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Larcombe, James (1884–1957)

by Joy Guyatt

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

James Larcombe (1884-1957), butcher and politician, was born on 25 April 1884 at Rockhampton, Queensland, son of James Larcombe, butcher, and Mary Lee. He was educated at Jenkins's private school at Rockhampton. He then worked with his father, who had failed to win Rockhampton in the Legislative Assembly elections of 1893, and joined him in the activities of the local labour movement, becoming successively president, vice-president and secretary of the Rockhampton Workers' Political Organization. He failed to win party pre-selection in 1907 and 1911, but in 1912 was elected to the assembly for Keppel.

Larcombe continued to represent Keppel until the defeat of the Labor government in 1929. In 1916-18 and 1943-44 he was a member of the party's Queensland central executive. He was opposed to conscription and in 1916 was elected one of six delegates to a special interstate conference on conscription called by the federal executive. In 1932 he was returned as member for Rockhampton and held the seat until he retired before the 1956 election as the longest-serving member of the assembly. His period of almost twenty-three years in the ministry was also unequalled in Queensland. He was minister without portfolio from 9 September to 22 October 1919, secretary for public works to 7 April 1920, then secretary for railways until 21 May 1929.

He did not rejoin the ministry until 1939, partly because in 1932 he had beaten Premier W. Forgan Smith and C. G. Fallon in caucus with a proposition that Labor should legislate directly to restore awards and other rights removed by the Moore government; moreover some party leaders had scorned his handling of the 1927 railway strike and he had lost seniority by his electoral defeat. Gossip said that he regained his position by shameless flattery of Forgan Smith in his writings on the Labor Party. He was secretary for mines from April to August 1939, minister for transport from 4 August 1939 to 27 April 1944, then minister for public instruction to 7 March 1946. He was treasurer to 10 May 1950, then attorney-general and minister for prices to 10 March 1952 when he resigned from the ministry because of ill health.

Larcombe was an administrator rather than an initiator. He was attacked by the Australian Railways Union during the 1925 railway strike because of an order-in-council exempting gatekeepers from the provisions of the award and for allowing the employment of non-union labour. Nevertheless he managed both the 1925 and 1927 strikes well until Premier W. McCormack pushed him aside and assumed personal control of the Railway Department, taking a very hard line against the A.R.U.

Larcombe was physically small; he was of independent mind, widely read in poetry and economics and given to embellishing his speeches with quotations from his reading. He based much of his philosophy on the writings of Shelley and Robert Burns. With a florid style in writing and speaking, he was a prolific publicist for Labor. His nine studies of the A.L.P. between 1925 and 1944 included Notes on the Political History of the Labor Government in Queensland and The Case for Labor. For many years he was the only chronicler of the labour movement in Queensland and his writings gave to the A.L.P. and the trade unions a sense of where they had been and where they were going. He was a great admirer of T. J. Ryan, an early patron, and his lecture to the Lower East Street, Rockhampton, branch of the party on Ryan's life and work was published in 1937.

Larcombe had played Rugby League well, took a continuing interest in the welfare and development of the game and was president of the Queensland Rugby League in 1919-32. A teetotaller, non-smoker and bachelor, he worked long hours in Parliament House and the Windsor Hotel where he stayed when in Brisbane. Early aspirations for the Bar were abandoned when he reached the ministry. A legend in Rockhampton, he was generally known as 'Old Jimmy'. He died in Brisbane on 21 June 1957 and, after a service in St Paul's Anglican Cathedral, Rockhampton, was buried in Rockhampton cemetery after a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • The Labour Government of Queensland (Brisb, 1915)
  • C. A. Bernays, Queensland — Our Seventh Political Decade, 1920-1930 (Syd, 1931)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland, 1915-57 (Brisb, 1979)
  • JRAHS, Nov 1952, p 225
  • Labour History, Nov 1976, p 7
  • private information.

Citation details

Joy Guyatt, 'Larcombe, James (1884–1957)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/larcombe-james-7035/text12239, published in hardcopy 1983, accessed online 1 October 2014.

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

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