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Hyett, Francis William (Frank) (1882–1919)

by A. Scarlett

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

Francis William (Frank) Hyett (1882-1919), trade unionist, was born on 9 February 1882 at Bolwarra, near Ballarat, Victoria, son of William Hyett, sawmill labourer from Tasmania, and his wife Annie Kingston, née Pearce, born at Bungaree. William Hyett died of pneumonia on 1 March 1883, two months after the birth of his second child, a daughter.

Frank's schooling began at Bolwarra but was punctuated by the family's moves, first to Brunswick and then to other inner suburbs of Melbourne in search of cheaper housing. He left school at 13 and began work as a grocer's boy, later becoming a clerk. His early interests were cricket and football and he played with Coburg Juniors and later Brunswick. He also read widely, at first technical subjects but increasingly economics and politics.

By 1902 he had become attracted to socialism, which, under the tutelage of Frank Anstey, became for him a way of life. Hyett acquired a facility for forceful oratory and persuasive pamphleteering from Anstey, who also instilled into him a hatred of Imperialism and militarism. John Curtin was a fellow protégé of Anstey, and a close friend of Hyett from 1903. The other early influence in Hyett's political life was Tom Mann. Hyett followed him into the Social Democratic Party, of which he became secretary in 1905, and the Victorian Socialist Party of which by March 1906 he was deputy secretary.

The following years were halcyon days for the V.S.P. and marked the height of Hyett's involvement. He was active in the party's lecture programme and Yarra Bank meetings and was prominent in its fight for the right to hold public meetings in Prahran. He was gaoled for fourteen days over this issue. However, the V.S.P. increasingly became divided over its relationship with the reformist Australian Labor Party. Hyett, who had been a delegate to the 1908 conference of the Socialist Federation of Australia, sided with Mann and other moderates who, while critical of the Labor Party, believed it was political suicide to cut their links with the only electorally viable working-class party.

In February 1910 Hyett became paid organizer with the Amalgamated Society of Railway Employees, a position he obtained largely through his prominence in the V.S.P., as he had no knowledge of railways. He proved a capable organizer and became general secretary of the A.S.R.E. in July. He was a strong advocate of industrial unionism. In 1911 he helped to form the Victorian Railways Union, becoming its first general secretary. His work in this capacity was particularly directed towards consolidating the V.R.U. as an industrial union, and gaining access to an independent wages board. The first was substantially achieved whilst Hyett also played a major role in the formation of the Australian Railways Union, eventually achieved in 1920. He was also involved in the One Big Union movement. Access to a wages board dominated by the Railways Commission was gained in 1917, and in 1919, shortly after Hyett's death, a totally independent wages board was established.

Hyett's style as general secretary was one of sensitivity towards the wishes of the rank and file, combined with a determination that the V.R.U. should be centrally organized and strongly led. Consequently, he asserted his power to the limit which union rules would permit, while cajoling the rank and file with suitably tailored socialist or moderate rhetoric. In his dealings with the railways commissioners he was a formidable debater and negotiator. However his charm and affability helped to induce an atmosphere of conciliation rather than confrontation, in keeping with his members' reluctance to strike — as public servants it was illegal for them to do so.

During 1916-18 Hyett was very prominent in the anti-conscription campaign. He was able to carry the V.R.U. with him, and the union's newspaper became a medium for the anti-conscriptionists. The Labor Party split left it to Hyett, and others on the Trades Hall Council's Anti-Conscription Campaign Committee, to organize opposition to the second conscription referendum in Victoria. He was also prominent in supporting the Victorian Labor College, and was a member of the socialist 'Y Club'.

Hyett's cricket career developed late. He transferred from Brunswick to Carlton as a wicket keeper and opening batsman and represented Victoria several times in 1914-15, scoring a century against Tasmania. He was vice-president of the Carlton Football and Cricket clubs.

Hyett was married on 19 May 1910 to Ethel Margaret, sister of John Gunn, in one of the V.S.P.'s socialist weddings; they had two daughters and a son. Hyett's sister Elizabeth had married F. O. Barnett in 1909.

Hyett died of pneumonia on 25 April 1919 after contracting 'Spanish' influenza while with the Victorian cricketers in Sydney. His funeral, at Box Hill cemetery, was attended by 5000 people, an indication of the affection and loyalty he had earned.

Select Bibliography

  • I. Turner, Industrial Labour and Politics (Canb, 1965)
  • Railway Union Gazette, 1911-20
  • Victorian Railway News, 1910
  • G. C. Hewitt, A History of the Victorian Socialist Party, 1906-1932 (M.A. thesis, La Trobe University, 1974)
  • A. Scarlett, Frank Hyett, a Political Biography (B.A. Hons thesis, La Trobe University, 1979).

Citation details

A. Scarlett, 'Hyett, Francis William (Frank) (1882–1919)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hyett-francis-william-frank-6783/text11733, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 24 November 2017.

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

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