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Culley, Charles Ernest (1877–1949)

by R. P. Davis

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Charles Ernest Culley (1877-1949), by unknown photographer, 1920s

Charles Ernest Culley (1877-1949), by unknown photographer, 1920s

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an24206370

Charles Ernest Culley (1877-1949), trade unionist and politician, was born on 16 April 1877 at Broadmarsh, Tasmania, son of James Culley, shoemaker, who migrated probably from Ireland, and his wife Julia, née Smith. His father died while Charlie was young and his schooling was limited to the primary grades. A groom in a northern Tasmanian racing stable, Culley subsequently worked in the stables of private houses and on occasion rode as a jockey. In his early twenties he became a miner at Broken Hill, New South Wales, but soon returned to work at the Beaconsfield, Tasmania, gold mine and the North Farrell mine at Tullah. In 1913 he moved to Hobart where, after a spell as a farm labourer in Margate, he made his permanent home.

Culley gained union experience in the Amalgamated Miners' Association at Tullah and Beaconsfield, where he was in 1912 elected secretary. In Hobart he joined the Builders' Labourers' Union, becoming secretary in 1913 and subsequently secretary of the Tasmanian branches of the Federated Liquor and Allied Trades Employees' Union, the Female Confectioners' Union, and the Amalgamated Clothing and Allied Trades Union. When, in 1917, an attempt to establish a Tasmanian Labor Federation, integrating unions and political Labor branches, broke down, Culley represented his union at the re-established Hobart Trades Hall Council. Secretary to the council in 1918-29, and president for most of 1934-44, he played an important part in obtaining its recognition as the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Council of Trades Unions, of which he was an executive member.

Culley's political career complemented his trade unionist experience. Elected as a radical Labor member for Denison to the Tasmanian House of Assembly in 1922, he polled highest of the four Labor candidates elected for Denison in 1925; but three years later he lost his seat when the Lyons Labor government was defeated. As a back-bencher for his two parliamentary terms, Culley was required to mediate between the Lyons government and a frequently hostile Trades Hall Council and was subsequently highly critical of Lyons. In 1928 he won the Federal seat of Denison. On 3 March 1931, after the defection of Lyons and J. A. Guy from the Scullin government, he was elected an honorary minister to represent Tasmania. He resigned, however, on 24 June in protest against the cabinet's espousal of the Premiers' Plan; he lost his seat in December.

Culley regained Denison in the Tasmanian House of Assembly election of 1934, which established the ministry of Albert Ogilvie and inaugurated a period of 35 years of unbroken Labor government. The Hobart Trades Hall Council disapproved of a number of the Ogilvie ministry's actions, and Culley was often deputed to protest to the government. He was chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Public Works until 1943 and a member of the Executive Council in 1941-43. Under Robert Cosgrove he was minister for mines in 1942-43 when he was elected chief secretary and minister for transport. By 1946 his health was deteriorating, and though he narrowly regained his seat in November, he did not stand for cabinet, but remained a back-bencher until 1948.

Culley was appointed C.M.G. in 1947. He twice served, in 1927 and 1938, as Australian representative at the International Labor Office conferences in Geneva. He was president of the Tasmanian branch of the Australian Labor Party in 1944-47, and was appointed a justice of the peace in 1943. Keenly interested in sport he was a life member of the Hobart Amateur Cycling Club. Noted for his sincerity, forceful speech, and conciliatory manner in negotiation, he was lauded as a 'straight goer'. Especially during the Depression, he represented the socialist wing of the Labor Party and often clashed with right-wing Labor politicians. A member of the Church of England, he died on 10 June 1949 at New Town, survived by his wife Mary Jane, née Pope, whom he had married on 27 June 1906 at Beaconsfield, and by four sons and a daughter; three of his sons served in the Australian Imperial Force. He was cremated at Cornelian Bay cemetery after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • Mercury (Hobart), 17 Dec 1941, 11, 15 June 1949
  • Voice (Hobart), 11 June 1949
  • Council minutes (Trades Hall, Tasmania)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. P. Davis, 'Culley, Charles Ernest (1877–1949)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/culley-charles-ernest-5839/text9921, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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