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Casey, Gilbert Stephen (1856–1946)

by Rodney Sullivan

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

Gilbert Stephen Casey (1856-1946), labour organizer and agitator, was born in County Clare, Ireland, son of Patrick Casey, storeman, and his wife Susan, née O'Dea. With little formal education, he went to sea and soon absorbed trade union ideas. He probably arrived in Queensland as a seaman in the emigrant barque Southesk in October 1883 and was subsequently employed as a seaman, bushworker, coalminer and wharflabourer. On 14 October at the General Registry Office, Brisbane, he married Alice Tighe, née Shile, who had already been twice married.

From February 1886 Casey was associated with the Queensland Maritime Council through the Brisbane Wharf Labourers' Union which he had helped to form in the previous year. In 1888 the council sent him on an organizing mission to Maryborough, Bundaberg, Rockhampton, Mackay and Townsville; there he helped to found the Townsville Trades and Labor Council.

As a member of the Brisbane T.L.C., Casey became a trustee for the Trades Hall reserve, worked for the June 1889 reconstitution of the council into the Australian Labour Federation, and became a member of its central district council. In December he joined Thomas Glassey and Albert Hinchcliffe in a successful mission to bring the bush unions into the A.L.F. Casey was appointed full time in April 1890 and in his first frenetic three months organized new unions and established district councils at Maryborough, Rockhampton, Charters Towers and Townville, a considerable feat. At a meeting in February he was appointed chairman of the board of trustees of the Worker.

Embroiled in the maritime and pastoral strikes of 1890-91, Casey obstinately pursued the romantic chimera of a general strike even when more pragmatic leaders were anxious to arrange a return to work before defeat turned to rout. His extremism attracted attack from anti-labour forces. The newspaper Judge accused him of incest and, in a subsequent libel action, he was awarded contemptuous damages which did not cover costs. Arrested at Barcaldine in 1891 on a charge of inciting to arson, he was remanded in custody for two weeks before being released without the charge being heard.

Casey was a self-proclaimed evangelist for the 'new unionism', believing it would radically transform existing society, which he saw as dominated by 'those who rob legally, those who rob illegally and those who it pays to maintain the law'. After the 1891 strike he found it hard to accept the federation's support for a gradualist political Labor Party which he believed would be easy prey for 'wirepullers'. He became a fervent member of William Lane's New Australia Co-operative Settlement Association and donated his Brisbane home as a prize in a fund-raising raffle for its projected Utopia in South America. On 31 December 1893 Casey and his wife left with the second expedition to New Australia.

Friction rather than fraternity proved to be the keynote of his Paraguayan career. He stayed when the colony split, returning briefly to Australia in 1894 as agent for the New Australians in the struggle for the assets of the association. He was elected president of the Sociedad Co-operativa Colonizadora Nueva Australia in 1896, but the colony's income improved rapidly after his defeat in 1900. His wife had left him in 1895 and married another disenchanted New Australian in South Africa; Casey married a Paraguayan, Maria Antonia Sosa. With their two sons he raised cattle at La Novia, dabbled in sidelines at Asuncion, and contributed occasional letters and articles to the Labor press in Australia. After long service as chief of police at New Australia, he died there on 2 October 1946.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Souter, A Peculiar People (Syd, 1968)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), Labor in Politics (Brisb, 1975)
  • Parliamenary Debates (Queensland), 1891, 156
  • J. Stoodley, ‘The development of gold-mining unionism in Queensland in the late nineteenth century’, Labour History, Nov 1966, no 11
  • Worker (Brisbane), 7 July 1890, 21 Feb, 4 Apr, 11 July 1891, 17 Sept 1892, 17 June 1893
  • Brisbane Courier, 24-26 Mar 1891
  • R. J. Sullivan, The A.L.F. in Queensland 1889-1914 (M.A. thesis, University of Queensland, 1973).

Citation details

Rodney Sullivan, 'Casey, Gilbert Stephen (1856–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/casey-gilbert-stephen-5528/text9415, published in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 2 August 2014.

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

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