arbitration Court in 1926. In 1931 she was the secretary of his Johnson royal commission.

Doris Beeby went to London in March 1939 and joined the Spanish Relief Movement, which helped refugees from the civil war. She joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and on her return to Sydney next year joined the Australian Communist Party. In 1942-45 she was an organizer for the Sheetmetal Workers' Union and sought higher wages for women through the Women's Employment Board. For the Tribune and the Australian Women's Digest she wrote about women's wage-gains and their growing role in trade unions during World War II. After a long illness she died of cancer at Castlecrag on 17 October 1948 and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader (Syd, 1942)
  • U. Ellis, The Country Party (Melb, 1958)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • G. S. Harman, ‘G. S. Beeby and the first Labor electoral battle in Armidale’, Labour History Bulletin (Canberra), 1 (1962), no 3
  • A. Landa, ‘The State industrial system’, New South Wales Industrial Gazette, 109 (1953), no 3, supplement
  • ‘George S. Beeby and the new party’, Lone Hand, 1 Apr 1913
  • Town and Country Journal, 16 Jan 1907
  • Punch (Melbourne), 19 Dec 1912, 6 Sept 1917
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 24 Jan 1913, 20 July 1942
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 26 Jan 1928
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 10 Aug 1940
  • Kate Baker papers (National Library of Australia)
  • G. S. Beeby letters (State Library of Victoria)
  • H. E. Boote papers (National Library of Australia)
  • Carruthers correspondence (State Library of New South Wales)
  • J. C. Watson papers (National Library of Australia).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Beeby, Sir George Stephenson (1869–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/beeby-sir-george-stephenson-5183/text8713, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 17 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

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