This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983
Joseph William Kirton (1861-1935), auctioneer, politician and secretary, was born on 23 November 1861 at Ballarat East, Victoria, son of Emanuel Kirton, boot-maker, and his wife Jane, née Milburn, both from Cumberland, England. After attending Oldham's National School and its successor, the Dana Street State School, he was apprenticed to a trade and then worked in the Post and Telegraph Department. He continued his studies with a tutor from the School of Mines and became an auctioneer and commission agent. On 20 April 1893 at Williamstown he married a Ballarat girl, Annie Elder Thomas (d.1897). He married Violette Hillas Finnis with Congregational forms at Ballarat on 26 August 1899.
A teetotaller and Sabbatarian, Kirton also expressed the concern of goldfields society for social justice and economic opportunity. His ideas matured within three powerful Ballarat institutions, the Lydiard Street Wesleyan Church Mutual Improvement Association, the Australian Natives' Association and the South Street Debating Society. He was president of the A.N.A. at Ballarat in 1890 and Victorian president in 1895.
Elected to the Legislative Assembly in April 1889, Kirton represented Ballarat West until May 1904 (except briefly in 1894), and again from July 1907 to December 1908. He chaired the 1897-98 royal commission on old age pensions, was a member of royal commissions on gold mining (1889-91) and the factories and shops laws (1900-02), and served as minister without office under Irvine from June 1902 to April 1903 when he became chairman of the Ballarat Water Commission.
Kirton condemned privilege and fought single-handed against the abuse of free railway passes. As well as pioneering old age pensions he passionately supported the income tax, abolition of plural voting and votes for women. A strong Federationist, he hoped for strictly limited Senate powers. In the 1890s he championed the poor, particularly through village settlement schemes; he openly supported strikers, accepted the socialist rhetoric of the workers as the true producers of wealth and advocated salary cuts for top public servants. As a minister, however, he seemed to forget lifelong principles and by calling the rail strike of May 1903 a rebellion he so alienated the Ballarat Courier and his working-class support that he lost his seat.
In 1911 Kirton moved to Melbourne where he established a Collins Street estate agency. He also became secretary of the Victorian Master Bakers' Association. (His younger brother Alfred James, later member of the Legislative Assembly for Mornington, was a Melbourne baker from 1913.) In 1914 Kirton, representing the Federal Master Bakers' Association in the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, blocked a call for day baking and in 1921 he fought for changes to the day baking bill. He resigned his secretaryship in May 1921, his brother selling his bakery about the same time. In an emotional farewell the Master Bakers' Association praised Kirton as much for his dissemination of culture as for the improvements he had wrought in the trade, while Kirton acknowledged friendships which only the 'grim Reaper' could break.
He died at Balwyn on 12 October 1935 and was buried in Burwood general cemetery, survived by his wife, two daughters and a son.
Weston Bate, 'Kirton, Joseph William (1861–1935)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/kirton-joseph-william-6977/text12123, published first in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 February 2015.
This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 9, (MUP), 1983