Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Rymer, George Walter (1889–1976)

by Tim Moroney

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

George Walter Rymer (1889-1976), railwayman and trade-union leader, was born on 28 January 1889 at Chesterfield, Derbyshire, England, son of Arthur Rymer, passenger-train examiner, and his wife Emma, née Sadler. After leaving school and serving an apprenticeship to a wagon-builder, George was employed by the Midland Railway Co. He became a carriage inspector at Reading (with the Birmingham Railway Carriage & Wagon Co.) and secretary of the local branch of a wagon-builders' union. Joining the British Army, he served for five years in all, with the Berkshire Royal Horse Artillery and Worcester Royal Field Artillery, Territorial Force. On 28 December 1912 at the Countess of Huntingdon's Free Church, Worcester, he married Jessie Bird, a blouse-maker. The young couple migrated to Queensland in 1914.

Employed at the railway workshops, Townsville, Rymer was dismissed when the men went on strike in April that year. Six months later he was reinstated. He was active in the local branch of the Queensland Railway Union and was northern district secretary by 1917. The Q.R.U. was a militant union imbued with a syndicalist ideology. It advocated direct action rather than the gradual approach of industrial conciliation and arbitration favoured by the Australian Labor Party.

The northern railwaymen staged a three-week strike in August 1917 over a retrospective pay issue. As chairman of the northern combined unions' strike committee, Rymer rose to prominence during this dispute. Following threats of dismissal from the Labor premier T. J. Ryan, the men returned to work. The government's response to the dispute laid the foundation for future confrontation. Two years later the Q.R.U. supported meat-workers at Townsville in their challenge to the arbitration process. On 28 June 1919 a bloody encounter occurred between police and unionists. When Rymer and the northern officials organized a black ban to prevent police reinforcements from reaching Townsville, senior railway staff crewed the train.

In 1920 the Q.R.U. amalgamated with its interstate counterparts to form the Australian Railways Union. Rymer transferred to Brisbane as assistant to Tim Moroney, the union's State secretary. Next year he was raised to the full-time paid post of A.R.U. State president and appointed editor of the union's journal, the Advocate. That journal provided him with a vehicle for promoting the A.R.U.'s militant philosophy and for criticizing the A.L.P.'s policies. After visiting Russia in 1923, he reported favourably in the Advocate on Russian efforts to build a socialist society.

As the union's delegate to the A.L.P.'s State central executive (1920-23) and to the 1923 Labor-in-Politics convention, Rymer maintained a 'war of words' against E. G. Theodore's administration, especially after it reduced the basic wage in Queensland by 5 per cent in 1922. Following an A.R.U.-led railway strike, the Gillies government succumbed to the union's pressure and passed legislation in 1925 restoring the wage to its previous level. The new premier, William McCormack, took a strong stand against the A.R.U. and successfully excluded its delegates—including Rymer—from the 1926 A.L.P. convention because they refused to sign an anti-communist pledge. In 1927 the A.R.U. was further isolated when McCormack reacted to a State-wide railway strike by dismissing all railway employees.

Rymer increased his attacks on the McCormack government, which was defeated at the 1929 election. None the less, dissension within the union over its loss of members, as well as a reorganization due to financial stringencies, drew greater attention to Rymer's role as president. In 1930, at a State council meeting, central district delegates led by Frank Nolan succeeded in their push for Rymer's removal.

Taking no further part in union affairs, Rymer established a radio retailing business in 1932 in Brisbane—Rymola Radio Co. (later Rymola Radio & Electrical Co. Ltd)—which he ran until 1951. Despite his move to private enterprise, he retained a passion for his early socialist beliefs. He died on 1 July 1976 at his Sunnybank home and was cremated with Anglican rites; his wife, and their daughter and son survived him.

Select Bibliography

  • F. Nolan, You Pass This Way Only Once (Brisb, 1974)
  • D. J. Murphy et al (eds), Labor in Power (Brisb, 1980)
  • D. J. Murphy (ed), The Big Strikes (Brisb, 1983)
  • Advocate (Brisbane), 10 Dec 1923
  • Labour History, no 22, May 1972, p 13
  • Brisbane Catholic Historical Society, Proceedings 2, 1990, p 52
  • A. Smith, George Rymer and Labour Politics 1917-1930 (B.A. Hons thesis, James Cook University, 1981)
  • private information.

Citation details

Tim Moroney, 'Rymer, George Walter (1889–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/rymer-george-walter-11599/text20709, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 19 April 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 16, (MUP), 2002

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