Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Kilburn, John George (1876–1976)

by Frank Farrell

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

John George Kilburn (1876-1976), bricklayer, trade unionist and politician, was born on 2 July 1876 at Middlesborough, Yorkshire, England, son of George Kilburn, bricklayer, and his wife Ellen, née Horner. He left school at 12 and followed his father's trade. At Middlesborough on 20 January 1898 he married Elizabeth McNamara, a domestic servant. He was a member of the Independent Labour Party from 1905 but, frustrated by the lack of continuous work, in 1912 he and his family migrated to New South Wales.

On arrival he worked as a bricklayer, probably at the Hoskins' steelworks at Lithgow. A tall and commanding figure, Jack Kilburn soon made his mark as a rank and file trade unionist. In 1917 he became an organizer for the Bricklayers' Union and represented it on the Labor Council of New South Wales. He was a member of the Marxist Australian Socialist Party in 1912-17 and twice contested State seats, but abandoned that party to become a leading advocate of the One Big Union.

Kilburn then was active in attempts to create a non-sectarian revolutionary socialist labour party and became one of the key figures in the group of unionists known as the 'Trades Hall Reds' who followed J. S. Garden, though he was also fiercely independent and suspicious of any attempts to substitute the ideas of a political elite for the interests of the working class. During a speech by Kilburn in the Sydney Domain on May 1921 angry ex-soldiers started a series of mêlées that were strikingly similar to (and probably the basis for) the scenes of violence described by D. H. Lawrence in his novel Kangaroo.

In 1922 Kilburn joined the Australian Labor Party but was soon expelled, then readmitted. He was a member of the State executive in 1923-24, 1938-39 and 1940-41, and vice-president of the party in 1927 when annual conference reappointed J. T. Lang as parliamentary leader and brought into force the 'Red Rules'. In the late 1920s he was a delegate to numerous interstate trade union conferences and an executive member of the Australasian Council of Trade Unions. A delegate to the A.L.P.'s federal conference in 1930 and 1940, he was a member of the federal executive in 1927-31. He was a member of the executive of the International Class War Prisoners' Aid in 1929-30. In 1931 he was nominated to the Legislative Council on the advice of Lang.

At the Easter conference of the State party in 1930 Kilburn successfully moved for a committee 'to devise ways and means to propagate socialisation' and became chairman of the party's socialisation units, which were disbanded in 1933. That year Kilburn was expelled for supporting A. C. Willis in his candidature at the Bulli by-election against a Lang nominee. Readmitted, then expelled in 1936, next year he was readmitted to the Belmore branch with the support of the federal executive after a campaign by left-wing unions on his behalf. In 1939 he was unsuccessful as a Labor candidate for the Legislative Council.

After retiring as secretary of the Bricklayers' Union in 1943, Kilburn and his wife lived quietly at their home at Belmore. In 1973 they celebrated their seventy-fifth wedding anniversary. In October they moved to Hammondville retirement village. Predeceased by his wife, Jack died on 2 April 1976 and was cremated. He was survived by two sons and two daughters. He had been upset by the dismissal of the Whitlam government, but had also been keenly looking forward to celebrating his hundredth birthday.

Select Bibliography

  • R. Cooksey, Lang and Socialism (Canb, 1971)
  • M. Dixson, Greater than Lenin? (Melb, 1977)
  • F. Farrell, International Socialism and Australian Labour (Syd, 1981)
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 18 Mar, 7 May 1931, 20 July 1933, 7 Mar 1934, 30 June 1937.

Citation details

Frank Farrell, 'Kilburn, John George (1876–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kilburn-john-george-6953/text12075, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 21 October 2014.

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

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