Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Keegan, John Walter (1867–1941)

by Heather Radi

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

This is a shared entry with Thomas Michael Keegan

John Walter Keegan (1867?-1941) and Thomas Michael Keegan (1878?-1937), trade-unionists and politicians, were probably born on 30 June 1867 at Bulldog, Victoria, and on 29 May 1878 at Ararat, sons of John Walter Keegan, miner, and his wife Mary, née Flood, both Irish born. John was at Broken Hill, New South Wales, in 1892; a widower with a son, he married Mary Alice Cummins on 2 July 1893 at Parkes. The brothers were at Wyalong in the 1890s, John working as a navvy and local agent for the Australian Workers' Union and Tom at the Lighthouse mine and organizing for W. A. Holman.

Tom was sacked for supporting Holman's stand against the South African War and left Wyalong. He represented Parkes at the 1901 Labor conference and, finding work with the Sydney Municipal Council, became active in the United Labourers' Union of New South Wales and the Glebe Labor League. On 7 August 1904 he married Mary Hallam at St Mary's Cathedral; they were divorced in 1923. At the 1910 elections he won Glebe and except briefly in 1920-21 represented it (Balmain in 1921-27) until his retirement in ill health in 1935. He attended to the particular concerns of his inner city electorate, repeatedly pressing ministers on public transport and the working conditions of State and municipal employees. He secured the appointment of a select committee on rents and a bill to establish a fair rents tribunal which finally passed during World War I. On conscription, Tom Keegan stayed with the party and in defence of the 1917 transport strikers spoke with rare eloquence; he supported the war, but was anxious that industrial conditions were not altered while 'our men' were at the front. When faction fighting led J. T. Lang to reconstruct his ministry in 1927, Tom's brief reward was the portfolio of local government.

In 1925 the Labor Party caucus elected John Keegan among additional appointments to the Legislative Council. For twenty years John had built bridges under contract to the government railways and tramways, as a member, and sometime official, of the Amalgamated Society of Carpenters and Joiners. Again widowed, he had married a widow Agnes Benna Brown (d.1932), née Delaney, on 15 December 1912; her illness brought him to Sydney in 1925. He was employed as a joiner by the Sydney Municipal Council until he fractured an elbow. He voted in vain for abolition of the Legislative Council and took a special interest in child endowment and workers' compensation.

After twelve months without employment, John became a temporary carpenter with the Department of Public Works and, on gaining permanency, worked in the Botanic Gardens. In 1927 his political enemy became his employer; H. V. C. Thorby, the minister for agriculture, inspected work in the gardens and allegedly found workers leaning on their tools listening to political speeches. Several were dismissed including John who had been speaking at Labor rallies in his lunch hours.

The brothers were typical of the trade unionists who had been influential in creating the Labor Party: they expected it to protect labour and fight obvious hardship; they required it to make no distinction between Protestant and Catholic. They neither attempted to shape it to more radical use nor had they sympathy for any such endeavour. Twice Tom brought relief to the least fortunate in the community: he had the ten-shilling maximum fine on parents, whose children failed to attend school regularly, reduced to five shillings; and he obtained the withdrawal in child welfare legislation of 1923 of a provision to gaol state wards who absconded. Tom fell silent and was often absent from the assembly during Lang's 1930-32 radical ministry, and John gradually was driven to oppose Lang. As an exponent of industrial unionism, he objected to Lang's industrial legislation and to the altered pledge requiring loyalty to Lang himself.

In the landslide defeat of 1932, Tom held his seat. John, facing opposition from Lang's faction in the election in 1934 for the reconstituted council, did not nominate. He stood unsuccessfully as a Federal Labor candidate for Parramatta in 1934 and Annandale in 1935.

Tom died of tuberculosis on 14 September 1937, survived by two sons and a daughter of his first marriage, and by his second wife Doris Vera Cains, née Martin, a divorcee whom he had married on 3 November 1923. John died on 25 August 1941 and he, too, was buried in the Roman Catholic section of Rockwood cemetery, survived by five sons and three daughters, and by his fourth wife Edith Lilley, née Morgan, a widow whom he had married on 1 October 1938. It would have pleased him to be remembered as the union official who wrote out a ticket for his first born at birth and kept him financial until he came of age.

Select Bibliography

  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Oct 1910, 22 Dec 1925, 15 Sept 1937, 26 Aug 1941
  • Labor Daily, 22 Dec 1925
  • Bulletin, 31 Dec 1925
  • Molesworth papers, uncat MS 71 (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Citation details

Heather Radi, 'Keegan, John Walter (1867–1941)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/keegan-john-walter-6907/text11983, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 17 April 2014.

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

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