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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Dacey, John Rowland (1854–1912)

by Bede Nairn

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

John Rowland Dacey (1854-1912), politician, was born in June 1854 at Cork, Ireland, son of Thomas Dacey, barrister, and his wife Margaret, née Jamson. His father soon died and in 1858 he and his mother migrated to Victoria, settling at Kyneton; she died next year and Dacey was adopted by Dr Smith. Educated locally, he left school at 12 on Smith's death and became a butcher's assistant. Later he was a successful agricultural blacksmith and managed a branch for May & Miller. On 27 July 1878 he married Martha Ellen Douglass in St John's Church, Horsham. By the 1880s he had saved enough to start his own business and in 1883 he set up as a coachmaker at Alexandria, Sydney.

A protectionist, attracted by politics, Dacey was on the Alexandria council in 1886-96, and was mayor in 1888-89. He was returning officer at Redfern in 1889-91; in the latter year he joined the first Redfern Labor Electoral League and was narrowly defeated for pre-selection by J. S. T. McGowen. A Catholic, influenced by the papal encyclical Rerum Novarum, he combined it with the Labor platform in campaigns for Botany in 1894 and 1895, when he won. He soon gained parliamentary repute for his integrity and debating skill, and emerged as one of the leaders of the Labor Party, especially interested in the problems of gaining suburban seats and attracting white-collar voters. He was not happy with the party's support of the Free Trade government of (Sir) George Reid and, according to W. A. Holman, in 1899 was the spearhead of the 'solid six' who threatened caucus that they would resign their seats unless the party transferred its backing to (Sir) William Lyne. Lukewarm to Federation, at the 1899 Labor conference at Woonona, with Holman and W. M. Hughes, he failed in an attempt to change party policy, which favoured the submission of the question to a referendum.

As an employer Dacey did not enjoy unanimous Labor support, though he helped to found the Wool and Basil Workers Union in 1901 and was its secretary until 1912; he was also the parliamentary party's treasurer in 1901-10 and was on the central executive in 1912. But he unexpectedly failed to be elected to Labor's first cabinet in 1910. He became an honorary minister next year and, following N. R. W. Nielsen's and A. C. Carmichael's resignations, in November he became colonial treasurer. Ill health prevented him from fulfilling the promise of great administrative skill and financial acumen he had shown; he died of chronic nephritis on 11 April 1912 and after a state funeral, was buried in the Catholic section of Botany cemetery. He was survived by his wife (d.1933), three of his four sons and five of his six daughters. His estate was valued for probate at £413. S. Hickey was his son-in-law.

From the 1890s Dacey had campaigned for the building by the government of low-cost housing for working-class people. His plans were matured by the time of his death and were partly carried out by the Holman ministries in 1913-20, chiefly by J. D. Fitzgerald. The model suburb of Daceyville in South Sydney is a memorial to his sympathetic social sight.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Hickey, Travelled Roads (Melb, 1951)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, New South Wales), 1889, 4, 917
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 12 Apr 1912
  • Town and Country Journal, 17 Apr 1912
  • Bulletin, 18 Apr 1912
  • Freeman's Journal (Sydney), 18 Apr 1912.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Dacey, John Rowland (1854–1912)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 20 October 2020.

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

View the front pages for Volume 8

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