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Sheahan, William Francis (1895–1975)

by David Clune

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

William Francis Sheahan (1895-1975), by unknown photographer, 1950

William Francis Sheahan (1895-1975), by unknown photographer, 1950

State Library of New South Wales, GPO 1 - 46581

William Francis Sheahan (1895-1975), barrister and politician, was born on 3 September 1895 at Tumut, New South Wales, younger twin and eleventh child of native-born parents Jeremiah Sheahan (d.1896), butcher, and his wife Mary Ann, née Downing. Mary later kept a hotel at Jugiong. Educated at Tumut convent school and Jugiong Public School, and at St Patrick's College, Goulburn, Billy began work on 14 August 1913 in Sydney as a junior clerk in the Treasury. In the following year he transferred to the petty sessions branch of the Department of the Attorney-General and of Justice.

On 20 March 1916 Sheahan enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force. He served (1916-18) on the Western Front with the 17th Battalion and at 5th Brigade headquarters before returning to Sydney where he was discharged from the army on 24 November 1919. His comrades long remembered his courage under fire. Resuming his post in the public service, he studied part time at the University of Sydney (LL.B., 1930), and was admitted to the Bar on 8 May 1930. He soon established a large practice, particularly in criminal law, and appeared before several royal commissions. At the Church of Our Lady of the Sacred Heart, Randwick, on 10 September 1932 he married Ellen Imelda Byrne, a 20-year-old stenographer.

From the age of 16 Sheahan had been a member of the Australian Labor Party. He became an influential figure in the party during the period of J. T. Lang's dominance in New South Wales. In 1939 he was a State delegate to and vice-president of the federal executive, and a representative at the federal conference. Breaking with Lang, he was one of the federal officers who conducted the unity conference in August which brought about Lang's downfall. Sheahan had unsuccessfully contested the Legislative Assembly seat of Petersham in 1935 and 1938. In 1941, with Petersham abolished due to a redistribution, he decided to contest Yass where he claimed to have more than two thousand relations. He won the seat (renamed Burrinjuck in 1950) and held it for the rest of his career.

With 'his quick wit, his unusual capacity to grasp the details of a situation and his tenacity', Sheahan quickly made his mark in parliament. He became a prominent opponent of Premier (Sir) William McKell: his antagonism was sharpened by his failure to gain ministerial office. When there was speculation in 1947 that McKell would be appointed governor-general, Sheahan caused a furore by publicly stating that the post should go to an ex-serviceman.

A strong supporter of McKell's successor James McGirr, Sheahan was appointed secretary for lands on 19 May 1947; in this capacity he made an important contribution to the success of soldier settlement. On 30 June 1950 he became minister for transport, a difficult portfolio which he tackled with energy and vision; his term in office, however, was not an unqualified success, due in part to the growing problem of public-transport deficits. Given the attorney-generalship by J. J. Cahill on 23 February 1953 and appointed Q.C. that year, he carried through a programme of law reform, including the abolition (1955) of the death penalty for all offences except treason and piracy. From 15 March 1956 to 13 May 1965 he served as minister for health. Once again, he implemented major changes, such as the Mental Health Act (1958) and the Clean Air Act (1961).

Despite his achievements, Sheahan had a turbulent ministerial career because of his combative personality, scathing tongue and flair for publicity. He feuded openly with premiers, colleagues, bureaucrats, interest groups and the press. Recalling that he had been described as 'testy, irritable and controversial', he added, 'thank God no one has said I was peculiar [and] I have never been accused of dishonesty'. Frustrated ambition played a part in his decision in October 1959 to stand against J. B. Renshaw, the right wing's candidate for deputy-premier. He failed by one vote. Thereafter he allied himself with a rebel group in caucus and challenged cabinet decisions on a number of occasions. In April 1964 he contested the deputy-premiership against P. D. Hills, but lost by a wider margin. Sheahan retired from parliament in October 1973. His son Terence succeeded him as member for Burrinjuck.

'Short, ruddy-faced' and 'exuberant', with 'a warm and friendly smile', Sheahan was known as 'the Burrinjuck bunyip'. He was a keen follower of sport, and a member (from 1950) and chairman (1962-65) of the Sydney Cricket (and Sports) Ground Trust. Survived by his wife, and their son and three daughters, he died on 27 December 1975 at Darlinghurst; he was accorded a state funeral and was buried with Catholic rites in Jugiong cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (New South Wales), 24 Feb 1976, p 3583
  • People (Sydney), 9 Apr 1952, p 16
  • A.L.P. Journal, Dec 1961, p 7
  • Smith's Weekly (Sydney), 8 Mar 1941
  • Sunday Herald (Sydney), 9 July 1950
  • Daily Mirror (Sydney), 25 Mar 1954
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 20 Apr 1961, 27 Jan 1972, 29 Dec 1975
  • Sheahan papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Clune, 'Sheahan, William Francis (1895–1975)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sheahan-william-francis-11669/text20851, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 25 October 2014.

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

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