Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Solly, Robert Henry (Bob) (1859–1932)

by Raelene Frances

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Robert Henry (Bob) Solly (1859-1932), bootmaker, trade unionist and politician, was born on 9 September 1859 at Ellington, Kent, England, son of Stephen Solly, labourer, and his wife Eliza, née Sage. Aged 7, Bob was employed as a local farm-hand; he next took a job in a rope factory at Ramsgate before being apprenticed to a bootmaker at Newcastle upon Tyne. Having completed his apprenticeship, he migrated with his brother to Adelaide in 1876.

He found employment in Victoria and New South Wales as station-hand and bootmaker before returning to Adelaide where, at St Patrick's Catholic Church, West Terrace, on 12 September 1883 he married Mary Graham. In 1885 he moved to Melbourne and worked at his trade in Collingwood. From the outset 'Fighting Bob' was involved in the affairs of the Victorian Operative Bootmakers' Union and was prominent on its executive during the 1890s struggles with employers over mechanization, subdivision of labour and wage reductions. In 1901-04 he was the union's secretary; he also represented employees on the Victorian Boot Wages Board. Solly was a member of the Eight Hours' Committee and active in the Anti-Sweating League. In 1901 he was elected president of the Trades Hall Council.

After the defeats of the 1890s, Solly's efforts were increasingly devoted to politics. A founding member of the Richmond branch of the Progressive Political League (later the Australian Labor Party), he was the first Labor member of the Richmond City Council (1903-09). In June 1904 he entered the Victorian Legislative Assembly as special representative of the railway officers and held the position until November 1906. Following a number of unsuccessful bids for parliament—notably for the State seat of Richmond (1902, 1907), the Senate (1903, 1906) and the Federal seat of Batman in 1906—he represented Carlton in the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1908-32.

During his long term in parliament Solly was distinguished more by diligence and integrity than brilliance. Seldom delivering prepared speeches, he contributed to debate by his spontaneous declarations on subjects that particularly moved him. He was an active committee member, however, and served as chairman of committees in 1927-29. A member of six royal commissions, he chaired one on metropolitan housing (1917). He sat on the board of trustees of the Exhibition Building (1912-32), and on the councils of the Working Men's College (1899-1932) and the University of Melbourne (1925-32).

Genial but quick-tempered, Solly was respected as a man of sincerity, loyalty and fairness, and admired as a self-educated man if not as a 'Heaven-born genius'. Throughout his career he endeavoured to improve conditions for the working class. Consistent in his principles, he remained on the left of the labour movement. His socialism derived from his youthful experience with the radical politics of Tyneside and from reading writers such as Herbert Spencer, William Morris and Henry George. Solly was greatly assisted by his wife's support. He died on 5 June 1932 at his Carlton home and was buried in the Melbourne general cemetery; he was survived by his wife, two daughters and two sons, one of whom, Robert Henry Solly, became mayor of Melbourne in 1953.

Select Bibliography

  • B. Walker, Solidarity Forever (Melb, 1972)
  • J. Iremonger et al (eds), Strikes (Syd, 1973)
  • Parliamentary Debates (Victoria), 14 June 1932, p 14
  • Age (Melbourne), Argus (Melbourne), 6 June 1932
  • Sun News-Pictorial (Melbourne), 6 June 1932
  • Herald (Melbourne), 6 June 1932
  • D. A. Harris, ‘Bad Neighbourhoods’: The Inner Suburbs and the Housing Debate: Melbourne 1900-1920 (M.A. thesis, University of Melbourne, 1984)
  • B. C. Scates, ‘Faddists and Extremists’: Radicalism and the Labour Movement in South-Eastern Australia, 1887-1898 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1987)
  • R. Frances, The Politics of Work: Case Studies of Three Victorian Industries, Victoria 1880-1939 (Ph.D. thesis, Monash University, 1988).

Citation details

Raelene Frances, 'Solly, Robert Henry (Bob) (1859–1932)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/solly-robert-henry-bob-8575/text14969, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 23 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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