Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Horgan, John (1834–1907)

by Tom Stannage

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

John Horgan (1834-1907), lawyer, was born on 16 July 1834 at Macroom, Cork, Ireland, son of John Horgan, shopkeeper, and his wife Elizabeth, née Murphy. Educated at Macroom and Cork, he was articled in 1856 to a solicitor and practised from 1861, becoming honorary secretary of the Cork law society. An ardent Home Ruler, he was political agent for Joseph Ronayne, the parliamentarian.

With his wife Mary, née Horan, whom he had married on 9 March 1859, and eight children, Horgan migrated to Sydney in 1875. Admitted to practice on 25 March 1876, he spent two years at West Maitland and moved to Wagga Wagga in 1879. Following the loss of a libel suit launched by him over criticism of his fees, he was bankrupted early in 1880. Soon after his 19-year-old son died in February 1881, Horgan moved to Perth.

He rapidly won a reputation there as a working-class champion, acting often for minimal fees. Active in the Perth Working Men's Club, then an important forum for those with grievances, he campaigned energetically for repeal of the draconian Master and Servant Act. In June 1886 Horgan with R. S. Haynes and J. McF. Lapsley formed the colony's first Eight Hours Association. At a by-election for the Legislative Council seat of Perth, he finished second in a three-way contest. His good showing alarmed many because he had campaigned on a radical programme which included the immediate introduction of responsible government, payment of members, manhood suffrage, a land tax, triennial parliaments and a single-chamber legislature. Still more alarming was his acrimonious criticism of the government and its supporters. He described the Weld Club as a 'pot house', the important families as 'the six hungry families', hungry for land and wealth, and Bishop Salvado as the colony's largest land-grabber and squatter. This sort of platform demagoguery, new to Western Australia, led to a successful suit for libel by police magistrate G. W. Leake, with a £500 fine and costs.

In May 1888 after an economic recession leading to the suspension of major public works, and a wave of immigration caused by the Kimberley gold rush and private railway construction, Horgan capitalized on a series of controversial political incidents (including the sacking and subsequent reinstatement of the popular chief justice (Sir) Alexander Onslow) and captured the blue-ribbon Legislative Council seat of Perth from the Anglican lawyer-pastoralist Septimus Burt. His three-vote victory led Governor Broome to advise the Imperial government to be cautious about granting self-government to the colony. Horgan, he wrote, belongs to 'the extreme radical party' and 'deals considerably in personal abuse'.

Horgan's victory caused town and country conservatives to mobilize fully for the 1889 election. Radicals (including Horgan) and liberals were defeated everywhere and the constitution bill was eventually drafted by conservatives determined to prevent men like Horgan from entering parliament. In private practice until his death, he was briefly in partnership with Richard Pennefather, then in 1890-96 with Frederick Moorhead and finally with Michael Lavan. The partnerships usually foundered on the rock of Horgan's ungovernable temper. Subsequently he practised alone.

After the death of his wife in 1889, Horgan married Mary Ann Coffey on 7 February 1891 in the Catholic Cathedral, Perth. He revisited Ireland in 1897 and was for a time solicitor to Bishop Gibney. Horgan died on 8 July 1907, survived by his wife and eight of the twelve children of his first marriage. He died in debt and was buried in East Perth cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. T. Stannage, The People of Perth (Perth, 1979)
  • Western Australian Bulletin, May-June 1888
  • Western Mail (Perth), 13 July 1907
  • Magistrate (Perth), 14 Sept 1930.

Citation details

Tom Stannage, 'Horgan, John (1834–1907)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/horgan-john-6733/text11629, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 December 2014.

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

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