Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Griffith, Arthur Hill (1861–1946)

by Bede Nairn

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

Arthur Hill Griffith (1861-1946), by unknown photographer

Arthur Hill Griffith (1861-1946), by unknown photographer

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 21830

Arthur Hill Griffith (1861-1946), teacher, politician and patent attorney, was born on 16 October 1861 at Gortmore Hall, Westmeath, Ireland, son of Arthur Griffith, solicitor, and his wife Hannah, née Cottingham. He migrated with his family to Melbourne in 1871 and went to Scotch College, matriculating in 1877. Self-reliant, he moved to Sydney in 1880, attended arts lectures at the university and taught at Sydney Grammar School in 1884-94. He excelled at sport: swimming, heavyweight boxing and rowing. He was awarded the medal of the National Shipwreck Relief Society of New South Wales for rescuing a man from the sea. In 1890-93 he was secretary of the New South Wales Lawn Tennis Association. In 1895 he founded the patent attorney firm of Griffith, Hassel & Griffith, and on 4 May 1899 he married Mildred Carrington Smith at All Saints Anglican Church, Petersham.

Griffith read much progressive literature and perceived the basic social problem of the late nineteenth century as 'the upheaval … against the grinding tyranny of industrial monopoly'. He wrote several letters to newspapers on it. By 1890 he was both a socialist and a republican; next year he welcomed the new Labor Party and soon joined it as its best-known representative of professional, middle-class colonists. In 1893 he published The Labor Platform: an Exposition, arguing that the programme was 'the only firm foundation … amid a wilderness of shifting creeds and jarring factions'. He demonstrated that the party had a place for educated radicals. Next year, answering a call for candidates in the country, he won the mining seat of Waratah in the Legislative Assembly; he was then an unequivocal 'Labor man', his commitment reinforced by his prickly, stiff-necked manner, combined paradoxically with much panache and some 'Celtic' romanticism. Sporting a full, aggressive moustache, he became one of Labor's best speakers, sarcastic and vigorous. He was a formidable man.

Griffith contributed to the structural growth of the Labor Party, and represented the parliamentarians at the conference in May 1895 that set up the Political Labor League to settle the competing claims for control of the Australian Labor Federation and the Labor Electoral League. He made his mark in parliament, debating with great skill, asking many questions, submitting private members' bills (having success with the Patents and Trade Marks Act, 1897). He became the party's expert on education. He helped Labor to retain its identity in its support of the Reid government in 1894-99; as secretary of caucus, he negotiated with (Sir) William Lyne in the deposition of Reid. Griffith was one of the unsuccessful ten Laborites nominated for the 1897 Federal Convention. At the 1899 party conference at Woonona he backed J. C. Watson to ensure that Labor would support the submission of the Federal Constitution to a referendum. Militarism was one of Griffith's aversions; with W. A. Holman he courted social and political disapproval in opposing the South African War, 1899-1902.

In 1903 Griffith resigned his seat to run for the Federal Senate. He failed but next year won the State seat of Sturt, a far-western mining electorate. The 1908-09 Broken Hill strike provoked him into strong protest in parliament, and he was suspended; whereupon he resigned on 3 November 1908, to be returned unopposed at the by-election on 13 November. Labor's need for suburban seats persuaded him to run for Annandale in 1913. He had become minister for public works in the first Labor cabinet in 1910, under J. S. T. McGowen.

With Griffith taking the lead, the government began to set up state enterprises and to expand public works. Although several changes unsettled the cabinet, he retained his portfolio until March 1915 and inaugurated works worth over £4 million in his first eighteen months—compared to about £2.5 million in the three years of the preceding Wade ministry. Emphasis was put on the duplication of railway tracks. Reflecting his vision of development through enlightened and practical socialism, Griffith initiated state industries, including brick and pipe works, quarries, an engineering works and a building construction unit; and foreshadowed state monopolies in meat, bread, fish, liquor and petrol. In 1912 he prepared legislation to set up an iron and steel works in accordance with the Labor platform, but opposition in the Legislative Council, where the government, led by F. Flowers, was outnumbered by 70 to 13, and scarcity of finance held it up. Subsequently G. D. Delprat, on behalf of the Broken Hill Proprietary Co. Ltd, negotiated successfully with Griffith to establish a works at Newcastle. The 1913 party conference censured the cabinet for it, but it proved a success.

With J. D. Fitzgerald, he complemented advanced professional opinion in proposals for a greater Sydney and for improved city traffic engineering. In 1913 he promoted J. J. C. Bradfield as chief engineer for metropolitan railway construction.

The range and vigour of Griffith's activities disturbed those whose financial interests were affected, part of the general fears felt by conservatives at the government's programme. He became their main target. In parliament Wade and (Sir) T. Henley were the spearhead of the reaction, and Griffith developed a bitter distaste for them. Many charges of corruption were made against Griffith, two of which resulted in royal commissions, in 1912 and 1916, but nothing was proved. He interpreted the cause of the latter inquiry as the attempt of powerful international groups to prevent the State from forming a monopoly in oil. In 1916 he unsuccessfully sued a publican, H. Combellack, for libel.

In 1915 Griffith became minister of public instruction in Holman's cabinet. He introduced H. Verbrugghen, the first director of the New South Wales State Conservatorium of Music, at a concert in November, and announced the provision of musical scholarships—he had made it possible for Verbrugghen to bring his own string quartet. Confronting the New South Wales branch of the British Medical Association, he improved the school clinic system; and in 1916 took the initiative in the passage of the Public Instruction (Amendment) Act. He planned the extension of the teaching of agriculture in high schools, and presciently fostered the training of aeroplane pilots, opening the State Aviation School at Richmond on 28 August.

Griffith saw World War I as a crusade against Germany for the preservation of civilization, demanding total support. He joined the Universal Service League in 1915 and next year refused to accept the Labor conference's direction to oppose conscription for overseas service, arguing that, as he had been elected on a party platform that was silent on it, he had the right to private judgment. But he was expelled. With his radicalism undimmed, he refused to consider joining Holman's National government, a coalition with Wade's Liberals. Griffith contested seats in 1917 and 1920 as independent Labor, but lost.

He did not agree that his expulsion was valid, nevertheless he applied for readmission at several annual conferences in the 1920s. In 1930 he was allowed back, but the 'militants', headed by J. S. Garden and D. M. Grant, whom Griffith had never conciliated, had the motion rescinded. When the State and Federal Labor branches split in 1931 he joined the latter as an executive member; he ran unsuccessfully for the Federal seat of Gwydir in 1934.

Originally a prohibitionist, Griffith came to champion Australian wines, and in 1932 was buying 'excellent claret and hock' for 5 s. per gallon. He retained his patent attorney business; he had set up the Patents Investigation Board in 1916; he became a full member of the Chartered Institute of Patent Agents, London, in 1917; president of the Institute of Patent Attorneys of Australia, in 1929 he was appointed to the Board of Examiners of Patent Attorneys for the Commonwealth. He was the first chairman (1911) of the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Trust and the town of Griffith was named after him. In the 1930s he was writing stiff letters to the newspapers on the iniquity of J. T. Lang, 'basher-gangs', drugs and other social and political problems.

Griffith died at his home at Jannali on 1 September 1946 and was cremated with Anglican rites. He was survived by his second wife, Elsie Marion, née Edwards, whom he had married at Ashfield with Church of Christ forms on 22 October 1932, by one son of his first and a son and daughter of his second marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • H. V. Evatt, Australian Labour Leader: The Story of W.A. Holman and the Labour Movement (Syd, 1943)
  • P. Ford, Cardinal Moran and the A.L.P. (Melb, 1966)
  • B. Nairn, Civilising Capitalism (Canb, 1973)
  • Royal Commission of Inquiry into Charges Preferred Against the Minister for Public Works, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1912, 3, p 489
  • Royal Commission of Inquiry into … Proposed State Monopoly of Petrol Industry, Parliamentary Papers (New South Wales), 1916, 6, p 765
  • Daily Telegraph (Sydney), 21 July 1894
  • Newcastle Morning Herald, 20 May 1898
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 12 Oct 1915, 15 Mar, 18 July, 29 Aug, 2 Oct, 4 Nov 1916, 12 Oct 1928, 28 Apr 1930, 3 Sept 1946
  • Sunday Sun, 5 Nov 1916.

Citation details

Bede Nairn, 'Griffith, Arthur Hill (1861–1946)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/griffith-arthur-hill-6486/text11117, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 23 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983

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