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Ferguson, John Alexander (Jack) (1903–1969)

by Mark Hearn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

John Alexander (Jack) Ferguson (1903-1969), trade unionist, politician and public servant, was born on 31 May 1903 at Glen Innes, New South Wales, son of native-born parents Alexander Ferguson, miner, and his wife Mary, née Hannon. When only 6 he heard the Tingha tin-mine whistle announce the death of his father in an accident. Jack was sent to live with his grandparents at Howell, near Inverell. Seven years later he was reunited with his mother at Annandale, Sydney. He completed his schooling, tried various trades and spent a spell on the wallaby before marrying 18-year-old Beatrice Doreen Jago on 25 July 1925 at the Baptist Church, Stanmore.

In 1926 Ferguson joined the New South Wales railways and the Communist Party of Australia. Within the Australian Railways Union he supported the State secretary Arthur Chapman, an independent-minded radical, and his successor Lloyd Ross. Becoming a close ally, the knockabout Ferguson was a good foil to the serious, taciturn Ross. From 1934 Ferguson organized the union's previously neglected membership in western New South Wales; Ross occasionally accompanied him on 'the red terror', an Indian motorbike with a side-car which Ferguson taught himself to ride on his first journey of 1200 miles (1931 km). In 1941 he became the union's district organizer at Tamworth and in 1943 succeeded Ross as State secretary.

With Ross, Ferguson had quit the C.P.A. in 1940. Both joined the Australian Labor Party. From his union base, Ferguson—'an intelligent, dapper, personable man, with a little of the doctrinaire leftist still in him'—rose quickly through the party machine. He was appointed to the Legislative Council in 1945 and elected president of the State branch of the A.L.P. in 1947. He forged a close working relationship with Prime Minister Chifley who used his influence to have Ferguson elected federal president of the A.L.P. in 1950.

Ferguson had hoped for unity within the A.R.U., but by 1945 was accusing communists of planning to overthrow him. In 1949 he became a symbolic villain for the communist newspaper, Tribune, over his key role in ensuring that New South Wales railworkers defied the A.R.U.'s pro-communist national executive and carried coal declared 'black' by the striking members of the Miners' Federation. Unenthusiastic about the activities of the industrial groups, Ferguson maintained—this time in the face of furious hostility from the pro-'grouper' News Weekly—that Labor could not use 'totalitarian' means to defeat communism. Nor, in his view, did the Catholic Church have the right to interfere in Labor affairs. A strong coalition of groupers and a vengeful A.W.U. general secretary Tom Dougherty moved to take control of the State branch of the A.L.P. Ferguson resigned all union, parliamentary and party positions in April 1952 to take up the State Labor government's controversial offer of the chairmanship of the Milk Board.

As chairman, Ferguson was credited with ending seasonal rationing and with stabilizing marketing, despite recurring complaints about milk prices. He emphasized the importance of scientific research and programmes such as artificial insemination in improving the supply and quality of milk. In 1969 he was appointed honorary governor of the Dairy Husbandry Research Foundation within the University of Sydney. He was a fellow (1944-46) of the university senate, a director (1958-69) of Royal North Shore Hospital and president (1959-69) of Royal National Park Trust.

He never quite lost touch with the bush: on his retirement from the Milk Board in June 1968, Ferguson declared that he would 'ride-about' the State for two weeks—with a camp-oven and billy-can in the back of his car. Survived by his wife, four of his five daughters and two of his three sons, he died of hypertensive heart disease on 2 August 1969 at his Lane Cove home and was cremated with Presbyterian forms. Jack Ferguson had said that he learned early lessons in class hatred on the mining-fields. He overcame obstacles of class and family suffering to fight for a better deal for fellow workers, but his ideal of working-class unity was out of step with the polarized factionalism of Labor in the 1950s.

Select Bibliography

  • L. F. Crisp, Ben Chifley (Melb, 1961)
  • R. Murray, The Split (Syd, 1984)
  • M. Hearn, Working Lives (Syd, 1990)
  • People (Sydney), 22 Nov 1950
  • Railroad, 17 Nov 1942, 9 Mar 1943, 5 Apr, 28 June 1946, 9 May 1952, Sept 1969
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 25 Nov 1943, 1 Dec 1944, 25 May 1949, 30 Sept 1950, 13 Oct 1951, 27 Jan, 23 Apr 1952, 4 Nov 1959, 16 Nov 1960, 14 Jan 1961, 17 June 1968, 17 June, 3 Aug 1969
  • Tribune (Sydney), 2, 30 July, 3 Aug 1949
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 23 July 1949
  • News Weekly, 17 Oct, 28 Nov 1951, 26 Mar 1952
  • Worker (Sydney), 2 Apr 1952
  • Sun-Herald, (Sydney), 3 Aug 1969
  • ARU State Secretary's Report to State Council, 27 May 1946 (held at New South Wales branch, ARU office, Sydney)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Mark Hearn, 'Ferguson, John Alexander (Jack) (1903–1969)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/ferguson-john-alexander-jack-10167/text17961, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 28 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

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