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Lennon, William (1849–1938)

by Rodney Sullivan

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

William Lennon (1849-1938), merchant and politician, was born on 8 December 1849 in Dublin, son of William Lennon, draper, and his wife Ann, née Martin. He arrived in 1855 with his family in Melbourne where he received sufficient schooling to be employed in 1870 as a clerk with the Victorian Mines Department. In 1874 Lennon joined the Bank of Australasia. Posted to Creswick, he made friends with pioneer trade unionists David Temple and William Guthrie Spence and on 29 November 1877 at St Patrick's Cathedral, Ballarat, married Irish-born Mary Cecilia Ryan.

In 1881 he opened the bank's Townsville branch and subsequently supervised its North Queensland expansion. Promoted to a Sydney sub-inspectorship in 1885 he resigned next year to manage the Townsville office of Burns Philp & Co. Ltd. Clashes, particularly with (Sir) James Burns over administrative procedures and salary levels, led in 1896 to resignation and the establishment of his own mercantile and auctioneering business in Townsville. A 'bouncing' community figure, Lennon was a director of the Bank of North Queensland and the Townsville Gas Co., and a member of the Divisional Board of Thuringowa, the Townsville Harbour Board, Grammar School Board of Trustees, School of Arts, and Chamber of Commerce.

In 1899 he unsuccessfully stood as an Independent against his old employer (Sir) Robert Philp for the seat of Townsville. After 1900 he joined the Labor Party; having stood unsuccessfully in 1904, he was elected to the Legislative Assembly for Herbert in 1907 and deputy leader of the Parliamentary Labor Party in October 1909. Lennon acted as leader for some eighteen months before the 1912 general strike but subsequent election campaigns enabled the formidable Thomas Ryan to eclipse him as the obvious successor to David Bowman, who was ailing. On Labor's accession to power in 1915 Lennon was allocated the senior ministry of agriculture and stock in recognition of his administrative ability and knowledge of the troubled sugar industry. In 1916, although one of his two sons fighting at the front won the Military Cross, he was attacked by Empire loyalists because he campaigned against conscription and supported Home Rule for Ireland.

In September 1919 he became Speaker of the assembly until an interregnum at Government House gave the Labor government an opportunity to move against the obstructive Legislative Council. In January 1920 Lennon resigned his seat to accept appointment, on a salary of £1000 a year, to the previously unremunerated office of lieutenant-governor. In a series of manoeuvres, lampooned by some as at best comic opera, he appointed himself to a seat in, and subsequently the presidency of, the Legislative Council. The conservative press was particularly galled at Lennon's alleged misuse of the vice-regal prerogative, resurrecting from the conscription debate his denunciation of British imperialism and his 1910 description of the office of State governor as 'effete'. Following a cabinet recommendation, Lennon augmented Labor's 'suicide squad' in the council with a further fifteen new appointees prepared to vote out of existence a House their party deemed undemocratic and anachronistic. In March 1922 Queensland became the only Australian State to abolish its Upper House. Lennon had achieved 'the most important single constitutional reform in Queensland history'. He continued as lieutenant-governor until May 1929 when he returned to private life after the Moore government cancelled his salary.

Lennon's impact on Queensland would have been greater if he had not been overshadowed by the political giants Ryan and Edward Theodore. His lack of trade union experience and support was balanced by the valuable commercial and banking expertise he brought to the Labor cabinet. His most notable ministerial achievement was his contribution to the stabilizing of the sugar industry which after 1915 developed into one of the world's most successful examples of state regulation of agricultural output, pricing and marketing; it had been achieved in partnership with industry representatives and without detriment to the principle of private ownership. Queensland agriculture was transformed as other producers, notably grain-growers and dairymen, successfully demanded similar reforms. Lennon's approach to agriculture was influenced by his commitment to the co-operative movement and his prior association with co-operative commercial ventures in Brisbane. He emphasized the interdependence of producers and consumers and sought 'to dispense with, as far as possible, the services of the middle man'.

As member for Herbert Lennon embodied the values and attitudes of a Queensland regionalist. He was resentful of metropolitan privilege and argued against establishment of a university in Brisbane until all country children had access to free primary education. While minister he decentralized the Department of Agriculture and Stock and was vigilant lest the welfare of white sugarworkers was undermined by the use of cheap coloured labour.

William Lennon was a middle-class reformer whose political ambition and Irish sympathies were most easily accommodated in the Labor Party. A contemporary wrote that his 'passionate opposition to social injustice is extraordinarily strong for one who has not graduated in the school of adversity'.

After leaving public life Lennon remained active in the South Brisbane Bowling Club and the Queensland Irish Association. Survived by his wife, two sons and three daughters, he died in Brisbane on 5 May 1938 and was buried as a Catholic in Toowong cemetery. His family, in accordance with his wishes, declined the offer of a state funeral.

Select Bibliography

  • The Labour Government of Queensland (Brisb, 1915)
  • C. Lack (ed), Three Decades of Queensland Political History, 1929-1960 (Brisb, 1962)
  • D. J. Murphy, T. J. Ryan (Brisb, 1975)
  • D. J. Murphy and R. B. Joyce (eds), Queensland Political Portraits 1859-1952 (Brisb, 1978)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power: The Labor Party and Governments in Queensland, 1915-57 (Brisb, 1979)
  • K. Buckley and K. Klugman, The History of Burns Philp (Syd, 1981)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Queensland), 1909, p 133, 1915, p 414, 1916-17, p 752, 1917, p 1000
  • Truth (Brisbane), 18 Feb 1917
  • Brisbane Courier, 7, 9 Jan 1920
  • Courier Mail (Brisbane), 7 May 1938
  • Worker (Brisbane), 10 May 1938.

Citation details

Rodney Sullivan, 'Lennon, William (1849–1938)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/lennon-william-7172/text12393, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 18 November 2017.

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

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