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Cremean, Herbert Michael (Bert) (1900–1945)

by Geoff Browne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Herbert Michael (Bert) Cremean (1900-1945), politician, was born on 8 May 1900 at Richmond, Melbourne, eldest son of native-born parents Timothy Cremean, carpenter, and his wife Hannah Cecelia, née O'Connell. Educated at St Ignatius' School, Richmond, St Patrick's College, East Melbourne, and Hassett's Coaching and Business College, Prahran, Bert was employed in turn as a clerk, timberworker, machinist and tram driver. On 6 September 1924 he married Alice Nora Mosley at St James's Catholic Church, Richmond. He was a Trades Hall Council delegate (1925-27) for the Timber Workers' Union and by 1927 had acquired accounting qualifications.

The Cremeans were prominent in Richmond Labor politics. In 1925-26 Cecelia acted as mayoress when her brother Geoff O'Connell served as mayor. A member (1926-30) of Richmond City Council, Cremean was mayor in 1928-29, serving effectively in a period when the council was rent by factionalism. In 1929 he failed narrowly—in controversial circumstances—to gain pre-selection for the seat of Richmond in the Legislative Assembly.

At the State election that year Cremean won Dandenong for the Australian Labor Party. Defeated in 1932, he worked as a purchasing officer and union organizer before being returned to the assembly in August 1934 at a by-election for Clifton Hill: although unopposed, he had first to win an acrimonious battle for pre-selection. Cremean was an acquisition in a party not notable for its parliamentary talent. He was a fluent speaker, a cool and logical debater, and a hard worker. His 'tact' and 'business-like acumen' brought him the deputy-leadership in 1937. In the previous year he had been elected to the A.L.P.'s State executive. A devout Catholic and long-time friend of John Wren, Cremean had an uneasy relationship with his leader John Cain, but he was not personally compromised by his friendship with Wren. The party relied on his moderation and ability to keep its various factions working together.

It was Cremean who first suggested the co-ordination of Catholic trade union groups to combat communism; from this idea 'the Movement' emerged. It was he who put forward the idea, adopted in 1940, that Australian Catholic bishops should publish an annual statement on social problems. His one brief taste of ministerial office was as chief secretary and deputy-premier in the four-day Cain government of September 1943. Cremean took on a broad range of responsibilities, especially during the war years. He was secretary (from 1935) of the Fire Brigade Employees' Union, a member of select parliamentary committees on widows' pensions (1936) and child endowment (1937-40), a member (from 1939) of the Patriotic Funds Council (vice-chairman from 1940), vice-chairman (from 1940) of the State War Council and deputy-chairman (from 1942) of the State Evacuation Committee. In 1942 he was appointed vice-chairman of the Commonwealth Board of Business Administration. He also belonged to 'innumerable other charitable and patriotic committees', and was described as 'the octopus-armed wonder of the Labor movement'. Of strong physique, he worked 16 to 18 hours a day and gave up watching football, cricket and films.

Following an operation for a long-standing colonic fistula, Cremean died of peritonitis on 24 May 1945 in Mount St Evin's private hospital, Fitzroy; after a state funeral he was buried in Melbourne general cemetery. His wife and adopted daughter survived him. B. A. Santamaria judged him the 'finest man' in Labor politics. Frank McManus acknowledged Cremean's 'outstanding ability and great personal charm', and suggested that, 'if he had lived, the split of 1955 might never have happened'. A brother John Lawrence Cremean (1902-1982) held the Clifton Hill seat (1945-49) and was a member of the House of Representatives for Hoddle (1949-55); he joined the Anti-Communist Labor Party (later Democratic Labor Party) in the 'split'. Another brother Francis William Cremean (1912-1987) was an outstanding hospital administrator.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Murray, The Split (Melb, 1972)
  • F. McManus, The Tumult and the Shouting (Adel, 1977)
  • B. A. Santamaria, Against the Tide (Melb, 1981)
  • K. White, John Cain and Victorian Labor 1917-1957 (Syd, 1982)
  • J. McCalman, Struggletown (Melb, 1984)
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 10 Jan 1942.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Geoff Browne, 'Cremean, Herbert Michael (Bert) (1900–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/cremean-herbert-michael-bert-9860/text17445, published in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 18 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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