Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Sheehan, James Michael (1885–1967)

by Paul Strangio

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

James Michael Sheehan (1885-1967), trade unionist and politician, was born on 24 July 1885 at Clinkers Hill, Castlemaine, Victoria, eldest of six children of Michael Sheehan, a blacksmith from Ireland, and his second wife Ellen, née Ferminger, who was born in Victoria. Jimmy attended St Mary's Catholic School, Castlemaine, until the age of 13 when he obtained a job with the Victorian Railways. As a young man he helped to establish the local branch of the Rural Workers' Union of Australia.

In 1910 Sheehan left Castlemaine. After being briefly employed by the State Rivers and Water Supply Commission at Nyah, he went to Melbourne and resumed work with the railways. He was elected to the council of the Victorian Railways Union in 1915. Joining the Victorian Socialist Party, he moved in the same political and ideological circles as Frank Hyett, Robert Ross, John Curtin and John Cain. He and Cain became close friends. Sheehan shared Hyett's and Curtin's passion for sport, and was later president of the Richmond District Cricket Club and vice-president (1940-67) of the Richmond Football Club. A regular speaker for the V.S.P., he was involved—'up to his ears'—in the anti-conscription campaigns of 1916-17.

Following Hyett's death in 1919, Sheehan was appointed a V.R.U. organizer. A vigorous advocate of industrial unionism, he played an important part in founding the Australian Railways Union in 1920. He retained his role in the State branch of the A.R.U. and was said to be 'the most travelled union organiser in Victoria'. In 1931 he stood unsuccessfully for the Senate as an Australian Labor Party candidate. On 12 July 1938 he achieved his long-cherished ambition when the Victorian parliament chose him to fill a casual vacancy in the Senate. Defeated at the 1940 elections, he was returned to the Upper House in 1943 and was to serve continuously until his retirement on 30 June 1962. He led the Australian delegation to the first session of the International Labour Organization's inland transport committee, held in London in 1945, and revisited that city in 1961 to attend the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association's conference.

President (1940-41) of the A.L.P.'s Victorian branch and a member from time to time of the party's central executive, Sheehan maintained close links with the A.R.U. and the broader industrial labour movement. In 1943-44 he presided over the Trades Hall Council in Melbourne. When the Labor Party split in 1955, he took a moderate, non-sectarian line. He had been elected to the Castlemaine Town Council in 1951, joining his youngest sister Nellie (1895-1959) who in 1942 had become the first woman to sit on the Castlemaine Borough Council. Nellie went on to be the municipality's first female mayor (1954-55). Neither she nor her brother married. When Sheehan served as mayor in 1957-58, she acted as mayoress.

Sheehan died on 10 April 1967 in his home at Clinkers Hill and was buried with Catholic rites in Castlemaine cemetery. A skilful orator who expressed his views forcefully, but without rancour, he was known in the labour movement as 'genial Jimmy'. He was widely liked, not least for his 'kindly nature' and ready smile. 'Mateship' was his creed; 'faith in human reason, and effort for mankind's progress [were] his guides'.

Select Bibliography

  • Parliamentary Debates (Senate, Commonwealth), 11 Apr 1967, p 693
  • Railways Union Gazette, 20 June 1919, 20 Jan 1920, 10 Aug, 10 Oct 1938
  • Herald (Melbourne), 13 July 1938
  • Labor Call, 20 June 1940, 10 June 1943, 29 Mar 1951
  • Castlemaine Mail, 28 Aug 1942, 2 Sept 1954, 21 July 1959, 31 Aug 1965, 19 Apr 1966, 11, 13 Apr 1967
  • Sam Merrifield papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Paul Strangio, 'Sheehan, James Michael (1885–1967)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sheehan-james-michael-11672/text20857, published in hardcopy 2002, accessed online 22 October 2014.

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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2014