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Lemmon, John (1875–1955)

by Ann G. Smith

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

John Lemmon (1875-1955), union organizer and politician, was born on 15 July 1875 in the Melbourne Trades Hall caretaker's cottage at Carlton, eighth of ten children and third son of caretaker Samuel Lambert Lemmon, a wood-turner from London, and his Irish-born wife Matilda, née Thompson. Jack was nourished on unionism. A framed document in the cottage testified to his father's part in the eight-hour movement, while Matilda who died in 1938 aged 96 'mothered' the Trades Hall for fifty years, at first as her husband's caretaking partner and from 1902 as his successor.

After education at the Trades Hall 'Tinpot' School and Rathdowne Street State School, Lemmon became a carpenter's apprentice and joined the Timber Workers' Union at 15. For five years he made sash frames, learning that it paid the boss to keep him at this one task and that the apprenticeship system needed reform—a conclusion reinforced when he forsook carpentry for tailoring. Working as a cutter, he studied at the Working Men's College and some time after 1901 set up his own business as 'Our Boys' Tailor at Footscray.

When the Cutters and Trimmers' Union was reorganized in 1899 Lemmon was vice-president; he later became secretary and in 1905 was president of the Victorian Clothing Operatives' Union. He was a delegate to the Trades Hall Council in 1900-07 and from March 1900, as secretary of the Trades Hall Organizing Committee, worked alongside Stephen Barker, John Billson and H. E. Beard. He was prominent in the 1900 anti-sweating campaign. Lemmon combined practical talents with a studious bent. When his fellow organizers were presented with marble clocks or gold watch chains in 1901, he received fifty books on political economy and history. It was said that after losing bids as a Labor candidate for the Legislative Assembly seat of Footscray in 1901 and 1902 and a try for the Senate in 1903 he was helped to a Williamstown victory in 1904 by perusal of the speeches of Pitt and Walpole.

Lemmon closed his business when he entered parliament and, after marrying Edith Ruddock on 25 April 1905 at the Dromana Methodist Church, settled at Williamstown. By assiduous attention to his political duties, aided by a wife devoted to charitable works, he held the seat continuously until May 1954, a Victorian and British Commonwealth record term. Tall and handsome, in 1904 'the baby of the House', he was still in 1913 'the beauty man of the Labor Party', though he was untidy and later acquired a stoop. His essential earnestness was, according to Melbourne Punch, enlivened by bright, sometimes fanatical, eyes and a Continental haircut.

Secretary of the State Parliamentary Labor Party in 1913-38, Lemmon had little aspiration for party leadership or interest in political theory but served four times as minister of public instruction and of labour: under George Elmslie in December 1913, Michael Prendergast in July-November 1924 and Ned Hogan in May 1927–November 1928 and from December 1929 until May 1932, losing the labour portfolio which, during the Depression had been only nominally his, in March. In April that year he supported Thomas Tunnecliffe's rejection of the Premiers' Plan, thereby aligning himself against Hogan.

Education was Lemmon's forte. He was president of the Working Men's College in 1910 and Trades Hall representative there until 1924, and sat on the University of Melbourne council in 1932-39. But he never threw off the traditional Labor bias towards technical schools. Fees were retained in high schools after his government abolished them in technical schools in 1927 and in 1930 Lemmon blocked the plans of the director of education Martin Hansen to establish multi-purpose secondary schools; for months the two men, who also clashed over departmental appointments, were not on speaking terms. The project dearest to Lemmon was the passage in 1927 of the apprenticeship bill which, after years of effort, set up an apprenticeship authority.

Lemmon served on the Murray waters royal commission of 1910-11 and on the select committee and royal commission into the marketing and transportation of grain in 1911 and 1912-13. His long parliamentary service made him an authority on standing orders but although he liked to air his knowledge of May's Parliamentary Privileges he refused the Speakership in December 1952, feeling he was 'past it'. He was a member of the Australian Natives' Association (president in 1910-11), honorary secretary of the Victorian Association of Friendly Societies and a trustee of the Melbourne Cricket Ground.

Lemmon died of cancer on 28 October 1955 at Hawthorn and was cremated after a state funeral. He left an estate valued for probate at £16,518. His wife, two daughters and a son, Nelson, who had a successful career in Federal politics, survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • R. J. W. Selleck, Frank Tate (Melb, 1982)
  • Australian Journal of Education, 14, no 2 (1970), p 168
  • Votes and Proceedings (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1911, 2 (14)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Legislative Assembly, Victoria), 1927, p 1067, 1955-56, p 1321
  • Tocsin, 16 Mar, 21 Dec 1899, 7 Mar 1901
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 Dec 1913, 4 Sept 1924
  • Labor Call, 4 Sept 1924
  • Table Talk (Melbourne), 20 Oct 1927
  • Herald (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1927, 15 July, 26 Aug 1938, 7 June 1954, 29, 31 Oct 1955
  • Age (Melbourne), 29 Oct 1955
  • Argus (Melbourne), 24 Feb, 30 Apr 1932
  • E 138/7 (Australian National University Archives).

Citation details

Ann G. Smith, 'Lemmon, John (1875–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lemmon-john-7168/text12385, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 1 September 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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